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Latest revision as of 14:19, 20 August 2012
While it is certainly easy enough to attack religion on the basis of its logical loopholes ("God exists because the Bible says so, and the Bible is true because it's the word of God."), this doesn't address the real reason for most religious belief: such belief answers the spiritual needs of many people, which are much more powerful than any need for logical consistency. For those who follow a religious creed, the tenets of that creed – such as the existence of a divine creator, of humanity being created specifically for a "higher purpose", of the existence of an afterlife – somehow help nourish the spirit and make life more purposeful.
I wanted to point out how some aspects of religion do just the opposite.
This is not about any particular person who practices or believes in a religion; most people draw their beliefs from a combination of religion and reality. I'm talking about the religious world-view as such, undiluted by secular considerations. Any brand of fundamentalism probably comes pretty close to representing this sort of pure religious attitude, so to that extent I am also talking about fundamentalist attitudes. I am also talking about religious ideas and attitudes to the extent that they influence any person's decision-making process, i.e. how they live their lives, in a direction which contradicts common sense and reason.
Most forms of religion have a centralized leadership whose goals do not appear aligned with the claimed goals of religion (or, more specifically, why people seek religion), i.e. making people's lives better and seeking truth1. The primary mission of such leadership appears to be the use of religious teaching to maintain their cultural authority. Centralized leadership exists in most varieties of religion, as it helps to promote and maintain the particular flavor of religion in its care, but the degree to which both the centralization and the apparent duplicity exists varies widely. Some varieties of religion have very loose power structures, while others (such as the Catholic Church) are vast in scope and intensively hierarchical. Some others are smaller but more vicious in their enforcement of power, threatening death for those who leave the fold. Similarly, some religions maintain very loose control over the doctrinal adherence of their followers, while others may enforce adherence to certain key concepts with (again) death.
I am not necessarily talking about these religious establishments per se, but certainly I am talking about the ideas which have emerged from any self-serving enhancements, manipulations and distortions such establishments may have applied to the simple, humanistic and personal concepts which are the heart of religious belief.
I'm also talking primarily about the religions I'm more familiar with, i.e. the Abrahamic variety (though of course I'd be interested in hearing how these arguments do or do not apply to any religion, Abrahamic or otherwise).
I'll use a capital R to distinguish this usage of Religion from other possible uses.
Religion says that God created the world, created us, invented language, and is is the primary director of our destiny. God always knows what's best, and if asked (in the right way) will give us clues to help us make the right decisions. We are God's children, and He cares for us because He loves us and has a purpose for us.
What God does not do, ever, is explain the reasons for what He says... beyond assigning simple labels, such as "this is abomination", or making vague threats such as "those who do X shall never see the kingdom of heaven". God supposedly knows best, but He apparently believes us incapable of understanding His reasoning – or even of sufficiently following any arguments He might offer to the point of realizing that they are beyond our present understanding; not only does He not explain, he never even makes a sincere attempt to. Are we to believe that an omnipotent being would have no better way of communicating His wishes than through vague personal revelation which only a select few are able to achieve? If God really wanted us to understand his Plan, he could certainly make much clearer and more generally-perceivable attempts to explain it. If there is in fact a God, clearly either he is not omnipotent or else is not as interested in our daily affairs as much Religion claims.
Religion is determined to keep us as children of God, never truly striving to move towards God except in the same old ways that (Religion claims) have never worked anyway.
Religion may offer answers to please many, but it imposes jagged outer limits for anyone who is capable of thinking beyond those boundaries.
How this is anti-spiritual
1. Religion poses a set of rules, but when things we learn from the real world contradict those rules, prevents us from finding out more; it often prevents us from even asking the questions. Any curious mind who comes along is essentially told "here are the questions you may ask, and here are the answers you must find." This sort of mental strait-jacketing is anathema to the inquisitive spirit.
2. The Religious view shows humans as basically uninventive and incompetent. We did not get ourselves where we are today; God created a perfect world for us (the Garden of Eden), and we blew it by being too curious (as if that could possibly be a sin!). We did not do the work of evolving, painfully and slowly over millions and millions of years, from being slime-molds to being humans; God magically created us just as we are today. We cannot claim credit for having bridged that seemingly insurmountable gap; we can only thank God that we didn't have to, because we couldn't possibly have done it (and of course not having ever done it before, we couldn't possibly attempt to evolve any further on our own). Things do not generally improve over time; God gave us perfection, and all we can ever do is to work towards redeeming ourselves for the original sin of the monkey curiosity that destroyed Eden.
3. As God's children, we are never allowed to grow up. In real life, parents teach their children to become adults (and potential parents). Parents explain things; sometimes children don't understand yet, but eventually they will, so the parents keep trying. God, on the other hand, never answers any questions clearly or unambiguously; many religions state that God is no longer available for comment, while others allow for the possibility of direct communication through prayer – but in no case does God answer questions in a way that promotes widespread understanding, much less further meaningful discussion. Religion keeps us as emotional cripples, dependent on a Father Figure who Art in Heaven to sort things out for us – an absentee landLord who sometimes leaves cryptic messages for us if we call him often enough. Even if our subconscious minds manage to come through by offering us sensible advice in a Religiously Correct way, we are not allowed to own that sensibility; either it came from God, and any member of the Religious hierarchy can "reinterpret" it to set us straight should we happen to have thought of something outside the proscribed sensibilities, or else it was our own foolish, human thoughts preventing us from properly hearing God's voice.
4. Rather than being our own species, having pulled ourselves out of the mud thus far and well able to continue finding our own destiny in the universe, Religion sees us as God's toys. If we step outside the lives He has "planned" for us, despair and doom will surely follow; if we stay on the path of righteousness, rich rewards will be ours ("rich rewards" being a phrase which here means we get to die thinking that now we're about to really start living). We are God's laboratory rats, being rewarded and punished to see how we react, how many extra lever-presses we're willing to do to get that pellet, how many times Charlie Brown will try to kick the football after Lucy pulls it away. Even a video addict playing endless rehashes of The Sims has more interest in diversity and creativity than God apparently has.
It's as if God hands us a guitar, and says we must never tune it. The guitar is perfect, and any tuning would merely be human foible applied to God's perfect instrument.
Or, to build a more accurate metaphor: it's as if we're introduced to the guitar and told that God created it, and therefore it is perfect and must not be altered or adjusted in any fashion.2 Trying to make our own guitars is sacrilege. Heathen from other lands who have guitars that look different from ours – some not even having the proper number of strings! – are infidels, and (at best) need to destroy their unrighteous false-guitars; at worst, they should be killed for their blasphemy. (Those who use unsanctioned chords or strumming techniques probably need to do some repentance, too.)
In reality, the guitar was invented by humans.3 Not only that, but we've created many different kinds of guitar – slapped-together cigar-box thunkers, multi-thousand-dollar twelve-strings, and even those new-fangled "electric" guitars (some of them with two necks – a fact which I'm sure would be pointed out eagerly by fire-and-brimstone preachers if guitars were actually considered sacred objects). We've even got lutes, mandolins, banjos, and sitars. They all sound different, because there is no one "right" way for a plucked hand-held instrument to sound. They also all need tuning from time to time (with the possible exception of MIDI guitars). Just as a guitar needs to be tuned – especially if subjected to changing temperature or humidity – so do social rules need to be adjusted to deal with the changing "climate" of reality.4
Religion hands us a set of doctrine, and says it is absolute truth and must never be altered. Some religions permit limited questioning of their doctrine, but unless you end up agreeing with it afterwards, you can no longer remain part of that religion. The most crucial upshot of this, at least from a philosophical perspective5, is that it is no longer possible to engage members of that religion in meaningful debate about the doctrine; you either accept it (with or without reservations), or you don't. There is no possibility for saying "most of the doctrine makes sense to me, but I think this part here has to be wrong, and here's why" and being taken seriously.
Religion takes a glorious instrument for invention and expression and teaches us that we must use it only to play elevator music. Rather than continually tuning and re-tuning it so as to make the best of those themes, we must continue rehashing them on an instrument growing more and more dissonant. (No wonder they burned Beatles records.) We can't invent new tunings, new types of string, new types of guitars – or new ways of relating with other people; new ways of making a family; new ways of looking at birth, life, and death.
The awoken spirit trapped within a Religious upbringing sees a hopeless battle in which she is not on the side of Righteousness, and surrenders.
It is apparently important to mention that the primary purpose of religion is generally given as "bringing God into people's lives" and that this is the means by which religion improves people's lives and seeks truth. I am not at all sure that this applies to all religions, though it probably does apply to all Abrahamic religions. If "God" is taken as being synonymous with "good", then perhaps "making people's lives better" should be rephrased as "bringing Good into people's lives".
Maybe God did actually create it specifically to see what we humans could do with it; unfortunately, we don't have proof of this. Presumably, somewhere early in Sacred Guitar history, a particularly clever and self-centered Keeper of the Divine Instrument realized that if anyone figured out how to make more guitars, the prestige deriving from his role as Keeper would be severely curtailed. As Keeper of a one-of-a-kind Holy Object, he was regarded like a high priest; as Keeper of merely The First Guitar, he was no better than a museum curator. Much lower payscale. So he got together with the other Learned Men of the Temple of the Hexatone, and together they worked out that it was best for the Good of the People that they, the Priesthood of the Epiphonic, maintain the Dignity of the Blessed Relics by not allowing them (or cheap and obviously inferior copies thereof) to fall into Common hands.
It is true that there is no record of the guitar's invention, so maybe God did invent it. You could make just as good a case for the guitar having been invented by God as you could for language, since the histories for both go back about as far – guitars have been popular, in one form or another, for at least 5,000 years; our knowledge of language can only go back as far as the earliest writing, which is currently dated to about the 4th millennium BC although symbol-like carvings have been found dating back to about 6600 BC.
You could also make just as good a case that the guitar and language were both invented by aliens since aliens are (however distantly) at least within the realm of possibility without invoking supernatural powers.
This is not the same as saying we can throw the old rules out when we feel like it, or tune the guitar any old random way. Just as a ship should not be completely rebuilt while at sea (nor a guitar repaired in the middle of a song), changes must be made thoughtfully, and there are situations (times and places) where tampering with the rules may be inadvisable. As rational creatures, we have to use our powers of observation, memory, communication, and reason to come to the best possible decision about what changes to make, and when. Refusing to change the rules at all is, of course, rather like refusing to repair a hull breach on the theory that God must have made the hole, and therefore it is God's will that the hole exist.
There are often more practical implications, such as losing the support of the church community. This is one of the survival tools often used by religion memes, otherwise known as "the carrot and the stick".