John Lennon suggested in “Imagine” that without religion the world would be a better, or saner, place. Richard Dawkins makes the same point in his recent book, The God Delusion. Without religion, he writes, there would have been “no suicide bombers, no 9/11...no Crusades, no witch hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres...no Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no public beheadings of blasphemers, no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it.”
But though the Crusades were fought in the name of Jesus and though terrorists blow up trains in the name of Allah, and though religions began and often are sustained by visions and prophecies that are sometimes almost indistinguishable from the ravings of your great-aunt Jane, you can't blame the violence on the religious tradition or dismiss the tradition because of the visions. Those same traditions help people live sanely and die peacefully. They gave solace, support, community, inspiration, and an ethical framework to Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln. It's not the religion that's destructive. It's the process that masquerades in its name.
Sylvia Plath, who was both a visionary poet and at times certifiably insane, said in a journal entry that when she was crazy, she was too busy being crazy to write any poems. Where insanity begins, poetry ends. The same is true of fanaticism and religion.
My daughter recently returned from a two-week trip to Eastern Europe with some amazing photos of the Hill of Crosses in Lithuania. According to local legend, the Hill of Crosses—which looks crazy, completely chaotic—marks the spot where a man saw a vision of the Virgin Mary. The hill was razed several times by the Soviets but was always rebuilt, pilgrim by pilgrim, cross by cross. Is it a beautiful piece of folk art or a holy shrine? If the legend is right and there was a vision, was it delusional? Angel or firewood? We can't know for certain. But every day the world is on fire with beauty and with suffering. So we honor skepticism and risk faith.
Susan Neville is an Indianapolis-based fiction writer and essayist, and the author of Iconography: A Writer's Meditation (Indiana University Press) as well as Sailing the Inland Sea, (Quarry Books).
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