21 July 2011

The trouble with religious and magical thinking (Part 1 - Christianity/Protestantism)

This post is the first in what I hope will be a series. I intend to examine a few of the major religious faiths that often ensnare the minds of the world. I'm not trying to attack people for their faith, but rather to understand why these belief systems appeal to people in the first place. Many people (often otherwise rational thinkers) embrace religions without being brought up in them or being coerced into them; what would make people want to convince themselves that such beliefs are true?

Ideally, I would like to have a discussion with a devout member of each religion before writing about it in this series.

Conversation with a Protestant

I recently (by which I mean a few months ago) had a discussion with a devout Christian who is by most measures quite intelligent, evidenced by his profession (computer programming) and by his skills as a conversationalist. He's studied his faith, studied other faiths, and come to the conclusion that his faith must be the true one.

To be honest, I'm not sure how our conversation turned to religion, but I was very interested in what he had to say once he got started on the topic. I didn't bring up the fact that I'm an atheist, and I'm not sure if my reputation preceded me or not, as he didn't bring it up either.

I'm sure that from his point of view, his statements revolved around reasons why his religion is true; from mine, they revolved around reasons why people should want it to be true.

There were a few points on which I agreed with him (though for different reasons than he); for example, we agreed that organized religion is generally a bad thing (he says that it's because salvation comes through faith, not church attendance; I say it's because religion is a tool of social control).

The central concept of his beliefs is that salvation is a "free gift" from God requiring no special rituals and no institutional middleman; simply "accept the gift" on faith alone, and you are spared from damnation.

He asserted that God does not hate homosexuals because God does not hate; I chimed in with the comment that people may project their own hatred onto the god they believe in, and that "when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do, you can be sure that you've created him in your own image." As Christians are wont to do, he did say that he regards homosexuality as a sin (though he regards homosexuals with pity rather than disgust), which (in the context of his religion) I don't have a problem with him saying; he's simply being true to his beliefs. I respect honesty, even if the premise from which you're arguing is wrong.

What I took away from it

At some point during the conversation, I remarked that the idea of salvation through faith alone did have a strong appeal when compared to other religions, and probably had a lot to do with Christianity's popularity; I thought, but didn't add, that however appealing it is, believing it doesn't make it real.

I recognize that most of the Christians I've met are good people, or at the very least not malicious people. Their hearts are in the right place, even if their heads are mixed up in theology. The extremists who harbor true hatred toward outsiders from their faith are a small minority; far more numerous are the ones who pity the "unsaved", and I think that nonbelievers tend to confuse Christians' frustration at being unable to "save" someone from sin as hatred.

Christians are convinced that they live in a universe created and controlled by an almighty God, that said God created humans to be the dominant inhabitants of this place, and that there is an eternal spiritual life beyond physical death for humans. They're convinced that humans are doomed to fail to meet God's expectations, and that we can escape damnation and attain paradise only by believing that God's self-sacrifice in corporeal form to a torturous execution absolves us of our shortcomings.

Were I to believe in Christianity, I know that the logical result of that assumption would be to spare as many people from the fires of Hell as I could. Saving someone from an eternity of torture would take precedence over food, water, shelter, medical treatment, and any other measure to delay the inevitable shuffling of this rudimentary mortal coil.

In that sense, I can sympathize more with evangelicals than I can with "moderate" Christians who seem not to think about what their professed beliefs imply. As I see it, they either must regard the Bible as wholly metaphorical and open to interpretation, or must not care what happens to the unconverted (live and let burn?).

Some not-so-pleasant conclusions

As with many religions and philosophies, some of the expectations set forth by this God are fundamentals of a healthy society (do not steal, do not murder, etc.), but others are nothing more than demands for unconditional worship or adherence to a senseless code of conduct (don't take my name in vain, no homosexual activities, etc.). Looking at the belief system from the outside, I've made a few observations about what they believe and what implications those beliefs have:
  • God created all of existence and everything in it, including the Devil and Hell; might these 'evil' entities then be agents of God?
  • The Old Testament clearly depicts God deliberately wreaking havoc upon the mortal world in retaliation for human disobedience, often using natural disasters as a weapon of mass destruction.
  • The cessation of destructive Old Testament tactics and introduction of Jesus Christ as salvation from damnation represent either a change of heart on God's part or the beginning of a planned stage of our species' cultural development.
I cannot fathom how this could be ethical, but it appears that this God has engineered a vast and cruel experiment with the human species; it would take considerable faith for me to believe that such a being is benevolent, though rational self-interest to avoid suffering would motivate me to go along with God's plans. Do what the man with the gun says.

I see a parallel between the devotion of Christians to God and that of a domestic abuse victim to the tormentor; the abuser sets expectations for the victim, employs violence when these expectations are not met, and then offers gifts and 'forgiveness' (as if the victim had done something wrong!), resetting the abuse cycle for the next round.

Given these conclusions, I can fully understand why someone would want to be an evangelical Christian once they have crossed the psychological event horizon of believing that this fantasy is reality. It's in their self-interest to obey and accept Jesus, and in their altruistic sensibilities to persuade others to do the same.

I simply find it unfortunate that so many people live their lives trapped within such a mindset.

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