Questioning Religion Essays

Humans have, throughout their existence, wondered whether beings so advanced as themselves and surroundings so complex as their own could have had a supernatural origin. Indeed such an idea seems appealing to many a humanist, for it labels our species as unique and apart from all the savage and primitive critters that surround us. Whether or not it was for the better, religion has played a crucial role in the development of every society and at one time was even vital to technological progress. Yet in a scientifically advanced world such as that of our time, another lifeline to progress has been created, belief in only that which one knows to be true. Do the major religions of the world today have a strong enough base and sufficient proof to be upheld in the minds of educated men? That is what we shall now explore.

During humankind's first steps from a nomadic existence to an agriculturally-based one, tribal solidarity was required more than at any previous or subsequent age. The doctrines of individual rights and free market capitalism had not yet been developed, and in order for a group of farmers to survive against the petty raids of whimsical barbarians around them (usually a stronger people, else they would not have taken to migratory hunting of large game), they needed to coordinate their defenses and lives in general, so that they would not only be able to produce a sufficient output of crops to feed the community but also preserve these from the clutches of avaricious foreigners, for whom there was no constant income of goods. But how would the people of a newly formed settlement, with the mobile life of an animal still engraved on their instincts, act with such efficiency? How could they stay attached to their tribe's permanent territory? A more charismatic person, a priest, would have to explain that the new land was holy and destined for a people by an all-powerful superbeing, denying whom would be a grave folly. How would the pre-Western, pre-Scientific Method era people realize when to sow and reap the fruits of their labor? A priest, once again, would invent the myth of Osiris rising from the dead at the time of the Nile floods, which would be a signal for planting, while the collection of food would have to be completed prior to the arid season, when the evil Seth had killed Osiris. What would motivate a people to unify into massive armies for defense of the land and an occasional raid on an enemy growing in power? A crafty priest would convince them that they are a god's chosen people, above all others, and have been assigned the holy mission of purging the countryside of any infidels. As a matter of fact, the latter explanation had survived even in religions of the present day, for we read in the Bible's Book of Joshua how a chieftain of the Israelites, "blessed by the heavens," committed genocide against the native dwellers of Canaan. Contrary to popular belief, the author sees neither holiness nor virtue in mass exterminations of foreign children, but such evidence from the Bible supports the fact that religion was not created with the purpose of civility or genuine morality. Had the contrary been true, then God would have damned Joshua for disobeying his sacred commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." Religion, from the earliest times, had existed to ensure but one thing, tribal security.

Such would explain the "Love thy neighbor" clause from as far into history as the New Testament, yet would justify in the eyes of religious zealots the countless persecutions of foreigners that were committed by the devotees of every religion, no less atrocities performed by Jews than Assyrians or Romans. The implication that the early tribal worshippers have squeezed from a seemingly innocent premise is that of “loving one’s neighbor and furiously resenting an outlander.” One's neighbor is yet another member of a tribal community and would need to be protected in order to ensure that the initiatives of an individual did not intervene with the “benefit” of the whole, i.e. the caprices of its autocrats. Such was the early thought pattern, a form of bloody socialism that had been passed down through the ages.

Yet from this tribal mentality were spawned certain foundations of virtue without which the present level of human decency would never have been acquired. Theft on a local level, an act against the community, had become an act of shame only with the advent of religion. Adultery, a disruption of the family structure essential to a tribe's survival, had also been condemned in the words of the priests who controlled the first societies. Yet despite the less than pure motivations of early religious principles, they have had the impact of stability and even, to some degree, personal security upon the cultures that obeyed them. A society in which theft and adultery are permitted, on the other hand, is destined for collapse from within. A society which abolishes the former and condemns the latter, however, entails genuine advantages for the particular individuals comprising it.

However, keeping in mind the aims of a religion, we may also find that other less obvious principles have been established to retain tribal solidarity. The forebears of the Jewish/Christian/Muslim faiths (which all had common foundations as the only three major systems for worshipping a single supreme being. They shall be referred to here as the Monotheist Branch of Religions) have had as significant holy laws the prohibition of idolatry and the utterance of God's name in vain. Idolatry, the worship of relatively mundane objects in comparison with the great Holy Spirit, would mean opposition to the faith itself and thus a separation from the structure of the tribe, which the latter could not permit. Had all people been free to choose their means and object of worship, the newly formed nation would have fallen apart due to a lack of a common ideal to keep the society tightly bound. It would have been likely that agriculture would still have been pursued by the people for their own rational self-interests, but the power would have been deprived from their early leaders, who had more than coincidentally dubbed themselves intermediaries of the deity or deities. Religion, from the earliest times, was a utensil for perpetuating the social hierarchy of the status quo through bestowing supernatural authority upon it. It only yielded progress when the said hierarchy had been freshly established and itself a byproduct of advancement, as a theocracy, no matter how repressive, is an amelioration of the destitute nomadic collective driven by destructive animal impulses.

As for the speaking of God's name "in vain," the original intention of such a principle was to restrain people from using God in order to contradict the will of the authorities. Thus, religion had slowly evolved from a means to settling a horde of migratory savages into a permanent location to a method of conserving through millennia the then new system, which was rapidly becoming obsolete. Monarchs later replaced priests as rulers of slowly evolving states, yet their will to conserve their power was no different from that of the previous elite, and thus they had used the religious principles already firmly ingrained in commoners' minds in order to retain it without excess struggle against the plebeians. Such were the origins of the Western Divine Right, the Arabic Caliphate, and the Chinese Mandate of Heaven.

The structures that existed before the advent of strong crowned figures resisted the slight twist to their ideas at first. Those struggles we can observe in the conflicts between the emerging European kings and the Popes of Rome during the early second millennium AD, which ended with Philip IV's relocation of the Papacy to Avignon and the emergence of the theory that kings transmitted God's will onto Earth, thus possessing a "divine" authority. The priests who did not submit to this new system were quickly cast aside from the political scene, since, though they had charisma, the monarchs were free to utilize a significantly greater force than the Holy Catholic Church could hire through its funds. Eventually, manipulation through subtle intimidation gave way to outright control through means that no one had the shame to conceal. Those churchmen who valued their power rallied to gather even greater support for the new Earthly "apostles" of God. Thus, the Catholic Church was slowly being fitted into the framework that the kings created to harness its power and use it to enhance their own. What was the most efficient way for a king to carry out swift cleansing routines against potential opponents? To declare their views to be opposite the will of God and the heavenly scheme of things. And whom to utilize for the purpose of stopping an act of "heresy" than the Church itself? Thus the monster of Inquisition came to be, devouring in its flames all the avant-garde writers, scientists, thinkers, all the suspicious nobility, anyone who stood out sufficiently to attract the attention of a monarch and challenge the system of widespread ignorance that the latter developed to govern his state with the minimum effort.

With the Church subdued and any potential malcontents held at bay, the kings were free to set their eyes elsewhere, to expand their territorial domain into new lands. The first such wave of expansion came during the Crusades, when the Church's power was waning but still possessed some influence. Then Christian slaughtered Muslim and Jew, and acts of massive brutality were committed among peoples who all followed the same God and the same Old Testament. And why? All for a strip of land considered to be the home of Jesus Christ, whom both Christians and Muslims sought to please by possessing it! How was it that supposedly devout followers of God would turn on each other and murder in His name? (One may keep in mind that, according to Christian fatalist dogma, absolutely everything that happens is part of God's grand, unfathomable scheme of things.) To that the author proposes one hypothesis: that God is cruel and enjoys watching petty sufferings of His pawns. Yet a justification of that will follow later on. Currently we shall continue our exploration of the follies of Monotheist religions. A second period of tumultuous development came during the period of "Gold, God, and Glory". While certain priests and conquistadors attempted to free Native Americans from forced labor which they had been shackled with by overt worshippers of many bloodthirsty gods, and relocate them to missions (where they would perform a bit more learning and uncoerced labor), the new "Christians" conducted, "by God's will," countless bloodthirsty rebellions against the Holy Fathers of the Church.

Despite (or because of, depending on the way one views history) internal conflicts and an elevation of opulence and splendor, the Catholic Church had begun to face armed opposition from both more moderate believers (Lutherans) and the radical Christians (Hussites, Calvinists). Over a century bloody wars of Reformation were waged throughout Europe, all struggles between God's children attempting to please the Great and Merciful through offerings of human blood. In the meantime, to the east, the Orthodox "Children of God" from Russia were being persecuted as a result of their own Reformation, this time instituted by the Czar Alexis to strengthen his new autocracy and weaken the old customs representing a more-or-less feudal society. Simultaneously, Russians and Catholic Poles were slicing open each other's heads in order to "prove" the "superiority" of their beliefs. Even in the Catholic ranks there existed a conflict between the Jesuits and Dominicans that was far from non-violent.

Yet these conflicts at the end of a theocratic age were followed by one of the most progressive concepts known to this day, the separation of church and state. A new series of "enlightened" rulers found the religious structure of their time increasingly fallible due to nonstop internal conflicts, so they resolved to set it aside and rule through their own reasoning, which, though far from perfect itself, was certainly less bloody than the dogma of the Church. They turned to the works of Monsieur de Montesquieu, who had first formulated the separation of powers doctrine, as guidance for their reforms. Beginning with Henry VIII in England and expanding with Louis XIV in France, Peter I in Russia, and Frederick II in Prussia, the concept of a government separate from the Church soon encompassed the entire European continent with the exception of Spain and Italy, whose influence over worldly events weakened significantly as a result. "Divine right" prevailed for some longer time, yet it was nothing but figurative then. The new monarchs were learned and even humanist to some extent. They encouraged arts, sciences, philosophies, and societies thrived. That was the epoch in which the most important contributions to the overthrow of dogma were made.

But this essay is not intended to relate a history of religion to the reader. Once again, such would be a million-page endeavor, since blunders and atrocities committed in the name of a god were so frequent in the past and still exist in the present (since one realizes that the Enlightenment did not completely eradicate superstition and fanatics of the far left are reviving it while these very words are being written). We are on the search for the essence of the subject, the moral that can be used in order to reduce such atrocities in the future. The author believes that Herr Marx had made a slight error when calling religion "the opium of the people," for opium is a potent narcotic which slows action. It is true that dogma slows progress, but action and progress had never been synonymous. Progress inevitably consists of action, but not all deeds are for the good of men. Instead, religion is a powerful stimulant (calling it cocaine would make for a good metaphor), inciting people to all the wrong deeds, just like a drug of that nature would. It is, when applied to stale and obsolete infrastructures, a utensil of retrogression and stagnation, but passivity is not its means for achieving such. Both it and the actual stimulant plants false thoughts and impulses into the human mind which have absolutely no relation to the world of things or the world of ideas. Such misconceptions inevitably bring about suffering. As the reader may remember from past deliberations on the subject of virtue, the difference between it and dogma is that the latter applies itself in such a way so as to harm other people or restrict such activity that poses no genuine danger to anyone. Dogma will always be at the heart of a religion, since in its roots lies a concept that is not founded on anything other than speculation.

For all the author knows, a Supreme Being may well exist, even if there is no way to prove its existence. M. de Voltaire had once suggested that such a structured universe as our own could not have been formed out of chaos but must have been designed intelligently. He compared the mechanisms of the cosmos to those of a watch and, just like a watch needs to have had a watchmaker, the functions of our surroundings suggest that they were invented with a purpose in mind. Dr. Hawking, formulator of the Big Bang Theory, suggests a perfectly scientific claim that God initiated the explosion of the original singularity, which led to the beginning of the universe. He states that, since during the first microsecond of time nothing behaved in any comprehensible manner, that was the time when God created the Laws of Science, which the cosmos had been regulated by ever since. This Deist interpretation bifurcates religion and reality, and henceforth permits its advocates to thrive in the material world by applying reason and not depending on capricious cosmic favors. Although this author questions both Deism and the Big Bang Theory, their advocates are inherently incapable of inflicting harm to denizens of this Planet Earth from religious and/or “scientific” principles and thereby our differences can be articulated in a humane, purely verbal fashion. But just like the atoms of a watch cannot comprehend the nature of their watchmaker, how is it possible for humans to have concocted such detailed and unlikely systems of worship? Would the Supreme Being (or beings, for that matter, since nothing points to the existence of only one. But since they seem to have acted in coordination with each other's efforts if and when they designed the universe, they shall be referred to here as the Creative Entity) even communicate with the creatures that he had made if we do not converse with our watches? What basis, then, is there for the Bible or for any other form of literature that attempts to explain the nature of a God? If the author's reasoning here is not sufficient to the unyielding reader, one historical example from recent past will absolutely disprove whatever is written about a great, omnipotent, merciful, and rewarding God.

Although most of the stories presented in the Bible are contradictory in themselves, the author shall give a little ground to that book's advocates to prove that his reasoning can triumph even under such conditions. Let us assume that the great God did indeed save Moses and his tribe of Israelites, numbering in the tens of thousands at most, from pursuit by the Egyptians by causing the Red Sea to recede before them. Such was the act of the "Great and Merciful" to save his "chosen people" from persecution. Why, then, did the "Great and Merciful" ignore the pleas of six million of his "chosen," who were brutally murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust? That is certainly an inexplicable inconsistency. Or is it?

Every two years the National Science Foundation produces a report, Science and Engineering Indicators, designed to probe the public’s understanding of science concepts. And every two years we relearn the sad fact that U.S. adults are less willing to accept evolution and the big bang as factual than adults in other industrial countries.

Except for this time. Was there suddenly a quantum leap in U.S. science literacy? Sadly, no. Rather the National Science Board, which oversees the foundation, chose to leave the section that discussed these issues out of the 2010 edition, claiming the questions were “flawed indicators of scientific knowledge because responses conflated knowledge and beliefs.” In short, if their religious beliefs require respondents to discard scientific facts, the board doesn’t think it appropriate to expose that truth.

The section does exist, however, and Science magazine obtained it. When presented with the statement “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” just 45 percent of respondents indicated “true.” Compare this figure with the affirmative percentages in Japan (78), Europe (70), China (69) and South Korea (64). Only 33 percent of Americans agreed that “the universe began with a big explosion.”

Consider the results of a 2009 Pew Survey: 31 percent of U.S. adults believe “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” (So much for dogs, horses or H1N1 flu.) The survey’s most enlightening aspect was its categorization of responses by levels of religious activity, which suggests that the most devout are on average least willing to accept the evidence of reality. White evangelical Protestants have the highest denial rate (55 percent), closely followed by the group across all religions who attend services on average at least once a week (49 percent).

I don’t know which is more dangerous, that religious beliefs force some people to choose between knowledge and myth or that pointing out how religion can purvey ignorance is taboo. To do so risks being branded as intolerant of religion. The kindly Dalai Lama, in a recent New York Times editorial, juxtaposed the statement that “radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold religious beliefs” with his censure of the extremist intolerance, murderous actions and religious hatred in the Middle East. Aside from the distinction between questioning beliefs and beheading or bombing people, the “radical atheists” in question rarely condemn individuals but rather actions and ideas that deserve to be challenged.

Surprisingly, the strongest reticence to speak out often comes from those who should be most worried about silence. Last May I attended a conference on science and public policy at which a representative of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences gave a keynote address. When I questioned how he reconciled his own reasonable views about science with the sometimes absurd and unjust activities of the Church—from false claims about condoms and AIDS in Africa to pedophilia among the clergy—I was denounced by one speaker after another for my intolerance.

Religious leaders need to be held accountable for their ideas. In my state of Arizona, Sister Margaret McBride, a senior administrator at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, recently authorized a legal abortion to save the life of a 27-year-old mother of four who was 11 weeks pregnant and suffering from severe complications of pulmonary hypertension; she made that decision after consultation with the mother’s family, her doctors and the local ethics committee. Yet the bishop of Phoenix, Thomas Olm­sted, immediately excommunicated Sister Margaret, saying, “The mother’s life cannot be preferred over the child’s.” Ordinarily, a man who would callously let a woman die and orphan her children would be called a monster; this should not change just because he is a cleric.

In the race for Alabama governor, an advertisement bankrolled by the state teachers’ union attacked candidate Bradley Byrne because he supposedly supported teaching evolution. Byrne, worried about his political future, felt it necessary to deny the charge.

Keeping religion immune from criticism is both unwarranted and dangerous. Unless we are willing to expose religious irrationality whenever it arises, we will encourage irrational public policy and promote ignorance over education for our children.

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