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Why Have Religion?

New Page -- 21 April 2006

Updated -- 11 November 2006

 

In today's world and throughout history, religion has played a predominant role in the affairs of men and women and the groups with which they associate. Probably more than any other single factor, religion has had an influence which far outweighs virtually everything else. The manner in which people have lived their lives, fought their wars, sought peace and tried to pursue happiness have all been heavily influenced by the religious dictates of the time and place in which these people have lived.

But is religion really needed for such pursuits as happiness, sociability, war and peace? Are there, perhaps, better alternatives?

On the most basic level anyone professing to the beliefs and lifestyles of any religion must ultimately ask the question: Why have religion? What justifies its existence, especially in lieu of having other alternative devices with which we might prefer to use in order to motivate ourselves and to create our own reality? One might even question the role religion might ideally play within a society which claims to be civilized or humane. Ultimately, it comes down to the most fundamental (pardon the pun) of questions: Why even bother with religion?

If this seems sacrilegious... well... why not? Is there a reason that religion should enjoy some kind of immunity from inquiry? David Koepsell [6] has noted, for example, "the reason religious conservatives fear too much inquiry: it leads to doubt."

"Religion is one of the most powerful social phenomena in the world. It guides nations, wars, societies, even whole eras; it has catalyzed climactic moments in history. As such, it should be studied -- and thoroughly. Religions hinge on truth claims, usually embodied in texts and carried out through social practices and belief sets that are often highly institutionalized and structured. The texts, truth claims, belief sets, and structures of religion can and should all be put to the sort of tests to which other institutionalized phenomena are subject, namely: tests for internal logical consistency in belief sets, tests of corroboration for truth claims, and examinations of the efficacy of institutions and other structures within the boundaries of religions. We do this with ideologies in political science. We do this with theories in economics. We do this with nontheistic philosophies. Scholarly integrity and academic honesty demand that the same level of criticism be employed for religions and their institutions as for other social phenomena." [6]

One reason such a question is asked is that bloody and horrific wars have been fought over religious differences. This is the case wherein essentially the fundamentalists of one sect or cult were arrayed against the fundamentalists of another sect or cult, and a whole host of seemingly innocent people invariably got in harm's way. The fact that the higher ranking members of either fundamentalist sect or cult pretty much escaped the ravages of wars and devastation they were so instrumental in initiating, proliferating, or profiting thereby is... well... another matter altogether.

Wars, of course, have been waged for purposes other than religious differences, but the purveyors of such wars have in countless cases used religion to rally the troops -- not to mention the society which supports the troops. Religion may not always generate war, but it readily accedes to being used to justify and sanctify war, and attempt to lift the purely materialistic reasons "to a transmaterial level in which killing in war often takes fhe form of religious duty." [3]

Said religious duty is supported by the fact that "Killing in the name of God as sacrifice and worship, as an act expressive of religious devotion, is one of the most enduring and universal features of religion. Near the core of religion lies a grand, cosmic battle between order -- equated with all that is righteous and good -- and chaos --equated with all that is evil, sinful, and bad -- along with all the heroes, martyrs, and holy warriors who maim, kill, and die fighting the foes of the cherished divinities and receive vast and eternal rewards." [3]

It is in fact a fundamental -- there's that word again -- tenet of war to use religion to motivate anyone and everyone to go out and commit all manner of atrocity and heinous crimes. Curiously, the religions used to justify such atrocities and heinous crimes are typically opposed in principle to these horrendous and inhumane acts as a matter of their most basic and sacred beliefs. Or at least opposed to such atrocities and heinous crimes on their own people.

What is absolutely astounding is that so many people -- ostensibly good, loving, and religiously dedicated souls -- have enthusiastically accepted inane and incredulous religious justifications for untold and unlimited destruction, killing, maiming, and torturing. It has always been the height of irony that all the dictates of religions advocating righteousness and correct living have been so easily ignored by those religions who have been more than eager to condone any action in "defense of the faith", but which are diametrically opposed to the religions' dogmas, laws, and allegedly ethical standards.

Inevitably, wars and conflicts have always been portrayed as being between "the good guys and the bad guys", with the applicable religions more often than not aiding in the identification of who gets to wear the white hats (as opposed to the black hats). This identification is futher predicated upon the concept that one religion is good and everyone else's religion is wrong. This technique does have the quality that at least it's simple, and thus ideal for the simple minded folk who will be the primary fodder in pursuing the war's agenda.

In view of the immense pain and suffering caused by religions over the millennial - said pain and suffering incurred in the fanatical quest of religious fundamentalists to impose their antiquated, narrow, limited and irrational views on others (using techniques ranging from inquisitions to holocausts to jihads to making the world safe for democracy to avoiding meat on Fridays), and so forth and so... One must ask the question again and again as to why should we as human beings want to have such an anti-ethical, immoral, and inhumane force in any human civilization worthy of the name?

In view of the historical horrors associated with them, why even have religions?

*******************

This webpage is one attempt to answer that question. Its thesis is that the answer can be summarized in what might be thought of as The Seven Purposes of Religion. These seven purposes are:

Guidance in the daily and societal lives of individuals,

Societal bonding of certain segments of society,

Understanding of purpose (both individual, group and/or species),

Comfort

Connection/communication with a higher power (for whatever reason),

External Control, and

A Discussion Topic for various websites, commentators, and fund raisers.

Unlike the Seven Deadly Sins, the 99 names of God, or the Three Attributes of the Truly Demented Mind, the Seven Purposes (or at least the first six) may suffice to identify any redeeming quality of religion. We'll take them one at a time.

Guidance in Daily Living

Religion can be used, ideally, to provide its adherents with a set of principles or rules by which they can live their lives to the fullest, and at the same time to allow for them to live with other people in a civilized, caring society. Said rules can also be used to provide the means to live in an uncivilized, uncaring society, but inasmuch as most religions appeal to the downtrodden by claiming attributes of the civilized, caring bit, we will assume that the better road to travel (or at least the first one) is the one leading toward a caring civilized life. The attributes of the Klingon Empire can be, for the moment, debated elsewhere.

On the one hand, religions have always claimed responsibility for providing the very foundations of civilized society. However, as Thomas Mates [7] has noted,

"Instead of straining to show that the Bible is not the foundation of our democracy, [progressives] should challenge the Right to show how it ever could have been."

"No one taking the New Testament seriously could view it as a template for governance, and it's high time that American secularists compelled conservative American believers to treat their religion like a religion, instead of a weapon or a tool."

"It takes the institutionalization of a bold set of lies to make an apocalyptic religion seem compatible with procreation and 401k plans and to make a pacifist religion compatible with war."

Victor Stenger [8] has also noted that, "Only three of the Ten Commandments are codified into modern law, and those rules -- against killing, stealing, and bearing false witness -- predate the time of Moses." Mr. Stenger has also written:

"The Judeo-Christian and Islamic scriptures contain many passages that teach noble ideals, which the human race has done well to adopt as norms of behavior and, where appropriate, to codify into law. Without exception, these principles developed in earlier cultures, and history indicates that they were adopted by -- rather than learned from -- religion. While it is fine that religions preach moral precepts, they have no basis to claim that these precepts were authored by their particular deity, or, indeed, any deity at all."

"In The Doctrine of the Mean 13, written about 500 B.C.E., Confucius says, 'What you do not want others to do to you, do not do to others.'

"Isocrates (c. 375 B.C.E.) said, 'Do not do to others what would anger you if done to you by others.'

"The Hindu Mahabharata, written around 150 B.C.E., teaches, 'This is the sum of all true righteousness: deal with others as thou wouldst thyself be dealt by.'"

"'I treat those who are good with goodness. And I also treat those who are not good with goodness. Thus goodness is attained. I am honest with those who are honest. And I am also honest with those who are dishonest. Thus honesty is attained.' (Taoism: Tao Te Ching 49).

"'Conquer anger by love. Conquer evil by good. Conguer the stingy by giving. Conquer the liar by truth.' (Buddhism: Dhammapada 223)."

[It's curious but so many of the noble ideals by which we might govern ourselves came into widespread belief not long after 600 B.C.E.]

Any common set of rules and principles constitutes a mutual societal contract, the Common Law, wherein individuals and groups with wildly different agendas, goals, pursuits, and aspirations can be encouraged and even enabled to function in a tolerant, cooperative and/or competitive environment. Religion can serve the purpose, the bedrock, of providing the defining structure of what is "right" and what is "wrong".

More accurately, religion in its highest calling can define what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in a society which promotes the maximum freedom for its members, their individual pursuits of happiness, and the destinies or paths which they have chosen for their individual enlightenment. In brief, religion can identify, promote, and motivate people to: 1) participate in activities which are conducive to mutual peace and harmony, 2) or to avoid engaging in those other activities which are not conducive to such goals.

This common law has been perpetuated throughout history in two distinct forms. One is akin to the Sumerian Me, a set of precepts which promote standards on how to live a life which is beneficial to both the individual and the society which surrounds him or her. Things like, the art of kindness, or the Golden Rule, or even the making of beer. One might think of these as the "carrot" approach. All the standards of the Me and similar rules for living are based on what one should do or not do. Period.

A second form of motivating people to obey the rules is the very basic: Do it this way or else! Instead of describing what is good, and then leaving it alone, the second form includes not just the rules, but also the consequences of not following the rules. This is definitely the "stick" approach. It includes as its primary motivators, punishments or enforcements for a failure to not lead a "righteous" life. Instead of an appeal to do right, there is a very real threat on what happens if the appeal fails. The difficulty in this form is, of course, the fact that it inevitably degrades to "Do it my way or else", where the "my" is an extremely narrow view with a tendency toward fashionable changes on a whim.

One might argue as to the appropriateness in a civilized society of the Carrot and/or Stick approaches. In either case, however, there are rules or standards which seem pretty straight forward and thus logically or rationally a good idea to which one might wish to adhere. For example, rules or standards such as "thou shalt not kill" are seemingly unquestionable - even when such rules are tossed aside when it comes to being applied to "enemies of the state". Other rules, such as "thou shalt honor thy father and mother", are less intuitively obvious. On the one hand, they make sense, but may clearly, for any number of reasons, not be applicable or justified in all cases or situations. Many fathers and mothers are clearly not worthy of being honored.

Many religious rules (aka commandments) become even stranger when critical terms in the rule are undefined - as in "thou shalt love thy God." The problem is that even though "God" may be defined elsewhere in a very narrow manner, there is still room for considerable debate on just what or who the word, "God", means. Furthermore, such definitions (and the implications of identifying a particular "God") can be -- and often have been -- hotly debated to the point of all out war. [There is also the curious aside of why would any "God" worthy of the name require his creations to love him or her. Such a neediness implies a degree of dysfunctional behavior.]

Another fascinating ingredient is that there exists a commonality in virtually all religions worthy of the name. This commonality includes the principles by which people can live in a mutually beneficial society. One possible example is what one might define as the Golden Rule, i.e. "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you." There are many variations, but the gist of the rule is fundamentally the same. The appeal of this dictum is that it does not involve punishment, it provides a sense of an inherent reward for following the rule, and it seems particularly desirable in a world where we must all get along collectively in order to get along individually.

[The notion that the rule should read: "Do unto others what you would have them do unto themselves" is generally perceived to be without merit among civilized folk, although it was the manner in which the first draft of this page was inadvertently written. <grin>]

An enormously less appealing dictate is "And if a man lie with his daughter in law, both of them shall surely be put to death; they have wrought confusion; their blood shall be upon them." [Leviticus 20:12] The problem here (and in most of Leviticus and similar books in other religions) is that death is the punishment for a whole host of actions which violate a very narrow view of life. Too many people have been burnt alive for actions which in another time and place are entirely acceptable.

It is one thing for an individual to choose a religion which has such strict rules and thereafter be expected to follow them. It is an entirely different matter for someone to have such rules imposed upon her or him by individuals who condemn the actions of others in order to justify the most unspeakable crimes of their own religions. Most major religions in fact have words to the effect that one should not kill another, and then has hundreds of rules about killing others who somehow avoid offending some antiquated rule, some anal retentive, or some alleged divinity concocted by a truly demented mind.

[Note: The first Attribute of the Truly Demented Mind is concocting a preposterous divinity on which to inflict such a fantasy upon everyone else within reach.]

For examples, in order to guide the faithful in the conduct of their daily lives:

"And when the Lord they god shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them." -- Deuteronomy 7:2

"Those kings who, seeking to slay each other, fight with the utmost exertion and do not turn back, go to heaven." -- ancient Hindu code, the Law of Manu [3]

"It is necessary for all one hundred million subjects [of the emperor] to be prepared to die with honor... If you see the enemy, you must kill him, you must destroy the false and establish the true... these are the cardinal points of Zen." -- Harada Sogaku [3]

Despite the gross misuse of religions by various control freaks throughout history (and up until the modern day), religions can offer an excellent regimen in providing voluntary guidance on how best to live one's life. Ideally, such a regimen will be promulgated for the purpose of maximizing the long term happiness of the individual. On the other hand, it is critical that this religious underpinning of regimens be stripped down to the essential ingredients - and thereby avoid the side effects of madness-inspired attempts to kill others for victimless alleged crimes. [One might notice, parenthetically, the constant linkages between religion and politics/government.]

It must be pointed out, however, that such bare bones regimens or guidance never require a belief or adherence to the other tenets of a religion. The good news (the "gospel") is that doing things which are inherently beneficial for all concerned does not require a religious base. The bad news is that religions have all too often linked what might be a set of acceptable and understandable principles of living with a whole host of other belief requirements, the latter which are neither acceptable nor even understandable. What in the world, for example, does the alleged "virginity" of a mother in the ancient past have to do with treating others with respect and dignity?

Sad to say as we come to the end of discussing the first possible purpose of religion, that we are now facing the implication that religion is not needed in order to promulgate guidance for living. It might have occasionally done so in the past, but the side effects of such an opiate is simply not conducive to one's physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual health.

But not to worry, there are five (or six) other possible justifications for having religions.

Societal Bonding

Religions by their very nature tend to foster the idea that "birds of a feather tend to flock together." There is something enormously comforting in the idea that someone who might otherwise be a stranger to you can be counted on for certain behaviors by virtue of your knowing their religion and what is therefore expected of them in dealing with others. There is a marvelous sense of security in knowing that major surprises are unlikely to arise, and that rules for aiding travelers, for example, can be relied upon.

Furthermore, the inclusiveness of many religious relationships is very appealing, and allows for a sense of bonding which is often lacking in our lives. A stranger, for example, upon arrival in town might immediately go to the church, synagogue, mosque, or run-down pad of his or her choice, and be welcomed with open arms by the locals as one of their own. One can sit down and pray together or smoke pot in a friendly (albeit foggy) atmosphere. Such cohesiveness and common lifestyles makes for a higher quality of living for everyone.

[Of course as the hint of humor indirectly suggests in the above, one does not need a religion in order to connect with the pot smoking hippies -- except as a matter of making certain that one or more individuals are not narcotics cops.]

The two-headed nature of this particular religious sword, of course, is the fact that such societal bonding also includes a distinct exclusiveness, and strangers who profess other beliefs, even merely dress differently, are many times not only not welcome, but are in fact prohibited by force from interacting with the locals. It is said that the essence of community (including religious communities) is knowing a little dirt on everyone else. This mutually assured destruction (MAD) against anyone daring to fire the first shot, gives many people a weird sense of comfort. But a stranger in the midst, of whom nothing is known, is a decided threat inasmuch as they might discover the dirt on someone else without the MAD option on the part of the dirtee. One clear example of this is that Muslims on their way to Mecca will form a wonderfully cohesive grouping, whereas a Christian or Jew on the same trek would have to be considered suicidal.

Another two-edged sword aspect is the alleged added benefit of inclusiveness for those who profess the same faith or ideals, and the exclusiveness - something of a country club snobbery - which tends to make the in-crowd feel exalted and superior to those not included. This is the strange logic which says that someone who does not agree with me cannot possibly possess the intellect and enlightenment that I do as an insider. This logic of a sought-after exclusivity cannot be considered a desirable quality, but it may nevertheless provide many members of the Society for the Willfully Ignorant with a false sense of security, importance, and/or self-righteousness. Whatever floats their boat. Or Yacht. Whatever.

Does such a societal bonding require religion, however? Obviously not as country club members whose only religion is the worship of the intricate movements of small, white, dimpled balls might attest. One can feel decidedly bonded with those of equal wealth, status, celebrity, ego, arrogance, and so forth and so on. Just knowing that one lives in a red state or a blue state, or that one subscribes to a particular magazine, may be sufficient to place one in a hopefully privileged position within society.

The choice of one's religion is therefore merely another entrance exam (among many), a prerequisite for joining a club. Unfortunately, it is a poorly defined threshold as calling oneself a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Lord of Creation, or some such... never really says much about one's beliefs. Such labels are as notoriously lacking in precision as political labels. (On the other hand, wealth or the net worth of individuals is much more mathematically precise, and is thus sought by the more precision oriented individuals of taste and breeding. Being a billionnaire, for example, speaks volumes!)

Another important factor is the common belief that "all religious fundamentalists share: worship of God and obedience to his laws are essential for a peaceful, healthy society. From Orthodox rabbis in the occupied West Bank to Wahhabi sheiks in Saudi Arabia, from the pope in Vatican City to Mormons in Salt Lake City, the lament is the same: God and his will must be at the center of everyone's lives in order to ensure a moral, prosperous, safe, collective existence.

"Furthermore, fundamentalists agree that, when large numbers of people in a society reject God or fail to make him the center of their lives, societal disintegration is ure to follow. Every societal ill -- whether crime, poverty, poor public education, or AIDS -- is thus blamed of a lack of piety." [4] Essentially the use of Scapegoatology to demand that everyone think in the same demented manner as the perpetrators of the religion.

"In reality, the most secular countries -- those with the highest proportion of atheists and agnostics -- are among the most stable, peaceful, free, wealthy, and healthy societies." "And the most religious nations -- wherein worship of God is in abundance -- are among the most unstable, violent, oppressive, poor, and desitute." The secular nations have "the lowest homicide rates, infant mortality rates, poverty rates, and illiteracy rates and among the highest levels of wealth, life expectancy, educational attainment, and gender equality in the world." [4] A noteworthy point is that there are fewer suicides in religious countries.

Clearly, such correlations do not prove that higher percentages of atheism cause societal health. And while it may be true: "high levels of irreligion do not automatically result in a breakdown of civilization, a rise in immoral behavior, or in 'sick societies'." [4] It is in fact quite probable that living in relative comfort in a stable and healthy society generates a lackadaisical attitude, and thus there is no pressing need for religion. It is the society which spawns a lack of attention to an involved deity. When life is good, there is reason to limit oneself to the dictates of an ancient religion. It is only when conditions become horrendous (or just moderately lousy) that one is apt to wonder just why life is just a bummer, and that therefore in order for things to get better, we will require divine intervention to set things right again.

It is plausible one might judge the health of various societies on the relative importance of religious doctrines among the populace -- except that instead of more religion suggesting greater health, the converse is true. But truth be told, there does not seem to be, strictly speaking, a causal relationship between the two. Rather, the extent of a religious feavor might be more of a symptom of a sick society than a causal factor.

Consider, for example, the idea that attributes of healthy societies include: gender equality, low poverty rates, low homicide rates, high literacy, tolerance of homosexuality, and the highest medium levels of wealth. If this is the case, then more and more people are experiencing a relatively high quality of life, and are accordingly less prone to look to religion for providing any of their needs. Religion is thus not just the opiate for the masses, but the opiate for the poor, the downtrodden, and those seeking to be free.

However... if there is wealth, comfort, and quality of life for the vast majority of the members of a given society, there will simply be no need whatsoever for religion. The only societal need for religion is when the society has problems which are not open to being alleviated short of divine intervention.

The bad news, of course, is that once again religion has failed to justify its existence. It may provide a type of societal bonding, but the alternatives are much less difficult to deal with. Church socials may be all the rage in some locales, but inevitably the horrible lack or perceived lack of other alternative socials is very likely the only thing keeping the church social a going enterprise. There is a reason, for example, why Christian church socials are almost never on a Saturday night.

Understanding of Purpose

Finally, we encounter something by which religion - or more strictly speaking, philosophy - can be thought of as perhaps being integral to the task at hand. Making sense of one's destiny, one's ideal purpose during their sojourn in their space suit of a body on a less than hospitable planet, and finding some reason for bothering with the entire mess called life, is something to which religion would seem to be all too eager to address. Any philosophy, for example, which can provide someone with the all important answer to the "why" question - as opposed to the "how" question of rules to live by - has an interesting and undeniable appeal. The fact religions have an unfortunate tendency to insist everyone is in the same boat, with the same desires, etc.... That's the bad news.

The worst news is that religions have often avoided the issue of why we must - as Douglas Adams has noted - put up with the "inconvenience" of living on Earth. In fact, religions have instead decided to blame the whole mess on us. This seeming irrationality of why we're on earth might be, for example, because we have "fallen from grace". Worst yet, we have taken this fall ostensibly due to our own shortcomings, or better yet because of the sex of someone long ago who really, really blew it and thereafter doomed us all to wretchedness. Such teaching is of course the ultimate example of Scapegoatology, but does have the advantage of removing for all time any personal responsibility for creating one's own reality.

In some respects, this attempt by religions to pass the buck to some dualistic form of good and evil is very practical. Having dark forces about provides scapegoats for all manner of otherwise inexplicable happenings -- happenings which religions are loath to even attempt to explain.. More importantly, however, such religions don't seem to have a clue as to how one might actually extricate themselves from the situation - short of doing what certain authorities (for their own purposes) have deemed appropriate. Thus by a process of elimination religions have determined that there's really nothing to do but go along with the party platform (however much it changes over time and between elections).

It might be thought that science and the scientific method might be able to provide religion with some clever ideas and means of understanding what in the world is going on around here. Unfortunately, science tends to have its own priesthood, which has traditionally limited the purview of science to matters decidedly not involved with the "why" question. Mainstream science in fact tends to be something of a religion in and of itself - filled with faith in the peer-reviewed method, obedience to the dictates of the Lords of Funding, and the most basic anathema to all things apparently inexplicable or simply metaphysical (i.e. "beyond physics").

Religion, meanwhile, has never really reconciled itself to new discoveries in science and their inevitably deleterious effect on traditional values. Keep in mind that religions are the ultimate conservatives in avoiding change at all cost, and science is dedicated to discovering new things and thus changing our minds about what's what. This duality is not likely to benefict from "opposites attract), or even suffice as the ultimate odd couple... and/or bedfellows. [Religion, in fact, inevitably does not like odd couples, strange bedfellows, or for that matter any other kind of bedfellows.]

Ultimately, understanding of one's individual purpose - which just might be one among a whole host of very diverse and varied possibilities - does not seem to be the ideal religious construct. Finding one's purpose involves research, investigation, or searching (soul or otherwise). It's looking for something new -- if only a new insight. It, like science, is about change; i.e. the antithesis of religious conservatism. Furthermore, any alleged understanding of purpose is the purview of philosophy, which does not require the inclusion of religious' tenets such as the number of angels on a pinhead.

Understanding of a purpose for an entire species might appear to be a bit more compatible with the religious "every size fits all" modus operandi. However, the difficulty here is that inevitably faith is absolutely required in order to make any sense of anything. But inasmuch as having faith is tantamount to resorting to willful ignorance in order to avoid nagging questions, even the group purpose understanding seems out of reach of the religious zealots.

Comfort

Understanding the purpose of existence has a counterpart which is far less intellectual or just so much mind stuff. Instead of some profound philosophy -- one derived from scientific method and rational evidence which can be replicated, peer-reviewed, and demonstrated to the most ardent skeptic -- there is the intuitive, personal, and very often wholly outrageous philosophical paradigm upon which many place their undying faith.

A good portion of the motivation for such (pardon the pun) undying faith is what might be called the "transcendental temptation", i.e. "a quest for an unseen spiritual reality behind this world. That temptation explains in part the recurrent persistence of religiosity. It has deep roots in cultural history and genetic disposition. The transcendental temptation is expressed by human beings overcome by the fragility of life and yearning for a deeper purpose to the universe. A common fear of death and nonbeing gnaws at the innards, goading humans to seek balm for the aching heart and to find solace in the promise of deliverance. The 'quest of certainty', as John Dewey called it, seems to offer a secure anchor in a contingent universe for those seeking such security." [5]

It would seem likely that those who are not viewing life as particularly fragile, i.e. the young and healthy, are unlikely give up immediate gratification methods in order to seek and adhere to beliefs which promise something on the other side of death. It is likely that the higher percentages of atheism are among those who perceive themselves furtherest from death. These denizens do not really need religious faith.

Such faith is not necessarily one of expecting the sun to rise in the morning in the east and later that day set in the west. That might seem somewhat self-evident - even though on one notable occasion, the sun rose in the east, almost immediately set in the east, and then an hour or so later rose for a second time in the east before proceeding westward.

No, the kind of faith that often provides the greatest degree of comfort, solace, and/or relief is the kind which is based on no evidence, and which is in fact contradicted by mountains of evidence gathered from the religion of science, the shrines of logic, and the temples of rationality. We're talking about the kind of faith which assures one that a benevolent higher power will always come to one's aid, and preferably in the most dramatic fashion imaginable.

In this regard one is reminded of the very devout man who found himself on the roof of his home as it slowly lifted itself off its foundation and began to float away in rapidly rising flood waters. The man, however, was not even slightly worried as he knew that his god would soon answer his prayers and come to his rescue. He was so confident, however, that he waved away a rescue boat which approached him, even passed on taking a ride on a helicopter which had offered to save him. Soon, however, the house began to break up and eventually the man died by drowning. Upon arrival in heaven, he was just a bit put out, having put all his faith in his god and clearly, god had failed him. But then his god pointed out that he had sent a boat and a helicopter in answer to the man's prayers. What did he expect?

The real benefit of such willfully ignorant faith, the kind where the adherent never questions the source of his paradigm or beliefs is an intuitive sense that everything will be just fine in the final reel. It's a deep seated belief in Hollywood style justice - despite the horrific examples of injustice in the world, particularly in regards to the histories of religions. It's an extraordinary sense that any and everything from living a good life to blowing oneself to bits in a crowd of innocents will result in rewards almost beyond imagining in the afterlife. Such faith is almost as unrealistic as working extremely hard for forty five years- all to the extreme detriment of one's mental and physical health -- and then retiring to the land of alligators and oranges and expecting a carefree, healthy and stimulating retirement.

And yet there is another kind of faith. This is a faith in things which can never be rationalized, but instead depend upon some weird intuitive sense, something in the DNA which promotes a sense of calm and peace in the midst of utter chaos (the latter as exemplified when Mel's Holstein wasn't milked in time). It is a faith or confidence that love and compassion are major players in the universe. It is even the security of knowing that one can always use the Force - as in metaphors be with you.

In fact, faith in the general sense of the word is incredibly diverse and almost invariably arises as a means to find comfort and serenity in the midst of the decidedly weird and/or traumatic events of our lives. People simply want to feel good - or at least better -- and one of the best means imaginable is a strong faith in... well... something! Anything! This same faith can also provide comfort in the here and now, wherein we begin to judge things from a distance - and where ultimately everything becomes enormously funny.

The irony is that the use of faith to make one feel good is almost antithetical to many of the tenets of mainstream religions. When women, homosexuals, non-believers, infidels, critics, clerics and priests of other religions, stuffed animals, novels about magic, et al are condemned and degraded by a religion, one really has to wonder. Clearly, none of these religious claims of evil support the intent to feel good - that is without making others feel decidedly bad. Faith in order to feel good is not part and parcel of most religions. Religious faith is, on the contrary, about feeling remorse, guilt, and pain.

There are clearly examples where people of a particular religious persuasion have done marvelous things of clear benefit to others. But inevitably their good deeds have been acts which did not include an imposition of their religious beliefs on the recipients of their largess. What, for example, was the religion of the Good Samaritan? His religion is in fact totally irrelevant. Only his actions speak of his philosophy.

Higher Power Communications

The world, as most have come to understand, is not, as has been alluded to, a "garden of Eden." Just like River City, we've got troubles and they're not limited to the game of pool being played hereabouts. There are constant obstacles in our pursuit of whatever, seemingly catastrophic events to endure, and all manner of challenges to overcome (or fail at doing so). What is often needed along life's journey is a good, up-to-date road map, or better yet a guide who really knows the lay of the land. Even better yet, a facilitator, someone who can pull rank and part the waters that stand between us and our chosen paths. In short, we need the telephone number, the e-mail address, and/or a direct link to a higher power who can make things happen for us.

Religion has leaped into the communications with a higher power market place with what can only be described as a vengeance. For as any entrepreneur can attest, this is where the profit is, this is where money and power can be accumulated on a grand scale. This is where "show me the money" takes on a whole new dimension.

The key to the money and power angle, of course, is that it is essential that the money and power brokers insert an intermediary into the communication link between the individual and the alleged higher power. Be it a cleric, a rabbi, a priest, a channel, a soothsayer, an operator, a wedding planner, whatever!... the critical ingredient is someone to interpret, explain, perform rituals, or just collect from the seeker the necessary consulting fees and excessive reimbursements of expenses. Religions must, of necessity, rely on their sole and exclusive ability to prescribe non-prescription drugs and procedures for the needy in order to really maximize the financial returns and power accumulation.

Alas, there is the possibility that communication with a higher power can be accomplished via means which do not include an intermediary. There is, for example, the power of prayer - both individual prayer and like-minded group prayer which do not require a leader, facilitator, or religious professional. People at home alone can participate at the drop of a hat or the drop in their enthusiasm for whatever is happening to or around them. You don't have to accredited to be effective in prayer.

In fact the ability of focused intentions in the form of prayer, meditation, chants, songs, and all manner of describing intentions has become in recent years inescapably effective in terms of achieving results. One can create realities limited only by one's most benighted imagination. And all without intermediaries! One doesn't even require advice or guidance in how one should maximize their prayer results. "Believe that it is already so" and it is! Shazzam! Bingo! Wow!

There have also been alleged visitations by higher powers to select individuals - which unsurprisingly, involve individuals who are inevitably not professional religious intermediaries. These visitations may prompt a degree of skepticism, but it seems clear that all socially accepted prophets and sages have historically been poorly dressed, downcast, and for lack of a better classification, down on their luck individuals. Well-fed fat cats of the religious persuasion, on the other hand, have a distinctly poor track record on revelations via higher power connections.

Neale Donald Walsh in his Conversations with God began his process, for example, when he was down on most everything. He also came to believe that despite his financial success since then, that anyone has access to direct communications with divinity. His perspective is that it's just a matter of listening. The fact that the world tends to provide all manner of distraction and background noise (including religious rituals) does suggest that one needs to be alone and in an almost desperate focus in order to hear anything other than the pipes banging, and the heated arguments next door. But taking the time to listen, or observe what's happening, can be enormously gratifying. It stands to reason for example that one needs to be able to see the boat or helicopter which has been sent to retrieve you from your precarius perch amidst the flood waters.

A skeptic might question the very existence of communications with higher powers - or even the higher powers themselves - but it is clear that focused intentions by individuals and groups do have an uncommon effectiveness. This may or may not include replies in the language of our choice, but it almost certainly does not include the need for an intermediary. Religion can therefore not hang its justification for existence on this particular point. Religion, in fact, does not even have a good track record for teaching methods of effective prayers and the like.

External Control

The average religious advocate might find themselves becoming discouraged at this point. Or planning an insightful and stunning feedback to this essay. Either way, the problem is that of the seven purported reasons for having religion in our lives, five have thus far not done well. There is in fact the distinct suggestion that no matter what reason might be advanced as a justification for religion, there is also the very real possibility that religion is simply not needed and can be replaced with such things as commonly accepted moral principles, societal groupings of common interests, philosophies which might explain universal principles, methods, and implications, and helping hands which tend to reside at the end of our arms -- or in the recesses of our consciousness. This leaves only External Control as a truly viable reason for religion to exist. [We're already pretty much discounting the seventh purpose as anything but comedy relief.]

Religion has, it must be admitted, done more to impose control on the many by the few than any other means of external control. Religions have in fact outdone themselves in forcing the vast bulk of society to obey the dictates of the governing elite. Religions have, furthermore, been outrageously successful in maintaining control of the masses by the most incredible of fantasies, incredulous tales, and fundamental deceits. Control has in fact been the overriding mission of religions since time immemorial, and they've done it with spectacular results.

Admittedly, there have been other organizations, individuals, and groups which have imposed external controls over the vast bulk of mankind by means of lies, deceit, and just simple force of arms. It's just that religion has taken the threat of bodily injury for not rendering unto Caesar whatever is due Caesar to much greater links. Bodily injury has become in fact something of a minor threat when compared to the eternal damnation threat of religions.

Ah, yes... This latter threat is truly the genius of religion, whereby religions have threatened what can never be shown to even exist as a punishment, in order to coerce others to do the bidding of a select elite intent upon attaining or maintaining power by any means whatsoever.

Therefore, while religion may have a few Johnny-come-lately copycats in terms of control of the non-elite classes, religion is unlikely to be seriously challenged by any contenders for King of the Controllers title. Religion has brought external control to its current and ultimate pinnacle.

This then is the REASON for religions. External control of the many by the few. It may fail the test of being caring and/or civilized, but the bottom line is that it has worked! One can even add "Q.E.D." ("thus, it is conclusively demonstrated") to the mix.

Purposes of the Seventh Kind

It has been noted herein that there is little or no justification for having religions -- other than perhaps to impose control over the many by the few.

On the other hand, maybe, just maybe the problem is with having religionS! it possible, for example, that having a unitary, singular religion might be okay -- such that this lone religion might never have to defend itself from other religions, and thus be spared the angst of having to justify actions which could never be rationally justified? Probably not, but it was worth mentioning -- if only for comedy relief.

As for the Seventh grand purpose, the interminable discussions of religion could easily be replaced with the latest news concerning Jennifer, Brad, and Angelina. For example, many writers have leaped into the fray of questioning religion in recent times. Many of these thoughts are included under Thoughts on Religion.

Summary

The reader is likely to assume that this essay is attempting to suggest that religion's only justification for existence is as a means of control of most of humanity, and that this control madness is a bad thing. Curiously, that may not necessarily be the case. One can, for example, make the argument that a great deal of humanity desperately needs some form of control when the self-control of so many seems so decidedly lacking.

It should be clear that many members of the human race are only marginally Homo sapiens (i.e. "wise"), and routinely exhibit behavior which is decidedly in contradiction with the Golden Rule. One might even call it Neanderthal, animalistic, or mind boggling on the level of dumb as a fencepost.

Furthermore, those people who are willing to exercise self-control and who are not intent upon controlling others for the sheer delight of their very own power trip, can without the aid of some form of external control, find themselves at a serious disadvantage. This disadvantage stems from the fact that those who adhere to responsible behavior will have a hard time competing with the non-responsible members who are more than willing to do anything to accomplish their aims. Historical reality suggests that those with scruples are at a decided disadvantage in competing with those without any limiting scruples. There does not, for example, seem to exist any limits to the crimes, monstrous behaviors, or horrifying actions of which some humans are so obviously capable. And I'm not just talking about the Bush Administration.

It has been noted [1], for example, that "Seattle, a city of highly educated progressives, 'has 45 percent more dogs than children.' Traditional Salt Lake City has '19 percent more kids than dogs.'" Inasmuch as "Fertility is now highly correlated to political and religious beliefs." The old "be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth" mentality of religions suggests that those people feeling responsible for not continuing the gross overpopulation of the earth will soon find themselves in ever increasing disadvantage with respect to the number of voters on any given issue. The 'Responsibles" are a minority who should be placed on the endangered species list.

The astounding fact, however, is that these same sub-humans [for example, the Bush Administration] often take particular delight in using the vestiges of some religion or another to justify their acts. What is even more appalling is that the vast majority of religious leaders upon whose religious authority the despicable acts have been committed, are loath to suggest anything whatsoever amiss. The sub-humans actions are thus excused, exonerated, even praised by the religious hierarchy, despite that religion's strict edicts against such actions. One suspects that religious leaders may recognize that anyone in government willing to commit atrocities might very well commit an atrocity against... heaven forbid... the religious leaders who speak out against them!

In other words, violating religious ethics does not imply condemnation by religious leaders, such that external control by religions is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Thank God! (Does this imply that God had a hand in correcting the situation? <grin>.)

In any case, one must ultimately conclude... that there are really no good reasons to have religion. Except, maybe, for dramatic license and/or comedy relief.

On the other hand, it might be a very good idea for all of the religions of the world to come together for a Grant Ecumenical Council, figure out their commonality in terms of how to live a good and rewarding life, and then agree to promote this set of standards as a means for everyone to get along. This might be just slightly better than the situation laughingly portrayed in The Kingston Trio's Merry Little Minuet :

They're rioting in Africa. They're starving in Spain. There's hurricanes in Florida. And Texas needs rain. The whole world is festering with unhappy souls. The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles. Italians hate Yugoslaves, South Africans hate the Dutch, and I don't like anybody very much.

But we can be tranquil and thankful and proud, for man has been endowed with a mushroomed shaped cloud. And we know for certain that some lovely day, some one will set the spark off and we will all be blown away.

They're rioting in Africa. They're strikes in Iran. What nature doesn't do to us. Will be done by our fellow man.

Late Breaking News: Something which for the incurable optimist might suggest is good news: There are now reports [2] of slight ripples on the horizon to suggest that certain evangelicals of a particularly fundamentalist persuasion have suddenly had an epiphany with regards to Global Warming. These traditional anti-environmentalists have apparently come to the conclusion that it might not be nice to fool mother nature, and/or mess up God's creation.

Religion just might have find a calling worth mentioning!

BTW, just in case you're wondering whose team(s) are ahead in the game of being the biggest religion on the block, http://www.mindspring.com/~hellfire/bishop/ has provided us with this pie chart:

What would be even more interesting would be something showing how these numbers and percentages are changing over time.

References:

[1] Phillip Longman, "Will liberals become extinct?", (as reported in) The Week, News, March 24, 2006, page 14.

[2] Jim Wallis, "The Religious Right is losing control," www.sojo.net, 22 March 2006.

[3] Gabriel Palmer-Fernandez, "Contemporary Religious Terrorism," Free Inquiry, http://www.secularhumanism.org, August/September 2006.

[4] Phil Zuckerman, "Is Faith Good for Us?", Free Inquiry, August/September 2006.

[5] Paul Kurtz, "Creating Secular and Humanist Alternatives to Religion," Free Inquiry, August/September 2006.

[6] David Koepsell, "New Threats to Academic Freedom," Free Inquiry, August/September 2006.

[7] Thomas E. Mates, "Throwing the Book at Them," Free Inquiry, August/September 2006.

[8] Victor J. Stenger, "Do Our Values Come from God? The Evidence Says No," Free Inquiry, August/September 2006.

 

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