Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Enemy Within

Burnsville, Minnesota

Sunday, August 22, 2010

As the Westboro Baptist Church would say, Welcome, depraved sons and daughters of Adam! In the news recently has been the controversy over the construction of an Islamic center near the former site of the World Trade Towers in New York City. Good old fashioned picketing and demonstrating, in what passes for a political issue in the post-intellectual, religion-obsessed 21st century. On one side are believers in the myth that all religions are entitled to respect in this country, and on the other side are believers in the myth that Ground Zero is a sacred shrine to the onslaught of Islamic extremism against innocent Judeo-Christian America. Both groups are of course wildly deluded. If these people were arguing the relative merits of syphilis and AIDS they couldn't be more off base, but at least then we would all understand how wrong they are.

The problem of course is that no one recognizes what an incurably evil presence ALL organized religion is in the world today. We shouldn't be promoting religion, or even tolerating it. We should be working to eradicate it! A pox on all houses, I say.

I just finished reading a biography of George Washington. In it the authors discuss the attitude of our first president (and of most of the founding fathers) toward religion. What led to the strong feelings of these men in favor of the freedom and equality of religion was their conviction that religion of any stripe had the virtue of assisting the government in maintaining moral order for the good of an essentially secular society. In the words of Washington himself, a nonreligious man of vaguely deist convictions, "I care not if men are Mahometans, Jews, or Christians of any sect, or Atheists." He believed that mere tolerance was not enough, since tolerance implied "the indulgence of one class of people" in permitting others to practice what that class in fact had no right to abridge, or even to pass judgment on, in the first place.

But what happens when religions do not benignly promote moral order for the good of all? What happens when religions teach things that are anti-democratic and basically intolerant? The truth that no one wants to admit is that all religions, in claiming to reveal rules and creeds handed down by the Master of the Universe, teach something that is fundamentally antithetical to the principles of a free, majoritarian society. In a nutshell, how can you fall prostrate at the feet of an absolute monarch of the heavens and earth on Sunday and reject dictatorship the other six days of the week? Even the imagery of religion--king, ruler, lord, master, father--militates uncompromisingly against free thought and mature action.

What Washington and his contemporaries didn't fully grasp at the time (although they certainly should have, given the history of Europe which they all knew well) was the infinite capacity of religion to do evil in its own name and in the name of God, and to undermine the republic they had devised. Maybe they were cockeyed optimists, or maybe the penny-ante religions of North America just hadn't fucked with them as much as the Pope and the Church of England had. What they were perhaps attempting to do by treating all religions equally in a hands-off way was to thumb their noses at the religions that presumed they were better than the others (all of them, in other words), and to neutralize the potential for any single religion to work its will on American society in anything but the most harmless and platitudinous way. If so, the 21st century would have scared the shit out of them and probably caused them to rethink the First Amendment.

Most people forgive religions for the excesses of their most radical adherents by blaming individuals, rather than the creeds themselves, for the damage they do. But a religion is only as good as its worst and most reckless adherents. Most were founded by reckless and intolerant people. One of the pernicious things about all religions is that they have the inherent tendency to adopt the conviction that they are paths to truth, rather than paths to self-perpetuation through mumbo jumbo, bullshit, and the collection plate. The more intolerant religions believe they are the ONLY path to truth, and the more liberal believe they are one of several, or perhaps many, paths to truth. Either way, religions all commit the same absurd error, namely, thinking that they know anything at all about the cosmos outside or beyond the narrow, palpable confines of mother earth. William James, Alfred Adler, and others who studied the positive aspects of religions believed that they are useful to help us achieve balance and strive for goodness. Some people believe religion exists as a manifestation of the inherent human quest to know the unknowable. Others, no more or less off-base, believe the gods are aliens from other planets. Most people can't be satisfied that the unknowable is indeed just that, so they use religion to help them arrive at empirical conclusions about things that simply cannot be ascertained. Then they systematically view all other ideas in the light of their religion, including or excluding them on that basis. All that would be bad enough if religions existed solely on the high plane of intellectual inquiry. But most people are, alas, not too bright. One of the most difficult realities to face in this vale of tears is that an IQ of 100 is the average within our species, and not at the lower end. Thus inadequately armed against the forces of illogic, we let religions take on lives of their own. Even worse, we let individual nut jobs, like the Hebrew prophets, St. Paul, Mohammad, and Joseph Smith, write manifestos which we then call the word of God and swallow whole.

Which leads us back, somehow, to Ground Zero in New York City. It is a symbolic place, to be sure. First, it's where two of the most architecturally uninspired large commercial buildings of the late 20th century once stood. Second, it's where a dozen or so dedicated men got more bang for their buck than in perhaps any other single military operation, causing a country of 300 million to fall into panic and disarray, then to embark on a pointless, endless, financially ruinous, and dispiriting war. And finally, it's where the real face of religion has found its modern expression--in the self-righteous act of the bombings themselves (which, let's face it, would have been the envy of medieval Crusaders, Zionist freedom fighters, and Catholic IRA partisans alike), and now in the posturing of Jews and Christians and Muslims, all of whom seem to be oblivious of the real enemy, which is their own sick conviction of the correctness of their beliefs--beliefs which do not stop harmlessly at the doors of their houses of worship, but invariably intrude into the realm of secular public discourse, where they can do no good, and much harm.