Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

On Religion, again

Regular readers know that I am not religious. I don't readily accept labels for myself, because I don't choose what to believe based on membership in a group. I make up my own mind. While it is quite clear to me that God, as conceived by all the popular religions, does not exist, just calling me an atheist doesn't explain what I believe. That just tells you something I don't believe. It is fair to call me a humanist, if by that you mean that I wish to be a champion of humanity, that I view the welfare of our species and the fulfillment of our potential as the essential guiding principal, and that I turn to our own human resources of reason, senses, and feeling as the source of truth. But the term humanist means different things to different people, and humanists don't have a church, or a doctrine, or a scripture. So there are lots of people who are called humanists, or who call themselves humanists, who differ from me on basic issues.

Being the kind of humanist that I am, I respect and admire human accomplishments and human sentiments, on the whole. Of course, I object to many human works, for example fascism and war. What I mean is that I respect human capabilities and potentials and that there is much to be admired among the many ways in which humans have created social order and resolved conflicts. So it is with religion. I respect and admire much about religious belief, religious community, religiously inspired beneficence, art, music, literature. I love Mozart's Coronation Mass and Mahalia Jackson's singing. As a youth,I was profoundly influenced by the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. I was inspired and guided by my uncle, an Episcopal minister, and his sermons in church. One of my early political heroes was Father Robert Drinan. I own a signed copy of his latest book, on human rights, and I was very grateful that I had the chance to tell him in person what his leadership against the Vietnam war had meant to me.

So, do I wish for religion to go away? Religion actually has several functions in human life and society. Religious congregations provide people with community, and in our complex urban society that is an essential function for many people who would find themselves isolated and lonely without it. Religious ritual is soothing for many people, and religious myths and explanations provide comfort in times of sorrow and adversity. Religion most often supports the social order, though at times it has provided an alternative and to the prevailing order, has opposed it, has even fomented revolution. The more general way to describe this function is that religious denominations are social organizations which structure the social relations, beliefs and actions of their adherents, whether in alliance with the political order or in opposition. Religion provides codes for behavior, in other words it is an instrument of social control. Religion provides explanations for puzzling questions. Religion has other functions but I will stop there for now.

Because I respect people, I respect their religious beliefs, even though I disagree with them. Religious people should not resent that because, after all, they disagree with each other. Orthodox Jews, Southern Baptists, and Catholics disagree with each other just as profoundly as they do with me. So I don't see why it is any worse to be an atheist, and yet I often hear from religious people that it is somehow offensive or disrespectful for me to state and defend my opinion that God does not exist. I have the same right to my beliefs as they do.

I do not despise religion, and I am not hostile to religious people. I do believe that religion is obsolete. Just as we no longer try to cure infectious diseases by bloodletting, or allow ourselves to be ruled by hereditary monarchs, we no longer need religion to order society, tell us how to behave or what to aspire to, and above all, we do not need religion to explain reality. We have much better ways. Reality now yields to our scientific inquiry. It is out there to be discovered. What a wondrous liberation that is! And now we find that the universe we have discovered with our senses and our reason is vastly more grand and wondrous than anything the writers of scripture, or the crabbed and cramped thinkers in the Southern Baptist Convention, ever imagined.

As for ethics, they come from within. They are a part of us, and the explanation for that is evolution. Essential to our successful adaptation is that we are highly social beings, and so evolution has equipped us to live together and work together. That's our nature. Human nature. And I'm with the home team.

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