Two weeks ago, my friend and editor Shyaka Kanuma wrote a column, “Religion, always at odds with logic and reason”. He had the courage to write publicly what many of us think privately. His column has been widely read and commented upon. He had many valid points. However, I believe he overstated his arguments.
Let me start with definitions. One definition of religion is “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” The definition makes religion the academic pursuit of understanding, devotion, and moral reasoning. The definition alone should tell us religion is one of our first human responses of logic and reason when we realize there is more to life than what we currently see.
It appears to me that what Shyaka discussed was not religion but fanaticism. The dictionary defines fanaticism as “wildly excessive or irrational devotion, dedication, or enthusiasm.” Fanaticism is always at odds with logic and reason.
Shyaka began with a quote from Christopher Hitchens, “Religion poisons everything.” Another of Hitchens’ memorable quotes is “The real axis of evil is Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.” Hitchens was obviously a courageous man and deep thinker. However, I wonder if he may have been as guilty of fanaticism as those he criticized.
I am a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. He told his followers “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, (Matthew 5:13.).” “It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out (Luke 14:35).” In shamba boy sheng He said, “If you choose to follow me you must add seasoning to life. If you don’t, you are not worth a pile of cow dung.” I thoroughly agree with Jesus. The hateful fanatics are the problem. Religion is answer.
Jesus repeated an ethical phrase his predecessor Moses spoke. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:29-31).” The best religious and philosophic leaders have spoken this message for the history of humanity. I have neighbors who are pagans, Christians, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, and atheists. Though I disagree with all in some ways, I do like them all. I find all make me a better person. I have found I do best when I love my neighbors as I love myself.
I take particular offense when my Muslim, agnostic, and atheist friends are singled out as I know they can be an easy target. When one is unkind and unreasonable to them you may escape community critique. Shyaka referred to fanatical elements in the Muslim religion. Those fanatical elements do not represent my Muslim neighbors anymore than fanatical Christians represent my Christian neighbors. My Muslim neighbors have astounded me time after time with their generosity, integrity, and hospitality.
When my foster son, Mugisha Gabriel, was having 3 convulsions per day it was a Muslim doctor in Nairobi who found a drug cocktail to significantly reduce his convulsions. He did this because he practiced this old religious mantra, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Shyaka brought back an old argument, “Since God is so great why won’t they let him fight his own wars?” Exactly. An old Jewish teacher, Gamaliel led a mob to be gracious towards early Christians with the same argument (Acts 5:33-40). Let’s allow God to be God, and make final judgments. It is the fanatics who seek to become the final judge. The religious are content to patiently wait.
Where I think Shyaka most overstated his arguments is in his comparison of reason in the discovery of both religion and science. For instance he wrote, “Reason and religion however have never been on the same page. And I mean all religion. Logic (and scientific reasoning) persuade you with facts arrived at through painstaking research, empirical data, and knowledge gained through years of experimentation. Religion establishes itself through unverifiable stories of mythical happenings… God creating the universe in six days; Moses and the burning bush… Jesus feeding multitudes with a few loaves of bread and fish, and so endlessly on.”
Here’s how I read Genesis and Exodus. Moses was trying his best (and led by God) to explain to a pagan world – whose fanaticism practiced sacrificing children to idols and whose economic theories practiced slavery – that there was an unseen God which created the world and called us to the ideals of love. From the Creation account to the end of the Genealogy of the Nations (Genesis 1 to 11) you could call this type of literature “mythology” as you have no historical markers of which to tie the story. However, once you come to Genesis 12 and Abraham you have historical nations, cities, people, cultures, and languages. Then it is time to debate the interpretations of historical literature. If we label Genesis 12 to Revelation “mythology” we are not giving the debate an honest hearing.
No matter how you read history you eventually get to A.D. 33 and must deal with the claims of Jesus’ followers that He rose from the dead. I think the most reasonable evidence is that Jesus did rise from the dead. Paul told us there were 500 witnesses to the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:6). History tells us that many of these died for this conviction. Why would so many die for a lie? I think the best evidence concludes they were transformed by a resurrected Jesus, and could never deny the experience.
Shyaka wrote, “Religion imposes itself through violence.” I disagree. Fanaticism imposes itself through violence. Historically, this includes pagans who sacrifice children, those who martyred early Christians, and churches that were complicit in Genocide and Holocaust.
Shyaka wrote, “Science widens our horizons and expands on our knowledge.” I agree. Without science a Muslim doctor would not have found a drug combination to treat Mugisha. Also, without science we would not realize how massive is the universe and how miniscule is humanity. Good science strengthens good religion.
When I was a young pastor, my Senior Pastor Royce Dickinson defended religion with reason. His last argument was, “I believe because I want to.” He had the courage to disclose his deepest desires. The only way we can make sense of the mysteries of love, hope, and joy is to believe there is something beyond what we can see. The only way we can also face today’s pain and confusion is to believe that another day is coming when all will be made right.Shyaka, you made us think better. Though I disagree with some of what you wrote, I thoroughly enjoy your friendship and discussion. Thank you. Fanaticism is always at odds with logic and reason.