This is the third in an occasional series of posts asking sometimes awkward questions. Some topics are trivial, some serious, and others vital. I’d love for you to join in any ensuing debate using the comments at the foot of the post. Enjoy!
Why Are We Required to Respect Religion?
This question has been at the back of my mind for many years, but came to the fore a while back when I was reviewing a book: ‘The First Muslim’ subtitled ‘The Story of Muhammad’. In attempting to find a way of expressing my reaction to truths learned in those pages, it became clear that my very thoughts on the topic were deeply constrained by a rational fear of possible retribution from religious extremists.
So, what is it about religion that provides it with special protection almost worldwide? What quality does this strange phenomenon possess that gives it immunity from criticism and mockery?
Let’s look at what religion actually is. The SOED defines religion thus: ‘Belief in or sensing of some superhuman power or powers, entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship, or in a system defining a code of living, especially as a means to achieve spiritual or material improvement; acceptance of such belief (especially as represented by an organised Church) as a standard of spiritual and practical life; the expression of this in worship, etc.’
So, we all probably know what’s generally meant by the term, religion. Of course it takes many different forms. We’d need an entire book just to list the names of the millions of gods that have appeared throughout humanity. Most religions appear to be exclusive and isolationist: i.e. their adherents reject the dogma, rites, rituals, beliefs and specific rules of all other religions. Though there is some overlap, of course.
But my question is aimed at understanding what special quality excludes religion from the normal rules of discussion. Those of us who live in democratic and free societies are willing, able, and often vocal in criticising, mocking, and questioning authorities in political, historical, social, economic, judicial, and most other matters. But we mock, question and debate religion at our peril. Why? How has religion achieved this privileged position?
Perhaps we should examine some fundamentals, look at what religion entails?
As defined, religion involves belief in a supernatural being or power. This entity, often referred to as either a specific deity or simply as ‘God’, is the subject of awe, respect, and reverence. Often, it is also a source of fear, and requires followers to subject themselves to certain sacrifices, to proclaim it the one true deity and to worship it in ways not unlike a needy child crying for confirmation of his/her worth. But, universally, each deity demands that followers declare a belief in it, a belief generally based on nothing more substantial than selected words written by adherents.
However, the existence, or absence of any god isn’t the real issue, since we’re unlikely ever to know for certain whether such a force exists. If it does, it must, of necessity, be so far beyond our understanding as to be incomprehensible and therefore unrecognisable.
The real issue is religion and its often divisive insistence on forming various tribes, clubs, sects, churches, cults or whatever else we call them. Such tribes require membership. That membership is frequently exclusive and often leads to tribal warfare.
The drive to increase membership leads to forms of recruitment other organisations are denied because of the subversive and duplicitous nature of such techniques. The offspring of many cults are cynically brainwashed from birth to accept the dogma of their religion as the only truth. Such indoctrination denies innocent children any opportunity to think for themselves. It instils a way of thinking designed to exclude serious questioning of the beliefs taught. A god demanding that it be followed by such zombie-like disciples, clearly has no confidence in its own being or the message it purveys to followers.
The very language we use daily is peppered with words stemming from belief systems, words that subtly reinforce the messages fed to believers in their early years. It is difficult, almost to the point of impossibility, for conscripts to shed this early indoctrination and reach the point where they dare question what they’ve been forced to believe. If that step isn’t taken, free thought disappears altogether. Such brainwashed individuals spend their lives never knowing they are subject to indoctrination and assuming they lead ordinary lives.
Any other type of organisation using such methods would be declared illegal and banned from the public arena.
Religion predisposes people to accept lies as truths; it also predisposes people to superstition; a harmful and negative fiction that denies reality.
Ancient religions (Greek, Roman, Norse, and many others) are now widely accepted as myth and legend. Currently, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are taught as repositories of truth. History provides evidence of the myths and legends that created these Abrahamic religions, so why are the historical facts not taught in all schools to balance the education children receive?
Religion is faith-based. It relies on adherents to accept its teachings without proof. In fact, most religions require belief in the face of considerable evidence contradicting those beliefs, and encourage those who show faith by rewarding them in various ways. There is at least as much evidence for the existence of fairies, a theory that Earth is flat, and an idea that the Moon is composed of green cheese, as there is for most religions. Yet religions are respected where these other fatuous beliefs are rightly mocked, denigrated and dismissed as utter piffle by all rational folk.
What this means, in real terms, is that religion is respected for the lies it perpetrates. We all know what we think of lying politicians, lying journalists, lying industrialists and bankers. But lying clerics are, apparently, immune from such rational considerations. We mustn’t mock belief in any of these millions of gods. Why? Well, because they represent people’s faith. So, even though faith is based on lies, myths, legends, the words of ancient men attempting to explain natural events inexplicable at the time, and the inventive fictions of their creators, we are required to respect it. In enforcing that respect we remove the opportunity to thoroughly examine the phenomenon, to open it up for true debate. It is given a built-in protection it manifestly fails to deserve.
There are states where the rule of law, and even governments, are founded on religion. In many of these states it is illegal to question the ruling religion. This makes such governments both despotic and subject to the whims of the ruling elite who manipulate their interpretation of so-called sacred scriptures that dictate how their subjects are required to live their lives. In some countries, any disagreement with that very human interpretation is considered blasphemy and is punished by death. Why should we be required to respect such blatant dictatorship?
Many countries, the UK among them, have rules in place to prevent effective criticism of religious beliefs. No such protection applies to secular opinion and philosophies. This is clearly unjust and anti-democratic.
There are a great many religious adherents who are good people. There is an argument that such goodness stems from religion. However, there is a counter argument, backed up by evidence, which shows that human beings are capable of goodness without having to endure the indoctrination of religious dogma. Some of the most hypocritical and unpleasant people I’ve encountered have been pious attendants of various religious establishments and some of the most admirable, truthful, generous and good people I’ve had the privilege of meeting have been spared the indoctrination of any religious belief.
This is a topic that could fill a large volume and I’ve barely skimmed the surface here. But this post is intended to stimulate debate and to find answers to the initial question. So, I repeat that here in the hope that someone can resolve this issue: Why are we required to respect religion? I open the floor to you. Please feel free to express your opinions in the comments section below.