Let me jump right in, but let me do so by using a short, fictitious story to highlight what I see as a big “issue” of religion:
A man believes he is communicating with God, and God tells him to take a piece of chalk and draw a circular line in the middle of the market place in town. This circle, according to God, is sacred and no-one shall enter it. So, the next day the man goes into town, walks to the center of the market place, and draws the circle as God told him to. Then he sits next to it all day, and he tells everybody who comes by and inquires about the circle that God told him to draw it and make sure no-one enters it. Initially, most of the people don’t think too much about it, but a few are inspired and make sure not to step into the circle, and soon after the man isn’t sitting alone next to the circle, but there is a small group of people sitting there.
Once the group gets a little larger, they become more and more vocal about telling people not to step into the circle, and because people don’t really have a reason to do so, everybody in town begins to follow the rule. Then, one night, the man once again hears God speak to him, and God says that if someone does enter the circle, that person shall be punished by being put to death. And the next day the man tells his followers and they then become convinced that they are righteous in preventing people from stepping into the circle.
However, one day a stranger who has never visited the town comes to the market place and, when he gets to the circle, he doesn’t understand what the line is for. Obviously there is nothing in the circle, there is no good reason not to step into it. He also doesn’t really believe that the good people of the town would actually mind if he steps into it, and because he actually thinks that being in the circle would allow him to breathe a little more freely he steps inside the circle. Then the people of the town become so outraged that they start shouting and yelling, and before anybody can really take a moment to think, someone has picked up a stone and has thrown it at the man in the circle. Once the violence has started, people all around the circle do the same, and it feels good to punish the man, because he has broken the rule.
My questions now are: was it just for the people to kill the man? And if not who is responsible for the man’s death?
Personally, I don’t think the death of the man can be justified. Even if I were to believe God exists and that God has talked to the man who drew the circle, I would then have to say that maybe the man misunderstood God, or that for some other reason God may have wanted to change the rule and didn’t get the chance to talk to the man. In short, I believe that the man should not have been killed.
From that premise, I then wonder who is (mainly) responsible for his death. From a point of a believer in God, you could then simply say the man should have listened, but I also don’t think that this is an adequate point of view, for the same reason as to why I think the death cannot be justified. Given the somewhat imperfect means of how God “chose” to communicate his “wishes”, I think it is at least fair to assume that the error is more likely to be on the human side–even though it would of course be much easier to “blame” the man who died or, alternatively, God for giving out such a rule to begin with.
From the point of an agnostic it becomes much worse. Given that the rule, “draw a circle and no-one shall enter it,” is, indeed, entirely arbitrary–and it also doesn’t come with any good explanation for why following the rule is actually in the interest of the people–it seems that the main portion of the responsibility lies not even with the man who drew the circle but with the people who simply accepted the rule without thought.
And funny enough, I think that is exactly the point that I believe the person or persons that are now usually identified as Jesus of Nazareth tried to make, for which he (or they) was eventually put to death: don’t simply and blindly follow arbitrary rules that some religion sets, but think and feel and then decide from the wisdom of a kind heart that a rule that does not foster well-being and requires that people who not follow it should be punished is unlikely to be a rule that God would want us to follow–presuming that God exists that is.
So, in short, one of the problems I have with organized religion is that it comes with lots and lots of rules, that for many of these rules it only gives “the word of God” as heard by a few select people as “backup”, with little explanation for their benefit, particularly given the continually changing environment we live in. And the rules are not even considered guidelines but absolute.
Sometimes, a white line, such as that at the edge of a road, can be a life-saver. And everybody, even a non-religious person, would likely agree to its value and use. But if a rule, a white line, has lost its value, its meaning–or never had a value or meaning other than for those who made it, because it gives them power over the ruled–then I think it ought to be challenged by someone. And in that sense I do believe that Jesus can be someone to inspire me, just not necessarily in the direction religion points to…