Religion –it is a subject you are not supposed to discuss in polite company –which is precisely why it needs to be addressed in this blog. Surprisingly, it turns out, I have quite a bit to say about religion as when I began to write I could not stop….thus in keeping with my commitment to keeping blogs around a 1000 words or less, I give you part I of III – though perhaps an entire book is more in order.
The dictionary defines religion as a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
Now, if you are like most people and engage in various levels of stereotyping, you might likely assume that this left leaning, guitar playing, surfing, and pot smoking professor would set out to undermine the validity of religious belief.
Not at all. Not even close. You are right now reading the words of a man who was an evangelical pastor for over a decade and attended seminary for a Master’s Degree in Practical Theology. In other words, I know my religious shit -really well. And boy do I have some stories kids…I think if we lived in a different time and some stakes were conveniently available outside the church I tried to minister (read: fucked over) I might have been burned right then and there.
Turns out critical thinking and religious thought are not exactly a match made in heaven. When attenders are looking for answers and security but leave the service with more questions and a great deal more insecurity, it is a telltale sign I was in the wrong profession. It only took me 13 years of professional ministry to figure that out. Perhaps I am a slow learner. Yet, that is a different blog for a different day.
In spite of my personal experiences, I still basically defend the concept of religion, flaws and all.
In fact, through my debate courses I teach, the subject has come up many times over the last several years concerning whether or not religion has done more harm, or good, throughout human history. I do believe strong arguments can be made for both sides of this issue and certainly there is no way to prove or disprove this one way or the other. This being said, I do believe religion has done more good than harm and the thought of a world without religion troubles me.
Now, let’s get critical. Before I reach any conclusions, here are my five general presuppositions to my thought process concerning human nature and religion to complete blog part I of III:
First off, people are generally unwise. I did not say stupid, dumb or lack intellect. Rather most people lack strong discretion and wisdom. I certainly place myself in this category as one who has certainly behaved in ways that clearly lacked wisdom and good discretion. “Unwise” decisions are usually fueled by attempting to meet our personal emotional needs at the expense of grounded and rational decision-making -it has been called getting a case of the “fuck-its” -a condition very common among most human beings. According to William Schutz, we all have various needs for inclusion, affection and control…and we will go to great irrational lengths to get these needs meets.
Secondly, there are very, very few faithful adherents to any religion. The great majority of people who subscribe to a particular faith cherry pick what they like or don’t like, agree or disagree with, while managing to conveniently choose the dogmas, theologies and practices of their liking while discarding what they do not like. Author Daniele Bolelli recently wrote a book entitled, “Create your own Religion” in which he suggests that since most people pick and choose at the buffet of faith, why not just create your own religion based on the preferred aspects that each religion may offer? In fact, it has been my experience within religion that this is what most people do instinctively. Renowned atheist Sam Harris, in his book “The End of Faith,” contends this “buffet” reality is at the heart of the problem of religion -as the vast majority of lukewarm adherents support the dangerous fundamentalist wings of the same religion. For example, if the Koran instructs to kill the infidel, a good Muslim adherent would try to kill this blogging hedonistic infidel. If the bible tells us to stone the homosexual, a good adherent to the bible would be trying to stone homosexuals. Thank goodness the great majority of people do not adhere to all aspects of their faith and we have separation of church and state or the country may be a much more dangerous place with people actually literally performing what their holy book instructs.
Next, religion can never be successfully argued because the concept of “faith” is like religious caulking –whenever there are holes, cracks or problematic modes of thinking within a particular religion, it is instantly “spiritually spackled” with the caulking of faith…conveniently avoiding any cognitive dissonance and filling the gaps or spaces in logic with the putty of faith. Ultimately religion cannot be argued because faith is not a rational (nor necessarily irrational) activity.
Fourth, most people lack the ability to honestly and critically evaluate their faith because it is their lifeline to existence. It’s like a diabetic playing around with her insulin shots or the dialysis patient questioning whether treatment is really worth it. Certainly faith adherents can learn more about faith and bolster their apologetic abilities, though most are not honestly open to the potential of accepting the idea that their faith is complete, or in part, bullshit. It is my experience that the more “fringe” forms of faith are the ones lacking the most in critical, open and honest inquiry…and it would seem self-evident as to why as the unconventional and more unorthodox doctrines are the ones most vulnerable to intellectual attack. Sociologist Ernest Becker has a interesting theory concerning religion and death as he contends that all of culture, at the heart of which is religion, is designed of symbols and customs created to help people cope with their anxiety over death. Human beings are perhaps the only creatures on the planet who are quite aware of their own demise…and deal with it we must. His studies conclude that when people are reminded of their own mortality while under the influence of their denial of death, they tend to react harshly and aggressively. Religion works really well in this sense to ward off the anxiety of one day becoming fertilizer.
Fifth and finally, any proselytizing or missionary type zeal is a misguided attempt on behalf of the individual to convince oneself that what they believe is indeed true. There is no greater validation to one’s thinking than to get another to subscribe to it as well. When we attempt to get others to think or behave in a particular way, we are engaging in what we call compliance gaining strategies. Frequently we may do this to achieve personal reward and a sense of power. Remember, if I believe in gravity and you do not, I am not threatened by your belief. We rarely argue or attempt to convert others over issues we know to be true. It is when we are unsure we feel the need to defend and convert.
All of these five presuppositions, coupled with the fact that human beings love a person to look up to and worship…only to fail them at some point because all human beings are all ultimately screw ups…are the grounds for my take human nature and religion.
Coming up next: Why I Am Not an Atheist. Until then, may Allah, God, Buddha, Jesus, Moses and Tom Cruise bless you.