The gifts of religion
VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – I am often told that religion is an important component in people’s lives because it gives them something; usually solace, or hope, or a moral foundation. Frankly, I think that’s nonsense. I would argue that not only is religion demonstrably a very poor provider of those things, but that an absence of religion would do a better job; I would even propose that religion robs us of solace, hope, and morality and instead gives its believers a great deal that is ugly.
One can’t help but agree that solace, hope, and morality are indeed gifts of great value and benefits devoutly to be desired by each of us. Let us therefore look at each in turn and ask whether religion does indeed provide them, and whether they could be provided better or more effectively by a method or through a medium that is not an insult to our intelligence.
Solace is defined as relief from emotional distress or a source of comfort. It is hard to argue this point; comfort, after all, is an internal condition and not subject to external empirical verification. If someone says he feels relief from emotional distress – solace – there is no real room to deny his assertion with any evidence. The only argument one can make is that one would have to be astonishingly stupid or deliberately self-deceptive for religion to be any genuine source of solace.
The most obvious example to demonstrate that proposition would be to look at the emotional distress caused by the loss of a loved one. For this thought experiment, let us make that loss as tragic as possible; let us imagine we have lost a child; moreover let us imagine that we have lost her as the result of a crime of brutal violence. The emotional distress associated with having a child viciously murdered must be unimaginable. So where is religion’s solace under such painful circumstances? Certainly virtually every news report that intrudes on people experiencing that very trauma elicits a religious reference from the grieving parents.
It was God’s will, goes the solace-giving mantra, she’s beyond pain and she is with God now. It only takes a moment’s thought to see how empty these platitudes are, and further, how angry they would make anyone who thought them through.
If I was the surviving parent and some insensitive dimwit hurled those remarks at me, my response would be to ask some questions. Among them might be: “Did your god will my baby to be murdered by another one of his creations?” Did your god intentionally cause my innocent little child to suffer in brutal ways you couldn’t even imagine?” “Do you seriously think that the fact that my infant daughter has no more physical sensations and can never experience joy or happiness will give me solace?” “If the answer to any of those is even a qualified ‘yes’, do you seriously think it gives me solace to know that my poor little girl is sitting at the side of the most brutal, sadistic, cruel being I could ever conjure up in my worst nightmare?”
In this instance, God and religion offer no solace; on the contrary, to invoke them under such circumstances ought to enrage any thinking person. There probably is no source of genuine solace for a parent who has suffered so deeply. If any comfort was available, it might be in the knowledge that the human psyche has evolved in such a way that time will diminish our memory of a traumatic event and thus ease the most acute aspects of the pain. Recognizing this psychological fact, and accepting that nothing will mitigate the trauma at this moment is surely far better than contemplation of the proposition that this is all part of a cruel and indifferent god’s plan.
Hope is defined as the emotional state in which one foresees a positive outcome. With that in mind, it’s hard to understand how anyone can find hope in conventional religion. To consider modern western religion only for the moment, it isn’t rocket science to determine that the world is immeasurably worse off as a direct result of the influence of belief in god. Wars, genocide, legislated poverty…all can be traced back to religion. Without even discussing the sheer stupidity of the underlying beliefs or the truth of the premises upon which religions are founded, the suggestion that religion is capable of providing hope is laughable. For anyone who thinks about it at with any clarity, religion would provide a sense of foreboding and grimness, even profound depression.
Scientific advances and growing intellectual capacity have lengthened our lifespans, cured diseases, solved communications roadblocks, and multiplied our understanding of the universe a thousand fold in the last few hundred years. Surely there is genuine hope within that framework. Certainly technology has brought us many demons; but it is because of the hope offered by our intelligence that we continue to work to solve problems.
That leaves us with morality. It is a statistical reality that the vast majority of incarcerated violent criminals describe themselves as “Christian”. Historically, there has been nothing whatsoever moral about religious conduct. Philosophically, there is also the point that it is arguably more moral for one to conduct one’s life ethically and decently because that is one’s rational choice than if it is the result of obeying religious doctrine. No apologist has ever been able to make a convincing case that, overall, people of a religious bent are more moral than atheists; in fact, any observer would naturally judge that the opposite is true.
Solace; hope; morality; none of these can be derived from religion by any rational person of even moderate intelligence. On the other hand, all of them can be found in human beings themselves and their intelligence and character. What then are the great gifts bestowed by a belief in an almighty god?
I would submit that religion does in fact provide some things: guilt, ignorance, and hatred.
If manipulation is the aim, guilt is the tool of choice. Ask any Catholic; ask your favourite Jewish mother. If you think independently, you have pissed your creator off. If you don’t toe the party line – wherever that line may be in any given religion on any given day – it causes the Big Guy no end of angst. Look at flagellants punishing themselves with whips and self-starvation, or look at penitents who make their pilgrimages on bleeding knees to beg forgiveness for a stray lustful thought. Or ask any psychiatrist about the power of guilt to injure people and destroy lives.
Ignorance is required if one is to buy the bill of goods sold by religion. Moreover, once that load of tripe has been swallowed, it seems as though ignorance must be sold wholesale. Religiously inclined leaders seriously advocate teaching “creationism” or its secret identity “intelligent design” as science. Really. In the 21st Century, religions are claiming that evolution isn’t a scientific reality. True believers can’t accept evolution because they believe that a collection of folk tales, some of which date back to the late Neolithic period, give a more reliable scientific account of our origins than the unanimous voice of today’s scientific community. To believe that the bible is accurate history is just a single example of the depth of the ignorance that is part and parcel of the religious experience.
Hatred is the very foundation of religion. At its core, religion is the result of a tribal impulse to distinguish oneself and fellow believers from others, from outsiders, from despicable different people. Religion fosters the notion that believers are special, elevated, chosen; by definition, therefore, others are inferior and contemptible. Divisiveness was the origin of religion and faith in one’s people’s god, and hatred is its legacy. Although lip service is paid to words like “love” and “peace”, pretty much every sermon preached and every law that is proposed or passed with religion as its justification reeks of hatred. The best that can be said about how the faithful feel during and immediately after a harangue by even the most pacific preacher is that they are enveloped in a warm sense of smug superiority; at its worst, that feeling is one of burning, violent, hate-filled inspiration.
These are the real side effects of choosing to believe: guilt; ignorance; hatred. And that is the real mystery of religion as we know it today; since it is a choice, and since it bestows such brutally negative effects, why on earth would anyone choose to live that way? But like most mysteries, this one has an answer. The answer, however, is deeply disheartening: people choose to live that way because believing is easier than thinking.
How very sad.