I’m definitely trying to make a statement about religion in my novels, at least in the case of the Safehold novels, although people who have read my other books will be aware that I’ve used religion in virtually all of them, one way or another. Religion, and the way human beings relate to it, is far too complex for quick and easy generalizations.
Academically, I am a historian by training, with emphasis in military and diplomatic history. I’ve also spent quite a bit of time with religious history. No one can study history without becoming aware of the incredible impact religion has had on history. Nor can any fair-minded student of history spend much time with his subject without becoming aware of the fact that the full power of religion can be used constructively or destructively.
I believe that the majority of the great Western “ideologies,” prior at least to the Reformation, were religious in nature. In some cases, they may have been reactions against the established religion of the time, but the great ideological motivators weren’t nationalism, liberalism, conservatism, socialism, or any of the other isms. I’m not necessarily speaking here of personal motivations – the ambition of a Julius Caesar, for example. Nor am I necessarily speaking here of philosophy, since philosophy per se seldom motivated someone in an ideological sense. For that matter, philosophy was seldom separated from religion until well into the Enlightenment. And one could certainly make a case today for the argument that religion remains the great ideological motivator of radical Islam in its conflict with the Western philosophy of individualism, self choice, representative secular government, etc.
I also think that Western philosophy of individualism and self choice is a natural outgrowth of the Judeo-Christian tradition of an individual relationship with God. Of the notion that God Himself thinks that individuals are important and that the decisions and the choices they make matter. The most secularly-minded agnostic or even atheist stems from a social and philosophical matrix which is the direct inheritor of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the important values within the matrix are derived in no small part (indeed, in my opinion, overwhelmingly) from millennia of grappling with how a just society deals with God’s apparent belief in the value of the individual.
None of the above means that religious institutions are somehow immunized against the frailties of the human beings who constitute the muscles and sinews of the institutions. Humans are fallible. Even when we are doing our dead level best to faithfully and conscientiously meet our responsibilities, we manage to screw up. Worse, some of us would far rather “game the system” than put ourselves to the effort of meeting those responsibilities. That’s where you find televangelist scam artists, for example, just as you find unscrupulous politicians manipulating and gaming the sincerity of people who believe in the importance of political reform. There is no human system which cannot be corrupted and perverted for personal gain, and the weaker the controls on the humans involved in the system, the more readily that perversion and corruption is achieved. In addition, monopolization of authority, especially when that authority extends not simply to decisions of policy but also to what is or is not an acceptable belief, is a recipe for authoritarianism and totalitarianism.
Now, I happen to think that corruption is wrong, and that authoritarianism and totalitarianism are also wrong. I believe that corruption can be an individual or a systemic thing – that is, that a single given individual can be corrupt, for whatever personal motivations, or that an entire system of authority can be so corrupted that it becomes difficult or even impossible for any individual within that system to avoid being personally corrupted.
That is precisely what has happened in the case of the Church of God Awaiting in the Safehold books. For whatever reason (and, by the way, as much as I personally despise Langhorne and Bédard, I think it’s entirely possible to make an argument in favor of much of what they decided to do), the Church was deliberately created to be a totalitarian institution. Without some internal mechanism to prevent corruption, corruption was inevitable, and I don’t believe that you can create such a powerful and totalitarian institution with an internal anti-corruption mechanism that is going to survive for centuries. For a time, perhaps, yes; indefinitely, no. Not, at least, without direct divine intervention, which obviously was not the case where the Church of God Awaiting is concerned.