It has been said that “God did not create man; man created God”. The case for this argument is clearer with each passing day, as today’s vast sea of rationally derived knowledge continues to erode the once solid and fertile soil where “God”, since man created him, had firmly planted his feet. It has been estimated that over 95% of all human knowledge has been generated in the last 50 years, and today new knowledge is being created daily by the tetra-byte (1012 bytes). Unfortunately, the deep roots of religious traditions have not allowed social and cultural change to occur at the same pace, and we are constantly confronted with the inherent contradictions of this reality.
The case for intolerance of religions rests upon the assertion that the original reasons for the creation and use of religions no longer exist. The case for the intolerance of religions rests upon the assertion that in the modern world the continued acceptance and practice of religions does more harm than good. It rests upon the assertion that as long as we ‘respect’ all religious dogmas and accept them as a legitimate basis for a behavioral and social ethics, we will never progress as a species and shall remain locked within the confines of anachronistic, dangerous and wholly irrelevant behavioral models. It rests on the assertion that the idea that we must venerate what he have historically revered is false and without value.
It rests upon the rejection of the idea that ethics can only be derived from divine thought. It rests upon the fact that there now exists (in the West) nearly five centuries of rational secular thinking, a chain of thoughts, decisions and reflections which reflect an effort to define, moderate and order human activity based upon logic and reason rather than the dogma of one religion or another. This reservoir of ethics is found in common law and science, a fact which eliminates the argument for and the historical need for religion to intrude into questions of societal order. Behavioral ethics should gain their legitimacy and respect not from their relationship to divinity, but to common sense, common law, and communal consensus. Under this system, thievery is not to be tolerated not because it says somewhere “Thou shalt not steal”, but rather because it makes no sense to live in a society that would permit it. It is what we use and do daily; a complete system of stand-alone, secular ethics.
In his preface to “A Brief History of Time”, Steven Hawking relates a meeting he had with the Pope. In it, he (the Pope) recognizes the many mistakes the church has made over the centuries vis-à-vis science (Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, etc.), but declares that there is one essential element which will always and forever be the Church’s domain…. “Creation”. Hawking’s reply, and we can only wish we’d been there, was to the effect of… “Well, your Holiness… we’re working on it!”
Unfortunately, and to the great detriment of all life here on the planet, we humans continue our love affair with ourselves. We continue to believe the age old beliefs….. that we are either gods, children of them, or can transform ourselves into them. We believe that we are divine, separate from the animals, the trees, the stars, the air and the rocks… that we are the chosen, the special. And we know all this because our Gods… the ones we made…. have told us so…. and of course they did, because our priests say they did.
In short, the two millennia old cultural inertia of the major salvation-based homocentric mega-religions (Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam) continues to be the major impediment to mankind’s development of a new ethical understanding of the universe and our place in it; a new ethical understanding to parallel our new scientific understanding of the same. Could we do this, were we to do this, we would finally be free to use all that we have so recently learned and all that we could so easily become… for the benefit of all.
The metaphor of the splitting of the atom… a gift that man was smart enough to discover but has not yet proven wise enough to control… stands as the classic example of the type of real phenomenon our knowledge can create for us… and the insoluble ethical problems that their very creation begets. The reason knowledge creates these “ethical application” problems is because of the fundamental disconnect, growing wider each day, between knowledge and faith. While our sciences progress, our faith-based ethical systems do not, and as a result we (and they) simply do not possess the tools to deal with the new situations.
We continue to look at the world through two thousand year old glasses… and to act based upon two-thousand year old thinking. Its time we set about to break those glasses, to smash these anachronistic prisms which so distort our view of what can be called nothing other than ‘reality’. Its time to define issues of ethics in secular terms, and keep the discussion there! The time for religious tolerance has passed, and to coin a phrase, the tolerance of religious tolerance should no longer be tolerated. As an example, while we cannot simply stop the belief that one race is superior to another, we can legislate against the practice of that belief. Bigotry as a belief cannot be outlawed, but the practice of bigotry can be… and so too with ‘faith’.
It is important that there be no confusion between intolerance of religion and intolerance of beliefs. If one chooses to believe that the world was created by an angry warrior God, and this God demands that war be waged on the neighbors and that in order to satisfy his needs their heads should be cut off and posted on stakes… that, as a philosophy, is o.k. Crazy, counter-productive and even dangerous … but o.k. Its o.k., that is, until the believer leaves home with his hatchet and, together with other believers or alone… puts this belief into practice. Within himself and without the conversion of belief into action, there’s no harm done. Converted into action, he’s an Aztec warrior acting on behalf of the Aztec priest/king… or an Islamic fundamentalist, or a Zionist or an Inquisitor. “Belief” by itself, while often silly, isn’t overtly dangerous to others. Religion clearly is.
This line of thought is not simply a dry, intellectual question, for the stakes are very real and the impact upon us enormous. Religion and religiously driven ethics intrude into all of our lives in fundamental and generally detrimental ways. As Stevie Wonder sang:
“When you believe in things
that you don’t understand
then you suffer……
superstition ain’t the way!”
Aside from the all too obvious ‘war on terror’ effects, a recent cause célèbre regards the ethics of the investigative use of “stem” cells; undifferentiated cells found in all living things at certain stages of their development, is illustrative of this intrusion. Like other “ethical” issues generated by new scientific endeavor (cloning, euthanasia, reproductive rights, etc.) It also demonstrates the fact that the ignorance and desperate arrogance displayed by the church in Galileo’s time is still very much alive and well… and that we continue to suffer in huge numbers and in very real ways the impact of the decisions defined in religious terms.
In spite of its stated claims to the contrary, religion continues to work to the detriment of us all. In this particular case (and this in one of the most educationally advanced countries on the planet), religion carried the day. Nothing less than a Presidential decision means, at least until we move into the modern equivalent of post-Galilean days, that millions of people will continue to suffer diseases which science could most probably cure within a relatively short time through work based upon this research. Make no mistake… had the Church been able to halt all manner of scientific inquiry in Galileo’s time, it would have… and it would also do so today. And the question is, knowing that this is absolutely true… why should we tolerate it? Science is at war with religion, but is not fighting back.
What just this one issue (out of many) means is that we will again suffer at the hands of religion and religiously defined ethics. It means that you, your friends, your family, your nation and mine will all suffer. Cures to many of our most common diseases have been postponed unnecessarily and indefinitely. Exactly how many will continue to suffer and die because of this particular exercise of religious views that were out-dated 400 years ago is unknown, although guesses range into the tens of millions. This is a monstrous crime, but it hasn’t been described as one. And it is not reported as one because no one has to nerve to assail this, the holiest of holy grails… the concept that religious tolerance is a virtue, and the concept that ethics can ultimately only be defined in religious terms.
It’s a Crazy World
We live in a world which, as the comic George Carlin says, “If I say that I believe in extraterrestrial life… I’m crazy. But if I say I believe that 2,000 years ago a guy was born of a virgin mother and he could walk on water…. I’m sane. Well… THAT’S crazy!” It is crazy. Something is fundamentally wrong with this reality… and what is wrong is not that people continue to believe two thousand year old explanations, for there are always those in whom foolish ideas can and will exist.
What is wrong is that we collectively feel that we have an obligation to tolerate and even respect this insanity, foolishness and criminality… if it is properly dressed in religious garb. While we no longer tolerate bigots, slave owners or wife beaters, we continue to respect the faiths that produce Catholic pedophiles, Jewish and Christian extremists, and Islamic fundamentalists! While we no longer humor flat-earthers, we do tolerate creationists! In spite of the ravages caused by these deluded madmen, ecumenicalism and religious tolerance is not only currently politically correct, it is progressive political dogma of the most fundamental and compelling kind, the holiest of holy cows; doctrine stated clearly in documents no less important than the Constitution of the United States of America, and later in the U.N Charter.
And we got here because we played favorites. We got here because it was the only way out, in the mid-18th century, of centuries of religious wars… of the state backing one religion and persecuting another. Well aware of the centuries of continual religiously driven strife and turmoil on the old continent, the U.S. founding fathers found the only solution available…tolerance, freedom of religion, and the separation of church and state. The growth from intolerance to tolerance has thus been seen as a virtue, and unquestionably was at that time. Unfortunately, our social evolution has stopped there, because no better solution to the fundamental problems caused by religious behavior has been proposed since.
How did this happen? How is it that we have allowed ourselves to become hostages to social philosophies and solutions whose day has clearly long since passed? Because we know no other social reality, we accept it. Imagine, if you can, the kind of world we’d live in if we had stopped scientific inquiry with Aristotle, geography with Vespucci, or music with Pan. It is an unimaginable world… but that is in fact the shape of the social and cultural world we live in now.
While the then revolutionary ideas of freedom of religion and religious tolerance are undoubtedly and deservedly counted among the great socio-political inventions of the 18th century… they are relics of their time. They no more represent a definitive solution to the real and overarching issues of mass population control than did Newton’s “Principia” or Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” represent the final evolution of thought for their respective fields. The “religious tolerance” way-station, a temporary solution at best, grabbed by the framers of the Constitution like a drowning man grabs a life jacket, has now been elevated to the status of “destination”, and is blindly accepted as the final solution to the problems caused by religions.
The Crisis of Ethics
More importantly, and remarkably without the risk of hyperbole, the recognition of the need to replace the religiously based codes of ethics which have served as the very foundations for the creation and control of the political states around the world for the past four thousand years must be recognized as being the most urgent problem that we face as a species. To not recognize this is to continue down this so well trodden cycle of war and peace and war and peace and war… governed by behavioral ethics derived from religious dogma.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” states the country wisdom. Well, its broke. And it will remain broke for as long as the world’s ethics are grounded in a religious framework. The reason for that is clear, because from within these very religious codes of ethics which make possible the socio-political organizations they support are planted the seeds of conflict: the cultivation of ethnicity, nationalism, xenophobia and religio-centrisim which create the divisions that spur the friction between us.
Recent studies done by the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Institute on Religion in an age of Science, and the United Nations study on Religious Tolerance and Freedom all identify religion as being either the primary cause, or one of a few fundamental causes behind man’s identification with ethnic and national groups, they being the most common causes for conflicts between peoples. Seminal thinkers like Max Weber likewise identified religion as one of the root identifying elements of the ethnic and national identification which create the divisions which lead to conflicts.
That being the case, it is clear that any serious attempt to ameliorate the levels of global conflict must address the religious underpinning to those conflicts, be they direct or indirect. If must be recognized that separate beliefs create separate peoples…and separate peoples with separate beliefs invariably see each other as competitors…and ultimately, as enemies. The very words make it clear. Separate. Divided. Different. From totemic tribes to world cup soccer to thermo-nuclear powers, it remains the same. We become us in the moment that they become them. And the role of religion, not so much in its “spiritual” role, but rather in its socio-political power-brokering role, is one of the most fundamental of the divisions which lead us time and again down the road to hell. And not the Catholic or allegorical hell. Hell on earth. War.