All religion.. is simply evolved out of fraud, fear, greed, imagination, and poetry.
-Edgar Allen Poe
The universe is a big place. Really big. Or, as Douglas Adams wrote, “You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is.” The universe so big that when we were just starting to get a handle on language and communication all those millennia ago, thunder and lightning were still pretty damn scary. The reason for seasons was a mystery. Don’t even get us started on volcanoes!
We really wanted to understand those things, though, so we did the only thing we knew how to do at the time. We turned what we didn’t understand into gods, and worshipped them in the hopes that our continued fealty would keep us from getting smote.
The Earth, the Sun, the Moon, the stars, the weather, the animals, even that cool looking rock over there: all gods. We named them, gave them backstories and personalities, created rituals for them, all that stuff. It was like the dawn of fan fiction.
But it helped us deal with our fear and misunderstanding so we could get on with the business of hunting and gathering.
Things have really grown since then. It’s estimated that there are currently more than 4,200 religions in the world. From all the sects of Christianity, which boast nearly a third of the world’s population as members, down to Rastafarianism with its meager 600,000 members, some 6 billion of the world’s 7 plus billion people claim to be a part of some organized religion.
All because we were once afraid of lightning.
Robert’s Religion Rule #1: There are forces at work in the universe that are bigger and more powerful than you.
Religion has evolved over the years, of course. Nobody really believes in the 10,000 year old Mother Earth deities found in Çatalhöyük anymore. Some of the newer religions are even pretty neat, with spaceships and alien spirit possession and shit. But they all tend to fall back on the same original premise: we don’t know why things are the way they are so, instead of finding out, we’ll just make some shit up about it and call it good.
What’s that, you say? Your religion isn’t some trumped up story meant to appease your basest fears? You’re not just fangirling about how your version of a pale-faced, magical demilich who’s the son of an angry, omniscient, omnipotent, bearded white man in the sky is the only deity that’s real? Something, something, something “sincerely held religious beliefs”?
Sorry to be the one to break it to you, pal, but the sincerity with which you hold your beliefs has no relationship to their veracity. Ask a 4 year old how sincere their belief is in Santa Claus. Just because your membership dues for the Flat Earth Society are all paid up doesn’t mean your story holds water.
Robert’s Religion Rule #2: If one or more of those forces are intelligent and powerful enough to create and manipulate the universe, it’s probably beyond your puny human brain’s capability to understand anyway.
You see, we know the Earth is round now. We figured that out by testing some things, doing some math, and, eventually even sending some folks really high up into the sky to see it. We know what causes lightning now, and even created machines that can make it. We don’t quite know how gravity works yet, but we can measure it, and have come up with some decent guesses about why it’s there. None of those guesses involve an invisible deity that really doesn’t want us to float up into space.
It’s easy to make fun of religious dogma, especially when it involves stories like “Oh, this pregnancy is the result of divine intervention, not me cheating on you, my naive and unsuspecting spouse.” But the real problems arise when we start getting into the practices.
Do your beliefs require me to dress a certain way? Refrain from having a relationship with a particular class or classes of people? Mutilate or cut off a part of my body? Go to war against or cause physical harm to someone? Eat fish on Fridays?
You see, it’s not just your religion telling you what to do. It’s about you telling others what to do. It’s about control, and it’s about fear.
It was when religion crossed the road from reverence of nature into the realm of a superhero worship that things really jumped the shark. Suddenly we were persecuting each other. Suddenly we were going to war.
Robert’s Religion Rule #3: If your beliefs give you peace of mind and help you cope with being alive, that’s a good thing. If your beliefs require everyone else to share them in order for the world to keep spinning, that’s not.
Now that we have a pretty decent understanding of volcanism, plate tectonics, and other geosciences, we know that it doesn’t matter how many virgins we toss in the volcano. It’s gonna erupt when it’s gonna erupt. But we still cling to this animalistic fear of the things we don’t understand, with good ole religion nudging us along.
Back when humans began to gain their critical thinking skills, some enterprising shaman realized that fear of lightning just wasn’t enough to keep the flock in line. But there was fear of death. It’s an old fear, predating even the fear of public speaking, and it’s a hard one to combat. After all, when your wise old holy man tells you that if you don’t toe the line you’ll spend an eternity being barbecued at the feet of Beelzebub, who are you to dispute him?
Suddenly it wasn’t just a plague of locusts you had to worry about. Now, if you don’t dot all your I’s and cross all your T’s, even death can’t save you from eternal damnation or being brought back as a beetle or salamander.
And it works. The ultimate fear of the unknown has pushed people into doing horrible things. For any good that religion may have done, the scars that religion has left on history are too frighteningly big to ignore. Our world has been stricken with the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Dark Ages, colonialism, slavery, patriarchy, and even our modern corporate/political structure. And that’s just the Christians!
And now, half way through the second decade of the 21st century, we’re still being subjected to racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, classism, ableism, and kink shaming. Old habits are hard to break, I suppose, and religion is here to burn you at the stake for trying. Religion panders to our sad capacity for mob mentality and groupthink. As sure as Joan of Arc regrets accepting that invite to the Bishop’s bonfire, it’s the very worst of what conformity has to offer. Bring your own matches.
What’s the alternative? Toss away those holy shackles, and get back to basics. You want to worship? Worship something good. Worship the young gay boys who steal their first kiss behind the bleachers. Worship the trans woman who finally finds the courage to start calling herself she. Worship the artist who suffers through working three jobs just to make ends meet, but still finds time to finish their masterpiece. Worship the scientist, the farmer, and the dog walker. Worship the orgasm. Worship the chocolate chip cookie. Worship the weird, wild, and wonderful. Worship how amazing you are.
Religion. You’re doing it wrong. If I had my way, you wouldn’t be doing it at all.