March 12th 2012
A colleague of mine, in his blog, recently posted on the controversy surrounding contraceptive coverage in the Obama Health Care plan. In his Facebook link he wrote, “Who would have thought contraception would be controversial in 2012?”
Who indeed? Well, the religious right, the Catholic Church, and the Christian orthodoxy to name just a few. It got me thinking… 2012! Haven’t we outgrown religion? Or at least orthodoxy? Why is it that we aren’t mature enough to face life on our own?
People don’t like Richard Dawkins. Fine. I don’t know the man, only his writings/videos. But in the following video, after describing the roots/basis of Mormon theology (“in the 19th Century a man named Joseph Smith dug up some golden tablets, which he translated and then conveniently lost”), he asks, “do you want to vote for somebody who is capable of holding in his head such unrealistic nonsense? Do you want a president who believes such palpably foolish things…?” And I, frankly, wonder myself how is it that there are those who do.
But I would not want to stop there (and of course Dawkins does not). People believe in the Mormon church, they believe in Scientology. There are Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate devotees, the Unification Church (Moonies), the Children of God, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, you name it. There are Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Lutherans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Amish, Evangelicals, Baptists, Anabaptists, Mennonites, etc. There are Buddhists, Confucianists, Neo-Confucianists, New Confucianists, Taoists, followers of Shinto, Shao-Lin and Zen Buddhism. There are Sufis and Hindu, Sikhs and Bahá’í, Shiite and Sunni Muslims. There are indigenous religions throughout the world. What is it about invisible, unknowable beings that we need them to rule our lives so desperately?
Dawkins discusses this at length in his books, likening the process of religion to the survival value of children’s obedience. “For excellent survival reasons,” he writes,
child brains need to trust parents and trust elders whom their parents tell them to trust. An automatic consequence is that the ‘truster’ has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad. The child cannot tell that ‘If you swim in the river you’ll be eaten by crocodiles’ is good advice but ‘If you don’t sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, the crops will fail’ is bad advice. They both sound the same.
He further notes that, as can be seen in even a cursory examination of the lineages of modern religions,
On this model, we should expect that, in different geographical regions, different arbitrary beliefs having no factual basis will be handed down, to be believed with the same conviction as useful pieces of traditional wisdom such as the belief that manure is good for the crops. We should also expect that these nonfactual beliefs would evolve over generations, by either random drift or following some sort of analogue of Darwinian selection, eventually showing a pattern of significant divergence from common ancestry.
Thus, there is a sort of evolutionary explanation for the beliefs people hold, although Dawkins’ argument is that religion ”has no survival value for individual human beings, or for the benefit of their genes. The benefit, if there is any, is to religion itself” (“What Use Is Religion” Free Inquiry Magazine v24 n5).
But I am not satisfied, because those beliefs I mentioned aren’t merely benign childhood fantasies. Belief systems such as Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Protestantism, and a host of sub-sects are or have been involved in, linked to, or openly have encouraged heinous acts of racism, sexism, pedophilia, homo-phobia, genocide, fratricide, and terrorism. They actively promote ignorance, both social and scientific. It isn’t a defense to say that secular ideologies can and have proven often enough to be just as bad. At least, such systems cannot justify their excesses through (nor hide behind) reliance on invisible, controlling beings.
And even if these belief systems don’t have outward agendas, what am I to think of those who 1) organize their lives around what is, essentially, fable, and 2) tithe into multi-billion dollar international institutions which must first support their administration and management before “doing good work” with the funds? I work with them, put up with the occasional “Everyone” email espousing their Christian beliefs, let their Facebook posts of praise go unremarked. I do my fair share of atheist posts–like this one!–and I hope they put up with me. But wait, is it really the same?
If your child came home one day and said the Boojoogly Monster helped him or her score well on a test, or score a goal in sports, would you praise the behavior? Is there any difference when Tim Tebow acknowledges his god’s help? What if your child came home and said a good teacher or coach and good studying/practice helped him or her? Isn’t that enough? Isn’t it, in fact, what really happened? That’s why my atheist posts are not the same. I don’t claim to be smarter or better than anyone else, I just claim that what there is of me is my responsibility, my effort.
It is not, actually, really controversial to hold such a position. Or at least it shouldn’t be, because it is reasonable, scientific, and can be universally applied. What ought to be controversial is that we have presidential candidates, on all sides, who believe absolutely preposterous things about magical, invisible entities. It is 2012, isn’t it?