Friday, 24 December 2010

Religious Crutch

Recently, I lamented the fact that I have not yet written about religion as a crutch, a device to prop up those who cannot face the world as it is. And look: the very next post is growing into just such a critique...

To be honest, I think the reason for my thinking I have already written about this is due to a conversation I had recently which reminded me of the crutchiness of religion, and set me thinking about a potential little post about it.

In that conversation someone said that their view of the religion's greatest importance is as system of ethics that makes everyone live a good life, and a life considerate of other people's well being. So far so good. I'm all for everyone sticking to a decent set of ethical rules. For what it's worth, I have a little set of my own, and I am sticking to it as much as I can. I think I even said as much on the occasion.

However, my interlocutor (ha! I never thought I'd get to use this word) continued to state that for such a system to work one also needed a god - presumably as a guardian of the rule book, and the final judge (and jury, and the one meting out punishment) of all those ethical decisions that are invisible to, or beyond the reach of the earthly legal systems.

Now, I must say that I was a bit taken aback by this statement, not least because my interlocutor (ha! ha! twice in one day) struck me as an intelligent and well educated person. I would have thought that such a person would easily see that for this particular theory Occam's razor very neatly cuts out any divine requirements. How so? Simple, if one truly believes that one's rules of ethics are good, one does not need anyone else to make them abide by them. This also extends to any "punishment". Is there any worse punishment imaginable than an unclear conscience? I don't think there is, and I don't think the threat of eternal hell and damnation would make anyone any more (or less) likely to stick to the rules - any rules. Do also note that in cases where people do not suffer from unclear conscience, this is never due to lack of the fear of good. Rather, it is every single time a lack in having a good set of ethical rules, i.e. in that person's view no transgression was committed in the first place.

So, why then some people insist on having to have a deity as the "guardian" of good behaviour? My answer to this is - and with all due respect to my interlocutor (ha! ha! ha! third time lucky!): path of least resistance, taking the easy way out. Because, if you posit a deity that rules, judges, and punishes (OK, and rewards) you have relieved yourself of a great deal of responsibility in keeping yourself on the straight and narrow. Yes, you still do your best to live by a set of, most likely good, ethical rules, but it is no longer you who has the burden of policing, overseeing, and judging your own behaviour. Probably equally importantly, you have totally relieved yourself of the task of reviewing your set of rules, and making sure they continue to be good, relevant, and consistent. A religion conveniently provides you with a ready made set which you take as granted, and at face value. Not unlike ready-made soup. Only you can throw away the soup if you don't like it and not risk being dipped into boiling oil next time you visit the supermarket.

So, both a crutch and a cop-out, really...

Oh, and don't think that the crutchiness of religion stops with the system of ethics. Probably much more importantly, religion helps people not bother their minds with a whole host of difficult philosophical and scientific issues. Once you believe in the explanations that a religion gives you you no longer have to grapple with the fact that once you die you just simply cease to exist. Instead, you are handed nice little crutches in form of heaven, hell, reincarnation, or any other set of life-after-death delusions. On the opposite side of that spectrum, once you declare yourself a believer, you no longer have to worry about life and universe just popping into existence by a long, and complicated, set of steps some of which are still unknown, but importantly, not unknowable. Instead, you can lull yourself to sleep every night knowing that some deity somewhere snapped their fingers (or performed a little more exciting act) and lo and behold life, universe, and everything was there. Do not try and console yourself that some religions these days accept scientific theories like evolution, relativity, quantum mechanics, and suchlike. They all still rely on some god or the other flipping the initial switch into ON position, and giving everything a premeditated and more or less targeted nudge. The list goes on and on, but I think I have mentioned the three most important, and most discussed topics: life, death, and taxes... sorry, not taxes: ethics.

Finally, refusing - renouncing, even - religious crutches may make you stumble a bit at first. It may even make your head spin - and hurt - every now and then. But ultimately, you will be set free, and every step you take will be yours alone. Yes, it also means that you will be the only one responsible for your life and its consequences. But surely that's a reward in itself, and the best one you can ever hope to win.

OK. Not quite finally. Yet...

Shortly after I finished the previous paragraph but one, this came out from the pen of the brilliant Randall Munroe. It fits so perfectly into my world view (as do many other doodles of his), and more importantly this particular post that I just have to share it here. Luckily, Randall is also possessed of the magnanimity to allow others to re-use his work under Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.5 License. So, finally (this time for real), after this long introduction to someone who shouldn't need any introductions, here's the comic. Bitches!

Oh, and finally (yes, yes, I know...): Randall, all the very best and our hearts are with you, all the way.

Is it significant I am posting this on Christmas Eve? To me, no. I actually wasn't aware I was doing it (I prepared the post a few days ago, and set a "random" official publishing date). To you? Your choice, but I'd advise against reading too much into it...