Friday, October 31, 2008

Is religion good or bad?

Obviously that's much too broad a question. And when it is asked, people usually respond by pointing to the good and bad things people do in the name of religion—e.g., like helping those in need (good) and the crusades (bad).

But I think there is a real answer. A column by George Monbiot in The Guardian reminded me why, in general, I think religion is bad: at its core religion teaches people to favor faith over taking responsibility for one's beliefs and actions.

One can probably stop there. Is it ever a good idea to encourage people not to think for themselves? I doubt it. Even when people come to incorrect conclusions by thinking for themselves, one at least has a chance with them if they are open to the idea that one should think things through. Religion closes that door by closing people's mind. It encourages a perspective in which a given opinion is to be accepted no matter what—because it is God's will or God's word, for example. The point is not whether some particular position is or is not "God's will" or "God's word." The problem is with the idea that one should decide something by asking whether it is "God's will" or "God's word." That sort of thinking allows people to let themselves off the hook of taking responsibility for their own actions and decisions.

It's a lot easier simply to go along with the crowd or to do whatever one's religious leader says. That's true whether one is religious or not. But the problem with religion (and any cult) is that it encourages that sort of behavior. By its very definition, one of the fundamental teachings of a faith-based religion is mindless faith.

I'm finding it difficult to express how deeply angry I feel about this. A country whose citizens are trained to be meek (and sometimes not so meek) followers of their religious leaders will inevitably become a backwater of ignorance and stupidity. That's what religion is doing to this country, and I hate it for that.


Anonymous said...

I think it's an over-simplification to say that religion teaches people not to think for themselves. In fact, many religions (admitting the fact that the word "religion" is ambiguous) encourage introspection and thought, including many forms of Christianity.

It's also wrong to suggest that a faith-based religion necessarily teaches a mindless faith. One need only read a little of Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling" to see that faith (and the Catholic's "mystery") encourage relatively deep thought about what it means to have faith.

And my third criticism of your post challenges even the point that mindless repetition, habit, and ritual are bad, in and of themselves. In fact, subsumption into the unconscious is not just an effective and efficient tactic for navigating the world, it's hard-wired into us as animals, presumably selected for by evolution. The absolute worst thing that can happen in many circumstances is to stop and think.

Of course, I agree with your basic sentiment. But I'd word it more cautiously. We should adopt everything in moderation, including moderation.

Thanks for the thoughtful post.

Blue said...

And thanks for your thoughtful comment.

To reply to your comments in reverse order.

I agree that we wouldn't be able to survive if we had to think through every decision we make. That would lead to paralysis. But I think it's important to be open to revising one's way of dealing with the world and not act as if whatever one is currently doing is how it must be—e.g., because it is "God's will."

I'm also sure that there are thoughtful Christians. My primary concern is the effect that religion has had on this country—which I believe is quite negative. (I'll admit that this is all prompted by my angst about the election.)

I haven't read (or if I have I don't remember) Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling." I would be interested in hearing how he reconciles faith with individual responsibility. My sense of Kierkegaard is that one is on one's own and that faith has nothing to do with it. Does he really manage to include faith in his existentialism?

I just looked up Kierkegaard in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( Apparently Kierkagaard was deeply religious. Much of his writings were an attempt to redefine faith as a choice. (That's my way of putting it.)

If, as Kierkegaard apparently did, one takes as given both Christianity and individual choice, one is faced with a dilemma: faith cannot be achieved through reason; yet faith is required for salvation. So what to do?

Kierkegaard's answer seems to be that one must (according to the article) "believe by virtue of the absurd."

Although that doesn't say much for someone like me, it does at least put the responsibility of choosing faith on the individual. But then isn't Kierkegaard also saying that if one doesn't make that choice one is condemned not to be saved? So not believing is not a very viable option.

This all seems like a very dark personal struggle. But it doesn't improve my view of religion.

I suspect that this has been an issue for thoughtful Christians for as long as there has been Christianity. Has anyone come up with a satisfactory resolution?