Friday, May 21, 2010

Is Religion Dangerous?

I have a friend who believes that religious ideas are dangerous, and his opinion is shared by many. He points out that colossal amounts of cruelty, destruction, death, and torture have been done in the name of God, while very little (maybe none) has been done "in the name of atheism." While this is technically true, I feel that continuing to rail against the dangers of religion in the 21st century is really beating a dying horse when the cruelty, destruction, death, and torture has pretty much picked itself up and moved into the camp of secular government. Traditional religion is no longer the problem, nor is atheism the answer. While nobody's likely to kill anyone in the name of atheism per se, millions of people have been killed in the name of "godless" communism, fascism, and democracy. Religion has certainly been useful in the past for justifying war and cruelty, but religion is not strictly necessary.

The question that interests me is, what is strictly necessary to justify war and cruelty? My friend says that communism is "like a religion." Like a religion? In what way? Communism is based on an atheistic theory of social development. Is it like a religion only in that it's been used to justify the death, torture, and economic exploitation of some people by other people? My friend seems to want to draw a line between religious and secular ideas, but I think this is the wrong place to draw the line. I want to draw the line between ideas, religious or secular, that allow some people to kill and exploit others and ideas that don't.

My friend condemns religion for man's inhumanity to man, and yet admits that at least some secular philosophies have been used the same way. I would point at something broader than religion: any belief system that gives some people permission to use aggressive violence against others. Religions have certainly done that very nicely throughout mankind's miserable history. And yet, as the grip of theistic, supernatural religions has loosened on people's minds, and science and secularism have come to the fore, secular theories have done a remarkable job of picking up the slack. It seems, then, that God is not necessary to justify exploitation and violence, and therefore atheism is not enough to save us from it.

We can't understand what is dangerous - or not - about religion unless we can define exactly what religion is. Is it dangerous to believe in a god? Is it dangerous to believe in things we can't prove through reason and evidence? Perhaps. Yet I know many, many people who use their religious beliefs to keep them on the path of love and compassion. I am tempted to believe that humans create God in their own image, rather than the other way around. That God is the essence of the way we want to relate to people, whether it is with compassion, understanding, and love, or hatred and condemnation. I am tempted to believe that God is ultimately a way of avoiding responsibility for the goodness or badness of one's own soul, and that faith is ultimately a way of avoiding responsibility for the beliefs that support one's actions.

I believe that this avoidance is ultimately what makes any belief system dangerous. What if we taught our children: before you believe something, check with your own mind - does it make sense to you? Before you do something, or say something - check with your own heart - does it feel kind to you? Perhaps God is nothing more, and nothing less, than the goodness and truth in your own soul. Religions often teach that the human mind and heart are evil. Thus we are taught to distrust our own feelings and our own reasoning, and to place our trust outside of ourselves - in the writings and preachings of some authoritative voice. Once we distrust ourselves, this authoritative voice can have its way with us.

Once we trust authority more than ourselves, we can be exploited and used in whatever way the authority wishes. The religious and political history of mankind can be seen as a competition to hold the reins of authority and control the mind of humanity. Because those who control the mind of humanity, control humanity's productive capacity, and can live at ease on the labor of others.

We can see the primitive origins of human exploitation of humans in the gangs of armed raiders that used violence to plunder the first farming communities. People could not exploit the labor of others until settled communities began producing something in excess of what was needed for survival. Then the excess could be taken without destroying the source. And so some people learned to live by taking what others had produced by threatening them with injury or death. It's not a large step, perhaps, to go from hunting and gathering animals and plants to hunting and gathering from human settlements. Certainly it would be a more thrilling way of life for the strong and brave. Such direct plundering was violent and dangerous, because those being plundered were apt to try to defend themselves and their produce. And some plunderers, perhaps as they got older, wanted a more settled and peaceful life. To get the best of both worlds, and settle into the very communities they were plundering, they had to come up with a rationale for the exploitation. To live off the labor of other humans in ease and comfort, you need to somehow neutralize their defenses.

What you need is a world view and a moral code that makes your exploitation of them right, proper, legitimate, and good. This is the role of religion, the authoritative voice that neutralizes the self interest of the exploited. When goodness consists in obedience to authority, the brute force on which it ultimately rests can be kept in the background as a last resort. Brute force then becomes a righteous thing that happens only to "bad" people. While an independent community might band together to fight off marauders, the mythology of legitimate power brings the community over to the marauders' side, leaving anyone who resists alone against the community and the marauders together. Given that humans are social animals, this technique is extremely effective.

We could say that religion is the mind control and government is the brute force, but it's not quite that simple and divisible. Religion has always been used to legitimize power, to condemn self-defense by the exploited, and give its holy blessing to aggressive violence by authority. Religion promises rewards in heaven for obedience to authority here and now. Religion and government can at times be indistinguishable. But increasingly, over the centuries, power has sought to legitimize itself with more secular ideas, to give itself scientific underpinnings that the modern mind will still accept. This process has produced many power struggles and territorial disputes between religious and secular authorities.

The questing rational mind is always a danger to authority, as the questing rational mind likes nothing better than to knock over old theories and propose new ones, and this includes the ideas that support authority and the exploitation of some humans by others. And so authority has long waged war on the rational mind and sought to freeze ideas where it wants them. This is ultimately an impossible task. So along with trying to suppress thinking, exploiters must come up new and better theories of exploitation, and new and better ways to impress them on people.

I believe that the concept of freedom of religion was a big signal to humanity that theistic religion was no longer needed as the rationale for exploitation. When the supernatural realm was set free from this function of justifying power, it no longer mattered what people believed about it. The Age of Reason had brought forth new rationales for power, new secular mythologies that could be sold to an increasingly secular-thinking populace. Only the dullest witted person could fail to notice that freedom of religion never extends to freedom from exploitation by secular authority. Neither personal nor religious moral codes are ever allowed to interfere with the economic exploitation of the community by those in power. Freedom of religion was the power elite kissing the supernatural world goodbye - people can have whatever fantasies they like on Sundays, as long as they are loyal to the State and pay the tribute it demands. Of course, wherever people still believe in religion, the authorities will use it shamelessly to promote their power, but for those who think themselves too sophisticated for religion, authority now has other philosophical cards to play.

To understand power, community, and morals, it is essential to comprehend the division between people getting along with each other, and people getting along with an exploiting power class. To get along with each other, people must of necessity have rules of conduct and ways to resolve conflicts between them. The magic of society is that when (and only when) certain boundaries are respected, individual interests harmonize and promote the well being of all. We are a social species, and social rules come naturally to most of us, like language. Yet there are always those few who do not internalize social rules, and the rule-abiding people must have ways to defend themselves and the fruits of their labor from these antisocial people.

Authority is all about getting past the defenses of the productive community to get people's stuff without getting hurt.

In the modern age, centralized, monopolistic, official power has been increasingly sold to humanity as a way to protect social boundaries, thus placing the moral rationale for power squarely on society's need for order and peace. This is the central power myth of our age, and yet it is the exact opposite of the truth.

Authority is all about getting past the defenses of the productive community to get people's stuff without getting hurt.

The Social Contract is no more true than the Divine Right of Kings. Far from protecting social rules and boundaries, government-created legislation breaks through those essential boundaries, allowing some people to plunder others without getting hurt. Government is like an insidious virus that attaches itself to our white blood cells, hiding inside our defensive mechanisms so they cannot protect us. We cannot live without our white blood cells, but neither can we thrive when they are turned against us. We cannot live in society without order; but neither can we thrive when that order is turned against us.

The exploiting classes have taken the rules that help society function peacefully, claimed them as its own, and mixed them into the rules that maintain their power. Most of us have a deep-seated respect for society and its rules: we respect the law and take pride in being law abiding. I believe this comes to us naturally and instinctively, and in most people these feelings and instincts are naive and unanalyzed. Those in power would have it this way. If people were educated about law and legislation, they might see the difference. They might begin to see that legislation is not law, but permission for antisocial behavior disguised as law. They might see the difference between the rules of the community and the rules that protect the plunderer.

I think people who hate and fear theistic religion have missed a few centuries. Democracy is the religion of America now. We kill and torture in the name of democracy now. We indoctrinate our children in the myths of democracy. Democracy does not promise us rewards in the afterlife, but more cynically, promises us all a chance to plunder our neighbors.


  1. Communism seeks to replace religion with the state. It's one of the ten planks.

  2. Any ideology can be (ab)used in the ways you discuss as long as it is interpreted dogmatically. Similarly, any ideology can be used for good purposes, if used in combination with critical thinking and genuinely, honestly good intentions. In your post, you've mixed apples, oranges and quite an assortment of other fruit, and I won't try to untangle that; suffice it to say that religion is not to be blamed as the ONLY excuse for horrible acts, but I do blame it because it, by design, tries to prevent people from thinking critically, exploring and investigating things around themselves and from questioning authority. In that respect, any religion is a vicious, terrible crime against humanity. Maybe not the ONLY crime, but one of the worst in any case.

  3. The relationships between authority, power, exploitation, religion, and ethics are extremely complex - to really untangle all those different types of "fruit" is more the task of a book than a blog post.

    But to try to draw out a few salient points - it seems to me that the antidote to ideology and cruelty is to listen to one's own mind and heart.

    Pseudoscience is no better than outright supernaturalism - and perhaps more dangerous because it seduces people who are *trying* to think rationally and *think* they are thinking rationally.

    When we want to criticize things as complex as "religion" and "government," we have to carefully define them and tease out what's good and what's bad about them. Otherwise, people won't understand what it is we're criticizing.