Failures of religions

We have to live with the human failures of religion

Some people turn away from religion because of mistakes and crimes committed in the name of religion.

“The history of all religions, including that of Christianity, is a litany of injustices and failings. No one doubts that it was religion that shaped the Christian Middle Ages in Europe. But they are rightly known as the dark ages. There was so much superstition, repression of freedom and religious warfare. If we go by the historical record, mankind is better off without religion!”

I believe that an objective study of history does not present such a one-side picture. To obtain a more balanced view, we have to consider the reasons for the negative side and to acknowledge also the positive achievements. Let me give examples taken from the Middle Ages.


Yes, religious zeal often led to excesses. One example is the crusades against the Muslims who had occupied the Christian places of pilgrimage in the Holy Land. From 1095 to 1270 AD wave after wave of Christian armies rode east to face the Turks.

A typical event illustrates how things could go wrong. On June 7, 1099, a Christian army of 1200 cavalry and 10,000 foot soldiers arrived at Jerusalem. Since Jerusalem was heavily fortified and well supplied with provisions, the Muslim forces were confident they could hold the city almost indefinitely.

The crusaders, however, felt committed to a divine mission. After a year of perilous travel and heavy fighting, they had now arrived at the Holy City. It was their duty to liberate the sacred places: the hill where Christ died, his tomb, the room of the Last Supper, the Temple area. On July 8 they observed a strict fast. And, under the scoffs of the the Muslims who were watching from the walls, they walked round the city in solemn procession, praying and singing religious hymns.

The attack began on the 13th of July. Siege towers were brought near to the walls. Some knights jumped on to a section of the wall. Others scaled the walls by ladders. After fierce and heroic man-to-man combat, a gate was taken. The Christian army flooded in and the Muslim force surrendered.

One of the Christian commanders, Tancred of Normandy, had promised protection to civilians in the Aqsa Mosque. This promise was ignored by the fanatic knights. Everyone was mercilessly slaughtered: Muslim men, women and children, as well as Jews. The `soldiers for God’ thus became murderers

The massacre was inexcusable, of course. No amount of religious enthusiasm can justify the taking of innocent lives.

The persecution of dissenters

The fanatic zeal of the Middle Ages raged also against heretics. `Heretics’ were people who proclaimed a doctrine that was perceived to contradict Christian belief. Heretics were considered very dangerous persons. They upset the established social order. Worse, they rebelled against God who, it was believed, had guaranteed revealed truths. Heretics might also “infect” other people with their false ideas. For all these reasons, the religious logic went, they deserved death if they persevered in their heresy; and they might be saved if the punishment brought them to their senses.

The punishments inflicted on heretics were humiliating and painful. Men and women accused of heresy were tortured to make them change their mind. If they refused to recant, they were burnt at the stake. In 1252 AD Pope Innocent IV publicly endorsed the practice in his bull To Extirpate Pernicious Errors.

In 1600 AD Pope Clement VIII ordered that Giordano Bruno, an astronomer and occultist, be condemned to the stake `as an impenitent and pertinacious heretic’. Bruno addressed his judges with the words: “Your fear in passing judgment on me is greater than mine in receiving it”. The system was already collapsing by then.

On the 7 December 1965 the Catholic Church, assembled in a session of its Second Vatican Council, solemnly declared that every person has the right to religious freedom, and that no one may be coerced into thinking or acting against one’s personal conscience.

“The human person has a right to religious freedom. Freedom of this kind means that all people should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, soicial groups and every human power so that, within due limits, nobody is forced to act against his or her convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in association with others.”

Dignitatis Humanae, no 2; VATICAN COUNCIL II, ed. A.FLANNERY, Dublin 1975, p. 800.

The medieval practice of torturing and killing `heretics’ was thereby acknowledged to have been a grave injustice and a serious mistake.

The benefits of Religion

All right, people who lived during the Middle Ages were forced to endure such religious excesses. The point can be made that they also reaped the benefit of Christian belief and practice. Tens of thousands of monasteries and convents provided the infrastructure that changed rural jungles into civilised communities. The monks brought education and improved methods of agriculture. Nuns looked after the sick and the poor.

The Christian Middle Ages laid the foundation for life as we know it now.

  • The importance of the individual was cultivated.
  • The study of nature, even if still mixed up with alchemy and superstition, prepared the way for our present-day sciences.
  • The principles of democracy: equal voting for leaders, legislation by common consent, responsibility to an assembly of representatives, were all principles first practised by religious orders and congregations.

In no way should we discount Europe’s debt to the Greeks and the Arabs. But it was the positive Christian world view that released the potential of lasting international change. The scientific, social and political values that underpin the present world order have their roots in Christian Europe. (See: J.BURKE, The Triumph of the West, London 1985)

The same can be said about religious traditions in other countries, their institutions and their leaders. Because they are human in members and organization, all religions show failings and shortcomings. But all of them also contributed to the welfare of the societies to which they belonged.

Human religions, like other organized social forces, show achievements and failings. I agree that the achievements by themselves do not suffice to prove a divine origin. But neither do the inevitable errors and lapses disprove it.

The human aspect of religion, though it is a trait we always have to keep in mind so that we can protect ourselves against mistakes and excesses, does not prove that religion should be abandoned altogether.

Religion is an inalienable part of us as human beings. Like other areas of our existence: family, work, leisure and health, religion carries human features. It is something we have to live with.



The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

View the following film on the meaning of religion