It’s time for us to have a talk about the subject of religion.
To say that religion is a hot topic for some people is the understatement of the ages. It’s even possible that you may be become upset with me over something I say here even though nothing I’m about to say is meant as a direct attack on anyone’s personal beliefs.
Yes, this means you. I’m not attacking you. Really.
Just stick with me on this and see it through to the end and maybe you’ll agree with me after all.
What Makes Me So Smart?
There are endless debates raging back and forth across media, news and in print over the relative value of religion, whether it has been a force for good or bad through history and what, if anything, we should be doing about it now.
As an ex-member of the Church of Scientology, I spent a good part of my life practicing a form of religious fundamentalism.
Or was just temporarily insane for 27 years. You decide.
I’m not making any claims to total objectivity on this subject, because I came out of Scientology suffering from what author Reba Riley has termed “Post Traumatic Church Syndrome”.
Is that even a thing?
I understand the power of belief and faith and how much it can alter a person’s world view, color their relationships with friends and family and be a source of the highest inspiration and the most desperate cruelties. Say what you will about me, I do have more than a passing experience with religion.
As a result, I take a rather dim view on organized religion and the real harm it causes to people every single day. Recently, John Oliver did a segment on televangelism, which is the kind of harm I’m talking about. He showed how some of these guys have gone so far as to convince cancer patients to not seek medical treatment but instead send their money to the televangelist in return for blessings and prayers to take the cancer away.
I’m not an atheist and I’ve not given up personally on the idea of a Creator or spiritual existence that we may all share. But you will never see me trying to enforce my own beliefs or religious views on you or anyone else, nor try to teach them in school to your children or form laws to enforce any aspect of my beliefs on anyone else or tell them how to live their lives. I don’t think those are rights that any religion has and I think it’s time we take a good look at curtailing some of these activities.
The Passion of the Religion
Since the dawn of the internet in the 1980s, the free flow of information has apparently caused many people to re-evaluate their religious beliefs in the face of scientific knowledge they didn’t used to have. On the other hand, social media has opened up the door to floods of religious fundamentalists and activists spreading their messages of love and hate for millions to see with the click of a button.
It’s a hotly debated topic amongst the working man and the ivory tower intellectual.
I doubt that there is anyone who doesn’t have some opinion on religion, and for many, the importance of spreading and enforcing their religious beliefs on others is literally a matter of life or death. Fundamentalists through the ages and in modern times at all ends of the religious spectrum have ridiculed, persecuted and even murdered others because of their perceived differences in belief.
To my way of thinking, any violence in the name of religion is pure madness. One could argue that the growing popularity of the atheist movement today may in part be a reflection or protest against the violence that religious organizations have demanded their followers carry out in the name of Muhammad, Christ, Kali or any other deity of choice.Conversion by the sword or the suicide bomber is not the way to create a world of tolerance and understanding and it will never bring peace. Somehow we have to figure out a way to live together.
I Think, Therefore I Believe
Religion is just a word. It describes both a system of beliefs and the organization that is built up around those beliefs. This makes it confusing because people get these mixed up and the results are shocking and sometimes violent.
The people who run corrupt or criminal operations and call them churches like this confusion and use it to defend themselves, telling the world that anyone trying to expose what the church is doing when they break the law is actually an attack on the belief system. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth and all this does is make a bad situation worse by stirring up people’s passions and appealing to their more primitive nature.
And I’m not talking about their urge to listen to Nikelback.
Religious belief refers to the specific and personal beliefs about supernatural existence which each individual carries around with them. It’s not something I think we have to jump through hoops to understand. It is simply what a person chooses to accept as true about our existence beyond the physical, who or what may have created us and the universe, and what happens to us when our physical body ceases to function.
I think these beliefs are as unique to each person as DNA or fingerprints. Everyone has religious views of some kind, even those who profess to have “no belief at all” because in the end, that is just another choice a person is making about what they believe about the supernatural.
To believe or not to believe. That is the question!
We call these matters of “faith” and contrast them with matters of science or fact for a reason. These are things that no one has been able to provide any facts or concrete evidence about one way or the other. We can argue all day along whether God or gods exist, or whether we live again in another body. These arguments have been going on for literally thousands of years and with all our wordly progress in science and technology, we are still complete cavemen in our understanding of the metaphysical.
No, Ghosthunters hasn’t helped. Not even a little.
In the end, when it comes to religious belief, there are no facts to fall back on, no rational argument to make or accept as to whether one should or shouldn’t believe a thing to be true. It ultimately is up to each individual to choose what they believe.
There is an important corollary to this which I want to bring up: no one can force anyone else to believe or disbelieve something. You can beg, plead, argue or even torture a person until they are dead and not change one bit of their beliefs. Belief exists completely by choice and can only be changed when the person himself decides for himself to change them.
Threaten the lives of a person’s loved ones, hold a gun on him or beat his body; you may get him to say the words you want him to say but that is not the same thing as changing what he really believes in his head. Only he can do that.
Now on the bright side, religious belief can lead people to have what they call divine or spiritual inspiration which has led believers to create some of the most beautiful and magnificent art and architecture the world has ever seen. It’s also given many people a feeling of hope and fortitude in the most trying and difficult of times, from being stuck between jobs not knowing where their next meal is going to come from to surviving the horrors of concentration camps or genocide.
I don’t think anyone should find fault with people finding peace, solace and hope through any way they find necessary and I would never criticize anyone for such things. Some of the greatest achievements of Mankind have been accomplished only because those who did them thought they were acting through divine guidance and inspiration. That they did so does not detract in any way from their achievements or make their life any less noteworthy.
When Beliefs Collide
When more than one person gets together with other persons of similar beliefs, you now have organized religious. It can be two people or two million people strong. Either way, things now have to be communicated to others, rules and guidelines have to be formed, efforts made to make the group survive as a group, and of course, because we are the way we are, there has to be a leader or leaders.
Organized religion represents the best and worst of our species. As a united activity, religious congregations have provided charity and assistance to those in need. Sometimes the price for this help was having to undergo an attempted conversion to the faith, but many times no price was asked for at all and the help was freely given.
Groups which are non-religious in nature can get together and provide aid and assistance to those in need, and many do. But realistically speaking, would all of those people in church groups who have aided others been so inclined to gather and help if their religious leaders had not asked them to? I doubt it.
In addition to sheltering and feeding the poor or indigent, churches are also social hubs where members meet and socialize, not just about religious topics but anything. Churches sponsor sporting events, camping and other youth activities and provide real education to people who would not otherwise be able to get it.
While no one can or should deny that a great deal of good has been done by religious groups, the opposite is also just as true and just as undeniable.
You’d have to be living on a remote island to not be aware of the human rights abuses,
financial ripoffs, criminal activities and outright murder done in the name of religion. This has been a factor throughout all of history from literally our very earliest writings all the way to today.
By the way, if you are living on that island, can I come live there?
There are very few political, social or personal issues which seem to be able to generate the rabid antagonism and hate that religious fervor causes. As strong as some liberals or conservatives may feel about their favorite political candidate, I have yet to see anyone gunned down in the street because they didn’t support a George Bush or a Barrack Obama. I’ve never seen a suicide bomber or children so heavily brainwashed by the NAACP or GLAAD that they enter a mall filled with thousands of innocent shoppers and blow everyone to bits to make a statement about civil rights.
There is something unique and different about organized religions that makes them stand out amongst the other groups that human beings form, and drive their members to commit some of the worst atrocities in the history of Mankind, on all sides of the belief equation. I’m not just talking about Christians or Muslims. Examples can be found in history of almost any religious group taking up arms against other religious groups over their difference in beliefs, or at least using those differences as a justification for hostilities even if the true nature of the conflict was over land, money or other issues.
In the United States, we are guaranteed a freedom of religion by the First Amendment to our Constitution, which states
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
It’s quite clear that government is not supposed to be trampling into our beliefs or our rights to establish organizations around those beliefs. But in this day and age of such obvious human rights abuses and violence committed in the name of religion, I would argue that some degree of oversight is necessary.
In the same way that freedom of speech is restricted to not being able to falsely shout “fire” in a crowded theater, religious tax exemptions and privileges must also be regulated. Currently, courts provide far too much latitude to religious groups to get away with the most obvious and heinous crimes in the name of religious practice. One need only look at the example that the Church of Scientology has set in precedent after precedent, giving it free rights to pay slave wages, financially bankrupt its members as well as stalk and harass its critics.
And allow its leader, David Miscavige, to buy a lifetime supply of Chef’s Salty Chocolate Balls and not share any of them with Scientology parishioners unless they donate a million dollars.
I am quite sure Scentology is not the only group to abuse its protections under the First Amendment. This is a situation that needs to change and it’s only going to when we the people bring enough pressure to bear on our government and courts to act.
The Nature of Truth
So where does this leave us in the world of critical thinking, where we strive to find truth and discover what is real?
Well, if learning about critical thinking has taught me anything, it’s that the truth is multi-faceted and ca n be complex. We can sometimes cling so hard to our version of events and our ideas of how things are that we fail to see or even refuse to look at the bigger picture.
Common sense says that when we are faced with contradictory ideas or facts, that the truth is somewhere in between. But that’s not always the case, and sometimes is so much not the case that it can get us in trouble.
Sometimes, the truth is that both of those contradictory facts were totally correct all along, and we could see that if we are only willing to change our perspective.
I think this is where we need to get to with religous belief. Nowhere is intolerance more sharply obvious and nowhere do we pay such a high price for the consequences of that intolerance.
I think it’s time we acknowledge that we all could learn a lot more from each other by practicing tolerance and understanding, and do so without allowing religious principles to infringe on the rights of anyone else to live their life the way they want to. A very tall order indeed.
Thank you for watching.