Re-evaluating the value of religion

This essay was written on August 13th, 2003 and edited slightly for this post:

Is religion a value to mankind? Some alleged benefits which have been attributed to religion include: scientific and philosophical principles, technologies such as the printing press, the colonization of the new world, great works of art such as Michelangelo’s David and the Sistine Chapel, monasteries that preserved and carried on knowledge during the Middle Ages, social institutions such as charities, schools, and universities. It’s undeniable that all these things have benefited mankind and that religion played a part in them.

On a personal note, I have  benefited greatly from the Judaism. A Jewish organization helped my parents come to America, placed me in private school so I could learn English and Hebrew, sent me to summer camp, paid for my trip to Israel, and even helped fund my college tuition. In addition to these material benefits, I learned a lot about history, philosophy, ethics, Hebrew, and social interaction while attending Sunday school and then helping to teach it for three years. Many of my religious teachers were intelligent and inspirational people who taught me many things in the classroom and by example.

So, it is indisputable that religion has done many good things for man. Is this sufficient evidence to conclude that religion is a value to man? The fact that an institution does good is not sufficient evidence that it is good overall. Consider a profession which is not considered desirable despite doing some good for people: medical quackery. A quack who sells a fake remedy for all ailments provides some benefit to people: the placebo effect often makes people feel better, and the alcohol, cocaine, and other drugs contained in remedies were often effective and making their users feel better. However, despite the benefit he provides, the quack also defrauds people, does not fix underlying health problems, and often addicts his patients to his “medicine.” Even though the quack provides a benefit, a real doctor could provide a greater benefit to people without the accompanying harm. Thus, when evaluating religion, we must consider the total effect, not just isolated benefits, and evaluate whether the benefits religion provides are essential to its nature.

To make such an evaluation, we have to find the essence of organized religion — what is its basic characteristic? The Heritage dictionary defines religion as “Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe; A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.”

The essential trait of religion is not that it commissions works of art, funds charities, builds universities, runs hospitals, or sponsors scientific achievement – all these things are done by other secular individuals as effectively as any religious institution. The essence of organized religion is that it is an institution dedicated to the belief in and worship of the supernatural. What is the supernatural? Heritage dictionary: “Of or relating to existence outside the natural world; Attributed to a power that seems to violate or go beyond natural forces; of or relating to a deity.” The essence of religion is the worship of that which is outside of the natural world. Because the supernatural cannot be directly perceived by the senses or understood by reason, the theist claims that it can only be revealed, (or is best revealed) by divine revelation, emotional conviction, faith, and other non-rational and indeed anti-rational means. The essence of religion is not a rational, systematic, empirical, causal exploration of our world, but faith in the non-rational, the arbitrary, the supernatural, the uncaused, and the unseen. In short, the mystic says: “Believe it because I say so.” Or, “Believe it because this book says so.” Or, “Believe it because it feels right” Or sometimes, “Believe it, or you’ll be burned at the stake.” Faith is the distinguishing characteristic of religion. How does one have faith in the unseen? By suspending reason. Religious mysticism only survives to the degree than man is able to suspend his reason and “believe”, ignoring facts to the contrary, ignoring reason itself. Religion only survives to the degree that it can surprise reason in man. As Arthur C. Clarke said, “Faith is believing in what you know isn’t true.” Since the first the witch doctor first discovered that he could gain power and wealth by promising to bring rain and scare away ghosts, mystics of one sort of another have propped up the supernatural.

If religion does lead men to abandon reason, what is the result?

The Greeks discovered reason 3000 years ago when the philosopher Thales proposed that nature should be understood by replacing myth with logic. They founded mathematics, optics, the theory of the atom, logic, geometry, and a system of ethics based on man’s happiness as its goal. When religion took over the Western world, many Greek ideas were lost to the West. As the Roman Empire was falling apart, religious fundamentalists seized the opportunity to consolidate their power by destroying all the secular learning institutions that still existed. In 529 A.D., emperor Justinian shut down the Neoplatonic Academy of Athens as part of is purge of all “heretic” ideas –formally (see Corpus juris civilis) ending the Hellenistic age of intellectual and religious toleration. From then on, the Christian Church engaged in a campaign of violent destruction of any source of knowledge that was not under the direct control of the church. Thus began 800 of ignorance and superstition known as the Dark Ages.

During the Dark Ages, life was a short, brutal, primitive, and thoroughly religious experience. The government was dominated by tyrannical warlords who forced their enslaved populace to fight bloody wars. The church dominated all levels of society, from the local parish to the highest advisors of the king. Monks carried on all the intellectual work of the medieval society – but only because anyone no one dared to study anything but the teachings of the church — after a sufficient numbers of purges, stakes, hangings, and stonings to demonstrate the dedication of the Church to stamping out reason. In 1349, over a third of Europe died because men believed that the plague was a sign from God and did not attempt to find out its source by any means other than faith. When great men like Copernicus and Galileo tried to discover the workings on the solar system, they were denounced and persecuted by the Church. Can you name all the great inventors, scientists, and writers who were burned at the stake or had their tongues torn out because they chose to believe what they saw with their eyes rather than what some raving mystic told them to “just believe”? What about the millions of Jews, Muslims, Witches, and Gypsies killed by a bloody power-grab justified by religion during the Crusades? As Johannes Cardinal Wildebrands said, “When religion sanctities hatred, it lends to that hatred a special ferocity. Normal moral inhibitors are erased.” But forget the Dark Ages. In today’s America, the Kansas and Texas Boards of Education is religious mysticism at work, with their violent opposition to the separation of church and state and the teaching of science in the classroom.

It was only when the church’s control of universities began to disintegrate through the sponsorship by newly powerful city states across Europe that intellectual freedom and innovation began again and Aristotelian and Hellenistic influence were imported from the East. The early intellectuals were all affiliated with the church – but that is only because the church murdered any intellectuals refused to conform to the church and destroyed all non-religious intellectual institutions.The rediscovery of Aristotle by St. Thomas Aquinas, who tentatively wrote than reason is not always incompatible with faith paved the way for the Renaissance of the Western world. The foundation of Western culture is the reliance of reason rather than faith to find out the basic facts of reality. By the use of reason, great thinkers like Francois Voltaire, John Locke, Adam Smith, and Thomas Jefferson discovered that the laws of nature and that man had certain unalienable rights, among them the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. While the Islamic world plunged ever deeper into the stagnation of religious fundamentalism, the great minds of Europe and America woke up and asserted the right of every man to live for his own sake, and the proper function of government as an obedient servant, not master of the people. They recognized that voluntary trade to mutual benefit was superior to slavery and servitude, whether to a king or to a mob. When the Founders established the United States of America, they set up an experiment to test their newly found values. The experiment, for a while at least, was a great success. The civilized world experienced never-before seen prosperity, economic growth, and increases in the longevity and quality of life. Religion did not die out in the West, but its influence was delimited because the Founders recognized that the role of government was to protect men’s rights, not to enforce morality, and allowed men to their own meaning in the universe. Western civilization was far from perfect: slavery, war, and suffering persisted — but to the extent that men recognized the right of every person to his own life, their societies flourished. As soon as it became possible to form institutions of learning outside of the church’s power, they quickly surpassed the intellectual progress of the intellectually shackled members of the church. Today, religious institutions as such do not have any significant role in scientific progress.

In short, the rise out of the misery of the Dark Ages was a victory of reason over faith. “For the first time in modern history,” wrote one Enlightenment writer “an authentic respect for reason became the mark of an entire culture.”

America, the product of the Enlightenment, was founded by men who realized that religion everywhere tries to tangle itself into the government and puts itself in conflict with reason. This is why the First Amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” This is why John Adams said “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion, ” Thomas Jefferson said “Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, more than on our opinions in physics and geometry. . . .”, James Madison said “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together”, Benjamin Franklin said “But scarcely was I arrived at fifteen years of age, when, after having doubted in turn of different tenets, according as I found them combated in the different books that I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself”, Thomas Paine said “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of….Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and of my own part, I disbelieve them all”, and Ethan Ellen said “Denominated a Deist, the reality of which I have never disputed, being conscious that I am no Christian.” The Founders realized that if organized religion were tied to the government, it would forever more try to use the state to prevent men from using their minds, just as it had been doing for centuries in their former home, England.

History shows that during the brief times when man has rapidly improved his condition, reason dominated. Whenever faith took center stage, men followed the mystics into poverty and slavery. The history of the twentieth century is no exception. In one country after another, men worshiped not God, but the State, as a living, breathing mystical entity that had all the attributes of a god. Blinded by collectivism, the followed Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Kim, Pol Pot into suicidal policies and atrocities against their own neighbors.

In conclusion, the chief aim of religion has been to cripple reason – man’s basic means of survival. As a primitive form of philosophy, religion served a useful purpose. All men need philosophy, but religion has rarely, if ever been an adequate substitute for reason. As an institution that dominated society for millennia, the Church served many useful functions. However, to the extent that it has suppressed reason, religion has been a great destructive force. The witch doctor is ultimately a destroyer of values, with his hostility to reason and false promises of a supernatural repayment for the very real suffering he inflicts on earth.

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