Prompted by the recent Munk debate in Toronto between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair, the blogosphere is buzzing with everyone offering their own take on the question, “is religion good?”
The audience of that debate voted a resounding ‘no’ and gave the victory to Hitchens. Leading up to the debate, there was an Ipsos-Reid poll asking, “is religion a force for good?” Mercifully, only 36% of Canadians surveyed said religion was good, compared to 65% of Americans and 92% of Saudis while only 19% of Swedes could say the same.
It’s funny. I’m assuming if you’re reading this that you already know what I think. Maybe you don’t. A couple months ago a friend of mine told me that people who go to church have better morals than people who don’t. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and as this person and I have had many conversations about religion, I couldn’t believe he would actually say something like this to me. So maybe I’m not always explicit. Maybe my criticisms are seen as being in jest or as purposeful exaggerations. Let me be clear, religion is terrible. If there was such a thing as “evil,” religion would be that.
I’ve left a few comments on various sites and blogs but this one in particular might deserve mentioning.
My first comment was this:
“Our cultural ancestors invented the idea of gods to justify attempting to live outside the “laws” of nature. The story of the fall of Adam and Eve, for example, is clearly describing the Agricultural Revolution. Pretty much all of Genesis reinforces this view. Who could possibly give us the authority to take over the world: to go forth and multiply, to have knowledge of who should live and who should die (is that not the knowledge of the gods? of good and evil?) Who could possibly have given us that kind of authority but the gods themselves. And so we invented religion to justify our behaviour. As a result, civilization was born and expanded and fuelled a population explosion. We’re now living in a time of mass extinctions at a rate not seen since the fall of the dinosaurs only this time we know we’re the ones causing it. We can no more live outside the laws of nature than spiders, salmon or sequoias can. In order to work, airplanes do not ignore the laws of gravity. Jump off a cliff and you better expect to hit the ground eventually no matter how hard you flap your arms. Eventually the law of gravity will catch up with you. In the same way, the laws of nature will eventually catch up with civilization and it will crash and crash hard. The only question is how bad is it going to be? Considering the damage we’re doing to biodiversity, there is a real danger of total collapse of the ecosystem. Why else do you think the Abrahamic religions are so eschatological? Neighbouring indigenous tribes have always known how dangerous it is to live as though you were above nature.
Let me be very clear: All the horrors of civilization — famine, drought, overpopulation, genocide, disease, etc — are enabled by religion. “Go forth and multiply” is nothing less than a declaration of war on the environment.
Of course there are other myths and false premises that civilization is based on but the god-concept is one of the big ones.
Nothing religious people do could ever make up for the kind of destruction that religion has enabled. Of course, your help in taking down civilization would certainly go a long way.”
Someone replied to me saying that Indians (sic) were religious and there was no correlation between the destruction I was talking about and religion. Of course, this is nonsense…
“Actually the gods of the indigenous peoples of the world (past and present) are very different from the gods of civilization. By and large their deities (where they have them, some tribes don’t/didn’t have any at all) are personifications of natural processes as they knew them, not some omnipotent and omniscient father figure. Consider Atira of the Pawnee who was represented earth and was considered the “Sacred Mother” of all things:
“The Pawnee were hunters. When told to abandon hunting and settle down to farming, their priest replied: “You ask me to plow the ground! Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s bosom? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest. You ask me to dig for stone! Shall I dig under her skin for her bones? Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again. You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it, and be rich like white men! But how dare I cut off my mother’s hair? It is a bad law and my people cannot obey it.””
Even more anthropomorphic figures like Nanabozho have nothing in common with an Abrahamic god, for example. Nanabozho’s story is a living story which has been adapted to include him killing Paul Bunyan to protect the forests. That’s a far cry from some invisible, omnipotent law giver.
No, their gods are definitely not the same as our gods.
If you have any understanding of the origins of the various religions of civilization, compare that to the model for the expansion of agriculture/civilization found in Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel.” There is clearly a parallel. And you’d expect the Bible, for example, to have some sort of reference to the Agricultural Revolution since it happened at around the same time in about the same area as some of the other stories. Not surprisingly, it does… the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve. The story obviously doesn’t refer to the actual first humans and it would be absurd to believe so. But the development of agriculture would have been a momentous event for these people, definitely important enough to them to call it “creation.”
Even consider the symbolism of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The birth-death-rebirth cycle is a very common theme and, again, is symbolic of natural processes. The story of the Green Man has a lot of parallels with the story of Jesus. The biggest difference is that the Green Man dies and is reborn every single year. When coopting this meme, Jesus only did it once symbolizing a permanent fracture with natural processes. Of course, the story is that Jesus did it for our sins so that we could have eternal life in heaven. Who wants to die — even if your death means life for other creatures — when you can live forever with the most powerful entity imaginable when he happens to love you? Well, me, and virtually all indigenous peoples.
I’ve noticed through my activism that people tend to get just as mad when you say that we are animals as they do when you say there are no gods. Religion has everything to do with our perceived break and separation from nature.
So don’t tell me there’s no connection. It wasn’t the Pawnee or Ojibwe (or the Yanomami, Piraha, or Bushmen, etc, etc, etc) who brought us to this point. It was the sons of Adam. Agriculturalists. Civilized. Us.”