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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