Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Problem Of Religion

Long time readers of this blog know I'm an atheist.

I've been an atheist since I can remember, and I mean that literally.  My mama sent me to a Lutheran kindergarten, because New Orleans in those days did not have public kindergartens: I remember standing during the religious portion of the school day (we had to stand while we got preached at) standing giving my classmates the side-eye, wondering if the rest of them really believed any of this, and being convinced that none of them truly did.

The Teacher: "Jesus knows whether you believe in Him or not."

Five year old delagar, standing at her bench in her little uniform, in her little braids, hands behind her back, frowning. Looks sidelong at Guy, a red-headed boy with adorable curls, who looks earnest and terrified.

The Teacher: "You can say you Believe all you like.  But Jesus sees INTO YOUR HEART.  Jesus KNOWS."

Five year old delagar looks the other way, at the dark haired girl who also has braids, who gets in trouble with delagar frequently for talking during naps.  She doesn't look worried, just bored.  She's chewing on the end of her braid.

The Teacher: "Jesus can see EVERYTHING.  Jesus knows EVERYTHING."

Five year old delagar frowns at the teacher: she is pretty certain not even the teacher believes this crap, since this is the same voice the teacher uses when she says things like now we will all be on our best behavior for this field trip won't we.

It took me a long time to be convinced that some people actually believe God exists. Sometimes I am still not convinced, frankly.  I mean, I know people think they believe God exists.  But it seems obvious to me that they're believing it for the same reason kids believe in Santa -- for the presents, or because they're too scared not to. But then I think about some few of my students, who are intelligent and good at heart, and who sincerely and legitimately believe in God, and I have to admit that people can believe in God who are not idiots and not fools.

Also, while I was watching the documentary Eyes on the Prize, about the Civil Rights Movement, people involved in that movement -- intelligent, good-hearted people, people who were not idiots or fools, people who were obviously not lying and not afraid -- spoke of how God let them do what they did. So that showed me that some people do, in fact, actually legitimately believe in God.

My point: I'm not a particularly militant atheist.

I don't (for the most part) go around arguing with those who are religious, I don't try to get them to see how wrong-headed they are, or prove to them that God doesn't exist, or that their worldview is flawed.

If it gives people comfort to have these religious convictions, then go in peace, I say.


These religious convictions do have a downside -- do create problems, at times.

This is a self-evident truth, and at these times I do, occasionally, find myself wanting to argue with my students and with people on the internet and with people in my life: to show them the destruction they're causing in the world.

I try not to, even then, because people really aren't rational when it comes to their religion, but here is what I think.  Religion is destructive and a problem in these areas, in these particular ways.

The first and most obvious problem is when people use religion in a destructive way.  Take Doug Wilson, for instance, and Rod Dreher, and those like him: those who use religion to support their oppressive worldviews.

Rod isn't nearly as big a problem as Doug, but nevertheless: this sort uses their religion to support their belief that certain sorts of people can be legitimately discriminated against.  This sort once used religion to justify slavery and discrimination against people of color; now they use it to justify the oppression of women and LGBT people and the mistreatment of children. If they did not have religion to back their oppression, they would not feel nearly so justified; nor would they be taken as seriously.

So that's one problem.

But here's another, and possibly even a greater one: the time and the energy and the resources that are sunk into religion.

(Here is a post that touches on the enormous resources devoted to the worship of this imaginary being. But that's hardly even scraping the surface -- think of the billions devoted to building churches, paying preachers, funding proselytizing, all funds that could be otherwise more profitably spent.)

On FB, I watch my otherwise intelligent students spend hours arguing the most bizarre and ridiculous questions -- whether the world is 4000 or 7000 or 9000 years old, based on the interpretation of some verse in Exodus; whether women braiding their hair is a sin or not; what exactly this specific verse in Revelation means. This is enormous intellectual energy which could be spent doing something useful in the world, wasted on what is -- frankly -- nonsense.

(See this site for another example.)

That's not even counting the occasions when the nonsense is actively destructive -- as it often is.

(Not to mention misogynistic -- as it often is.  See also here.  And here.)

True, it's a free country.

True, if they didn't have religion they would probably just be arguing about baseball statistics or which fishing lure was the best instead.

But I can't help thinking that religion siphons off wealth and intellect and energy, diverting it toward chimera, smoke, and mirrors -- wasting it, in fact: wealth and intellect and energy that could be used to improve this planet, this life, this world here, which is, in fact, the only world that actually exists.


Mogwai24 said...

This is brilliant. You've perfectly articulated why I'm not entirely comfortable with religious belief (although I would never say so to those friends of mine that believe in God).

I'm often accused (by my boyfriend, no less) that I think all believers are idiots. I don't. Really. But I simply cannot understand why someone can believe in a Supreme Being. I just don't see the point. *Why* would you believe it?

Isn't the world much more interesting and exciting and so much bigger when you act as though there was no God?

dorki said...

Revelation - that dude was smokin' some really "good" stuff!

Rather good rundown, delagar. Organized religion is fraught with many problems. One that first caught my attention was the "Christian" Roman leader Constantine. His spreading the Word of God was basically 'If not by the Scripture, then by the sword'.

If you want to bend you mind around something that might possibly exist read the book "Warped Passages" by Lisa Randall. Fair warning - quantum, string, and other theories. But it is actually readable.

Anonymous said...

Most churches encourage people to be worse than they are, and it works. They tell people that if you aren't one of them you are evil and going to hell. Congregants are supposed to try to convert the wicked, but in practice it's easier to fear and hate them. They deserve what they are going to get for not believing. The churches challenge them to believe more and more crazy things that aren't true. If you believe in the virgin birth, etc. you're a perfect mark for believing in almost anything. They bond through extreme political and social beliefs, all of which brand anything outside to be evil and morally wrong, even when their own morals are highly questionable. They can still feel high horse next to the unsaved. Worse, when they do awful things to other people, they are so easily forgiven of those "sins" that it's ridiculous. Why would they have to earn the forgiveness of anyone else when Jesus lets them off the hook the instant they go to church or say a prayer? There's no consequence for wrongdoing. They are openly racist and homophobic, yet claim they just "hate the sin" and "love the sinner." Except for the love part. I never see that part.

Because my husband and I are atheist, we can't be moral people. We're evil and are going to hell because we stubbornly refuse to believe, and in fact have heard the "Word" and openly rejected it.

But there's one church that isn't like that, and I've seen it for myself. It's a Presbyterian church. They have a wealthy foundation paying for everything. I can't imagine how that happened, but they spend it hiring musicians, hosting professional and amateur choirs and orchestras, funding food pantries that the congregation volunteers for, and establishing a community of people who take care of each other and the needy around them. They hire the Kauffman Center every year, perform a classical concert with their choir and orchestra, give the tickets away free and ask people who come to donate money to the free clinic or similar organization. They want to be better people, help the needy, and express themselves artistically. It's almost too good to be true.

They let me join their choir. They don't care if I'm a Jewish atheist. They just wanted to know what part I sing. They have other atheists and welcome and support LGBTQ participants. If you want to be with them, that's fine. They don't need your money. I wonder if their faith has a dark side, because I'm so used to my mother's nasty right wing church of lies, but I haven't found it yet. I'll never believe in god, but I might believe in these folks.

The news isn't all bad when it comes to the "faith" community. But I wonder if these sweet, lovable Presbyterians aren't fairly unusual. Still, I'm glad they exist at all. They seem to have made a home for half the musicians in the 3-county area.

So I've started singing in their choir. I want to be part of their next concert season. We're doing the Haydn Creation Oratorio at the Kauffman Center in April. Last year they did the Brahms Requiem. I'm sorry I came to this so late. They won't change the fact that I'm a Jewish atheist, but they offer me an opportunity to help the needy, be a better person, and express myself artistically. I'm on board with that. It feels a little weird to sing hymns, but I can't deny that I'm having a great time.

Livia is going to church? Yeah, kind of. Perhaps hell really has frozen over.


delagar said...

L., that's what I mean -- your Presbyterians are what I mean. Every here and there, I find individual churches which are doing holy work (in the real sense of that word): which are working to mend the actual world, this world, the one we live in.

True, for every church doing holy work here in this world, we've got about 900 haters and evil doers; but that one church is enough to keep me from condemning religion entirely. I mean, as Sturgeon famously said, 90% of everything is crap. Why wouldn't that apply to God-botherers as well as anything else?

Anonymous said...

I am religious, and you are not wrong. --RadiantSophia