by: Maria Maltseva
This article was originally published by Maria Maltseva on Facebook, January 2011. Reproduced with permission.
Copyright © Maria Maltseva.
I used to think that religion caused undesirable behavior until I started looking more carefully at pagan rituals and mythology, human behavior in non-religious societies, and also the differences and commonalities between various religions, both past and present. All religions had common traits and potential evolutionary explanations, including the human mindset, which seems prone to religiosity, and religion's usefulness to the powerful in terms of controlling human behavior while accumulating greater wealth and power. At that point, most of the religious tenets, both the bad and the good, started to look more like reflection of human nature rather than the primary cause of undesirable behavior.
For instance, in primitive societies, misogyny can be explained by man's (and in this case, I do mean man's) need to spread and protect his seed, homophobia seems to stem from the desire to increase the subject population as well as the fear of one's one natural homosexual tendencies (again, this mainly applies to men), and so on. Almost every common human trait can be explained in evolutionary terms, whether the explanations I posit are completely accurate or not.
Of course, human beings are capable of overriding evolutionary pressures through development of culture, but at what point that occurs -- or even if it ever truly occurs -- is hard to say. Many intellectuals in various disciplines have written on this specific issue, and frankly, I need to read more.
While I agree with Hitchens that religion both enables and perpetuates irrational fear, intolerance, hatred, and violence, I don't see it as the primary cause -- it's more complex than that. Organized religion seems to be the result of the interplay between the uncertainties of our lives and our inherently human traits. This is supported by the fact that the more violent and unstable a region is, the more religious the population. But religion isn't the only tool in the toolbox, so to speak -- any extreme system of beliefs, both religious and secular, can accomplish the same goals -- for examples, look at nationalism and communism.
It appears to me that the above line of thinking is the only one consistent with the notion that man created god. After all, where would morally repugnant religious ideas otherwise come from? A nonexistent entity can't require them, since it doesn't exist. So both god's attributes and general religious tenets have to reflect the needs of the men in power (as well as the common human need to have something to believe in). It can't be the other way around; religion cannot cause anything, since it's purely man's creation.
This is why, despite of my certainty that there is no god, at least not in any sense that humans can understand, intolerant and aggressive atheism scares me. Every exclusive and aggressive belief system seems to lead to harmful behavior and violence, which is exactly what I want to see eradicated. And it makes no sense to eradicate the things you hate by committing the same acts albeit for a different cause, since that both stems from and leads to the belief that your particular group is superior, which is exactly the problem in the first place.
In a nutshell, behavior based on any extremist system of thought -- be it religious, political, or economic -- is harmful, and in the end the harm is usually the same: miserable living conditions, violence, and death for certain groups and group members, often on a very large scale. And this is exactly what I want to see come to an end. While religion is clearly an enabler, it can't be the primary cause of anything, since man created it, along with gods and prophets with distinctly human characteristics.
Further, while I love Hitchens, I disagree with his aggressive ideas on foreign policy, since IMO, violence only begets more violence. That's not to say that violence is never appropriate, it very well may be, but exactly when violence must be employed is a difficult question and one that I can't fully answer. But, in general terms, I tend to favor restraint and containment over aggression, as well as a purely defensive foreign policy. (On a personal and legal level, my views are consistent with this: restraint of individuals who can't function in society, and violence only when absolutely necessary for defense.) Restraint and containment should be sufficient consequences to prevent undesirable behavior, and retribution is not necessary, even if it feels satisfying to some. In fact, arguably, restraint and containment are far better tools for prevention than violence and murder.
And this is why, though I believe that religion is both an emotional crutch and an intellectual error, I have no disdain for the religious. All of us, religious or not, have far more in common than it seems at first glance. Further, there have been no studies showing that the non-religious are intellectually (or morally) superior to the religious. Regardless of whether the beliefs are right or wrong, conduct based on intolerant and extremist belief systems is harmful to humanity, and it's the harmful conduct that we must seek to eradicate, not the beliefs.