Religion Controls People [Quick Read]

The title of this post is a complaint I’ve heard from atheist friends. To be sure, there are many instances in human history when powerful people have taken the teachings of Scripture and used them to abuse others and gain power for themselves.

I lament that my own Christian faith has been abused for purposes of control.

I lament that atheism [Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot] is abused for purposes of control.

I lament that Islam [ISIS, Al-Quaeda] is abused for purposes of control.

The common denominator here is not faith. Nor is it the systematized rejection of faith we know as atheism. The common denominator is people. Scripture teaches that though we are created in God’s image [Genesis 1:26-28] we also rebel [Genesis 3] from God. This ancient narrative finds contemporary support in the everyday: why are some people so angry? Why are some people so gracious? Why do some people seek power and wreak havoc on the earth? Why, when I look in my own life, am I such a mixture of good feelings and frustration? How can a crime boss plan and manage a complex system of drug distribution and murder then come home to his family with smiles and hugs, remaining faithful to his spouse?

Pablo Escobar. William Wilberforce. Hitler. Mother Teresa. Kim Jong II. Isaac Newton. Idi Amin. Martin Luther King Jr.; these were all humans with capacity for good, bad or mediocre lives-yet some did so much good while others worked or work for such destruction. What controlled these people? What controls me? 

Student by Wayne Thiebaud, 1968

My wife and I enjoy the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and we find ourselves returing to Wayne Thiebaud’s fascinating work. Student is one of my favorites, and much better in person. I continue to wonder how this representation of a student is absorbing the world around her. She reminds me of my mother at that age, though of course I’ve only seen pictures. How is she processing the teaching for that day? Is she just waiting to be released from class? Does she hope to someday be a teacher herself? Do her textbooks do justice to American history or are they grossly one-sided? Does she feel controlled by others?

The South of Market neighborhood of San Francisco consists of lots of control. The economy in our city is controlled by marketers and purveyors of technology. Apple, Maserati, Coach, North Face, and H&M do a great job controlling where our money goes. People are controlled by the small smoldering tubes of tobacco or marijuana they inhale hourly. I walk by desperate souls every day lying next to a pile of needles, eyes rolled back, controlled by the powerful chemicals surging through their frail, undernourished bodies.

It’s my conclusion that we are all controlled by something, by someone, by factors we hesitate to name or by forces we comprehend all too well. Thing is, we need to discern how we are being controlled and who we want to control us. When we take a close look at our lives we see patterns of health and patterns of destruction, large or small; and these are informed by the factors that control us.

Looking to my faith/religion, it does indeed control me. My faith confronts and challenges me. It flies in the face of logic to love my enemy, something Jesus was adamant about, or to pray for those who want to harm me. Jesus redefines adultery by telling me that even secretly desiring a woman besides Kaile is the same as literal cheating. These are Jesus’s commands-is it control? He says some strong stuff! Give away my money, my possessions? My time? Ouch, Jesus; can’t I just keep it all?

I’m not great at doing all these things-just ask someone who knows me for an honest account of my foibles and failures. But I’ll bet people who have known me for a long time will be able to note how much I’ve changed over my years. I regress too, but do think there’s some overall forward motion. Maybe you relate to the pattern of ups and down that a critical look at our lives can reveal.


Attempting to see things as Jesus sees them, I try to imagine a world where people all literally tried to love God but also love their enemy, to give away their time and possessions, to pray for those who sought to harm them. I’d like to live in that kind of world. 

What’s ironic is how the Christians I know are also the freest people I know. Free to feel, free to give, free to encourage, free to laugh at themselves, free to lament, free to admit failure, free to love.

So there-religion controls people, myself included.