What You Should Think About Organized Religion

December 25, 2007

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

–Jesus Christ

“It is impossible to prove a negative,” is a statement far from insightful. For example, “this essay is not written in the Klingon language,” is a negative statement that can be verified as well as any practical standard of proof would require. Proof of negative assertions becomes more problematic as discussions move from the specific to the general. “There are no polka-dotted swans,” is an eminently likely proposition. However, it is possible to remain reasonable while taking the position that the best available proof merely establishes that a polka-dotted swan is an extremely improbable phenomenon.

When it comes to belief in an omnipotent being, a negative position is even more difficult to prove. Not only is it plausible to argue that such a being could defy any efforts at detection, but there is even a case to be made that an omnipotent being would not be constrained by logic. For absolute atheists, these conditions are problematic. Of course, monotheists are challenged just as strongly by the inability to prove that there are not multiple omnipotent beings.  Then consider the challenges of proving that their specific concept of a supreme being is a generally accurate reflection of reality.

Some people reach their own conclusions about matters of the divine. Yet many more allow their beliefs to be shaped by cultural traditions or even the dogma of religious institutions. This can be extremely problematic. Among other things, the embrace of organized religion tends to promote an unhealthy sort of inflexibility. This often stems from the perception that beliefs promoted as ancient wisdom are largely consistent with actual ancient beliefs. Yet is that perception justified?

Never mind variations in the content of sacred literature from one era or even one century to the next. Applications of religious thought consistently change to remain compatible with underlying social conditions. Excessive delay in this process simply results in a popular movement away from old faiths in order to embrace younger traditions. An honest study of religious history turns up all manner of examples where a faith that failed to speak to the great questions of the day yielded popular support to new spiritual movements eager to address those questions.

Even within a particular faith, there may be tremendous change over time. In the Middle Ages, Christian organizations actually ran brothels, not to mention encouraging priests to marry. It was only after being challenged on the practice of selling indulgences, an issue that helped bring about the Protestant Reformation, that the Holy See sought to demand chastity among all orders of clergy. Up to and during the American Civil War, some Protestant churches taught that God had ordained white hegemony and black slavery. Today some of those same pulpits are used to advance the argument that God demands equal treatment for all races.

Secular thinkers sometimes unfairly criticize religion for being unable to change with the times. Science may have produced flawed understandings of reality, but it does so in a context of focusing on empirical evidence. Setting aside pseudoscience like global warming denial or “creation science,” real science is driven to change not by passions or politics, but by data that satisfies reasonable standards of proof. Even wild new ideas can be quickly adopted by science if they can be supported by hard evidence.

By contrast, social change and personal whims are the driving forces behind change in religious thought. The popularity of a belief about the natural world is not a factor in how much it is accepted by scientists. In recent history, attitudes about race, gender, and sexual preference have, and continue to, bring about change in religious practices and teachings. Looking back further, changing attitudes about government, sexuality, violence, and a host of other issues have left their mark on the ways of modern faiths.

Nearly all adherents to the teachings of an organized faith arrived at those beliefs by traveling one of two paths. The most common is inheritance. Early in life, perhaps even from infancy, a person may become immersed in rituals and indoctrinated in religious teachings. Rather than forming the capacity for sound judgement then pursuing answers to questions of theology and morality, a personal attachment to a particular set of answers is firmly imprinted on pliable young minds.

In other instances, faith is the product of experiences that coincide with an intense episode of personal distress. As emotions impair rational judgement, the wholehearted embrace of a new worldview (not to mention entering a new social circle,) can provide relief and support in a time of crisis. Sometimes the mechanism resembles a one-two punch as childhood immersion in a specific organized faith produces a sense of comfort in religious association that is reinforced by subsequent refuge provided by a religious rebirth.

Religious belief is not a uniformly pernicious influence. It provides real comfort to real people facing real problems. It can provide a sense of togetherness in times of increasing individuality and social isolation. It may even increase the intensity of the good feelings associated with personal triumphs or significant milestones in life. Perhaps other institutions and practices could serve these same needs. Yet it is hard to argue that, if all religious practice suddenly ceased, nothing worthwhile would be lost to humanity

Of course, religious belief is not a uniformly positive influence either. Different faiths offer different teachings. Many of these faiths teach that others are false. In some instances, religious leaders actively promote hatred of human beings associated with different faiths. In fact, the condemnation of difference may even involve extremely violent struggles over relatively subtle theological distinctions. When a difference of opinion emerges among scientific thinkers, observation and analysis are decisive. When a difference of opinion emerges among religious thinkers, sheer force of advocacy is the decisive factor, as empirical evidence is rarely available (and often marginalized when it is available.)

A measure of faith can be useful as an alternative to being consumed by the complexities of resolving all moral issues or surrendering to nihilism. Yet faith is counterproductive to the degree that it straightjackets ethical thought in hallowed, yet ultimately arbitrary, human doctrines. Perhaps no capacity for belief is more important than the capacity to believe in one’s own ability to have faith in erroneous conclusions. Whether the context is secular or religious, that capacity is essential to remaining in touch with reality and adapting to new information as personal growth, new experiences, and fresh discoveries provide access to increased knowledge.

In theory, participation in an organized religion may be just as harmless as participation in a social club. In practice, participation in an organized religion may be just as harmful as involvement with the most destructive political movements. If you are involved in such a faith, and you manage to take away from it only messages of love, peace, goodwill, tolerance, humility, etc.; then you may benefit from that involvement. Yet if such involvement also generates ill will toward your fellow human beings, compelling reason exists to recognize the flaws of any teachings or practices that add fuel to the fires of hatred.

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What You Should Think About Satan

October 31, 2007

“I do not fear Satan half so much as I fear those who fear him.”

–St. Teresa of Avila

As the nation’s very young go from door to door in search of candy and the nation’s young-at-heart venture off to costume parties, it seems to me an opportune moment to discuss the subject of my favorite Rolling Stones song. Satan has a curious place in American culture. Never more than a minor player in Christian scripture, some sects have transformed him into an immensely powerful and important figure just short of being God’s equal in cosmic stature.

It seems that cultural austerity outside of church was not enough for the Puritans — establishing stronger contrast between the mundane and sacred demanded particular intensity from religious services. They incorporated the drama of fire and brimstone into their routine existence. Perhaps some audiences do find the hyperbole of devil-obsessed preaching more gripping than sermons about peace and love. Yet there is a downside to dwelling on theological evil. It all too often provides cover for actual evil to be done in the world.

Any sensible perspective on some of America’s earliest colonial communities makes it easy to see that professional witch hunters, with their zeal for torture and execution, were a real blight on society. Reasonable people should not need be told that witchcraft was a fiction spawned by the press of heavy stones or the touch of hot irons rather than a reality generated by broomstick-riding bringers of pestilence. Pagan traditions may be undergoing some resurgence in modern times, but earnest believers in practical wizardry are just as ridiculous as the devout Christian convinced his mojo would enable him to walk on water.

Yet the blight of Puritanical extremism continues to leave marks on modern American culture. Among the worst of these marks is the continued popularity in some sects of religious teachings that villanize other people. Links between Lucifer and Satan have much more to do with interpretations of scripture than any content therein. However, the tale of Lucifer holds that the fallen angel suffered after claiming the power of God for himself. Is there no lesson here for mortals who presume to judge the saved and the damned by their own haughty sermons?

Clearly that lesson exists, yet it is equally clear that this lesson is widely ignored in many circles. Ancient literature is largely ambiguous about subjects like premarital sex, homosexuality, and the sanctity of human zygotes. Not only have preachers and their flocks presumed to have absolute answers about matters like this, many go the extra mile to proclaim they have knowledge of who surely must be damned to Hell. In a very real way they presume to wield power that their own most sacred texts specify in no uncertain terms should be the domain of God alone.

It seems in faith, as with politics, all too often engaging dark human emotions enables leaders to cultivate popularity that they could not find by relying on honest rational discourse. Those of us who do not follow the teachings of any organized faith may find it odd to suggest religious activity should be more rational. Yet the only real difference between talking about faith and talking about any other subject is that faith is bounded by assumptions that are inherently beyond the scope of empirical verification. Within those bounds, surely there is value in remaining rational. After all, no theists deny that reason and related faculties are God-given gifts, but any particular institutional teaching or interpretation of scripture is clearly the product of mortal efforts.

The same is true of many other belief systems that feature some being to serve as the primary focus of evil. Having similar roots in religious history, Islam and Christianity also have strikingly parallel narratives on many subjects. Shaitan is not exactly a fallen angel, but he was condemned for his pride in the face of the supreme being. In Islam, he serves as an agent of the temptation to stray from whatever path is thought to be pleasing to Allah.

An overwhelming majority of Muslim clerics do not approve of bombing crowded civilian markets. Yet in terrorist camps and a few other dark places, some people claiming to be religious leaders glorify violence while stirring up hatreds in their followers. An overwhelming majority of Christian clerics do not approve of bombs exploding in civilian markets either. Yet in some dark places, people claiming to be religious leaders glorify violence while stirring up hatreds in their followers. The common thread begins by linking other human beings with the Devil, then asserting a duty of mortals to carry out judgements by playing God.

“God is love” is another common thread that runs through monotheistic traditions. In fact, it is said of many faiths that their essence could be distilled to that single sentence. Though he is merely a minor character various scriptures, Satan becomes prominent wherever clerical leaders make the choice to abandon a message of love and seek personal popularity by advancing a message of hate. Those who call for their followers to abandon compassion, mercy, and humility have elected to advance a message that cannot credibly be associated with the deity they claim to revere.

In some ways it seems that the root of much evil is the predisposition of some groups to characterize other groups as evil. Hatred is by nature unreasoning, but many times it is not spontaneous either. It can be cultivated, and this cultivation is a skill unto itself. The pages of history are littered with gratuitously bloody wars, brutally oppressive regimes, and campaigns of terror all driven by divisive beliefs that characterize other ethnicities, faiths, or nations as fit targets for violence in light of their evil natures.

No ethnicity is predominantly evil. No nation is predominantly evil. Not even any faith of significance is predominantly evil. There is real evil in the world, and often it is in the actions of those inspired by arrogant leaders commanding others to stamp out what they have judged to be evil. Our laws, and even our armies, may rightly be put to use preventing harm or neutralizing threats posed by those who do harm. Given a rational fact-based approach to assessing threats, exercise of power in this manner will tend to make the world a better place.

To the degree that our laws or our armies are put to use fighting evil, we run a very real risk of perpetrating very real evil. Whether you look to one of the world’s most sacred texts for personal guidance or you look at them all as collections of stories infused with ancient wisdom, there is something to learn from studying Satan. Those ancient stories speak pointedly to the folly of presuming mere mortals are fit to substitute their judgement for divine judgement. Even if taken only as metaphor, it is clear that a Hell on Earth tends to be the consequence of framing the exercises of power as some sort of quest to smite evil.

I believe there is also something to be learned from studying how mere mortals invoke Satan and related concepts in their teachings. If you do practice a faith, and along the way you seek wisdom from clerics involved with that faith, pay careful attention to the frequency and context of their talk about the Devil. If that theme is common, if it is used as a means to inflame hatred, if the echoes of it drown out appeals to peace or tolerance or love . . . then you would do well to look elsewhere for wisdom.

One can only speak generally when talking about an entire large group of people. Generally speaking, human beings are not intent on making other human beings suffer. Generally speaking, human beings are not intent on killing other human beings. I am in no position to prove to theists that the Devil does not exist. Yet I do know, as history proves with relentless consistency, that a fixation on attacking others labeled as “evil” brings much pointless killing and hatred into the world. If Satan does indeed exist, he can only smile at each instance when a preacher demands the faithful take it upon themselves to judge in the name of the divine, then act against others based on those judgements.