Believe It or Not

I really wish I could stop insulting people’s religions. It doesn’t feel good. My fantasy series has a couple of evil religions in it, but they’re fictional — and that’s all you’re going to read in this post about writing. Sometimes I just need to clear the air by thinking out loud. This is one of those times.

If you’re not keen to have your fond ideas about religion challenged, I urge you — STOP READING NOW. I am not going to be nice, okay?

This topic came up because of the current administration’s proposal to enhance the support for religious organizations. Religion has become a hugely divisive issue in the United States.

The Founding Fathers were quite aware of the need to keep government and religion well separated. They knew about the suffering of the Puritans, who had to flee England because they were being persecuted by the main-line Church-of-England Christians, and of the Huguenots, a French Protestant sect that was viciously attacked by the Catholic government. When the government aligns itself with one religion, people of other religions suffer in various ways.

The problem boils down to this: Many or most of the people who belong to one religious denomination or another are firmly convinced that they’re right. Their views are Correct and Good and Approved By God, while other people’s views are in error or even dangerous. This tends to be especially true of the monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in all their varieties), because it’s a tenet of monotheism that there’s only one god. The preacher at your church knows what this “God” approves of or forbids. Those other preachers and rabbis and mullahs and imams and priests and cardinals and whatnot are obviously deluded, right?

There’s no film at 11:00 on this question. There is absolutely no way to figure out who is right (if any of them is) and who’s wrong. It’s all subjectivity and guesswork. But the folks in your church, whatever denomination it happens to be, will deny that it’s guesswork. They know what “God” approves of. Your holy documents are authentic and free of error. Everybody else’s documents — or, if you both use the same documents, everybody else’s interpretations — are mistaken.

Just to be clear, I’m aware that many good, kind people have sincere religious views. I’m also aware that some (though by no means all) of the moral precepts taught by various religions are entirely praiseworthy. More than a few fine and inspiring leaders, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., have been motivated by their religion. Religion can lead to good things.

There are no guarantees, however. Religion can also provoke believers to vicious hatred and various types of appalling cruelty. For every Martin Luther King, we have a Jim Bakker or a Joel Osteen, if not a boatload of them. Come to think of it, King died 50 years ago. Why is he the most recent high-profile example of a religious man who tried to move the world in a positive direction? Jimmy Carter is a very positive guy, but he builds houses and monitors elections — he isn’t fighting for social justice. Meanwhile, we’re being overrun by rabid zealots.

Why is it so easy for rabid, hurtful zealotry to gain a foothold? The difficulty is this: Religion is not fact-based. No fact-checking or error correction is built into the system. You may think your religion is fact-based, but if you think that, you’re just plain wrong. Religion is based entirely on emotion and social agreement.

If your favorite religious leader advises you to do something truly savage — to blow up a building, for instance — it may be very difficult for you even to notice that you’re being given bad advice, because there are no inconvenient facts that would contradict it. Naturally, you (meaning you, whoever is reading this) are certain that your religious leader would never give bad advice or urge you to do anything cruel! But again, there’s no error correction built into the system. Once you’ve signed on for the religion, you have no way of judging what you’re being told. Every religion will assure you that it is right.

Your conscience may whisper otherwise, but for reasons rooted deep in our species’ evolutionary past, the individual conscience often has less traction or sway than group consensus. Religion is all about group consensus, and group consensus is a powerful force. It’s powerful in part because it’s nearly invisible. We all go along to get along. And then our brilliant, active minds make up reasons why the group is right — reasons for why it’s right to be a happy little duckie and follow the leader.

Even the Scientologists are absolutely convinced they’re right, and if there’s a creepier, more dangerous religion than Scientology on the planet today, I haven’t heard of it. Yes, yes, I know — your religion is not nearly as bad as Scientology. Or so you’re going to try to tell me. But how can you be sure of that? You can’t, because religion provides no fact-checking and no error correction.

I don’t care what you believe. Honestly, I don’t. Depending on the content of your beliefs, I may feel mildly amused or I may be desperately angry at what you’re doing to your children, but I can’t save your children from your abusive beliefs. Except in cases of genital mutilation and child marriage, I’m not going to try. And maybe the business of trying to get in the way of gay couples adopting kids. That’s a case where your religion hurts kids who aren’t your own. When a loving and stable couple wants to adopt a kid, what your religion tells you about what the couple does in the privacy of their bedroom is irrelevant. Suck it up.

Here’s where I’m going with this: In order to give everybody religious freedom, government needs to stay out of the religion business. In the interest of personal freedom, government cannot favor one religion over another. Government, that is to say, must remain resolutely secular.

But religious believers tend not to understand secularism. To many of them, secularism is simply another competing belief system — and, in their view, a spectacularly evil one. If you’ve bought into this idea, then a secular government is promoting a belief system. And it’s not your belief system! It’s a false belief system! Secularism denies the “truths” that are proclaimed in your ancient and thoroughly moldy documents. Secularism will lure your children away from the One True Way!

Well, that would be nice. I certainly hope it does. But secularism is not a belief system — it’s the absence of a belief system. Secularism is based on science, and on fairness, and on humility. A secular government says, “Look, we don’t know which of these competing belief systems is right. Could be the Mormons, could be the Muslims, could be the Southern Baptists or the Catholics or the Orthodox Jews, or none of them. You all can believe whatever you like, but in all humility, we’re not going to try to sort that out, because sorting it out is impossible. So we’re going to stay well out of it.”

In Saudi Arabia right now, they’re putting people to death for disrespecting Islam. We don’t do that sort of thing here in the U.S., at least not in such blatant ways, though the rate of gay teenage runaways from conservative religious parents is appallingly high, and some of those kids wind up dead. But you know as well as I do that there are thousands of Christians who would put atheists to death if they could. And the more power they get, the more vigorously they will pursue their agenda.

Religion is capable of doing good, but as a system of human activity, it is undeniably evil. People who get sucked into a religious belief system no longer have a reliable way of perceiving what’s right and what’s wrong, because their judgments are warped by the system of beliefs with which they have been saddled.

To anybody who thinks their religion is the right one and everybody who disagrees with them is wrong, let me say this loud and clear: Fuck your religion. I don’t want to hear about how nice and pleasant your religion is, because the mere fact that you’re a believer means you’re not capable of discerning what parts of it are nice and what parts of it are stupid or dangerous. And if I try to help you figure that out, your religion will slam the doors of your mind shut. You’ll distort everything I say, quite unconscious of the fact that you’re doing it, in order to avoid having your beliefs shaken or shattered.

When you become willing to admit that you don’t know and will never know whether your beliefs have even a shred of validity — when you become willing to admit publicly that your most cherished ideas are just a gossamer of speculation, a tissue of idle fancy, that you may be entirely wrong from top to bottom, and that only a secular scientific process has any hope of revealing the truth and bringing about a world free of injustice and cruelty — then call me. Until then, you can go sit on a sharp stick, because I’m not interested.

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