In NOT discussing whether or not there is a god and whether or not it is rational to have faith, can we ask the simple question as rational and intelligent thinkers: Are we better off with or without religion?
Religion is a sociological phenomenon, a man-made construct that exists all over the world, namely the institution of imposed rules and parameters. In order to see the difference between the two questions one must merely ask two questions:
- Are there gods and goddesses? Who knows?
- Are there religions? Of course, the world is full of them. History is filled with stories of their exploits, and they surround us today.
So often, religions are divided by why they are different i.e. Catholics vs. Protestants, Shiite vs. Sunni, Christianity vs. Abrahamic Faiths, or Brahmans vs. Hindu. These are tiresome at best. Rather, I would rather focus on what is similar between them all.
All religions in the world today share a monolithic ideology, or rather a one-size-fits-all kind of a mentality. Essentially speaking this is the “We have the right story, and you have to sign up for it or pay a sanction in one way or another.” (A. C. Grayling) As we all know, throughout history those sanctions have been sometimes been very terrible for any group who resists.
This however flies in the face of our modern western societies, which rely very heavily of course on the ideals of the enlightenment of the 18th century. As of late though religion not faith has reared its ugly head in every sector of our lives. Science of the enlightenment taught us that we must rationally find our way through a whole set of hypotheses and preconceived notions all the while keeping our minds open to discoveries that are at once contradictory to our prejudices and illuminating to our ignorance.
“The enlightenment taught us autonomy, pluralism, liberty, democracy, and this is very different from the mindset offered to us by religion which states that there is only one supreme power whether in the heavens or here on earth.” (A.C. Grailing)
The differences aren’t just with regard to how we function as a people and the modes by which we govern ourselves. Liberty and autonomy are at the very root of how we have learned to think and grow and govern ourselves that is our own minds and bodies. Science has helped to inform our decisions regarding the differences between one man and another as well, and been all to clear that or similarities are all together more common than our differences.
“If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?” (Shakespeare)
When Captain Cook landed in Hawaii, the islanders believed him to be the god Lono returned, and worshiped him so. As chance would have it, Cook cut himself and bled; a thing impossible for a god, and the Hawaiians killed him. We too have shattered our mindset that one man is greater than others, and that kings should rule by divine right.
These ethical questions aren’t to be overlooked. Some would say that without religion we couldn’t know morality and have no substance by which to develop a conscious. But truly, everything that we need to know about morality we can learn from our shared weakness, by our very humanity. This is what gives us our moral fiber. Kindness, humility, compassion, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, inclusion and participation in any community are all things that we can and should have access to by being members of the human race. It is in our DNA to be compassionate.
Thinkers from Classical Greece to the Motilones Indians in Columbia all understand morals not because they have a shared religion or because they were taught them by the same deity, but because they participated in life, have been members of a community, and through reason and shared experience.
So then what about moderate religious folks? I’m speaking of the type that go to Easter or Christmas services only? What about people who like to have Christmas carols sung around the fire but really don’t believe in a virgin birth? People who believe in Shiva but don’t chant the mantra daily, what is wrong with that?
The problem is that moderate (or modern religion as the case may be) is habit of cherry picking. Cherry picking is taking the best parts of a religion while disregarding, sweeping under the carpet, or leaving on the side the more embarrassing or difficult parts of any religious text. Some people would call that hypocrisy, and in fact many do. When most Christians read where Jesus says, “If you have two jackets, and you see your brother with none, give him one of yours”, many perhaps even most Christians don’t even think twice about the fact that they have two homes, let alone 15 jackets while some sleep homeless and cold.
On the other extreme, we have the zealots and the extremists, those who take everything written in one text as verbatim from “God”. To them they aren’t extreme, but rather take their religious devotion very seriously. The thing about zealots is that they are the most honest of all people who profess a religion. They have committed sometimes, even their very lives to adhering to the religious text, and by doing so are dedicated to taking the rights, hands, and lives of others in order to live their piety.
“If this is religion, then the world is very much better off without it.” (A. C. Grayling)
On what then can we rely in order to find our way through the 21st century, on what cornerstone do we build our moral structure? If we are honest, and we examine the ancient texts by which all major world religions are founded, they were for the most part written for illiterate sheep herders of the deserts, Swami’s looking for enlightenment through chanting or asceticism, or charlatans who duped countless people.
“If religion made people behave better, then markers of social dysfunction, drug addiction, ignorance, teen pregnancy, and violent crime would be much lower in highly religious societies. In fact the opposite is true.” (Matthew Chapman) In America, 90% of the people believe in god and ascribe to a religion of one sort, yet we have by far the largest prison population on earth, the greatest number of those addicted to one vice or another, and the highest incidence of gun violence of any country. Worse than that despite our wealth, we are unhappy.
Our education system breaks down while we quibble over “intelligent design” vs. “Evolution” and our students suffer. Teachers are blamed, but their classes of 35 students couldn’t hope to compete against Asian or European students whose class size is 12-20, often with two teachers.
Religions are often confusing, produce fear in order to claim adherents (“Repent or Burn”), rely on proselytizing the young, are morally unethical at times, and divisive. Most religions still denigrate women, foster homophobia, and religions have given us most of the wars the world has ever known.
However, “with a complete lack of reference to god, science has, amongst many other things, rid us of small pox, the plague, and polio. Dramatically reduced the number of infant mortalities, doubled the length of life expectancy, and is now coming to understand how the brain works (including its capacity of moral and ethical decision making). All this progress, all this beautiful knowledge, all this alleviation of human suffering in the last 100 years.” (Matthew Chapman)
Religion has had 1000’s of years to get us to a place where two men can walk down the street and hold hands, where women can hold the highest office in the land, and where children don’t have to be crippled by disease…it hasn’t. What has? Understanding based upon empirical evidence, reason, shared experience, and a heart devoted to love and compassion.
Everything in the world around us speaks of cooperation, balance, and of love. Science, and by extension art, are both fully committed to examine what is truth, verities, and inaccuracies based on our preconceived notions. We have a chance to reconsider what it takes to live in a world of hope, love, and peace. We have to do the very difficult choice of choosing our morality, by choosing others before self.
For inspiration, we need look no further than the beehive. There, every bee, even the “queen”, is but a simple servant to something greater. Together, through cooperation, they each achieve far more than could do individually. The earth is our hive; we must choose to love our fellow man and work for his and our cooperative benefit rather than our assured mutual destruction. We need to see that reason, our shared experience, cooperation, compassion, and love have to be our best attributes, because in fact they are our only guides.