Putting out the fire

Religions have often grabbed upon the images of light and fire. Hymns sing out “Light the fire in my soul.” The Quran offers “Allah is the Light.” The apostles of Jesus were anointed with tongues of flame above their heads. In Hinduism, fire is one of the five sacred elements. In Zoroastrianism, fire is used to represent the god Ahura Mazda. (Yes, that’s were the car company got its name.) Well, I personally find this association with fire and religion very fitting. Time for the metaphor!

One person holding a candle benefits greatly in a dark room. The candle provides light. It offers heat. Primarily, it gives comfort. Two or three people with candles can share their path and their comfort. The problem is when 100 people, a thousand or millions of candle-holding individuals get together. The candles still provide comfort and camaraderie, but they can now be very dangerous. The heat can now burn. The light can now blind. The flames that provide warmth can now cause devastation on a nuclear scale.

There are many problems that arise. One person in the middle of the crowd may now move in a direction they may never have moved before, simply to follow the others. A quiet acceptance is better than a lonely candle-holder. A mob with red candles may attack, belittle or burn a few people with lanterns just because they are using a different light source. The crowd may divide because it is decided that the candle can only be carried in the right hand. Any left-handed deviants get burned as punishment. Also, the abundant light can also blind instead of lighting the way. Obvious and simple facts that everyone else understands go ignored by the candle holders. Lastly, the crowd can get overly eager to try and spread their candle-driven comfort to other people. People that are just fine going through life without holding a candle.

End of the metaphor.

I wish there were less real world examples to support this metaphor. I really do. Crusades. Salem Witch Trials. Jihad. Protestant Reformation. Catholics and condoms. Sunni/Shiite tensions. Celibate pedophiles. Creationism. President George W. Bush. Persecution of Galileo. Proposition 8. September 11. The Spanish Inquisition. Biblically-justified slavery. Oppression of women. The $250,000 Touchdown Jesus. Homosexuals being murdered in Iran. A girl being burned for wearing lipstick. A rape victim being stoned for adultery. The Westboro Baptist Church. Jehovah’s Witnesses waking you up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning.

Whatever good religion has provided to individuals, it has come at a terrible cost. The primary issue is religion can be used to justify anything. There is a popular quote: “With or without religion, good men perform good deeds and bad men perform evil deeds. It is only with religion that good men perform evil deeds.” Religion has been used as a weapon of divisiveness. Just look at the many denominations amongst all the major religions. Even ultimate truth has cliques! Theistic belief has been used to justify all forms of evil because some deity demanded it. All you have to do is say “God wills it,” and it suddenly becomes acceptable. All you have to do is tell someone that “God hates it,” and it becomes loathed. This irrational justification has already caused a lot of pain in this world.

And for some absurd reason, religion is somehow above ridicule. It is somehow wrong to mock someone for believing in a talking donkey or snake. I can’t laugh at you for thinking Solomon had fire demons from Allah at his command. What about a global flood or virgin birth? You are perfectly welcome to believe in these absurdities, but be prepared to have them pointed out if you bring them up in a public forum. As many religious people enjoy judging people as immoral, others should be able to judge you as idiotic.

I respect fire. I really do. It has the power to do many great things. It can bring people together. It can warm and comfort those that need it. It can act as a beacon for those that have lost their way. However, it also has the power to devastate lives. Like all sane people, I prefer my fire in a fire pit – far away from my courthouse, school house and other fire pits. Fortunately, trends show less and less people need to rely on the candles of their fathers. A recent American survey showed an increase in non-religious individuals from 11 percent in 1986 to 20 percent today. Maybe in twenty more years it will be at thirty percent! This follows Europe’s general decline in theism. Eventually, I hope the fire will burn out so humanity can step bravely into the darkness, confident in the unknown.


  1. Simply capturing a rebuttal:

    I blush in writing another letter within the space of a few weeks from my last, but I read just recently in The Independent Collegian a column titled “Putting out the fire” (12/11/08). Dan Hollinger writes about religion as a phenomenon of divisiveness, hatred and fear, one which “burns” and brings with it a great cost of suffering. His view of religion is neatly summarized when he says, “The primary issue is religion can be used to justify anything.” Can it? To the contrary, look up such people as “Bartolomé de las Casas.” Some of his claims, though, are not in dispute – evil men exist within as well as without religion and have used religion as an excuse for their misdeeds. Granting all the evil in the world, that does not however justify his conclusion: religion is not thereby false.
    But, on a more important note, do religious people merely grasp for whatever a demagogue grants them as the word of the divine? While I cannot answer this fully, I point to the recent “Regensburg address” of Pope Benedict XVI and wish to refer to one particular phrase: “Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God.” There are religions that are fideist, much as Mr. Hollinger remarks, and these might well hold that the categories of the rational cannot be applied to God. However, not all or even most religions do. There are and have been religions that take as their founding principle the rationality of faith.
    While there have been those who stood by or even justified the killing of the Jews in the Holocaust, there was Dietrich Bonhoeffer and many others who went to the camps out of their religious conviction that every man is infinitely precious. While those who rammed planes into the World Trade Center did so out of their twisted religious beliefs, slavery was overturned by religious who embraced non-violent resistance and rational persuasion. While there are those who declared reason to be anathema, there are likewise those who hold that the light which illuminates our reason is the same Word that became flesh in a small town in Palestine. Saying that “religion is above ridicule” is just dishonest.
    If Mr. Hollinger presumes himself to be the first atheist, he is sorely mistaken. More disturbingly, attempts to bypass rational discussion of religion by calling its followers “idiotic” leads down the same bloody road as the fideism he pretends to abhor, and has led straight to the gulags in other notable places. I suspect that what Fyodor Dostoyevsky said might quite well be true, that “without God, all is permitted,” as evinced by Mr. Hollinger’s confusion between religious and moral claims. I fear even more that his explicit project to dispel the light of morality, let alone God, from society might indeed become successful. Then he, as well as I, shall regret that bloody darkness which comes when people reject morality as a “hindrance” to the march of the Volk.
    Alan Rooney Graduate Student Philosophy
    Published: Monday, January 12, 2009

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *