Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Is religion a pernicious evil?

Sometimes people marvel at my current view of religion. They think I am too hard on it. That it deserves to be protected and people deserve to have their right to worship how they choose be protected at all costs. They feel I don't have any right to express my general disdain for the whole idea of belief in God, let alone the absurdity of it. Unfortunately, religious folks can't get on me too hard because they quickly realize that the same protection afforded in the United States that allows them freedom of religion simultaneously allows me to express my criticism of that same religion. But what continually amazes me is that, rather than engage in a courteous discourse over the merits of their beliefs over mine, or vice-verse, they quickly become offended by what I am saying and they take their ball and go home. They just would rather not talk about it apparently.

So what is it about religion that causes such angst among its followers, that they don't even want to talk about so much of it (or have it challenged in any way - especially ways that rely on evidence and science rather than faith) without taking offense? It is as if I slap them in the face when I say I don't think God exists. It is like this big deal that people take so personally...so much so that they would rather sever relationships (even family or close personal friendships) than talk about the issues in any kind of meaningful way. If you don't believe that this is true, try finding a well populated group of religious people (in person or on the internet - Facebook groups are a phenomenal place to witness this) and then announce that you think they are nuts, and then tell them why. (I tried this on a Facebook group that was all about reading the Book of Mormon again. I wasn't even too in your face rude, I just mentioned that the actual intent behind Joseph Smith's letter containing the quote about happiness being the object and design of our existence - that it was written to Nancy Rigdon to convince her to become another of Joseph's plural wives - was an attempt more to coerce and seduce and not so much to actually instruct on the topic of happiness and obedience. My comment was deleted from the page in very short order). Some few respondents may actually attempt to convert you into their way of thinking, or tolerate your comments for a bit, but what will generally happen is you will either be censored pretty quickly and shut out of the group or essentially told to go away (and some will not be very nice about it, either).

Apparently many religious people are convinced that there is a real entity known as the devil who is attempting to persuade them at every turn and they must be vigilant to avoid his enticements at all costs. And, as I am presumed to be one of the devils' followers, they feel more than justified telling me to get behind them, or censor me, at every opportunity. However, some have a more softened view towards others not of their faith tradition and they allow them to have their differing beliefs - and even maintain close relationships - even if they maintain their disagreement over their faith preferences.

This leads me to my question; is religion the source of such obstinate behavior in people and, if it is, does it deserve to be protected or, at the very least, derided and thrown down at every opportunity?

This is a difficult question. The first part is not that difficult. I don't think it is too big a stretch to say that religious teachings are, in fact, the source of the behavior that inclines people to censor, ignore, belittle or attack those who express beliefs that differ from their own. Of course, they feel justified in this behavior because they feel they are being attacked themselves. Which is interesting, because what religious people can't seem to grasp is that an attack on the merits of an ideology or philosophy or way of viewing the world is not an attack on them personally. However, they tend to take it very personally. It is like if I go around believing that it is OK to drink bleach, as long as I do so in very limited quantities, and someone comes along and says they have evidence that says that everyone who does drink bleach, even in limited quantities, ended up dying as a result of that behavior. If I didn't have a very good reason for drinking bleach in the first place, I might be inclined to listen and consider what they were saying. If it were possible that what I was doing was life threatening, I would think that I would even stop doing it until I could do further research into the merits of drinking versus not drinking bleach.

Of course, if my reason for drinking bleach were not that compelling (let's just say, I accidentally tasted some one time and later I felt better and I attributed feeling better to having tasted the bleach). The evidence for the effectiveness of drinking bleach on my overall health and well being is purely, and weakly, circumstantial. If I find much overwhelming evidence to indicate that drinking bleach is not a good idea at all, I would very likely cease the practice and abandon the idea.

But, here is where the question becomes more difficult; what is my response if a religious leader (who claimed to be acting and speaking under God's unquestionable authority at the time) says that God says I need to drink bleach, in very small quantities, at least once a week? Then what is my response, when someone says they don't think it is such a good idea? I tell them they don't have enough faith, that they are the devil sent to tempt me and that the authority figure I believe told me that evil designing persons would come to me and try to get me to question, or even abandon, my faith. In short, I am much less inclined to consider what that person is saying if I feel they are actively questioning, or attempting to dissuade me from, my closely held religious beliefs. Why is this? Why is it that one who claims, or is presumed, to have some authority (which person may actually be nuts, by the way), and happens to have some followers, is trusted above all others that happen to disagree with said leader? Why are we so gullible that way? Even when there is a very good mountain of evidence to disprove said beliefs?

So this leads to the next part of my question; should we actively fight against those who stand in support of religious institutions, even if maintaining that belief does not do bodily harm to those involved? If it can be shown that absolutely no harm is being done to individuals who maintain belief in some religion, then, sure, I think it is OK to leave them be and let them have their belief. However, I really don't think it is possible to have religion and NOT have some harm be done at some point. Now, it may not be bodily harm (not everybody gets slapped in the face like I was for expressing my contrarian views. I was slapped twice by women very close to me for daring to question the tenets of the LDS church), but it is most definitely psychological or emotional harm. Of course, since religious people have stopped reading my blog a long time ago I can outline here the emotional and psychological harm that I think was done to me as a result of believing and attempting to closely adhere to the LDS faith (the reason I preface this comment by saying that religious people have stopped reading my blog is because I worry that religious people will claim that I was damaged even before I believed, or that I am making it all up or some such nonsense).

I think I was harmed because I was taught to continually judge my behavior as being in line or not in line with the teachings of the church. Of course, judging my own behavior is fine if it could just stay there, but it did not. I followed the natural course of looking at others and the behaviors they engaged in. If I saw that they were not engaging in the same behavior I was taught to judge in myself as in line or not in line with the teachings of the church, I looked down on them. I may have felt pity for them or some level of remorse or sadness, but I did feel something. It is hard for believers, that I talk to anyway, to acknowledge that this does in fact happen, but I know it does, it can't help but not happen because we are human and must interact with others in the course of living out our lives. And, if you are absolutely convinced that you have the answers to how to live your life in happiness, you cannot help but see others, who do not live according to your same standard, as being deficient in some way. This deficiency in others is borne out in different ways by different people. I know I avoided approaching or talking to people who I perceived to have different standards than me. And I quickly learned that even people in my same faith sometimes engaged in behavior that was not in line with what I was taught. I felt really sorry for these people because they had the "truth" and still chose to ignore it to some degree. I was inclined to believe that they would suffer a punishment in the hereafter (or even to some extent in the here and now) that was greater than those who never had the truth to begin with. So, basically, my emotional and psychological abilities to interact with others in a genuine, and non judgmental way, was essentially stunted because of my religious upbringing.

If we consider all the affects of my judgmentalism towards others, the harm done to them increases. For example, what if I, as a believer, encounter that my child no longer believes as I do? While I will see them as less in my eyes (and may even decide to treat them differently because of this difference of beliefs) this will certainly have an affect on the child. They will be told repeatedly by me that they do not have the ability to make such a determination. However, if they get older and maintain their view, I may decide to attempt to make them feel guilty for their beliefs. If I see behavior that is not in line with my beliefs, I may decide to treat them differently than I would another child who believes...even though they may engage in the same behavior! I will tell the child that believes as I do that such behavior is not becoming a person who believes as we do, while I might tell the child that does not believe as I do that there is no hope for them.

Now, just imagine how the circumstances and impact can dramatically change if differences such as sexual preference and gender become the issue for the child. In the LDS church sexual preference is considered to be absolutely heterosexual, and God-given, and if you deviate from that in any of your behavior, you are sinning and are not worthy of God's blessings. Even though science has made a study of the question of innate homosexuality and determined that it is not able to be changed, just potentially ignored if the will of the person is strong enough. But this does not lead to happiness for the individual...it leads to pain and difficulty.

The other question is of gender. If I have a daughter who says that she doesn't think her goal should be to become a wife and mother (to as many children as she is financially or emotionally able to support), what should my response be? To most people, not of religious upbringing, the answer is pretty obvious, you should support her in her goals and dreams regardless of your disagreement with them. However, in the church, gender roles and identity are very inflexible. Men have the priesthood (and therefore the authority to preside and have the final say in making decisions) where the women in the church are taught, in no uncertain terms, to subjugate themselves to priesthood holders and recognize their authority. Women are taught that their worth is very closely tied to their chastity and obedience to priesthood leaders. So what kind of damage does this cause? I don't really know since I was always a male and got to be the one exercising authority over the females. But I have heard it is very difficult for some. Some women do not appreciate being placed in a box of expected behavior or sense of worth, from my understanding, and I believe them.

These things, I believe, cause emotional and psychological harm to others that are under the care of religious people and so I think the answer to the last part of my question is, yes, since religious belief does in fact cause emotional and psychological harm it should be brought down in its influence. This is the answer that some of us contrarians have arrived at and this is why we continue to make efforts to challenge religious people in their beliefs or engage in discourse. It is not, as the persecution complex laden religious would have you believe, a matter of those that leave the church not being able to leave it alone. It is because we see harm being done and we don't think it's right.

One thing I saw recently that I really like was a continuum for cults. It was a graphic as follows:
The LDS church falls about where the finger is pointing. This is why people want to challenge LDS in their beliefs...because they are not just weird and not at all harmful or dangerous, they are in the yellow zone where people are hurt and get damaged emotionally and psychologically. This is real harm that many find difficult to continue to support. Not only that, but they feel a real impact from the way they are treated by those within the church. We cannot ignore these feelings. We cannot just censor them. Their thoughts and feelings are real and someday those that promote such things will hopefully come to realize what affect their behavior truly has on others. I hope it comes soon.

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