Tuesday, November 18, 2008
On Religion (One)
Why is it that, if we humans need to believe in deities, we also need to be told what to believe? What connects the internal, the personal need, to the external, the -- for lack of a better term -- social need? The mob mentality. If that connection could be severed, I might feel better about all the religion that's out there.
People -- reportedly created by a perfect god -- are shockingly imperfect. Speaking physically, it couldn't be more obvious: cancer, arthritis, birth defects, halitosis. Morally: hateful, vengeful, selfish, dishonest. Psychically: fearful, wildly varying in intelligence, weak-willed, needy, easily deceived, quickly roused to mob rule. With all our failings, compounded by enough self-awareness to be scared stiff of death and dying, it's not hard to understand the comforting role played by confidence that there's a greater meaning, an end beyond the end. And yet what's out there is the grandest of breakfast buffets: take your choice, fill your plate, come back for seconds if the first didn't fill you up. There's something about it that puts the lie to itself. If scrambled eggs were the perfect meal, there'd be no need for the pastry table.
So here we are: a species in need of solace. And it's obvious that there's not a single source of it; in fact, there are so many religions, and so many variations within those religions, so many churches and subsets and preachers of their own minds, that for all intents and purposes we're making it up as we go along. Infinitely customizable, individually internalized, why is it, then, that people are so easily convinced that their beliefs are in some way truer than those of the person next door? Why the need, moreover, to impose them on that neighbor?
Which gets back to the original question. The ultimate purpose of belief, as I see it anyway, is to assuage the fear of death, to confirm meaning where there might be none. What could be more personal or individual? Whence, then, the leap to the general: the good book, the sermon, the joining of forces, the mob? The accepting as literal truth, words written, re-written, translated, updated, modified; having selected one among countless many religions and beliefs, wherefore the need to go beyond personal rejection of the others, to banishing them? To destroying them. To imposing on them one's own. Why the inability to say, This works for me, that works for you, peace be upon us all?
Answer: none of it really works. If belief fully satisfied the soul, there'd be no need to denigrate another's. There'd be no need to join up with thousands of others, marching, chanting, threatening. If personal belief, alone, were enough to give comfort, the beliefs (or non-beliefs) of others would be of no consequence. There wouldn't be religious wars, there wouldn't be megachurches, there wouldn't be a Prop 8. For that matter, there wouldn't be Nazi rallies, gangs, or crowds with torches. Or burning crosses. But that's not the way it is. For some reason, we puny humans need constant validation of our beliefs; we need to surround ourselves with amens and we need to drown out the doubt that arises from seeing others believing differently. In our essence, something is greatly amiss.
Which is to say the obvious: if there were one true religion, it would have resolved the doubts of everyone. If a belief were transcendently right there'd be no others. (It's a truism in surgery -- about which I know a few things -- that if there are several different operations to solve a particular problem -- example: chronic pancreatitis -- the perfect one hasn't been found.) Logically, the only reasonable assumption is that everyone who thinks their religion is true, is wrong, if for no other reason than that there are billions of people -- nearly everyone, when you get down to the minute particulars -- who believe something very different. With just as much certainty. Billions. They can't all be right. In fact, if there is a cosmic truth, by simple arithmetic you can point to any individual believer and be sure he or she is most certainly wrong about it. That includes me. And you.
I plan to write more about this. The fact that I'm no theological expert makes my thoughts particularly worthy, because since there's no true religion, there can be no true experts. The world needs a little input from that perspective. The emperors have no clothes, and you can never have enough people saying so.
Before I go on, I want to clarify something, because I have valued friends who are believers: I respect religion as it applies to individuals. To the extent that it provides guidance and comfort and internal peace, given our obvious human frailties and shortcomings, I see the value, the appeal of religion. Most people couldn't get along without it in some form. For reasons I'll try to explain, I wish that were not the case. But I'm a realist. So for now, I'd settle for the elimination of organized religion, with its need to impose itself on everyone else. If people could find personal solace in their beliefs, and were comfortable enough in them to rise above the need to see them reflected everywhere they look, the future would look way better. Dayenu, is what I'd say.
And finally, why now? Prop 8. Mormon support for Prop 8. Sarah Palin. Priests refusing communion to Obama supporters. Obama is the antichrist. Burning black churches after the election. This. Intelligent design. Young earth creationists. 9/11. The Middle East. Our failing education. By much evidence, organized religion is an increasing threat to our future as it tries to substitute belief for reason, to deny human rights, and as it forces itself onto the body politic, narrow-minded and certain of its rectitude.