I really don’t know why I would write about religion. I feel it should be rather a non-subject. But I read that to 84% of the people on the planet it isn’t. So I will.
I remember as a child of four being taught by the nuns exactly how to hold my hands when praying, pointing to heaven, together, not too loose not too tight. My parents had sent me to the infant school of a local convent because they had been led to believe that it was the best available school, but they had given me clear directions not to listen to any of the religious instruction. My folks, you see were absolute solid Anglican Church of England Christians. The Catholic Church, they believed, was morally wrong and its faithful flock was misguided.
Anyway, the nuns showed us exactly how to hold our hands in prayer and to close our eyes when praying. So did my mother when we knelt by my bed every evening. But if I peeped I could see that adults didn’t have their eyes closed. Nor did most people at church (I started being taken there when I was six), and nor did the teachers at the next school I went to. What was this weird sham, where all those who professed a belief where details of practice mattered, didn’t practise the detail? Did the Church tell you to do this stuff or not?
My child-analysis was simple. If they didn’t follow the ritual, and they said the ritual mattered (was part of their creed), then they didn’t believe. It was that simple. I was being taught an operating procedure for life in my culture. No one believed it but everyone said they did and followed the format for form’s sake only. I had no idea why, but sure as hell, that’s what was going on.
Sixty years on and I still don’t get it. The vast proportion of people on the planet say they believe in the creed of one or other formal religion, but so far as I can see every one of those billions of humans picks and chooses what they want to believe. Not one of them believes what God tells them to believe. Obviously, God loves both Christians and Muslims for example, so if humans were led by direct communion with God, then you would just as likely find a Christian born into a Muslim family and vice versa as otherwise. This doesn’t happen. By and large, Christians breed Christians; Muslims breed Muslims; and so on for all the other religions on Earth.
The individuals who make up the world’s faithful each seem to have taken a kernel of which religion to follow from their parents and then they modify their faith as feels comfortable within the culture of their generation. For or against abortion, gay rights, burning heretics, allowing female clerics and so on. The scriptures don’t change, but every generation sees a new truth in what the scriptures had “really” meant. Really? As a logical thinker, I can understand fundamentalism, but how can cherry-picking possibly be a profession of faith?
Now we have YouTube channels and websites dedicated to religious denial. Intelligent scientists and societal commentators write books and earn their daily bread doing the same pointing out inconsistencies in scripture and hypocrisy in interpretation. Why on earth? We don’t have websites denying Santa Claus nor YouTubers claiming to have found holes in the logic of the myth of the Tooth Fairy.
I suppose it’s because these worthy angry skeptics are upset to see so many intelligent and powerful people – people responsible for billions of lives – hang onto their faith in myths. Would you put your trust in a politician or an aircraft designer who overtly acted on tarot readings or astrology, or who professed adherence to Pallas Athena?
It’s been said that without religion there would be good men doing good things and evil men doing evil things, but for good men to do evil things, the saying goes, that takes religion. It’s not difficult to think of examples. So yes, there is a place for the angry ones who argue against the devout and their chosen myths. If you believe in science, surely it makes sense to point out the philosophical foolery of faith and argue in favour of religious scepticism and evidence-based design?
But really I’m beginning to wonder. If there were no formal religions, then would the world be a more equitable place? This isn’t a proven case and perhaps it is a demonstrable falsehood.
Most humanists or atheists would admit that religion is a collection of stories that we tell each other because societies that are bigger than families or tribes need stories to hold them together.
I have another example of a story that unites societies, actually, one that is bigger than religion(!) We all believe in money for instance. We voluntarily share a story that if we can count the quantity of some commodity, real or virtual that you or I can’t create for ourselves (gold, bitcoin) then some tokens representing that commodity (metal, paper, or digital) can be used as a unit of exchange. With these tokens, we can not only trade apples for motor cars but also labour for holidays. We can gain access to medical treatment or professional services. Then there are the darker games of punishment and bribery; not to mention the enablement of industry, advertising, taxation, gambling, investment, usury, and extortion.
If one person invented money and claimed for his invention all these powers, the world would ignore his lunacy. But we all play this game and at the present time, this story more than any other directs the (un-)ethical management of our entire planet.
And so it was with religion, from simple origin myths tickling the curiosity of ancient proto-philosophers, through tablets of stone inscribed with a few good ideas for community desert survival to the New Testament’s threats of eternal suffering after death. And so on in the here and now, from times mediaeval to postmodern, we witness the acts of the faithful who dutifully torture, rape, mutilate and burn each other.
If the bible didn’t exist and Fred Smith down the road invented this all and told us it could be a way of organising the world for the better, we’d just ignore him, wouldn’t we?
So religion is a way of holding groups together. Many religious people would deny this and say it’s the other way around; they would say that faith comes first, and the community of believers simply benefit from that wisdom.
But you and I, sensible sceptics that we are, we would postulate that gods were created in the image of man. We don’t have to be cynical and suggest that these myths were deliberately created with the intention of controlling the mindset of large groups. But boy, have they proved useful for doing that?
Would you like to invade a territory and exploit its diamonds, its gold, or its milk and honey? Wheel in the missionaries to soften up the population, and the army to righteously destroy those who fail to convert. Need slaves? Yes we can source those ethically from unbelievers, just as Moulay Ismail sourced a million Christians to build his palace at Meknes and as Europe and its New World scions sourced countless natives from Africa, crushing their religious diversity in the name of their “jealous God” (and of course for the eternal benefit of countless billions of previously heathen souls)
At this point, I will interrupt my rant of post-colonial holier-than-thou-ism to make a personal admission. I wonder with emotions close to worship, the vast depth and breadth of art, architecture, and music created in the name of religion. One mediaeval church spire in my evaluation represents more cultural achievement than most modern societies deliver in a generation.
But I’m digressing a bit here. The important point is that it is not only the faithful but even more so, atheists, who observe that religions have organised humans to achieve great things. Achievements good or bad, cultural or physical, but definitely great, and with awe-inspiring effectiveness.
So if religion were to evaporate on the altar of atheist writers and vloggers, what would fill the void?
Christians are realising now that with the move of their religion into flexibility and apology, the strict and aggressive young religion of Islam is taking over the world. Islam is not any harsher today than mediaeval Christianity was a few centuries back. And of course, there is a Christian fundamentalist backlash against the Muslim territorial invasion. But it’s not hard to imagine a post-Christian Islam culture maturing and softening and gradually boiling away leaving a warm residue of mild-mannered polite nothingness of appeasement as the Church of England has already done. Almost without exception, the Muslims I knew socially in more than a decade of working in the Middle East were more like this already than we in the West imagine.
But what if we were to speed things up? What would post-religious utopia look like if we made it happen today? Actually, we don’t have to look far. It would look like a few crazy narcissists buoyed up on a feather bed of populist politics. Mentioning no names here. The thing is that we really are cavemen in suits and we need stories to keep us out of the mud.
Religious stories at least make us look up to the heavens with wonder. Popularist political stories typically create unity in their group by dehumanising and then demonising outsiders. Us and Them. Yes, I’m describing fascism and genocide, but that’s only a few degrees beyond popularism. 20th-century history has shown that one can become the other in remarkably few years.
It’s not that religions create religious atrocities and dictators create secular atrocities. Humans create atrocities and typically use stories of either religion or populism to raise and educate the armies they need to do so.
So it’s a mess. But what am I saying and what’s my point? I can sum that up in two sentences. Organised religion based on faith in old myths is pretty silly. But by and large, it’s probably less bad than what would replace it if it disappeared today.
Fortunately, that’s not going to happen today. There’s space and time in the world for cultural evolution. We don’t have to wreck the party just yet.