Imagine there’s no Heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
Religions fill a deeply felt need. Throughout history, practically all societies, whether isolated tribes or complex civilizations, have had some sort of belief system in the form of a religion. If something as ubiquitous and seemingly necessary as religion is actually a false concept, significant consideration ought to be given to what might replace it.
Why has religion, in one form or another, proved to be so needed by humanity? All religions, past and present, tend to supply the same key elements: an explanation of the world around us and how it works, a means to instill and ensure constructive behavior, and a source of comfort in the face of life’s afflictions. In addition, there is a social value in providing an opportunity for people to get to know each other and work together. These benefits of religion, and thoughts on what might provide them in its absence, are explored in the following.
The Universe is full of magical things, patiently
waiting for our wits to grow sharper.
One of humankind’s noteworthy characteristics is our avid curiosity. We have a deep-seated need to understand our universe. We want to know how the world was formed; why there is land, sky, and seas; what the sun, moon, and stars are; what causes lightning, thunder, rainbows, floods, and earthquakes; what controls the seasons; and where plants, animals, and ourselves came from. And we want to know why things happen the way they do.
To satisfy our need for answers, almost all religions include an explanation of how the universe came into being and how it operates. Such explanations are often known as creation myths (at least, when the religion in question is not your own). Creation myths are diverse, but they have one thing in common: none of them is based on verifiable facts or observations. Apparently, curiosity about the universe can be well satisfied by an arbitrary and imaginative story if it comes from a revered authority (and from ancient origins, notable exceptions being Scientology and Mormonism). Requirements for logic, predictive power, or common sense in the story seem to be entirely absent.
The lack of factual backing in creation myths is understandable considering the depth and breadth of knowledge that had to accumulate in order for humanity to finally figure out how the universe actually came into being and what laws govern its workings. Even now, pieces of the story are not understood, and it’s an open question as to whether we can ever completely know the laws of the universe. But the big picture is now well known. It is this picture, provided by the scientific discoveries of the last several centuries, that is destined to replace the various religious accounts of creation.
The scientific explanation of the universe is sometimes criticized as being too sterile, too reductionist, or too uninteresting, compared to religious accounts. But to me, it is the other way around–the account of creation based on scientific knowledge is far more compelling than any creation myth. To take the account in Genesis as an example, God’s creation of the world in a few days makes the process trivial, simplistic, and arbitrary–there’s no substance to the story, no drama, no sense of authenticity. Compare that to the way it actually happened…
All the matter and energy in the universe–in fact, the universe itself–began smaller than a pinpoint and unimaginably hot and dense. In the first instants of time this speck began to rapidly expand and cool. When the universe was just one-millionth of a second old, protons, neutrons, electrons, and their antimatter counterparts began to form. The matter and antimatter particles immediately began to annihilate each other, releasing huge amounts of energy in the form of photons in the process, but the matter particles eventually won this battle due to their slight excess. A small asymmetry in the laws that govern the universe had resulted in the formation of a bit more matter than antimatter, which is the bit that everything today is made of.
By the time the universe was one second old the protons and neutrons that still are the heart of all matter in the universe today had stabilized, and by ten seconds the electrons had followed suit. In the first minutes of its life, the incredibly high temperature of the universe forced some protons and neutrons to fuse to form helium nuclei (and a small amount of a few other heavier types of nuclei), but most of the protons continued to zip around as hydrogen nuclei, and by twenty minutes of age the temperature had dropped to the point where fusion reactions shut down.
However, the temperature was still so high that electrons had too much energy to be captured by the nuclei to form atoms, so the universe was filled with a dense cloud of free electrons and nuclei. Photons, the carriers of light and other radiant energy, could not penetrate this ionized gas, so the universe at that time was opaque.
Nothing much then happened until the universe was about 380,000 years old, when it had cooled enough for electrons to be captured by the protons and helium nuclei to form hydrogen and helium atoms, the first atoms to exist. Now that the electrons were confined in atoms, photons were no longer blocked, and the universe became transparent. The photons, scattered throughout the universe, continued in whatever direction they had last been trying to go. They continue their journeys to this day, although their radiation has become much less energetic as the universe has expanded and cooled. This remnant of the radiation that was freed when the universe became transparent is detected today as a diffuse microwave radiation emanating from everywhere in the universe.
The universe was at this time bland and featureless, consisting of a thin sprinkling of hydrogen atoms with a little helium mixed in. These atoms were spread out almost but not quite uniformly; tiny irregularities in the distribution of matter in the first instants of the universe had by this time expanded along with the universe into areas of varying densities.
These slight irregularities in the rarified gas that formed the universe eventually transformed the universe from bland to spectacular. Patches that were a bit denser than their surroundings had a bit more gravity, since the gravitational attraction of anything is proportional to its mass. Slowly at first, the slightly denser patches pulled in atoms from their surroundings, which made these patches still more massive, which increased their gravitational pull even more, and so on until they grew into vast clouds and tendrils of hydrogen and a bit of helium. The gravity of these clouds continued to compress some regions into enormous dense spheres. Finally, when the universe was about 500 million years old (a very approximate age, still not well known), the pressure in some of those spheres and their heat of compression had built up enough to ignite nuclear fusion in their interiors, and the first starlight beamed into space. The birth of stars brought splendor to the universe.
After millions or billions of years, depending on a star’s size, lighter elements up to iron were formed by nuclear fusion in the stars’ cores. Iron, the most stable element, is the dividing line. Fusing together nuclei smaller than iron releases energy, in the form of the radiation that makes stars shine. But fusing larger nuclei actually absorbs energy. So when a star got to the stage of fusing iron, it suddenly developed a critical energy shortage. With no net energy remaining to generate the outward radiation pressure that had been balancing the pull of gravity, the star suddenly imploded. Many imploding stars rebounded violently in gargantuan explosions with enough energy to produce the elements heavier than iron, and blasted all these materials, including the lighter elements fused in the stars’ cores, as dust back out into space. (Such explosions are called supernovas, and for a few weeks can outshine an entire galaxy consisting of billions of stars. The most recent one in our galaxy, Kepler’s Supernova, exploded in 1604. At its peak it was brighter than any star, and was even visible during the day for over three weeks.)
Stars continued to form from clumps of primal hydrogen and helium, but the dust that had been blasted into space by the first generations of stars now enriched these gases; this dust contained all the elements that would be needed for life.
About nine billion years after the universe began, almost five billion years ago, a particular cloud of gas and dust coalesced under the pull of gravity, and a particular star, our sun, began to form. As the cloud’s gravitation pulled it together, its angular momentum caused the cloud to flatten into a slowly spinning disc with a big bulge at the center. The gravity of the bulge began to pull most of the matter in the disc into a ball whose pressure and temperature would soon rise high enough to ignite the nuclear fusion that makes our sun shine.
Farther out in the disc, random disturbances caused eddies whose gravity began to locally pull together much smaller packets of matter, which eventually coalesced into planets, moons, and asteroids. One of the planets was our earth, which pulled its bits and pieces together about 4.5 billion years ago. At that time the earth was hot and molten from the heat of impact of the colliding masses that had formed it, but eventually it cooled enough for water vapor to condense, and rain fell and filled lakes, rivers, and oceans.
That account inspires wonder and awe. And it has the considerable advantage of being real. To think about how the world actually came into existence is to feel part of something deeply important, a feeling not got by imagining the world was somewhat casually formed with a few days’ effort involving some unspecified magic. Continuing…
The young earth consisted of barren rocks and sterile waters. Its atmosphere, quite unlike the air we breathe today, contained no free oxygen. Oxygen combines eagerly with other elements, and had tied itself up in carbon dioxide and other compounds. Billions of years would pass before life itself would finally manage to pry loose significant amounts of free oxygen.
The early oceans were lifeless, but they were steadfastly dissolving many compounds from rocks and minerals, along with quantities of carbon dioxide and other gases that were being belched from volcanoes. From these simple molecules more and more chemical compounds of greater and greater complexity were forming.
This buildup of complexity is an amazing result of the laws of thermodynamics, which are a fundamental part of the physical laws that govern the universe. These laws show that in an isolated system, things tend to degrade to simpler states, which is not particularly interesting. However, in an open system such as the earth, where the sun during the day provides an input of high-level energy, and radiation to space at night provides an outlet for degraded energy to escape, greater and greater complexity and organization can spontaneously develop.
Eventually, after uncountable random combinations, a large molecule, possibly with some characteristics of the RNA molecules that play a major role in life today, was formed that could replicate itself–that is, it could catalyze (chemically promote) the reactions that formed it–from the bits and pieces that surrounded it in the ocean. Life had begun, although in this early stage it was little more than a fancy, self-catalyzed chemical reaction.
As time passed, this molecule replicated numerous copies of itself. Occasionally a chance jostling of some molecular connection, perhaps by a cosmic ray or other radiation, caused a slight difference in a copy. Eventually, one of these differences improved the ability of that molecule to form copies of itself–the beginning of the evolution of all living things.
Now it was no longer just chance meetings of chemical compounds–the replicating molecules formed large numbers of copies of themselves, with the occasional random alteration. Most alterations didn’t help and those lines died out, but some changes inevitably were for the better and enabled their lineages to survive longer or copy themselves better and therefore become more numerous.
After a lengthy accumulation of small changes, some improved versions included secondary molecular assemblies forming a microscopic environment that greatly improved their success rate, and the first cells were the eventual result. For several billion years these bacteria were the only life on earth. They were primitive–they obtained the energy needed for their development from simpler molecules that had been forced into energetic combinations by the sun’s radiation–but these food molecules were abundant and the bacteria thrived.
In time, the first of four further momentous developments in the progress of life occurred: a final bit of molecular reorganization in a bacterium gave it the ability to use energy directly from sunlight–the first photosynthesis. In this bacterium, a photon from the sun initiated a chain reaction that produced organic (in the biological sense, meaning carbon-based) food molecules from water and carbon dioxide molecules. Oxygen from the split-apart molecules was released back into the oceans as a waste by-product, the first accumulation of free oxygen on earth. The ability to make themselves from ever-present water and its dissolved carbon dioxide was a great advantage, and from humble beginnings similar to present-day blue-green algae, these bacteria became the basis of photosynthesis in all plant life that would evolve on earth.
Over the millennia, the oxygen that was released by photosynthesis accumulated in the oceans, setting the stage for the second momentous development: a bacterium still living the pre-photosynthetic way of life sustained an alteration that allowed it to combine the newly available oxygen with carbon in its food to release energy. This new energy source vastly improved its prowess in the game of life, making it better able to build itself, move about, and replicate. The ability to release and use stored energy ensured the success of this new strain of bacteria.
Then came a third momentous development. About two billion years ago, a primitive cell without the capability for photosynthesis or oxygen use, a cell that was possibly a very early form of life, was infected by (or ate) an oxygen-using bacterium. By chance, the result was a symbiotic relationship–both parties benefited. The invader continued its talent for releasing energy, much of which the host cell could now use, and the host cell provided an environment rich in compounds that the invader could use. The invader, which biologists call a mitochondrion, reproduced inside the host cell, and when the host cell itself divided, some of the mitochondria populated the copy. Thus began the lineage of cells, which biologists call eukaryotes, that would eventually evolve into all plants and animals above the level of bacteria. Our cells today still get their energy from the mitochondria swimming around inside them, descendants of that first invader.
Similarly to the ingestion of an oxygen-using bacterium, a eukaryotic cell eventually ingested a photosynthetic bacterium, and another symbiotic relationship was formed. The ingested bacterium continued to use sunlight to make organic building blocks from carbon dioxide and water, and released oxygen in the process, just as it had been doing on its own, but now its host could use the materials synthesized by the bacterium. And the bacterium, which biologists call a chloroplast, thrived in the environment provided by the host. As with the mitochondria, the chloroplasts reproduced in the host cell and populated the copy when the host cell divided. From this beginning evolved all plant life above the level of bacteria, all the trees, flowers, grain, and other plants that use sunlight to power them.
The fourth momentous development got underway a little less than a billion years ago when two cells divided but, due to some small change in their makeup, stuck together rather than going their separate ways. At some point these cells formed a ball, which gave them an internal space under their control. When daughter cells broke off and began dividing, mutations arose that altered successive generations of cell groups, with some cells specialized to perform certain functions more efficiently than when all functions necessary for survival had to be performed within a single isolated cell. The advantages of specialized components, along with the large size that a multicellular organism could attain, were overwhelming. Myriad multicelled organisms in an astounding array of shapes and sizes proliferated and filled the oceans.
Life in the oceans depended on the ability of layers of seawater to block most of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, which is sufficiently energetic to disrupt the relatively delicate organic molecules necessary for life. The land, however, was exposed to lethal doses of ultraviolet radiation, which thwarted any attempts by life forms to migrate out of the oceans. Then, by a little over 500 million years ago, enough oxygen from photosynthesis in the oceans had escaped into the air to form a layer of ozone in the upper atmosphere. (An ozone molecule consists of three oxygen atoms, and forms in the upper atmosphere when ultraviolet light from the sun bombards ordinary two-atom oxygen molecules.) Ozone blocks ultraviolet radiation, so life could now begin adapting to an existence on land.
The explosion and diversity of life that followed in the sea and on land is too extensive to include here. Fortunately we’re on more familiar ground now, so the rest of this story can be painted with the broadest of brushstrokes. Briefly, the first dinosaurs arose about 230 million years ago and became extinct about 66 million years ago–a long reign, probably ended by drastic climate change caused by the collision of a large asteroid with earth. The first mammals had appeared shortly after the first dinosaurs but remained relatively insignificant while the dinosaurs ruled. The event that wiped out the dinosaurs also resulted in the extinction of many other species, but some mammals survived and rapidly evolved to fill the voids left by the mass extinctions.
The slow start of life followed by its ever-increasing proliferation and diversity is a fascinating story, but we have a special interest in the final chapter…
Primates, our distant ancestors, began diverging from other mammals about 85 million years ago. By about 15 million years ago, one line of primates had evolved into the great apes. They were at home in the African rain forests, but around 6 million years ago their familiar environment began to change. The climate became drier, and large areas of rain forest gradually became grassland. The survival advantage shifted from being able to swing through treetops to being able to efficiently walk and run long distances in the grassy plains. The result, for one branch of the great apes, was a gradual evolution to a true two-legged stride and upright stance.
A side effect of this transition turned out to be quite important: it freed up the protohumans’ hands, which were now no longer needed for getting around, to become uniquely effective instruments for coping with life’s challenges. The ability to make tools, containers, shelter, and clothing conferred tremendous survival advantage, as did the ability to throw stones and spears to get dinner or avoid becoming dinner. Bigger brains evolved to take advantage of everything hands could do, and more dexterous hands evolved to make use of that brainpower.
The advantages of walking upright were great enough to more than compensate for some unfortunate side effects that evolution has still not had time to fix. Our spines have not completely caught up with the different demands of an upright posture, thus making backaches a common ailment. Efficient walking on two legs required a narrower pelvis, and this combined with larger heads needed to hold larger brains has meant a much more difficult childbirth for humans than for other primates. Humans have many amazing advantages over their distant ancestors, but unfortunately a few disadvantages as well.
A clue to another remarkable human ability has come from listening to chimpanzees, whose ancestors also split from the line of great apes. Chimps make some 15 to 30 unique sounds, each conveying its own fixed meaning, such as food availability, impending danger, anger, and so on. It is a useful but limited vocabulary. Intriguingly, human languages use a small set of unique sounds (called phonemes), some languages a few more and some a few less, but generally around the same number of sounds that chimps make. This leads to a conjecture: a small change occurred in the organization of some protohuman brain such that a few consecutive sounds could be perceived as a unit, a unique combination of sounds that could be remembered and reproduced. That little change provided a revolutionary capability–it gave our ancestors the ability to form an essentially unlimited supply of words, simply by putting together different combinations of a few sounds taken from a small set that was already inborn. Language blossomed as our ancestors associated meanings with newly invented words and taught them to others.
Language greatly enhanced the ability of a tribe to survive and prosper. Plans could be made, tasks could be shared, and knowledge acquired with difficulty could be given to others and passed to the next generation. It is not surprising that evolution selected tweaks in our ancestors’ brain circuitry to enhance such a valuable commodity. There is evidence that our natural facility with language is to a considerable extent hardwired in our brains–damage to a certain area of the brain results in a person losing only the ability to understand nouns, for example, while another area is necessary to understand verbs, and so on; all our languages seem to have common underlying characteristics; and, last but not least, two-year-olds perform the amazing feat of learning complex rules of grammar simply by listening to those around them.
These and other changes accumulated, and by a mere 200,000 years ago our ancestors had evolved into recognizably modern humans. Humans, as we know, became an exceptionally successful species. Their clever brains and useful hands allowed them to adapt to a wide variety of situations. They spread in several waves of migration out of Africa and eventually throughout the world. Their unique ability to use symbolic language allowed them to pass on and accumulate knowledge, and to live together in larger and larger interdependent groupings. The result is the remarkable civilization in which we live.
That is the real story of creation. Not the entire or final story, since our knowledge is continually improving, and some areas are sure to become better understood and more fully fleshed out as we continue to learn. But at the broad-brush level that is indeed the real story.
The real story of creation shows us how special life is. Life resulted from enormous forces working on vast amounts of matter over eons of time, from delicate reactions randomly probing for order in minute niches, from small successes paving the way for future larger successes–much had to happen to set the stage for life and for life to come into existence and flourish.
There are two important messages in this story. The first is that all life is interrelated at a very fundamental level. Every cell in our bodies and in every other living thing is a direct descendant of that first cell that was able to reproduce itself. All life on earth relies on the same basic mechanisms–the same amino acids, chemical signals, and genetic code. We were not created to have dominion over nature; we evolved as part of nature and are interdependent with it.
The second message is that if we destroy ourselves, if we make our planet uninhabitable, there is no creator who can heave a deep sigh and then spend a week to get it all going again, perhaps with some improvements. If we mess things up badly enough, it is questionable whether there is enough time left before the universe comes to an end for the wonders we now take for granted to recreate themselves.
The authors of the biblical story of creation, or of any of the many other creation myths, did not intend to mislead. They were doing what they could to satisfy the human need to have the blanks filled in, but they had almost no applicable knowledge with which to work. Thousands of years ago humankind had not yet accumulated enough information to even begin to understand the true nature of the universe. Now we have this information, and we can finally appreciate the wonders of it all.
Without a god who is personally involved with creating and running things, some people perceive the workings of the universe to be cold, impersonal, and without meaning. And the struggle for survival that is inherent in evolution can be perceived as a heartless competition. But overriding these aspects, there is a spirit of cooperation threaded through the universe, cooperation that has ratcheted up repeatedly from the beginning of time to the present, cooperation that has made the universe meaningful.
The universe started off simple and uninteresting–a few types of subatomic particles (although huge quantities of each), zipping around randomly in a dense cloud. Then the strong force (as physicists call it) compelled quarks to cooperate to form protons and neutrons. Later, these protons and neutrons were induced to cooperate in various combinations to form nuclei, which, with the additional cooperation of electrons, produced the atoms of the 100 or so elements–a big increase in the diversity of the universe. At the next level of cooperation, atoms joined with each other to form essentially limitless different kinds of molecules–a set of building blocks with an immense diversity of properties.
Then, under the right conditions and given enough time, molecules cooperated with each other to grow more complex until they were able to reproduce. The self-replicating molecules cooperated with each other to aggregate into cells. And in a major feat of cooperation, cells joined together to form plants and animals.
Humans eventually evolved, and cooperation became a key to their success. Initially, their cooperation was mostly confined to small tribes. As agriculture and other technologies were developed, people found they could benefit by cooperating on a larger scale and began to live in cities. Further cooperation led to larger political organizations, and eventually nations.
And now, cooperation has reached a global scale. Humanity is becoming increasingly dependent on worldwide cooperation for trade, commercial enterprises, scientific endeavors, and manufacturing. We may finally reach the day when cooperation brings us to the point where dependence on each other throughout the world outweighs any thought of fighting each other, and humankind can reach its full potential. Cooperation has brought us to this point. Cooperation, not cold indifference, is the hallmark of the universe.
Are we reaching the largest possible extent of cooperation? Perhaps. But what if one day we detect a signal from a civilization on another world…
In the above account of creation, I made no attempt to show how we know this account is, in fact, the way things really are. That would be well beyond the scope of this article. What I will say here is that an enormous body of knowledge based on observable facts and rigorous logic supports this account. Astronomy, physics, geology, chemistry, biology, genetics, paleontology, anthropology–findings from all these fields agree with each other and provide multiple lines of verifiable evidence and crosschecks to support the real story of creation.
Many good books have been written that explain, in interesting accounts meant for nonexperts, how science has arrived at its conclusions. If you have doubts about the account of creation sketched out above, read some of these and decide for yourself what is real.
If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute
thing to tell him is “God is crying.” And if he asks why God is crying, another
cute thing to tell him is “Probably because of something you did.”
–Jack Handey’s “Deep Thoughts,” Saturday Night Live
In addition to satisfying our need for an explanation of the world around us, another function of religions is to provide rules of behavior and the means to enforce them. Communities need rules and regulations to provide a framework within which people can work together productively and live together peacefully. Today in most of the world we rely on secular governments for legal systems and enforcement arms to ensure fair behavior and to keep order. But prior to the existence of such institutions, religions provided the rules and enforcement intended to keep society functional.
Consistent with this role of religions, a great deal of the Bible is devoted to laws that govern behavior. Everyone is familiar with the ten commandments, but they are just a drop in the bucket–the Bible contains detailed rules and regulations for everything from major concerns such as homicide and theft down to practical matters such as property rights, honest weight and volume measures, legal testimony, divorce, security for loans, usury, building codes, and so on.
To ensure obedience, these laws are presented as the word of God. Here’s what is in store for a society that disobeys God’s laws:
But if you ignore the Lord your God and are not careful to keep all his commandments and statutes I am giving you today, then all these curses will come upon you in full force. (Deuteronomy 28:15)
Many punishments follow, culminating with:
The Lord will raise up a distant nation against you … They will besiege all of your villages … You will then eat your own offspring, the flesh of the sons and daughters the Lord your God has given you, because of the severity of the siege by which your enemies will constrict you. The man among you who is by nature tender and sensitive will turn against his brother, his beloved wife, and his remaining children. He will withhold from all of them his children’s flesh that he is eating (since there is nothing else left), because of the severity of the siege by which your enemy will constrict you in your villages. Likewise, the most tender and delicate of your women, who would never think of putting even the sole of her foot on the ground because of her daintiness, will turn against her beloved husband, her sons and daughters, and will secretly eat her afterbirth and her newborn children (since she has nothing else), because of the severity of the siege by which your enemy will constrict you in your villages. (Deuteronomy 28:49-57)
You don’t want to disobey God.
Our secular criminal and civil laws cover much of the same territory as the laws given in the Bible. An interesting question is which authority has the most influence over our decisions about our own behavior. My daughter heard a surprising opinion about this in the course of a conversation with a friend about their religious beliefs. After hearing that my daughter did not believe in the biblical God, her friend was horrified and couldn’t understand why she wasn’t going around stealing things and killing people. My daughter’s reaction was that society is in sad shape if fear of God is our only reason for practicing moral behavior. Hopefully there is something more substantial to people’s morals than the specter of a God watching our every act and meting out rewards and punishments accordingly.
Do we behave ourselves because we’re afraid of God? I don’t think so. But I am certain that we do need to learn how we should behave. Although we have some built-in standards for behavior–we have a sense of fairness, we know it is wrong to harm others, we want to help those close to us–our instincts are insufficient. We need a civilizing influence to teach us the consequences of our social behavior, in particular:
- How we treat others tends to create an atmosphere that influences how others treat us (do unto others as you would have them do unto you).
- Our individual actions collectively add up to determine the quality of the social environment in which we all live (what goes around, comes around).
Where do we learn these things?
We learn them, of course, from our environment, most strongly when we are young. Parents, other family, peers, teachers, media, and religion all contribute, with the amount of influence of each depending on how an individual is raised. From what I’ve seen, individuals learn good behavior if they are raised in a family that practices good social conduct and community responsibility, regardless of their exposure to religion.
For those whose upbringing includes it, religion does indeed leave lasting impressions, but those impressions tend to center around things such as belief in the religion’s dogma, rituals, traditions, and reasons for its superiority. To be sure, we learn the ten commandments (while the many atrocious commandments in the Bible are carefully avoided), to do to others as we would have them do to us (while not dwelling on what God did to Job, or, for that matter, to the whole world with the flood), and to follow the good Samaritan’s example to help strangers in need (while ignoring the biblical dictate to annihilate strangers who don’t worship your god). But I think family and peers are usually stronger influences for good behavior. My impression is that families and even entire societies who practice little or no religion have, on average, as much respect for individuals and their community as those who are strongly religious. I’ll go even a bit further and say, as a generalization that applies broadly but certainly not to every individual, that those who are zealous about their religion tend to be more intolerant, bigoted, and harmful than those who are less religious. I don’t see religion as a necessary guardian of our moral behavior.
But regardless of the importance we might place on religion to teach and enforce socially beneficial behavior, we need to acknowledge a major flaw of biblical law–it can’t adapt. True, many biblical laws do remain valid today, and have been incorporated in our secular laws or in generally accepted rules for good behavior. But unfortunately, as I have pointed out in previous KIOSK articles, many other biblical laws are completely unacceptable in today’s society. Religion has no way to eliminate or modify bad laws because they are presented as God’s word in a sacred document, and are therefore beyond question or modification by mere humans. As I discussed in my previous article, this is a great difficulty for religious authorities, who have had to spin out numerous arbitrary and conflicting interpretations that attempt to convince us that many of the words don’t really mean what the words say.
The degree of mutability of the law is a key concern in any legal system, not just biblical law. Either extreme can be bad–an overly rigid system can block the way to a more enlightened and progressive society, while a system that is too open to modification can sink under the weight of poorly considered ideas. California’s proposition mechanism is an example of the latter problem–voters have been easily able to enact legislation to get things they want, and enact other legislation to keep their taxes low, with the result that the state has teetered on bankruptcy. Changing laws on a whim is not the answer, but neither is never changing them. The answer lies somewhere between California and the Bible.
Religion provides a source of comfort for many. Prayer is a significant component of that comfort, so we need to consider what prayer might be if it didn’t involve a supernatural conversation.
Key aspects of prayer for many people are the sense of exploring thoughts and feelings with a sympathetic listener, mulling over concerns in the hope of finding solutions, and, for some, communing with something larger than oneself. How would that work if we believe there is no one listening? Perhaps the answer is simply to move from prayer to meditation. The two have many similarities, and meditation has been an important part of religious practices from pagan times to the present. It is a well-regarded means of achieving inner comfort.
Meditation may even be an improvement for many people. A prayer to God (or a saint go-between) often contains an element of asking for something–to win the game, pass the test, make the sale, or attain some other advantage. By eliminating this element, which often is selfish and asks for a benefit to the supplicant at the expense of someone else, meditation may be a considerable improvement over prayer.
Of course, prayers often contain unselfish or even noble requests. But rather than praying for God to cure a child’s life-threatening illness, perhaps one’s energy could better be directed to learning about the illness, finding the best medical help, and conveying a positive attitude to the child. Extreme belief in the power of prayer to the extent of excluding medical attention is clearly harmful, yet the media has frequent accounts of parents who kill their children in this manner. And while there’s certainly nothing wrong with praying for noble ends, the cause of world peace, to take an example, would be far advanced if everyone who prayed for it instead did something concrete to further it.
A questionable aspect of prayer is its use to justify one’s actions. When people in authority (political figures are particularly galling in this regard) say they reached a difficult decision only after much prayer for God’s guidance, what they are really doing is making it difficult for anyone to oppose their wishes. Religious believers will tend to support the decision without thinking further about it, since the decision came from God. Opponents can be painted as unbelievers who pose a threat to carrying out God’s will. Getting God’s approval through prayer can be an effective smoke screen.
Don’t fear doing without beneficial prayer. Substitute meditation to help sort things out and find your place in the grand scheme of things; take responsibility for your decisions rather than using God’s whispered messages to validate what you wanted to do anyway; and make an honest effort to do what you can for yourself and others rather than asking God to take care of it for you.
Besides prayer, there are other comforts provided by religion. One of these is the belief of an eternal life in heaven after death. I think there is more to be gained than lost by giving up this belief. Savoring this world’s wonders, taking advantage of its opportunities, and attempting to fix some of its problems take on special importance when we know that time is limited. A life well lived precludes the need to look forward to something better.
Another religious comfort is the belief that God is watching over us, protecting us, and taking care of our needs. That belief is clearly not supported by what goes on in the real world. In a way, I would think letting go of such a belief might actually be a great relief to anyone attempting to reconcile a just and loving god with a god who stands by and does nothing to prevent a grievous tragedy. One’s anguish may not be lessened by ascribing a tragedy to the impersonal workings of the world, but at least it is not aggravated by the feelings of anger and confusion that we cannot help directing at a god who badly fails us but whom we are supposed to love anyway.
Churches (and, I’m sure, other religious venues with which I’m much less familiar) provide a reason for like-minded people to get together regularly and become acquainted, which often fosters a rewarding and worthwhile social life. A fond memory of mine from childhood is the strawberry festival, as it was called, that was orchestrated by our church’s members every summer. It featured trestle tables loaded with strawberry shortcake and grilled hot dogs and hamburgers set out on a lawn next to the church, with kids running around moderately amok. It was a great afternoon for the whole family, and the proceeds went to charity. In a similar spirit, in the community where I live now, church groups provide hot lunches for the needy, run charity fundraisers, and serve as a focal point for social interaction.
Those are fine things that communities should not want to lose. Some worthy substitutes do exist–many charitable organizations overlap the good works done by church groups, and may, in some areas, provide more services from the nongovernment sector than do churches. But I don’t know what would fill the social fellowship and mutual support holes that would exist in the absence of churches. Perhaps churches (and synagogues and mosques) can eventually evolve into organizations that support the good social and charitable aspects of these institutions while gradually deemphasizing things such as the inerrancy and sacredness of the Bible/Koran/Talmud, an omnipotent and all-seeing God, and the ritualistic and dogmatic differences between denominations. That would be good for everyone. And it may not be an overly optimistic hope–there is at least one denomination in existence, Unitarian Universalism, that embodies many of those characteristics.
(This article is excerpted from Heading for the Light: Dispelling the Shadows of Religion, a free e-book available in pdf and other e-reader formats at smashwords.com and other e-book sellers.)
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