Monday, November 28, 2022

Religion as Superstition

When one word means hundreds of people will go to Hell, well, that's superstition, not religion.

A recent article that is not from The Onion, tells the tale of a Catholic priest who got in a lot of trouble - not for molesting altar boys (that, they have no problem with) but for changing one word in the baptism recitation (from "I baptize you" to "We baptize you") which, church officials claim, annuls the baptism of those involved.  Thus, hundreds of marriages are now invalid and the husbands and wives are all fornicators.  None are allowed communion or even the last rites, which means they are all going to Hell unless they are re-baptized and re-married under the proper auspices of the church.

This is insanity.   The proper response by the dioceses should have been to call the priest and say, "I hear you are giving the baptism wrong - stop doing that!  Use 'I' instead of 'We' - OK?  Thanks.  Goodbye!"

End of story.

But no.  According to church officials, this one word means that all hell breaks loose, quite literally.  This is not religion.  This is not belief.  This is superstition masking itself as religion.  This is the sort of thing OCD people do, not men and women of God.

I noted before that religion has some positive aspects for society - provided people don't take it too literally.  And it was never intended to be taken literally.  Jesus liked to talk in "parables" which are stories which are designed to make some sort of point.  The stories don't necessarily have to be true, they are designed to get you to think about things, not pick apart the factual basis of the story.

Does this make Jesus a liar?  Hardly.  And yet, how can we reconcile the fact that the son of a carpenter, barely 33 years old, has experienced so many stories in life?  For example, the Parable of the Prodigal Son - which I never thought made much sense - isn't based on some experience Jesus had, or some "friend of a friend" story, but a story that may have been made up to illustrate a spiritual or moral point.

Maybe Jesus realized that the Ten Commandments didn't get the point across very effectively.  "Thou Shall Not Steal!" doesn't stick in the mind of the listener as well as a long-winded story about someone getting their stuff ripped-off and how that really sucked.  You tell a story and people listen.  You go around telling them what to do and they will tell you to right fuck off.

That is all religion is - is stories.  In his book, Life of Pi - which is an allegory about religion and belief (a parable if you will) the author, Yann Martel, talks about belief and the "stories" told in various religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism) and makes the comment that, "It doesn't matter whether the stories are true, only whether you believe they are true."  He also points out that, if you pick apart religious stories, you are "missing the better part of the story."

At first, this had me scratching my head as yet more religious balderdash and obfuscation.  But I think what he is getting at (and admittedly, I do get a lot of this wrong) is that belief is not based on certain facts of certain stories, but what the story tells.  You can pick apart any story in the Bible as being inconsistent with the same story told, for example, by another disciple.  The Jesus birth story, for example, is told more than once, and each time the details are different.  Pointing out these discrepancies misses the better part of the story.

Sadly, modern religions, particularly fundamentalist ones, seem to compete to who can be most pious and whose interpretation of the story is "right."  Fundamentalist preachers will take a sentence fragment from the Bible and build an entire theology around it - a theology that is in stark contrast to the overall message of Christianity. They have re-invented Christianity as some sort of retributive religion, where God is like a petulant child, pissed-off at everyone, all the time, and ready to kill people and damn them for eternity just for the hell of it (if you'll pardon the pun).

I mean, really?  That is what infinite wisdom brings you?  Infinite Anger?

In this instance, the Catholic Church has taken Christianity and reduced it to ritual - and they are famous for this.  You don't think about what Jesus said, you just memorize the catechism and a bunch of gobbledygook that the Catholic Church has created since its inception.  You don't practice Christian teachings, you worship some bone fragment of a martyred saint, embedded in some religious icon in a church.  And if you get even one word wrong, you're hell-bound!

In a way, it is the same with our culture and our politics.  Some on the right want our educational system to be reduced to rote memorization.  Memorize the multiplication tables, memorize spelling, memorize grammar, memorize history as a series of names and dates.  But don't actually think about these things or what they mean - or, God forbid (pun, again) think about opposing viewpoints and whether they have merit.

This is why the GOP is so much against "Critical Race Theory" even though it isn't really being taught anywhere other than in articles in the New York Times.   The right assumes that anything you teach children is basically propaganda that will be swallowed whole, without analysis or contemplation.  So they want their story told from their perspective, as they assume that if you tell another story, the kids will memorize that - and not believe anything else.

Of course, this goes against reality.  We were brought up in an era where we had to say the "Pledge of Allegiance" to the flag, "Under God" and yes, say "Amen" afterwords.  We were taught that "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue!" and friendly natives welcomed him to "The New World" which he discovered.   We were taught a lot of claptrap over the years and had to memorize names and dates - and while some of it stuck, it didn't mean we closed our minds entirely.

Well, at least not some of us.

A good education should make you think.  Memorization teaches nothing.  As they told us in Engineering school, they can't teach us everything we need to know, as in the field, we will be addressing problems that had never been solved before.  They could only teach us to think like Engineers and apply our knowledge and skills to solve new problems.  Rote memorization would result in disaster - bridges collapsing, products failing, people getting killed. Problem solving requires a mind that is active and inquisitive.

Similarly, in Law School they taught us to "think like a Lawyer" as the cases we would handle could be novel and not something you could look up in a book.  No one will bring a suit if the case law is settled in that matter - you have to be able to look at past experiences and see how they can be applied to the future, even if the facts are not exactly the same.

Religion, I think, falls along similar lines.  Rote memorization of Bible verse (or the Quran, as some Islamics tend to do) isn't going to teach you how to think, but only fill your brain with dusty language.  It misses the better part of the story - what these things actually mean, and how the philosophies can be applied to a modern world.

Right now, in Iran, there is a civil war going on - about whether women have to wear something on their heads.   The old guard is of the opinion that literal interpretation of the Quran is acceptable, and that (in their interpretation) a head scarf has to be worn, and in a particular manner.  Oddly enough, other Muslims have different opinions, varying from no head covering at all, to the Burka.  And while we may think this is a tempest in a teapot, they are quite willing to kill people - an awful lot of people - and even torture and rape women over this issue.

I think they are missing the better story.

While clothing and costumes can be a grand part of any religion, they are not the point of it.  And people who take these ancillary issues and make them the centerpiece of their belief system are missing the point, I think.

It turns religion into superstition.