Religion: time to grow up

popePope Benedict XVI has finished his last day at the Vatican – the first pope since 1415 to resign his papacy rather than remaining pope until death. There has been much speculation as to his reasons for this surprising move; the official reason is that he has simply become too weak, but that would have been any pope. Rumors abound about other possibilities, most of them to do with the widespread sex abuse scandals that have been plaguing the Catholic Church in the past years. In any case, for those of us who look upon the Catholic Church with its luster and corruption as the symbol of everything that is wrong with religion, an event like this automatically reinvigorates our hopes that this might mean the end of Catholicism altogether. But hey, we still have the “Prophecy of the popes”, which suggests that the next pope will indeed be the last one.[1]

Since the dawn of civilization people have left their fates in the hands of their gods and, more particularly, in the hands of church and temple. Countless gods have come and gone with an army of priests, rabbi’s, imams and other clergy in their wake. As soon as one god disappears into obsolescence, another one is always ready to take over. But now that scientific and technological progress have explained away much of god’s power and mystery, a growing number of people are wondering how to give meaning to their existence.

Throughout time and across the globe, mankind has created literally thousands of deities, the majority of whom are artifacts of the past which are no longer seriously considered to be real. It is impossible to explain how these thousands of gods have become laughing stocks while belief in a small number of others is still very much alive. How are the Christian, Islamic or Hindu gods different from Zeus, Thor or Osiris? At the basis, they are not.  All of them are the result of man’s desire to explain the inexplicable – to understand the world in which they live. They have different traits and different mythology (although not as different as we tend to think), but they share the same purpose and the same origins.

We no longer need a god of thunder to explain stormy weather, or a sun god for the rising and setting of the sun. But we are far removed from understanding why we are here, how we got here and what happens to us after we die – and that is where gods still come in handy. People continue to depend on god to help them come to terms with adversity and their mortality; their gods give them hope and a sense of purpose and there is, of course, nothing wrong with that. The problem lies in the role that religion plays in this part of our lives.

Religions have claimed a monopoly on spirituality. Religion is so deeply embedded in our cultures that we have come to believe that without it, society would fall apart and we would descend into savagery. We are taught that we need religion if we wish to connect to our gods. Religion has effectively made itself synonymous to god. But the opposite is true: religion has undeniably played a huge part in helping to shape the world we live in today (for better and for worse), but if we want to take the next step in our evolution it is crucial that we leave religion behind.

Arthur C. Clarke (1917 – 2008) called religion a symptom of mankind in its childhood, a necessary evil[2] on the road to our adulthood. Adulthood for mankind then, is its independence from institutions like the church in living a constructive and fruitful life, coexisting in harmony and cohesion. As I see it, god may mean to each of us what we want – whether you believe in one god, many gods, a conceptual god or no god at all, what matters is how you live your life and how you come to that outlook.

Since the dawn of civilization, mankind has depended on religion to determine its morality. These days however, the hegemony of religion is more threatened than it probably has been ever before. The age of information and individuality has opened doors to alternative philosophies, from foreign religions to atheism, and a growing number of people is taking advantage of that. But there is one place many of us forget to look on their spiritual journey, and that is inside of ourselves.

Many of us may no longer blindly trust religion to determine our morality for us, we continue to accept as truth that we need some institution to tell us what is right and what is wrong. The influence of the church is diminishing (in the West at least), but the influence of government is growing and we are now even making the economy so central to our lives that the economy is arguably taking the place religion once had in society.

compassEverything is aimed at centralizing power in the hands of a small elite. As long as man feels inadequate to independently distinguish right from wrong there is a small group of people who can benefit from that by gaining power over others – and making money in the process. We need to drastically change that attitude towards life and the world. It is time to take back control over our own destinies, accept responsibility for our own actions, and learn to trust our nature again. We all have common sense which may serve as a moral compass, even though we have been taught not to listen to it. We all know how we would like to be treated and all we have to do is to apply that to the way in which we treat others.

For as long as we continue to accept our dependence on hierarchical institutions, we are children in terms of our spiritual evolution. If you want to honor your god, stop spending your energy on earthly institutions like a church or temple and start devoting your energy to being a good, reasonable and responsible individual. If you do not believe in god, then that is all the more reason to make our time on Earth as pleasant as possible, so: start devoting your energy to being a good, reasonable and responsible individual. There should not be much more than that to life, and we should not need anybody to tell us that.

[1] Check Wikipedia for more information:
[2] Matt Cherry. God, science and delusion. A chat with Arthur C. Clarke, in Free Inquiry Magazine volume 19 number 2 (1999).

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2 thoughts on “Religion: time to grow up

  1. I thought I’d jump in; I hope you don’t mind.

    I completely agree that we should be good people, but I don’t see the reason why one has to avoid religion to do that. Many people seem to manage to be very good while being deeply religious.

    In fact, we appreciate the intellectual gifts of the past in other areas. One certainly rests on what past scientists have discovered. While that’s no reason to accept any religion unthinkingly, it seems odd to make a general statement that it is always bad.

    In fact, it is this generalization that gets us into trouble most often. “How are the Christian, Islamic or Hindu gods different from Zeus, Thor or Osiris?” In quite a few ways, actually. Most of the things you identify with religion apply only to ancient polytheistic religions (such as explaining events in nature) or only to monotheistic religions (such as morality and spiritual enlightenment). I can’t think of anything mentioned here that applies to both.

  2. Thanks for your comment. Indeed it is certainly not impossible to be good and religious at the same time. My point is not that religion is always bad in the sense that no good can come of it – I can think of many examples myself. My point is that any form of dogmatic thinking which is imposed (even if it is readily accepted) by some upon others, is holding back our development as a species.

    At the surface, religion offers hope and can inspire people to do good. But at the core, religion revolves around control and prohibition. Dogma impedes progress, and in the end the church strives to protect its dogma from new insights and information – it did so with Galileo Galilei in the 17th century, and it still does so with modern science (e.g. CERN). Its divine pretence has made the church almost impervious to criticism for hundreds of years, but it is in fact a very earthly institution. In the case of christianity, it is based upon mythology that was only recorded centuries after it had supposedly transpired (much of it even borrowed from earlier religions), then spread through endless copies and translations until it finally became the Bible. There are things in the bible that are sensible and useful, so perhaps it is a valuable historic and philosophical document, but it is not the word of god – and it is unwise to base our lives and politics upon it today. In short: it is not all bad, but we should not let it dictate our lives to the extend that we have been doing.

    Both monotheistic and polytheistic religions are designed to help us accept our mortality. In general, both monotheistic and polytheistic deities are meant to explain the unknown, but a monotheistic god is a little bit more flexible: he can lose some of his power and mystery as we gain more insight into the workings of the world and the universe, whereas a specialized god would immediately lose all purpose. The whole concept of creation leans on the same idea: we do not know how everything came into existence, so it must have been god – that works with monotheism just like it did in the past with polytheism. I will expand on all of this in future posts.

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