Thursday, May 6, 2010

Religion: End It or Enlighten It?

Religion: End It or Enlighten It?

I have wrestled for years with an interest in religions, from an outsider's perspective, that vies with an equally strong dislike and distrust of it. I waver between these two poles, often depending on what I read (say, Richard Dawkins vs. the Dalai Lama), and I can never settle that final question: Should religion be tolerated or terminated?

It is a troubling question. The hardest part is that being skeptical by nature, I have no problem seeing the fantastical and placating aspects of religion, the way it helps people feel good about themselves in a big, scary universe, while recognizing the ways that it can contribute to personal happiness--albeit at a greater price. So, looking at it through skeptical goggles, it seems silly at first blush to think something like religion could be all that dangerous or bad or harmful...

And then we have people crashing planes into skyscrapers. Or people killing other people because they are gay, offer abortions, or what have. Plus you add on top the ever-expanding circle of exploitation in the form of sexual abuse, money grubbing, power mongering, etc., etc. It is so easy to see how religion is as poisonous as it might be supportive. It cultivates and encourages a mindset of ignorance, setting for easy answers, not questioning assumptions and "authority." Meekness is encouraged, ignorance is bliss, faith is the key to heaven. Heck, you can even have someone ELSE die for your own sins!!!

So the damage of religion is the faith that, for such a vast majority of people, is nothing more than an excuse to be lazy. To turn off the mind and push the growling demons of doubt into the closet. To bury fear under a promise of heaven. It seems that the END of religion would be the BEGINNING of human empowerment. "If God did not exist, then all things would be allowed"...and, a la Nietzsche, humankind would have its first chance to truly realize its greatness

But really think about the likelihood of a Nietzschean future should religion suddenly, miraculously (forgive the pun) disappear. If religion were to end, how likely is it that the world would become a better place? How would people fill that hole inside of them, now suddenly reopened and left vacant, without religion? Would suicides skyrocket? Or drug addiction? Would we see the weaknesses of humanity in full display rather than its greatness? Would people lose the one source of moral structure that served as a guide for them? What would take the place--science, art, sports, gambling...? As sad as it makes me to say it, I think religion's replacement would quickly serve the same function as the original: a safe, easy excuse to give up critical thinking and just trust that "all will be well"...if you have the faith.

And admittedly, for all its ugliness, religion does have a lot of beauty in it and has inspired a lot of beauty in the world. Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel, for example. And it would be unfair to forget the moral structure and humanitarian efforts that all religions have brought to this world--and more importantly the people living in it. There are valid arguments against a blanket statement that religion is the foundation of morality, or even the protector and preserver of it, but it obviously plays a key role for a great number of people as a beacon for proper, ethical behavior (or at least lets them know when they are going wrong). Maybe the cost-benefit analysis would still show that the costs were not worth the benefits, but still...

For these reasons, and the fact that the actual likelihood of ending religion is minuscule to say the least (sorry, but I am skeptical to the core), I often wonder whether the better goal is somehow enlightening religion--or religious believers, that is. Would it be an acceptable "success" for atheists, non-theists, and skeptics to have people still taking part in "religion" but approaching it with a critical, questioning, active attitude. Like Thomas Jefferson: coming to Christianity and ripping out everything from the Bible that they found to be nonsensical, immoral, or inhumane?

If someone really, truly, and continuously "wrestled" with religion (think of Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis, for which he earned the name "Israel," or "struggle with God"), and they still found sufficient good reason to be part of religion, would that be a victory?

It is hard for me not to see it as such. I think "religion" in that sort of a world would be a very, very different animal, and humans would be one step closer to fully realizing freedom and empowerment--here and now, not in some promissory afterlife with angels, virgins, and all the free ice cream you can eat.

Image credit: NHRHS2010, from Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons license