From time to time I get myself into these stupid arguments about the relative merits of religion. I’m “bashing religion,” they say, when I point out the negative its aspects. You’re not supposed to do that…. and besides, “what about all the good stuff religion does, huh?”
Yes, what about that?
Does religion do any good? Sure! Here’s the bottom line of the good that religion does for the world: It gives people a sense of value that is bigger than themselves and their community. Religion imparts a sense of purpose, however artificial, and a sense of self-importance (YOU, after all were personally chosen by GOD!).
Religion also helps people feel good about themselves for their moral superiority – people who otherwise might have a hard time looking at themselves in the mirror in the morning … which may help explain why con men, politicians and mass murderers are almost universally ultra-religious.
In broader terms, religion may provide some sort of framework for society. This is somewhat arguable and often overstated: The claim of religionists is that every good and moral law flows from THEIR particular religion. This fails to observe that the laws to which they refer seem more likely to flow from the common structure of society and can be found in diverse places that have nothing to do with the particular faith espoused by the religionist.
Even the oft-touted Christian “Golden Rule” comes not from Jesus but from Confucious… who lived hundreds of years before the name Jesus was ever uttered. Nevertheless, religion often provides a common set of code words that help societies with a common religious base talk to each other and in that sense religion does provide us with some sort of common framework.
Last but not least, members of all kinds of religions perform “good works” according to what they believe the super guy in the sky demands. These things should not be discounted and might even be proof of the generic goodness of religion if you are viewing the subject in a purely pragmatic way; like a ‘features and benefits’ comparison that isn’t really interested in factual underpinnings. In this view, any means that achieves a desired end is “right,” acceptable and good.
To those concerned with achieving knowledge of reality, however, the big problem with any religion – Christianity, Islam or what have you – is not its balance sheet of good deeds versus evil, but the fact that it simply isn’t true.
Despite sensitivities on this issue, it is not unfair to say that – to the serious unbiased investigator – formal organized religion appears to be an artificial construct and ultimately nothing more than a collection of fantasy fiction stories misconstrued as fact, regardless of the brand name put on it. So it doesn’t matter if a person performs good deeds in the name of Jesus, Allah or Star Wars’ “The Force,” it’s still FICTION.
I can tell you from personal experience, however, that there are many MANY Christian Bible scholars and theologians who’s vast knowledge of the history and origins of Scripture have made them quite aware of the mythical basis for their religion — yet they still attend services, deliver sermons and generally devote themselves to their faith. This fact should be considered as strong evidence for the power of religion in people’s lives.
So perhaps evidence and facts really don’t matter? Every religion, after all, is the TRUE religion for its believers. Some people say the earth is a ball, some say it’s flat…and they back it up with Biblical authority. They are so sure that they are right that maybe they ARE right. I mean, as long as actual testable information doesn’t matter, the only test we have left for truth is the strength of ones beliefs. In the world of religion, you see, whoever has the strongest faith wins. And if all that matters to you is what you BELIEVE, then the discussion must end there.
We haven’t talked about the down side of religion, of course: Christianity has had its witch hunts, killing thousands and thousands of innocent women in the most horrible ways imaginable. Islam still has its public stonings for many crimes. Christianity has had its Crusades, killing hundreds of thousands of people in the name of God. Islam has had its Jihad. The cruel and vicious acts in the name of religion are too numerous to mention. And the excuses and explanations of why these things don’t matter are equally numerous.
The potential of great evil is always present in religion because one can always say “God told me to do it” or “it isn’t ME who has declared ‘THOSE PEOPLE’ to be enemies of God and worthy of death, but GOD HIMSELF.. I am just carrying out His will.” And once again, we cannot agree: The rationalists would say that this is proof of the evil of religion and the need to eliminate it; the person of faith will declare those things to be in the past (for now) and will consider himself to be persecuted just because you brought it up.
So where does this all leave us? On one side we have the rationalists, who demand evidence and proof – and having found none, have declared all religions to be bogus.
On the other side, we have true believers, for whom faith is all that matters. In the closest thing to common ground with rationalists, they too have declared all religions to be bogus and fairy tales…. well except THEIRS, of course! They have also gone on to declare the rationalists to be enemies of god, and “fools” for not believing.
In the end, then, it seems that agreement between rationalists and religionists is not possible because they each start from a different – and completely irreconcilable – point of reference. The rationalists starts with what he can know based on testable evidence while the religionist starts with what he believes.
With this in mind, perhaps rationalists need to follow their own advice and bend to reality: Religion will never be eliminated because it is too much of a drug to the human ego. Therefore, the best that one could hope for would be to encourage the least harmful variations of religion with the hope that it will eventually become dominant over the currently more wide-spread, fear-based religions that produce so much violence and bigotry. It might not work but it is worth a try – in my opinion.
If you are thinking about starting your own religion, you might want to read my article on the birthing of religion.