OK, so let’s kick this off by me saying from the outset that I have profound admiration for people of faith. Their ability to embrace the tenets of their faith, it’s beliefs and doctrine almost it seems without question is a miracle to behold. Where does this apparent blind faith, this capacity to adhere to rigid dogma, where does it come from? How do people become so blinkered that they can’t see or don’t want to see beyond what they are told or perceive to be real?
We have brainwashed from birth that our religion is the one true religion, and we believe because our parents, grandparents, our family, our neighbors all believe or at least pretend to believe. At school, we are indoctrinated with religion. The armies of the world have vast numbers of clerics who bless the troops and armaments as they embark on a moral or holy war. And, we, for the most part, expect these shenanigans without question. Why?
Of late – blame it on the coronavirus and lockdown – I have spent considerable time reading the thoughts of, and watching clips of numerous people, for example, Yuval Noah Harari, Richard Dawkins. Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Fry, Peter Hitchens, Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, and many others as my internet surfing uncovers an article or clip that takes my fancy.
I’ll concede that surfing the internet is no substitute for in-depth research and reading. That said, my bookshelf does contain tomes of related reading material.
And the subject of religion and beliefs is not a new question for me. It’s been my companion in one form or another for most of my life.
Like many I suppose, I have kept silent about the matter, not wanting to appear different, challenging to what are the expected norms. For example, I was born into and grow up in (at least until my late teenage years) a traditional Jewish home. A kosher kitchen was kept as were Shabbat and the various festivals, although certainly in my early years, in a more liberal form. No one asked me if I wanted to be Jewish if I wanted to keep kosher, attend Hebrew classes, attend synagogue have a Bar Mitzvah. That was what the family did, and thus I was expected to follow the family line. Looking back, I often wonder what would have been the outcome if my family had been more religious in those early days, what if they had been orthodox or ultra-orthodox? As it was my outlook changed when at 16 I went off to college and later when I started my apprenticeship. The funny thing is that at 19 I left home (the UK) and to some extent ran away to Israel, where my family assumed that I was following and immersing myself in Judaism. The opposite was, in fact, the case. I came across countless Jews who were first and foremost Israeli, Judaism was a secondary notion. Of course, I was not mixing with religious/orthodox Jews in Israel.
Even today at the ripe old age of 71, I still try to fit-in, not rock the boat, place a kippa on my head out of respect for my host, family, or friends. And I go along with the pretense of Shabbat or festive dinner.
I recall two school occurrences which to this day, so many years later, remain with me. In the first, I was probably nine years old and had just joined a new school. On my first day at the school during morning assembly, I had refused to close my eyes during pray time. My excuse to myself was that I was Jewish, and here the majority of the pupils and teachers were praying and adhering to a Christian belief. At the end of the prayer session, the headmaster glared at me, while reminding the assembled pupils that eyes must be shut during prayers. While I understand that closing eyes and blocking visual surroundings helps to focus on prayer, I felt even then rebellious, that I was being told what to do and how to do it. In other words, follow blindly religious doctrine.
A few years later at high school, during a religious studies class, the teacher was making some point about the importance of belief and God in our lives. The Jewish students, myself included while having to attend the class were seated together and expected to be quiet and productive with other studies while the majority of the class paid attention to the teacher.
While I was not outwardly listening to the teacher, a phrase caught my attention, something about how people of different faiths respond to and address God. I had until that point never understood if there was one God who multi-tasked and heard and supported the prayers and aspirations of different religions, or if heaven contained multiply Gods, one of each religion. I raised my hand to pose this question, which I never got to ask. Before I could fully extend my hand and attract the attention of the teacher, my friend, sitting next to me, also Jewish, pulled my hand down and asked in a whisper what was I doing. I explained in a couple of short phrases that I wanted to know if one God served many religions or if multiply Gods occupied heaven. The punch he landed on my arm was not seen by the teacher but felt by me in no uncertain times. Later he related his version of the truth as, I assume, implanted by his family. There is but one God and different religions worship Him in different ways. End of story, but not for me.
I wanted to question the teacher but was stopped time and again by my friend who now became my shadow. At Hebrew classes, I was scared to ask the question, as was I of the Jewish teachers at school. So I delved into books at the school library and local library. (While today with the internet such research is easier, I seem to recall that searching for a book, the old fashion way, there was a sense of achievement in finding the volume. Reading left me with more questions than answers, questions that I was apprehensive to ask, partly because I did not know who to ask, how to ask, or in asking would I be made to look foolish.
The latter, to be made to look foolish, is a burden I have borne for close to sixty years. It stems from a scouts meeting. I belonged naturally to a Jewish troop that met every Wednesday evening. I don’t recall exactly to conversation leading up to the rebuke I publicly received from the scoutmaster, I seem to think it was connected to aviation. Being an avid reader of history, and certainly one of my better school subjects, I was for a 12-year-old (or thereabouts) well versed in modern history. To a fact or question raised, I pointed out the developments that man-made, the inventions, the strides in medicine; I presumably gave a long list of man’s achievements ending with the phrase “nothing is impossible”. The scoutmaster rounded on me and asked if a man can give birth to a baby and produced to ridicule me in front of the troop. I recalling running out of the hall in tears. That scolding, that mockery has stayed with me all these years.
Today, thanks to the amazing advances of medicine and the rise and proliferation of transgender people, the answer is, of course, yes, which all these years on, vindicates my “nothing is impossible” statement.
So how did I then and how do I to this day balance the statements made by Jewish, Christians, and Muslims, that their God is the one true God? Who, if anybody is right?
In the US, as well as many western European countries, there is an expanding number of people who are categorized as "religious nones". This broad group includes atheists, agnostics, and those who do not identify with any particular religion.
Before I could catalog myself, I needed to understand the nuances of the various labels.
Using Wikipedia as a stand guide, I understood that “Atheism is, in the broadest sense, an absence of belief in the existence of deities. Less broadly, atheism is a rejection of the belief that any deities exist. In an even narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which, in its most general form, is the belief that at least one deity exists.”
But what about agnostics. Again, according to Wikipedia “Agnosticism is the view that the existence of God, of the divine or the supernatural, is unknown or unknowable”. Another definition provided is the view that “human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either the belief that God exists or the belief that God does not exist.”
Confused? You bet.
I found an interesting article, August 2018, from the US-based Pew Research Center that points to a growing number of Americans are admitting that they are “religiously unaffiliated”.
As of January this year, the population of the US stood at a little over 325 million, of which approximately 27% of adults claim to be “spiritual but not religious”.
Of this 27% of the US adult population, six in every ten class themselves as religiously unaffiliated. They describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” For many, the question of religious teachings is a very important reason for their lack of affiliation. For others, it is their opposition to the positions taken by religious institutions on social and political issues. A smaller, but still substantial number, shares say they dislike religious organizations, don’t believe in God, consider religion irrelevant to them, or dislike religious leaders.
I am sure that a review of other countries with a matching social-economic makeup would throw-up similar numbers. However, these facts do not help me understand why I feel that religion is “fake news” and the bible is a collection of fairy tales.
It would be easy to blame Karl Marx and yet, much of his writing does to this day resonate with him. While in my (much) younger days I may have had liberal-even socialist leanings, as I have written elsewhere in this blog, today on many matters I stand to the right of Attila-the-Hun.
Marx wrote that “Die Religion ist das Opium des Volkesis” (Religion is the opium of the Masses). As suggested by Austin Cline - (https://www.learnreligions.com/religion-as-opium-of-the-people-250555), this statement is perhaps one of the most famous and most quoted by theist and atheist alike. However, the translation into English is not wholly accurate of Marx’s feelings towards religion.
“According to Marx, religion is an expression of material realities and economic injustice. Thus, problems in religion are ultimately problems in society. Religion is not the disease, but merely a symptom. It is used by oppressors to make people feel better about the distress they experience due to being poor and exploited. This is the origin of his comment that religion is the “opium of the masses” — his thoughts are much more complex than commonly portrayed.”
Further “according to Marx, religion is one of those social institutions which are dependent upon the material and economic realities in a given society. It has no independent history but is instead the creature of productive forces. As Marx wrote, “The religious world is but the reflex of the real world.”
“As interesting and insightful as Marx’s analysis and critiques are, they are not without their problems—historical and economic. Because of these problems, it would not be appropriate to accept Marx’s ideas uncritically. Although he certainly has some important things to say about the nature of religion, he can’t be accepted as the last word on the subject.”
It’s relevant but it’s worth noting that Marx was born into a Jewish family in 1818. The family later converted to Protestantism in 1824 to avoid anti-Semitic laws and persecution. For this reason among others, Marx rejected religion early on in his youth and made it absolutely clear that he was an atheist.
Professor Stanley Fish in a June 2007 New York Times opinion piece asks the question “Is Religion Man-Made?” https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/06/24/is-religion-man-made/
In his opening paragraphs, Stanley Fish pulls no punches in setting out the agreement that indeed, religion is a man-made manifestation.
“[R]eligion and the churches,” declares Hitchens “are manufactured, and this salient fact is too obvious to ignore.” True to his faith, Dawkins finds that the manufacturing and growth of religion is best described in evolutionary terms: “[R]eligions, like languages, evolve with sufficient randomness, from beginnings that are sufficiently arbitrary, to generate the bewildering – and sometimes dangerous – richness of diversity.” Harris finds a historical origin for religion and religious traditions, and it is not flattering: “The Bible, it seems certain, was the work of sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat and for whom a wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology.”
For me, and I suspect many others, the problem I face is reconciling the story of Genesis with the “big bang theory”.
It’s difficult to be precise just best-guess estimates point to the “Big Bang” occurring between 12 and 14 billion years ago. To put this in perspective, the Solar System, which includes plant earth, is thought to be 4.5 billion years old (give or take 50 million years) and humans have existed as a genus for only a few million years. Indeed, Homo Erectus, (upright man), our ancestors, derived from ape-like primates first surfaced between 2 million and 100,000 years ago, depending on earth region and available research.
So, when Seth Rogen recently said on a podcast that “religion is silly”, he got his point across, even though he could have articulated his thoughts far more profoundly. However, his comments on Israel, were so off the broad to be simply ignorant. https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-doesnt-make-sense-cant-safeguard-jewish-people-says-seth-rogen/
The bottom line, religion is a uniquely made-man phenomenon, created by man to enslave man.
Think of it in terms of a huge Ponzi scheme, a fraud played out across mankind for thousands of years. Heaven and hell are the profits and loss, which we have brought into.
Compare religion if you will to the Hans Christian Anderson’s story of the “Kings New Clothes”. People recognize it for what it is, a fake, but do not wish to appear different, rebellious in front of family, friends, neighbors. So they go along with the shame.
The John Lennon classic, “Imagine”, asked us to envisage that there was “No hell below us “and “And no religion too”. Fanciful, maybe, but he did touch a nerve with the line “Imagine all the people living life in peace,”.
Just think about how many millions of people have, throughout the centuries, been died in the name of religion.