In my past writings I have often come across as quite hostile to religion. In my most recent walk across France and before that in Spain, I came to the realisation that my hostility may be misplaced. I walked with several people – Marina, Jocelyn, Sophie – for whom their religion was a strong reassurance that they were on the right path. Religion is for them what the yellow arrows in Spain and the white and red trail markers in France are for me – reassurance. I am not opposed to religion, I am opposed to what many people do with it.
I’ll give an example that took place a very long time ago, not far from where I walked in France. One of the really unattractive events of 13th century France was the destruction of the Cathars, or the end of the Albigensian heresy (after Albi, a town south of my intended route). The Cathars were a peaceful and popular large group of Christians in southern France, whose beliefs did not coincide with those of the Catholic church. The dominant church at the time, the Roman Catholic Church, ordered a crusade in France to crush the Albigensian heresy in southern France. This crusade came about because the Albigensians, also known as Cathars, did not accept the decisions made about Christianity by men – it was always men – in Rome.
The Cathars believed in individual access to the Gospels and did not believe in the need for intervention by other people – priests and bishops – between them and God. They translated the New Testament into the local language and taught it in schools. The Cathars were merchants and bankers and nonviolent – much like today’s Quakers.
The church believed that it was their duty to interpret the content of the Gospels for the people. They believed, of course, in the full patriarchal hierarchy of the church. They distrusted trade and merchants, and forbade loans for interest. For a long time the church tolerated the Cathars and their beliefs grew to be very popular in southernFrance.
In 1209, the pope, Innocent III, called for a crusade against these heretics. It was the first crusade not against the Muslim occupiers of the Holy Land, but against fellow Christians. The nobles and knights of northern France rallied to the cause. Could it have been because they were promised the lands of any Cathars whom they defeated? It was never a fair fight. The Cathars, like the modern Quakers, were anti-war and anti-killing. Their opponents did not follow similar rules. The war was particularly savage.
When the fortified town of Beziers, the home of both Catholics and Cathars, was taken, the commander of the northern forces, an abbot, was asked how to deal with the townspeople, since he could not tell the difference. His response? “Kill them all, God will know his own”. And so 20,000 people, many of them devout Catholics, were massacred by a Catholic army bent on saving them from heresy.
The Crusade was a Holy War, a Jihad, if you will. And if you died fighting in the Crusade, you went directly to Heaven, with a plenary indulgence. All sins, not matter how sordid, were instantly expunged. Many people of the time were troubled by the fact that the crusaders against their own co-religionists were given the same forgiveness that they earned when fighting against the Muslims in the Holy Land. The Troubadours made a lot of this. The radical and fundamentalist Muslims whom we call terrorists, are offered the same attractive deal when they become suicide bombers or die in Jihad.
The Cathars not killed in the 40 years of war were then slowly and systematically exterminated through a 70-year-long and, of course, nasty, Inquisition. The last Cathar was burned at the stake in 1321. The Cathars were exterminated by a combination of religious intolerance by the Church and greed by the knights and nobles of northernFrance.
So, my issue is not against religion per se, but against its frequent abuse by the people who claim to be the ones who show the way. In modern days, one of the Christian groups which in my opinion abuse religion is the tele-evangelists. For the most part it seems to me that they’re in it for the money or for the celebrity. There may be some sincere ones but it’s very hard for me to identify them.