I don’t “get” the religious impulse. It appears to be widespread, appearing in essentially all cultures, across recorded history and most likely back into the realm of archaeology (though we must remember the tendency to categorize anything not understood as “religious artifacts”). It’s quite possibly hard-wired into the human brain. But I still just don’t get it. I don’t understand why people want any religion, or why they pick the ones they do.
I leave aside the people whose involvement in the religion isn’t primarily based on belief in the dogma and mysteries of that particular religion. They may well find that the religious institution plays an important social role in their lives, and they may feel that it does important good in society. They may find it to work well as the focus for their ethical thought, even. Possibly most American adherents of religion are of this type. I still feel (this is a rant, after all) that mostly the religious aspects of the religion, if I may use the phrase, are something that interferes with being a good person and living a good life, but even if that’s true, it’s clear from numerous examples that it doesn’t always interfere seriously.
The vast majority of christians live harmless, even good, lives. Only a few actually murder doctors who provide abortions, pass laws preventing the dissemination of birth-control and sexual health information, stone people to death, home-school their children to keep them from learning enough to have their own opinions, burn people at the stake, gas them in the “showers”, or put entire towns to the sword (“God will know his own”). Many will claim that christianity leads them to live better lives; some will claim that christianity actually turned them from evil to good. Most of these claims are no doubt true; like any philosophical system, christianity is what you make of it. My personal observation is that lots of good people claim to be christians, and lots do not (many good people disclaim any religion). Unfortunately, my study of large groups of people over historical time leads me to believe that, on balance, christianity is a very bad thing.
I should point out that I’m writing from the perspective of somebody born and raised in the USA, in fact in the Midwest (Indiana, then Minnesota). And that I’m talking specifically here about christianity as practiced around here, because that’s what I’m familiar with. And that this is a rant; it’s not intended to be a fully-developed philosophical exploration, or for that matter even to be fair. It’s intended to express a strongly-held opinion before the pressure blows steam out my ears.
Reasons for Religion
I’ve heard a number of different explanations of why people adopt a religion. They all seem to me to come down to an obsessive need to have an answer to things they view as questions, apparently without regard to the truth of this answer. It’s that last bit, of course, that I object to so strongly.
One argument, particularly common in christianity, is that it’s right to believe because the religion is true. The universe really was created by a self-aware being, who really is the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, and who really will send you to burn forever in hell (because he loves you).
This really does have more holes in it than a Swiss cheese.
The concept of ethics being determined by the opinions of any one entity is pernicious nonsense. Being omnipotent doesn’t make you ethically correct; it merely makes you the biggest bully on the block. Being the creator of the universe doesn’t make you good, or wise, or anything else; it is merely evidence that you are powerful.
Besides, we have multiple competing candidates for this position, with no evidence to favor any one of them over the others.
Some people use religion somehow to answer the question of how this all came about. But it doesn’t answer the question; or it doesn’t answer the hard part, anyway. If you need to know the “cause” of everything, and are lead to postulate god as the “first cause”, that leaves you with a god that exists only by postulate. Is an uncaused god any better than an uncaused universe? At least we have direct physical evidence for the existence of the universe.
I freely admit that I don’t know exactly where the universe came from. All the ideas (it appeared at random, it’s always been there, god created it) are equally non-disprovable so far as I can tell. And they’re all equally troubling. However, the first two have the benefit that they actually explain everything they claim to explain; whereas the last leaves open the question of where god came from.
I think that an obsessive need to think you know the answer to (currently) unanswerable questions should be a diagnosable psychological disorder. Curiosity is normal, even desirable; but obsessive need to have an answer, regardless of its truth, is sick.
Some people apparently have trouble dealing with the “uncaring cosmos”. So far as I can tell, this comes from a compulsion to take everything personally. People don’t merge carelessly; they cut you off. You don’t have a bad run of luck; the universe picks on you.
So some of them need to believe that the universe somehow cares about them personally, too. This is dangerous nonsense, in two different directions. Assuming the universe “cares” can lead you to be fatally careless yourself, because you believe the universe is obligated to take care of you. It can also lead to treating other people carelessly, because you lose track of the fact that human caring is the only kind that actually exists.
Harms of Christianity
It wouldn’t matter much if people believed untrue things, if it caused no harm. Unfortunately, christianity has caused immense harm throughout history, and continues to do so.
Some will argue that some of the behaviors I will describe are not behaviors required, or even sanctioned, by christianity. That may be true; different sects have differing opinions on the subject, though. Many of the people doing these things believe they are acting on christian impulses, even if you don’t think they are. “…a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.” I will show why some of these behaviors are endemic among christians.
Ultimate Reward or Punishment
The first big problem is that christianity views this life as just an overture to the eternal life to come, with your position in that life dependent on your actions or beliefs (there’s no clear consensus on this among christians) in this life.
That’s a problem because it means that any consideration of the effects of your actions, on yourself or others, now, is completely trumped by the effects they allegedly have later.
There’s some attempt to get around this by making rules saying you should behave well in this life. This is logically sound, but psychologically hopeless. Despite god being omniscient, and committed to placing you according to your desserts (tempered by mercy, at least in some branches), people regularly justify bad behavior to themselves on the grounds that “they won’t get caught”.
Raising the Stakes
By having rules about all sorts of day-to-day life issues coming out of the religion, christianity extends this ultimate importance into silly things like whether you dance, wear makeup, consume alcohol or caffeine, or even sing harmony.
Faith is a bad reason to believe things. The combination of a reliance on faith and a belief that this world is unimportant yields people who don’t pay attention to what is around them. This makes them bad neighbors.
The habit of believing by faith will also tend to creep outside the boundaries of the religion and infect other parts of your life. You’ll find yourself believing false things because you don’t have the habit of thinking and being skeptical of claims.
Faith often means “faith in the bible”, which is to say authority. Believing by authority is even more dangerous than believing by your own faith; in particular, it’s very easily abused.
By claiming to have ultimate truth, christianity provides an excuse to its adherents to not listen to anybody else. There’s no point in truly engaging with the beliefs of others if you know your own are perfect. This makes christians bad citizens in a multi-cultural society; they are institutionally discouraged from considering the viewpoints of others as important.
All these things can be harmful to yourself and others even if carried out honestly and with good intent. Now consider the human talent for self-delusion. The christian system provides fertile ground to rationalize anything you want. This multiplies the harm by orders of magnitude.
Philosophical systems, of which religion is a subclass, of which in turn christianity is a subclass, are tricky things. Especially when they’re thousands of years old, and badly splintered, there’s relatively little agreement on the proper interpretation of the teachings of the system, or even on what the words of the texts are, never mind their meanings (though in fact very little christian debate seems to get to the level of even noticing that their sacred book wasn’t written in English).
Many christians will no doubt feel that what they believe doesn’t have some or all of the faults I claim here adhere to “christianity”. In many cases they are correct; in all cases they know their mind better than I do (always bearing in mind the human potential for self-delusion; but of course that applies to me as well as to them). I know that many people evade these traps and pitfalls; and I congratulate them on being better people for it. I still believe these problems are inherent in christianity.
Some will claim that the things I say are true, but are errors on the part of the people who commit them, and not fairly to be blamed on christianity. Christianity certainly does teach, at some levels, that humans are prone to error. It certainly identifies, in some branches, some of the things I call out as specific errors. So this response is in many ways correct. My position is based on my observation over the years that the philosophy and teachings of christianity are inevitably going to bring about these bad outcomes, by the mechanisms that I’m describing. Saying that it shouldn’t is not convicing rebuttal to an observation that it does.
Finally, many people will simply disagree with my observations and theories. We’ve lived different lives, often in different places, with different values and training, and we’re all as subject to self-deception as any human is. They may be right; I may be wrong. That’s just not the way it looks to me at the moment.