"I count religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance."
- Christopher Marlowe, 1564-93,
The Jew of Malta, 1588.
|TABLE OF CONTENTS.|
1 - Its Origins and Irrationality:-
That there is a higher power, infinitely wise and virtuous, and which takes an active interest in the everyday affairs of men, and, indeed, infrequently intervene in them, is a doctrine which is absurd at its base. Religion is a faith that there exists a grand being, one who is responsible for us; and which explains the whole story of the phenomenon appearing before us. The fact of the matter is that we are but part of life, part of an "endless chain of amoral causation," and that there is little likelihood that there exists an objective authority in charge. It is for me, as I suspect for most, difficult to be critical of religious beliefs. I come from a Roman catholic family; I was taught by the sisters of charity and the Jesuit fathers. I was taught in youth to think, as were most of my age, that, in matters of religion, belief is a duty and unbelief a crime.
"The rational attitude of a thinking mind toward the supernatural, whether in natural or revealed religion, is that of skepticism as distinguished from belief on one hand, and from atheism on the other hand. ... The notion of a povidential government by the omnipotent Being for the good of his creatures must be entirely dismissed. ... The possibility of life after death rests on the same footing -- of a boon which this powerful Being who whishes well to man, may have the power to grant. ... The whole domain of the supernatural is thus removed from the region of Belief into that of simple Hope; and in that, for anything we can see, it is likely to always remain." (John Stuart Mill, 1806-1873, Theism, 1870.)"Religion ... is a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism." (Wm. James.) Man with his ego is driven to believe he is immortal. Man naturally has a most difficult time to imagine a time of his personal non-existence, of the finality and permanence of his death as an individual; he is ripe for religious belief.
Religion is the "daughter of Hope and Fear"; it is an attempt to ascribe meaning to the unknowable; it is a defence which man has raised against "the crushing supremacy of nature"; it is a belief that was prevalent during the infancy of human reason. Whatever ideas of religion are produced by men they can only be a pale reflection of this world, of reality. Though illusionary, religion is a way by which a person may cope with his and her own mortal destiny. The fact that we humans are, in the final analysis, a group of atoms subject to being tossed about only according to the mechanical laws of that universe, is a fact, which is, indeed, a tragic truth to face.
"Everything that the human race has done and thought is concerned with the satisfaction of deeply felt needs and the assuagement of pain. One has to keep this constantly in mind if one wishes to understand spiritual movements and their development. Feeling and desire are the motive forces behind all human endeavor and human creation, in however exalted a guise the later may present itself to us." (Einstein.)Oliver Wendell Holmes in explaining as to why he was not a "churchman" said, "I don't believe in planting oaks in flowerpots." H. L. Mencken, the maverick journalist, was not so kind in that he made it known that anyone who had a sincere belief in religion, was one who was in a state of "arrested intellectual development." But, nonetheless, religion had its charms, as Mencken describes:
"It is not the logical substance of the Old Testament that continues to hold the mind of modern man, for that logical substance must often revolt him, even when he is of sub-normal intelligence; it is the sonorous strophes of the ancient bards and prophets. And it is not the epistemology, or the natural history, or the ethnical scheme, or the system of jurisprudence of the New Testament that melts his heart and wets his eyes; it is simply the poetical magic of the Sermon on the Mount, the exquisite parables, and the incomparable story of the Child in the Manger."The views such as expressed by Holmes and Mencken are born out by a study of history; simply -- the growth of knowledge has led to the decline of religion.
2 - The Handmaiden of Authority:-
It was Giordan Bruno who pointed out that religion, as opposed to rational demonstration, was needed to restrain "rude populations." As an interesting aside, I should say, that Bruno lived during times (1548-1600) when speculative thinkers, those who challenged the accepted religious dogma, were roughly treated by the powerful elite. To question God's cosmology and the mysteries of His universe - was to query also the established social and religious order. For this impudence Bruno was burnt as a heretic at Rome. Other Italians of the time [for example, Galileo (1564-1642) and Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639)] were imprisoned as heretics. Religion, very simply, made it easier for those in positions of power to stay in power.
"The wretchedness of religion is at once an expression and a protest against real wretchedness. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of unspiritual conditions. It is the opium of the people." (Marx, 1844.)
3 - Its Necessity As A Moral Influence:-
It was one of the great Scottish lights that sprung to the stage in Scotland, a country that was one of the last of the western countries to pierce the mysterious mists of feudal times, David Hume, who wrote that there "is no method of reasoning more common, and yet none more blamable, than, in philosophical disputes, to endeavor the refutation of any hypothesis, by a pretense of its dangerous consequences to religion and morality." Indeed, as Hume pointed out, in regards to the doctrine that man has freewill, such a position is not only consistent with morality, but is absolutely essential to its support.
Imanuel Kant clung to his belief in the existence of God, and in a future life, "because all moral principles would be overthrown" if he did not so believe. Of course Kant believed, wrongly, that no one can have moral principles without religion, but that is another topic, a topic dealt with by Edmund Burke in 1756. How shall we act without religion to guide us? "We begin to think and to act from reason and from nature alone." Proper ethical conduct naturally comes about as people go about dealing with one another; it is, for most of us, simply a matter of economics.
For years, I was of the view, that anyone to openly subscribe to a religion was a person who was mentally incompetent: -- but not so. To make my point I refer the reader to Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), who, for some, was the greatest of French novelists. Balzac, trained as a lawyer, was a great judge of human nature, and, overall a very intelligent man, and, yet, -- a devote adherent to the Catholic Church. He justified his "belief," as follows: the Catholic Church, he explained, is "a complete system for the repression of the depraved tenancies of mankind," much better, he added, than "the cold negations of Protestantism."
4 - The Evil of Religion:-
One of The Lessons of History which Will and Ariel Durant took was that religion, found in every land and age, gave "supernatural comfort" to the unhappy, the suffering, the bereaved, and the old; comfort "more precious than any natural aid." Assuming for the moment that a normal person would prefer a prayer in the heart than food in the belly; this is the best that these historians could say of religion. The more powerful lesson, to which the Durants referred, is the one, as observed by Napoleon, that religion kept the poor from murdering the rich. It gave "supernatural hope [and was] ... the sole alternative to despair." (Incidentally, another observation of the Durants is that, "Heaven and utopia are buckets in a well: when one goes down the other goes up; when religion declines Communism grows.")
Religion is represented as a force for good, it is depicted to be a movement filled with people with convictions that lead them to provide such things as medicine and food to the poor and the rejected of the world. But, as Blaise Pascal said in 1670, "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."
"Man is a Religious animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion -- several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn't straight.These lines are from the humorous pen of Mark Twain; but the atrocities that have been committed in the name of religion are not so humorous. Look to the history books and one will see example after example of appalling and horrendous acts that man has committed on his fellow men in the name of religion. For example, take the Crusaders. These courageous Christians fought their way through Asia Minor to Jerusalem; and there, after storming the city, massacred thousands and thousands of Muslems of both genders and of all ages, and burnt Jews alive in their synagogues; and, at the end of their bloody dealings, were in great ecstasy and elation, as they had accomplish their divine mission -- they had liberated the Holy Sepulchre.
O Lord our Father ... help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; ... help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; ... We ask it in the spirit of love, ... Amen."
[Essays, First Series]
[Essays, Second Series]
[Essays, Third Series]
[Essays, Fourth Series]