Claim: “Religion is just for controlling people.”
This is a claim often made although most who argue it don’t really go too deep into why they say it. It is also usually a claim that one has simply heard from some other source, a source that is then taken at face value. But let’s be open, and let us analyze this claim.
Firstly, just to state the obvious, it is true, in a sense, that religion can be used to control people. It can control people through dictating an entire way of life (think of Islamic theocracies), or abusing gullible followers by taking and squandering their money (corrupt preachers). These are probably the things that first come to mind when one thinks about how religion controls people. I think we should be fair and concede this point.
However, we also need to know that this is a statement made on faith given that it might be taken to be an outright rejection of the truth of all religion or a single religion; for all we know either one religion is true or all of them are false (more on exclusivism of religions in a following article). If one, like myself as a theological rationalist, likes evidence then this comes across as a very pointless argument for the spiritualist to make. Why? Because it just doesn’t deal with any evidence; it’s just a claim. Perhaps if one were to even grant the argument that all religion seem to prioritize “controlling people” it could very well still be possible that one of those controlling religions is true. And if that is the case then it just does not matter what the anti-religious spiritualist believes because, if we are to be rational and reasonable, then we’d be obligated to follow the truth whether or not we like the truth.
It is also very naive to paint “religion” as being some monolithic thing. Religion, as perhaps the most powerful part of the human experience, is incredibly diverse and involves cultures, ways of life, self-identification, centuries and thousands of years of philosophies, theologies, and philosophical developments, and many, many other things. It is therefore very hard, if not entirely impossible, to box “religion” into one category, or better yet known as the “controlling category” according to our spiritualist friend. This is mostly a poor argument I’ve mostly come to associate with fundamentalist atheists who set up false dichotomies, and I think spiritualists should know a little bit better given that they seem to share more beliefs and concepts in common with religious people than they do with atheists.
Even one just saying, as I have now, that these spiritualists have things in common with “religious people” needs some clarification; by religious people I mean people orientated towards belief in God, life after death, and the supernatural in general. Some religious people might not even qualify under this criteria I’ve set out which would only go to show how impossible it is to box religion.
And on a quick side note. There is a false dichotomy in setting up “religion” versus spirituality, as if spirituality, particularly the likes of New Age Spirituality and other contemporary forms, is something new. Judaism and Christianity were spiritual thousands of years before contemporaries started wearing crystals around their necks. The monotheistic Abrahamic religions are by their very nature spiritual.
But there is a further observation I wish to make. Isn’t the spiritualist submitting him/herself, in a sense, to the same control he or she believes religious beliefs are guilty of? What about his/her spiritualist beliefs when it comes to some of the weighty subjects of our time of the likes of abortion, gender equality, homosexuality, and tolerance? It would appear that he is also submitting himself to a system of beliefs that one could say influences his/her behaviour, decisions, and thoughts. Technically speaking, a belief, whether religious or not, controls us to a lesser or greater degree. We may, for example, believe that visiting strip clubs is not the right thing to do. So our belief influences us to prevent engaging in that. In other words, our belief is exerting some control over us; even conflicting thoughts control us because we will end up being influenced to go with one as opposed to the other. Would this then suggest that the anti-religious spiritualist is holding to a double standard since none of us can really escape being controlled by our beliefs?
But, perhaps, the spiritualist is arguing that religious people are being controlled by an “authority” whether that by the local pastor and his sermons, the church, or biblical doctrine itself. However, the spiritualist should take caution for s/he certainly does not exist in some vacuum. S/he didn’t comes across the concept of spiritual enlightenment, or any of his/her spiritualist beliefs, all by him/herself. It was likely from a fellow spiritualist teacher, authority, or friend who convinced her/him or at least presented her/him with ideas that he now proselytizes and shares with others. Thus, the anti-religious spiritualist can hardly divorce him/herself from the controlling factors that have resulted in him/her orientating himself in the way of his spiritualism. Of course, evidentially speaking, this means nothing of value; it simply points out that both Christians and anti-religious spiritualists are subjected to controlling factors and forces. It doesn’t, however, look at which worldview is superior in terms of evidence and which one is more likely to be true, though that is what ultimately matters.