Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Religion: Force for Good or Evil?

As I mentioned in yesterday's blog, although I'm an atheist, I am surrounded by believers. Not just in the world in general, but in my personal life. I noted two blogs ago that my parents were both churchgoers, and my mom was a longtime (and still occasional) choir director.

But you can't choose your parents. More instructive is that fact that my wife is a lifelong Catholic, and we were married in a huge Catholic church. In fact, I long-term dated two Catholics before her. Obviously, despite my own disbelief, something draws me to people of religious upbringing.

It is clear that religion can foster many excellent qualities, if they're espoused correctly. Love, peace, justice, empathy, responsibility, and devotion are all qualities my wife possesses, and the church has been a large part of her life since she was born. I myself grew up in a tight-knit church community, full of laughter and people who helped raise me. When I venture back for a service or a funeral today, I can still feel the unmitigated love of members of the congregation who have known me since I was born. I am almost assuredly a better person because of growing up in this church, even though I despised much of it at the time.

Then what's my beef?

Well, first of all, the church I went to growing up isn't typical of most. It's about as liberal as it gets, with emphasis on brotherly love and not judgment. I recall hearing very little about Hell. Furthermore, the stuff I enjoyed about it had nothing to do with the Christianity. I liked the games and fundraisers and retreats. I loathed the sermons and rituals and Bible study.

Furthermore, whereas my church was accepting of all types of people, that certainly isn't the case in most denominations, which are exclusionary by nature. Oh sure, they'll say that God accepts everyone, but they'll point out all the "sins" you're committing and need to repent. Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Mormons still excommunicate people. I'm sure other sects do as well.

That's before we even get into the bleak, violent history of worldwide religions. I don't intend to do so here, because it would take too long, but there's no way to debate that misplaced faith is responsible for the persecution and deaths of millions of people throughout human history, continuing on through present day. For a more comprehensive view of the damage religion has done, read God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens.

Still, religious belief is at least partly responsible for the character of people like my wife, mother, and many of my friends and family. I see goodness in it. I have agreed to allow Eileen to raise our kids in the Catholic church, at least until they get to be old enough to decide what's right for themselves. If she is able to discard the Pope's less-tolerant decrees, I have no doubt my progeny can as well.

It comes down to this for me, then: Is being fed irrational nonsense worth the net result of producing people of good character? Do the ends justify the means? And, the big one: If I had my way, would there be religion or not?

First, let me be clear. I am not in favor of outlawing religion or trying to forcibly remove it from society. I would be just as bad as the zealots who punish those who do not succumb to their beliefs. Although I would prefer that more people think critically and rationally and come to the conclusion that there really is no all-powerful being who oversees and keeps track of our every move, I'm not in favor of limiting anyone's beliefs, so long as they keep them from interfering with anyone else's.

Clearly, a belief in imaginary things does not hinder one's development. I am no worse off now because I believed in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and Puff the Magic Dragon when I was younger. But what if I still believed those things today? What would that say about my intellect or grasp of reality? If I believe that God loves me and wants me to do well, what's to stop me from gambling my mortgage payment on a horse named after my favorite saint?

That's silly, you say. Well, how about this, then: Do you realize that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has been largely influenced by Evangelical Christians who believe that Israel must be protected, not for the nation's benefit, but because the Jews must inhabit that piece of land in order for armageddon to occur? They are hoping that the rest of the world burns while they are taken up to Heaven. I'm not making this up. Do some research if you don't believe me. Tack on to that the ignorant and ongoing challenges to all fields of science by dogmatic literalists, and that's reason alone to do away with faith and superstition.

I know the argument follows "Not all followers believe in literal translations of their holy books! Lots of us believe the really crazy stuff is metaphor." Nevertheless, all major religions believe in some sort of supernatural occurrences. Christians believe not only that their savior was born from a virgin, but he rose from the dead after three days. Stop right there. That defies all natural law. That's magic. If you believe that, you believe in magic. If you're willing to believe in one form of magic, what's preventing your credulity that the Virgin Mary appeared in a tortilla? Or believe in ghosts? Or ESP? Or David Friggin' Blaine?

Everything has a logical explanation, but not everything can be explained. Just because we don't know how the universe came to be doesn't mean the default is "God did it." I guess what I'm saying is, I do believe we'd all be better off as a whole if there were no religion. It's held back progress and intellectualism for too long.

In the meantime, I'll try to remember the good things about it, because there are plenty of them.


megan said...

Interesting post. I wasn't planning on commenting, but I wanted to shed light on the concept of excommunication.

In the Mormon church, relatively few people are excommunicated, and it's purpose is to restore perspective to the individual who has done wrong. Frequently, an excommunicated member realizes that the church was a positive influence in his/her life, and they determine to take the steps that are necessary to return. It could be considered a 'wake-up call' of sorts.

As an educator, I think you can agree that good and poor decisions both require consequences. Excommunication does not stem from petty moral transgressions. There are very few reasons for such a serious consequence: murder, committing a felony, serious sexual perversion. These are all acts that would also face legal ramifications. Likewise, there will also be religious consequences.

The single purpose of excommunication is to help a person take positive steps, and the process of excommunication focuses on what's best for the individual. It's a decision that is not made lightly, and the individual is treated with great love and respect. The ultimate goal is to help the individual evaluate his behavior and increase his determination to live well. Any effort to compare excommunication to exclusion or disassociation is perhaps misled. You're right-- that would be the antithesis to Christ-like love.

Anyway, I recognize that my comments relate to a very brief part of your post... but I thought I'd play 'Devil's advocate' on that point.

megan said...

P.S. Am I allowed to be a French National soccer fan? I mean, how long must one reside in an area to claim a 'hometown team'? I know you're the one to ask about kosher sports practices.

Nolan said...

Thanks for the excommunication clarification. There are a couple ex-Mormons in Bill Maher's film Religulous who would disagree, but I understand that your point was to the idea of it, not always the practice of it.

As to the French soccer thing, I think that's fine, as long as you don't root for them over the U.S. You have ties to French culture; they can be your team. No one really cares about soccer here, anyway.

Natalie Wierdsma said...

Bottsey and I have different views on the Mormon church, but I do agree with her points about excommunication. It's more likely that you simply don't practice the religion than you've been excommunicated (like me).

I did find this post entertaining, as I just read a collection of essays on the seven "deadly" sins and just wrote an essay this morning titled, "A Praise for Lust".

Natalie Wierdsma said...

I totally sounded like I'd been excommunicated.

That's right. I'm a mass murderer.