Religionists get it the wrong way around
Before the period commonly referred to as The Enlightenment, we human beings knew almost nothing about reality. We lived in a fog of confusion and relied on myths to give structure to our lives. It’s only in the last few hundred years that thanks to scientific empiricism we’ve begun to discover how extraordinary the universe really is. Our knowledge has provided us with the everyday miracles of technology we casually take for granted but which would have seemed to people only two centuries ago to be beyond belief.
Before modern times, science and mysticism were inextricably linked. Chemistry grew out of alchemy: the vain quest to transmute base metals into gold. Newton, perhaps the first truly great physicist, pursued all manner of investigations into what today we know to be superstitious nonsense. The quest for real-world understanding has not been easy, and for most of our history as a species we’ve been stunningly ignorant.
Under such conditions it’s hardly surprising that people would believe in gods and goblins, ghouls and ghosts, witches and sorcery.
Today, however, the situation is profoundly different. Nevertheless, around the globe most people are still trapped in primitive superstitions and beliefs. Probably ninety per cent of our species continues to believe in fantasy, myth, and impossible nonsense despite the fact real-world information is now available at our fingertips.
Like many educated Europeans, I find religionism to be an unfortunate condition both for the sufferer and for those upon whom the religious invariably impose great harm. While religionism was understandable even as recently as two hundred years ago, it is now simply the consequence of abject ignorance and a generalized failure of intellect.
When real-world facts (proven many times, irrefutably) are available, what does it say about us as a species that we continue to cling preferentially to simple-minded nonsense?
Religionists make multiple intellectual errors, most of which we’ll ignore here for the sake of brevity. Perhaps the most common is the naïve assertion that because one cannot definitively prove the god or goblin in question doesn’t exist, therefore it must exist. It is sufficient simply to note that it is always and forever incumbent on the person making an assertion to provide irrefutable facts to support their statement, not on the listener to disprove it.
Let’s take the following example: I assert that there are a thousand million invisible dancing chickens on the table in front of me, chickens whose form is such that there is no way to detect them. I expect you to believe this assertion. But why should you? Surely if I want you to believe what I’ve claimed, I need to provide tangible proof. As there is a limitless supply of imaginary nonsense anyone can choose to assert as true, the only coherent approach is to demand repeatable proof before giving credence to a statement.
Let’s take an example: if the Wright brothers had merely said “We know how to build a heavier-than-air flying machine and you can’t prove we don’t know how” then they would have remained deservedly obscure, along with the countless fantasists who’ve claimed to have created perpetual motion machines and energy-from-nothing devices and all the other claims about productions that violate everything we know to be true about the way the universe works.
But the Wright brothers didn’t make empty assertions; they provided proof: on December 17th 1903 they demonstrated the veracity of their invention by actually flying it.
Unfortunately for religionists everywhere, there has never been (and for obvious reasons never can be) even the shred of a hint of tangible proof for any of the stories they believe in. Just as there is no real-world proof of the existence of the Tooth Fairy or of Баба-Яга for precisely the same reason.
Therefore, lacking any ability to provide evidence to support their myths (aside from a desperate cry of, “I just know it’s true!”), religionists invariably fall back on the claim that without their particular myth there would be no morality. In this baleful view of humanity, we’re all rapists and murderers and thieves but (thank the gods!) we manage usually to restrain ourselves because we’re all afraid of being punished by whatever hobgoblin the religionist in question happens to worship.
How credible is this proposition? We know that in real life criminals are rarely deterred even by very tangible punishments. So it is implausible to propose we’re all not raping and killing and stealing only because we’re all afraid of being spanked and put on the naughty step by daddy god after we die.
Furthermore, refraining from an act merely because we’re trying to evade punishment is not morality at all. If the word means anything, it means having an internal ethical compass that determines how we treat our fellow humans. Simply trying to avoid punishment is merely to react to an external threat, much as one would get out of the way of an oncoming vehicle or pull one’s hand from the fire. There’s no morality in such behavior; it’s simply self-preservation.
Secondly, how moral can it be to abdicate our own responsibility to develop a code of ethics and instead merely do what some purported authority figure tells us to do? The judges at the Nuremberg Trials were unanimously of the opinion that “I did it because I was obeying orders” is an utterly inadequate defense.
When we remember how many religionists have so gleefully imposed great harms on others, we cannot pretend there is any meaningful difference between war criminals and religious zealots. The Spanish Inquisition and the Gestapo were different only in terms of uniform and instruments of torture.
Thirdly, what sort of morality can be derived from the genocidal myths of neurotic goat-herders who lived some three millennia ago? They were so ignorant they didn’t even know enough to wash their hands before touching food or to boil water to make it safe to drink. Apparently their cult god didn’t think it important to impart these very obvious pieces of knowledge to its “chosen” people.
If we are to believe there is anything of value in these myths then (assuming the mythology is one derived from the Yahweh cult, e.g. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) we must accept that morality comprises slaughtering one’s neighbors, pushing young females out into a mob to be raped and killed, and a general intolerance of everyone and everything not derived from the insular little cult god of the Hebrews.
If that’s morality, I don’t think any civilized person would want any part of it.
Of course, latter-day religionists claim that the insalubrious parts of their mythology are “only metaphors” or some other such intellectual sleight of hand. This is as credible as claiming that the Holocaust and the Holodomor were only metaphors. The fact is, it’s intellectually dishonest to play the pick-and-choose game. And intellectual dishonesty isn’t really much of a support when it comes to making claims about morality.
As for the few examples of quasi-morality religionists cite, it’s enough to note that they are common to all mythologies, as well as to all moral tales of antiquity, and are so trite as to be meaningless. If this is the best a mythology can do, it’s really not very impressive.
Finally we can note that the famous Trolley Car Problem shows with perfect clarity that morality cannot be determined absolutely, so the claim of any mythology to do so is thereby negated.
But far worse is the fact that religionism inevitably leads to violence.
Here’s why: religionists believe that the “rules for living” are contained in ancient texts (the cult myths of whatever tribe happened to give rise to them thousands of years ago). But in real life society evolves, new norms emerge, and more humane ways of living are adopted. This means that the religionist mythology is forever out-of-step with contemporary reality. The consequence is that religionists always feel that something is “wrong” with society, and their belief is that the problem stems from society not following the instructions contained in their holy book. This dissonance is always present and can at times grow to such proportions that great harms are inflicted on those not subscribing to the particular myth in question.
This is as far from morality as one can imagine.
It is clear, therefore, that religion and morality are always in opposition. For a society to promote moral values it is necessary to find ways to minimize the influence of religionist beliefs, just as we try to minimize the influence of ultra-fascist beliefs or radical Marxist beliefs.
While it is easy to show how hollow religionism is, it’s also important to accept that our species uses stories to engineer social cohesion. Myths are all around us, from “work hard and you’ll be successful” to “everyone is equal.” All myths are mental shortcuts and the vast majority of us needs these devices because we lack the time, the capacity, or the interest to think things through for ourselves.
We are a relatively unsophisticated ape-species, dependent on being part of a group for our survival. It’s not surprising our brains are hardwired to work in ways that promote group cohesion and minimize the calorie-intensive task of attempting to think. So we believe whatever the group happens to believe. We rarely question it because it’s so much easier just to blend in and go with the flow.
So yes, we do need stories to provide social cohesion. Few people are ever going to have the knowledge, the intellect, and the time to work things out for themselves. But the time is long overdue for better stories. The axial age myths were never much good and today they are utterly inadequate for any constructive purpose.
Too many children continue to be abused by adults imposing primitive mythologies with their neurotic and deeply dysfunctional stories. Religiously-inspired sexual repression harms millions of children every day and results in highly dysfunctional adults who too often then prey on your children in turn. Too many people condone appalling behavior on the grounds that it serves the interests of their imaginary invisible magical creature. Too many people split the world into us (good) and them (bad) based on pathetically inadequate tales.
No society aspiring to civilized and humane values can afford to tolerate the destructive nonsense promulgated by the axial age myths.
The supposed benefits of religionism can easily be delivered with far less damaging superstructure, and the downsides of religionism are far too serious and far too harmful for us to continue to ignore. Especially as today the equally harmful myths of nationalism, patriotism, and the various other political myths, are pulling us under the waves and threatening to drown us all while various religionist groups cheer them on under the illusion that it will mean a return to their particular values.
We desperately need better stories so that people can still be comforted by a sense of purpose, but without the atrocious wickedness of religionism and all its inevitable and perpetual harms.
We’ve already left it very, very late. We must begin to craft better stories now.
For additional insight:
The trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics. It is generally considered to represent a classic clash between…
Karen Armstrong: A History of God