Thursday, 17 April 2008

Belief

It's been pointed out that my previous posts on religion are somewhat hostile.

Indeed they are. And I don't apologise for that.

But in the interest of openness and rational debate, I would like to clarify precisely which aspects of religion I am hostile towards. It's not the whole thing.

Once that's done, I lay myself open to your slings and arrows.

As a society we gain a great deal from religion. Studying our ancient myths and writings can give a real and genuine insight into morality and ethics, and it can teach us ways to build and sustain our communities. I don't for a moment question the great value of this.

But I want to make a clear distinction between this philosophical side of religion, and the belief side of religion, which is a very different thing.

Religious belief, specifically unfounded belief in the supernatural, is something that I have a very real problem with.

Now let me be very clear on this point: I am not talking about the spiritual beliefs of individuals. If a person chooses to believe that a deceased loved one is still present in their lives, or believes that Jesus is their saviour, and from that derive meaning and comfort, then I have no problem. These are personal views and no-one can tell anyone what they should think in that arena.

What I'm talking about is the Church's institutionalisation of supernatural belief, where preaching and dogmatism changes a belief from being a mere framework for discussion and comfort, into edict and law and an irrational basis for discrimination and punishment.

Let me use my own experience of Christianity as an example.

Christians claim, as I claimed once upon a time, that there is an entity called God that watches us and cares for us and listens to our prayers. That's fine and comforting and harmless.

Then, they go on to claim that this God has a purpose for us and that we need to follow the instructions he's laid down. Anyone who doesn't follow these instructions is damned to an eternity of hellfire or to a harsh sentence on Judgement Day, depending on which flavour of Christianity you prefer.

In individuals, this kind of belief might still be harmless. But propped up by the authority and ritual of the Church, this kind of supernatural carrot-and-stick starts directing the actions of people who wouldn't come up with this stuff on their own.

I know this from firsthand experience. When you're focused on an apocalyptic endgame, particularly what God will say to you on Judgement Day, then treating someone well here on Earth quickly becomes secondary to helping them, or helping yourself, secure a place in Heaven.

At a personal level, the worst thing it generally does is lead to obnoxious behaviour, of which I was as guilty as anyone.

If anyone annoyed me by saying my beliefs were bogus, I'd get a twinge of anticipatory schadenfreude from the thought of them burning in hellfire. I even said as much to some people. Charming, I know. And far from charitable.

At a community level, I’ve seen this sort of fixation overwhelm all the very valuable social justice teachings in the Bible. I've seen friendships and families torn apart because of disagreements over meaningless supernatural minutiae.

Ironically, this fixation means that a lot of Christians, and I was included in this group, don't end up following the core teaching of Jesus at all, which was to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you".

But, you might say, people do so many good things because of their beliefs. They act charitably and selflessly because they believe that's what God wants and there's the promise of a greater reward after death. Surely, on balance, the good outweighs the bad?

No, it doesn't. Of course religious people do good things in the name of God. But without God, these people would do good things anyway.

We don't need to conjure a mysterious God to make people be nice to each other. It's just not necessary. The benefits of co-operative behaviour are self-evident to all but the sociopathically insane.

We can see around us a functioning society built on the secular values of mutual respect and community spirit and basic common courtesy. Most of us don't do it because we believe it'll get us into Heaven. We just do it because it's the easiest thing to do.

Of course there are sociopaths among us, but for the extremes of bad behaviour we have a secular system of laws and punishments. And that's all we need.

There is no inherent upside to making rules based on supernatural beliefs.

But there is a genuine downside. It can make good people do evil things, and often with the best of intentions.

There a thousand examples of this, but to take just one: Mother Teresa refused to provide contraception to women in third-world countries. This caused unnecessary pain and suffering for thousands of women, through infection and unwanted pregnancies. And why? Because the Catholic Church teaches that God doesn't want people to use contraception, and will punish anyone who does.

Mother Teresa, driven by love and compassion and genuinely believing it was the right thing to do, followed this irrational rule and it achieved nothing but suffering.

My point is that taking a hard moral stance about anything because it's 'what God thinks', is nonsense. Stating that a particular behaviour is wrong because ‘God says so’, is just nonsense.

When we think about morals and ethics, we should only consider how our behaviour affects ourselves, how it affects others, and how it affects our communities and our world.

The opinions of our religious leaders are very valuable here, because they think about this stuff a lot. But we must never bow to an invocation of 'God's will' as a reason to do anything.

If following what we believe to be God's teachings leads us into doing good works, then that’s a great thing. But we need to realise that those good things are worth doing because of their own inherent value. That we can come to the same conclusion without invoking God.

And we need to realise that if an idea doesn’t stand on its own earthly merits then we don't need it, regardless of how many people believe God said it was so.

Doing anything purely to please God is irrational and dangerous, and can lead to arbitrary acts that are really damaging.

This is the part of religion that I'm hostile towards.

And when I talk about religion being evil, this is what I mean.

5 comments:

Shannon said...

Your point on the 'institutionalisation' of religion is the interesting one here. I see many of the doctrines of Christianity, mainly Catholicism, leading back to social control and order in older autocracies and Oligarchies. It was ever so convenient that the overlord(s) for some reason or another had a direct link up to God, who oddly enough seemed to agree with the autocrat, despot or tyrant.

To use the example of Mother T’s position on contraception, a rule no doubt having its roots with some lord needing to increase population, therefore increase fighting numbers, and then increasing power and territory. To this end God agrees, contraception is the work of the devil... breed and fight... and some still believe this today despite the risks not only of pregnancy, but also disease. It is this belief in the evils of contraception which is ruining MILLIONS of lives in Africa, where the Catholic church holds much sway and influence… think of how many they could save instead of condemn.

In those very dim days of our past, where there was little in the way of explanation about the world, I sure it all did seem possible that God(s) existed. Additionally in the early days of civilisation we needed to control the masses some how and bind them together in the pursuit of a common goal or else we would not be here today.

I do not have a religious belief system... but I would never deny it to someone else, or openly mock them for it. My issue comes when doctrines of religion enter our governance. For example recognition of GLTB relationships. There is no reason for this bias, with the expectation that marriage and the binding of a couple rests still largely with Churches, and God doesn‘t like gays (a rule again no doubt having its root in the need to increase population). Our code of law has its foundation in the bible (we still have twelve jurors representing twelve apostles). It is unfortunate however that some religious doctrine which does not apply to modern society - but had its place I guess a few hundred years ago, is with us now and effects those who would respect a religious persons right to their view, whilst not getting as much back.

I firmly believe in John Locke’s concept of the Social Contract and separation of church and state, but I see that religion has a heavy influence in western democracies. The framers of the American constitution also had some belief in Locke’s theory and hence the First Amendment, however In God We Trust is emblazoned on bank notes and court houses, and the religious right holds great sway with the powers that be. Religious groups should have their right to lobby, but on issues that affect their believers, not forcing their beliefs on others. In this way I still feel that the ‘institution’ of religion does us harm.

I should also point out that it is not just the west and Christianity, but areas in the world where Islam has been interpreted in a way that marginalises women and other groups in the most horrid of ways.

Two more things... Really long blog Matt, less is more... and I love Schadenfreude.

Kate said...

Thank-you, agreed that the blog was a little too lengthly. It also occurs to me Mr. Moore that for all our titter about vintage champagne and Hermes, you really are exceptionally adept at obscuring how intelligent you truly are. . .

Matt said...

Thanks for those thoughts, Shannon.
I couldn't agree more.
And yes, it was very long. But I thought I needed to explore the point from a few angles.

Spoon said...

So much for not commenting for a while.

But, following on from Shannon's comment, I just wanted to say that when I watched the "Sorry" speech (and in doing so got to see the whole bit of parliament, and not just the "classic catches" of question time) I was amazed and actually shocked to see that they read the Lord's Prayer in Parliament every day.
I honestly didn't know they did that, and it kinda bothered me.

But don't think for a moment that I am going to comment on Matt's religious views for a while. At least not in the blog.


Right on, Matt. You go, girlfriend, and things of that nature.

Shannon said...

Don't worry Rob... I feel an Andrew Bolt blog coming on, any day now!!