The Thinker

The path to genuine enlightenment

Religious violence is hardly news. Religious violence, such as what is currently going on between Shi’ites and Sunnis in Iraq, should drive millions of people to atheism. No God worth worshipping could possibly approve of any violence in its name, let alone require us humans to use force and murder as a means of spreading the faith.

Religions though really aren’t so much about God as they are about people. Supposedly the purpose of religion is to draw us closer to God. What’s its real purpose? As best I can tell, its real purpose is the largely futile attempt to calm our restless and flawed human souls, something it does imperfectly at best. Sometimes it does succeed in bring some of us to a higher spiritual or moral plain, but overall its track record is pretty poor and its lessons don’t tend to stick permanently. If I had to pick a number, I’d say it works perhaps ten percent of the time, at least in inculcating permanent behavioral changes for the better. What typically happens is we may get better for a while, but then we revert to doing what we do best: being flawed human beings.

It’s worse than that because we all have certain imperfections and angsts, which means that we will be drawn toward religions that accentuate these issues within us. What a lot of us really crave is absolute certainty in an uncertain world, and most religions offer that. You just have to find the religion that most closely aligns with your imperfections and predispositions. But mostly, as I first pointed out a long time ago, we tend to be drawn to the religions we were born into, if any. If we are going to stay with a religion, it will be with one that has the comfort of familiarity and the sanction of our parents.

If you live in Iraq, it’s almost certain that you are a Muslim, but alas what kind of Muslim is what is far more important. Both Shi’ite and Sunni believe there is only one God: Allah. Great, you would think that would make religious life pretty simple. But instead they are arguing, and have been arguing and killing each other for more than a millennium and about something that really doesn’t matter. This is: when Mohammad died, did he intend for the religion to be dynastic (what the Shi’ites believe) or not (what the Sunnis believe). ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is busy killing Shi’ites in areas it has conquered, but really anyone, including Sunnis, that don’t or won’t tow the line on their extreme and puritanical version of Islam.

I’d accuse them of channeling George W. “You are either with us, or against us” Bush except of course both sects have been doing this far longer than our last president has been alive. It’s a cycle of violence that shows no sign of ever being extinguished. Neither side will ultimately prevail. As best I can tell, the only way to really kill this cycle of violence is for everyone Muslim to simply abandon the faith. That doesn’t seem likely.

Of course it’s not just the Muslims that can’t get along with each other. Protestants and Catholics have been murdering each other for centuries. Even before Protestantism emerged, Christianity was rife with religious persecution. My particular religion is Unitarian Universalism. Early in Christian history, the Trinitarians ruthlessly persecuted the Unitarians. The Unitarians (very sensibly I believe) concluded that the notion of God in three parts (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) made no sense whatsoever, so they were killed or persecuted for their heresy. They eventually sought refuge in what is now Romania and Hungary. Within Protestantism, various denominations persecuted minority denominations. The Pilgrims that helped form the United States was but one of them.

The general problem is that humans don’t deal well with people that don’t conform to their beliefs. Of course it’s not just religious beliefs, but all sorts of arguably weird stuff like whether gays should get married or the limits of government that foment our intolerance. It seems we are born to factionalize, and leaders of our factions assume leadership because they have learned the art of persuading followers that their beliefs are the only correct ones.

Given all of this, why wouldn’t you want to be an atheist? Why wouldn’t an atheist go out and evangelize? Curiously, die-hard atheists imitate the tactics of die-hard theists. Mostly what you hear is, “God is total bunk, a fairy tale, just Santa Claus for adults” and they will argue endlessly why this is so with their scorn clear in their voices. They tend to lampoon the religious as intellectually flawed sheep.

Atheism has always struck me as just proselytizing of a different sort. What is the track record of atheism? Does it make for a better world? While the jury is out, we do have the example of the Soviet Union, which was basically an atheist state, not to mention communist China. Its leaders did a wretched job of managing the country or even making socialism work. So I am skeptical that if we were all atheists and that they were in charge that we would end religious violence. For atheism has all the hallmarks of a religion, including its dogmatic certainty, just without God at its center. I am convinced that if we were all atheists, we would find reasons to beat the heads of other atheists. We haven’t seen much of this yet probably because they have not evolved into a large enough force. I can see splits between dogma-driven atheists, who might forbid the teaching of religion, from humanistic atheists.

So the larger problem is not religion per se, but the dogmatic nature of our species in general. We find comfort in being with people like us, be it culturally, racially or spiritually, but it seems best to us when it is all of the above. And all this is because to make sense of our world we have to discern clear patterns, even where they don’t exist clearly and even where the differences really don’t mean anything. We actually worship the necessity of patterns that we can slavishly follow, not God. I contend that the crux of the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite are trivial. And yet century after century they keep killing each other because of their need for certainty and comfort. They seem ill equipped to expand their thoughts to the larger notion that we are all brothers.

So, to channel Bill Maher, I propose a New Rule: put kindness toward all ahead of your religious faith or lack thereof. Realize that our various faiths and beliefs, while often helpful and insightful to those who practice those faiths and beliefs, are not the most important aspect of their lives or of our lives. Our most critical virtues need to be kindness, openness and an understanding that we really all are one.

It’s hard to practice and obviously I am not a saint in this matter. It’s hard for even me to see that the divide between Democrats and Republicans is not as wide as I think. However, if I can practice open listening and tolerance, I am likely to be heard and acknowledged by the other side. And open hearts should open doors of communications and facilitate enlightenment in general. So I too must practice looking and emphasizing for those things that I have in common with people unlike me. I need to practice dialog with people like this, dialog that is respectful and healing.

This, I think, is the path to real enlightenment.


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