When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized God doesn't work that way, so I stole
one and prayed for forgiveness. - Emo Philips
OK, here's the scoop:
The universe was created by one or more supernatural aliens from outer
space - we can't be sure exactly how many there are, but Roman Catholics say
there are three of them - and they still control every detail, down to the exact
pattern that tea leaves form in the bottom of a cup.
Our role here is to do exactly what they want, but instead of telling us
what that is (or just making us do it - after all, they control us, too),
they've chosen to make us guess, maybe for the fun of it. As a hint, every few
millennia they bring us a message by "beaming down" into the uterus of a
In between visits, they've left us in the hands of a mafia of Italian
perverts who claim to have a direct phone line to Mr. Big. According to them,
all sorts of mischief, chaos, and weirdness are perfectly OK, as long as we give
them our money, let them molest our children, and don't eat meat on Fridays
(even that last is OK now, too).
And if we do exactly as they say, after we die some part of us (not
including our bodies, minds, or memories) will go to another universe,
where things will be much the same (the aliens are in charge there, too) except
they'll let us worship them face-to-face. If we don't do what they say,
we go to yet another universe (they're in charge there, too) that's so
bad we can't even die there!
Sounds perfectly reasonable. Who could doubt that explanation? Besides
me, I mean.
It's an easy laugh to make fun of these stories, but all intelligent people know
that religious myths are just that - myths. They're not actually or
historically true, but they illustrate religious teachings, perhaps
philosophical, psychological or moral lessons. For example, without the threat
of Hell (or its equivalent), what would deter you from sinning when you wouldn't
This essay isn't really about the truth of these religions - here is my essay on that subject - but about their value
to us as individuals, as societies, and as civilization.
It's my contention that religions have long done more harm than good, and
nowadays it's beyond doubt. The problem isn't that religions are con games and
their proponents are lying - that's old news. The problem is that religions
bring out the worst in people, and the world would be a far better place if we
replaced them with something that brings out the best in people instead.
The Good, the True and the Pleasing
"Religion" means "binding": a religion is a limitation on freedom of
thought, a set of obligatory beliefs. But that's religion's mechanism -
how it works - not its function - why it exists. So what is the function
The classical Greeks used to divide philosophy into Ethics (the study of
what's good), Logic (the study of what's true) and Esthetics (the study of
what's beautiful). I'm going to take the liberty of generalizing that last
category to include not only what's pleasing to the eye, but also what's
pleasing in general. Historically and synchronically, religion has served all
One of the ways in which religion has been most effective is in getting
people to act for the good of the group, even at the expense of their own
individual good. We call this "morality". By promising individuals
compensation in the next life for putting up with a raw deal in this one, and by
threatening them with eternal damnation, excommunication or even just shunning,
people can be made to act contrary to their own interests. More nobly, if they
are convinced they are acting in a good cause, e.g. advancing their religion,
they can be motivated to do things they would otherwise never do.
But there is no absolute good - the word "good" is only a shorthand for the
phrase "good for me" or "good for us". And while "good for us" might be better
than "good for me", it all too often involves "bad for everybody else",
especially "bad for people who don't share our religion". And when there are no
infidels to beat up, it usually entails "good for the priests, bad for everyone
Religion has also provided an explanation for the mysteries of the world
around us: the creation, cosmology, biology, geology and history, for example.
Ever wonder why snakes crawl on their bellies and eat dust? It's to punish them
all for the misbehavior of the one serpent in the Garden of Eden who tempted Eve
to try the apple. We now understand that none of those religious explanations
are true - they're all just make-believe. In the case of history, it's often
worse: religious stories are simple lies made up to assert a false claim.
Finally, religion has provided comfort to people in their worst moments.
When a loved one dies, it's comforting to hear that he isn't really dead, but
has merely been magically transported someplace else. When you're scared, it's
comforting to hear that some all-knowing, all-powerful daddy is going to take
care of you. When you've been screwed, it's nice to hear that the perpetrators
are going to spend eternity in torment. And when you need something, it's
comforting to hear that if you just ask for it sincerely enough - if you just
express your prayer into thin air - it will magically appear. That comfort
provides real value to people. Of course, none of that is true, but that's not
the point: the point is that religion provides comfort, even if it's unfounded.
It would be nice to live in a world where you couldn't really die, where
your omnipotent father watched over you, where all your enemies suffer, and
where all your prayers are answered - but we don't. Unfortunately, the world we
do live in - the real world - is cursed with some terrible truths:
Sometimes, life demands a terrible sacrifice on your part, without any
Sometimes, we don't understand how the world works, or we don't like the explanation
Sometimes, very bad things happen for no good reason
You can't always get what you want
In the big picture, we aren't very important or significant
Life is short and often sad, and then you die
Coming to terms with those awful truths is part of becoming a real adult (a
Mensch, as the Yiddish say), a step that religious people never take. In
some sense, they are permanent children. They have to be threatened and bribed
to behave, they're not told the full truth about things that might upset them,
and when they get a boo-boo, someone gives them a big kiss to make it all
Can we assure them that they'd be happier if they confronted reality? No,
in all honesty we can't - those truths really are awful. So shouldn't we just
let them keep living in their little dream worlds? No, because every once in a
while, like 17-year locusts, they erupt in swarms and do horrible things to all
the good people on the planet. And it sure looks like that's happening again
So what can we tell them, and tell ourselves?
Here's how I see it:
No matter how much we wish it were otherwise, all those awful truths listed
above are true. In all too few short years, we're all going to be dead and
long-forgotten. If all you care about is how you spend those few short years,
you don't matter.
But humanity's social nature gives us a form of immortality, since we can
all be a small part of something much, much bigger than a single life. So if
you want to matter in some small way, make a contribution to society: do
something for other people. I don't just mean "be nice to the old lady you pass
on the sidewalk", since she's got the same short life you do. I mean "make a
lasting contribution", "do something that will make the world a better place
long after you die than it otherwise would have been".
Having a goal like that doesn't prevent you from enjoying your brief visit
to our planet - not at all: make the most of it. But don't just be a tourist
here either: pitch in and help out.