Almanac: Religion Introduction

As a philosopher, few topics inspire as much fascination for me as religion. As indicated by a previous article, I’m an anti-organized religion agnostic ultimate atheist. To go a little more in-depth, I’m firmly of the conviction that nobody should worship anything and that people should pursue their spirituality independently without allowing others to tell them what to believe. In other words, one of my greater life philosophies is phrased thusly in Assassin’s Creed II:

“Do not follow me, or anyone else.” – Ezio Auditore

However, though I strongly oppose organized religion, I can see many benefits to religion in and of itself:

The first (and perhaps most obvious) is that religion has produced an enormous amount of astonishingly beautiful art. A good first place to begin showing this, I think, is the religious texts themselves; for instance, the King James Version is a poetic, quality translation of the Bible that has become one of the best-selling books of all time. This, to me, makes sense; Christianity is the world’s most prominent religion, and English books are the best-selling. Why though, one might ask, would this particular translation rise to the top?

King James Bible

Well, of course, there’s the fact that it saw a pretty freaking wide distribution in England, and therefore when the English came to the United States it’s the one they brought along with them. However, that still leaves the question as to why England basically recycled it over and over again for centuries rather than making any new translations when it grew archaic. In my opinion it’s because not only is it (reportedly) a good translation, it’s also beautifully written. Of course, I might just be a sucker for flowery early modern English resembling Shakespeare’s (it probably helps that Shakespeare was supposedly one of the translators), but a sign of quality writing is memorability, and we have a long list of common phrases from this translation, including:

“Bottomless pit,”

“Den of thieves,”

“God forbid,”

and “Holier than thou.”

These are phrases that have been stuck in our heads for half a millennium now. Only the universally-recognized genius Shakespeare has had such a huge impact on English. That’s some damn good writing right there.

Another such enormous literary achievement is, of course, the Quran. As I said before, memorability is a pretty good sign of quality writing, and the Quran had to be memorable; according to Islamic tradition, Mohammed was illiterate and had to recite it for others to memorize and write down. Assuming this is true, I can only assume it’s pretty memorable. It’s been compelling enough to become a religious text for over a billion people, and it’s had an even bigger impact on Arabic than the KJV has had on English. As for my take on it, although I don’t know Arabic I’ve read an English translation and found it to be quite pretty. Of course, this could simply be a translation far outshining its source material, but as I understand it this is pretty hard to do. Until I can read the original Arabic text myself, I feel rather confident assuming it that it is, in fact, a literary masterpiece.

Quran

While we’re on the subject of the Islamic world, let’s talk about their calligraphy. Muslims are insanely good at calligraphy. If you don’t believe me, take a look:

Student Islamic CalligraphyIslamic Lamp

Working Title/Artist: Leaf from a Qur'an manuscriptDepartment: Islamic ArtCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 07Working Date: 13th-14th century photography by mma, Digital File DP238067.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 5_31_12In this Thursday, Jan. 26 2012 photo, Palestinian calligraphy expert Adel Fauzy practices at his studio in the West Bank town of Hawara, near Nablus. Parchment, feathers and "qalams," a pen made of dried bamboo, are still used by sophers Jewish scribes and khattats Muslim calligraphers. AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)Tell me these writings aren’t drop-dead gorgeous. Because the Islamic people venerate the Quran so enormously and they’ve had a general aversion to graphical images due to their strict laws against idolatry, they’ve naturally become perhaps the world’s best calligraphers, rivaled only by the Chinese. After all, constraints foster creativity.

And of course, buildings. Religion has produced what are (in my opinion) the world’s most beautiful buildings. Here are some mosques, temples, churches, and other awesome, awesome buildings from an assortment of religions:

Notre Dame de Paris

Buddhist Temple

Shinto Temple

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Need I even mention the paintings that religion’s produced?

da Vinci John the Baptist

Creation of Adam

Or the sculptures?

Buddha

Pieta

Yeah. Needless to say, religion inspires unbelievably amazing art.

But then why, you might ask, do I oppose organized religion so strongly? For the answer to that, look up the Spanish Inquisition. Or the Crusades. Or the Salem Witch Trials. Or the September Eleventh Terrorist Attacks. Even if you think those are  overly dramatic examples of religion’s harm, go look at Jehovah’s Witness deaths over (lack of) blood transfusions or LGBT suicides over bullying.

Now, I want to make something abundantly clear: I do not think it’s religion’s fault these sorts of things occur. After all, the world’s most genocidal man was an atheist. Rather, I believe that it’s the problem of mankind itself; I believe that humans are basically evil and that kind, virtuous people are rare (and by the way, before any of you start shouting that I’m even more full of myself than I am, I don’t count myself among the decent; I may be on the side of the angels, but don’t think for one second that I am one of them). I think that rather than allowing passion or conscience to drive them, people allow fear to be their primary emotion, and that religion simply accommodates and (potentially) amplifies this.

Therein lies my greatest criticism of religion: I think that, taken literally, it’s almost invariably fear-based. People even readily admit this; notice how common the phrase “God-fearing” is. Especially with Abrahamic religions, ethics essentially boils down to “carrots and sticks;” do good, and you’ll be rewarded. Do evil, and you’ll receive punishment. In my opinion, this way of viewing the world is deeply misguided and cowardly.

Of course, I think that religion can do great things, as well; in my opinion, the wisest of all men were deeply religious (Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Fred Rogers, etc.) and religion has inspired a great deal of charity, warmth, and brotherhood.

The reason I believe religion is capable of causing such tremendous evil is because it can make people act in fear of the ultimate retribution: eternal suffering. The reason I believe religion is capable of inspiring such tremendous compassion is quite simple: people are very visual creatures.

To explain what I mean by this, think of the method of loci or Oriental abacists. People are able to memorize staggering amounts of information and make enormous calculations by visualizing imaginary locations and objects. By the same token, we use stories to teach lessons; with Hansel and Gretel, we use the vivid imagery of being eaten alive and burning in a furnace to teach the lesson of not trusting strangers. With the Lion and the Mouse, we get an obviously highly contrasted pair of characters to demonstrate for us the potential self-benefitting nature of altruism. Wise religious leaders have thoroughly understood this; Jesus framed his lessons as parables, one of the most famous being the Good Samaritan, establishing that all men are brothers and should show compassion and kindness to one another (as a brief aside I think it would do Islamophobic Christians much good to recall this parable).

What I’m ultimately saying is: we need stories in order to learn, and in many respects religions have the most potent stories, and therefore the most potent lessons. After all, it’s hard to get loftier and more vivid than lakes of brimstone and fire or a parting sea or being raised from the dead. This is where I believe the benefit of religion lies: it has perhaps the most powerful images and ideas with which we can learn and understand the world.

By this standard I am in a way deeply religious myself; I use books to shape my morals and the characters therein to be the personifications of my ideals to be emulated.

However, once again, I would advise against organized worship, or even worship altogether; when it comes down to it, my thoughts on whether or not there’s a God (or gods) is: I don’t care. If none exist, I’ll live the best I can with the time I have. If one does, I acknowledge it as nothing more than another being with greater power than myself and I will continue to attempt to live ethically and happily, regardless of what it tells me or threatens to do. Anything that wants to be worshipped doesn’t deserve to, and anything that deserves to be worshipped wouldn’t want to, and therefore I worship nothing.

Although I believe that it would ultimately be better for people not to worship anything, I believe that so long as people are kind to one another and strive to make the world a happier and more peaceful place it ultimately doesn’t matter what they believe.

This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.” 

Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso