This afternoon, I saw a presumably homeless man panhandling by the side of the road. Upon being given a dollar, he immediately raised his head toward the clouds and cried out, 'A blessing from the Lord! Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, God!'
I suppose many people find this sort of faith in a good, loving god inspiring in the face of almost complete poverty. However, the goodness of said god is difficult to reconcile with the utter indigence of such a devout believer. What sort of god would reward its most dutiful worshipers with the most difficult, least secure circumstances imaginable? True believers often blame such uncomfortable truths on human sinfulness, or the workings of devils, but if that's the case, why would an infinitely good deity create sinful humans or malignant spirits? Many attempt to blame the victims of financial hardships for evil acts which necessitated punishment (thus curiously echoing an argument made by a capitalist I debated with last Sunday that poverty exists because 'you can choose your situation')- but why is it, then, that believers like the homeless man, whose devotion is universally considered good by religious people, are punished while reviled humanists like CNN founder Ted Turner enjoy millions?
Indeed, religious devotion of the kind expressed by the homeless man is rarely found among the more affluent- even middle-class evangelicals are willing to admit that at least some of the credit for an act of charity must lie with the individual who carried out the act. The man, however, did not- he believed the dollar came not from any worldly source, but from Jesus himself. He was truly grateful, and the kindness of a stranger served to prove to him not that other people were concerned about his plight but that God loved and blessed him. As such, he was able to ignore his horrific standard of living and find solace in a god who cared about him (although, seemingly, not enough to rescue him from poverty).
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines 'escapism' as 'habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine'. Although usually applied to fantasy novels or similar works of fiction, it seems far more appropriate as a description of the abandonment of one's physical reality in favor of a more comforting, faith-based world, where spare change given out of pity is a blessing from Jesus and death- the end of life- is the gateway to a literal paradise- except for the heathens, of course, whom God in his (never her) mercy will torture for all eternity. The promise of a better world after death provides a more than welcome distraction from the horror of reality.
When human kindness is a gift from heaven, human goodness becomes inconceivable. When human life becomes nothing more than a preface to eternal bliss, action to improve human life becomes laughable. When inequality and oppression become divine punishments handed down by an infallible being, social justice becomes detestable. In short, religion is intrinsically allied with whatever status quo may be in place. I very much doubt that it's coincidence that religious fundamentalism is inevitably accompanied by a devotion to capitalism and the free market, and that the most zealous proponents of religion are inevitably among the wealthiest people in the world, even as their most dedicated disciples are drawn from the ranks of the poor and the working class.
But wait- are there not progressive, even radical, religious leaders? What of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi? While their social and political activities were undeniably positive- indeed, theirs were arguably the best and most liberating movements in history- the fact remains that their was still an implicit authoritarianism in their philosophy. We must achieve racial equality and free India because we are commanded to by God- not because doing so will be immeasurably good for racial minorities and the people of India. Don't get me wrong- I have nothing but respect and admiration for Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi both. But, their philosophic justifications for freedom still appealed to obedience, to the commands of a god, rather than to the undeniable benefit to those people involved. Additionally, such instances of religion fulfilling a socially positive role are deviations from the norm of conservative and reactionary religion.
Religion provides a respite, an escape, from the problems of this world- but by doing so, it effectively precludes most believers from taking any action to fix the problems that they want to avoid. Is the homeless man trying to do anything about the fact that our economic system denies him an countless others the basic necessities of life? Probably not, because the faith that allows him to forget his poverty assures him that the god who loves him so decreed his homelessness, and that to try to change the system that has cast him out into the darkness would be to turn away from God's holy light.
His situation is tragic, truly tragic, not only because the machine has denied him his basic physical needs, robbed him of the chance at a comfortable life, but also because it has driven him to a belief that stops him from changing the world, from revolting against the corruption and the injustice of the social order that tramples him into the dust, him and billions of others. Half of humanity survives (or often doesn't) on two dollars a day or less. In America, in the most outrageously wealthy country in history, one in eight people live beneath the official poverty line- and the official poverty line is several thousand dollars a year below the average cost of living.
The world doesn't have to be this way. There's nothing in human nature that dictates that some must rule and others must obey, that some must have everything while others have none. It lies in our power to change things. We can build a better world- but not if we waste ourselves by insisting on the reality of a spiritual world that, in all likelihood, is a lie. So do something. Stop worrying about saving your own soul, and start trying to save other people's lives. Organize a protest. Join an organization. Stop paying taxes to the war machine. Take direct action against poverty with your local Food Not Bombs. And, above all, live your own life the way you've always wanted to- it's all you're going to get.