Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


On this holiest of Christian days, a rumination on religion and whether it's necessary or not

As good readers of this blog know, I am an atheist. I have no problem with people believing in God, and maybe I'll have a road to Damascus moment one day and I'll believe, but for now, I'm an atheist. This makes me a greater danger to the United States than terrorists, apparently, but that's fine - I can deal with it.

This is Easter Sunday, of course, the holiest of days on the Christian calendar, and it's a fine time to consider this thing we call religion and whether we need it or not. I have before equated religion with superstition, and I'm sticking with that, but that doesn't necessarily make it unnecessary. Religion is an interesting phenomenon, because everyone automatically assumes it's a good thing, despite a long litany of horrors perpetrated by followers of a certain religion. Everyone just says, "Well, those people weren't true _______ (fill in your practitioner of a religion here)." But is that accurate? Were those people true believers, and should we look at the religion itself as being at fault?

Consider Christianity. Christianity, the world's dominant religion (although Islam is gaining quickly, I understand), is the vision of only a few men, and none of them are named Jesus. The founder of Christianity is Paul of Tarsus, who never knew Jesus and was active in persecuting so-called Christians (those people who thought Jesus was the Messiah, even though they would have probably called themselves Jews) before his conversion on a lonely road to the Syrian capital. Paul, more than anyone, shaped the nascent religion into the world-dominating force we know today. Jesus was a kook - he said things like, "Wouldn't it be nice if we could all be swell to each other?" and "I think you better give away everything you own if you want to go to heaven," but Paul softened this message to fit into a Eastern Mediterranean world view. Paul knew people wouldn't accept Jesus' message as it appears in the Gospels - even though the Gospels weren't written until AFTER Paul wrote his letters - so he gave the people who wanted to follow Jesus what people always want: rules. People are inherently mistrusting of anarchy, which is in Jesus' teachings quite a bit. So Paul said, basically, that Jesus wasn't about anarchy either - here are some rules, and you better follow them. And the masses were happy.

Three hundred years later another man was largely responsible for turning Christianity from a persecuted religion into a persecuting one. In the first three centuries of the Common Era, plenty of bishops shaped Christianity the way they wanted. One, Clement of Alexandria, even wrote a letter telling an associate to lie about the veracity of a portion of the Gospel of Mark that is now not included in the Bible (although the letter could be a forgery, as discussed here). By the first years of the fourth century, however, Christianity had become sufficiently powerful that the Romans were forced to deal with it, and they did, at the famous Council of Nicaea in AD 325. At that council, Constantine the Great, the Roman Emperor (306-337) basically told the bishops how to decide the nature of Christ and the dating of Easter. A pagan (there is still some doubts about when Constantine actually converted) told Christians what to do with some of their most fiercely-debated issues. And that was that. Christianity became the unofficial state religion of Rome (despite some attempts, like those of Julian (360-363) to turn back the clock), and it was on its way.

As for, say, the Anglican Church, this was again the product of one man and it had nothing to do with a relationship to God. Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife because she wasn't giving him sons and he wanted to bang Anne Boleyn in good conscience. The pope, however, was being held hostage by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, whose aunt was ... Catherine of Aragon, Henry's wife. So the pope refused to grant the divorce, and Henry created his own church. And so Protestantism continued on its merry way.

This is not meant to be a history lesson, and most educated people have a vague knowledge of these sorts of things anyway. It does point up what "religion" is, however, and why I wonder whether it's necessary. Religious institutions are just that, institutions, and they accumulate power and influence and are loath to give up that power and influence. We can look at the positive things religions have done all we want - and pro-religious people do, without acknowledging the horrific crimes religions have committed. We whine and moan about stem-cell research and claim that it will lead to horrors the like of which we have never seen, but stem-cell research, like anything, is neutral until someone decides to use it. Religion is the same way - it can be a force for good or evil, yet no one ever feels the need to debate whether we need it or not.

I'm just wondering how much religion inspires us to do good deeds. My mother is going to Louisiana in a few months to help with the clean-up. She is doing this through her church, and it's a wonderful thing. But how much does her relationship with Jesus or God inspire her to do it? The church is there to organize the trip and probably help with the costs, but did her Christianity inspire her or did the fact that she's a decent person with no job and time on her hands inspire her? Are the two one and the same thing? I would cite her upbringing as why she's a decent person, but doesn't religion play a big part in that? Well, yes, but what kind of Christianity is hers? What kind of Christianity is any of ours? There are Christians in this world who believe fervently that their God tells them to stone homosexuals to death. And there are Christians in this world who believe fervently that their God tells them to embrace homosexuals. There are Muslims in this world who believe fervently that their God tells them to fly planes into buildings and kill regular people. There are Muslims in this world who believe fervently that their God tells them to love the infidel and debate him in order to convert him.

The problem is, of course, that it's all the same God - at least in a technical sense. But people believe what they want to believe - and they find a God who is going to validate those beliefs. I have heard of very few people whose lives were completely changed by a religious conversion in the mold of Paul on the road - I'm sure they exist, but I have not met these people or even read about them very much. My friend Dave is one such person - he was into drugs and drinking in college and then he had a religious experience and now he's into being a good father and spreading the word of God and exposing the lie of evolution! But, at the same time, he found God but is still trying to find a church - at least he was the last time I talked to him (he could have found one by now, for all I know). He couldn't find a church because none fit into what he wanted - and again, it comes back to what we want from a church, and not what a church can offer us. My mom is a good Presbyterian, and I doubt that she could be a good Catholic, because that's not the kind of person she is. She picked a church that fit her, but would not change to fit into a church. People are going to act in a certain way, and if their church does not validate that choice, they will find a different church.

This leads me back to whether religions are necessary. If we can change a religion to suit ourselves, what is the point of it? Religions serve certain needs, as I've mentioned - they organize charity events, they provide a social network, they may inspire us - but they don't do anything that a secular organization couldn't do, and those are allowed to die all the time. We are locked into this mindset that religions are wonderful things despite evidence to the contrary because we are so conservative by nature, and "traditions" are good. This becomes a problem when religion is allowed to stifle everything else, which may be happening in this country. Look at Islam: it didn't become fundamentalist until, really, this century, and it was a combination of a few things. First, the Western world, which had been slowly catching up to the Islamic world and passing it for centuries, was finally in a position to colonize it completely, and Muslims were faced with a devastating loss of political influence on the world stage and began to experience a psychologically traumatic inferiority complex. Think about it. We want to believe the West has always been a bastion of free thought and achievement, but for centuries the Muslim world was that bastion while the West wallowed in ... Catholic dogma. Even after the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, while the West surged ahead of the Muslim world, Muslims could always point to the Ottoman Empire, which although weakened, was still a factor in international politics until the First World War. After the dismemberment of the empire, Muslims were colonized by European powers, and there was nothing they could do about it. Instead of blaming their new second-class status on the fact that for centuries the pursuit of scientific, artistic, and militaristic achievements had stagnated, Muslims chose to believe that they lost their power due to a loss of morality, and that they needed to be more fundamentalist. Second, the Western world, which had always been fascinated by Arabs (to the extent that there is a whole subculture of "Arabists" in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), became fascinated by Jews after the Second World War, largely because of the horrors of the Holocaust. Where Arabs were traditionally seen as the underdog (remember T.E. Lawrence?), now Jews were. Arabs were a bit pissed off about this, and decided a return to their "roots" was necessary. Why this entailed anti-Semitism has nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with a feeling of betrayal by the British (the Balfour Declaration, for instance) and by the neo-British, the Americans. I'm not saying that the West shouldn't support a Jewish homeland in Israel, but the fact that for years the West supported the Arabs and then, in the eyes of those same Arabs, betrayed them, makes the Muslim world believe that they need to return to a pure form of their religion to "makes things right."

I would hope we won't have that sort of situation in the United States, but it seems like some people believe that we have betrayed the roots of Christianity and we need to return to it, even though Christianity has always been a fluid faith and there is no consensus on what the "perfect" version of Christianity really is. "Fundamentalism" isn't about Christianity any more than it is about Islam - it's a group of people who are afraid that the world is passing them by and they want to hold onto what they love about it. It's about fear, and all too often, religion is used to justify fear and ignorance. Not always, but again, not all atomic research is going to lead to a bomb. It's all in the way you look at it.

This has nothing to do with spirituality, by the way. Your own personal relationship with God or Jesus or Allah or Buddha is your own business. I just wonder if we need religion anymore. Too often it seems like it leads to all the things we hate about humanity, even though it can lead to all the things we admire about humanity. But as we move through this century, it is a question that I think we need to ask. There is quite a bit riding on it.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seen in a Sunday churches section of a newspaper - posted by a Baptist minister :" Jesus Christ did not come into the world to promote religion but to save sinners".
Personal trials led me to the dare approach to faith : "if you're real ... ".
I "lost". Hubris. Prayer won.
I like your honesty in requiring understandable relevance from people. I have been startled at times by the amount of it around, although I do, as a general rule, avoid churches.
We never needed religion per se : just a way to encourage the "good guys" and rein in violent jerks.
I agree : so-called "Christianity" sucks in that regard. That does not mean there are no honest efforts to remedy the lack.
Thanks for a thoughtful post.

16/4/06 8:52 PM  
Blogger Gordon D said...

It's funny - I was in an online discussion with some people I know, talking about Easter, and I had described how I was exploring certain aspects of Eastern philosophy, such as Zen, Buddhism, etc.

The major response I got from several on this board is (to summarize), "It's ok to study it academically, but real Christians believe in the Holy Trinity, what's in the Bible, etc."

I'm what many choose to call a "recovering Catholic" - I like the ideas put forth by the Catholic Church (including the idea that a person who was both divine and human died in the most ugly and horrible way possible), but I dislike much of the politics and the conduct of its members. It's amazing to me how so many people in the Christian faith insist that you believe what they believe, without question, without exploration, without judgment.

(It also helps that I studied at a Jesuit high school and college, so that I received a thorough understanding of the historical context).

To actually discuss your point - whether we need religions -I don't think the problem is necessarily organized religion. I believe the problem is that so many people are so insecure about their spiritual identity that, unless you believe exactly what they do, you're wrong, and any criticism needs to be stopped - I think it's safe to say that South Park isn't exactly the Pope's favorite show.

My personal feeling - God's big enough for everybody. (Even athiests). Rather than argue about what Jesus was or wasn't, or argue about who's more "Christian"...well, I'd much rather practice what Jesus taught than debate it.

Just my two cents - I could be wrong.

17/4/06 10:58 AM  
Blogger Roger Owen Green said...

Your post is SO long that I can't comment on it all except to say:
1) I've had trouble with Paul myself
2) I gather your mother's faith informs her trip to Louisiana. I know that our Mission Committee has had the very conversation you cite - if we'e just doing "good works", without being in touch with the spiritual component, then we might as well be Social Services.
3) I totally agree with the fluidity of Christianity.

Of course, there will always be people who pervert the real meaning of Christianity, just as though there are those who pervert what being an American is. (I have someone in mind who I believe perverts both.) It doesn't mean that the the United States experiment should be abandoned, or that Christianity should be.

17/4/06 4:39 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Interesting comments, folk. Of course you're right, Roger, but my point is that we debate the viability of other things all the time, whether or not we continue with those things. We debate welfare or stem-cell research or abortion or invading Iraq, but never whether religion is necessary. If you do that, you're a horrible atheist, even though one's faith should be strong enough to endure debate. I just find it interesting that we never discuss whether religion is a good thing or not, given what it has been responsible for over the centuries.

17/4/06 7:21 PM  
Blogger Tom Foss said...

Brilliant post, Greg. Simply brilliant.

18/4/06 12:23 PM  

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