By Hank Zumach, November 7, 2010
Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: “My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly.” This stranger is a theologian. —Denis Diderot, circa 1762
At first they probably didn’t have a special name. But they were believed to have special powers and knowledge, and the people went to them for answers. And over the centuries they gave the people answers, and the people accepted the answers as the truth, even when they did not understand.
As more centuries passed, they began to be called names such as shaman, healer, diviner, medicine man, sorcerer and witch doctor, and their role in the tribes became paramount because they always had answers, and the people did what they were told and behaved in certain ways and punished those few who did not obey the holy man. There was much suffering among the people, but that was the will of the gods.
Over the eons, great powers arose in places such as Persia, Egypt, Greece and Rome, and each were greatly influenced by what the gods told them to do. As always, the gods only spoke directly to the special few.
But these special religious leaders described what the laws must be, which behaviors were to be rewarded, and which punished. The gods told the religious leaders who should lead the governments, who should be enslaved, who should be suppressed or applauded.
It soon began to happen that those who worshipped the false gods had to be killed and so many wars happened. That was the will of the true gods (the gods of the conquerors) and so was the suffering among the people.
And soon we had the Holy Roman Empire, the Crusades, the Dark Ages and the Divine Right of Kings.
And so it has continued to this day, with the priests, ministers, bishops, rabbis, archbishops, imams, preachers, ayatollahs and popes. These religious leaders continue to have enormous influence in present-day society. Our world is afflicted with the teachings of religions.
In just the past few decades, we have had Protestant Christians, Catholic Christians, Orthodox Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Jews and Hindus killing each other, in one combination or another. At the same time, many of the religious leaders have paid scant attention to the problems of civil crimes, disease, suppression, bigotry, poverty, pollution of the planet.
Yes, some religious denominations devote a small portion of their income to helping the down-trodden, but nearly all of them are primarily concerned with preaching and spreading their dogma, not improving the poor social conditions. What is provided by most denominations is either silence or a perfunctory mention. Dogma overcomes the benevolence, just like it has always done.
Don’t believe it? Then ask yourself what is the effective Catholic or Protestant or Muslim or Jewish program to eliminate poverty? Cure common diseases? Stop the suppression of women? Stop bigotry? Stop pollution?
At what level of the religious hierarchy is there a meaningful effort to find acceptance and peace with each other? When do you expect a pope and an ayatollah to meet and work out their differences? When did you ever read a headline, “Atheists Attack Agnostics”?
How much more time must pass before we recognize the failure of religions to provide truly effective moral leadership and teachings? It might be easy to resign yourself to this by simply saying “That is just the way humans have always been. That is the only way we know how to act.”
Don’t believe it. Fact-based reasoning does exist. Moral and ethical behavior, that is not based on what some god supposedly wants, is being taught and practiced by a rapidly growing segment of the world’s population.
There are a number of countries that can be looked at for guidance. Simply compare the statistics for such things as life expectancy, crime rate, unwanted pregnancies, income disparity, etc. in the more religiously dominated and countries and those in the more secular countries.
You will find that in nearly all categories that might define a society as having good moral and ethical standards, that the secular societies lead the way.
Here in the U.S., the leaders of fundamentalist Christians are adamantly opposed to this approach, as are the leaders of the fundamentalist Jews, Muslims and Hindus in those countries where they have a dominating political power. It is insightful to consider how fundamentalists lose all interest in separation of church and state in those countries where they have the political power and control.
The time has arrived for societies in general to climb out of the darkness provided by religion and into the bright light provided by logic, reason, and fact-based decisions along with compassionate behavior towards our fellow human beings.
I began this column with a quote. Let me end it with one from Albert Einstein: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insanity.”