Monday, July 30, 2007

The Tyranny of Religion

Concluding last night, PBS here in New York ran a three-part series by English polymath Jonathan Miller on the "history of disbelief" - in short, an examination of disbelief in god from the ancient world to the present. It was thought-provoking, funny, disconcerting, and for me, highlighted some of my own philosophical conundrums vis-a-vis faith and religion.

Having been raised a Southern Baptist - before the denomination allied itself with the politics of fascism - I reluctantly carry the baggage of years spent in Sunday School learning the basic Bible stories to which even the most irreligious of skeptics is exposed. And although I don't believe in the literal truth of the Genesis creation, the flood of Noah, or Moses parting the Red Sea, I recognize their allegorical significance in terms of our society's philosophical evolution. Adam and Eve in the garden simply represent one more attempt by our ancient antecedents to explain the origins of the world in which they found themselves. Moreover, given the plethora of creation myths, one might assume that this effort to explain our creation is an act for which we're uniquely hard-wired thanks to genetic mutation and biological development of the intellect. Whether or not that intellect is endowed with a soul, however, remains the most difficult puzzle for me.

One can most likely trace the roots of my theistic uncertainty to the examples of scholarly inquiry to which I was exposed in academe. We were taught to dig, to doubt, and dig some more, until we found answers which might withstand the challenge of reason. (No doubt this admission would gladden the heart of the anti-intellectual apologist who equates education with the secular world's attempt to undermine faith, as if it were an explicitly avowed goal.) Thomas Jefferson even went so far as to examine the Bible itself using the criteria of rational inquiry. The end product, sometimes referred to as the "Jefferson Bible," exalts the ethical system outlined by Christ, but strips the Old and New Testaments of the supernatural and references that fail the test of reason.

As a historian, I think part of my problem has been the documented examples of organized religions - or the states that embrace them - using that religion to justify racism, conquest, genocide and governmental tyranny. English political pamphleteer Thomas Paine (pictured below) perhaps said it most succinctly, and with a touch of humor:

"Of all the tyrannies that afflict mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst.
Every other species of tyranny is limited to the world we live in, but this
attempts a stride beyond the grave and seeks to pursue us into eternity."
And, as I've stated on this site in numerous entries, I'm especially troubled by the latest efforts to use Christianity - embodied in the ideology of the "Religious Right" - as a means to define governmental authority and wield political power in the U.S. Ever-insightful H. L. Mencken correctly suggested that "the urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it."

In the end, I'd have to call myself a theist - as opposed to deist , and there is a difference - who largely distrusts the institutions, rituals, and machinery associated with organized religions. "I am a sect by myself, as far as I know," Thomas Jefferson concluded in a letter to a friend, and I'm increasingly of a mind with Jefferson in that regard. To be sure, Buddhism and Quakerism, as I've noted before, do offer some palatable alternatives to the religious outlets to which I've previously allied my attention. Additionally, I must tender a nod to the palliative effects of C. S. Lewis's Christian apologetics. Nevertheless, I find it unlikely that these adjuncts to monolithic faith will entirely allay that gnawing doubt that steals into one's thoughts on belief in the "almighty" or a "hereafter."

Doubt, rather than Jonathan Miller's outright disbelief, will likely shape my own theistic musings until I draw my last breath. I want to believe, and will try to believe, but I think it's also fundamentally human to remain skeptical. Some might argue that I'm merely hedging my bets. Quite the contrary; I'm only reflecting human nature's incapacity to understand clearly transcendence and the divine. Sure, imagining god as a benevolent George Burns or Morgan Freeman may offer the movie-going masses a grandfatherly deity who quiets our misgivings. Frankly, I'm more inclined to imagine the more humorous image of god offered by Gary Larsen in his Far Side cartoon, "God at his computer": God sits at his computer with a finger poised above a key labled "Smite," as he watches a man walking under a suspended grand piano. But all of these images still do nothing to resolve the issue of belief.

1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

Very honest and insightful, as well as informative, post, Brian. You have delved way deeper into this than I could ever hope to but our ideas are quite similar. I am hesitant to discuss religion with just anyone. Not many are open minded on the subject.