So there’s this book review in the current New Yorker about a guy named Hitchens, the latest in a line of virulent atheists who seem bent on doing away with religion. All religion. Even innocuous ones like Buddhism. I saw Hitchens the other week on the Daly Show. He’s a riot. And what he has to say is pretty funny, too. But, unfortunately, he’s wrong.
Actually, more to the point, the idea that we can do away with religion, and that if we did, or if religion never existed in the first place, humanity would be infinitely better off is at the very least severely misguided.
From a pragmatic point of view, the vast majority of people on the planet believe in something, if even just some vague idea of a spiritual being or something that gives their lives meaning and may be, properly called, a religion. The book review makes the point that unbelievers world-wide may make up five hundred to seven-hundred-fifty million people and goes on to call that the fourth largest group of people after Christians, Muslims, and Hindus. But that’s still only 8% of the world’s population. Think about that for a second. It means that we’ve got a better chance, statistically, of getting the other 92% to convert to Hinduism than we do of getting them to let go their religious beliefs.
What I mean to say is that wishing religious belief to go away probably isn’t going to happen in our lifetimes. It might someday. Human evolution and the natural progression of human civilization may cause that 8% to grow over time, and if we were to visit Earth circa 4007 C.E., maybe Christ and Muhammad and the Buddha would seem as antiquated as Zeus and Apollo and Poseidon do today.
In light of this, virulent atheists seem to me to bare a striking similarity to extremists and zealots of the religious variety. People so sure of their ideas they make sweeping generalization and are incapable of seeing the worth in the other make me nervous no matter what they believe (or don’t believe).
Which brings me to my second point: were we to do away with religion, it wouldn’t change very much except that people would simply end up believing in something else.
It seems to me that people need something to believe in. It seems to me that there is indeed something in our very DNA that drives us to give our lives meaning. I’ve never met a person who didn’t have some sense of meaning or purpose in their lives and, when they felt like there wasn’t one, they felt a strange sense of helplessness and despair. (In fact, earlier this week, my fiance was lamenting the fact that she didn’t have enough to do at her new job and how that made her feel pointless, useless. And yesterday, when they gave her a new and important project, it turned out to be a Very Good Day.) The atheists and secular humanists in my life are fond of telling me how important family is, how it gives them a sense of purpose. Or how their jobs or careers or causes or whatever is their life’s passion. Sports fanatics paint their bodies and brave snowstorms to cheer on their favorite teams. Movie buffs are fond of say that they saw some important cult hit in the theater where it was meant to be seen. And let’s not forget patriots and nationalists. People willing to die for love of country first. Japanese kamakazi pilots didn’t even believe in an afterlife when they drive their planes into U.S. warships.
Even when people have no religion, they find something to believe in, something to give their lives meaning and purpose, some reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Ever been to a Star Trek convention?
It might seem strange, but when you develop an affinity for something, particularly something that others have an affinity for, that affinity invariably gives you a raison d’etre. It can provide you with a sense of purpose, a way of organizing your life, a community, and the predictability of routine and ritual.
I believe that that part of the human psyche or consciousness or DNA or whatever that drives some to become religious fanatics, zealots, or even your garden-variety go-to-church-only-on-the-holidays kind of religious believer is the exact same part of the human psyche that causes some people to become baseball fanatics or Trekies or patriots. Religion just happens to be the oldest of these things, the most well-organized, and the most well-funded and therefore the most culturally accepted and pervasive. Take it away, and people will simply replace it with something else.
If aliens were to land on Earth tomorrow and bring with them definitive proof that there is no God, I guarantee that half the world’s population would start worshiping the aliens and the other half would start a campaign to go to war against them.
Religion’s got nothing to do with it. Like any other social institution, like any other tool, it can wielded for good or for evil. In this way, it is absolutely no different from a hammer.
So, why did I title this entry “an unapologetic case for god”? Because given the preceding two points â€” that secular humanists and atheists are outnumbered and that if you do away with religion you’ll only replace it with some other form of zealotry â€” and the following point, that human being will always finds ways to make mischief, be prone to greed and hatred, and continue to find ways of killing themselves and each other, virulent animosity toward God and religion is at best misplaced. All the energy spent on doing away with religion or pointing out the flaws in people’s religious logic won’t solve humanity’s ills. Rather, using that energy to do away with social inequality, poverty, environmental degradation, intolerance of any stripe, and zealotry in all its forms, is the surest way save all our souls. Even if we don’t even have them.