In the last two years, I have noticed an uncomfortable change in humanity through the research mechanism I call my Twitter feed: our politics is becoming our religion.
I have identified as a Republican up until #45 barrel rolled my party. While my vote was highly personal, I never once questioned the heart of someone who voted differently than me. My best friend has been a die-hard Democrat her entire life, and while I disagreed with her ideas on abortion, I never once felt like we couldn’t be friends over it. It was her political leaning and while that may have informed how she saw the world, I never thought it was what made her who she was.
That’s changed now, and so has my political affiliations. While I would categorize myself as an Independent, I am growing extremely uncomfortable with how deeply politics is becoming embedded in who we are. We can’t see past party lines anymore. We can’t talk about basic human decency without seeing red and blue and I think we should all be uncomfortable with that.
While scientists like Richard Dawkins argue that religion is the enemy, much of history would say he is wrong. Besides the fact that studies in fields like neuroscience talk endlessly of the positive effects religion has had on the brain, it seems disingenuous to not acknowledge the tens of millions of people who have been killed by anti-religious regimes throughout history (more so than those representing an authoritarian God). Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Dalai Lama are just a few examples of people who have deeply impacted our world for the better, and also were highly religious.
I recently read an interview with Robert Pape, a professor who has been studying suicide attacks since the 1980s. While in the West we hear words like “Muslim” and immediately clutch our pearls, the reality of Islam is far different from what the news networks portray.
Pape says in his interview with Ray Suarez, “I’ve studied 462 suicide terrorists from around the world since 1980 who actually completed the mission. Over half are secular.” While discussing the motives behind these atrocities so many of us incorrectly link it to religion.
Pape says, “Instead of religion, what over 95 percent of suicide terrorist attacks since 1980, all around the world have in common, is a specific strategic goal, to compel modern democracies to withdraw combat forces from territory the terrorists prize greatly.” The idea within these missions is that if they can show you how committed they are to this objective, committed enough to die, then that should evoke fear. Most of these suicide bombers are motivated by politics, not religion.
For years I have read academic articles and books that paint a broad brush on religion as being the enemy, but it’s not. What is far scarier than religion, which neuroscience has actually found causes the majority of human brains to suppress anger and fear responses, is politics, which often exasperates it.
In the book, How God Changes the Brain, they found that “religious and spiritual contemplation changes your brain…because it strengthens a unique neural circuit that specifically enhances social awareness and empathy while subduing destructive feelings and emotions.”
In fact, according to a recent article on research done at Harvard, it was found that faith improves mental health. By the age of 20 those raised with religious practices were 18 percent happier, 30 percent more likely to help others, and 33 percent less likely to engage in substance abuse. Those who prayed daily, had the strongest benefits in the study.
So, no, religion is not the enemy no matter how many people have an axe to grind. What can be dangerous, though, is when we put our faith into politics. When we swear by the party over the gospel. When we can no longer follow Jesus’s command to love our neighbor, because they have a “MAGA” detail. The second we stop seeing human beings, no matter their politics, as children of God worth our energy, we lose our own right to call ourselves Christians.
Religion is not the enemy, but when our politics replace our faith, we’ve bowed down to Babylon.
Editor’s note: This column was first published at The Haystack.