“It’s not OUR fault—religion made us do it!
I have come to believe, through long experience, that once we’ve categorized and labeled someone—telling ourselves that all atheists, or all theists or all blacks or all Muslims or all Jews etc. are this or that way—we’ve essentially dismissed them. It becomes easy not to deal with them as individuals, but rather as religious individuals, or black individuals, or liberal or conservative or whatever label we apply. The moment we pop someone into a category or apply a profile to them, we establish expectations for their behavior and thoughts, and filter what they say and do through that expectation, which makes it virtually impossible to see the real person behind the category. Why? Because we simply dismiss any information that does not fulfill our expectation.
In the dialogue I held with one particular correspondent, the original question was whether there was anything good about faith or religion that we should preserve as we aimed to get rid of destructive dogma. When I came up with a laundry list of positives about religion, my correspondent immediately set about psychoanalyzing me. My perception that there was anything positive about religion was the result of my peculiar psychology—my “religious mindset”—which was, he claimed, common to all religious types.
When I called his attention to the fact that we’d gone off into the weeds, he agreed to get back to the original question, but returned immediately to psycho-analyzing me. He explained to me why I thought the excesses committed in the name of faith were actually the result of human greed and thirst for power: I was “escamoting”. (No, this has nothing to do with the Inuit population of Alaska, but is rather a French term that means I was dodging facts. In this case, I was dodging the “fact” that religion made good people do bad things.)
I’ve blogged about this idea, so I won’t speak to it here, but I thought it an interesting twist on “the devil made me do it.” It seemed to me a nifty way to excuse human beings for the things that human beings do—with or without religion. Human beings don’t do bad things for human reasons—religion forces them to do bad things that they never would have thought of doing otherwise.
Seriously, isn’t it “escamoting” to attribute to the outside influence of religion and God what human beings do in every single facet of their lives? Is this logical when we exhibit the same lust for power and control and self-aggrandizement in our personal relationships, in gender relations, race relations, in the workplace, in national and international politics?
The only thing that stuns me from time to time is that religion isn’t more proof to the manipulation to which we subject everything else. I look at the KKK and wonder how in the name of God (literally) they could justify the destruction of a black church or their hatred of other human beings and dare to call themselves Christians. By Christ’s criteria (“by their fruits, you will know them”) they’re completely off the rails. And how absurd to think that a sidestep appeal to science, to insist that blacks weren’t fully human, somehow trumped the teachings of their faith. There are few things more a betrayal and rejection of the teachings of Christ than the specter of sheet-clad whites burning black churches.
That virulent racism happened in spite of religion not because of it.
If you need to be convinced of that, simply look at the prescriptive teachings of religion in contrast with those acts of intolerance. Then look at how that lust for superiority plays itself out in areas completely unconnected to religion.
Remember that, not that long ago, racism was enshrined in American legislation—a black was only a fraction of a man, he was legally less than human; he could not enter white establishments or marry a white wife. Based on that, should we chuck the US Constitution and our entire democratic system? Or should we rather live up to the apparent meaning of the words as we gain the maturity to do so? Should we redefine our Constitution (or scripture) by our own darkest fears, deepest hatreds, and shallowest desires, or should we rather try to live up to the documented ideals?
I doubt many readers of this blog would argue that we should scrap the Constitution because of how it has been interpreted. Yet, that is the substance of a repeated argument against religion.
Yes, religion has been used as a tool to advance human greed and lust for power (so has sex, food, politics, you name it). Yes, religion has caused some deep rifts between peoples (ditto the last list). The scriptures of my own Faith make a point that
Religionists have considered the world of humanity as two trees: one divine and merciful, the other satanic; they themselves the branches, leaves and fruit of the divine tree and all others who differ from them in belief the product of the tree which is satanic. Therefore, sedition and warfare, bloodshed and strife have been continuous among them. The greatest cause of human alienation has been religion because each party has considered the belief of the other as anathema and deprived of the mercy of God.”— Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace
But this thirst for superiority is not built into the religion itself. There is nothing in the teachings of Buddha that justifies a violent Buddhist backlash against Hindus or any other religious group. Quite the opposite. There is nothing in Christ’s teachings that tells His followers to treat non-Christians as if they were satanic. Again, quite the opposite.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven…Matthew 5:43-48
Anyone who has done a comparative study of religious texts knows how prevalent this principle is. Prevalent enough to suggest that if there is a “religious mindset” promoted by God’s presumptive Spokesmen, it is the one typified by Christ’s quote. To my correspondent, however, sacred texts were to be judged not by their contents, but by the interpretations and behavior of their most disobedient adherents. And so were religious adherents as a group to be judged.
And this brings me to the only element in my discourse with anti-theists that I find a bit insulting. This is the idea that all religious people are so simple-minded that our belief in God or in a particular Prophet revolves around one data point.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve been asked, “So, Muhammad was a nice guy—is everybody who’s nice or compassionate a Prophet? Or: “So Bahá’u’lláh claimed he had a revelation—do you believe everyone who says God’s talked to them?”
The answer: “Duh. No.”
To me, this is a jaw-droppingly naive question, and it arises out of the perception that there is a “religious mindset” common to all people of faith. It would be quite as if I imagined that all atheists or anti-theists had the same “atheist mindset” that went beyond merely disbelieving in a God (even a very specific type of God) and that having met one atheist, I have met them all.
I asked my correspondent if he would consciously base his trust or belief in something on a single point of data. If Alan Guth (one of the world’s foremost physicists) said, “Hey, I just discovered there are pink neutrinos!” would he automatically believe there were pink neutrinos? Wouldn’t he want to hear from other physicists and possibly read their conclusions himself? If he understood something about physics, wouldn’t he ponder the evidence before deciding if he accepted the idea of pink neutrinos?
Of course he would. But would all atheists or agnostics do so? Wouldn’t there be, among non-believers, those who would read that Guth had said this (if, indeed, they knew who he was) and say, “How about that. There are pink neutrinos.”
So, I asked my correspondent: “If YOU would not be likely to accept a proposition on a single point of data, why would you imagine I would accept that someone had a revelation simply because they claimed it?”
My correspondent then asked me to explain why I believed as I did. I tried to sum it up in less than a novel-length tome in my Viewpoints piece on this blog site: “The Thesis-Writing Mammal Considers Albedo”, but I think mathematician William S. Hatcher, who wrote copiously about science and religion, frames the general principle eloquently when he said,
It would be a mistake to say that we hold such a statement to be true because of reason, or because of intuition, or because of experience. In the final analysis, we hold something as true only because of everything else which we accept as true, that is, because this something is consistent with our experience and understanding of life as a whole. No statement can be held absolutely to be true, for no statement is independent of other statements and facts which may come to our attention at some future date. Nor is it independent of the meaning of other statements, a meaning which may be altered either by subtle shifts in the way we use words or by a change in explicit conventions and definitions. A combination of such factors can result in a change in the implication relation and thus a change in the truth value of some statements. Our knowledge, then, is relative. It is relative not only to time but to the whole body of our present knowledge which forms the context in which the statement has meaning in the first place. (William S. Hatcher, The Science of Religion p 10)
It has taken me 36 years of study, observation, experience, intuition, reasoning, and analysis to reach the point I am at today. The scriptures of my faith advise three complimentary modes of behavior:
- Independently investigating reality.
- Making sure that one’s understanding of faith accords with that reality.
- Bringing oneself to account on a daily basis.
This is the “religious mindset” promoted by the documented teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, but Bahá’u’lláh is not the first claimant to divine revelation to suggest that reason is a critically important tool in a life of faith.
Christ famously advocated the use of logic and reason in a number of His talks. Take for example, this one verse from the Sermon on the Mount (which is one of many passages in which Christ appeals to the rational faculties of His audience):
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. — Matthew 7: 15-17
Failing to apply ourselves in this way is as much a breach of religious faith as it is of scientific principle.