With our massive brain power you’d think, wouldn’t you, that humans might have come up with a way of reaching fundamental truths, inner peace and communal harmony which does not involve squabbling, condemnation of others and ritualistic self-loathing. But it seems as a species we have harnessed ourselves to some hideously divisive dogmas, and people all over the planet are busy prostrating themselves before men in long frocks and declaring eternal damnation to those who do not subscribe.
I use the word subscribe because believing in the cause, repeatedly swearing allegiance to it and carrying out its obligatory acts of worship, is usually not enough. Religions throughout history have required their followers and others to pay subscription fees in one form or another, either directly in collected contributions or indirectly via church tax exemptions and the like. There’s that other form of payment too: religious leaders have unblushingly asked people to give their lives for their god, and countless believers have offered up their own and the lives of their loved ones for the promise of a perfect, future existence. They have been told by fellow human beings – ones with a hotline to the greater power – that the life they have now is worthless when compared with the paradise on offer beyond the grave.
You have to admire the confidence and certainty with which some religious leaders claim knowledge of life’s purpose, its place in the universe and beyond. Sounding surer than the greatest minds in human history (Bertrand Russell for example) we must assume they are endowed with wisdom beyond the meagre understanding of those who question. Ah, but why quibble about credentials and the lack of evidence for such creeds? Don’t we see? Allegiance to their religion will provide us with a moral framework by which to live our lives. How else could we miserable creatures know right from wrong? Russell, when asked if religion was not useful in this sense replied with his gloriously uncluttered logic “It seems to me a fundamental dishonesty, and a fundamental treachery to intellectual integrity, to hold a belief because you think it’s useful and not because you think it’s true”.
Have we not as a species outgrown the need for threats of the supernatural to keep us in order? It’s rather like a parent telling an unruly child that if they don’t go to sleep the bogeyman will get them. It might seem like a solution when at the end of ones parenting tether but it is pretty inadequate in the long term, will induce irrational fears and, more to the point, is simply NOT TRUE.
It’s a bit much too when people who live lives of professed servitude and selflessness, lecture us from the loftiest heights of righteousness. Is it just me or does it seem wrong that their doctrines dispense punishments which make a visit from the bogeyman seem like a walk in the park? I rather enjoy the quiet contemplation that holy buildings allow but can find the sermons a bit hard to swallow and can’t help thinking that such professed conduits of god-given ‘truths’ are the real scary monsters. Perhaps we should be suspicious of anyone who presents as somehow levitating above the mire of mere humanity. I have to admit to struggling with the idea of fabulously rich institutions preaching that poverty is a virtue – the poverty of a leper lying on a palette in a Calcutta holy ‘hospital’ or the poverty of a malnourished girl whose life will be one pregnancy and birth after another, with no hope of education nor any means of earning a way out of the hideous cycle such a life dictates. God forbid that she be allowed birth control.
Religion has, I’ll admit, provided us with the inspiration for some of the world’s most sublime art, architecture and music. It does take us beyond this mortal coil and such transcendence is, one might argue, what elevates us above the beasts: a sense of otherness and striving for higher meaning and understanding. But doesn’t philosophy, art and science provide transcendence? Can we not explore the beauty of life, the universe and everything through the medium of actual truths rather than mythologies? Must we stifle our instinctive quest for knowledge and understanding of truth, for fear of offending a wrathful God?
Like the threat of the bogeyman, religions that bully us seem to be a rather desperate attempt at moderating and elevating human behaviour. Is it time for us to grow up? Maybe we have finished needing bogeymen. Perhaps our ever-increasing knowledge should direct our energies to exploring and caring about this wonderful world, about everything in it and beyond it. Rather than believing humans to be servants of a rigid, monotheistical hierarchy, might we seek enlightenment merely as responsible and fortunate members of the family of life on earth? Nature might yet reveal some fundamental truths to a struggling species and we could certainly do with a few home truths. The other species all seem to be coping without self-flagellation and suicide bombing.
But perhaps the final word should go to Bertrand: “I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn’t wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine.”
Amen to that.