Donald R. Burleson, Ph.D.
Contributing editor, The American Rationalist
Copyright (c) 2007, 2015 by Donald R. Burleson. This essay may be reproduced
provided original authorship is expressly acknowledged.
"A man without a religion
is like a fish without a bicycle."
VIQUE’S LAW (variously attributed)
Imagine that you are a young farm girl living in fifteenth-century Spain, and that
you have the misfortune (it’s a misfortune considering the mentality of the times)
of being present at a time when the crops in your area have failed. Sadly, several of
your more pious neighbors (a surly, humorless lot) have seen you near the fields,
on several occasions, moving your lips as if muttering to some unseen listener.
It is beyond the intelligence of your observers to imagine that you might actually
have been praying for the crops to thrive; for that matter, your lip movements might
have been due to a nervous twitch. In any case, the crops do fail in the end.
Before long, the Inquisition authorities, a somber, berobed gang of bullies, have you
in hand, charging you with invoking ‘the Devil’ to ruin your neighbors’ crops.
They torture you for several days, stretching you on the rack, tearing your arms from
their sockets, gouging your eyes out, and ripping your flesh from your body with
red-hot pincers, until at length you confess (who wouldn’t?) to being a ‘witch,’
naming several other people in the vicinity, young and old, as fellow servants of ‘Satan’
(whoever that may be). These other people will likewise be arrested, but your
immediate circumstance is that the day after your confession, you are burned alive
at the stake on the public square, while a drooling crowd watches and cheers,
all delighted to see that the ‘will of God’ has been done and that the holy name
of Jesus Christ, the prince of peace and love, has been exalted once more. The most
heinous crime of your life, in truth, has been leaving the front step not quite clean
when you swept it for your mother. But you have died in unspeakable agony, because
a dreadful, mindless, merciless force is in place—the force of organized religion.
The outrages of the Spanish Inquisition, fueled by delusional beliefs that should not
command the interest of an intelligent six-year old child, will continue for centuries.
Countless tens of thousands of people will die hideously for no reason at all.
In time, this rampant oppressive power, the Christian religion, gets tamed by the
civilizing influence of secular social philosophy. The Church will be largely separated
from the power of the sociopolitical state, and although religious forces will still
exert influence to promote censorship and similar forms of mind control, at least the
sky will no longer reek with the stench of burning flesh in the name of ‘God.’ But
no thanks, for this improvement in the world, to the pious; they would have kept
right on torturing and murdering the innocent, had they been allowed to do so.
Alas, though, equally deranged systems of outwardly pious but really power-motivated
lunacy will arise to plague humankind. Now imagine, not that you are a
fifteenth-century farm girl, but rather a twenty-first-century American engineer
who has had the poor judgment to take a job working in an Islamic country at
a time when fundamentalist hooligans are running amok. One day you find
yourself the prisoner of a gang of masked, gun-wielding barbarians—people too
cowardly even to show their faces, people unable to bear the gaze of sane and
decent and honest people, who intone sonorous passages not from the Bible
this time but from an even more dangerous and more evil book called the Koran.
One of your captors finally takes a long dull-bladed knife and slowly saws
your head off, while you first scream and then only gurgle as the blade inches
excruciatingly through your larynx. All the while, the cameras are rolling and
the subhuman cretin who wields the knife is crooning, "Allah is great."
We have come a long way in all these centuries, haven’t we? Now, when we
humans (if the term applies) murder our fellow beings to fulfil the ‘will of God,’
we make motion pictures of it all and post them on the Internet.
The deadly scenario, of course, is an obvious one. We are all in trouble
when a religion is in power. Christianity as a theocratic governing force may
(thank God, one is almost tempted to say) be a thing of the past for most of the
world, but Islam is not. And we are all in trouble when any religion holds absolute
power, because that power is said (without any basis, but then that scarcely matters,
does it?) to be divinely given; the power to rule supposedly comes from ‘God’
or from ‘Allah,’ whatever in the world that means.
The fact is that all these religious terms mean nothing at all that anyone can
pin down with any authority, clarity, or intellectual honesty. Throughout history
people have died by the millions because of ‘God,’ yet no one can even agree
on what, if anything, that term is supposed to denote.
One may try to define ‘God’ as ‘the creator of the universe,’ but it is far from
clear that the universe was ‘created.’ How do we know that it wasn’t simply
always here? (That indeed is the more natural hypothesis.) Even if one were to
grant that the universe might in some sense have been ‘created’ and that there
was a ‘creator’ or creative agent, some perhaps even conscious sort of
primordial shudder that started things off and let them evolve, this is scarcely
connectable with the simplistic, even debased images of ‘divinity’ presented with
such pomp in the Bible and in the Koran. (Hindu texts are rather more
palatably ethereal in this regard, and at least they make good poetry.)
Whatever ‘ultimate primordial truth’ there may be, one may rest assured that
organized religion knows nothing about the matter at all. Nothing. Its adherents
claim to know everything, but in truth they know nothing.
It constantly amazes me, in fact, how little most conventionally religious
people reflect on the fact that the details of their belief systems actually stem
from amalgamations of earlier bodies of myth. Has no fundamentalist Christian,
for example, ever realized that the Mary-and-Jesus story is actually a
rather transparent variation on the Oedipus myth? It’s simple: God impregnated
Mary (well, let’s say ‘married’ her, to try to maintain some level of cosmic
respectability), and Mary, as the churches continually remind us, turned out to
be the ‘mother of God,’ so one can only conclude, syllogistically, that God
married his own mother. Don’t religious people ever think about these things?
Perhaps it’s simply too painful for them to, since to reflect on such matters would
make it abundantly clear that the God of scripture is a highly reprehensible
literary character after whom we might not want to pattern our own morals.
The God of the Bible, a cosmic trickster apparently more concerned with
inflicting open running sores upon poor Job than attending to such things as
regulating the laws of quantum electrodynamics, could no more have
created the Milky Way Galaxy, could no more for that matter have created
the littlest midge that ever lived and crawled, than a writer of shabby
advertising jingles could have written the poetry of William Butler Yeats.
Whether there is any creative force operative in the universe or not
(and I am convinced that one may account quite well for the complexity
of the living world with no need to resort to a ‘creative intelligence’
hypothesis) the ‘gods’ of so-called sacred texts are fictitious constructions,
and it’s a pity one can’t just think of them in metaphorical terms, rather
than having to ‘believe in’ them with such owlish seriousness as the
world’s religions demand. No one has ever seen the Biblical God, and
no one has ever seen Allah, any more than anyone has ever seen Thor or
Zeus or Ra. (If someone tells me he has seen Osiris, and I don’t believe
him, why should I believe you when you say you have ‘seen God’?)
At least the Greek gods were entertaining, but when monotheism came
into being—and this was quite arguably the true fall of man—the gods
stopped being funny and became cosmic excuses for all the base and cruel
and detestable behavior lying ready in the slimy depths of the human mind.
The older I get, the more I find myself wondering whether a belief in a
personal God is even consistent with a personal sense of decency. The
trouble with the delusional notion of 'God' is that he becomes an excuse for
any loathsome abuse humans may decide to heap upon each other.
Think about it. No one is willing to say, "I am an abominable, heartless,
soulless, mindless, despicable, monstrous excuse for a human being, and
I am about to saw a man’s head off." But some people are quite willing to
say, "I am about to saw a man’s head off because I will be carrying out
the will of God."
If you are a monster at heart, all you have to do to legitimize yourself
is to invent a ‘god’ who is as loathsome a monster as you.
But if you are instinctively a decent, moral person, that is if you were
born with a conscience, you will most assuredly want nothing to do with
such a ‘god.’ Your innate sense of ethics taught to you by secular social
philosophy and common sense rather than by religious texts, will make the
notion of a sky-dwelling Chief Inspector of Moles repugnant to you.
A god who really would tell his followers to saw people’s heads off is
nothing but a maggot in the sky, an obscene fable representing the sickest,
most twisted, most revolting perversity of the human mind at its worst.
People who are not monsters themselves have no need to populate the heavens
with such cosmic monstrosities.
Religious people will say, "But my God is good." And I still say: no one has
ever seen him, good or bad, except in the imagination, and if he is going to be
the justification for cruelty and slaughter, as he has been throughout history, then
his apologists have the obligation to march him up here front-and-center
right now for us to see and hear. But let’s face it—the anthropomorphic
notion of God, by whatever name, is obviously only a projection of human
wishes, a projection of the human personality with all its flaws, upon the
universe. All the ‘revealed’ religious texts said to be (generally with
mind-numbing exclusivity) the ‘word of God’ are of course simply the
writings of men. Anyone can write a book that says "This book was inspired
by God." Countless people have died horrible deaths because of such books.
These books may contain passages of genuine inspiration, but so do
thousands of secular books over which no blood has ever been spilled. The
tragedy is that religionists expect the rest of us to take their texts
with such deadly seriousness, even when those texts wax absurd,
which they so often do.
In balance it seems fair to say that religion, despite its occasionally
charitable appearance, has done much more harm in the world than
good. It has obstructed knowledge and progress; it has often been the
source of genuine evil on a scale unimaginable from any other source.
(Nothing but religious fanaticism, the blind faith of halfwits, could motivate
anyone’s flying airplanes into skyscrapers and killing thousands of
good and innocent people.) In particular, women have been treated in
unspeakably savage fashion, throughout the history of humankind,
directly and undeniably because of religion. Unhappily, this is more or
less to be expected, since the inventors of the monotheistic God,
suppressing and nullifying the feminine side of existence, have fashioned
God as a male figure for their own purposes of wielding power over
others. (Born-again Christian types usually find such notions as
‘mother Earth’ repugnant, because it doesn’t mesh with their schemes
of maintaining male-centered power.) Religion has always been
primarily about such wieldings of power, one group over another, at least
in such authoritarian social systems as Judeo-Christian and Islamic
cultures. Islam in particular is a totalitarian-theocratic system that cares
nothing for individual freedom and certainly less than nothing for the
freedom of its women. But make no mistake—if Christianity as an
authority system were ever returned to the full sociopolitical power it
once held, centuries of progress in the area of human rights would vanish,
and we would have the Inquisition back again. This is the way religion
in a position of unchallenged power always works. Many Islamic
countries, for example, are stuck at the seventh century or so, in terms
of mental development, because of their slavish devotion to preposterous
religious beliefs, and the same could certainly happen anew in Western
countries if religious influences ever regained the all-encompassing
foothold they once unfortunately held.
Let us not forget that Adolf Hitler was raised a devout Christian who
fervently believed (and said as much, in Mein Kampf and elsewhere)
that he was doing ‘the will of God.’ This is an excellent object lesson
to the effect that generally when someone says "I’m doing the will of God,"
this means "I’m doing what I bloody well want to do, and don’t you dare
challenge me, because to challenge my actions is to blaspheme against God."
Incalculable evil has been perpetuated and justified in this way over the ages.
Religious people will protest, "But religion does good, too, and how can
you atheists have any sense of goodness if you don’t believe?"
Well, this question, though gravely insulting to the intelligence of a
freethinker, is a complex one, even aside from the question of the social
record of religion, with which I am fairly unimpressed. The simple answer
is that a person of strong character doesn’t need cosmic fairy tales to
behave well toward others. Indeed there is more to be said, it seems to me,
for someone who upholds moral and ethical standards for their own sake
than for someone who behaves himself only because he thinks that if he
doesn’t, the big Guy in the sky with the G on his sweatshirt is going to
wallop him with a club. But the question deserves more scrutiny than that.
Religious people will ask unbelievers, "You say you’re an atheist, but
don’t you sense, deep down inside, that there must be something...?"
Here things begin to get interesting, and we need to draw some
important distinctions, for purposes of clear discussion.
In particular it may be useful to draw a distinction between religion
on the one hand and spirituality on the other.
(And no, have no fear that I'm about to go "covertly religious" on you--
you're reading the reflections of a sincere and dedicated atheist.)
First of all, to nitpick a little about the language involved, let us
observe that the expression ‘organized religion’ is a redundant construction,
because all religion is organized. The very word religion comes to
us from the Latin ligare, ‘to bind." Religion is quite literally a
re-binding, a binding of the believer to the social system that collectively
demands belief. Spirit(uality) on the other hand derives from the
Latin spirare, "to breathe," and since one etymology bespeaks
bondage while the other bespeaks the personal openness and freedom of
breath itself, we may do well to preserve the distinction.
Sadly the term "spiritual" has supernatural or theological connotations
for most people, but if one takes the term to suggest simply a sense of
responsibility, connectedness to one's world, and ethical behavior,
then even an atheist can be "spiritual"-- indeed I should probably say
especially an atheist can be.
As one who wants nothing to do with ‘organized religion’ in any form
whatever, I nevertheless find little or nothing to object to when someone
says to me, "But I do feel, deep down inside, that there is some—well,
something—some ultimate cosmic principle, maybe, some deepest
Secret of Being that underlies reality." The universe is a vast and
mysterious place whose existence, at all, is amazing, and such feelings are
natural enough. Who knows what, if anything, these ineffable feelings
really mean? Unlike the religionists, in any case, one must strenuously
resist the temptation to codify these mystical impressions into a ‘system’ and
attempt to exert power over others by expecting them to share ‘faith’ in
that system, thus validating, as it were, the unique correctness of one’s own view.
It is particularly essential not to take these unfathomable feelings as an excuse
to think that there is such a creature as 'God' behind them, letting oneself
fall prey to delusion. Sadly, most of the world's religions not only insist
on the reality of this fictive construct but insist that
their own 'spin' on it is, in each case, uniquely enlightened.
It is characteristic of such religions as Christianity and Islam that
their believers generally regard their own point of view as the only correct
one, and regard those not sharing it as evil, or at least misguided.
The problem is that when a conventionally religious person asks the
person with the mystical feelings (the person feeling, for example,
a sense of connectedness to the cosmos, but having no patience with such foolish
collective notions as gods and demons), "Well, then, you do believe in God,
don’t you," then if the latter pauses even a second before saying no, this reaction,
in the strictured mind of the religious questioner, is perversely misunderstood.
The Christian questioner will then say, "Then you must also believe that
the Bible is the literal word of God and that Jesus died for your sins," making
an illogical leap over countless intervening questions of authenticity that do
not even get asked. (Or if the questioner is a Moslem, he will say, "Then you
must believe that the Koran is the inspired word of Allah, who calls for
violent death to all unbelievers.") The person with the ineffable mystical feelings,
when asked whether he believes in God, in order to leave a correct impression
in the mind of the questioner, must firmly and unhesitatingly say no,
because such questioners always have preconceived notions of ‘divinity’ and what-not
in terms of which to insist on interpreting responses.
(I once actually had someone say to me: "Everybody believes in God.
You really do too, you just don't know it."
I find such remarks almost unbearably arrogant and offensive.)
In the end, all notions of 'God' are spurious, harmful, potentially dangerous,
and frankly unworthy of the human spirit.
In truth, even if one does entertain the feeling—almost, let us say, after
the fashion of the Taoist or the Zen Buddhist—that at one’s quietest moments
one is close to being in touch with some ‘ultimate something,’ this feeling
has nothing whatever to do with the unfounded claims of the various organized
religions, belief systems for which there is no authenticating evidence at all.
The trouble with human beings has always been the common tendency to
feel that ‘deep down inside there must be something primal’ all too readily
leads people to translate those feelings into organized, structured,
communalizable belief systems, contentious, blind-faith systems laden with
all sorts of extra (and insupportable) mythological baggage, and to
expect others to share those beliefs. That is to say, the tendency is to
pass from a personal to a sociological phenomenon, from spirituality to
religion. Spirituality, as such, cannot be shared, while by definition
religion, as a social power system, must be shared.
The convolutive nature of this defining social aspect of religion
is as remarkable as it is appalling and ultimately dangerous, in American society at least.
We all expect to be expected by everyone else to be religious.
How many more people would openly proclaim themselves to be atheists
if they didn't fear censure from their families, friends,
neighbors, co-workers, associates, and employers--
many of whom would probably proclaim themselves atheists too if they dared!
It's precisely the same thing, this religious peer-pressure, as the classic story
"The Emperor's New Clothes," where the emperor rides naked in a parade
but nobody dares mention the fact until one candid child speaks up
to say that the emperor is, in fact, stark naked. Likewise, in a given group
of people, many of whom probably do not really believe in God,
years can pass without anyone's getting up the nerve to say,
"Well, you know what? I don't believe there is a God." A lot of the others
probably don't believe so either, but they're afraid to say it,
for fear of what their friends will think of them.
Such is the extent to which innocent ruminations about the cosmos
have grown to be codified into socially imposed belief-systems
that very few people dare to oppose openly and out loud.
Alas, it is all too short a journey from ‘I feel something deep inside’
to ‘There is a cosmic Something that I can ask to make the crops grow’
to ‘There is a God whose will we know, and in whom you too ought to
believe,’ to ‘God wrote this book, all of which you must believe as the
inspired Word,’ to ‘Believe all this or we’ll kill you.’
The Taoists and Zen Buddhists feel that one may experience a kind of
deep, wordless ‘enlightenment’ upon hearing, say, the clack of a gourd.
They draw no further conclusions. One could wish that everyone else would
just leave it at that and resist drawing conclusions too, when, in the wee hours,
the mystery of being comes to call.
If we are expected to share anyone’s more metaphysically developed
religious beliefs, then we should demand to see evidence that those
beliefs are true. But there is, and can be, no such evidence.
By and large, we are all indoctrinated in the faith of the place where we
happen to be born—in my case, amid the Bible-thumping Christian
fundamentalism of West Texas. Even as a small child, however, I could
not accept the religious tenets that were urged upon me, and I used to wonder
what was wrong with me, when the other children seemed comfortable
accepting all these things without question. It was many years before I
fully understood that it’s all right to be a religious skeptic. It was many more
years before I had the courage and the conviction to call myself an atheist.
Christian fundamentalists have always said (generally with an irritating smugness,
as if the remark really settled things): "There are no atheists in foxholes."
First of all, the statement is of course not altogether true. Let us concede, for the
sake of argument, that there are few atheists in foxholes, just as there are
(given the near-universality of religious indoctrination in childhood) relatively few
atheists walking around off the battlefield. What does this imply? Only that people
on battlefields are usually scared, and understandably so! It implies nothing at all
about the truth or falsehood of the belief system of the speaker. Indeed, a person
scared into praying that the next bullet isn’t for him, one might say, has been a
victim of emotional blackmail, where religious belief is concerned.
Much the same is true in situations of personal loss, or threatened loss—the fear
that one will lose a loved one who lies perhaps near death on a hospital bed,
let us say. It is a fortunate person indeed who has not known such fear, such
profound distress. One’s religious acquaintances say, "We will pray for your
loved one. Won’t you pray with us?" Even to the non-religious person, this sort
of thing touches the deepest, most primal chords in the human heart, for who would
not desperately desire the life and wellness and happiness of those one loves?
But as in the matter of atheists in foxholes, if wishing deeply and achingly for the
wellbeing of a loved one implies authenticating some particular group’s detailed
system of religious beliefs, then one is undergoing emotional blackmail, however
(perhaps) unintended. The wish that one might appeal to some agency of hope on
behalf of those one loves does not in any way verify the truth of anyone’s religion.
If those endangered loved ones are spared, one is filled with gladness and gratitude,
but what about those who are not spared? The religious-minded will say, "The ways
of the Lord are strange." This is perhaps as close as many such people will ever
come to uttering a metaphysical truth, at least if we are free to understand
the remark so broadly as to take it mean something like "Whatever the ultimate
truths or essences of the universe may be, it is inconceivable that anyone might
ever really know anything about them." When one church group or another claims
to know something they call the ‘will of God,’ i.e. claims to know the ultimate
(hypothetical) truths of existence, the spectacle of their claiming to know such things
would be hilarious if it were not so pitiable on the one hand and so very gratingly
annoying on the other. One wishes that such groups would truly learn the
humility of which they so often and so loudly speak.
Religious people have said to me, "You have a lot to be thankful for. You have
enjoyed good health, you have a good mind, you have lived a happy and
productive life, you have wonderful children and a wife who genuinely and deeply
loves you, you have many friends, you have a happy home and a reasonable
supply of material comforts. So aren’t you thankful for all these things?"
Well, yes, of course I am. Truly. But of course the religionist will then say,
"Thankful to whom?" And here we run into subtle difficulties whose resolution
generally seems to be almost inaccessible to the fundamentalist religious mindset.
The not-so-simple fact to grasp is that it is an illusion of language
to suppose that in order to feel grateful, one must feel grateful to someone
or something. In particular, it is specious for the religious-minded to
conclude, "If you’re thankful, you must be thankful to God as I conceive of
him, and this authenticates everything we believe about God."
Not so. One can simply feel thankful, humbled by the reality of how much
better off one is than one might have been, and one can legitimately feel this way
without the foundationless trappings of anyone’s religion, just as one may be
generous, philanthropic, caring, and thoughtful simply because a science of ethics would
find these properties obviously desirable, well suited to conduce to human happiness,
without anyone’s insisting that these qualities can only exist in the context of some
socially vested belief system based on religious precepts. Marx said that religion
is the opiate of the people, and unfortunately he was right; yet it is a sad commentary
on human nature that so many people seem to need (or think they need, because
they were so taught in childhood, prior to the development of their own
critical thinking skills) the mythological backdrops and dubious ministrations of
religion to keep them in line. One wonders whether a secular view cannot readily
encompass the ethics of the Golden Rule, and indeed one strongly suspects that it can.
What would be wrong with following, say, philosopher Immanuel Kant’s notion of the
‘categorical imperative,’ the idea that one should only act upon principles that
one wishes everyone acted upon? Following this notion, which of course has no
religious taint whatever, I would not choose to be totally selfish, because I could
only do so if I wished that everyone were totally selfish, which would make them
uncongenial to my own interests. Obviously this is somewhat similar to the
Golden Rule, though rather more complex in concept.
And speaking of the Golden Rule (treat others as you would like to be treated),
it is ironic that versions of it exist in all the major religions, which in itself proves
that such moral principles thrive independently of any particular belief system.
It is clear, to any human mind not overly burdened with the delimitations of
religious dogma anyway, that it requires no belief in anyone’s personal anthropomorphic
‘gods’ to see that more people are going to be happy if we all refrain from robbing
and maiming and killing each other than if we do rob and maim and kill each other.
Conversely, it is undeniable historical fact that the more such god-centered
belief systems gain social and political power, the more savage and immoral
they become, to the extent that such principles as the Golden Rule cease,
in these situations, to have meaning. They certainly had no meaning to the
Christian Inquisitors, and they just as certainly have no meaning to the
islamo-fascist terror-mongers who slaughter innocent people in the name of
their non-existent god.
Who needs the fraudulent claims of ‘divine inspiration’ so often foisted upon
us, as if these things were incontrovertible fact? One can find more inspiration,
more guidance, reading Shakespeare than reading any ‘sacred’ text ever written,
yet no one requires ‘belief in Shakespeare’ as a condition for social acceptance
or as a condition for being allowed to continue to live. Yet it is for just such
demands of unswerving belief that people are treated with brutality when
a religion, any religion, is in power. History absolutely proves this.
Humankind, if the world is to survive in a form that decent and honest-minded
people would find acceptable, must outgrow these religious systems once
and for all, must cast off the dead hand of religious exclusivity and learn
to look at the world, the universe of stars, not the way the self-serving
religious power-brokers would describe it, but the way it really is—a universe
full of intriguing and mysterious questions to which no one (certainly no
blathering and ignorant religious group) has all the answers, or ever will.
"This would be the best of all possible worlds,
if there were no religion in it."
--John Adams, second President of the United States