Friday, 7 December 2007

Is Religion wrong?

Is religion wrong?

This topic is instantly going to draw fire from those of a religiously (or areligious) zealous nature, so I’d like to state here and now that this is only my opinion, and that the piece must be read in its entirety before judgement is passed…

(Apparently my use of usw. has caused some confusion. It's German for 'und so weiter', meaning 'and so on' or 'etcetera'. I got in the habit whilst studying German, and never got out of it!)

Religion, the human concept of a belief system involving Gods/spirits/demons/monsters u.s.w. outside the realm of the natural, yet intimately connected with human life (admittedly a poor definition, but the best I can supply given the vast pantheon of belief systems out there), has probably been around since mankind first evolved sentience. At their heart most religions seek to explain the world around us (even if only by providing super-natural forces as the answer), provide a moral framework, and to mitigate the fear of death. Knowing very little about ‘primitive’ beliefs (by which I mean tribal beliefs from places where societies are not as large or as mingled as ours in the Western world, as well as early human belief) I cannot say that this holds true for all, but they do serve as a major tenant of every religion I’ve seen or experienced. In this basic premise I can find little wrong. Abrogating fear of death (and comforting those left behind) is a noble and far reaching goal, and one that can only be described as positive. Maintaining social values is also a good thing, and there may be some merit to the argument that there is a general moral decline* these days linked to the lessening of attendance in churches (and mosques and yadda yadda yadda). Attempting to explain the world is a noble goal, and is a fundamental part of being human.

*A topic for a blog of its own….

However, as with most things there is a dark side to religion, and that dark side (in this case) is a monstrous aberration. The same things that are noble about religion are the things that can be, and indeed have been used to turn religions into weapons of mass terror, capable of more destruction than a nuclear bomb. Comforting and reassuring people about death can easily turn into advocating it. Telling people who believe “because it is the word of God”, that the afterlife is a place of delight and splendour is a good way of obtaining compliance (particularly if coupled with “God will be angry if you disobey, and you won’t get in”). When this occurs, then religion becomes no more than another tool for controlling the masses. Again, controlling a population (particularly one as densely packed and mixed as ours) is a necessary thing; however the problem arises in the orders that are given. The current problems with terrorism (motivated in part by some people’s perversion of modern Islam, though several other factors are involved) are a prime example. So are the Inquisition, the annihilation of Meso-American societies, slavery, the KKK, the persecution of Jews as Jesus-killers, Zionist imperialism usw…. All of these have more than the solitary cause, but religion formed (and forms) a major (if not the primary) component behind each. It also seems that religions all fall victims to the old maxim that power corrupts, no matter how pacifistic and well meaning they start out as. Holding peoples souls in the palm of your hand (even if that’s merely a belief on the part of the believer) is a dictatorial power of the highest order, and the temptation to use that power for ‘worthy’ ends is almost always overwhelming.

So is religion a bad thing? Religion is something that must be seen clearly to perceive both its power and its perils. Religion is a tool, and like all tools must be used correctly. I personally have no problem with people believing that humans have a soul, and that death is not the end. I believe that myself (despite being an atheist… It’s complicated). What I do have a problem with is the way that most religions seem to be about taking the word of others as the word of ‘God’. The power that this confers is subject to no checks, no votes and no controls. By and large this power is used responsibly, and the millions (if not billions) of normal religious people will attest, yet this awesome power in the wrong hands leads to fields of blood, burning towers, and lands laid to waste. Organised religions resemble nothing so much as a giant multi-national corporation, where the moment self-interest is threatened great weight is brought to bear. I have no issue with people searching themselves and finding ‘God’ within (as long as ‘God’ doesn’t tell them to do something stupid), but merely accepting ‘God’ from an organised religion is no different than buying a life-subscription to MacDonalds. If that’s what you want to do then no-one can stop you, but there’s so much more out there. I also think the current climate of using religion to justify things is dangerous, whether it’s stopping evolution being taught, oppressing the Palestinian people or blowing up buildings. I just hope that the world realises that religion itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a power that must be wielded by the individual rather than by the organisation. If God is your answer, then fine. Just don’t start a fight when someone else doesn’t agree.


Anonymous said...

What about communism? That has no religious basis, yet terrible atrocities have been / are committed by people following it as a political ideology. This would suggest that religion is no more wrong than any other system of governing populations.

Graeme said...

Communism, or more accurately Leninism, or Stalinism has lead to terrible consequences. The problem with your argument is that you've missed my point. When religion is an individual thing then moderation is normal, or at least it's easy to spot those with dangerous tendancies. Centralized religion quashes individual qualms and questions with the 'It's the will of God answer' and by making questions 'illegal'. You could almost make the argument that Theocracy and Stalinism are similar in all apart from the God bit....