The power of religion over love

power of religion
The events in Syria over the past few weeks remind us of the terrible destructive power of ideologies. A civil war is clearly far worse than a conventional war in the way that it creates hatreds and divisions which last for decades even after the fighting has stopped. Soldiers in a war between nations have been taught to hate an enemy who is largely unknown and mostly unseen. In a civil war ordinary people have been taught to hate people who have been hitherto been neighbours, even friends. They may have lived alongside them for years and now they have to think of them as a terrible enemy. That enmity is then worked upon by leaders so that violence towards even women and children is perpetrated in its name.

It is said that in order to kill another person one has to overcome various deeply held taboos within the personality. It is by no means easy apparently and we would like to think that these taboos make the kind of behaviour of the type that we see in Syria extremely unlikely in our own country. Is it possible to imagine people killing each other in this country for the simple reason that they are different either in their religious outlook or their political point of view? This is not a question we often ask ourselves but the events of civil war in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and now in Syria force us to contemplate this ghastly possibility. The people of Bosnia as well as the ordinary citizens of Syria were not human time-bombs waiting to explode when they were given permission to kill members of another group. And yet large numbers of people have been forced to take part in the terrible atrocities in both countries. If President Assad’s soldiers have been guilty of dropping barrel bombs on their own side, then one has to ask what is going on in their minds. Those soldiers who have complied with the orders to do terrible things to people of the own country have evidently bought into the narrative that their victims of their ghastly actions are beneath any human consideration on account of their different political or religious affiliation. In short the inbuilt humanity of the individual soldier has been overwhelmed by a political and religious imperative.

When we consider this terrifying fact, we are being told that in some situations religion and politics are more powerful than ordinary human kindness and compassion. Ideology and religious belief can in some circumstances overwhelm human love. This fact, while it may or may not be true of us individually, should terrify us. It should make us aware of the way that religion and politics can be corrupted to serve base ends in the hands of unscrupulous leaders. While we would like to think that there is nothing which could override our own basic moral attitude towards life and its preservation at all costs, the evidence suggests that it could potentially be otherwise. Political and religious leaders do seem to have the power to corrupt the moral sensitivity of their followers in alarming ways. Even though we are not members of President Assad’s army being urged to kill fellow citizens, we should still recognise the mechanisms of indoctrination that make these actions possible.

The destruction of human sensitivity by political and religious leaders is a crime which need to be named and deplored. We have seen in this blog other lesser crimes being committed by religious groups which are a denial of human compassion, notably ostracism and shunning. Although following a leader’s command to shut out an ex-member of a religious group does not constitute actual murder, there is nevertheless a wish that the shunned person should somehow disappear. Shutting someone out is not far from a desire to see them dead. In a recent correspondence with someone, I have learned of an individual who committed suicide as a direct result of being shunned from their Christian fellowship. One has to ask the question whether this result was one that the shunners were secretly hoping for. When followers are told by a leader, religious or political, to have nothing to do with someone because they have committed some infringement, these leaders are consciously undermining the normal tendency in human beings to care for and to nurture others. When parents or children are deliberately ignored and given the silent treatment because the group leader tells you to do so, a form of soul murder is taking place. The command is obeyed because the followers need to belong to the group. This need is so powerful that it can be manipulated so that the group ideology takes precedence over the human call to love. There is a kind of blasphemy at work whenever Christians who want to follow Jesus’s command to love others are persuaded to shut out others in the name of purity or some higher purpose. We may find it hard to love everyone but there is nothing in Jesus’s words which gives any encouragement to the idea that we should try to destroy someone by deliberately cutting them out of our lives or the life of the group. When a political or religious leader tells us to do this, we should know that it is time to escape from this group. Needless to say, many people in such a situation find it impossible to move away from the group, because they have become hopelessly entangled emotionally, socially and financially within it. The group has, in other words, made them its slave. When this is the situation, their freedom to choose has been destroyed. We are right in this situation to call that group cultic.

This blog post has been an attempt to help us recognise how religions and political ideologies are sometimes guilty of destroying the humanity and capacity to love which exists within each one of us. That is indeed a terrifying indictment of their power and influence in our world. This blog has not addressed the way that this process happens within a political context. Rather it has taken a brief look at the way that some religious authority takes away the ability of an ordinary Christian disciple to flourish and to grow. Where we see Christian flourishing being destroyed by a demand for authoritarian obedience, we need to protest and protest loudly. There is no room within New Testament Christianity for such enslavement and tyranny; it is a denial of our humanity and thus all that Christ preached and stood for.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

9 thoughts on “The power of religion over love

  1. Spot on, Stephen. Apparently, rape as a weapon of war is much more common than has been realised, and they now think male rape is just as common. Presumably, the soldiers that do this were/are normal human beings. But put them in a uniform and give the order and that is what they do. Puzzling to a mere woman as to how it is even erm mechanically possible. “The heart of man is desperately wicked above all things”, to mangle Jeremiah. Much the same mechanism as you say, operates when someone is bullied. And when someone does commit suicide, well, obviously, there was something wrong with them. I have found that those who express distress at their treatment are usually thought to be inadequate in some way. So yes, you have to believe they’re not really the same as you. T’ain’t true, of course.

  2. Very important blog post and one that speaks to me personally and also evokes memories that are painful.

    “some religious authority takes away the ability of an ordinary Christian (disciple) to flourish.”

    Several encyclopaedias could be written about this vile practise.
    The above, ‘authorities’ robbed me of human compassion for well over 38 years and, I will hate myself till I am called to judgement. (I fear my Judge).

    Pray that this blog will at least save someone from that darkness.



  3. Judging by what you just said you have a problem that I dare say you have been told about before. You don’t believe God is powerful enough to forgive absolutely anything. He is. I can understand carrying guilt around. I still worry about some things I did as a child. Not overmuch, but it’s there. But, for all that, it’s wrong. If you are sorry, and it sounds to me that you are, God can handle it. I’m sure you’ve been told this before. So I’m sorry for repeating it, and I don’t want to beat you up about it. God knows, you are already beating yourself up enough. But if you can accept it theoretically? Anything you have done, he can forgive. He can forgive murderers, you’re no problem. He loves you.
    Oh, and so do I!

  4. Cosmic EnglishAthena, I accept it ‘Theoretically’

    You are very kind, Love & Peace to you.
    I would like to send you a story I have written, if you have an independant address? (Apologises to Stephen for using the blog for this)


    1. Chris, I’m sorry, but I’m not prepared to use my real identity. Some very powerful people are implicated in what was done to me, so very powerful other people would happily shut me up. No-one wants to face the facts. I’m still vulnerable to attack.

  5. Thanks for this piece. I was particularly struck by, “Although following a leader’s command to shut out an ex-member of a religious group does not constitute actual murder, there is nevertheless a wish that the shunned person should somehow disappear. Shutting someone out is not far from a desire to see them dead.”

    Matthew 5:21… has something to say on that:

    “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

    I’ve had reason to look at two terms, ‘character assassination’, and ‘soul murder’ .

    ‘Character assassination’ is an attempt to tarnish a person’s reputation. It may involve exaggeration, misleading half-truths, or manipulation of facts to present an untrue picture of the targeted person. It is a form of defamation and can be a form of ad hominem argument.

    ‘Soul murder’ is ‘the criminal invasion of man’s most sacred and peculiar property—the freedom and destiny of his soul’. (Shengold) This pertains more to children, whose vulnerability is arguably increased. It applies in criminal activity as was the case in the 1830s when Kaspar Hauzer, a teenager was found wandering the streets of Nuremberg having been locked in a dungeon all of his life.

    These two terms represent polarities in a form of behaviour that can be identified on a continuum. There is some middle ground, so I’ve a new term, that represents a place between character assassination and soul murder. Please help me to think this through!

    Soul Assassination: Unlike character assassination, the means by which this is done is effected without words. (shunning; ostracism, sending to Coventry; giving the cold shoulder) It is achieved primarily through ‘sins of omission’ or of inactivity . The target remains oblivious that anything is amiss. And it is here that the pain begins. The suspicion begins slowly and can turn into an inner tussle of ‘it must be my imagination’; ‘I must forgive’; ‘don’t judge’. Such turmoil is a spiritual battle that can be a prolonged one.

    To my mind, soul assassination is probably not necessarily a stated objective; it can possibly be an unconscious act by an unregenerate person. An example is the omitting of someone’s name from a list of their peers. So all these people are invited to a church event, but you are omitted.

    If such a person were to have this behaviour pointed out, you would expect them to communicate to the person who had been left out and say sorry! However, should the person be omitted again, then a deliberate shunning or ostracism has taken place.

    Where such a person acts in this way, and does not even consider the devastating affects on the soul of another, we might consider that such a person to be a narcissist or has serious psychopathology. The lack of empathy can be compared to that of the psychopath who kills without any remorse.

    Not all church leaders who shun and ostracise are simply on an ego trip. Some of them might have serious mental conditions.

    1. Thank you Christine for this response and welcome to this blog. You have obviously thought through these categories and words more carefully than I have. The expression ‘soul murder’ is for me more an attempt to express my emotionally-charged horror at what I see going on in a particular situation than a precise technically defined action.

      As a general response to your contribution, I would like to think that we are on the cusp of waking up to the cruelties of power abuse in the church however we define them and however exactly how they impact on the individual. I have written on narcissism both on this blog (if you have the patience to wade bade back over the posts) and elsewhere. I regard the development of this trait in clergy leaders as a major piece of work to be undertaken as a way of checking the worsening of power abuses whether we call them soul murder or assassination. Whether it is murder or assassination will depend, surely, on the stamina of the victim. Some are easily destroyed – some are resilient. I feel that the focus of overseers, bishops etc, is to recognise more quickly the corruption of power that occurs sometimes among ministers and leaders. In technical language, people with emerging Narcissistic Personality Disorder need to be challenged and checked before they do too much damage in their congregations. I seem to meet them all the time! I am assuming from your comments that you are in the psychotherapeutic world. You may wish to carry on a conversation by email. It is difficult to say everything in the context of blog responses. But thanks for your challenging comments. You will forgive any sloppiness in my use of words and concepts as like you I am having to make up a lot of this material as I go. There is simply not enough guidance for the problem in the literature – unless you know different?

  6. Now, I had an interesting insight which I’m still thinking through, from Jeremy Bowen’s book “War Stories”. He was writing about his experiences of war reporting. He eventually came to realise that on one occasion, he was probably suffering from the beginnings of post traumatic stress disorder. The best cure is to talk about it with others who have experienced the same. For the war correspondent, getting drunk with everyone else kind of lances the boil. This led me on to two other thoughts. One by way of a friend who is suffering from PTS following a rape. I didn’t know this could happen. Talking about it helps, not being able to makes you very ill indeed. People don’t talk about their experiences in the war. They don’t talk about being raped. They don’t in the context of this blog, talk about sex abuse. And they don’t talk about bullying. So this makes them worse. Add in the church’s response which is to stop you talking about it, and you have a lot of very sick people who are actually being made sicker by the church’s handling of what has happened to them.

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