Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Religion as Justification

From a magical perspective a religion is simply a formal system for producing spiritual experiences - or at least that's what it should be. A perennial problem faced by most religious denominations is those who treat membership in a church or other religious organization just as they would membership in a social club with no connection whatsoever to spirituality. For such individuals enlightenment or metanoia or salvation or whatever term you prefer for realized consciousness never even enters into the equation and is replaced with a bunch of tribal markers and social controls. From the standpoint of expanding consciousness, this conception is entirely worthless.

The original concept of the prison as "penitentiary" was conceived based on the notion that exposure to religion would make criminals better people. While it makes sense that exposure to more realized states of consciousness could possibly have such an effect, a problem remains with religion itself - or more specifically how many people relate to it. Now a new study has highlighted a disturbing phenomenon within a sample criminal population. Rather than treating religion as a vehicle for spiritual realization or even as a mere social club, many of those sampled use it as an excuse to justify their crimes.

“God has to forgive everyone, even if they don’t believe in him,” insisted one 33-year-old enforcer for a drug gang, with a vested interest in avoiding damnation for the murders he had committed. A 23-year-old robber called Young Stunna suggested that the circumstances of his upbringing would absolve him of his crimes: “Jesus knows I ain’t have no choice, you know? He know I got a decent heart. He know I’m stuck in the hood and just doing what I gotta do to survive.”

Indeed, many of those surveyed used their understandings of faith to justify their own criminal behavior. A 25-year-old drug dealer called Cool suggested that God doesn’t mind when you do bad things to bad people:

"Also another thing is this; if you doing some wrong to another bad person, like if I go rob a dope dealer or a molester or something, then it don’t count against me because it’s like I’m giving punishment to them for Jesus. That’s God’s will. Oh you molested some kids? Well now I’m [God] sending Cool over your house to get your ass."

In the end, the authors found, “there is reason to believe that these rationalizations and justifications may play a criminogenic role in their decision making.”

It seems that there are two main trends in modern Christian thought that contribute to these ideas. As the study was performed in America, most of the subjects were Christian - it is, after all, the majority religion, and for that reason it is hard to say what role non-Christian theology might have played in the sample. It so happens that one of the main ideas in modern evangelical Christianity is the idea of total forgiveness of sin based merely on the acceptance of Jesus as savior. While adherents of this theology strongly oppose the idea that God forgives even unbelievers, it seems to me that the total forgiveness concept could represent a slippery slope for some in which even the most harmful actions can be forgiven.

The second trend, generally found in more extreme congregations, is the idea that as long as someone is a "sinner" harming them is perfectly reasonable and acceptable. Some of this is rooted in the Old Testament, in that Jewish law doles out harsh punishments for all sorts of transgressions. The problem is, first of all, that none of us live in ancient Israel and as a result those laws are not necessarily relevant to the modern era, and second of all that those harsh punishments were administered by the authorities of the time, not by random individuals. We have a justice system as well - one that is substantially different from that which existed in Biblical times.

Years ago I read about a program that allowed prisoners to study and practice meditation. According to follow-ups conducted after these prisoners were released found that on the whole they were less likely to re-offend and more likely to get their lives back on track after serving their time. The difference between this method and the conventional concept of religion is that meditation is by definition an active spiritual practice that is designed to produce realized consciousness. When mainstream religions emphasize the social aspects of faith it has little effect on individual minds. In fact, it seems that desperate people have little difficulty twisting intellectual theology to serve their own interests.

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