Watching Hamas and the IDF go at it in the land that is called “holy” by both sides, but would more aptly be called The Bloody Land, has a tedious historical pathology. One must wonder that, if the combatants were called the Canaanites, Hebrews, Hyksos, Hittites, Egyptians, and Philistines, or any other of the numerous peoples and cultures who have slaughtered one another over their different deities and their divinely underwritten benefices of chunks of saturated soil, the reports of cruelty, carnage, and intolerance would sound any different. As usual, the great books of the so-called great faiths foretell, it is the innocents who are get ground up between the shalom and salaam.
Nearby, in lands that have been called the “cradle of civilization” Muslin sects, when not busied committing atrocities on one another over centuries old internecine disputes, search out Christian “infidels” for mass murder, rape and enslavement.
Is there any greater source of hatred, intolerance, racism, inhumanity and bellicosity that religion? It’s a rhetorical question, but since there is a good statistical chance the reader is religious, or a member of a religion, I feel obliged to present my case.
Religion as Indoctrination
I myself come from the inside but, like most, not by choice. For me, it was not just the Catechism, but the almost impregnable enclosure of Roman Catholic upbringing that insidiously created accepted “truths” out of what were little more that myth, mystery, superstition and biblical stories. There were prayers throughout the day, feast days throughout the year, rhythms such as meatless Fridays, confession on Saturdays, and communion on Sundays, that governed the week. One grew up in a bubble of faith that was inhaled with the very air, sometimes laden with holy incense, we breathed. But mostly the was the ever present sense that there were forces of good and evil in contention for one’s immortal soul and that there was some calculus of “state of grace” of one’s soul that determined your prospects for spending eternity looking into the loving face of God. We questioned neither the veracity of the dogma we were taught, nor the authority that promulgated it. Unquestioning submission itself was part of the belief system itself; that the clergy and nuns were “ordained” intermediaries between our physical and metaphysical lives with a level of piety that conferred upon them unimpeachable respect. I was indoctrinated.
Religion as Terror
Religion is born in fear—fear what we don’t know, especially what we can’t understand. That’s what got religion started in the first place. That’s why we worship and pray, make sacrifices, prostrate ourselves before altars and statuary that represent . . . what? Something that terrifies us. So we create fables, or confabulate historical incidents into miracles and parables, because we need to connect our lives to something. So humans have substituted superstition for knowledge, superstitions that perpetuate the terror we feel with great battles between good and evil with demons and with the threat of eternal punishment.
So we create myths with bibles and torahs and qurans and ridiculous books about “end times” and the “rapture,” and then we grow afraid that if we are not acceptable to the narratives that they present about the very purposes of our existence. We will not be “saved,” we face oblivion.
Priests, rabbis, mullahs, and pastors and others who obtain their authority over us from these myths, who presume to assuage the fear of the unknown with the fear of being excommunicated from organizations—religions—that are built of the hubris of alleging that they know the unknown, and speak for unknowable deities.
Religion as Power
Religions must have some grounded, territorial dominion. So the first step is to sanctify place, often by blood sacrifice. The hallowed land must be defended at all costs, kept pure by the expulsion or extermination of interlopers, insurgents and infidels, whatever it takes to assert the myth that it has been divinely bestowed upon one faith, by crusade, jihad, or walls and settlements. Territory is power, resources, protection, space to breed and nurture the legions of the faith, and prerequisite for the deadly fusion of faith and nationalism. And so, the holy cities, sites, the Meccas, Jerusalems, the churches, synagogues, mosques, the shrines of the saints or the Buddha, the axis mundi.
Religion as Mental Illness
This is bound to piss off a few people, so I will offer it more as a hypothesis than an out and out assertion. But it has to be considered. Even though we are a couple of centuries into the scientific revolution in which we ostensibly demand the necessity of some sort of sensate, empirical, testable, logical evidence of what we call “knowledge” we still most of the people on this earth who be believe in beings they have not the slightest proof of existence. Not only could they not produce any such evidence if their life depended on it, but they will not only bet their lives on such beliefs, but they will take the lives of others who believe differently, or not at all.
We think nothing of watching someone pray publicly to one of these imagined beings, but are ready to call the authorities on someone who we call psychotic for doing essentially the same thing. And mostly the so-called psychotic is at least not under the delusion that whatever he or she is communicating with to come to earth, raise up all the faithful dead and take them, up on some cloud.
Help me out here—who is fucking crazy?
Of course the answer lies in that part of this essay that deals with religion as power. The faith in power gets to define what is piety and what is insanity, gets to designate who is “possessed” by demons and needs to be tortured or put to the stake, and those who get the special garments and privileges for being possessed by the deity de jour. All those saints who earned canonization by rushing into martyrdom were, of course, not committing suicide, holing up in a monastic cell is not catatonia, imagining that some god or prophet is demanding that you slaughter infidels or heretical sects is not being a homicidal maniac.
Lately, there have been some hypotheses that the human impulse toward religiosity might actually be genetic. I would argue that the greater likelihood is that our human propensity to fear the unknown, our knowledge of our mortality, and our distinctly human capacity for imagination, incline us to that palliative self-delusion we call religion. Unfortunately, That impulse is not confined to spirituality and metaphysics, but conjoins with the basest and most ignoble of human instincts and behaviors. Unfortunately, there is nothing more human than being inhumane in the name of God.
© 2014, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 8.24.2014)