As regulars know, I'm not big on religion.
Being a former Navy officer, I tend to avoid religious discussions if at all possible. Basic wardroom etiquette dictates no discussion of the job, politics, and religion at the dinner table. Now obviously I've completely disregarded the first two topics here at Stonekettle Station, but I try to avoid discussing religion as much as possible for a couple of reasons. One, I have little interest in attracting the pro-religion folks or the anti-religion folks and the ensuing pitched crap-flinging in the comments section that most posts of that nature generate. And two, because I know that a number of readers are deeply religious and I have no desire whatsoever to give unnecessary offense. As long as religious people respect my lack of faith, I'll respect their beliefs and I try to avoid deliberate attacks on anybody's belief system.
I don't have anything in particular against religious people, providing that they don't try to impose their beliefs on me or mine and providing that those belief systems respect others and do no particular harm to society at large. Particular harm being defined according to the following ideal: I believe in freedom of religion, but I also believe strongly in freedom from religion. I also believe that when your religion impacts me or mine - and by extension my nation's security and well being - you've made your beliefs my business. Example, I consider Alzheimer's Disease horrifying. Others have a mortal fear of heights, snakes, or death. Not me. But I fear disintegration of my mind, I do. If stem cell research will lead to a cure or prevention, then I want all I can get. If fetuses are to die, naturally or otherwise, and the parents are willing to donate their bodies to science, then I don't see where your religion has a right to say a damned thing about it and I don't see this as any different from donating your dead child's heart or liver to save another. If a cure is found, and your religion doesn't hold with it - then don't take it, don't donate your child's life to it, but don't tell me I have to spend the last years of my life as a mindless drooling zombie for your God. If he doesn't want me to fight, he shouldn't have created Alzheimer's in the first damned place.
I think it can be demonstrated that religion has done a hell of a lot of good in the world. I think it can be demonstrated that religion has done a hell of a lot of evil in the world as well. Whether religion has produced more good or more evil depends very much on your perspective - and your religion.
I think that religion and faith fill a basic deep-seated need for many people. I think that religion gives the devout strength in a frightening world, makes them part of something larger than themselves, and gives them comfort in the cold and lonely night. Many people do not look upon the unknown with awe or wonder or a burning desire to go find out what's over the next hill. For many people, the universe is a vast and terrifying place. These people need structure, guidance, answers- and religion provides that. Understand, I'm not saying that there's anything wrong, or weak minded, or defective about this, only that some people (a majority maybe) seem to be wired this way - whether by design or by selection of survival characteristics through evolution.
For others, such as myself, the universe is a puzzle. A place of mysteries to be solved, strange folk yet to be met, things to be learned, questions to be asked and asked yet again, and a place without boundary or limit. The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine - and we like it that way.
But, we all want answers, and for some, religion provides those answers. For others religion simply does not.
For many people the world is like the lost generation ship Vanguard in Robert Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky. Set in motion long ago by powerful and unknowable forces, sharply defined, with given rules and dangers, there's a fixed beginning and a fixed end as foretold. But for others, well, we're the ones looking in amazement at the stars outside the windows of the Captain's Veranda and realizing that the universe is far vaster than we were led to believe. Others look out those same windows and see only points of light.
Where I think religion too often jumps the shark is when instead of providing answers and a source of comfort, it becomes a straightjacket. Despite protestations to the divine contrary, religion is ultimately a human endeavor - and like all things human it is prone to corruption and abuse. And far too often religions become little more than a source of control and power for a select few human beings over many, and this is true of tiny cults such as the Westboro Baptist Church all the way up to ancient religions with millions of adherents such as Islam or the Catholic Church. Large organizations are inherently conservative, this is nearly inevitable given time and human nature, and religion is often the most conservative of human social constructs. Religion is often about providing definitive answers regarding fundamental questions such as where do we come from, what is our purpose, where are we going. As such, religion is often about maintaining the status quo. Anything that questions those answers is very, very often seen as a threat to the religion's power and status and control, and while the average adherent may not perceive it that way, those in the pulpit most certainly do.
Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Power often blinds those in power, deliberately so in many cases. And power is too often an end in and of itself, instead of a means to an end. Those in power tend to want to stay in power, and when power is vested in something as fundamental as how people perceive the world, the tendency to see anything that challenges that perception as a threat is all to common.
A priest at St. Mary's Catholic Church in downtown Greenville [South Carolina] has told parishioners that those who voted for Barack Obama placed themselves under divine judgment because of his stance on abortion and should not receive Holy Communion until they've done penance.
The priest, Rev Jay Scott Newman speaking to the The Greenville News last week, said that according to Catholic Church doctrine he cannot refuse Holy Communion to anyone based on their political choices. However, in a letter posted on St. Mary's website, Newman wrote that "voting for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exists constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil." While I support the Reverend Newman's, and by extension the Catholic Church's, right to freedom of speech, belief and expression, I have a major issue with essentially telling Catholics that they have political free will, but if they vote democrat their souls will be damned to hell for all eternity - unless they do penance and thereby give up their inalienable American right to privacy by confessing their choice of candidate to the priest. I don't believe in the soul, but a heck of a lot of people do - and the threat is a very, very real one to them. I also have a major problem with the Catholic Church calling the President Elect of the United States "intrinsically evil." And it is the Church, not just one bullheaded priest - because the Vatican has yet to refute Newman's declaration. This is unacceptable. It is unacceptable because it comes right down to a foreign religious power telling people how to vote in an American election - and if they don't vote the way the Church wants, there will be severe consequences for them personally, forever. This is no different than a traffic cop telling a driver he can refuse to take the breath-O-lizer. The driver could, technically, but there will be very, very unpleasant consequences as a result. The implied threat is this, if you know what's good for you, you'll do as I say. Or else. Free will is an illusion in both cases.
Additionally, I find it a particular hypocrisy that Newman does not acknowledge conservative support for torture, rendition, extraordinary means, war and etcetera - or liberal support for feeding the hungry, clothing the destitute, healing the sick and etcetera - which is an intrinsic element of the Christian faith and which the Catholic Church itself acknowledged in its own Faithful Citizenship document last year. Newman appears to be a single issue priest - and this more than anything indicates that his goal is power and the status quo - and the maintaining and preservation of the same. This is a dangerous precedent, and one very much at odds with concept of separation of church and state.
The Rt Rev Patrick O'Donoghue, the Bishop of Lancaster [UK], has claimed that graduates are spreading scepticism and sowing dissent. Instead of following the Church's teaching they are "hedonistic", "selfish" and "egocentric", he said.
Well, I won't argue the hedonistic, selfish, or egocentric part of that statement, but I would point out that these traits are not in any way confined to only the educated. In fact, if Church history is any indicator, the traits of hedonism, selfishness, and egocentricity are very much part of those educated strictly within the Catholic belief system. I don't want this post to run off into a bash-fest of the Church and pedophile priests and the abuses of the clergy, but those things go a long, long way towards kicking the foundation right out from under the Bishop's statement. Mainstream education or religious (of any kind) education seem to have very little to do with selfishness, hedonism, or ego.
Overall, the gist of Reverend O'Donoghue's message is "the development of mass education on a scale unprecedented in human history - resulting in economic growth, scientific and technological advances, and the cultural and social enrichment of billions of people's lives. However, every human endeavor has a dark side, due to original sin and concupiscence [strong sexual desire]. In the case of education, we can see its distortion through the widespread dissemination of radical skepticism, positivism, utilitarianism and relativism. Taken together, these intellectual trends have resulted in a fragmented society that marginalizes God, with many people mistakenly thinking they can live happy and productive lives without him."
In other words: secular education is evil.
But the simple truth of the matter is that many people do live happy and productive lives without God or the trapping of religion - and this bothers the good bishop to no end.
And education does lead to tough, tough questions regarding the fundamental articles of faith: where do we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? Questions the Church is increasingly ill prepared to answer. Science and education are increasingly at odds with the traditional religious answers in ways that simply cannot be denied for a large number of faithful. Increasingly, many that have a deep seated need to know are finding that the church simply can't provide satisfying answers in this age of knowledge. And so they are leaving.
The church has two options, adapt or die.
In other words, it must evolve.
And so must all religions. People and societies change. Specialization leads to stagnation. Stagnation leads to death and extinction. Far from rejecting education, the church should embrace it and push the limits of knowledge.
People will find a way to fulfil their fundamental needs and find answers to fundamental questions - and if the church can't, or won't, provide those things, then it really serves no purpose.