Tuesday, August 25, 2009

And No Religion Too

It always struck me as odd that a nation like America would so fully embrace an artist like John Lennon. I can attribute it to America’s inability to change; once it fell in love with the adorable mop-top, they stuck with him even after he wrote a song like “Imagine.” I suppose America also suffers from a terminal case of cognitive dissonance.

“Imagine” is a piano ballad to communism. I’m not sure most people who sing along to it on the radio realize what it’s about, despite its clear and overt lyrics. Certainly any capitalist is welcome to enjoy the song, just as I enjoy plenty of songs which discuss religious topics despite being an atheist.

I spend a great deal of my time contemplating the ramifications of many of the conditions discussed in the song (not because John Lennon wrote about them, merely because they are quintessential Socialist/Communist ideas). The one I wish to discuss more fully was the topic of a poll I held some time ago.

I asked on my blog, “Would the world be better off without religion?” Obviously the results are quite skewed given the sampling method, but I had anticipated, if not hoped, for such an outcome.

Eight out of 17 people (47%) said the world would be better off without religion. Personally, I cannot remember if I answered “no better or worse” or “I’m not sure,” but it was one of the two.

From a practical standpoint, how would religion disappear? I wouldn’t have any problems with its absence if it spontaneously lost support and died out, but I find this scenario fanciful and purely hypothetical. Instead, I find it more likely that if religion were to “disappear,” it would be at the hands of iconoclasts.

Iconoclasm is a word of Greek origin which means “image destruction.” It is an act primarily committed for religious or political reasons (often both).

Iconoclasm is a form of censorship. I consider it to be a crime against humanity. It is an attempt to destroy the representations of an idea in the hope that people will no longer be reminded of it, therefore ending its influence.

Christians performed the most thorough and successful iconoclasm during the Christianization of Europe. From smashing marbles to melting down engraved metal, from burning sacred texts to killing the scribes who wrote them, Christians even built their churches on top of pagan temples in order to obscure them. While Christians have toned it down in the last couple centuries, their Muslim brothers in monotheism have taken up the mantle.

Communism, as practiced in Russia, China, Cambodia, Cuba, and several other places, is a religion. We should never forgive this, for they have forever sullied an ideology that I feel has the potential to end so much suffering. They acted in the same ignorant fashion as the monotheists, ensuring their failure, by destroying what had been built before them rather than using it more efficiently.

Religion is not merely a collection of lies foisted upon people to control them; that’s only its most significant role when active. For an understanding of the role religion can play in a largely atheist culture, one needs merely to look at ancient Greek and Roman mythology.

Here is a religion which has no political power in the modern world, and yet we do not forget it. Why? Why do we remember Zeus/Jupiter, Hera/Juno, Ares/Mars, Aphrodite/Venus, Hermes/Mercury, Athena/Minerva? What role do these agricultural gods of fertility have in the modern computer age? Do we remember them because we believe in them, or fear them, or feel we need them?

In a word: variety. Anything that eliminates diversity is a bad thing. Any biologist will tell you that genetic diversity is the primary factor for determining the success rate of a species; an animal with no genetic diversity is susceptible to several problems from disease to climate change.

I would posit that human culture follows the same laws of biology, as culture is a biological system (though a secondary, complex, and artificial one). The more richly diverse a culture, the more robust it is. I feel this is why America has been so successful at innovation; we are an amalgamation of several cultures and backgrounds.

One can see this acted out in history. Christian Europe was largely a static culture which achieved nothing for over a thousand years; the Christian faith became a monolithic influence which actively destroyed the very memory of the old ways. Things in Europe did not improve until this ignorant culture came in contact with the early Muslims, who had adopted Classical Greek and Roman philosophical studies—because Islam used to be the more moderate of the two.

Upon re-exposure to the ideas of Aristotle, Pythagoras, and many others, Europe experienced a Renaissance of development. Their subsequent conquering of the Americas was, I believe, a direct result of the American insulation—the Incans had no other civilizations to exchange ideas with, and as a result had not even perfected the wheel for transportation.

I see most advancement in humanity to be a random and never-ending series of isolated development and violent exposure. The problem therefore becomes finding a way to alter this violently competitive scheme to one of peaceful cooperation. However, how can one unite without homogenizing? By tolerating, even fostering, diversity.

Monotheist scholars of science abound; every major scientist in the Western world was religious, from Newton to Darwin to Einstein. Would a conquering atheist culture disregard their ideas as god-loving nonsense, in the way Christians demonized the knowledge of the polytheistic heathens?

It is the risk of this stubborn ignorance that has left me feeling that the world is better off without anyone trying to destroy religion. It is not religion which is harmful, but the influence religion has upon those who do not choose to follow it which causes all the problems.

Just as an anarchist blindly opposes all government or a communist extols the private enterprise as pure evil, the atheist who actively believes the world would be better off without religion is merely allowing the negative effects of a thing’s misuse convince him or herself that the world would be better off without that thing at all.

As with most things, religion can have redeeming value and be responsibly practiced. More importantly, it would be intellectually dishonest and irresponsible to attempt to wipe the world clean of religion, for we know not what invaluable assets would be swept away in the process.

It is true that the dominant monotheistic religions of today did not extend the courtesy of tolerance to their neighbors, and it is also true that one of them, Christianity, claims to treat people they way they wish to be treated. However, I believe we atheists must hold ourselves to a higher moral standard than to adopt the barbaric destructiveness of the lesser among us, even if the religious seem to implicitly be begging for destruction. We must resist all urges to hang them on a cross, because this is what they want and what gives them strength through pity.

Even if tomorrow the entire world spontaneously woke up and did not believe in the gods, I would hope that not a single brick would be moved from any church, cathedral, mosque, temple, stupa, or shrine. Instead, I would hope these buildings would become living museums, and I might even go so far as to say they would make marvelous school houses, lecture halls, forums for debate, and soup kitchens. I would hope the preachers, priests, rabbis, imams, and monks would still be interested in a life of service, this time to humanity first, not a religious philosophy or divinity.

I am no one. What I say is little more than whispering into a canyon and straining to hear the echoes. But if one thing I say resonates, I hope it is this fact: nothing good can come from the destruction of religion or its symbols. One cannot allow the evil aspects of religion to infect us and pollute the values of knowledge and freedom. While religion has proven it will violently oppose those who share many of the ideas I hold dear, it would be futile to use their methods to defeat them. In doing so, one would become no better than religion.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.

No comments:

Post a Comment

If your comment is too long, break it into multiple comments and post them all.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...