Religion, Evil and Idolatry
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion. Steven Weinberg
Idols are counterfeit objects of hope. We rely on them to give us the comfort, satisfaction, and security we crave and need. Repeatedly, however, we find that they don't deliver. The excitement, glamor, and allure of our idols soon fade. Even our friends and loved ones fail us, just as we fail them. We easily find ourselves on a deadly cycle of disillusionment and despair as we seek the next thing that, we hope, will bring lasting meaning to our lives. Nothing in this world, however, can bring lasting meaning to our lives. The things of this world pass away, and, more urgently, we do too. Sooner or later, we die. We then lose everything this world has to offer, if only because we are ourselves are lost. Like ourselves, our idols lack the power to sustain us past death, and they cannot redeem our failures and other troubles. In particular, they cannot set us free from our burdens of guilt, shame, and fear of having lived without lasting meaning. If our lives are actually to have lasting meaning, we need genuine hope in the face of our moral failures and impending death. Idols are at best band-aids; they keep falling off and we know it.
But the problem is not just that idols fail to deliver what we expect of them, but that, in our devotion to them, we are willing to give up our very humanity. The Accuser in the Book of Job said it well: "Skin for skin! A man will give up everything he has to save his life." (Job 2:4) This can include his sense of decency, of fairness and of justice. If his idol is the tribe or the nation, he may become willing to do anything to defend it, no matter how monstrous, which includes tolerance of monstrous evils committed by other idolaters.
If idols are objects of value in which we place our trust, then scapegoats are objects of blame which we load up with our anger at natural events which we cannot control. Scapegoating is the negative correlate of idolizing, but the dynamic is the same: in the face of anxiety, we conjure up an idea, institution or group which must be to blame for our ills and our vulnerability, and we believe that eradicating the scapegoat will turn the tide of events back in our favor.
The most important thing to note about this process is that idols and scapegoats can come from anywhere, not just or even primarily religion. The idolatry most people may be used to is intolerance or violence in the defense of God's honor, but little gods abound: a political ideology like nazism or communism (see the fascinating book The God That Failed, written by intellectuals who had previously been entranced by communism but then recanted their faith), the pursuit of wealth at any cost, even commitment to one's favorite sports team, which can lead to violent confrontations with fans of another team.
To sum up, then, Weinberg is wrong: it does not take religion for good people to do bad things, it just takes anxiety and our tendency to create idols and scapegoats in response to that anxiety.
In fact, religion, at least in some forms, offers a potent antidote to idolatry and scapegoating: the monotheistic relativizing of all finite allegiances, and the liberation from anxiety that comes from the assurance that Jesus' resurrection has defeated the powers of death that hold us captive. But that is a topic for another post.