Religion is full of paradoxes, and one of the most prominent has to be the relationship between religious simplicity and complexity.
All religions claim humble beginnings. Even if your religion is started by a rich Arab merchant or wealthy science fiction writer, there is a tendency to romanticize a simple origin for both the founder and the initial formation of the religion itself.
I’m of the opinion this is because a religion wants to appeal to the lowest common denominator, so having a humble founder makes a faith less threatening. This is why you don’t see any successful religions that are begun by scholars: scholars are smart people, and intelligence seems dangerous to the weak minded.
If smart people start a religion, then everyone can clearly see they’re trying to manipulate us… but since we believe our religions are formed by simple farmers, herders and fishermen, we inherently sense that these people of the land can be trusted.
So you have these religions that are started by simple people, for simple people… but if you want to criticize that religion, you better not be a simple person.
The expectation of most religious people I talk to on the subject seems to be, “If you aren’t an expert on *name of religion*, you shouldn’t comment on it.” I know every atheist has heard this one. I have heard and read it applied to Richard Dawkins alone more times than I can remember.
It’s quite a paradox. Religion is so simple that anyone can accept it, but it’s too complex for anyone but a learned specialist to refute it. To some extent, I suppose this is true… just not true enough for my taste.
It’s amazing, really, how much writing there has been on simple religious matters. This is typically known in fancy-pants circles as “exegesis,” but I like to think of it as “religious fanfiction.” Basically, people read the original and then want to elaborate on it… because apparently thousands of very intelligent people over history have managed to come up with much better ideas than a bunch of uneducated yokels a handful of centuries earlier.
Hard to believe, huh?
It’s funny… religious people have immense respect for a man like Thomas Aquinas, who wrote now celebrated elaborations on the Christian faith. His thirteenth century career as a philosopher is often seen as the most influential in Western thought since Aristotle. Perhaps by no small coincidence, Aquinas was very familiar with the work of Aristotle, which had just been translated into Latin.
Aquinas was an influential thinker, not because he read the Bible, but because he read nearly everything he could get his hands on, and he then related those ideas he liked (and sometimes even those he came up with on his own) to people through the language of Christianity.
Isaac Newton was also renowned for his ability to suggest bold new ideas while still kowtowing to the Church. Really, scientific history in the West is full of great thinkers who either worked with religion to suggest new concepts, or who were persecuted for their inability to appear pious enough for the liking of those in funny hats.
From Copernicus to Darwin, there’s an equally well established tradition of luminaries who, even despite being religious, couldn’t bridge the gap between the truths they discovered and the myths of their faith. It’s not enough to simply believe in God, Jesus, and the Holy Fire Tongue Monster, you must also massage the facts through the context of Biblical metaphor in order for religious authorities to not call for your brutal torture.
There was a time when I would say you had to be a very intelligent individual lucky enough to receive a good education and have access to expensive manuscripts and rare tomes in order to come to the conclusion that God was not real. To overcome the seductive deceptions of religion was simply too difficult throughout much of history for any but the most gifted thinkers to even touch upon, let alone grasp with certainty.
This was why “atheism” as a philosophical concept is so relatively new. It took the invention of the printing press before such ideas could be spread far and wide for the masses to access. Atheism was not preached from a pulpit to crowds, but was instead a quiet conclusion made individually in reading rooms across Europe, and later, the whole world.
But those days are long gone. We live in an era where the internet is slowly supplanting the printing press, putting the equivalent of trillions of books worth of information at our fingertips. Sure, half of it is porn, and half of the remaining half is celebrity news… and then I guess you have online pharmacies selling boner pills… okay, so there’s a lot of garbage to wade through, but there’s also a wealth of useful information (assuming you ever get off Facebook).
You don’t need a degree in religious studies to learn more about a religion than the average follower. Hell, thanks to the internet, I’m a level 8 Operating Thetan in Scientology, which would have cost me literally tens of thousands of dollars if I had to buy the books, tapes and auditing to find out that, “Really, the power was always already inside you.”
Personally, I became quite versed in Christianity the old fashioned way: I read the Bible. I still think it’s impossible to actually read the Bible and still believe everything in it. If you can read the Bible and still think it’s true, I have a bridge to Eden I want to sell you.
It just doesn’t take a very sharp mind to cut through the bullshit when it comes to religion. I don’t even think you have to want to disbelieve in order to see the inconsistencies. I think you just need to be determined to find the truth, even if it’s uncomfortable.
Perhaps why most atheists get so upset about the charges that they aren’t experts… besides the fact that many atheists are experts… is because atheists pride themselves on their intelligence, logic, reasoning, and all those other terms for mental acuity. However, the truth is that you don’t have to be smart to be an atheist.
I’ll pause here to allow atheists to open up a new window to send me hate mail…
Despite what any atheist might tell you, any fool can be an atheist. It doesn’t take one ounce of reason to reject religion. No, atheists are not defined by their intelligence. Atheists are defined by their boldness. It is bold to reject ideas that bring one comfort. It is bold to go against the crowd. It is bold to accept that after you die, that’s it. It is bravado, and not intellect, which constitutes the atheist. Maybe atheists may loathe admitting it, but atheism doesn’t take brains, it takes guts.
How’s that for catering to the lowest common denominator?