I saw a bumber sticker recently that read:
“Science flies you to the moon; Religion flies you into buildings”
Everyone with a memory of September 11, 2001 knows where they were and what they were doing when they watched the first truly global event of the new millennium. It was like seeing men walk on the moon or staring blankly as the Challenger exploded against the sky. There are moments that should matter more than others. They deserve our pause and reflection. They are markers in the history of our shared experience here on Earth because they tell us something about ourselves and about each other.
For me September 11th was the day of my final departure from believing in a God who cares about human affairs. Even before then, I was already a cynical agnostic, but one that tried to be respectful of what I saw as the ridiculous stories and ancient rituals of religion. Watching that second plane fly into the North Tower forever rid me of that compunction. My agnosticism was not fueled by any belief in personal salvation nor did I have faith that any of the religions that currently exist get close to describing much, less understanding, God.
That slight chance that I gave God for existing came from a deep, life-long curiosity about the world around me, and from my ability and persistence in wrestling with reality. (Wasn’t that what Jacob was really doing when he dared to go mano a mano with God?) But my agnosticism was instructed by my study of both God and man. I had abandoned religion long ago as an interesting, but ultimately false branch of human understanding. In my mind, religion is a living “fossil” in the ever evolving collection of our total knowledge. It reveals its origins from our early history in its practices, dogma, and rituals, and it displays its complete disregard for the true nature of objective reality in its various and contradictory superstitions.
Right now, for example, three religions that claim to believe in the same God and actually “share” a central sacred city have divided it, like children fighting over a room, and forbid one another from entering certain areas. These three religions, in fact, hold the rest of the world hostage as their constant real world quarrels (over land, resources, politics) become infected with language and beliefs from Bronze age ideologues. One religion reaffirms its covenant with God by chopping off their sons’ foreskins, the other claims the virgin birth and resurrection of a human sacrifice, and the last has built a huge temple around a black meteor. Do any of these sound like the behavior or beliefs of modern people who can communicate via satellite, perform organ transplants, land rovers on distant planets, manipulate DNA to produce biolumenscent pigs and have access to arsenals of weapons (and ideas) that can obliterate life? Hardly.
In order to excel as the only species able to talk back to the universe, we need to evolve a world-view that understands the truth about our situation. That we are here alone, for now, in a distant corner of our galaxy, on a tiny wet planet circling a funny little star. But that we are not insignificant. We are able to look back at the glorious mystery that stares us in the face and challenges us to better understand it and its grander meaning, if there is one. And we have done a really good job of answering those questions without religion. In fact, many times, religion has impeded the progress of science, art, philosophy and civilization in general. Religion has taken advantage of people’s inner goodness and desire for answers to great questions by appealing to their feelings of doubt and their ignorance.
Just think of the wealth that had to be stolen from the hard work of ordinary people in order to build the majestic structures that we can visit today through Priceline. Think of the human labor and energy wasted building Angkor Wat or St. Peter’s Basilica. What if the brilliant minds that created those structures had not been so obsessed with the fairly tales to imaginary gods that drove them to create such monuments? Imagine if Gutenberg had printed and spread a tome filled with the ideas of Pythagoras, Omar Khayyam, Euclid, Liu Hui and Epicurus, instead of the nonsense collected and revered in the Bible. How much further along could we be now as a global civilization if we were not so deluded by our need to believe something greater than ourselves? I imagine that if our ancestors had been freed earlier from superstition or magical inclinations, that they would have discovered the truth about germs, disease, energy, chemistry, the universe, life and other aspects of reality in general, and that humanity’s prize today would be much more than just a few grand relics to dead or dying gods.
If we release ourselves now from our ancient superstitions, we will not stop searching for meaning or pursuing wonderful projects. But we will be better equipped for the necessary exchange of information and resources. Human knowledge has been the great collective project that has driven civilization. Whatever established religion had to offer to the discussion, it is no longer contributing to our further progress. We are now positioned to take a great leap forward, knowing what we know about the world, ourselves and the challenges that confront us. Religion only serves to divide us by adding on an unnecessary layer of confusion to our greatest universal pursuits. Unfortunately, we will go on fighting about borders and skin color and personal insults and favorite sports teams. We will still have plenty of other disagreements without God in the way.
But we persist in playing Pascal’s wager on the safe side, when it is the other bet that would free us to explore our better selves. Believing in God in general, and a specific God in particular, ties us to irrational dogmas that always come with other messy, unnecessary corollaries. If there is a God, and we don’t believe, I think we will act godly every moment of our lives, without instruction from the outside. Using what we know of goodness from history and from personal experience. Just as we tear apart the pages of the holy books, keeping what sits right with our collective hearts, we can use our minds to find what is divine in all of us, once we can accept that on Earth, at least, we are all alone.
Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2009. All rights reserved.