by A. Uiet Bhor
My attempts to explain the inherent problems with religion and the urgency of embracing a secular ethical system usually results in a prolonged rant that is dismissed by theists as the ramblings of a disgruntled atheist. In an attempt to demonstrate my thinking on such matters I will keep this brief and include visual demonstrations of why I consider all religion irredeemable, and what actually makes a decent ethical philosophy.
Religion is a very complicated phenomenon, and there are many ways in which it can be studied and understood. History, cognitive anthropology, psychology and meme theory have all given us insights into how religion develops and occasionally what is wrong with it. My personal approach is to look at how religious institutions are organised, and what affects their structure has on issues such as ethics and the worldview of its adherents.
I use the term theological architecture to describe how concepts are arranged due to the way religious and theistic influences define how things should be organised. For contrast I also studied other philosophies including various political ideologies and the outlook common to many rationalists, those of a scientific persuasion and of course humanists.
I did this in order to understand why certain institutions commit atrocities or demonstrate inhumane tendencies. From my personal philosophy any inhumane behaviour invalidates a religion or ideology, but that is due to my strict moral principles which dictate my attitude towards religion and the severity in which I judge it. As far as I am concerned, anything which creates that much harm must have something inherently wrong with it. However I find that when arguing with theists, I need to do more than merely cite the many brutal examples of history. As they see things entirely from a Theistic Vs Atheistic point of view and they clearly think that communism and its death toll is a good defence against their own.
I need to show that immoral and inhumane behaviour is inherent to the way religion is structured, and the only way to remove such in-built tendencies is to remove the very elements that make a religion a religion.
I also need to demonstrate why it is that non-theistic institutions also commit atrocities, and why it is not purely down to their lack of religious adherents.
I looked very intensely at four main ideologies, Communism, Nazism, Christianity, and Humanism. I found that the one thing that they all have in common, (all except humanism), was there in-built focus on non-human and non-ethical considerations. When you have a religious system you encourage your members to fixate on deities or concepts removed from the material or human world. Mankind is usually demeaned and a religion’s "ethics" are mainly included as part of a religion's justification for its existence, as well as an attempt to further glorify it's deity(s) by claiming it has moral supremacy. Such "pseudo-ethics" are designed to control humanity with ritual and social constraints, as well as act as demonstrations of divine authority. As a result they serve religion rather than life, humanity or any humane ideal. They are not derived from any empirical data or observations of what works in society, they have a life of their own, inexplicably linked with the destiny of the religion in question.
Occasionally such "ethics" are maintained even when the religion has faded away, only then can they be questioned or altered, and they are often found to be lacking in relevance, and trail far behind the moral values that a more enlightened and secular society have developed. Although they originally were derived from legal or moral customs, once they are included in a theology they are no longer modifiable and are followed regardless of what effect they actually have on society. They do not promise to make a culture more humane or society safer or more stable, but justify themselves by their sacred origins rather than any practical or humane applications.
"But what of secular tyranny?" I hear you say, well there are two types of secular governments, those that become secular in order to monopolise their authority, greedy atheistic tyrannies like communism, and those enlightened democracies that recognise the need to create safeguards in order to reduce the risks of any dictatorship arising, whether from a political or religious source. Democracy is in itself a safeguard against political dictatorship providing it is correctly structured. The only safeguards against a theocracy is the separation of church and state. The self evident nature of which often results in even wise and cautious religious people often creating what is referred to as a secular state, but what is really an anti-totalitarian political philosophy, trying to be fair, and recognising the tendency of unaccountable religious authority to do terrible things. Such people can be very religious, but also very keen to create a just nation and realising that regardless of God's existence or inherent goodness, no religious governments in history has any ever been anything other than a nightmare for many of its subjects.
This is the most common type of decent secular authority, but my personal favourite would be a humanistic democracy that allows religion to exist only under its strict supervision. As leaving religion to fend for itself often creates desperate money grabbing ministries, which can range from enlightened to fanatical and immoral. This can be seen very clearly in America where religion is a given enormous tax brakes and allowed to do whatever they want, perhaps as compensation for the separation of church and state, and perhaps because most members of the government are stupid religious jerks. The trick is to find a balance, we do not want to be seen as a power hungry Commie style atheistic dictatorship, but you do not want to allow religion the run of the land, as that will create isolated pockets of backward superstitious loony bins, which can often be as bad for those within such hellholes as a theocratic despotism.
So religion tends towards despotism, but then so does politics, both must be controlled by rational ethical standards, why rational? Well, that is all we are left with when religious ethics are shown to be impractical, as well as having a rather large impediment attached to it, mainly religion. For a theist the removal of religion is evil, for a hard-line atheist a secular government is a necessity for any civilisation, both tend oversimplify the complexities of the issue, and demonise each others perspectives. To me whether a government is religious are not is irrelevant, as many hard lessons are learned from communism. It is only a pity that theists seen unable to learn from the lessons of the many theocracies of history, but one thing we both having in common is Nazism, which was a example of what can go wrong both with religion and a secular authority.
Despotism's like Nazism maintain ties to religious organisations but do not allow any power to be kept by the churches within their control. They do not harbour any pretence at being above religion like Engels or Marx, but many see religion as a cynical ploy, mainly because it takes one to know one. Nonetheless in the case of Nazism many of its queues were taken from the Christian church, such as its attitude towards Jews and its belief in a “manifest destiny” from a higher power. The religious like a reverence and awe that the political propagandists attempted to foster in the German people very much played on their Lutheran and Catholic backgrounds, and no one really saw any problems with war, oppression and genocide given that the Bible consisted almost entirely of the same. Many dictatorships, white supremacists, and dangerous cults model their behaviour on that of the Israelites in the old Testament, from harsh laws to absolute confidence that they and they alone are chosen among over all other people's in the world.
All in all I think the blame for Nazism must lie with both politics and religion, triggered by economic problems, and a culture on the brink, so desperate that they'd accept salvation from anyone, much like 1st century Judea. ( I’ll avoid all the usual Hitler and Jesus parallels, and just mention that both leaders created ideologies that killed countless numbers of Jews, made promises that came to nothing, and died shortly before their nations were reduced to rubble. )
Such parallels can be dismissed as trivial, but one thing that is not so easily ignored is that both showed no signs any knowledge of what their work would come to. Both, judging by their words and actions, would not have wanted what history tells us happened their regimes, or the legacy their lives created. Hitler would not have wanted his Reich to have lasted for only two weeks after his death, with his name cursed for ever more. Jesus, giving him a generous appraisal, would have been driven insane to know his name would be used justify every horror mankind could commit, and for 1700 years it would bring out the very worst in entire continents. Both fucked up, and both clearly didn’t have a clue about the future, or both would have kept their stupid mouths shut.
The Imperial government of Japan during the Second World War was another example of politics and religion intermingled to create a nightmare state. Only this time the ratio was more in favour of religion, combining the hitherto benign Shinto spirituality with the rigorous code of the samurai and the ruthless efficiency of Western-style authoritarianism and industrialisation. Essentially it was the worst of everything, and a clear demonstration of what can go wrong with virtually every aspect of human civilisation.
Many of my essays had dealt with similar political and economic difficulties, as I find an intensive study of the problems of religion often leads to a larger understanding of ethics and culture. It is important not to fixate purely on religion as although it has many inherent problems, the same flaws can be found in almost all other institutions. Anti religious bigotry may be entirely justified but it is narrow-minded, and all too similar to the theistic tendency to demonise all secular organisations. In attempting to identify what the problem really is, I have found that the cause lies in the organisational structure and order of priorities. A re-ordering of the place that ethics and life has among institutions can quickly solve the problem.
Both politics and economics can be reformed in this manner, however religion would have to be changed beyond all recognition, and specific faiths like Islam and Christianity would have to be totally abandoned. This conclusion is not derived from my dislike of religion but purely from the way these religions are structured. This judgement, that certain religions are unsalvageable, also applies just as much to Communism, Nazism, and any authoritarian or inconsiderate economic model, but it is this conclusion when applied to religion that I will get the most flak for. If I were in China my condemnation of Communism, not religion would result in the most negative feedback, so I do not see this as an atheist verses religion issue but rather a vested interest issue.
So anyway, I found that only one of the four institutions I studied was set up in a way not open to abuse. That was of course Humanism, because if you are worried about ethics and humanity then only an institution dedicated to those two causes, stands much of a chance of creating a humane society. This has been clear to me for quite a while, the trick is getting the point across to other people, particularly theists. Some challenge me to show a humanistic society that works, and then ignore the examples I provide. So I will emphasise the logical results of any given hierarchical or philosophical structure within an organisation.
The first step is to illustrate what these structures are, and then demonstrate why they will lead to the end I predict. I will begin by showing the contrasting structures of Christianity and humanism.
Xtianity, especially Catholicism and Fundamentalism
As you see in fig. 08, Christian theological architecture tends towards a "few ruling the many" model, with two major problems, the first being that the authority depends on a spiritual or transcendent ever increasing degree of removal from humanity and the material world. This means that the public are made to have a greater degree of trust in their theocratic rulers than is reasonable, as such leaders are semi-divine, or at least able to benefit from the unquestionable and unassailable nature of the powers that they "represent".
Above them is the Bible, which in some liberal Christian communities is seen as a guide to life, a series of allegories and metaphors, but among the more extreme Christian sects it is seen as an absolute authority, with every word taken seriously. And as the Bible is an amalgamation of nationalistic and religious propaganda by various groups of scribes, priests and crazy hermits, ( along with of course the usual cults leaders and religious authorities after power ), and as it displays all the flaws inherent to humanity, particularly those of past days, this makes the Bible a particularly bad thing to render unquestionable. It is this very degree of detachments that results in the cognitive dissonance, the myth of inerrancy and the ever-recurrent use of quotes to justify any action or thought.
Above the Bible is the ultimate authority, God, and abstract concept with as many different interpretations as there are believers, that can never be questioned or understood except via other people's interpretations, or consulted on all that has been done in his name by all the various denominations and religions. The Bible as an objective thing can be analysed, dissected and discredited, and among the more rational theists this is already acknowledged as having been done. But other than through semantics and logical analyses that only serve to question the existence or nature of God, the character of God can only be analysed via the Bible.
Although there are plenty of more enlightened or mentally developed people who can defy, and disbelieve or even despise God, it is a difficult thing to do if you acknowledge the transcendent hierarchy. Particularly in versions of Christianity like Catholicism where the theocrats are a significant obstacle, let alone the Bible. This creates a spiritually unbreakable chain allowing any person to convince anybody else that they represent God, or more commonly allows the priests to convince the masses that their reading of particular words of the Bible signifies what God wishes them do or believe. It is very difficult for anyone else to work their way through the hierarchy to investigate anything for themselves. This in itself causes mankind to be crushed under the weight of authority that is, within the confines of belief, unapproachable and has many mechanisms that it can use to get people to obey them, from threats of hellfire to bribery and psychological control. But all such methods would be difficult to utilise without this theological architecture.
The second problem with this structure is that there are levels beneath mankind. Not the levels of animal or material existence that can be verified through science but personified lower life forms that are either anthropomorphised forces or concepts similar to those of other religions, or labels which serve to de-humanise people in the name of the Christian agenda. These are derived from doctrine and the church’s various strategies that it has developed to destroy its rivals. The parallels between this and the race ideology used by the Nazis to dehumanise the Jews and it's other victims is obvious. The Church has consistently, for a great many centuries used this tactic to get its followers to destroy the followers of rival religions. From pagans to Muslims to rival versions of Christianity and even people who have conformed and live within the control of the church, simply by declaring that they are heretics, thus transforming them into handy scapegoats.
A political or economic system can be reformed or replaced, people will always have a tendency to fight for a flag, a nation, a culture, perhaps even a race, but all these things can be dealt with using reason and objectivity. Although such tools can render religion vulnerable it is much harder to convince someone of the non-existence of God than the irrelevance of race or the insufficience of nationality as a justified label of superiority to others. It is also dangerous having a subset, of which sections of humanity can be placed, and as both the absolute authority and the subhuman category are such an integral part of most Christian denominations, it is for this reason that I consider religions inherently inhumane and immoral.
These subset categories are particularly worrying, and I've noticed this tendency in computer games, television and movies where they come up with some way of having people killed in an acceptable manner. Either by, in the case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer saying they are demons or vampires, or in the case of The Terminator by saying they are machines. Whichever method they utilise it doesn't change the fact that, visually, human beings are seen as being rightfully killed. Though they are not all humans within the story, but they are still human physically and people get used to the idea of heroes being able to kill things which, although they are sometimes personifications of evil or danger, they nonetheless are personified as human. If you look at Nazi propaganda posters or the drawings of medieval Crusaders you notice the way they render the Jews or Muslims as demonic creatures, making it a more acceptable spectacle when their heads are split open or when they are burnt alive, either in illustrations or in reality. We need to make the image of a humans being killed either less acceptable or common, people should stop simply accepting that certain people should be harmed, or that it's OK to see people killed as long as, in some way, they are not really human.
Now my pyramidal diagram is a simplification, as I've not included ethics or the various levels of angels, church hierarchies or editions of the Bible, principally for clarity, but also because in the case of ethics it is the importance of the authorities that defines the importance of the ethics. Such "morals" are interwoven through the image, reputation or example of these theocrats, the message of the Bible, and the nature of God. As the ethics are dependent on such authority and open to gross misuse, reinterpretation and negation they are not such a considerable factor as theists have been led to believe. An example of this is the idea of God as an all-powerful creator being the most important consideration, rather than his alleged goodness. "God is good" is a recent emphasised label, and not only one that contradicts the way he's displayed in the Bible, but also a very clear attempt to con people into accepting Christianity out of a fear of such ethical dilemmas as abortion, crime and invented concepts such as sin and the devil.
The principal problems with this religious architecture is not just that it is very much to mankind's disadvantage for such a system to exist, but also that it is built on a lie. An issue which will not be dealt with in this article, but one that needs to be briefly addressed here, as the so-called ethical values of Christianity as well as the evils it claims to combat are, like all theological concepts, complete fantasies, specifically invented so as to manipulate humanity. They invented the devil, demons and witches to keep you afraid, they invented angels and God to make you humble and grateful, but worst of all they redefined ethics as meaning something other than the best and most moral behaviour for a human being, making it what pleases God. Leaving aside the Euthyphro dilemma, this simply means that, not only are actions or thoughts made “sins” when they are not even unethical, but also that people are made to waste their lives doing things which they think are eternally good. Whereas they are not even moral, but simply a waste of time, such as praying, or proselytising. This ability to make black = white, to make what some people regard as unethical and intrusive a spiritual “ideal”, or to make things which are perfectly natural, sinful and evil, has really screwed mankind up. Creating an entire industry of psychiatrists dedicated to trying to sort out all the people whose minds have been seriously damaged by the pressures of their religious society. Forcing on them inhuman standards with the intent to make them more like the spiritual (i.e. non-existent) ideal rather than simply accepting their humanity and allowing them to lead full and natural lives. The problem only get worse when the church authorities choose to use their extremely subjective and presumptuous interpretations of "God's will" to condemn things that have either appeared after the Bible was written or were simply never mentioned, such as abortion, euthanasia, scientific discoveries or certain types of music.
This insistence that morality is dependent on the Bible or on people's ideas of God, means that the ethical standards of many Christian denominations are not only completely insane, irrelevant, divided among churches or even individuals, but also do not really deserve to be categorised as ethics. This is why I do not consider the moral pretensions of religion to be in any way a factor when searching for what is best for humanity. These "pseudo-ethics" that the church authorities use to unjustly steal the moral high ground in the eyes of the public is just a confusing distraction, similar to all the theological inventions and issues which are best ignored when dealing with a subject as important as morality and the human race.
Ethics must be derived from reason and observation. It is insane to suggest that we should follow a set of "ethical" laws because they were allegedly dictated by some fiery God up a mountain 3000 years ago, according to the tradition of a superstitious and backward tribe of Semitic zealots. Especially when it is clear that if such principles were applied, they would do humanity great harm. So the best test for any morals is how they affect humanity, after all we are the ones that are going to have to apply them, as well as the only things that are going to be affected by them. Thus taking ethics from the realm of religious absolutism to rational and empirical objectivity. No theist can show me why I am wrong in this issue, so we will continue on the assumption that ethics refers to morality as defined by reason, not the church.
Fig. 10 demonstrates the radically different philosophical architecture of humanism, such a diagram can also apply to philosophies such as Epicureanism, Stoicism and Buddhism, because their ethical principles, although not always so dependent on empirical reality or on scientific objectivity are at least the principal factor of such philosophies.
It will require a brief explanation as again this diagram is a simplification, but basically it can be approached either from the top down or the bottom up.
Bottom-up basically shows that the many values that we have, either political, patriotic, economic, or materialistic must serve the ethical values of society. Now humanism as a philosophy recognises this necessity and thusly places itself between all other values and that of ethics, essentially acting as a custodian of society, making sure of that our values do not subvert and remain subservient to the right ethical values. In a sense humanism can be bypassed, as you can be an economist or political leader that continually bears in mind that no matter what you do or want, all things must pay heed to ethics. However it is difficult to convince people of this, and humanism as a philosophy is dedicated to that end. It is one of the few philosophies that recognises the Moral Imperative and places things in what I consider to be the best conceivable order.
One crucial thing, is my definition of humanism as either a broad umbrella term that can even be used to describe people who do not consider themselves or do not know anything about humanism, or as anybody who places ethics above all other values, and humanity above ethics. My use of the term humanism is inclusive, which is why I do not use the term secular humanism, or any of the other denominations. Simply because I think that as many people as possible should be convinced that such a philosophical architecture is the ethical minimum of any civilised human being. I do not wish to scare people off who have alternative lifestyles or philosophies, but convince them that whatever they think or believe, such a set of priorities can be easily integrated into their worldview. With of course the obvious exceptions of Christianity, Islam, Communism and all the other absolutism doctrines.
Many people here who have liberated themselves from Christianity have found other paths, such as paganism, Universalism or Deism. It is to these people as well as the undecided or agnostics that I appeal, has whatever our differences are humanity must be our common bond. All here who are not still chained to theism would either feel better about themselves in relation to Christianity or be more closely united under a humanistic outlook. As you can be many things and atheistic, you can also be many things and humanistic. I feel that we need to be united by more than just our common dislike of Christianity, otherwise the organised religions will always have the advantage of unity as well as the moral pretensions. We need to, not only demonstrate that we are morally superior to them but also that their religion is a curse on humanity. To this end I will further demonstrates why humanism works and religion doesn't.
In the top down approach you can see more clearly that the ethical values, for all their superiority over other values, (including humanism), always remain below humanity, as they derive their importance and purpose from human life. This is of course because they are invented by humanity, entirely for humanity, and by maintaining this relationship, human life will never be harmed in the name of ethics. Examples of this inhumane action in the name of morality are when a person is executed for breaking a law, when a person is demonised or ostracised for breaking a taboo. Corporal punishment, pseudo-ethical religious oppression and the corruption and confusion of normal morality with entirely theological or ceremonial principles, that in turn effect humanity, are all examples of ethical principles being placed ahead of life.
Now of course people should be imprisoned or otherwise punished for unethical behaviour, but it must always be because they harm mankind in some way. Not purely because ethical rules were broken, as although the definitions of a victimless crime are very much open to debate, there are ethical principles, particularly within religions, which do not in any way have anything to do with humanity. Such as the ceremonial or dietary laws of Judaism, and especially blasphemy or other laws based on superstition. We must never forget why we have ethics, they must never become the supreme goal that would, like God, the state or the Law become the alter on which so many people will be sacrificed.
To reiterate, we must always start with life, move on to ethics, and then, if so inclined to humanism, and only when all these three things have been consulted, in that exact order, do we consider other values. This is the order, this is the way, anything else is immoral, anything else is inhumane, I hope I have made it clear.
Just as a quick further demonstration, the remaining illustrations will show the equivalent philosophical or theological architecture within other worldviews.
AUB - Giving religion a whopping headache.