In light of my last two posts, and the ones I have planned for the rest of the week, I wanted to take a post to talk about the historic role of religion in society. Because, you see, it did have its place, once upon a time…
Long ago, in a land very much like this one, there were many people who wanted to understand the world around them, and they wanted to be able to control the things most important to them – like when the rains came, and how hard they fell. What made women have babies, and how to keep the mothers and the babies safe through the risky moment that is childbirth for humans. They wanted to understand volcanoes, tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, eclipses, comets, the phases of the moon and more. They wanted to be able to predict and control these forces.
In my last blog I referenced a study involving pigeons, wherein the pigeons were shown to engage in ritualistic to the point of religious behaviors. These pigeons were the wild card group in a study of Pavlovian behaviors. Group A was fed on a schedule and grew accustomed to the routine quickly. Group B had to perform a single behavior to get their food. They quickly learned the game and only performed that behavior when they were hungry. Group C was fed completely at random. There was no schedule and nothing they did would influence the “food gods”. Yes, THIS is the group that became religious. Each pigeon in this group began performing ever more elaborate rituals over and over and over and over again until the magical food pellet would mystically appear. If they were hungry they would eat the food, more often they would stash it and then begin their ritual over again, hoping for more, never sure when the “food gods” would be pleased and send another pellet to them.
What does this have to do with us? Well, people still don’t have control over nature. Sure, now we have GMO crops that are resistant to disease (Though wheat is soon to be kicked off that list, the fungus is back and kicking ass!) We have pesticides and fertilizers and greenhouses and hydroponics and… But as Florida and Louisiana and now France will attest, we also still have hurricanes. Chile and Haiti can attest to the devastating effects of earthquakes. Washington state can still remember the last time its volcano decided to blow. And, of course, many of us are still engaging in ritualistic, religious behaviors in a vain attempt to control forces outside of our scope.
Religion was a way to explain these unexplainable and often tragic events. The gods were angry and needed more sacrifices. These days we don’t kill our pets, we just give up one more pleasurable activity, sacrificing bits of ourselves on the altar of a still angry God. But we don’t have to. Now we have science, which may not explain every little thing, but it sure covers a lot. And most of what it covers is that some things are simply outside of our control. We can’t control the hurricanes. BUT we can choose not to live in Florida.
Religious institutions were more than just explanation factories though, they also used to be the source of social welfare. All those people who don’t want to help provide health care to their neighbor should, by all rights, be thrown physically from their churches. For it was the church that used to carry that role. Perhaps that is why they are so upset. We have science to explain the way the world works and invent ways of controlling, or at least predicting its behavior. We have governments and civil societies to take on the social welfare roles of the church, taking care of the poor, the sick, the down on their luck. Perhaps the religious people see this for the threat it is. If government is allowed to assume this role, they are left with nothing, no reason to go to church, beyond the social aspect. And even then, there are book clubs (that allow more than one book to be read!). There are cooking clubs, potluck clubs, bicycle clubs, quilting clubs, climbing clubs, shooting clubs, fishing clubs. There are clubs for just about anything you’d want to spend your time doing.
So why do modern people still seek religious sanctuary? I’ve never understood it beyond their need to be told what to do. The comfort they find in having someone tell them that while these things may be out of their hands, there is someone in the sky looking out for them and He has a plan. Thanks, but I learned long ago that father figures, and mother figures, and pretty much all the authority figures in my life were just as fallible as I was. And God, capital “G” God, well, if you’ve gotten any news in the last few hundred millenia, you’d see that even He seems to fuck up from time to time. It could be because He isn’t there. It could be because He doesn’t care (in which case why should you?) It could be that he’s busy, looking the other way, or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there is a giant eye in the sky watching me type this wishing he still had his Old Testament omnipotence and wrath and could smite me with a single lightning bolt (remind anyone else of Zeus?) But he’s not doing it. He never has. I’ve stood on mountain tops in lightning storms singing “nah nah nah nah” at Him, and… nothing. Of course He was managing a several wars and a few genocides at the time, but still, how much would it take to smite one nay-saying little atheist?
My last question for the modern fundamentalists out there, from any and all faiths is this – IF there is a God, and He is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipresent (always with us, often combined with all-loving) then WHY is there so much confusion about Him? Why are wars being fought over His name and what style of church to worship Him in? Do you really think that out of all 6 billion people who HE created on this planet He’s going to play favorites and choose YOU? And what? He’s just teasing the other 5.999999999 billion people by telling them that they’re the chosen ones? I don’t fucking think so.
Yes, religion and religious institutions had their place, they had their time. But as the Bible so eloquently puts it in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens”. There was a time for God. And now is the time for reason.