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.


  1. I love how you write.


  2. Hey Sid, Great Post, although I think my "Why I'm not an Atheist" is better. Jehovah's gonna Getcha for that!! as my old German Jewish Grandmother would say in her Platt-Deutsch dialect. Hey, Post-Suggestion, I know its Surgical, and you're over that, but could you do a Step By Step description of a Whipple? I know you did sort of a Generic Peace on your old blog, but when you die, that knowledge is gonna be lost forever like those missing X-files episodes. Like, how do you sew the PANCREAS to anything?? Thats the one operation I'd peek over the screen to try and watch until the Surgeon told me to stop contaminating his precious sterile field. I could even do an Anesthesia-Counterpoint although it'd only be 3 sentences.

    1: Put Patient to Sleep
    2: Keep Patient Alive
    3: Wake Patient Up, Or Not!!, depends on what time it is!!

    Frank Drackman, Jehovah Believer

  3. A thoroughly enjoyable article. I found myself nodding at every paragraph. In response to the question what is it that urges us to 'join the mob'?, The more I think about it the more it seems that for many it is how they define themselves. When rallying behind a belief that others hold they can identify with certain common values and see those as integral to who they are. I see scarry similarities in the nationalism of the early 20th Century when people rallied behind a flag and an anthem. I think most people are afraid to make their own decisions so find comfort in the mob and are happy to accept whatever the charismatic leaders tell them, even if it is utter crap.

  4. Two thoughts -

    If I were poor and uneducated, with scant chance of changing my circumstances, religion might look pretty good. That a better future might be mine after death would be very appealing. Might be the only thing that keeps me going.

    Considering the bit we know of the universe - its power and immensity - it's hard to understand why a person would want to worship a guy (or gal) who looks like us and has personality.

  5. m: thanks!

    Frank: there are plenty of step-by-steps out there. And you'd notice, apropos my pancreas comment herein, that there are dozens of ways to handle the pancreatic duct/bowel interface... I'll read your post.

    ace: agreed. Which is why I had a link to a picture of a Nazi rally. Seeing people in the megachurches, waving hands in air, shouting in unison, is very reminiscent and must come, I'd say, from the same urges.

    LG: the eye-opening puzzler to me is that in fact many people I know of extremely high intellect are believers (their beliefs differ wildly one from the other, of course). To me that says the existential dissonance is very strong; the need for answers -- for a salve to the pain -- so powerful that it runs across all humankind. Which would be okay, I guess, if it didn't lead to such destructive consequences in so many.

  6. Existential dissonance --perfect. That whatever-it-is in us that says "It shouldn't be this way!" We don't accept the world as it is; we hope, we dream, and sometimes, we despair.

  7. Sid, as a life long religious person, I completely understand your position! I wonder about all the same questions, but coninue to participate in organized religion. Thought you might like to see this, re the priest who talked about refusing communion:http://ncronline3.org/drupal/?q=node/2577. The guy is way off the deep end, and just wrong, wrong, wrong. Keep poking that stick at us religious types, we deserve it!

  8. Sid I think it would be a mistake to blame religion for the failure of the gay marriage proposal. We live in a democracy and if you submit something to a vote that should not be voted on there is really no argument. Should we vote for whether slavery is moral or not? Should we vote for whether 2+2=4? or 5. Should we vote for whether one group in our society should be denied civil rights?

  9. I couldn't disagree more (although I'm not sure I get the meaning of your last questions, so I might be misunderstanding your point): the only argument against gay rights is the religious belief that gays are an offense to god (along with the unfactual and religiously promoted idea that it's a choice), or some variation thereof. And, it's clear the Mormon church had a huge impact on the outcome. (For that matter, slavery was biblically justified for a long time, as well.) So as I see it, religion has everything to do with Prop 8 and its passage.

  10. It was the African-Amercian vote that made the difference in Prop 8. That'll teach y'all to win the Civil War!!!!!

  11. Excellent piece, Sid. I agree that you are an exceptional writer. Kudos for this post.

    You and your readers might enjoy my husband's semi-humorous musings on religion, posted during the Jewish holiday season. Please link to it below:

    Confessions of the Creator

    Warm regards,


  12. Thanks, Ellen. A brief look at your husband's piece is inviting. i'll give it a good read.

  13. I have a problem with the biological explanation of being gay. Not that I disagree with the premise(the number of siblings within the same family that are gay supports this theory)but I dislike the notion that suggests that since one is born gay you have no choice, therefore it's something you can't help. 'Can't help' suggesting that if only you were born 'normal' well, it would be better.That's sort of like saying, well, if one is born with a predispostion to steal, you can't help it that you're a kleptomaniac, poor dear. There's an element of pity to this 'can't help-it-they-were-born-that-way' idea that I find just a tad condesending.

    I was born with a predisposition to sexually prefer my own sex but I DID have a choice not to pursue that. It would have been easier, from a social and economic standpoint, to marry a man and live an easier life in some ways. It would have been an emotional death for me but still, I would have had it easier in a lot of other respects. Many women, and men, choose the safer route society encourages of marrying the opposite sex and leading a straight life. I know several people who did. i don't knock them for their choice. I undestand why they made that choice.

    As I CHOSE my path. It WAS a choice in my case, not something I just 'couldn't help.' So I have to ask, does willfully choosing somehow make living gay NOT OK as opposed to 'not being able to help oneself'? Sounds patronizing to me.

    Got a bit off topic re your post on religion Sid, which was an excellent piece.

  14. dodge: I appreciate your comment, even though I find much with which to disagree.

  15. @Frank Drackman: Further review has shown that rather than the black vote, it was the old people vote that gave a majority to Prop 8. That'll teach us not to have "Carnival" at age 30 a la Logan's Run!

  16. Hi, dr sid. first time to comment here, tho am onto your blogs for quite sumtym now. I am also a surgeon in the Philippines. I thot i could learn from your surgical experiences. I never thot we have the same musings regarding religion and spirituality. I like the way you write. Believe me, you are more scholarly in your approach towards the topic of religion than most theologians. To me, organized religion of men is a sign of insecurity. We like to be secure in a mob setting. I know, I came from one. And though I have not separated myself physically from religion, in spirit I already have (my wife still needs her usual sunday dose of religion, and I have to be there for her and the kids until I can wean them off without conflict and until I can feed them myself, spiritually). Yes, I believe in God. But not the god that most of christianity describes, the god who would consign most of humanity in a literal hell for all eternity withour the chance of relief. My God is a God of restoration and reconciliation. There is a purpose for everything here on earth even all the evil things that happen. Well, he created both good and evil, so there must be a reason for both. One will not appreciate good without evil. Even our post perforated ulcer patients can appreciate the relief from pain after we do modified graham's patch. Anyway, I know you can also respect my musings about religion. By the way, after graham's...( will continue)


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