Friday, May 15, 2009

religion rant III

I can only imagine that it must lighten some of the parenting workload to be able to provide a child with a gift-wrapped morality lesson by pointing to the bible and saying, ‘Here’s why we’re good to each other. End of story.’

But dragging children to church at an early age only raises the question: whatever happened to that whole free will thing? I thought the way it worked was God gave us free will, and we needed to make the choice to believe, in order to be saved. If that’s the case, why is every major religion so eager to get young boys and girls indoctrinated?

(Insert obvious Catholic priest/pedophile jokes here.)

(Ha ha! ‘Insert!’ Get it?)

As a child my first introduction to religion wasn’t really an introduction to religion per se, at least not as it is generally perceived in this shrill and divisive time, this time of smug certainties shouted from the rooftops or lobbed across borders in the form of bombs and missiles. We lived in central Pennsylvania, and we went to Quaker meeting on Sundays, I suppose as a sort of compromise between the pointy-headed liberal/ivory tower world my parents occupied (my dad taught mechanical engineering at Penn State) and the more conservative upbringing they had endured in southern Indiana.

At Meeting, we would sing a few hymns, people would stand up to speak if they felt like it, and we would sit silently for long stretches, praying, or in my case, gazing out the window at the dappled sunlight on the summertime grass, thinking about playing Smear the Queer, or army men, or building a fort, or the million other things I would be doing as soon as I could shed those itchy, rarely-worn, ‘nice’ clothes.

As I look back, Quaker Meeting seems more of a humanistic, political event than a religious one. We were taught how Quakers were among the earliest abolitionists, ‘fought’ for civil rights in the sixties, protested war and were conscientious objectors. My parents participated in a program which brought paroled prisoners (non-violent, I hope) into people’s homes and tried to help re-introduce them to society. One such ex-prisoner lived at our house for a time when I was like six or seven.

Talk about forgiveness.

And I can see why even parents who might not be terribly religious themselves might shy away from telling a five-year-old ‘We don’t go to church because there is no God.’ Hell, even alleged grown-ups have trouble with the concept that, without God and his immaculate spy-cam watching our every move, humans would degenerate into amoral beasts. As H.L. Mencken said, ‘People say we need religion, when what they really mean is we need police.’

(Sidebar: To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, what an incredible insult to the ancient Jewish people, the notion that prior to the commandments coming down the mountain, people were casually slaughtering one another without a second thought, stealing, coveting and disrespecting their parents. How did their society last as long as it did if that were the case? Indeed, if, pre-Moses, we didn’t know any better than not to kill each other, how did humans avoid wiping themselves out in an orgy of blood thousands of years ago?)

I am grateful that the only hardcore religious indoctrination to which I was subjected took place when I was 14 or 15, well into my smart-ass, questioning years. After I was sent off to ‘private school’ in Georgia, we went to Baptist church every Sunday, decked out in our sad blue blazers, ties, and gray dress pants. We squirmed in our seats, trying to hide boners beneath hymnals, listening to the bellicose preacher warn of the dangers of touching ourselves, touching girls, touching one another, touching a fetus, touching alcohol, and generally, just touching anything but the bible. It was everything you ever dreamed a Southern Baptist church could be.

Even so, I admit I went through a phase in which I read the bible cover to cover and strove mightily to welcome Christ’s love into my heart. No bullshit.

I really did believe for a while, too, you know. For a few months, at least. I can see why the promulgators of religion (and cults, and the Jonas Brothers, and Marlboros, and Bratz dolls, and Count Chocula, etc., etc., ad infinitum) have a such a hard-on to get into the heads of kids at an early age.

(Insert obligatory Catholic priest joke II.)

I remember, as a confused and troubled adolescent (aren’t they all?) how comforting it was, what a relief it was to think: Here, here are all the answers to all the questions that have dogged me. It is all laid out here. It is all going to be All Right.

And of course that is one of the functions that religion--and the burial ceremonies and cave art and other ritualistic behaviors that emerged well before organized religion--have long served. They attempt to provide some sort of Answer for that which we can never know: why are we here, and what happens after we die?

Of course, the people who drew pictures on cave walls and the people who built Stonehenge didn’t know what happens to ‘us’ after death any more than modern Christians, Muslims, Jews or Buddhists do. You stick the body in the ground, light the incense and say the incantations, and after that it’s all conjecture and wishful thinking. It’s ego, fear of death, and wishful thinking that drive all of these myths, which is why ‘faith’ must necessarily be such a vital piece of the puzzle.

It’s a tidy, ingenious bit of circular reasoning, isn’t it, to say, “Oh, you don’t believe? Well, you’re going to burn in hell then. We know this for a fact. But, in order to avoid that, we just need you to let go of reason, and logic, and the common sense that has guided you as an individual your entire life, and us as a species for millennia, and trust utterly and fully in this absurd, self-contradictory mythology, which was largely lifted from previous myth-makers by people so ignorant they didn’t know about botulism, antibiotics, epilepsy, or even that the earth is round, and then everything will be fine.”

We’ve got an offer you can’t refuse.

There are just too many damn holes in Christianity and religion in general to hold water for very long--for someone who is able to think about it with even a glimmer of objectivity. I was lucky enough to be a smart-ass teen before they got hold of my brain for that brief time. But what of those who are to young to protest? Or to even formulate the thoughts which could uncover the myriad layers of illogic, misinformation and downright lies that are inherent to religious belief?

The central religious tenet of humans having free will, and then choosing to give themselves over to God’s will is belied by the tenacious, desperate way in which all religions indoctrinate their young. What choice, what free will can a five-year-old exert? It is only after his or her mind has been thoroughly pumped full of images of burning hellfire, eternal damnation, and punishment that he or she can ‘choose’ God.

Of course, by that time it’s not really a choice at all, is it? It’s a sad, poignant, yet revealing commentary on religion that its proselytizers are so insecure in their beliefs that they feel the need to hijack their children’s ability to think for themselves.

I don’t doubt the sincere desire of many religious people to ‘save’ their own (and other’s) children. But it’s this exact sincerity which makes them so dangerous.

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