Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Religion Trap, Part Deux (Beliefs)

If you find this type of image highly offensive, then perhaps you have fell victim to the religion trap.  On the other hand, if you think it is funny, there may be hope for you yet.

In my posting The Religion Trap, I examined how many people end up spending an inordinate amount of time and money on religious organizations, often to their own detriment. And often, later in life, they regret all these efforts and feel that the religion has somehow abused them.

Ex-Scientologists, for example, blame their religion (and it is one) for "deceiving" them, but fail to examine their own motives and actions. No one put a gun to their head and made them join, right?

The fundamental problem with religions (and I do mean fundamental in every sense of the word) is that, no matter what flavor religion it is, they all follow the same story line, to some extent.

In every religion, the story goes like this. Once upon a time, there was this guy (and it's always a guy, right?) named Moses/Jesus/Buddha/Mohamed/Joseph Smith/L. Ron Hubbard, who had a religious vision. He talked with God/Jehovah/Allah/Thetans or whatever and they gave him stone tablets/visions/gold plates/scrolls/science fiction novels with rules of how everyone should live.

Fast forward a few decades, or a couple thousand years, and now we have an organized religion. According to the religion, we all have to live by these rules laid down by the guy, on the stone tablets, gold plates, ancient scrolls, or science fiction novels, with no room for dispute or discussion.  Oh, and by the way, give us your money.

Now of course, in any document there is always room for interpretation and discussion, particularly when the document, such as the Bible, is wholly internally inconsistent.  And particularly when some of the tenets of the founding document (e.g., condoning slavery) are clearly inappropriate in a modern age.

(Note that some people today are making a religion out of the "Founding Fathers"  - arguing that how our country should be run should be dictated by the intent of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, et al.  The problem with this theology is twofold.  First, they entirely misconstrue the intent of the founding fathers, which clearly was for us to run our country as we saw fit - the Constitution was designed to be amended, laws were intended to be made and then unmade.   Second, our Founding Fathers clearly intended that women should not vote and that Blacks should be enslaved.  Obviously, we cannot live according to their original intents).

We are told, by the religion, that what some guy wearing a sheet said, a thousand years ago or more, is the end-all to life on Earth.  For some reason, people back then were apparently smarter than we are today, so we have to follow what they said, no questions asked.   So whether it was Moses, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, or George Washington, we have to follow what the guy said, because he knew, and you don't know shit, compared to him, even though, in most cases, the guy probably wiped his ass with his bare hands.

But here's the catch.  You see, the organized religion that sprang up out of the original vision of the founder, now claims to control and own the message and any interpretation thereof.  And moreover, they reserve the right, to themselves, to make up new rules.  Jesus never talked about papal infallibility, but there you have it today.

In the aftermath of 9/11, many people became more religious.  Others have taken a different tack. They realize that the Islamic fundamentalism behind the 9/11 attack is no different than the Christian fundamentalism behind the Oklahoma City bombings.   And moreover, favoring one crazy set of rules over another crazy set of rules (or one organization over another) really makes no sense at all.

Many Christians, unfortunately, truly believe that the "war on terror" is a holy war against Islam - a war that has been going on for centuries.   Arabs aren't paranoid about this.   Christian Churches, like any other organization, don't like competition.

Think I'm lying? Well you remember how they made a movie from C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?  Great Christian parable, right?  Well, the problem is, it is only one of a set of books he wrote in a series.  And while the others may be made into movies, there is one that I doubt every will.   The third book in the series, A Horse and His Boy, is little more than a slam against Islam and Arab culture in general.  While the characters are not described as Arab, they are described as having dark skin, wearing turbans, being rule by a sheik-like Tisroc, and of course, worshiping the wrong God.  If you can't connect-the-dots on that one, you are just being obstinate.

And of course, organized religions don't take kindly to newcomers.   The Protestant reformation did not occur without some bloodshed, and the followers of Joseph Smith were literally slaughtered by people calling themselves "Christian".

Today, followers of Scientology are labeled "cultists", when in reality their beliefs are no more ridiculous than those of Catholics.   I am not defending Scientology, just pointing out that Papal Infallibility and Outer Thetans are equally preposterous propositions - to someone not a believer of the corresponding faith.  We like to make fun of Tom Cruise for being a wild-eyed Scientology believer.  But we talk in hushed reverent tones about someone with a "deep faith" in Christianity or Islam (particularly the latter).  And Cruise's criticism of the pharmacological industry approach to mental health does have a kernel of truth behind it, doesn't it?

Now some folks, in response to the excesses of religion, claim to be atheists.  Unfortunately, they tend to make atheism into a religion itself, replacing one set of beliefs with another.  And instead of worshiping God, they substitute science, often in the person of Charles Darwin.  And more often than not, these religious atheists are not scientists themselves, nor do they have a scientific background. They merely hate organized religion - particularly fundamentalists - and want to poke fun at them. But Darwin is not a parallel Jesus.

This is very sad, too, as it feeds the phony "Religion versus Science" debate that the far-right Christians (and, ironically, self-proclaimed atheists) love so much.  It is a phony match-up, because Science is not, and never was, an alternative to religion.  Science is not an attempt to replace or debunk God, but rather a system of study to examine our universe and how it is structured.   While some scientific theories may be in conflict with literal interpretations of some religious works, the goal of science is not to debunk the Bible or any religion, but rather to study the universe, formulate theories, test the theories, and then reformulate them.

Religion is based on belief, not science.  Belief is not something than can be tested in a laboratory.   It is, by definition, something that you take on faith, without proof.  Even atheists have beliefs, although they might not admit to it.  We all do.

Science will never answer the question "What happens when you die?" which is the basic question religions try to answer.  Atheists will argue that when you die, you decompose, and that's it.  But there is no evidence to suggest this is the correct answer.   If you believe this, it is based on belief, not science.  And beliefs are the foundation of religion.  Atheism is thus a religion, plain and simple. QED.

Science, on the other hand, is never cast in stone, and always flexible and changing.  You cannot pit one against the other, like a tag-team wrestling match. They are apples and oranges.   And most Scientists are very religious people - perhaps not in the sense of snake-handling evangelicals, but in their own profound beliefs about the world and the universe and the nature of matter and mankind. Yes, scientists have beliefs, too - things they take on faith. But they try not to confuse them with science, which is tested and validated.

While we may study the structure of matter and try to understand how the universe is put together, it is a given that we will never understand fully the complex nature of the universe or in fact, what it is. In fact, there is a scientific theory to that effect.  Why our existence is structured one way and not another is a mystery that will not ever be solved, no matter how many cyclotrons are built.  And even if you could quantify the entire nature of matter and energy, there are still aspects of our existence that defy explanation.  For example, while mathematics may be an invention of mankind, number theory shows the telltale fingerprints of God.  Underlying matter and energy, there is pure thought. There is room for belief, particularly among scientists.

So, is religion a good or bad thing?   Like anything else, it depends.   The trap I refer to in the title of this article is what occurs when people surrender too much of their lives to belief - handing over money and control of their lives to religious leaders, marching off to wars engineered by Popes or Imams.  Blowing themselves up or killing others, in the name of God, as directed by some religious leader.   It is a trap, as you are not serving God, but merely being used by another human being here on Earth, who is manipulating you - using your beliefs to make you do something against your own self-interest - and really against what God stands for.

Belief is a wonderful and powerful thing, but it can be easily co-opted by mankind for less than noble purposes.  We all make fun of the televangelists in their shiny suits on television, every Sunday, begging for money from little old ladies.   And yet many people hand over their whole lives to such folks, or similar folks, in hope of eternal salvation, blinding themselves to the obvious - that the organized religion might not be itself a work of God, even if it invokes his name.

As I have noted before, con artists use belief to separate people from their money.   If you can get people to believe they can get something-for-nothing, you can fleece them all day long.   I am not saying that all religious leaders are con artists (although others might make that argument, particularly atheists), believing in a religion does not relieve the devout from using their own internal skepticism when it comes to dealing with other human beings.

We question why young Muslims would want to become suicide bombers, or why the followers of Jim Jones drank the Kool-Aide.  Why did so many in the Catholic church look the other way, while Priests abused children?   In every religion, it seems, there are followers who take it too far, or are taken in by religious leaders from time to time.   Why is this?  The answer, I think, is that people transfer their beliefs from their God and their religion to the all-too-human religious leaders, who are in fact, not God-like or perfect.

I am not advocating an abdication of religious belief.  However, the religious have to examine themselves and take responsibility for their actions when religious leaders fail them.   People have to be responsible for their own individual actions.  We can't blame Popes, Imams, or Jim Jones for misdeeds, when it is the followers of the religions that allow such misdeeds to occur.