This past week, in a small corner of the news there was information about a bombing of a Church in a small community near Arusha, Tanzania. Several locals along with a handful of Saudi nationals have been arrested as responsible. The target apparently was the Archbishop of Arusha, a man whom I know personally and whose installation I attended some years back in Tanzania. Many innocent people were hurt, who were just gathered as a community to dedicate a new church building they had labored on. I guess it was viewed as Christianity encroaching on an Islamic area or some such, rather than as a group of ordinary people gathering in shared community.
I thought it might be something worth reflecting on here, because I think it shows some things that I as a theist share with many thoughtful people here. Together we would look at the event in East Africa with a mix of pain and anger, and say "look what religion hath wrought!". The targeting of others; the death of innocents.
We would be right, together. While religion, particularly the religions of the Book teach against idolatry, we theists too often forget that religion itself can be an idol. Of course we humans can turn just about anything into idols or symbols of tribal identity; urban American youth for a time were committing violence over colored bandanas (any Babylon 5 fans out there remember the Drazi?). Religion, however, can be a more potent idol than gang colors, and occasionally one up there with fame, political power, money, and perhaps even tribe/nation which is often the ultimate idol.
For me, I can see the idolatry in religion when people talk more about religion than they do about God; when they care more about purity of doctrine than they care about people and communities. Those misguided and dare I say "evil" Islamists who committed the atrocity of bombing a church were turning religion into idolatry, elevating Islam above Allah, doctrine above people. My own Church is certainly not immune. With an institutional hierarchy, it's easy to fall into idolatry of religion as well as idolatry of fame/position/political power. Our history is the tale of that sort of thing competing with constant calls for reform by individual holy people who care more about God. That is the tale told by the Bible as well, over and over again.
There's a funny set of stories in the Old Testament. In one, God tells Moses to make a brass serpent to cure people of snakebite. Years later, the brass serpent is hanging up in the Temple and people are worshiping it, so God tells Hezekiah to smash the thing because it's become an idol. Even good things can be turned to bad things when we hold on to them too tightly, and the critique of religion offered here has genuine merit.