As a scientist and a teacher, I believe that if you believe something that is wrong, it can actually harm you. I am not talking of ignorance, I am talking of believing things to be a way that they are not. (It ain’t what you don’t know that will hurt you, it’s what you know that ain’t so.” Who said that?) Mixing those two chemicals is harmless, you think, so you do and suffer dire consequences. (This is true for chlorine bleach and ammonia by the way.) Believing that “if a little is good, more is better” can get you into serious trouble. For example, all medicines and drugs (illegal and legal) are effective at particular dosages. Too little and they don’t work well enough; to much and you can suffer or die from the maldosage.
When it comes to religion I have been trying to convince people to give it up, to “Just say no!” There is no benefit and the manifold of potential harms is large. Slick preachers bilking old people out of their money is just one manifestation. Greater is the psychological harm done. So, I and many others have made reasoned argument after reasoned argument against religion … to no avail, at least in the U.S. Religious influence over people’s lives is slipping elsewhere (in general, please do not bring up militant Islam). And you can’t argue effectively without knowing what exactly it is you are arguing against (hence the title of this post). We have argued that religion is irrational. Well, all kinds of things are irrational. Currently the 2014 World Series of Baseball is going on and I am rooting for the S.F. Giants. I have rooted for them for over 50 years. That’s not rational. Many of our beliefs and actions are not based upon reason, instead they are based upon habit, training, tradition, etc. A quotation popped up that explained some of this for me. here it is:
“You can’t reason someone out of something they weren’t reasoned into.”
I don’t know anyone who was “reasoned” into their religion. I know some who were reasoned from one sect into another, but the decision was based upon which fitted the beliefs already possessed by the person in question, so that is not an “in or out” kind of decision.
This a major bummer because I am an aficionado of reasoned argument. Well, out that goes—not effective. (I will probably continue doing it … as a sport.)
So, why are people religious? Right now I think it is fear, fear that affects people a particular way. A recent poll on what people fear drew this comment:
“Some of his team’s other findings were more disturbing. Many respondents reported being afraid of natural disasters, yet relatively few said they had an emergency kit at home to help them weather such disasters. ‘Despite a lot of fear,’ Dr. Bader said, ‘there is very little preparation.’”
(“What Are You Afraid Of?” by Anna North, N.Y. Times, 10/22/2014)
Fear is a useful survival tool. It evolved to protect us from immediate threats. As we created societies and they became more complex, fears branched out from being more immediate ones to being ones that could develop in the near future (that guy over there doesn’t like me; he seems to want to hurt me, I had better not end up being alone with him …). And, over time those fears extended and extend into the future, into the realm of imagination. I have often commented that a survey of third-graders found their greatest fear was being eaten by wild animals, uh, Chicago third-graders. So, maybe some fears are hard-wired or our imaginations can extrapolate a scratch from a house cat into being eaten by a wild cat. The more imagination is involved in our protection matrix, the more flights of imagination can lead us astray.
Christianity provides an interesting mix of protection and fear. One such is the belief that a father figure exists who is all-powerful and looking out for you. This is immensely reassuring because you have much to be afraid of. This is also a very juvenile position in your relationship with your god. A child expects to be protected by his parents. He doesn’t take any action of his own to protect himself, at least until the parental protection proves false. I wonder if the “despite a lot of fear there is very little preparation” aspect of our nature is related to religiosity.
Then, on top of the protection Christianity offers, there is the fear. The fear of Hell, the fear of God (a vengeful god), the fear of not going to Heaven, the fear of being excommunicated, shunned, shut out from your church circles. There is a lot of fear to go around in Christianity. So, there is built-in to Christianity “protection” from fear and new sources of fear, making it, what? a self-perpetuating protection racket? (Youse wants to be able to use dose kneecaps in Heaven? Father Luigi asked.)
So, apparently the way to a less religious society is to reduce fear. This seems to be the case in Europe. The countries with the least religiosity are also the happiest and healthiest. I admit to thinking that the lack of religiosity was the cause and the happiness and healthiness was the effect but I think now that I got it backward.
So, our only task is to reduce fear in a culture that is steeped in the politics of fear. Sheesh! Fear is used as leverage in our everyday lives like never before. I have gotten several hundred emails to date (I am not kidding … or exaggerating) threatening dire consequences if I don’t support this petition or that candidate in the Fall elections. Fox (sic) News and many of the conservative “sources of information” seem to be driven by fear mongering. There are more cable news channels, more Internet news sources … and they are all pedaling fear: ISIS! Ebola! the Border! Black men! the New Black Panthers! They’re coming to take your guns! Watch for the Black Helicopters! Obamacare will destroy our country!
I think I now know where to focus my efforts and it does not look easy from here.