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. 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.

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Comment by Justin Van Kleeck on April 29, 2010 at 3:41pm
Thank you so much for the comment, Loren. Obviously we are on the same page, sad as it is. And obviously I have no answers, just a lot of concern and sadness...because I am not only a skeptic but, alas, a cynic, so I usually have visions of the world ending in a ball of fire--with someone riding the bomb like inDr. Strangelove, but holding a crucifix or Bible or Quran in their hands. I do not hold much hope for humans to wake up in sufficient numbers before it is too late.

But the key, I think, is just to keep trying, individually and collectively, to make them aware of the bigger picture beyond religion's domain. And for this reason I worry most about confrontational non-theism, since the reaction of someone with such fanatic belief to a direct challenge is to dig in their heels and fight fire with fire, not to open up and say, "Hmmm, you have a point there." I mean seriously, when you a corner an animal and stare it down, then it is at its most dangerous... So I just always try to fight my cynicism and talk to people on the individual level, with kindness and understanding, and of course always try to let my living do my talking for me. Usually, that is...sometimes I do just have to yell...
Comment by Loren Miller on April 29, 2010 at 3:30pm
I have a tough time believing that religion would change unless religion itself saw the need for change, and at the moment, it doesn't. For the large portion, at least in the US, it's in the driver's seat, the vast majority of citizens are believers of one stripe or another and us nasty atheists and agnostics and free-thinkers can't be much more to them than an irritant. Religion has had its problems and embarrassments, from the Bakkers to Swaggart to Robertson and Falwell asserting that 9/11 was the product of the gays and the Lesbians and the feminists and the people who weren't in formation with the faithful. And, as you observe, they have the EASY way, the way that doesn't need science (unless you want to transmit your drivel to the known universe or argue against evolution with pseudo-science!), just click your heels three times and believe and your in like flint.

We as non-believers have been attempting to get religion to recognize its own shortcomings and thus far with very little success, in part because they indulge in their eyes-glazed-over belief and don't feel as though they need to listen to us and because, again, theirs is the easier way and ours is admittedly a LOT harder. Incidents such as the now-international scandal regarding the RC church and pedophile priests have made some inroads, but even something of this magnitude is not having the quality or quantity of impact we would prefer to see.

Much as I would love to see religion driven from the face of the earth, it is so entrenched in so many cultures worldwide that I would say it would take a global cataclysmic event against faith and religion in general to get people to wake up sufficiently to question and ultimately reject religion. Problem is, such occurrences are 1) rare and 2) typically have VERY UGLY side-effects for all concerned, believer and non-believer alike.

If you have any ideas regarding this, Justin, I'd love to hear 'em. As it is, I think we're stuck with this monkey on our backs for a while....

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