Inventing Religion   (2016Mar30)


Wednesday, March 30, 2016                                            7:36 PM

I’m sure some of you have older siblings and I don’t know, maybe yours was an angelic and helpful soul—but my older brothers enjoyed nothing better than to mess with me or my younger siblings. Every strange woman was a witch—every home with an overgrown lawn was haunted—every barking dog was a killer who had recently broken its chain and would probably do so again today.

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As children we find ourselves in a tight spot—we know that this information is almost certainly bogus—but we have no alternative sources of data. I knew my siblings were just trying to scare me—but maybe that lady really is a witch… Then we grow up and we look back on our surprising gullibility with amusement—as we listen to our older children tell our younger children the same spooky fairy tales and ghost stories.

Our parents might tell some whoppers too—Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy come to mind—but they take them back once we get to a certain age. Then our teachers teach us ‘history’ that we are meant to unlearn in maturity—Washington chopping down a cherry tree, etc. These simple memes help us put pins in the timeline of history that will be replaced later by the dry facts—so to call them lies would be exaggerating things a bit. Still, by the time family, friends and teachers are done with our childhoods, we end up with a great many voided checks of education—and an awareness that communication isn’t always about fact.

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Having learned that people will tell us virtually anything in an attempt to manipulate us, we nevertheless spend the rest of our lives with an unquestioning belief in our religions. The fact that different styles of religion popped up in various regions of the world—just like languages—doesn’t dissuade us from holding firm to our faiths. The fact that religious authorities are famous for corruption and venality doesn’t dissuade us from respecting their ranks, as a group. Even having historical records showing that our religions have been modified over time by consensus of these authorities—even that does not shake our resolution to view these religions as solid and unchanging.

Then we hear of cults where people are deluded into self-destruction or slavery—and here we draw the line. Apparently, a religion that asks you to murder someone or to kill yourself is asking too much—yet all religions tell you how to live your life. The more pleasant the delusion, the more popular the faith. The difficulty we face now with Islamic extremists is that these people are simply hewing to the old, pre-industrial standards of religion—‘kill the infidel’ has been part of their faith for centuries—only the overpowering influence of Western science and technology has brought these places into acquaintance with pluralism and secular societies—and these memes, being imports, are sometimes resented rather than embraced.

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We think of the global community as having been enlightened because they have cell-phones and fast-food outlets. We think of the Amish and tell ourselves that anyone with real old-timey religion will steer clear of technology—but that isn’t the case. Even in America we have evangelists who believe in a literal translation of the Bible—even to the point of denying fossil records and carbon-fourteen dating—but who nonetheless are perfectly comfortable using Twitter, microwaves, and Siri. In such cases, selective ignorance is required—they can study medicine, but must keep their distance from biology where it enters the realm of evolution—such as the transformation of viruses into new forms over time, or the presence of Neanderthal genes in an individual’s DNA sequence.

Plainly, everyone is open to new information, new tech, new gadgets—but new ideas are frightening and unwelcome. Information is our friend—until it isn’t—then we have to decide whether the new info is worth the loss of old assumptions. When cars are invented, the idea that we can travel a mile a minute is very welcome—when cars are found to emit toxic gasses, the idea that we have to change our cars, or stop using them altogether, is proportionately unwelcome. When close study convinced me that religion was a sham, the freedom from that delusion was quite welcome—the idea that the afterlife was, at the very least, far different, if it existed at all, was less welcome. No one is unhappier at a funeral than an atheist—we can’t even say all the comforting things that religious people find so believable.

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But religion is like language in another way—we are raised on one of them and we aren’t inclined to switch to another, just for the sake of unity. Of the things that separate us, in truth, I’d place money and language ahead of religion—after all, while I don’t have a shred of belief, it is still a common feature of most people in most places—and religions, being invented, have certain common denominators. While this is sometimes used by the religious as ‘proof’ that God is everywhere, to me it seems more a connection to human nature—we invent the religions we most want to believe in.

But the older style of religion is unabashedly divisive—fear and hatred of the outsider is enthusiastically embraced—as is punishment for any show of aberration among the faithful. Power-players, especially in the Middle East, have long used this predilection as a way of exerting military and political power—and such people have little regard for the chaos they sow. Ironically, the people that ally themselves with such fundamentalism are a greater source for evil than any simple atheist like myself could ever be.

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What is even stranger is that religions have historically been just that—evil and divisive—until the combination of the Reformation and King Henry VIII’s split with the church in Rome began the erosion of clerical power that ended with the founding of a country based on a forced separation of church and state. After that, religions, especially Christianity, began to be more domesticated and civilized until we have the almost completely secular America and Europe of today. That is strange because, by making themselves less intrusive, religions have made themselves harder to criticize—while, to an atheist, the delusions of lightly-held faiths and the delusions of radical extremists differ only by degree. We atheists are grateful that most of you don’t feel obliged to murder us in our sleep—but we still don’t understand why you keep ingesting the opium of the masses.

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