I sent my last missive – Why Do I Care About Other’s Religions – to my email list and got this thoughtful message in response:
You raise many good points. In our age of better communication and open exchange of ideas, this list is a very good example of this, why or how does religion persist? I ask not to bait you into an argument, but am curious about your thoughts on why people still believe in the face some of the points you raised. And on a similar note I am happy to say I have an atheist friend, you. I think the wide range of opinions on this list gives us all a more balanced view on life.
This is a very interesting question: In this age of enlightenment why is religion still around?
I’ll start off by suggesting that we are not currently in an age of enlightenment. I personally feel we are heading down the slope into another dark ages. The religious right has become very vocal again (remember the Moral Majority in the late 70s?)
Science is looked upon as something bad or evil (the stem cell research issues, global climate change nay-sayers, the movie Expelled – which is full of lies – and Ben Stein’s subsequent statement that science leads to killing people.)
Republicans are practically required to kowtow to religious leaders and are proud that they are ignorant about science and knowledge.
In a hearing about Abstinence Only Education, Representative John Duncan (R-TN) said “It seems rather elitist to me for people who maybe have degrees in this field to feel that because they’ve studied it somehow they know better than the parents what is best for [their children].” (If this doesn’t flabbergast you, you need your flabbergaster reset. And this man is a politician who is creating laws for our country.)
There are a few bright spots. The latest Pew Forum Religious Survey shows that the number of atheists and non-affiliated people is increasing. There are many very prominent and vocal atheist and scientific blogs on the internet. And I have a lot of friends that are either atheists or non-religious.
And yet religion still persists. Why?
Here are my theories:
Religions raise a lot of money through tithing, donations and direct solicitation. They are also exempt from many taxes (property taxes, income taxes, etc.) thus placing a further burden on the rest of the public who has to pay higher taxes to cover the lack of income from religious properties.
Sure, many religions use some of this money for good purposes: charities, feeding the poor and homeless, etc. But you can do all of these things without the religious component. There are quite a quite a few non-profits that do good work and are not attached to a religion.
What I’m really talking about is all the money the churches bring in and don’t use for good works. And it’s not just the TV preachers – mainstream religion does it too (and has for hundreds of years.) The Vatican has an extensive collection of priceless artwork, gold and antiques.
The TV preachers really rake in the cash too. They buy jets, cars and mansions, build theme parks and museums that are purportedly about science but are filled with lies. Here is an interesting list of some of the new-wave of TV preachers.
Look at all the new Mega Churches being built. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go?
Money and Power just go together, don’t they? Religious leaders have the ear of the President, many congresscritters, members of the house and leaders of other nations. They get direct access to these people and have much influence. They have entire congregations who will go out and do their bidding.
Look at the Pope. Think about how much power he wields in much of the world. He was just here on a visit and got direct access to the President. He directly influences issues related to birth control, abortion, science and many others.
Billy Graham has had a personal audience with every sitting United States President since Harry Truman.
Many (most) religions are all about controlling and oppressing a specific group of people – mainly women. Look at Islam. Hell, look at Catholicism. They (and many other religions) are very concerned with what women do: Who they sleep with, who they marry, how they dress, whether they use birth control, whether they get an abortion, etc.
You don’t believe me? Why is the woman always the adulterer? It’s okay for a man to sleep around and have sex before marriage (heck, it’s almost expected), but it makes the woman tainted, impure, unclean.
Why is the Islamic woman who gets raped the one who is at fault and often punished? Islamic fathers kill their daughters for not wearing the right clothes. And honor killings (warning, very graphic) are still an Islamic practice. As is female genital mutilation in African nations.
Female Priests? A relatively new phenomenon. A lot of religion is about men controlling women.
Religions certainly don’t want to give up all this power, so it’s in their best interests to keep people in the flocks.
Power also corrupts.
Religion runs strong in most cultures. And when you are steeped in a religious culture from birth onward it’s hard to question your beliefs and break the cycle.
Religion is such a part of the US culture that starting in 1864 “In God We Trust” was placed on our money and in 1956 (during the Red Scare) Congress made it the official motto of the United States. The words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954.
So much for the Constitutional separation of church and state.
Parents who are religious start the indoctrination process as soon as the children are old enough to attend Sunday School (or earlier). And if you think indoctrination is too strong a term then you should watch the movie Jesus Camp, this YouTube video of a young kid preaching, or attend a Southern Baptist church.
Another part of the culture piece is peer pressure. If all your friends go to church and you don’t, they aren’t likely to remain your friends very long. And if they are evangelists then they will pressure you pretty hard to join up.
If you want to see examples of a culture fully steeped in a religion look at Iran and Iraq. They have a state religion and it is such a part of their culture that they are governed under Sharia law – which is the religious law of Islam.
The Need to Believe
This is one that I have a hard time defining, as I have never felt a need to believe that there is a “higher power”.
I think some people believe because their lives are so shitty that they really want there to be a heaven. And the preacher man tells them what they have to do to get there.
Me, I’m pretty sure this is the only life I’m going to get (there being no evidence to the contrary) and thus I’m not going to waste any time worrying about what some invisible sky faerie thinks about what I do or don’t do.
Critical Thinking is the only way to throw off the yoke of religion. Yet most students don’t learn good critical thinking skills until college (which I suspect is one reason so many college students drop their religion – and why many religions build their own colleges to counteract this issue.)
Sadly, the high school graduation rate is only around 75% and declining. And it’s 65% for blacks and Hispanics. These people usually don’t learn critical thinking and usually don’t go on to college.
The religions who believe in Creationism are actively attacking critical thinking in the public sphere by willfully obfuscating the scientific definition of a theory. Their argument is that since it is only a theory (i.e. a guess), it has no basis in truth and no facts to support it. But that’s not the way that scientific theories work.
A recent survey shows that 1 out of 8 high school science teachers are young earth creationists and teach about it in the classroom.
I believe that early education in critical thinking is the solution to this issue. Critical thinkers don’t believe things “on faith”, or just because someone in authority tells them it’s true. They look for the evidence.
And frankly, there is no evidence for the existence of any god.