Freethought NOW!

Why religion?

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The first lesson that we learn in life is that we are utterly powerless.

We can do nothing for ourselves. We can’t even get ourselves to the teat, as other newborn mammals can. We can only cry until a mysteriously benevolent giant woman comes and puts us to her breast or to a bottle. We can’t do anything, even sit up, without help. We must lie in our own filth until someone cleans us. We can only hope that the giants will be kind and attend to our needs. Usually, they do. Then we smile.

Of course, we can see here not only the prehistoric Titans or Giants in every mythology (including that of the bible) but also the genesis of later deities. In babyhood, we are utterly dependent on the mother who is bigger, wiser, stronger than ourselves. It explains why the first and oldest deity in every early mythology is the Mother/Creatress, our first and oldest perception of beneficent divinity. She was humanity’s most basic concept of the primal power to create life, which our primitive ancestors perceived as being embodied only in women. It was Mother who told us how to live.

Even before we learn to use words, we know that vocal sounds gain the attention of our caretakers. We are born wailing our protest against our sudden traumatic expulsion from our peaceful intrauterine Eden. Here lies the original rationale of prayer: When you make sounds that the powerful ones can hear, they cooperate.

It is interesting that all over the world, in all ages, the standard gesture of appeal to a deity is the child’s instinctive raising of both arms toward the adult. In childhood it means pick me up, hold me, comfort me, feed me. In adulthood it means bless me, hear me, help me. We see the same gesture performed even by infant chimpanzees and other primates.

Our sounds of appeal are based on all the magical formulae, addresses, beggings, charms, blessings and curses, invocations and evocations of all religious traditions, plus the incredibly arrogant belief that the universe has huge human-like powers able to pay attention to our tiny vocalizations. We gain a false sense of our own importance, as well as an equally false conviction of our ability to influence Nature. As babies we feel ourselves to be at the center of everything. Later, we postulate deities whose works are eternal and unalterable, yet we imagine that our individual wishes have the power to alter them. When prayers don’t work, we must invent excuses: It wasn’t God’s will, or we are too sinful, or some demon thwarted us, or we didn’t use the right words. Seldom is it suggested that there aren’t any divine ears listening in the first place.

As time progressed, some cannier humans found ways to achieve real power over their fellows, by exploiting naive beliefs for their own incomes and social prestige. Seers and saviors, prophets and priests, all manner of pretenders learned to make a living off the credulity of others, sometimes providing genuine help but often insisting on pointless rituals in return for their upkeep. Once the believer is convinced of the necessity for ritual, its practice can develop exponentially, as shown by today’s internationally spread religious entities, busily convincing each new generation that it must continue the customs forever. Or Else.

The consequences of apostasy became correspondingly more dire: the horrors of Inquisitions, crusades, witch hunts, holocausts; the emphasis on eternal torture in hell, the most sadistic concept ever imagined. This “fear of God” — specifically of his eternal punishment — was considered essential to make people behave decently. It is not so much the fear of death that fuels religiosity, because religion introduces even worse fears. It is rather the fear of abandonment by the authority figure: No one to tell us what to do, how to live. Unlike lower animals, who know by instinct how to conduct their lives, humans need to be told. We obey orders even when they feel wrong, as when soldiers are taught to kill innocent civilians, an act usually considered evil but always endorsed by their God in times of war.

Unfortunately, much of religion’s lust for power provokes attacks on those who refuse to believe — or who believe differently. When supplied with temporal power to wage war against the so-called infidel, it does so with enthusiasm. The atrocities committed in religious persecutions are the most numerous and most vicious in all of human history. While seemingly preaching love, many sects really preached hatred. They hated the nonbeliever, the infidel, the pagan, the wrong race or the wrong sex — which has been the female sex ever since the advent of monotheistic patriarchy. The JudeoChristian God, having supposedly said “Thou shalt not kill,” then ordered massacres that killed millions.

It is often supposed that a major power of religion lies in the promise of immortality: The one promise that never has to be kept. Religions have built the world’s most profitable tax-free business on selling this nonproduct, which they don’t need to deliver. The belief is supported by nothing but hot air, i.e., words. There has never been one scrap of empirical evidence for the belief, but empirical evidence is not required. Words alone do the trick, bringing in the money, the power, and the hordes of flattering, fawning followers.

Today, the destructive lust for power that fuels the wars of both politics and religion creates serious danger to ourselves and our world. We must overcome false beliefs and realize our dependence on one another, rather than on imaginary deities. As far as we are ever likely to know, this planet is the only one available for us to live on. Our survival as a species may depend on realistic recognition of this, so we can use our brains to take better care of it.

Reason, not religion, gives us a power that is useful, and does not lie, or foster ignorance and hatred. May we soon transcend our spiritual infancy and grow up.

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5 Responses

  1. The most important task of mankind is to find that switch which eliminates religions in the world, or at least find a way to make people see their terrible mistake of having created religions!

  2. I loved and admired you already for my classic knitting books you wrote.
    Now I love and admire you double for this.
    Thank you.

  3. BW: The first lesson that we learn in life is that we are utterly powerless.
    GW: I think we learn that we are mostly powerless, but not “utterly” so. We learn pretty quickly that if we cry, we attract the attention of powerful parents who usually give us what we need or want.

    BW: We can only cry until a mysteriously benevolent giant woman comes and puts us to her breast or to a bottle.
    GW: Yes, that is correct. And so, we are not “utterly powerless” when we are born.

    BW: It explains why the first and oldest deity in every early mythology is the Mother/Creatress…
    GW: This might be true, but I am skeptical. You say “every.” Really? What’s your evidence for this? Are there any counter examples? Is the early mythology of the Israelites a counter example?

    BW: Here lies the original rationale of prayer: When you make sounds that the powerful ones can hear, they cooperate.
    GW: Good point. I agree.

    BW: Later, we postulate deities whose works are eternal and unalterable, yet we imagine that our individual wishes have the power to alter them.
    GW: Absolutely true!

    BW: When prayers don’t work, we must invent excuses: It wasn’t God’s will, or we are too sinful, or some demon thwarted us, or we didn’t use the right words. Seldom is it suggested that there aren’t any divine ears listening in the first place.
    GW: If you can’t depend on a deity to reliably help you when you are in need, then what good is it? Or maybe it just doesn’t exist at all. The deity known as “God” didn’t give the Jews much help during the Holocaust, did he?

    BW: This “fear of God” — specifically of his eternal punishment — was considered essential to make people behave decently.
    GW: Yes it was! But we don’t need that myth or delusion anymore. There are other better ways to help people behave decently. Secular humanism is a good foundation for this.

    BW: We obey orders even when they feel wrong,…
    GW: Yes. A good example is when Trump gives orders to his followers.

    BW: While seemingly preaching love, many sects really preached hatred.
    GW: Usually they preach love for the in-group and hate for the out-group.

    BW: It is often supposed that a major power of religion lies in the promise of immortality: The one promise that never has to be kept.
    GW: Yes. They sell a life insurance policy or a survival maintenance policy which never pays off.

    BW: As far as we are ever likely to know, this planet is the only one available for us to live on.
    GW: I disagree. We probably can and will live on Mars and someday on a planet in another solar system.

    BW: May we soon transcend our spiritual infancy and grow up.
    GW: Amen! If I could magically flip a switch which eliminate religion in the world, I’d do it today. Keep the people. Just get rid of the religion – the irrational beliefs, behaviors, rituals, and rules.

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