Apr/May 2004 Salon

Religion: What's It Good For?

by Paul Sampson

How would Consumer Reports rate the various religions? After all, each of them makes various offers to its customers—pardon me, believers—and these claims ought to be testable for veracity. Each offers certain benefits to the faithful, and we ought to be able to compare their desirability. And each one asks for money, so it's fair to inquire what you get for your faith dollar, pound, euro, peso, peseta, shekel, dinar, yen, rupee, or sacrificial goat.

I didn't think this up unaided. About 30 years ago, I heard a recording of a comedy routine by some British group. If it wasn't Flanders and Swann, it was someone else in that civilized style. They did a little cost-benefit analysis of Islam, Roman Catholicism, and the Church of England, asking about each: What does it offer, what does it cost, and (very important in their view) what about divorce? I wish I had a copy of the recording to refresh my memory—and just to enjoy, because it really was a hoot—but I don't, so I'll go on with my own version.

We will examine not so much the major religions but "religion" itself, regardless of brand name, under three headings: believability, benefits, and costs. (Note my switch to the editorial "we." That's because of my intense respect for tradition. Traditionally, editors who wish to sound as though they speak for all right-thinking people say "we" instead of "I." Since our subject today is so steeped in tradition, we thought I'd better say "we.")



So far as I—sorry, we can tell—it may take me a little while to get used to being plural—all religions and sects thereof are centered on the belief in a god or gods or at least some transcendent force or entity outside direct human experience.

This transcendent being (one will do for purposes of discussion; if you believe in a larger number, bear with us for a bit) is usually seen as the creator of all else, including us (and this time we really mean "us," not just me).

This being is also generally considered a source of moral teaching, or at least rule-making. He (and you may take this "gender" as a grammatical convention, or you may take it literally; suit yourself; more to come about his personal attributes) often imparts these rules to us in writing. He or they have "written" (usually by proxy) a truly remarkable number of Holy Books, all of which are considered the unique source of divine knowledge by their adherents. All of the faithful consider all of the other books unworthy; the negative opinions range from scorn to hatred. Rival books have often been destroyed. Burning is the usual editorial technique.

This (or these) god (or gods) often demand(s) to be sucked up to on a lavish scale. This is called worship, and it usually involves considerable inconvenience to the worshipers. Often in the past, and sometimes still, religious duty has required the clientele to kill an animal for the presumed good of the god. Here and there in history, divine self-regard has required that the faithful sacrifice their own lives. More commonly, worshipers of other gods are given this honor. The sacrificial rituals may be carried out on an altar or may require an entire battlefield. At no time in history have people run short of victims, animal or human.

In recent times, animal sacrifice, with its attendant mess and stench, has given way to the sacrifice of money. Now, money has always had a mystical side to it. Having little or no intrinsic value (ever try to eat a coin?), it has intense symbolic value and may be literally the holiest man-made object. Until recently, banks were built to resemble temples. The strip-mall banks may look less holy, but then so do strip-mall churches. Money is still beautifully engraved, as befits a sacramental instrument.

Human sacrifice is less common than formerly, if we restrict it to the kind of ceremony involving altars and priests. But warfare has replaced the blood-soaked pyramid; we send Our Boys out in the name of our sacred cause, and each nation invokes its favored gods to bless the slaughter. Here we see the conflation of the Church and State at its most dramatic. Chaplains counsel soldiers to be savages. People who object to this are considered both traitors and infidels, and they are dealt with accordingly.

Now, if our gods were only bloodthirsty tyrants who demanded sacrificial worship, we might tire of them. But most traditions have a nursery version of their gods, and these warm fuzzy stories are told to adults as well as children. Endure some hideous loss—say, the murder of the one you love—and some pious person will assure you that God loves you and is taking care of everything, and that even though you don't appreciate it now, you will understand it all by and by. This is called the comfort of religion.

You might ask yourself why anyone would believe this. A fair question, we admit, but the practitioners of all the name-brand religions have an answer. Basically, the answer is the same for all of them, and it is admirably simple:

Because God said so.

Yep, all those Holy Books we mentioned, whether written or handed down orally, all assure us that they are the truth, or rather The Truth. Remarkably, they agree on little else, but in general they all agree with our favorite bumper sticker. This slogan, often observed in Texas (where this is article is being written, incidentally) reads:

God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

And so it does, one supposes, for the drivers of those cars. Others might require more elegantly reasoned underpinnings for their faith, but these are not hard to find.

Travel with us now through Time—backward, of course; we are already traveling forward together in Time, at the same time. It's 1958. Here we are in a classroom in a great University operated by a great and learned Religious Order, famed for its intellectual power. The class is called Dogmatic Theology. A student timidly raises his hand, and the black-robed savant at the front of the room motions him to speak. "Father," says the seeker after knowledge, "What do we believe about the Virgin Birth?" And of course Father tells him, in amazing detail, just what "we" believe about the Virgin Birth. It will be on the Final Exam.

But just down the hall, another Blackrobe, at the front of another classroom, takes a more philosophical approach. This class is called Metaphysics, but don't start thinking it's some New Age claptrap. He is teaching the Proofs of God's Existence, as given unto us by St. Thomas Aquinas. The foundation of these proofs (which are cribbed from Aristotle, whom Aquinas called The Philosopher, snubbing the pre-Socratics and Plato among others) is: Hey, all this stuff came from somewhere, and so somebody put it there, you know? And if it wasn't there once, and someone put it there, then that someone had to be eternal, right?

This ignores the possibility that all this stuff was always there, and thus is itself eternal (though eternally changing, what with Big Bangs and expansion and contraction of the Universe and all that modern cosmology stuff), but it is a good deal more respectable than singing "How Do I Know? The Bible Tells Me So." So let's give old Aquinas some credit (even if Aristotle did a lot of the heavy lifting). He did offer some intellectually respectable reasons to think there might be somebody Out There who started the balls spinning.

The trouble starts right after the philosophers "prove" the existence of a creator. Immediately, without pausing for breath, the believers say, "and he gave us this Holy Book." Aquinas is as bad as any of them about this; his great work is called the Summa Theologica, not the Summa Philosophica. No sooner does he give us a set of philosophical pegs to hang a belief on, than he hares off into arcane doctrines about the Sacraments and the Trinity and—oh yes—the Virgin Birth. And the line goes straight from there to the bumper sticker: God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

The bumper sicker, alas, is shorthand for a whole catalog of Bible Believe It Or Not items that have migrated from religion to politics. The most spectacular of these is the refusal to believe in evolution and the recurring attempts to include "Creation Science" in school curricula. For reasons that deserve another essay (and maybe a better essayist), this retreat from intelligence, far from causing a scandal, has the powerful sponsorship of a whole movement in American politics. We're not talking about mere intellectual laziness or mere ignorance of philosophical traditions or mere scientific illiteracy. We're talking about virulent anti-intellectualism as a principle. Bible: good. Science: bad.

If we were talking about the ignorance of some socially isolated folk culture, some Just-Plain-Folks who ain't got no book-l'arnin' rustics, this might be understandable or even charming. But there aren't any such folks any more. There never were very many to begin with, and we've had compulsory education in this country for a couple of centuries now. We've had mass media since radio caught on 80 years ago. Nobody can claim they haven't been exposed to the basics of post-Enlightenment thought.

We are also not talking about some highly refined rejection of overwrought philosophy in favor of a direct experience of the ineffable. This isn't St. Augustine saying "Credo quia absurdum"—I believe because it's absurd. This is a kind of voluntary ignorance that simply refuses to be cured.

Now, we trust you to do your anthropology homework and familiarize yourself with the other traditions. Most of them seem (to us, admittedly not steeped in every school of religious scholarship) to skip the philosophy and get right to the doctrine, though of course you can impose a philosophy on anything in retrospect. Sadly, boneheaded fundamentalist ignorance is a cross-cultural standard. Hindus slaughter Muslims over the location of a temple, prompting bloody retaliation—or was it the other way around? You could look it up, or just wait until the next misunderstanding. Taliban holy warriors, taking a break from torturing their own women in obedience to their reading of their own Scriptures, use artillery to express their theological objection to some massive Buddhist sculptures, turning high art into gravel. Catholic and Protestant Irishmen employ dynamite to explain fine points of catechism to one another. One may assume they all believe in God.

So: is religion believable? Well, yes, in the sense that clearly a lot of people believe it. Is that a good thing? We'll get to that in a moment, in the section on Benefits. Is this widespread belief supported by evidence? Certainly not, if the "evidence" is the Holy Scriptures of the various systems. Can you say "circular reasoning?" Trouble is, those who think in circles think the argument gets stronger each time around.

There are some other reasons for belief. Philosophy has had a pretty good shot at it, but its arguments have been called "conclusive, not coercive." That is, the arguments—"proofs" if you like—are internally consistent and follow the usual rules of logic. In other words, they aren't embarrassing. They give those who are inclined to belief some intellectual cover.

And the urge to believe is undeniable. Unless you are a lot more self-centered than most of us, you don't believe that you created the Universe. And unless you believe that the Universe itself is all there is or ever was (a perfectly respectable belief, and the one to which we incline, if you must know), then you may very well conclude that somebody or something Out There did it.

And maybe he/she/it/they did. Who knows? This is simply unanswerable. Any answers are speculation. Verification is impossible. So believe what you like, and let everyone else do likewise, which is good politics anyway. Meantime, we will be off to the side, singing "It Ain't Necessarily So."

The believability problem arises after we reach this philosophical point. Here's where we encounter the Holy Books. They are all exactly equally credible, which is to say they are all human productions and cannot serve as their own verification. If you believe that the Bible is believable because it's the Bible, then maybe you ought to allow that the Koran is believable because it's the Koran, but you won't. One circular argument per customer seems to be the rule.

There is a way out of this, a Third Way if you like: respectful agnosticism about who or what is behind the veil, and respectful attention to the Holy Books as metaphors, parables, or myths. Here we use "myth" in its technical sense of a traditional story that embodies things held to be true to life, though not necessarily narrowly factual. A myth isn't a lie, it's a story that might start out: "Suppose that..."

That approach is the tacit assumption of a lot of churchgoers, including a lot of very orthodox scientists. Unfortunately, it irritates the skin off the true believers, who consider it downright blasphemous to suggest that their Holy Writ is anything but the literal record of the words of the Almighty as dictated (and transcribed without so much as a spelling error) to the prophets (or The Prophet, if we're talking about the Koran).

The real sticking points for those who want to take their scriptures symbolically is the idea that God intervenes in history, and that there is another, invisible realm where we will go when we die. Here the evidence is what you make of it. For an agnostic, a volcanic eruption has to do with the unfinished business of planet formation; Earth's innards are still rumbling and spitting up. To the believer, a wrathful God has had enough of the heathenish hedonists of Pompeii. And to an agnostic, death surely looks like the end of the story. The believer is obsessed with the idea that there is more to come. Now, either you believe this or you don't. If you do, you do so on absolutely pure speculation, on a fearful wish, and on the "evidence" of Scripture.

People who believe in divine appearances in history can find it absolutely anywhere. Our favorite, in a grim way, turns up at nearly any funeral preached in a Bible-centered church. "We don't know why God has taken Brother Jim Bob," saith the preacher, who might be expected to know that the brother got hit by a train. Following the preacher's logic, God, for reasons unrevealed, placed Jim Bob's pickup on THAT grade crossing at THAT time, precisely too late to escape the train that Jim Bob failed to notice, being profoundly drunk. There is no doubt about the causality: God did it. We don't know why, but it will be revealed to us by and by in the sky.

It goes without saying (but it does get said at great length) that the God who does all this resembles Man pretty closely. The proposition gets stated the other way—man is made in the image of God—but it's pretty clear what's at work in this. "An honest man's the noblest work of God," said Alexander Pope, and wits ever since have said, "and vice versa" (Samuel Butler usually gets credit for the corrected version). Either way, the Unnamable gets named and nicknamed and generally reduced to a Disney character who looks like us, only bigger and much, much older. The irreverence and sheer vulgarity of this seems lost on its practitioners. But (it seems to us) if there is Something behind the veil, it doesn't look like Charlton Heston's Grandpa.

Time to summarize our notes on believability: Religion is believable if you believe that sort of thing. Suit yourself. Deal us out. On to the next section!



Since religion is unquestionably inconvenient, why bother? What's in it for you? Well, there are both positive and negative consequences. You get good stuff if you believe, bad stuff if you don't, and best of all, your enemies get the worst stuff you can imagine.

To hear the believers tell about it, the best of the best stuff is Salvation. You live on after death. You go to Heaven when you die. The worst of the bad stuff is the same thing only reversed: You live on after death. You go to Hell when you die.

These paired beliefs are apparently absolutely riveting to a lot of people. They are doggedly determined to get to Heaven, and even more enthusiastic about avoiding Hell. This could be a harmless enough belief, except that a great many people use it to excuse some pretty terrible things that happen while we are waiting around for the ride to the other world. Why concern yourself with war and poverty and injustice? It's all just temporal (or just illusion, if you're from Way Back East, like India or around there). In any case, you'll get your reward hereafter, so quit whining.

If this postmortem bliss were all religion offered, it probably wouldn't have the mass appeal it clearly does. Deferred gratification just isn't for everyone. As it happens, religion can be pretty rewarding here below, too.

And here we can abandon any pose of cynicism. Religion, traditional, church-going, ritual-bound, doctrinally orthodox religion, is generally good for people (it can also be devastatingly bad for people, but let's save that for our section on Costs, below).

As a general rule, religion makes people better behaved than they would be without it. Religions demand certain norms of behavior. There are a lot more than Ten Commandments, and they cover most of the choices people are likely to have to make. Man is a law-making animal, and a remarkably law-keeping animal, too. The rewards and punishments promised in the various Holy Books and preached by the various priests, pastors, rabbis, imams and gurus have the intended effect. People, for the most part, obey the rules.

For which we say Thank God (metaphorically, of course). It might be nice, philosophically speaking, if more people obeyed the rules out of simple regard for their fellow beings, or out of a deep appreciation of the Categorical Imperative. But if it takes the threat of hellfire to keep some jerk from crime, then lay on the brimstone sermons.

Further, and more attractively, religion makes being good seem more appealing socially and esthetically than being a predatory jerk. From the Sermon on the Mount to the teachings of the Compassionate Buddha, the decent, helpful, generous person is admired. Compare and contrast the behavior taught and rewarded in Business School, where "ethics" is defined as minimum compliance with the narrowest construction of the fewest laws. If you value altruism, thank religion.

This makes church people good company, good citizens, and good neighbors, at least within their own sect, and that's no small benefit. Consider what mischief people are capable of. You don't need a philosophy course for this contemplation; just turn on the TV at News time. Then consider that nearly every church, synagogue, mosque and temple of whatever creed has some organized way of helping other people. Maybe it's limited to the members, but it sure beats doing nothing. And it's miles better than the "conservative" belief that helping others is Bad For Them In The Long Run (funny how some of the same people who don't want Evolution taught in school are the fiercest Social Darwinists).

And for sheer companionship, churches and their counterparts across the sectarian spectrum are hard to beat. They sponsor everything from bowling nights to Bible Camp to pilgrimages to Mecca, and they give all their members lots of relatively unstressed time together, doing things they all like to do (much better than work in that regard, wouldn't you say?). A regular part of a lot of church buildings in our part of the world is the "Fellowship Hall," which is where the social events take place. Alas for the English language, people (we are not making this up) say they go there "to fellowship." They will probably be forgiven by the Language God, a good fellow himself.

These benefits accrue to the irreligious, too. If your personal moral code forbids you to abuse the poor, you can literally thank Jesus (and the Hebrew prophets and Mohammed and the Buddha, among others) for enshrining this value in doctrine.

It's a little like the minimum wage. Even if you don't like unions and wouldn't join one, you can thank the union movement (and its martyrs) for the struggles that made it illegal to pay actual starvation wages in this country. Similarly, even atheists can thank religions for quite a lot of the laws that protect us (and yes, this can easily be pressed too far, and often it is—again, see the section on Costs, below, on the baleful effects of mixing Church and State).

So is religion a Good Thing? Well, it certainly does some good things, in that its practitioners are often useful, charitable, and law-abiding, and credit their beliefs for their good behavior. It certainly provides a social structure that satisfies our human social needs. And it provides a mythic structure too, a body of stories that we tell one another to express important values. That last item goes a long way in taking the bad taste out of the "believability" problem. So long as the church folks allow the rest of us to take the doctrines metaphorically, we can all agree a lot more than we differ.



Never mind the money. Most churches don't try to gouge you. The television swindlers and the megachurch entrepreneurs and success-peddlers aside, most of them either set a customary tithe that everyone kicks in, or they settle for what you will part with voluntarily. And a lot of them really do give to the poor.

The costs of religion that irritate us are mainly twofold: intellectual honesty and political freedom. Too often, your friendly neighborhood deity wants you to sacrifice both.

We've gone over the believability problems at sufficient length, except to note that to surrender your reason is a crime against self for sure and probably against nature. If there happens to be a god, and that entity gave us reason, then it ought to be pissed off, too, when we cave in to credulous belief in the spooks that pass for orthodox deities. If you think you know the answers to the big existential questions because God gave you a book of answers, you belong in custodial care, not in politics, and certainly not in a university. If you are getting messages from God, you are not holy, you are nuts. People who are on a first-name basis with The Unnamable, and who know the daily agenda of The Unknowable, are also nuts.

And here I had better drop the editorial "we" so there is no doubt about who is speaking. I do NOT respect everyone's religious beliefs. In fact, I have a deep and abiding contempt for all the Him-Big-Fella-Live-In-Sky religions, Christianity most certainly and specifically included. I consider a literal belief in scriptural Christianity a nursery religion, unfit for persons over the age of twelve. Myths, metaphors, fine: but literal belief in written instructions from the Other World? Ghost stories, fit for Boy Scout campfire scares.

What I respect is your right to your beliefs. This is a political matter, not a religious one. I am an American citizen, a true and orthodox believer in the Constitution. That noble document guarantees everyone's freedom of religious belief and practice, so long as neither is made compulsory for anyone else. Let's make this really clear: My freedom of religion means my freedom from your religion, and it means your freedom from mine.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the world and a discouraging number of people in my free country do not agree. They want everyone to share their own beliefs, and they are quite willing to make goddamn sure we do. Fundamentalist Muslims, fanatic Hindus, angry Irish Protestants and Catholics, Bible-waving yahoos in America—all of them have been quite willing to kill the unbelievers, all in the name of God. In our own country, only a few believers have taken up the sword, but enough have done so to make it clear that we aren't safe from the Wrath of God in the person of some righteous halfwit with a rifle or a truck full of fertilizer.

As I write, we have a Government headed by men who believe that Jesus is our leader. Their national anthem is "Onward, Christian Soldiers." They are dangerous fools, and they consider themselves anointed by God. That is part of the cost of religion, and you pay it whether you subscribe to the official beliefs or not.


So, Religion: Good Buy or Goodbye?

There's your little consumer's guide. Should you spend your energy, your money, your life on it? This reviewer won't, but don't let that discourage you. It really is a free country. Just remember that the few bucks you put in the collection are only part of the price.


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