For a number of years, after I finally reached the conclusion that there was no religion to which I could give allegiance, and no metaphysical theory that made sense to me, it was my conceit to make snide remarks about organized religion — especially Catholicism, the religion into which I was allegedly born. I’m not sure why I did that, but I suspect it involved lingering guilt about having set aside the faith of my forebears, and that it was more about me and my issues than it was about the church.
There is absolutely no question, and there never has been, but what religion in general has been used unskillfully by many, and cynically by many more. It has, for millennia, been the vehicle of social repression. It has been used to justify wars, suppress political and social dissent, and to justify the subjugation of half the human race, promulgate torture, emotional and physical cruelty, facilitate rape, and promulgate a variety of other ills. In that respect, and with respect to any fasion in which religion attempts to usurp the rights of any individual or group, I am convinced to my core that it is dead wrong.
However, being a non-believer sets one apart from a great many of his fellows, and religion is, in fact, the source of guidance and hope for billions of people now and in our past. Indeed, do not those who dare to look beyond convention create the great disruptions in society? Witness Siddartha, Jesus, Mohammad, Luther, and Henry the Eighth within the church, and folks like Copernicus, Kepler, Columbus, Darwin, Malthus, Einstein, Planck, Teilhard, Freud, Bertrand Russell, and the great Civil Rights leaders in the secular world. These pioneers unquestionably created or their ideas led to changes, most for the better. Nonetheless, when the great majority of your peers sleep soundly and unafraid because they believe that their supernatural friend is keeping the Sun in the sky and that a flat world is preventing them from falling off into — what? — then the one who fearlessly proclaims otherwise risks a great deal. A prophet is without honor in his own country, and iconoclasts rarely accomplish the changes they would like in their own time, though history often proves them correct.
But here’s why I no longer bash religion or religious leaders: there is no getting around the fact that — for a period that fades into the dawn of history — it has been an integral part of nearly every human being’s life. There is some reason to belive that there may be a genetic predisposition to believe in the supernatural, based on its ability to draw people together in common cause and thus increase their chances of survival and procreation.
Along those lines, in three days we will mark the 151st anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species By Means Of Natural Selection — since become the well-proven foundation of all biological science — and yet there will be someone commenting on this article who will vehemently maintain that it is just a “theory” (having no understanding of what a scientist means when he uses the word) and that we should, as a consequence, entertain the idea that his imaginary friend, not natural selection, was directly responsible for the diversity of life.
That’s just the way it is, and it is inevitable. Psychologists know that arguing with people about their core beliefs simply causes them to become more stubborn; minds cannot be forced open. A broader view develops from education and critical thought, or not at all. It is known that people choose to believe the things that make them most comfortable, whether or not their beliefs will stand up in the face of logical consideration. (Look at the people who voted for George W. Bush the second time.) It is known that people who are frightened retreat into conservatism, into their comfort zone where they feel safe and protected.
What, then, is the value of throwing int people’s faces whatever fallacies we may perceive? Doing so, and imagining that it will make some difference in the world, is (to steal a line from the mental health field) “doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results” — which, it has just occurred to me, is the exact opposite of science, which demands confirmation from repeated tests in order for a theory to be considered useful. But I digress.
It seems to me that constantly looking for things to complain about in any area, with the knowledge that those things are not going to be changed, indicates, of itself, an obsession with the subject that is potentially unhealthy. That is true even if it is merely a manifestation of intellectual arrogance — a desire to poke people whom we consider intellectual inferiors. Religion is big, and it’s an easy target — far easier than the societal issues that are actually amenable to change — but it’s also bulletproof. It may give the bashers their fifteen minutes of fame, but when you get right down to it, knocking religion has little to recommend it as a sport. To the majority of people, I would think, it is simply boring and annoying, demonstrating the same inflexibility as that attributed to the other party.
That’s why I stopped. I was bored, no longer obsessed with proving myself right and the believers wrong, and I found more productive things to do with my time. I don’t make big changes in the world, but I help to make some — and I can see the results. It beats the heck out of banging my head into a brick wall for the fiftieth time and saying “I think I felt one move a little!” Society can be changed, but change must occur from within in order to have any staying power. Pissing off the majority of our peers is not the way to make it happen.