Powerful people have for centuries used religion to defend their position and to justify their control of society, wealth and personal relationships. One of the most common reasons for the rejection of religion is its association with tyranny, violence, sexism, racism and homophobia.
But those who oppose all religion on this basis are closing their eyes to a crucial part of the picture. For every example of a link between religion and oppression, there is a link between religion and liberation. Throughout the world and across the centuries, people have invoked religion as a reason to stand up against injustice, to side with the oppressed and to struggle for a better world.
But what is the connection between these people's religion and their resistance to oppression? A cynic might say that their religion really had nothing to do with their political action, that they would have done it anyway. So does religion really have the power to be an effective force for social change?
Here we come to a crucial but often overlooked point about religion. Religion generally involves a loyalty to the divine or transcendent, whether in the form of a personal God or gods or an impersonal reality. For most committed religious people, this means that the divine has the first call on their allegiance – more than state, nation, army, political party or human rulers.
It is therefore no surprise that many monarchs and governments have been keen to identify themselves with divine will. When Japanese Emperors claimed divine anointing, they suggested that to rebel against them was to undermine the ordering of the world. Christian monarchs who invoked the “divine right of kings” implied that to be disloyal to the regime is to oppose the God who upholds it. When Israeli settlers insist that their actions are necessarily blessed by God, they put criticism of a human movement on a level with blasphemy.
Such people can hardly claim that their monarchs, governments, armies and systems are entitled to more loyalty than the divine. The trick of identifying the divine with authority and injustice is a well-developed one, for once the link between them is broken, faithful religious adherents find that no human authority can ever demand their total loyalty.
In the Abrahamic religions in particular, mystical movements that have spoken of the individual's direct connection with God have often been suppressed by political and religious leaders who wish their own views and priorities to be identified with God's will.
Mysticism is sometimes associated with a purely personal process, a rather selfish withdrawal from the affairs of the world. But the root of mysticism is a conviction that each person can find the divine for him/herself by turning inward, a truly revolutionary notion. Mysticism tends to subvert social expectations – a number of the world's most prominent mystics have been women. They include the Muslim Rabia al-Adawiyya, the Hindu Mirabai and the Christian Teresa of Avila, all of whom had to contend with hostility from those who objected to women taking on the lifestyles that they chose.
At its best, mystical practice and experience equip the mystic for engagement with the world. These connections have been made by political radicals from many religious traditions. The 17th century English writer Gerard Winstanley, who founded a radical Christian movement known as the Diggers, based his appeals for equality and common ownership on the principle that God's spirit dwelt in all people and that everyone has God “to his Teacher and Ruler within himself”. Gandhi linked individual spirituality to political liberation through his concept of Truth. As the writer Rex Ambler puts it, he “saw the universal availability of Truth as a source of personal liberation and independence, which would in turn provide the basis of genuine liberation and independence for India”. In recent decades, the movement known as “socially engaged Buddhism” has emphasised the political outworking of the Buddha's teachings, without neglecting the inward dimensions.
Quakerism is another movement that has developed a deep understanding of the relationship between inner and outer. The Quakers, known more formally as the Religious Society of Friends, are founded on a distinctive interpretation of Christianity. Believing that everyone can find God inwardly, they have developed the concept of Testimony, which refers to outward actions performed as a witness to their inward experience of God. Inward experience convinces them that God can turn the world towards nonviolence, leading to a testimony to campaign for peace. After experiencing the divine as a God who values and loves the world, they can testify to this by living environmentally sustainable lifestyles.
This is not to deny that mystical movements have at times taken very individualistic approaches and focused excessively on personal experience. But such criticisms have often been overstated. Sufism, a longstanding and wide-ranging mystical movement within Islam, is sometimes accused of esotericism, but such a view is dependent on a rather selective reading of its history. Sufis have also been a threat to authority. The tenth century Muslim mystic al-Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj was executed by the Baghdad authorities who felt threatened when he preached that all could seek God for themselves and appeal to divine justice.
As mystics in many traditions know only too well, it is truly revolutionary to suggest that the power of God accessible in people's hearts is greater than the transient power of political authorities, and the weapons those authorities wield.
© Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from part of his new book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion , published by New Internationalist publications.
It can be ordered by clicking here , priced £7.99.