View from the terrace of the family's Brooklyn Heights apartment

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Belief? Religion?

Many suras of the Qu’ran begin with the injunction that first and foremost the muslim must believe in allah. Christians from early childhood are required to recite a testimony of belief in god and articles of faith in what is often called the Apostles’ Creed. The earlier books of the Hebrew scripture say little about belief in Yahweh, since Adam, Moses, and the prophets, according to the stories, spoke with him; as god becomes remote or perhaps, as one psalmist puts it, seems to have fallen asleep, belief becomes an issue. An apparently naive question, but one that is seldom asked, is why god would care whether each and every one of the billions of people who have lived or are now alive believe in him or not. Though a case can be made for the social utility of dedication to household, local, and tribal deities, the situation is less clear in the case of the evolved cosmic god of the Abrahamic religions--the all-knowing, all-powerful, benevolent creator of the universe and all living things. Why would this god be so insistent upon the belief of one species of his creation on a small planet in a middling galaxy?

As the detective or the police always ask a in a murder mystery, who benefits? Who benefits from belief in this cosmic god? Certainly not the deity. Maybe the state? Codes of law, such as those attributed to Hammurabi or Moses, we are told, were handed down by a god, and the state has historically been interested in proclaiming a divine sanction for its power and justification for its laws. But obviously the principal beneficiaries of belief in god is a special class of elite, spiritually superior individuals who serve as intermediaries between everyone else and the divine--priests, bishops, imams, rabbis, and ministers. Their livelihood and in some cases their extraordinary wealth and power depend entirely on the  faithful’s belief in the god they serve. There is no need to assume hypocrisy on the part of god’s ministers, just as there is no need to inculpate generals promoting  a dubious war  they have convinced themselves is just and necessary.

If he does not exist, the Abrahamic god’s insistence on belief, of course, is moot and meaningless. The question then becomes why so many people believe in this deity. Even the most ardent atheist must wonder about the almost universal belief in god among the philosophers and scientists of the past and, while the percentage of skeptics has increased, of the many intelligent scientists, scholars, and historians now living who believe not only in a supreme being but in a particular creed.  Why do so many people believe in an entity they have never seen or heard on the basis of less evidence than there is, for example, for the existence of ghosts or aliens from outer space?

One answer is that belief in god is drummed into our heads from childhood, along with any number of improbable theological precepts such as a detailed and complex dogmas about nature of this god, the belief in angels and demons, and the expectation of deliverance by the return of a savior, the prophet, or god himself in some final destruction of the world as we know it. When parents, teachers, religious figures, and all our peers accept these things as a matter of course, it is almost impossible for a twelve-year-old and difficult for a twenty-year-old to question nearly universal, if implausible, beliefs. That a charming fable about a jealous god, a naive primitive couple, and a clever snake could be elaborated by theologians over the centuries to explain sin, death, and the sacrifice of god’s divine son to appease the father god’s hurt feelings or sense of justice is preposterous, or--as the orthodox would have it--a great mystery.

An even more basic concern is the origin of religion itself. Some have suggested that the fear of death explains the origin of religious belief, an unlikely surmise, since the concept of immortality comes rather late in the classical and Abrahamic traditions. A more plausible explanation would have it  that religion is an evolved form of ritual magic in which the tribe or clan called upon spirits or forces of nature to influence conditions beyond their control such as the weather, the hunt, the harvest, or fortune in general. In today’s Abrahamic religions and many others, prayer, communal and individual, continues to be an example of magical thinking, and congregations meeting together at specified times are contemporary instances of what once were tribal rituals. The primitive origins of current religious practices is clear enough when we understand, say, that the Christian eucharist is basically symbolic form of sacrificial murder and cannibalism. 

What, then, are a secular humanists to make of religion? Some tend to condemn it categorically as a sham which has brought a great deal of evil and trouble into the world. The Christians who were executed by the Romans are celebrated as martyrs, but when with Constantine the Church officially gained imperial status, the Christians who were executed by the empowered Church, and there were many, many more of them, are even to this day condemned as heretics. Translating the Bible into a vernacular language, describing a more accurate account of the cosmos, or even unusual moral righteousness at times resulted in being condemned and burnt at the stake. Disgraceful in hindsight were the  execution of witches, some 50,000 in Europe alone, the pogroms against Jews, the infamous Inquisition, the persecution and the mass killing of rival Christians, along with brutal internecine wars among Christians that decimated and caused untold damage in Europe for much of the seventeenth century. Religion has supported patriarchy  and the suppression and even the mutilation of women. Down to the present day extreme Muslim, Jewish, and Christian fundamentalists have fomented strife and violence between rival sects and creeds. Wherever a particular religion has achieved power, its ministers have often abused that power. 

Though religion has been responsible for much evil and atrocity throughout history, there is another side of the coin. Many hallmarks of civil society were founded or preserved by religious institutions, among them hospitals, libraries, and universities. In ancient Egypt and the classical world, health and medicine were  gifts of a god whose servants administered centers for curing the sick, a relationship which was continued and further developed in Medieval times with hospitals administered by monks and nuns.  Ancient manuscripts of classical sources or from Islamic scholarship were preserved by monasteries along with Christian and vernacular documents. Following the example of cathedral or monastic schools, universities were established throughout Western Europe with charters from political or religious officials, much like self-regulating guilds. One need only observe the many astonishing temples, mosques, and cathedrals throughout the world to experience the glories of architecture that religious zeal has produced.

Even more important for ordinary people was the role played by the local parish priest in everyday life, during rites of passage for individuals, and on special celebrations and festivals throughout the year. Birth, puberty, marriage, and death were acknowledged by god’s ministers with formal rites and blessings. The priest or minister who on Sunday might terrorize his congregation with ghastly images of hell, would comfort them as well with god’s mercy and relieve their guilt and anguish by offering spiritual advice and forgiveness of sin. During a crisis like the death of a mate or a child or in times of plague, war, and famine the faithful turned to god for relief, Christians often calling upon saints and, above all, the Madonna, mother of god and queen of heaven.

Belief and religion, therefore, appear to be mixed blessings. The clear lesson of history is that religion may be a positive force when it serves the community and gives reason to hope and solace to the faithful. But religion becomes dangerous whenever and wherever it attains political power.

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