Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Human Nature

Worth repeating:

Often I read arguments made by Atheists, Marxists, or Agnostics that primarily focus on organized religion as a source of most of the world’s problems. They correctly point out that a majority of wars are started upon religious unrest, or major humanitarian atrocities were performed under the guise of religious obedience. If religion was to be eradicated from the earth, they believe that mankind would live a much more peaceful existence. I have no problem acknowledging the problems religion has caused the world, but I think it’s foolish to assume that religion is what brings the worst out of mankind. I think it’s exactly the opposite; mankind has used the power of faith to execute its existing desires. Religion is merely a platform from which to operate, and if it wasn’t religion, it would be something else. You’re welcome to make a straw-man out of religion, but it is mankind itself who is responsible for its own misdeeds.

I've written more than once about the disrespect (sometimes blatant, sometimes thinly veiled) that evangelicals have traditionally expressed toward the rest of the world. While that seems to be slowly changing, the church still has a long way to go toward treating its neighbors as though they were anything more than conversion targets.

On the flip side of that, of course, is the fact that respect must ultimately flow in more than one direction. There are certainly many atheists who respect those who believe differently than they do, but there are many more who don't. "Fundamentalist" may have strong religious connotations, but when two or more groups are similarly militant, dogmatic and intolerant, it's not unreasonable to use the same label to describe those traits wherever they appear.

And any atheist who argues that eliminating religion would make the world a better place is overlooking the fact that two of history's biggest mass murderers (Stalin and Mao) were atheists. (Hitler may or may not have been a strict atheist, but in practice he demonstrated little regard toward organized religion except as a temporary means to an end.) As fallacious as it may be to claim that atheism must lead to the kinds of atrocities that have been perpetrated by Communist regimes over the last 90 years, it's just as wrong to insist that religion automatically leads down a similar path.

In the end, human nature is human nature regardless of the circumstances people find themselves in. Most people seem to have an inborn need to align themselves with something larger and more important than themselves. If not religion, such individuals will rally around patriotism, communism, environmentalism or some other -ism. Within James Fowler's system, these individuals are at Stage Three in their faith development, and most people are content to stop growing once they reach that point. Most are capable of growing further, but such growth cannot be forced and life certainly is far more comfortable when one can leave all the difficult choices to an external authority that claims to have all of life's answers.

Thus history continually repeats itself as majorities follow after demagogues, who wield the power granted by their followers to crush nonconformists and wage crusades against those outside the group. Take away any given religion or -ism and another will take its place.

Even from a strictly utilitarian standpoint, then, there is value in any religion that teaches its followers to tend to their own affairs and live in peace with nonbelievers. Such faiths have their limits, since many Stage Three individuals crave conformity to such a degree that they will only be satisfied by a group that zealously condemns and works to stamp out the sins of others. Nonetheless, no secular ideology has yet been devised that handles such individuals any better. And those of us who believe that our respective faiths are more than superstition are not going to abandon our beliefs simply because they can be exploited by the unscrupulous to manipulate those who are content to remain children.

Perhaps someday a society will arise that is capable of ushering the majority of its citizens into the moral and spiritual adulthood of Stage Five. In the meantime, the best place we can start if we want to see positive change lies not in eradicating our ideological rivals but in being agents for peace and compassion in our own lives.


CrackerLilo said...

I have to admit that since I am religious (though a polytheistic Pagan), it is very hard for me to read some of the atheist writing that's come out recently. My wife and brother are atheist, and though they do have some anger at monotheistic conservative religion, they don't recognize themselves in atheists' writings. As my brother says, "I like being an atheist because I don't have to do anything but not believe in God, which is ridiculously easy for me, and get on with my life. These guys want me to sign on to a whole agenda, just like fundie Christians."

There are lots of atheist blogs whose writers have attitudes more like my brother's and wife's than like Christopher Hitchens' and Sam Harris'. I also recommend the woefully neglected Nica Lalli, who addresses things like how to raise children to be ethical without religion.

Eugene said...

It is sad that the most reasonable voices are so often drowned out by the alarmists and the demagogues. Want to be popular? Drop the nuance and tell your audience how horrible the people they dislike are. Sadly, that mindset isn't limited to partisan politics...

BentonQuest said...

Well written!

What I find frustrating is when people choose to remain in stage three, not realizing that by moving on can help them to live in a world that, although not as clean cut, is much more livable.