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I am, if nothing else, a fan of perspective. One of the greatest benefits of critical thinking is that it can often encourage people to take stock of a situation, compare it against other experiences, and most especially, to see where a common attitude can lead us to fall for unwarranted assumptions or misleading values. So I’m slightly irked in that I never really noticed this post topic until recently, but at the very least it appears I’m not alone (is there a good reason to take comfort in that?) In the time that I’ve had it in draft form, I’ve come up with numerous aspects to add to it, and will likely discover more now after I’ve published it, but this is enough of a start.
I’ll be blunt: I am astounded at how incredibly selfish most religion is. It is a near-constant litany of how any individual’s status is determined and maintained, frequently at the expense of others, and it is incredibly anti-social. There, now that I put every religious person firmly on the defensive, they won’t be reading any further, and I can put anything I want from here on in. Yet I’m perfectly serious, so if you’re curious (or up to the challenge,) keep reading.
First off, note that the primary goal of the abrahamic religions (meaning christianity, judaism, and islam) is personal salvation, placing the eventual position of the immortal soul above all other concerns. To achieve this, we are often admonished to “accept jesus into our hearts” or follow the ten commandments, too many of which have to do with worshiping an omnipotent being that should, presumably, have no ego to speak of. This is not to ignore the other scriptural passages that do speak to social interactions and behavior that affects others, the ones that [we are often reminded] supposedly form the basis of our laws and morals. But we also need to examine just how those are usually wielded.
For instance, an awful lot of people seem to remember scriptural condemnation of homosexuality, but somehow forget the more frequent appearance of things like not seeking wealth, not judging others, not being prideful, and not quoting scripture. In short, if it can be used to reinforce their behavior, it’s gospel, especially if it gives them some kind of authority over others. But if it requires them to make unwanted changes to their own life, somehow it doesn’t seem to exist.
Very distinctive within scripture are the aspects of the chosen people, the tribe(s) that gain special favor and status because of some long past circumstances. Specific messages regarding ‘birthright’ and privilege from a bloodline are quite prevalent, which has nothing whatsoever to do with behavior or ethics of any kind. But these don’t compare to the very dominant message that favor comes only from god, and has little to do with paying any attention to fellow humans in the slightest. In such circumstances, the individual acts only to appease the deity, and has no reason to pay any attention to anyone else regardless.
There is a distinct tendency towards focus on the individual and ‘self,’ rather than others or the community. Coupled with this is the idea, frequently promoted, that ‘good’ is a status some individual can actually possess, rather than a quality of actions that they make, and that ‘good’ itself is only determined by a supreme being. While it is certainly easy to see that good actions are ones that benefit others or society as a whole, and that the entire definitions of both ethics and morality reflect fairness and others in our community (at the very least,) there is little emphasis on such in scripture, and far less so in practice. Compare the number of religious promotions of good behavior against the complaints regarding the respect of beliefs, attempts to regulate others according to the divine authority individuals believe they possess, and the overall class consciousness of the religious perspective.
There is a curious side aspect of the difference between good people and good actions. In cases far too frequently displayed, people who are considered good are excused from their bad actions, supposedly with the idea that such things will be ‘averaged out’ on some cosmic scales, and this is even displayed in the folklore of st. peter, for instance, comparing the actions of someone’s life to see if they qualify for passage through the pearly gates. Such an idea leads to an interesting question: what qualifies to offset a policy of hiding child rape within the catholic church, rather than addressing or, heaven forbid, eliminating it? How many good actions does it take to not only balance out such abhorrent behavior, but still earn the title of a ‘good’ organization? Or are such titles simply free from having to demonstrate their value whatsoever? Thankfully, our legal system isn’t based on something quite so asinine – if you break the law, no one compares all the laws that you haven’t broken to see if you’re allowed a freebie (though, admittedly, in practice there is still ample evidence of ‘qualifying circumstances,’ often involving social status and the amount of money that can be thrown at attorneys.)
Countless aspects of religion, from regular church attendance to the wearing of holy symbols such as crosses, serve only for individuals to promote their own piety, and even scriptural guidelines by far emphasize what any individual shouldn’t do, rather than what they should or could. While there is a significant difference between ‘doing good’ (positive actions) and ‘not doing bad’ (taking no action,) this is barely recognized within scripture, and almost never in practice. Community activities tends to be sparse, and those unrelated to either fundraising for the church itself or proselytizing are extremely scarce. While new church buildings can be seen under construction in numerous locations within any given community, new outreach programs for the disadvantaged are exceptionally hard to find. Why do canned food drives take place twice a year, at best, when church services occur every single week? Churches themselves even contribute to the distinctions of class/community/tribe, with the number of sects and individual churches forming dividing lines throughout every community, all while supposedly encouraging the community within its walls.
Almost invariably, whenever it is pointed out that numerous outspoken religious folk are acting in undeniably antisocial and outright crass ways, one gets to hear the response that such people are (as one example) “not true christians,” drawing yet another dividing line solely to avoid any association with bad behavior while retaining one’s own exalted status. Yet there is no criteria for becoming an adherent of most religions, no tests or accomplishments, and no membership to be revoked. Nearly all rabid fundamentalists really are quoting, as selectively as everyone else, from scripture they consider holy. It could just as easily be said that any socially-oriented religious person is not ‘truly’ religious since they are ignoring those parts of scripture that advocate genocide, bigotry, reduced status for women, child abuse, slavery, and purity of clothing – it can be taken either way. But instead of raising the bar to the incredible height of determining ‘goodness’ by actual benefit, fairness, and community, which might nominally require pointing out the fallacies within scripture or simply ignoring it altogether, many religious folk instead draw their cloak of inviolability ever tighter to block out those they are embarrassed by, and arbitrarily declare their own stance as the correct one.
Humans, without question, have strong tendencies towards elevating their status as individuals; we want to set ourselves apart from the crowd. There are obvious benefits to this, among them better mate selection and higher promotions at work. But there are two ways of going about this. The one that comes to everyone’s mind is by doing something better than others. The other is more commonly known, if not admitted, which is to tear down others so we look good by comparison. This is remarkably prevalent, from sports, school, and state rivalries, through political parties, to race relations and national pride. And religions wield this with gay abandon, having developed a wonderful array of tools for their adherents to stand alone on level ground, appearing higher only by virtue (heh!) of driving others downwards. The application of ‘demons,’ ‘pagans,’ ‘heretics,’ selective morals, and behaviors frowned on by their own personal gods (such as birth control) are all great ways for the devout to maintain a privileged status by not doing a damn thing (sorry, but these are fun to throw out there.)
Especially high amongst this attitude is prayer, which consists of ‘good thoughts’ and might go so far as to involve a body position. As evidence of benefit, it falls behind even saying, “Watch out!”, but it serves its purpose in letting (in fact, encouraging) the religious to feel they’re doing something that matters while expending no precious energy of any kind. Worse, in cases demonstrated by such phrases as, “I’ll pray for you,” it proves to announce to all concerned that the prayor has special powers in their communications with the supreme being. When someone is crass enough to point out how little effect prayer has, the defensive statements have gone so far as to claim (apparently with some special insight that no one else must possess) that god does indeed answer every prayer, though sometimes the answer is “no”; it’s a shame that it never seems to dawn on anyone that simply getting off their ass and taking some physical action provides measurable results every fucking time.
Whenever any aspect of religion is questioned, much less prevented from having a deleterious affect on others against their will or rights, there is no shortage of religious folk whining loudly and pathetically about how their own rights are being trampled and denied, usually without the slightest recognition of how rights are actually defined (and how they differ from privileges, which are not automatic, and opinions, which are not sacrosanct, nor able to be elevated above any other.) The idea that rights involve an equal and non-partisan application is far-too-frequently missed, or ignored in favor of some individual trying desperately to retain their special status as a Sneech With A Star.
The Jessica Ahlquist story is an excellent example, as is every snit thrown over displays of ten commandments in public places, or the phrase “under god” in the Pledge of Allegiance. None of these involve denying any rights of any religious person regardless, nor in ‘persecuting’ them or even trying to ‘destroy christianity.’ They are simply reminders that religious folk do not have special status over others – you know, those very same others who they’re supposed to love, help, and be good to. The ironic part of this is, too many of the devout honestly believe that they are doing what they’re supposed to, or at least, deserve this accolade without having to make any such effort in that direction. They see good in pushing their religion on others, forcefully if necessary, rather than in simply doing something beneficial – which, amazingly, takes far less effort and is usually received without resistance, and puts those doing so in a favorable light.
Most especially in this country, countless devotees feel it is their solemn duty to dictate how others must live their lives – perhaps this may only go so far as to pass judgment on them, as if this somehow makes it better. The authority that they wield, usually a collection of scattered and whimsical writings thousands of years old with the philosophical depth of frozen dinner directions, is indistinguishable from the authority of any other religion the world over, and their claim to divine support comes from, in all seriousness, either the number of other adherents, or the remarkably obtuse referral to assurances of verity within the writings themselves. This is exactly like scribbling “genuine” on a homemade badge. And somehow, this is supposed to provide religious folk the privilege of acting as an omnipotent being’s proxy, occasionally while calling themselves, “humble servants” in an attempt to repeat the same leap across the chasm of hypocrisy.
I wish it could be said that, at the very least, such folk did their best to live by example and exemplify the traits they insist others must possess, but the painfully apparent truth is that religion is wielded far more often as something for others, not something to be followed personally. The claim that any criticism of religion is an attack on ‘personal beliefs’ flies in the face of every last act where religious people attempt to control others through legislation, intimidation, or simply their special status as ‘god’s folk.’ Despite the aspect of executive privilege that this implies, even more self-absorbed is the idea that everyone else lacks the intelligence or ability to make any decision on their own, and must be guided in their infantile incompetence by the special elite, those who occasionally attend two hours of services per week – since sitting on one’s ass is, after all, a special accomplishment. The sheer number of people who feel they alone (or their congregation, at least) are in possession of this gold nugget of mental prosperity that they call the “word of god” beggars belief. It’s exponentially worse than someone enthusiastically trying to introduce you to this great writer you’ve never heard of, J.R.R. Tolkien…
The persecution angle mentioned above is another fascinating concept. It takes little effort to find religious martyrs who seem to think that they are under vicious attack by those who express a different viewpoint (which, to be sure, is historically among the worst ravages mankind has ever faced, right up there with having to stand in line at the movie theater.) The expression of the very words you’re reading now, forced so horribly on the reader, is torture of purest agony, yet these brave souls bear the slings and arrows with furious bouts of whining, and the hopes that politicians might pander if they squeak in great enough numbers. I admit to finding no small amount of amusement from the thought that, bolstered as they claim by the almighty power and grace of god, they seem ever so threatened by books and the occasional interview granted to those who disagree. Decades ago, I learned of how light bends and can separate into different wavelengths, and no number of speeches and publications will ever eradicate that knowledge from my mind – yet religious folk seem in dire and mortal peril that their faith will be spirited away by a decent argument. Because of this, we are treated to everything from crying about the lack of respect that they so richly deserve to concerted actions to prevent schooling in sound, and useful, scientific principle.
Lurking amongst all of this is another aspect that is often raised, that of religion’s benefit on a personal level. Numerous polls support the idea that churches fulfill a desire for community and socialization within attendees, often to a greater extent than the aspect of moral guidance. Accompanying this is the argument that religion provides emotional support for many, especially during trying times. Yet, these are emotional arguments, serving (yet again) only for the benefit of the individual. While everyone seeks to feel better, the value in emotional indulgence is the same as that derived from narcotics. Insecurity is certainly a human trait, but no more debilitating nor damaging than anger or lust, and it hardly justifies the hulking bastion of religion, or even a tiny fragment thereof. And the argument of benefit often ignores that we already have valid ways of feeling better; no community requires any particular guidelines or structure, and emotional support isn’t the sole purview of churches.
Given a population of people not only motivated by social interaction but the drive to maintain (or increase) their moral standards, churches have the remarkable power to accomplish a tremendous amount for a community – yet, such activities, or even attitudes, are few and far between. Think about it: with so many in this country counting themselves as religious, we should be seeing a huge emphasis on beneficial works, shouldn’t we? Feel free to tally these against the displays of religious intolerance and blaming untold woes upon everyone else, not to mention personal attacks on anyone who even dares to raise questions. We only have homophobia, abortion restrictions, and concerted efforts to deny good science such as evolution because of religion, a mission that no one gaining their warm and fuzzy feelings from their churches seems able to recognize.
Worse, the support that churches supposedly give in hard times is of little demonstrable value – belief in the efficacy of prayer or the promise of an afterlife is not only evidenced in no way whatsoever, it supports the incredible idea that people should find faith itself, belief solely through hope, to be a virtue, and fairness to be achieved after death. That is, when emotionally vulnerable people are not opportunistically exploited for the church’s benefit, something that happens far more often than someone gaining any support by weak words when a loved one has died. We also cannot ignore that countless instances of vulnerability and emotional turmoil are directly caused by religious influence, including the (still unsupportable, and totally nonsensical) concepts of judgment and hell, ideas of original sin, and even the insistence that sexual feelings are abnormal. Compounding this is how often these things are inflicted on children too young to comprehend and unable to cope well with such fears, simply because children are more susceptible to indoctrination. Convincing adults requires a lot more emphasis on reason and making sense.
Right there is where we see that churches and organized religions can indeed take specific actions – only, such actions serve only in the interests of the churches themselves. Missionary work, required by several different religious organizations and merely encouraged by others, spends far more time and effort to indoctrinate others into the faith rather than simply assisting them, despite the fact that countless churches solicit funding specifically for humanitarian efforts. Youth groups are not only encouraged to gather more followers, they receive special training to do so, while few if any are encouraged to do any actual community work. But such things pale against the extraordinary efforts put into denigrating, denying, and outright lying about the world we live in, from the age of the earth to the descent of man, from the sciences we use daily (to tremendous benefit) to the actual functions of our minds. Whether you use scripture as your guideline for moral behavior, or behavioral studies, or simply common sense, lying is considered unethical, most especially lying to large degrees, yet more effort is put into this than in all other church activities combined. Religious folk tend to be very quick to point out any fallacy (past or present) they can find within science, but never admit to the obsessive efforts to promote belief systems they have no evidence of (no, a book is not evidence – it’s a book; we’re in a paragraph about people lying, make the connection.) Books, websites, pamphlets, and pretty much everything churches ever publish contain more assertions of how things are without any support or demonstration whatsoever, and a very large percentage of them purposefully and knowingly lie about the findings of scientific investigation, nor do they display any recognition, least of all honesty, when shown that they are absolutely wrong.
Countless people would willingly argue that this does not represent all religion, or that their own practices do not fall prey to such abuses. But it’s hard to justify this when we examine what religion even is, and how it exists. Religion survives because we accept a standard that applies only to religion: that it is supposed to be respected, and that religious people have a right to their beliefs. But respect means nothing if it’s automatic or forced, and a right to beliefs (seriously, since we don’t have thought police no one could do a damn thing about beliefs anyway) does not translate into a right to consider that belief equates with fact, and most especially has nothing to do with acting on such feeble usage of brainpower. Until we get over these detrimental cultural influences, we will remain held back by the imbecilic claims that ancient beliefs somehow have more importance than what we can demonstrate dependably every day.
We already know, as a species, what ‘good’ is, and are perfectly capable of handling it without the privileged-class aspect that most religions inevitably lead to. I learned how to wipe my ass and have been managing it just fine for over forty years, despite the lack of advice from scripture in that regard – mankind is hardly so flamingly stupid as to need guidance on getting along. It is, in fact, the encouragement that we need special distinctions among social groups that reinforces the competitive aspects of our species, and religion is first among them (though to be sure, far from the only, as we draw lines around countries and cities and races and cultures.) Religion rates so highly – or, in the interests of accuracy, so abysmally low – because it provides elevated status without any demonstration of benefit, or even special effort. Join a church and receive a new title, one that allows ego-stroking and arrogant superiority, bolstered by a never-present ultimate authority figure.
Even the simplest demonstrations of benefit – that religious influence provides for better social relations or more moral societies – cannot be found to speak in its own defense. Prison populations are not particularly thin on religious inmates and commensurately more full of atheists; in fact, atheists are significantly under-represented in prisons in relation to outside ratios, even when reported by prison chaplains. Countries that spent centuries in development long before any contact with the religion of anyone’s choice still possessed remarkably sophisticated moral and legal systems, including both North and South America and countless cultures in Africa and Australia – and contact with Europeans didn’t exactly drive any of them forward. Countries today that are largely secular show distinctly higher indicators of stable and satisfied populations, as opposed to near-theocracies that are frequently involved in racial tensions and outright genocide. It makes one wonder just how many demonstrations of failure are necessary before enough people actually pay attention.
We are a social species, and ultimately obtain satisfaction from group dynamics. Which is great, because that’s the only way we could survive (and, suspiciously enough, why we even think morality and ethics are good things in the first place.) We are protective as well, and realize that some forms of competition are both important and necessary. But raising both competition and false-status higher than honest accomplishment is pointless, destructive, and most especially selfish. We can obtain status if we seek it, freely given and requiring no protection of privilege, by doing beneficial things for others, individually or within the greater community – this is the only thing that deserves to be called ‘status’ in the first place. We have no need to create smaller and smaller tribes to build stockades around, since we are already one tribe, all with similar desires and goals. The emphasis needs to be on cooperation and accomplishment, rather than separation and demonization, and to do this, we need to recognize where such things occur.
Imagine, if you will, if a god had not claimed judgment as its own prerogative, but left that instead as a decision from a jury composed of all mankind. Imagine if, instead of finding those who could be considered lesser beings, like finding someone shorter to make oneself appear taller, humans concentrated on finding solutions and improvements. Or simply imagine that, instead of being a chosen and carefully crafted example of ideal design, humans were just one among many species, yet distinctive in our ability to devote rational thought to overriding the influences of ‘instinct’ and ancient survival demands. Actually, no one has to imagine this at all, since this is the only thing that we have any objective evidence of in the first place.
It is long past time that we put our focus on humanity overall, and actually saw members of the same species as members of the same species, rather than competitors. Individuality and tribalism denies everything that we have gained as human beings, and weakens one of the greatest strengths that sets us apart in the first place: communication and cooperation. While we have occasions where competition and ‘looking out for oneself’ are important and necessary, they are far outweighed by those occasions where cooperation is essential and of much greater benefit. Nor do we even need some special rules about being good, since we inherently recognize this in others, and even base all of our social reactions on such. It would be great if, intelligent as we are, we could get past juvenile, self-centered behavior.