Alivox on Religion

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 Jewish virgin!

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.

artist unknown 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 get caught?

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 of religion?

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 three goals.

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 else".

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.

Growing Up

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:

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 better.

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 now.

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.

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