In a recent interview Elton John said, From my point of view, I would ban religion completely. I think religion has always tried to turn hatred towards gay people. Organized religion doesn't seem to work. It turns people into really hateful lemmings and it's not really compassionate. The world is near escalating to World War Three and where are the leaders of each religion? Why aren't they having a conclave? Why aren't they coming together? I said this after 9/11 and people thought I was nuts. Instead of more violence why isn't there a meeting of religious leaders?
These are interesting points that John makes; some are certainly legitimate while others are quite troubling. As a gay man, John has every right to be sensitive to the oppressive views directed at homosexuals in the name of religion. Having a particular theological point of view that opposes homosexuality is one thing, but when that theology is translated into law it becomes something very different – such as bad law and institutionalized bigotry, both of which have made life difficult at times for gay people.
It must be added though, that not every religious person believes in the persecution of or hatred of gay people. While there are certainly plenty of religious voices loudly and publicly advocating laws and policies that would rob gay people of their rights as citizens of democratic societies, these voices are not representative of all religious people. Many churches and individual believers now recognize that even if one disagrees with homosexuality, it is wrong to deny them the same basic rights that should be enjoyed by all people. The tragedy is that the most strident voices are the ones that get the most attention. Regrettably, it’s far more common to see news reports of people marching with signs about how God hates gay people than it is to see and hear reports of those in the religious community who are more open in their views. Media coverage of the same-sex marriage debate, for instance, would lead one to believe that all religious people support constitutional amendments and laws banning recognition of same-sex marriages. This is certainly not the case (you can read my statement registering my opposition to such amendments on my web site at www.davidcharlton.net).
Further, what does John mean when he says that organized religion doesn’t seem to work? While it would be foolish and naïve to try and argue that organized religion is without its faults, it’s equally wrong to imply that it doesn’t do any good either (I’m going to assume that’s what John was implying). Religion has worked for many, many people. There are countless numbers of religious people who quietly go about doing good and loving others. Religion brings comfort and motivates people to demonstrate love to others. It is religion that played such a large role in the establishment of our system of hospitals, orphanages, colleges and universities. Religion has fueled the tremendous heritage of charitable work in our country and it was a belief in the God-given rights of individuals that laid the foundation for our democracy. In those respects, it would seem to me that religion has worked very well.
To claim that religion isn’t compassionate simply isn’t true either. No one can debate the unspeakable tragedy of the Crusades and the Inquisition, but neither can anyone deny the compassion that is found in religion. We don’t seek to deny democracy because of the terrible atrocities committed in the name of democracy, so neither should we seek to deny religion because of what has been done in the name of religion. As for a conclave, I’m not sure what John is looking for, but plenty of religious leaders have been outspoken about the cause of peace. Plenty of religious leaders (such as the Pope) have also condemned the war in Iraq. I would agree that more moderate and progressive religious voices must begin speaking – and speaking loudly – about the problems facing our world, but this is beginning to happen and the happen quickly.
There is also a sad irony in someone saying they would ban religion because it has been oppressive. I don’t understand the logic of trading one kind of oppression with another, so I’m grateful Elton John doesn’t get to decide what beliefs are banned. But he does raise a few valid points that merit further discussion, and that’s certainly not a bad thing at all.