Gods in the attic

I do not believe in Zeus, the Greek god of the sky and king of the Greek Pantheon. I do not believe in Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war and patron of Tenochtitlan. I do not believe in Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility, war, and erotic love. I do not believe in these deities because there is not sufficient evidence to do so. No modern, Western individual would have grievance with my rejection of these gods and goddesses. However thousands of human beings once worshiped, venerated, prayed to, and even sacrificed each other to such deities. Now they are considered myths, simplistic and barbaric superstitions of a time long passed.

I do not believe in Yahweh. I do not believe in Allah. I do not believe in Brahma, Shiva, or Vishnu. I do not believe in these deities because there is not sufficient evidence to do so. Billions of human beings living today worship, venerate, pray to, and are at some times willing to die and kill for such deities. Many of them would tell me I am mistaken on the most fundamental level for having no faith. Many would tell me I am damned for having no faith.

Myth and superstition are alive and well in the modern world. We like to think that we are enlightened, forward thinking, modern individuals that have left anachronistic and primitive ways behind us. How is Yahweh different from Horus, or Ahura Mazda, or Odin? What makes our modern religions worthier than the thousands that came before? At various points in the ancient past humans have deified the Sun, the Moon, various rivers, and Nature itself. We pity these ancient people for their foolishness, knowing that there is no divinity in natural things. Why does believing in an invisible, unknowable, unavailable super-being make us superior?

Holiness, hatred, and Hell

The doctrine of Hell is reprehensible and both Christianity and Islam, the two largest religions in the world, teach this doctrine. The Gospel of Matthew describes Hell as a place of fire and darkness where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. According to the Qur’an, it is a place of “scorching wind and scalding water” and, in agreement with Matthew, “blazing” fire. In both religious traditions Hell is created by God (Yahweh/Allah) to house the souls of the unholy for the purpose of torture and torment.

In Islam the fate of every soul was foreknown by Allah before the creation of the universe, and nothing has or will ever happen outside his divine will, thus all damned souls are so damned within and by the will of Allah. The omniscience of God in Christian orthodoxy denotes a near identical, fatalistic scenario. Despite the feeble and amusing attempts of Christian apologetics, divine omniscience would necessitate God’s foreknowledge of every possible potentiality. Therefore, unless God is viewed as something less than all knowing, everyone that is damned to agony in Hell is done so by and/or within his will. And if humanity is innately unholy we all are innately damned.

For self-identified holy Christians and Muslims the reward of their holiness is not only the joys of Heaven but also escape from the fires of Hell. In this sense holiness is less of a virtue and more of a guarantee. Many times I’ve heard from religious adherents that the substance of religion is service to God, but I would submit that a much more potent motivation is self-preservation. To be unholy is to be destined for Hell. To be holy is to be pleasing to God. To escape Hell one must be pleasing to God, one must be holy. Serving God would only be a pure motivation if it was free from retribution. When an all powerful deity asks his creation to serve him or face the consequences, the creation’s motivation is the fear of those consequences.

Placing the burden of eternal consequences on the actions of other human beings is an act of hatred.  We’ve all heard the adage “love the sinner, hate the sin”, but if mankind is innately sinful and unholy then to hate sin is to hate mankind’s natural state. For a Christian or Muslim to claim holiness they juxtapose themselves to the unholy, the unbelievers, and often to each other. Hell was created so religious belief could be rewarded and disbelief could be punished, and human beings became disposable objects in a grand scheme to justify faith. Degrading the value of humanity in the service of religion is an act of hatred.

The doctrine of Hell is reprehensible and both Christianity and Islam teach this doctrine. How can any person of faith, let alone thousands upon thousands of Christians and Muslims, adhere to this doctrine and consider themselves humane? How can a doctrine that so degrades the human condition possibly be justified?

Universality

A human being has an estimated 30,000 genes or less, much less than previous estimates of 80,000 to 140,000. Some species of rice have 50,000 genes and up to 70,000 by some estimates. This means that rice potentially has double the amount of genetic information that we do. From this it may be extrapolated that rice, at least at the macromolecular level, is more complex than a human being. However the structure and function of genes are virtually identical across the spectrum of organisms on this planet. Rice may have 40,000 more genes than a human, but how those genes form, look, and operate is astoundingly similar.

Based on the multiplicity of evidence, the debate over the truth of the universal common descent of life is over. All of the major discoveries in genetics and molecular biology in the past 100 years have supported the theory of universal common descent by means of evolutionary processes. The astounding similarity of genes among organisms, which affects our fundamental understanding of biological complexity, is just one example. In many ways the similarities of life are more remarkable than life’s boundless variations.

Evolution requires no higher power, in fact denoting some sort of intelligence in the evolutionary process is illogical. Evolution as it is understood by modern science has often been a clumsy, wasteful process. Returning to the field of genetics, only 1 to 2 percent of DNA in the human genome is utilized  to encode protein sequences. 98 percent of human DNA is effectively junk, that is it has no known biological function. At points in the evolution of our species this now inert DNA may have been utilized but eventually lost its utility. This evidence makes no logical sense if an intelligent designer is assumed, unless it is also assumed that the intelligent designer purposefully designed humans to appear as though we were designed unintelligently.

The modern theory of evolution rightfully has a great impact on modern religion and philosophy. Science has always had a tendency to infringe on the territory of ideology. In its most idealistic sense science is the pursuit of truth, and is therefore inherently philosophical. Many theologians and philosophers have expressed a great deal of chagrin when science has supposedly overstepped its bounds. Some scientists have claimed that science and ideology, particularly religious ideology, are not in conflict because they do not seek the same knowledge.

Hardline adherents from most major religions and I have one thing I believe we can agree on: science and ideology do come into conflict with each other. As science explores, analyzes, and answers more and more of the foundational questions concerning our universe religion must continually reevaluate and adjust its position. As science charges forward into new vistas of discovery and knowledge religion is left lurching behind attempting, most often unsuccessfully, to keep up.

The significant discoveries of genetics, molecular biology, geology, paleontology, zoology, and evolutionary biology are continually denied by fundamental religious individuals and groups. Staggering discoveries in the field of genetics, which provide us with the most convincing evidence for evolution to date, are meaningless when ideology trumps the truth. If the universality of common descent is acknowledged then the notion of intelligent design should be abandoned. The proof is in your genes.

Blessed are the humanists

When you come from a religious background, ethics are always a significant issue. My background is in Christianity, specifically Protestant, evangelical Christianity, so questions about ethics most often began and ended with scripture. For a Christian the ultimate example of what one must do is found in the person of Jesus. Among the teachings of Jesus found in the New Testament the Beatitudes are arguably the most important, influential, and relevant.

The Beatitudes come from the famous Sermon on the Mount found in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 5 verses 3-12, and are comprised of eight separate statements about eight separate human categories: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for their righteousness. For each of these Jesus promised a reward, a spiritual vindication. I continue to find the ideology of the the Beatitudes to be both intriguing and inviting. Reward is most often promised to the assertive, the strong-willed, the confident, the aggressive. Jesus promised reward to the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted. In our capitalist, materialistic society the Beatitudes are wholly counterintuitive.

But does this message make any sense in the modern world? Obviously the meek do not inherit the Earth. The discreet and self-effacing do not succeed in a world where selling yourself is the most important part of gaining affluence. Those who mourn are not always comforted. Millions of human beings around the world die alone from a slow, painful death of hunger or disease every day. Was Jesus simply lying to give the less fortunate of the world false hope?

The words of Jesus were a promise that earthly gratification has no connection to lasting gratification in eternity, and for a Christian that promise can bring great comfort. But can the Beatitudes offer anything for a humanist? Can the essentially irreligious glean truth and direction from the theology of Jesus, a man millions consider to be divine?

I do not believe that any attempt made at meekness, mercy, purity, or peace will result in some sort of spiritual reward. I do not believe we will be remembered by a personal deity if we mourn, are persecuted, or hunger and thirst for righteousness. However I do believe that if we try to make peace, if we try to show mercy, if we try to be pure (in a physical, that is dietary, context), if we try to be meeker, then we may make life better for ourselves and those around us. There is a time for bold, assertive discourse, but I feel Americans too often choose the course of loudmouthed, belligerent quarreling. We seem to value our personal needs so highly that any change from the social norm is either resisted or assaulted.

I believe the Beatitudes can serve as an enduring reminder to the religious, undecided, and irreligious alike that our cultural mores are not universal, transcendent truths. We in the free, predominately Christian Occident should be reminded that our culture’s focus on individuality and personal happiness is just that, a cultural focus.

As others have done before me I have taken the words of Jesus and made them my own. Unlike many of them, I have chosen to omit their theological aspects. Can humanists learn useful, informative ethical principles from religion? I believe they can. Religion, as an element of human culture, has both its merits and its faults. If anything I hope the humanists, secularists, irreligious, or those who have disowned their faith background do not reject all the teachings of religion on principle. For myself, the Beatitudes are a superlative example of how many religious teachings can be continually effectual even if fundamental belief has been disavowed.

Homo religiosus

Religion is a universal human phenomenon. Throughout all of our recorded history and very possibly our prehistory we have experienced and experimented with what we call religion. Since religious studies is one of my academic foci I have often been asked to ponder this question: why did humans develop religion?

This question is already loaded considering the fact that it assumes that humans created religion, rather than religion being a universal concept, of its own essence. The religious, individuals of faith, will often claim that religion exists because humans are designed to be religious, that religion itself is simply an expression of innate spirituality. On the other hand, the irreligious must ponder why their choice seems in contradiction with the majority view throughout our species’ existence.

I do believe religion was and is continually being created by humans, that it is a product of that most unique aspect of our species, unique in all of nature, called culture. This is why religions often seem to align so closely with the cultural customs, mores, and taboos in which they develop (for example in patriarchal societies god is exclusively male, in agricultural communities the god who controls the weather is considered the most powerful and worthy of veneration).

Even if you accept that religion is humanly contrived, a concept that many do not, the question still remains: why do we create it? I believe much of the answer can be reduced to one word: fear. We fear what we do not understand. We fear the unknown. Before they grow and learn otherwise, children fear the dark. They fear it partially because of their undeveloped comprehension of reality (every intelligent adult understands there’s no such thing as monsters, right?) but also because of something deeper, something more base. Fear is a powerful survival mechanism. In a time when our ancestors competed equally with other species, when they were potential prey, they avoided the darkness away from their fires because powerful predators stalked out there. The modern human child still fears that darkness, except now it is in their closet and the predator is imaginary.

Humans fear death. We fear an end to our own existence. We fear unknown quantities. We fear that there might be truths about the universe that do not line up with our preconceived notions. Religions, in a very basic way, can give us an answer to the great Unknown. Have I single-handedly discovered the origin of all religions? Absolutely not. From my limited experience many of the religious treasure their beliefs because of the comfort they bring. When all else seems to be uncertain, religion can give assurance. Conversely the religious often believe the irreligious, the agnostic, the atheists, have either missed, ignored, or rejected the only thing that could bring real hope to their own existence.

The religious cite many reasons for their faith. Fear is not often one of them. Indeed their are many reasons to have faith, some good, some bad, some by choice, some by nature. For whatever reason humans have created and do continually create religion. Do humans need religion? As with so many of my experiences in the study of religions my attempts to answer the question have only led to another.

Questions, quandaries, and quibbles are more than welcome.