Beat Me Now
OK, I know. One of the worst things an atheist blogger can do is disparage the great Christopher Hitchens, famed for the verbal “Hitchslap.” It’s akin to whatever the atheist equivalent of blasphemy would be. I admit, I enjoy reading him too, and I also enjoy his often combative videos on YouTube. The problem I have with him and with a lot of best- selling atheist authors is that they often confuse what actions the religious champion and what is in the religion itself. The problems are often more deep-rooted and pernicious than that. Religion and politics/laws are the coercive vehicles of legitimacy through which these offensive cultural norms maintain and propagate themselves into societies.
My approach to atheism is usually different from, say, a Hitchens or a Harris “let’s bash down the gates” approach (although some people only respond to simplistic arguments and firm language – let’s call them the intellectually lobotomized). If I know someone who is religious and who has doubts, I will not recommend any of the best-selling atheist authors; I will probably recommend something by Joseph Campbell (although Israel Finkelstein is pretty good too, albeit on a different level). If you aren’t familiar with Joseph Campbell, I urge you to give him a google and find one of his many wonderful books to read.
But to a believer, God may be a monster part of the time, or indeed all the time. Gods are always and without exception anthropomorphized and they are often like kids torturing ants with a magnifying glass. Sometimes they care for us, sometimes they can’t be bothered, and sometimes they are in a foul mood, so watch out. From Shinto to Sumer, from the Aztecs to the Russian Orthodox, from Hinduism to Australian aboriginal religions, it’s all about the same. Gods are really no better than people are on a good day (Buddhist bodhisattvas, by definition, excepted). Even the supposedly loving Jesus was a bastard if you happened to be a gentile, a pig or a fig tree (just to name a few).
People don’t necessarily worship a god or follow a religion because the god is supposed to be nice, it’s because the god is powerful and people want something from it, or fear it. People worshipped gods in many cultures without the promise of an afterlife reward, as that was a rather late development, except in the case of Egypt. There was no heaven for dead people in the Hebrew Bible, for example. So a nasty god, but one who might use its power for your benefit, is worth placating. It might not work, but it’s worth a try if there has been no rain in a while and you don’t know what else to do or your enemies are better fighters than you are (as with the ever-present and never really defeated Philistines).
God May Be a Monster, but…
Much of what passes for atheist literature is in the form of “your holy book says this, and isn’t that wrong and/or terrible?” Who would want to worship a god who does or sanctions terrible things? While this is an entirely valid point, much of human culture has a slightly different moral compass than was present when the holy books were being written. Only slightly however; for example, if you look at the horrors of the last century, while we don’t routinely impale people, skin them alive or break them on the rack, we are still killing each other in horrible ways. And while we don’t go to an arena to watch people kill each other, we watch it in graphic simulated form as popular entertainment—often rivaling or exceeding in viciousness anything ever done in actuality. The Romans didn’t have power drills or chainsaws or human incubating aliens. This is not true for all religions, as Campbell notes, heroes in some mythologies would disobey or even fight their gods when the gods were in the wrong. They would lose, but they fought for what they considered to be right. There is none of that nobility in the cringing, subservient monotheisms so prevalent today. If the Hebrew Job had been a Celt, he would have spit in YHWH’s eye, called him a self-buggering maggot, and gone to his death reciting a poem about the joys of freedom… ok, maybe a bit of an exaggeration, at least about the poem, but only a bit.
Like It or Not, Religion Does Have a Function in Human Affairs
Joseph Campbell approached religion from a totally different perspective than do most popular atheist authors. He asked, “what is religion for?” It is present in every human culture we have ever studied. It must serve a purpose, and probably multiple purposes. Although Campbell didn’t put it in these terms, it is almost as though a form of natural selection is at work with religions, determining what doctrines they accept and promulgate, what areas they choose to defend (even in the face of facts to the contrary), what rituals they adopt (whatever brings in the crowd and keeps them there), etc.
Religions are not static, they change and adapt themselves to new and emerging norms. They have to, otherwise they die out. But because there is no god guiding this process and ensuring that they stay true to whatever happened to be the “original” teachings, religions change and develop and a lot of the terrible baggage they carry (in their capacity as cultural motivations) could be abandoned by the religious if they understood their own religion better. Not in the sense of it being “true”, but in the Joseph Campbell sense of “what is it really for.”
Let’s look at some bad examples of this. Some things that have nothing to do with a “religion” (being, in the Joseph Campbell sense, an attempt by developing humans to better understand themselves, their environment and to structure their social interactions—social interactions which once included animals, and the respect and camaraderie that humans in hunter gatherer societies had for them).
This sad report come out about an Indian couple planning to get married, but who were brutally killed by the girl’s family (BBC News). This would be a case of religious murder, except that the couple were from the same caste. They were just getting married without the family’s permission. The local community fully supported the horrendous acts of barbarism perpetrated by the family against them. No voice was raised in opposition.
I suspect that when Hinduism was being developed, there was the desire to control intermarriage between the invading Aryans (or, more politically correct, the Ancestral North Indians—although why they are called Indians when they came from Europe or Central Asia is beyond me; see Fragmented Society was Once a Melting Pot - Science Mag) and the native population so the prohibition was incorporated into the religion to legitimize it and ensure its propagation. Lack of parental approvals can also get you killed in conservative Muslim and Christian communities in those areas where this cultural norm is prevalent. It is justified by religion, but has nothing to do with religion although many religions do prohibit or discourage the marriage of believers with non-believers. The only case I know of where death is proscribed is possibly in the Hebrew Bible, although at other points they are told only to exile non-Hebrew wives. Other regional religions at the time do not appear to have had this prohibition (if you know to the contrary, please let me know).
Fortunately, these cultural norms related to honor killings have not been accepted into the mainstream of any religion, although they are strongly defended by their practitioners on the basis of religion. This is probably how religious customs start, with local practices being justified and sanctioned by interpretations of religious doctrine or by being written into a religion’s doctrine during its formative stage.
Roman Catholic Sexual Hang-ups
For the largest Christian denomination on Earth, it is their position that birth control, abortion and gay sex are all mortal sins. That is the Catholic church’s official view. But there is no mention of birth control in the Bible (other than some very odd parts about male ejaculation and “seed wasting” in the Hebrew Bible). There is no mention about abortion in the Bible. Hebrew traditional beliefs were that life did not start until the first breath was taken, so it’s not something inherited from that source. There is a prohibition against “killing” which comes just a few paragraphs before YHWH orders his chosen people to kill each other for worshiping a statue while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai (toasting marshmallows over the burning bush, no doubt). The Hebrew Bible is replete with God-sanctioned murders, genocides, and killing of all sorts including that all-time favorite of stoning people for even trivial offences, or sending bears out to maul children who tease YHWH’s favorite prophet. So why pick on abortion in particular? And while gay sex does get you stoned in the Hebrew Bible, it’s not explicitly addressed by Jesus, who does tell people (at least Jews, he wasn’t so big on gentiles) to love each other – he didn’t make an exception for gays.
So, where did these modern prohibitions come from, and why does the Roman Catholic Church not bother with most of the other stuff in the Hebrew Bible, like the Sabbath, not eating pork or shellfish or shrimp and lobster, not wearing clothes made from two fabrics, killing disobedient children and women who were not virgins when they married, etc.? The reason is cultural inculcation. Birth control and abortion when they became readily available were deemed “wrong” by people who happened to be Catholic, and so they sought out justification for this position in their Bible. That sort of religious sanction would buttress within a Catholic society the claim they have against the personally objectionable action.
The List Is Long
I could go on all day about these things, like circumcision, the caste system, the covering of women with the hijab (the Koran only says for women to be modest), etc. When I first started going to Malaysia and Indonesia in the late 80s, most women did not wear the hijab or even a head scarf. Now, it’s the norm in many parts of those countries. Islam and its interpretation didn't change during that period; local culture changed. There was the outlawing of Christmas in England by the Puritans under Cromwell, and its reintroduction under Charles II. Slavery was abolished despite its being explicitly approved of and sanctioned in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic religions. None of these items have anything to do with the core nature of a religion under a Joseph Campbell definition. They are cultural preferences. There is no explanation given for adhering to them; they are dictates without justification and can be abandoned without serious “harm” to the core religious belief.
Religion is a product. If it’s not attractive to people, it dies out or changes. Just look at Judaism as it’s practiced today. It’s nothing like historic Judaism and even the Ultra-Orthodox just follow the politically correct observable practices. They are not out stoning people (although they have been known to spit on girl school children they deemed to be improperly dressed or on Christians—but if it’s a choice of spitting on me or stoning me, I am ready for the spittle. Just let me get my raincoat). Actually, as Joseph Campbell once observed, there is very little religion in the Hebrew Bible anyway.
Religion isn’t as bad as the “religious”
But changes in religion are not always progressive. The rise in popularity of fundamentalist Christianity, Judaism and Islam with their insistence on acceptance of the short, simple, and fairytale-like description of creation and explanations of natural causes (demonic possession, for example) may be a backlash to the degree of complexity in modern science. It’s easier to accept that a god made it all, rather than trying to grapple with the concepts of modern particle theory, evolutionary biology, taxonomy, astrophysics and astronomy. Understand plate tectonics? It’s easier to attribute an earthquake to some god’s displeasure over some offense the believer objects to. But even the fundamentalist Jews and Christians don’t accept the Bible’s prescribed “cure” for leprosy (Leviticus 14:33-57) or method of dealing with a murder (Deuteronomy 21:1-9), among many others. It’s all pick and choose and a question of interpretation—so we as humanists just need to help them pick which obnoxious bits to eschew.
To find a lot of the most hateful, racist, misogynistic, sexually repressive stuff (also lots of wacky and just plain weird stuff) you need to look into the formative writings of people like St. Augustine, Maimonides, and a score of Islamic scholars. But this baggage can be dumped, and has frequently been dumped in the past. The real problem is that people are determined to impose their cultural beliefs on others. They use religion or government to justify and enforce this. If someone gets an abortion, under certain Christian doctrines the participants in the “crime” would go to hell. So why do the religious want to impose their standards on others, when the punishment of hellfire already awaits them? The reason is cultural ascendancy, a form of racism, designed to implement controls on earth not in heaven. It’s like the period of the Reformation in Germany when German princes would insist that their subjects convert to whatever form of Christianity they decided to follow themselves. The Russians did this too, and many rulers over the ages. There is some cultural imperative within humans that despises those who are different. Perhaps it’s built into us biologically. But we do have splendid examples throughout history of cultural (and religious) accommodation, so we know that this is not inevitable.
It’s Easier to Change Religious Culture than to Eliminate Religion
Also, look at the recent change in treatment of homosexuals. Many Christians, Jews and Muslims have voiced support for equal treatment of these individuals. But it was not a change in the religion itself that prompted this acceptance, it was a change in popular opinion. Religious people want their religion to be popular. It can become so either by pandering to popular beliefs and prejudices, or it can be oppressive, as in many fundamentalist communities (Amish, Jewish Orthodox, Muslim countries following strict sharia laws, etc.).
Rather than getting people to give up their religion in total, it would be easier to get them to give up the more oppressive elements, as part of an act of societal accommodation. Like the Mormons giving up polygamy in exchange for Utah Statehood. Gay rights are triumphing in many countries not because people are being forced to see the falsity of their religion, but because they see the humanity of the people whose rights are being oppressed. So, they conveniently “forget” that portion of their religion, or interpret it away, just as they did for slavery. Joseph Campbell saw this too. Religion can function without harm in society once its fangs of cultural oppression have been drawn and people recognize it as a symbolic and emotional interaction between humans and their world. Religion as a personal guide does much less harm than religion as a cultural and legal imperative to be enforced on others. Sometimes it’s better to attack the consequences of religion, than the religion itself. In the case of gay rights, it certainly seems to have been more effective.