There seems to be a divide among skeptics and atheists today as to what should be done with regards to less radical religionists. After all, it would be unfair and inaccurate to say that all Christians are fundies and that all Muslims are terrorists. The recent bombing and shooting in Norway has been a sobering reminder to all of us that there are crazies everywhere, even if they aren't as hyped by the media or vocal as Al Qaeda. Some have stated that the responsibility for religious radicalism falls on these radical individuals alone, not on the moderates. There are a good number of atheists and skeptics who believe that we should respect religion, as long as the believers aren't blowing anybody up. I used to feel this way as well.
My mind has recently been changed.
Most of my recent blog entries have been related to each other in a way. They have addressed the danger of allowing oneself to be manupulated by other people, whether we're talking about Christian politicians with weasel words or theologians twisting their snakeoil sermons to sound convincing. These people have real, undeniable power over their followers. The problem is that not a scrap of that power is legitimate. Spiritual leaders give council on many topics, ranging from how to structure your family, to whether or not abortion is ethical, to whether or not evolution is true, the list goes on. I can assure you that most of these people are not qualified to speak authortatively on any of these subjects. It is doubtful that a person whose highest degree was from a theological seminary would be able to give ANY technical information on an embryo, forget whether or not an embryo is a person. I am highly skeptical of any celibate person who thinks he or she can give ANY good advice on marriage, sex, children or family. This isn't to say that religious leaders are stupid. Certainly, this isn't the case. The point I'm trying to make here is that there is a lot of garbage that comes flying at us from the pulpit. I have Christian friends who truly believe that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John because that's what they learned in Church. A good Jewish friend of mine only recently learned about the documentary hypothesis and was disappointed that the rabbis at the elite jewish high school he went to taught him that the Torah was written by Moses. These facts are not just false, they are embarrassingly so, as their falsehood has been known for centuries. Yet we believe them.
One might ask "how could my spiritual leader be wrong? /why would he lie to me?" The answer is simple.
Because we ask them to.
As long as there are people demanding simple answers, others will step forward to give them. We want to hear that someone cares about us, we want to know that we'll see our deceased loved ones again, we want to know that those who do wrong will ultimately be brought to justice. So people tell us that. Religious leaders fill us with all the mental candy we could ever ask for at the price of our intellectual freedom. They would have no authority if we chose not to recognize it.
Yet, as a society, the illegitimate authority of religion is one that we tend to question the least. We show deference to priests and rabbis, even if we aren't of their persuasion, without a thought about what kind of person they might be. We assume that a minister is a good and/or person simply by virtue of his position. We see faith as a good thing, a virtue to be striven for. "He is a man of faith!" is a compliment that many pride themselves on.
In the midst of all this pride, we forget that the hijackers on 9/11 had more faith than any of us. I have yet to find someone who would label them virtuous. We continuously hear stories of priests (not just Catholic ones, mind you) who choose to take advantage of their positions and abuse women and children trusted to their care.
Am I insinuating that these extreme cases speak for all believers? Of course not. But we cannot deny the fact that one of the major reasons why these pedophiles have access to children and why extremist leaders have access to moldable minds is because we are taught to trust them implicitly. As long as moderates and ordinary people continue to go to church, give money and seek advice from such people, those people will continue to have authority. Authority, I'm sorry to say, that is all to often abused.
I think one of the biggest mistakes people make is in thinking "my people would never do that". The other night, I was explaining Scientology to my mom and in the middle of the Xenu story, her eyes got wide and she exclaimed "people actually believe that??" The irony, of course, is that she's a Christian who honestly believes that a person rose from the dead. Ressurection is just a ridiculous as an evil space lord. I'd say it's more ridiculous. At least we know that other planets exist. We can't even say that much about heaven or souls. It should be also noted that my parents are not fundamentalists. My dad reads Carl Sagan and laughs at the idea of ghosts, ESP and other supernatural claims. Yet religion doesn't get this kind of scrutiny. It's treated as a sacred cow, something "special" that doesn't belong in the same catagory as crop circles. This is precisely where the false authority comes from.
This is why I simply cannot see "moderate" religion as harmless.
If you are an atheist or skeptic who cares about truth, I do not recommend shying away from any bogus religious claim, no matter how harmless it seems. As truth seekers, it is unethical for us to encourage or legitimize falsehood. If you are a moderate religionist, I urge you to ask yourself why you believe what you do. I can assure you that no one needs to be religious in order to be happy, healthy or moral. Even if you only practice out of habit or tradition, ask yourself what the cost of this is. You may be wasting your one, precious life and reliquishing your one precious mind in exchange for comfort. Wouldn't that be a shame?