Religion would be a funny thing, it is a funny thing a lot of the time in fact, but for the fact that so much misery is caused quite deliberately in the name of some religious dictate or another. I have some credentials in religion of my own. I was raised to be a Methodist; I received a God and Country Award from the Boy Scouts; I studied Philosophy of Religion in college; I helped found a church, but it was Unitarian Universalist so maybe that doesnâ€™t count. Iâ€™ve read the bible, old and new testaments, more than once, and with a critical eye. Iâ€™ve read some history, too, which tends to yield a broader perspective on religion than does just going to church every week. An important part of most religions is belief. The religions that cause the world the most trouble all seem to involve belief in revealed truth. Those would be Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in case you hadnâ€™t figured that out. You donâ€™t hear so much about violent Buddhism, but you never know when those saffron-robed rabble rousers might strike, do you?
From the point of view of a non believer, there is no way to tell if one version of revealed truth is any better than another. For instance, Jerry Falwell says heâ€™s a Christian. So does Billy Graham. So do Pope Benedict XVI, the Patriarch of Athens, and a bunch of Copts living in the African desert, where they say that they have the Ark of the Covenant given to Moses as related in the book of Exodus. The Ku Klux Klan, when they were murdering people on a regular basis, considered themselves Christian. Mother Teresa called herself a Christian. Torquemada called himself a Christian. Is there a pattern, beyond that they all call themselves Christian? Not that I can see. Torquemada, in case you didnâ€™t know, was the brains and driving force behind the Spanish Inquisition. He and the Klan are pretty clearly skewed pretty far in what most would call an evil direction. The others are none of them evil, but probably all would disagree on some basic tenets of Christianity if asked. To me, not being Christian, they all must be Christian because they say so. All believe that they are operating on the basis of revealed truth. Most of them, at the least, must be wrong.
Islam has similar schisms. Mohammed was definitely real, and he dictated what he claimed to have been told by God directly to his secretary every day. When he died, though, there were at least two branches of his family who felt that they knew the proper way to translate, preserve and interpret the revealed truth Mohammed had dictated. I think it was in 727 that the Sunn and Shia branches started fighting. Watch the evening news, even on Fox if you prefer, and youâ€™ll see that theyâ€™re still at it. There have been other schisms over the centuries such as the Sufi, which is my favorite because they use humor to teach. Neither Shiite nor Sunni is a monolithic movement; there are factions within factions just like in Christianity.
If you believe that the fight that started in the eighth century within Islam was really about the words of Allah as revealed by His Prophet, then Iâ€™ve got a bridge to sell you. Mohammed left an earthly empire and his family was large. Naturally more than one relative wanted control of the empire, and the fun was on. Thatâ€™s typical of how religion develops: by reconfiguring to adapt to social and geopolitical necessity. A few centuries after that schism, the descendants of the Prophet were in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a holy city, or so Iâ€™m told. A city held sacred by three great religions, in fact. The name is derived from Aramaic for â€œCity of Peace.â€ Uh, yeah, right. In the eleventh century the city of Jerusalem was a vital port of entry to the trade routes to India and China. If that sounds like a small thing, consider that there was not much to spice oneâ€™s soup with growing in Europe in those days. If you wanted black pepper you had to pay someone to travel for eighteen months and risk bandits and starvation in the desert in order to get it. That made pepper and other spices extremely valuable, and whoever controlled Jerusalem was able to collect taxes on all of the spice that passed through.
Merciful heavens, the trade passing through town was worth billions (in our dollars) per year, and the Europeans (Christian) didnâ€™t like the idea of paying through the nose to the Arabs (Muslim) to get the spice and other goods that they were darned well going to have to buy anyway. You canâ€™t just up and say youâ€™re a greed head who doesnâ€™t want to pay taxes. Even today the tax rebels never consider themselves greed heads, although one could argue that they are. But reclaiming the holy city for Christendom, now thatâ€™s a noble cause, and the Crusades were on. For their part, the Saracens (as the Islamic occupiers were known to Europe) were spreading the word of Allah and glorifying His name. That, and collecting beaucoup taxes, of course.
Religion is fraught with hidden agendas, making any religious dictates extremely suspect to us non believers.
Consider the origins of Christian orthodoxy (largely cemented by the time of the crusades.) When the Roman Emperor Constantinius had a vision of a red X or cross in the sky he wondered if it was a Celtic cross or the symbol of those Christians who had an army camped just outside of town. He needed an army, and the Celts couldnâ€™t deliver for months. But there were the Christians, ready for duty, and so Rome became a Christian nation. Constantine himself didnâ€™t convert until his deathbed, but he liked what the Christian armies could do for him. Unfortunately for him there were differences of opinion among Christians as to which were the proper tenets and dogma of the church. Being a Roman, Constantine couldnâ€™t abide that sort of thing, so he called a series of council meetings where the big issues were decided upon. For instance, a council at Nicea decided that the Holy Trinity was the valid way to look at the divinity. The councils edited scripture, keeping most of the really weird stuff out, but leaving in the Gospel of John and Revelations to sop the feelings of the ascetic branch. It didnâ€™t entirely work, as the Copts went back to their desert and remain there to this day, but it did settle things in the Emperorâ€™s mind. Was this congress of mere humans divinely inspired to properly interpret the revealed truth of Jesus of Nazareth? They certainly said so, and many continue to believe them. Not me, but many. The same sort of thing kept happening over the centuries, which is why we can observe such core beliefs as â€œsex is bad unless it produces offspringâ€ and â€œpriests should not marry.â€ All of these tenets were originally committee decisions. I donâ€™t recall reading where Jesus said a word about either topic, but then Iâ€™m not divinely inspired.
It might be noteworthy that the Buddha, whose real name was Siddhartha, was a literate man who taught for many years. His followers are decidedly less warlike than Christians or Muslims, possibly because what he wrote is still extant. Of course, one thing he wrote is, â€œI am not divine. Do not worship me.â€ You see how well people listen.
Latter day religions keep springing up. The Mormons were founded by a fellow who claimed to have been visited by an angel who gave him golden books, as it were, and an implement to translate them with, and then ordered him to destroy everything once the translation was done. Does that look fishy to a non believer? Are the Rocky Mountains made of rocks? The Seventh Day Adventists were founded by a man who led a bunch of followers onto a hilltop in Ohio on the day he calculated that the world would end. After several such attempts over a span of years he gave up on his predictions, but his followers persist to this day. The most amusing modern religion to me, though, is Scientology. L. Ron Hubbard was a science fiction author. At a science fiction convention one year he bet Robert Heinlein and Harlan Ellison, fellow authors, that he could found a relig
ion. This is a documented fact; I have read Ellisonâ€™s account of the conversation as well as accounts from others who were there. I donâ€™t know what the bet was, but I hope the others paid off, because Hubbard certainly did what he said he could do. That Scientology could have serious adherents given the precise knowledge of the origins of the religion is mind boggling, but there you are.
To a non believer, thereâ€™s not that much difference between Scientology and Christianity or any other system of revealed truth. â€œEvidence be damned, Iâ€™ve got an explanationâ€ seems to be the guiding principle of such organized faith. Again, as a non believer, I think I can offer a way to quickly spot if a religious claim has the air of being a sham. It is this: if the claim has anything to do with knowing the intent of the creator of all things, or the meaning of life, or a promise of guaranteed fulfillment, then somebody is trying to sell you something. Do yourself a favor and just go another way. Thereâ€™s plenty of misery and divisiveness in the world without another new religious convert adding another dose.
The ironic thing about the relationship between religion and wars is that religion, as the name says, is something that binds people back together. No kidding. Itâ€™s Latin: re, meaning once again, like redo or reorder; and ligere meaning tie together. You see ligere in the word ligament also, because a ligament ties your body together. Everyone wants to feel they have meaning, from about the age of two on. As soon as you realize that thereâ€™s I and not I in the world, you need to make sense of it all. Meaninglessness doesnâ€™t seem to be an acceptable state for a human, witness the number of suicides that mention â€œmeaninglessâ€ existence in notes they leave behind. Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer to the question of why weâ€™re all here. As Gertrude Stein wrote: There ainâ€™t no answer, there ainâ€™t ever been an answer; and there ainâ€™t ever gonna be no answer. Thatâ€™s the answer. Somehow thatâ€™s enough for me. I like breathing and eating and all the other fun stuff you get to do when youâ€™re alive. If thereâ€™s an afterlife, Iâ€™m going to miss it all. (Heaven seems terminally tedious to me, judging by the descriptions people write.) It is not enough for many people, however, simply to dismiss the question of the meaning of life as unanswerable. So, failing any definitive answer, what do you do?
You make stuff up! â€œIn the Beginning,â€ you write, â€œGod created the heavens and the earth.â€ What always strikes me about that statement is the clear implication that there was something before the beginning. Where, that is, did God come from? Wherever it was, for a believer, anything that challenges the belief system isnâ€™t just an intellectual challenge; itâ€™s an existential threat to the very core of their spiritual being. No kidding. Thatâ€™s why you get bullshit like â€œscientific creationism,â€ which is a lot like â€œjumbo shrimpâ€ in humor content but less useful as a description. Actually Iâ€™m all for teaching creationism. Iâ€™d start with the Jewish version, because thatâ€™s where most of our ancestors came from. But then Iâ€™d go over the Hindu stories about Vishnu dreaming the world, and the Navajo stories about the journey up to this fourth and perfect world, and add in examples from cultures all over the world. I think that such exposure would be wonderful for children, illustrating the common human dilemma of existence while giving some solid reasons for tolerance at the same time. So long as religion is allowed to interfere with civic life at large, though, I doubt that such a curriculum will appear in the public schools.
Thatâ€™s too bad, because religion is basically coming from a deep and worthwhile urge within us humans. The belief system I admire the most is rational empiricism. When the fundamentalists accuse the rational empiricists (scientists) of using science as a religion, theyâ€™re not wrong. The difference I see is that science tends to work every time. Thatâ€™s what science is for, in fact: to predict things. You donâ€™t have to sacrifice to turn on a light (other than paying the electric company, which seems to some to be a sacrifice.) Everything that happens, according to science, is theoretically understandable. Science as a religion gets broader and broader, taking more and more of the universe as it grows. Science as a religion also has the ability to be wrong, which is more than you can say for most other religions. It isnâ€™t a threat when something fundamental in science is found out not to be true after all. Even Einstein didnâ€™t like the conclusions his theories pointed toward, but every time someone sets out to disprove the scariest of them (gravity is not really a force; we move faster through time when thereâ€™s more stuff around) they so far have only managed to demonstrate how well the theory works. Honestly, the theory states that gravity is not a force, and treating gravity as if it werenâ€™t a force yields good predictability; better than treating it as if it were a force. Thatâ€™s pretty damned counter-intuitive, but it works. If a scientist wanted to see how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, heâ€™d gather a big bunch of angels and experiment. Canâ€™t find any angels? Huh. Canâ€™t find out then.
By understanding whatâ€™s really happening in the universe, we become better able to influence the universe, and therefore more connected to it and to each other. Thatâ€™s a completely religious thing to accomplish, and science does it without risking war with a competing scientific system from across the lake. Either things work, or they donâ€™t. If they donâ€™t, you try another theory. Evolution? Sure itâ€™s a theory. So is gravity. Try stepping off of a cliff like Wil E. Coyote in defiance of gravity and see what happens. The theory of evolution, like the theory of gravity, is so solid that no rational empiricist would think of disputing the basic tenets. Even if gravity isnâ€™t a real force, youâ€™ll fall down if you trip, and the rate of your fall can be calculated quite precisely. If a Christian could promise that sort of reliability, Iâ€™d sign up. But none can, and neither can a Muslim, a Jain, a native shaman, nor any religion outside of science itself. My faith is in what is, and itâ€™s as simple as that.
Well, there a bit of another element. I also believe that no matter why things exist, their existence is going fine, and since I exist for a time, Iâ€™m going fine as well. As for the continuing ascent of science over less rational religions, Iâ€™m sanguine about continued progress, so long as we are free to communicate without fear. Frankly, a religion that works every time has to appear superior over the long haul to a religion that suffers schism after schism as a result of doctrinal differences. Itâ€™s leadership by example, and that beats a messianic message every time.