Schubart: In the name of religion

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Bill Schubart, a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio and president of the Vermont Journalism Trust, the umbrella organization for This piece was first aired on VPR.

Whether I am ushered into the next world by a choir of cherubs or a bevy of trident-bearing imps, or whether I just compost quietly in nature’s great recycling system is not a matter on which I spend a great deal of thought.

I am, by genetic endowment half-Jewish, by upbringing Roman Catholic, and by choice, agnostic. I neither deny nor assert the existence of God.

I have seen the great comfort and goodness wrought by small churches of all persuasions in the small communities in which I have lived.

I also see the hell-born misery ultra-orthodoxies of all religious types wreak on people the world over. Be it the Taliban, ultra-Orthodox Jews, the far-right Christians or the Sunni-Shiite internecine wars, you name the orthodoxy, and history books and news archives will drown you in tales of persecution, torture and death.

Throughout history there have been oases of peace and sanity where Jews, Christians and Muslims or Buddhists, Muslims and Hindi have flourished in mutual respect. For four centuries prior to the 11th century, Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together under moderate Muslim rule in Cordoba, Spain. During the European Holocaust, Muslim Morocco prided itself on defying Vichy’s order to its French colonies to round up their Jews. The Islamic monarchy instead sheltered them from German and French persecution. But examples like these have been rare. And human carnage done in the name of various deities or “with God on our side” as Dylan sings, is common. The subjugation of women across all orthodoxies and the persecution of religious minorities and homosexuals is as prevalent today as the burning of non-Catholics was in the streets of Seville during the Spanish Inquisition.

The recent news coverage of Ultra-Orthodox Jews spitting on an 8-year-old girl and calling her a “whore” even though she wore the modest uniform of the orthodox school she attended resembles Puritan extremism. And the requirement that women in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods ride in the back of buses recalls our hard-fought civil rights battles here at home.

The slaughter of Muslims by former neighbors with whom they had lived in peace for decades in the former Yugoslavia, the genocidal rampages in Africa, the multi-century cover-up of sexual abuse of children in Catholic parishes, all in the name of religion must cause doubt about the existence of God or, at least, about his earthly designates.

I believe in a higher power. I am open, as I was as a young altar boy, to the loving and forgiving God who teaches that the meek shall inherit the earth.

But in observing the ongoing persecution and slaughter conducted on religious grounds, I can’t embrace or even trust religions managed by man in God’s name. I miss the spiritual discipline I knew as a child, but I can’t muster enough faith to forgive institutions willing to fight to accumulate earthly riches and political power — while at the same time perpetuating sexual subjugation of women and children.

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  • Fred Larsen

    The spiritual discipline for which you yearn is still available and not denied you. Search for it. The good and peaceful to whom you refer still exist. Search for them. I predict you will discover they also object to those whom you find objectionable. A common characteristic of such folks, however, is their refusal to allow those who kill, maim, and plunder in the name of religion to become a reason for them to remain on the sidelines. Instead, they sacrifice, share, and serve with said activities almost invariably manifested in private action rather than public words. While so doing, they pointedly avoid accumulation of earthly riches and political power, which is why one has to look for them. What one sees when looking at “religion” will depend on how one defines the term, with said definition usually influenced by what one wants to see in the first place.

  • Ken Dean

    Bill, always enjoy your stuff.

    A clean and clear distinction to understand spirit and matter a little better might be as follows. The Bhagavad Gita and the New Testament stand on their own merits. What humans do with these is another matter. Humans at times can take a pretty good beam of light, and twist it, sometimes to its opposite hue. Discerning this helps give birth to clarity.

    The study of Religion at its true essence is one thing, the study of Church history, the human very flawed broken earthly vessel container it is in, a vastly different matter. The milk at whatever quality, should not be confused with the milk carton. They are not one, they are highly separate.

    Church history, from all centers of earth and traditions, pretty sad a lot of the time. Very hard for humans to carry light without stumbling, damaging, distorting, decaying that which was provided, and turning it into something it is not. And not acknowledging the process of such adequately or honestly, or even seeing it, that the place of origin, the place of light got lost. The opposite got born, and kept the original name. Sad.

    Just a little footnote. Not sure if it helps the understanding.

  • Chuck Kletecka

    I am reminded of a favorite quote on the topic by Forrest Gander: “I have lost the consolation of faith, though no the ambition to worship.”

    I have come to believe the tenuous but intentional holding the paradox between the desire for meaning and the horrendous facts on the ground is the most honest expression of faith.

  • Walter Hildebrandt

    Bill Schubart, your article is a great example of giving-both-sides-of-a-debate. You see both the good side and the bad side of religion. This model (this format) is needed so that Vermonters can make the best decisions. Where can we get an article that shows both sides of what Vermont should do in regards Health Care, in regards economic development, in regards individuals having the desirable values that are good for the individual, good for Vermont, good for the country, good for the planet?

    Can there be a website where a subject can be debated by contributors sharing FACTS! that lead to a good decisions?

  • Maxine Adams

    I first “met” Bill when my husband brought home a copy of “The Lamoille Stories” which became our orientation to our new home in the county. We love your commentary, Bill. Thanks for being.