We now have two major days of remembrance that impact the national psyche. July 4 and 9/11. But for atheists and humanists, today’s celebration of national pride is beginning to become a bit uncomfortable. Speaking for myself, while I love many things about life in America, that love is far from unconditional. And I’ve long ago ceased being a ‘patriot.’ Patriotism has become a religion every bit as mesmerizing as others. David Gelernter has just published a new book about Americanism as the fourth ‘great western religion.’ While Mr. Gelernter may be right about this state of affairs, it doesn’t mean we should be happy about it.
I propose a reframing of these two days of significance: July 4 should become “question your government” day, and 9/11 should become “question your religion” day. If you disagree, I ask then what exactly is the meaning of “Independence?” How does the individual even fit within the collectivist paradigms of government and religion? (Except as a mindless cog.) How do we push back against the overwhelming tide of conformity from both quarters?
It’s no coincidence that I published my blasphemy about El Morya on July 2nd. I’ve had it sitting in my draft folder for the better part of a year, and I thought: what better time to declare my mental and spiritual independence from that cranky old coot than July 4th? But I didn’t want to ruin a perfectly good holiday with that.
Some of my “Independence of Thought” material has been covered elsewhere, but there’s a lot of value compiled in one place here I think, particularly about philosophical basics, human universals, and more of my personal journey. You be the judge.
Part 1: The Concrete Perils of Belief
Today, I want to talk about the concrete perils of belief. I’m going to discuss some of the problems and effects of religious belief systems. Now please understand, that although I’m going to cast an unflattering light on beliefs, I am not attacking the believers. Many sincere, devoted, and otherwise competent people subscribe to belief systems that do not ultimately serve them or humanity. Though these beliefs may produce a good feeling, and provide believers with a strong sense of purpose, I submit that they exact a price from the human race that is far too high.
The minds of believers are usually cast in a mold before they have the ability to even become aware of what is happening to them. Children accept these religious concepts taught by their all-powerful parents, simply because the only authority they know tells them they should. I know this because I was raised that way as well. Since much of the world shares this experience, there is a real need to understand the phenomenon in humanistic terms. And also to acknowledge that much of human endeavor takes place in spite of, or at the very least against the backdrop of religious belief systems.
Clearly religion makes many claims for which there can be provided absolutely no evidence. Some examples of such claims would be “intelligent design” creationism, existence of heaven and hell, the existence of angels–the idea that we are being watched from above, that prayers are answered, and so forth. And clearly, I’m a fan of science because science is the antidote to all such damaging forms of unreality and illusion we see rampant in the world today.
Turning on the news recently I was bombarded with images of angry Muslims who were incensed about the knighting of Salman Rushdie, author of “The Satanic Verses.” A Pakistani MP even claimed that he would kill Rushdie if he saw him.
Lahore, June 22: Punjab Assembly Speaker Afzal Sahi has said that he will kill controversial writer Salman Rushdie if he comes across him. “Death is the only punishment for a blasphemer” said Sahi, and declared that according to Islam, a blasphemer should be killed and if any blasphemer would come in front of him, he would definitely kill him.
But as you know, many Muslims need no provocation. They see themselves in an endless war against what they call Dar-ul-Kufr, the “land of unbelief.” It’s obvious that none of this would be happening if there weren’t over a billion people in the world who are convinced Muhammad is a real, living, eternal, immortal godlike figure. They apparently consider him to be so beautiful that any human depiction of him is blasphemous. They consider his revelations to be so profound that even discussion of alternative verses by Rushdie is punishable by death. But it’s strange they think that their Prophet could be so powerful, divine and loving, yet be harmed or somehow offended by human writing, or even crude human drawings.
Islamic belief in the existence and divinity of this ‘prophet’ has caused all manner of dire and absurd consequences in the world. Aside from the obvious Islamic inspired terrorism and wars, it has caused the murder dozens of its cultural opponents, including Theo Van Gogh, and at least three translators who worked with Rushdie. Last year’s temper tantrum in the streets was over the idea that no one should even be allowed to draw satirical cartoons—or face the murderous wrath of a billion people.
9/11 remains for America, the anti-4th of July. It signified the end of the fantasy of benevolent religion. It showed the destructive power of religion in the most undeniable way imaginable. That event along with the continuing violent protestations by believers, and the constant death threats, has further galvanized the atheist movement. It inspired Sam Harris to write The End of Faith.
Beliefs can no longer be considered harmless, because they have a direct correlation to indoctrination, cultural movements, and negative events. Such beliefs are protected under the well-meaning tradition of freedom of religion. But the same people who want the freedom to hold such incendiary beliefs want to deny other citizens of the world their right to speech and artistic expression. It’s an absolutely unresolvable hypocrisy. They couch this hypocrisy in terms of “respect” for beliefs. But must we respect beliefs we do not hold? If so, what exactly is the role of parody and satire? What is the role of intellectual discussion? What is the role of empiricism? How do we challenge people to become more objective if we treat all beliefs with equal respect?
Even the US State Department has weighed in on the side of the religion. After the cartoon flap,they said: “Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images, or [images mocking] any other religious belief.” The Council on Islamic-American Relations is trying to set itself up as some kind of ADL for Islam. Trouble is, Islam has this little “bomb problem” with which it must deal before it gets a legitimate seat at the table of public dialog. Islam won’t drop its tactics if the rest of the world doesn’t keep up the pressure.
Unfortunately, the new British Prime Minister has now stopped referring to the religious dimension of terror attacks. These examples may be calculated political efforts to appeal to moderation and promote calm, but they won’t work. The latest terror suspects are doctors, for crying out loud, setting themselves on fire. So much for the idea that terrorism is the result of poverty or lack of education. No. The inevitable eruptions of violence are the unavoidable and concrete perils of belief itself. They cannot and will not stop until the beliefs themselves are subdued. Former Islamic radical Hassan Butt confirms this in his recent article in the Daily Mail.
We in America need to learn this before we are attacked again. We need to remember it even if the next attacks prove devastating and plunge us into chaos. May that day never come. The temptation in that situation will be strong to appeal to religion to salve our wounds. But we are not a religious nation, Christian or otherwise. Religion is what got us into this mess, and more of it will not get us out.
We have no obligation to grant special treatment to beliefs. We need to keep this issue clear in our minds as we pursue objectivity. What we should be doing this July 4 is championing the U.S. Constitution and its secular tradition of freedom of expression, for which our ancestors paid in blood. This is what the United States was meant to stand for. Now we seem to stand for political expediency, political correctness, and a kow-towing to extremist religious sensitivities that, frankly, have no place in the public square.
Part 2: Approaches to Interpreting Religious Behavior
Religion has been one of the primary sources of questions asked in the human search for truth. But the questions posed by religions don’t address the natural world. When they try, they become bogged down in vague creation myths which may be entertaining but explain nothing. Or religions invent “gods of the gaps” to cover as-yet undiscovered phenomena. But since human beings are–along with animals and other forms of life–products of the physical world, it seems to me that we should focus our attention most intensely on our identities and origins on this earth, before we try to come up with theories about unseen alternative realities.
Toward this end, I’ve been extensively studying human nature, evolutionary psychology, and philosophy. One book that has been extremely helpful to me is called simply “Truth: A Guide” by Simon Blackburn. The book details many of the arguments between the absolutist and relativist camps in terms of epistemology and ontology. One of the first arguments Blackburn discusses regards the veracity of religion. He talks about two different ways of approaching this debate:
The first approach would be the idea of onto-theology, or the belief that religions describe real people, real places, that have yet to be seen or discovered. This sums up the approach of traditional religious beliefs held by the world’s major religions:
- They are describing events in what they take to be a distant region of space or time, in which people may one day find themselves.
- They are describing events in what they take to be a distinct and disconnected region of space and time, in which souls and spirits exist.
The second approach would be more pragmatic, setting aside the question of whether or not religions are true, and simply setting forth what possible functions and purposes they satisfy in the world—such as the following:
- They are telling stories, satisfying fictions, which help to do various things (such as relieve anxiety, honor the dead, etc.).
- They are finding metaphors through which to gain some understanding of the human condition.
- They are insisting upon or expressing certain emotional reactions to the human condition: hope, desire, consolation, rebellion, acceptance, and guilt.
- They are performing, analogously to performing dances and songs, or reciting poetry.
- They are promoting the old human favorites: self-interest, self-importance, the will to power, the illusion of control over events.
- They are affirming identities, and cementing local loyalties, or separating themselves from others.
- They are giving themselves the illusion of a foundation for their morals and their social practices, in the will of a supernatural agent.
While such meta-analysis of religion as a cultural phenomenon has been expounded upon by Dennett and others, these would clearly be fighting words to onto-theologists. As the 2006 cartoon flap showed, they would definitely be fighting words to the world’s Muslims. The Danish cartoonists were simply suggesting that Mohammed was an icon who was being abused to manipulate a society into doing violence.
Let’s forget for a minute about the content of the cartoons. Their content is actually far less damaging than what they imply: that an icon has power independent from what it represents. It shows moreover that it is possible for humans to interfere with the conduct of a religion by interfering with its iconography. If it worked for the cartoonists, it could work for other authorities–opening it up for use as a tool of governance. This practical expedience in turn opens up a huge can of worms of questions about authenticity. It compromises the divine sourcing of scripture and (potentially) reduces it to mere human literature. The idea that a religion could have been “made up” or adulterated by men robs it of its most powerful poison: the connection of scripture and ritual to the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent deity.
We can see just how thin the ice is for the onto-theological position: The barest whiff of an accusation (by implication) that Mohammed’s image could have political expediency as opposed to ultimate reality was so close to the soft underbelly of Islam that it was cause enough for worldwide protest and rioting. The rioting was deliberately instigated by a group of Imams who reprinted the cartoons and distributed them strategically throughout the Muslim world. So there is a double irony. First, we can’t talk about the fact that the teachings of Allah or his ‘prophet’ have been used for centuries to alter human behavior by inciting violence. Second, the caricature images of Mohammed were themselves used to deliberately incite a new round of violence.
There’s a silver lining to that cartoon incident, as well as the more recent tantrums about the knighting of Salman Rushdie and the foiled June 2007 London and Glasgow terror attacks. People are getting the message that both Jihad and the beliefs which support it must be opposed. That freedom of speech and press are incompatible with the untenable notion of ‘respect’ for beliefs. This is a growing awareness, and hopefully it will spread into the collective psyche in ever more powerful ways. Many more people are realizing the menace religious belief itself represents to the world. And they may be getting closer to the day when they may be willing to actually do something about it.
Part 3: Pain, Fear, and Awe: The Human Motivations Toward Religion
Now lets examine what factors form the primary human motivations toward religion: The most important part of it, and what really provides the susceptibility to religious thinking in general: is existential pain. Every individual has to come to terms with the reality that we all are born into–rich, poor, whatever gender or culture we may be–finding meaning to life, and the pain and struggle that we humans face on daily basis.
We can thus look at religion as a set of ideas and principles for facing pain. A universal salve. This varies widely from culture to culture. In impoverished countries, belief in the afterlife is often the only hope many people have for escaping appalling levels of suffering. Regardless of class or circumstance, however, the religious impulse is universal. We all need to find a way to come to terms with our smallness, our limitation, our humanness. We want to feel that someone is taking care of the persistent injustice we witness in the world. We need to feel that there is some sort of answer to the questions that rise up in our minds when we stare into a night sky, look into the eyes of a newborn child, or take in a sunset on the beach.
I understand the questions. I feel the sense of incredible smallness, insignificance, and limitation that we face in our short lives. I understand the temptation to conclude: There MUST be more than this. This CAN’T all just be over in 70 or 80 years. We MUST have a reason for being here that extends beyond the grave.
But then, unfortunately, finding no particular evidence of a reason beyond our day-to-day human concerns, we give up, throw our hands in the air and manufacture the reason, and call it god. And from a benign and natural impulse most of us use to resolve the unresolvable, we create heaps of trouble for ourselves. We buy into one of the most insidious mechanisms of human control ever created. And in pursuing god, our closest approach to the “infinite,” we paradoxically embrace crushing limitations on our lives.
We don’t need religion—we only think we do. And it takes a heavy toll on humanity.
We have all the tools in our own minds and our own hearts, to live very happy and productive lives on Earth and to concentrate on this one great life that we do have, instead of focusing on a dubious or non-existent afterlife. I’ve discussed at length how morality can be based on human nature, by striking a balance between self-interest and the building of close-knit social communities based on reciprocal altruism and trade.
Psychologically, there are many humanist strategies for dealing with existential pain, finding hope and strength by facing our fears and ultimately the reality and inevitability of tragedy, strife, and even our own death. This is really important to acknowledge, because a lot of people would tend to think that—well, why don’t you just leave religion alone. Why don’t you just let people have their beliefs? They insist, “You may have had a bad experience, but that doesn’t mean everyone did. Why don’t you just let the believers be, and, you know, concentrate on your own life?”
And, if it were that simple, I would think that would be good advice—for the most part. Except that, religions aren’t content to do that. They push their faith-based values and faith-based epistemology on the rest of us. They try to get us to accept their standards of culture and taste as binding on the whole world. They make war on science. They engage in rank sentimentality and guilt-tripping. And they have created laws and social customs that prevent people from being who they are–all over the world.
In short, religions aren’t by far the beneficent altruistic constructions they like to pretend they are. And since they place the highest value on the afterlife, and some even glorify martyrdom, they go a long way toward preventing people from focusing on making the most of the one great life that they actually have.
Part 4: The Misanthropy of Religion
In The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, there’s an appendix called Donald E. Brown’s List of Human Universals. It is a compilation of traits, concepts and behaviors common to all cultures. Traits that were “near universals” were omitted. The complete list is a couple hundred items, and it’s really a phenomenal read. It’s refreshing to understand that most of what we struggle with on a daily basis is not new, and it connects us to our ancestors–who we probably have much more in common with than our modern selves would like to admit. It’s also interesting to note how religion has become misanthropic by decrying so many traits which are an unavoidable part of being human. Here are just a few examples:
Self: concept of the individual as responsible for itself
Most of the religions would like to see the self subjugated to God or supernatural beings. They often refer to the human as the “lower-self” or the “unreal-self.” While at the same time holding up a “divine-self” so far removed from the human as to resemble a cartoon super hero. This breaks down our self-esteem, and causes us to mistrust our own intellect, judgment, and capabilities. An example of this would be the religious platitude: “With god, all things are possible.” Why not just say “All things are possible”?? The first is a statement of subservience, incompleteness, and incompetence. The second of confidence, hope, and optimism.
Materialism is mortally opposed by most religions, since they traffick in the spirit. Eastern religions especially focus on the emptiness and unreality of the material world, which adherents refer to as maya or samsara, which, loosely translated means illusion. This denial has spilled over into western religions as well, and spawned the overuse of the cliche that material goods don’t make us happy. Most of the world lacks adequate material goods, however, and charitable organizations spend most of their budgets procuring them for the needy. So there are very important, legitimate reasons why people chase after material goods, and they have to do with Maslow’s universal human hierarchy of needs.
Use of mood and mind-altering substances
This differs from religion to religion. The Quran banned alcohol. Pope Innocent VIII banned cannabis in 1484. Since the majority of Americans seem to feel they live in a ‘christian’ nation, we are still carrying out the not-so-Innocent pope’s instructions through our brutal and useless drug war which has made this ‘land of the free’ the top jailer in the world. Even chocolate was banned for supposed psychoactive effects by the Jesuits in 1677. Christians cite a particular biblical passage: Galations 5, where Paul lists numerous human practices that he claims prevent a person from quote “entering the kingdom of god.” Included among these is the concept of “sorcery” which comes from the greek word pharmakeia, which many have interpreted to refer to drug use. It’s clear the reason why religions oppose mood altering chemicals, is because people often have transformative and ‘spiritual’ experiences. Religions don’t want the competition.
Religions don’t want people to take risks. If the faithful take risks and lose–that negatively impacts the propagation of the religion. People might die or go bankrupt, and there would be less resources available to support the church. And since we know that risk-taking is also necessary for success, this discouragement hurts many believers. Risk-taking also involves the conquering of fears–which the religious establishment might worry includes the ‘fear’ of god. The aversion to risk, along with desire that people put their fate in ‘god’s hands’ so to speak. Generally, this is also what predisposes churches to become conservative institutions which attempt to promote safe but static societies and oppose, among other things, risk-taking such as gambling (unless of course we are talking about bingo where the church is the beneficiary). Since both churches and gaming establishments are basically competing for people’s entertainment dollar, they make natural adversaries. Gambling, by definition, can lead to loss, which can devastate a person. But like many human pitfalls, that is something strong individuals know they have to watch out for—the same way they need to watch their weight or control their drug or alcohol consumption. “Here there be dragons” should be word enough to the wise.
Body adornment or modification
Body modification is usually prohibited by religions on the basis of vanity. The Christians have their prudish prophets, Peter, Paul, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, to thank for much of this doctrine. Stories of Jezebel, and all manner of harlots and seductresses frighten women—notice it’s only women—into the idea that body adornment leads straight to hell. This is transparent patriarchal nonsense. It’s different only in degree from the Islamic burqas. And the idea that women are somehow responsible for male arousal. Many of the world’s tribal religions did support body adornment, but were quickly “set straight” by missionaries who abhorred their “backward” practices. Again it comes down to self-ownership: Christianity, Islam and orthodox Judaism have the doctrine that your body is a sacred temple and belongs to God—it does not belong to you. This is an outrageous example of misanthropy.
- Judge not, that ye be not judged.
- For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
- And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
- Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
- Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
Judging others is a common human trait, right? And who does it more than anyone else? Religions. They judge all other religions, they judge people in general, and they judge them based on their own standards, and yet, Christians quote Matthew and say, “Judge not lest ye be judged?” Right? The point is, our brains are primarily judging engines.
We have two primary modes of thought. Pattern recognition, and ranking. Ranking involves making judgments, which involves comparing currently recognized patterns with the ones we’ve previously stored. Some of those judgments involve other people, who we interact with. We need to properly read people at first meeting, so that we can make a prediction of what to expect from them. Those of our ancestors who did it faster and more accurately prospered and evolved.
Unfortunately, ranking can lead to jumping to conclusions, or stereotyping. But it is a necessary function of placing things and people in categories. A sound humanistic imperative can be seen to judge people appropriately. But we can only learn to judge appropriately if we do a lot of it and learn from our mistakes. Religions don’t want us to judge people for ourselves. They want us to treat everyone the same, you know, “we’re all god’s children.” While this may be an attractive sentiment for some, relieving them of the need to grapple with the issues of human inequality and hierarchy, it has the effect of protecting opportunists who hide in religious communities behind masks of religious conviction. A policy of refraining from judgment sets people up to become victims.
One of the most important and central activities of all humans is our sexuality. It’s involved in forming our identity, social position, and eventual procreation, it’s involved in absolutely every aspect of our lives. The religions have always known this, and have memetically evolved to take advantage of it. They know that the drive for procreation is a more core-level basic human instinct than religion. By tying the two together through the push-pull of guilt vs. church-sanctioned marriage, they get inside our brains, and vastly multiply the number of neural pathways we humans have devoted to religion. Consider for a moment: billions of people all over the world are so indoctrinated that they are not capable of experiencing a sexual feeling or act disconnected from religious guilt and religious law. Their brain has been hard-wired this way through insidious brainwashing which began at birth. It’s an unspeakable human tragedy.
To be fair, religions don’t have a monopoly on lying. But they are some of the strongest voices raised up indignantly against this widespread human practice. All humans use language to manipulate, misinform, or mislead, beginning with pre-lingual sounds and gestures (previous post).
Religions condemn people for what are mostly socially justifiable “little white lies.” But then they lie to their own children about big stuff, like their certainty about god, the universe, and everything. When they’re done with the kids, they lie to the adults also. Christians threaten their litany of fire and brimstone, and Buddhists and Hindus trot out the “wheel of rebirth,” new age fundamentalist religions such as CUT where I was raised get you to fear the “second death,” or death of the soul. These are all pernicious lies, with no basis in fact. They all presuppose an afterlife and the existence of an angry god. They place these lies in people’s minds at such an early age that most people are unable to ever get rid of them.