Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Opiate of the Masses

"Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." (Karl Marx)

I've been meaning to write on religion here for a while now, but I never knew how I would organize my thoughts. Perhaps that was out of fear of confronting my own standpoint on the matter. To be completely honest, I've never steeped myself deeply into study of religion, be it my own or anyone else's. I lumped it in with politics and philosophy, also known as things-I-can't-be-bothered-to-learn. I much preferred the realm of hard math and science, things that can be proven, things I didn't have to struggle with. My mind, surely, could rest upon that.

But let me now concede that the human mind begs to be shaken up every once in a while, it yearns and thirsts for stimulation that the wonders of this world are all too ready to provide.

What follows is a very, very long entry, so if you care to read it, simply click "More..."


I was provoked into writing this.

I came across an article, "10 Reasons You Should Never Have a Religion" by Steve Pavlina. After having read the article "How to Be a Man" from the same site, I had moderately good feelings about this one, as "How to Be a Man" was very well-written.

What I'm about to present is a mixed-feelings "review" of sorts about the article, splashed in with my own thoughts. To match parallel with the article, I'm going to organize this the way his article is organized, so you (and I) can follow along in a coherent fashion.
Also, note that his article leans toward Christianity when discussing religion, and so will mine.

Point 1:
Spirituality for dummies.
"When you subscribe to a religion, you substitute nebulous group-think for focused, independent thought."

First, Pavlina asserts that religion suppresses the human mind by telling you what to believe and discouraging you to think for yourself. This is a point I agree with him on. If there's anything I'm against, it's blind faith. Why should you do something simply because you were told? I'm a huge advocate for research, and I can agree with Pavlina in saying that you must use your mind for spiritual growth, rather than operating on a set of rules by rote.

Point 2
Loss of spiritual depth perception.
"Religious “truths” are inherently rooted in a fixed perspective, but real truth is perspective-independent... Religious mysteries, however, arise not from what is truly unknowable; they arise from the limitations of trying to understand reality from a fixed frame of reference."

This pretty much ties right into the first point in encouraging free thought. It brings in a point that drives home for me, though, that first sentence in the quoted text: "real truth is perspective-independent." When I first began thinking about philosophy at the beginning of high school, one thing I found out and still believe to this day is that life and reality is perspective. Everything is perspective. Were it not for hard science and math, I'd even tell you that there is no such thing as absolute truth. An "absolute truth," in my opinion, is something nobody can disagree on. However, even math, which many mathematicians conclude to be the only absolute truth (of course, they're mathematicians), can fall short of that: if you tell an uneducated man from an obscure third-world country that "two plus two equals four," he wouldn't know what the hell you're talking about. For one, you're probably not speaking his language. He might understand the concept, but your reality isn't his.

But I digress.

Pavlina also mentioned that "religious mysteries... arise from the limitations of trying to understand reality from a fixed frame of reference." This is absolutely true. No matter how deeply you believe in the Bible, you've got to admit that it is, in physical, plain fact, a very old book that was written thousands of years ago during a time and place in which nobody lives today. Not all the rules that applied to them apply to us now. We live in a world of many different countries, governments, religions, and our world is getting smaller and smaller by the minute with ever-increasing globalization. Before, people had only to worry about the village in which they lived. We live in the world now, and no matter how hard you try to shut your eyes against it, it will always be there.

One of the largest conflicts in modern Christianity is the fight over what to hold onto and what to let go of. It's most clearly seen in the recent gay rights movement: some churches are allowing same-sex marriage, and some aren't. Every time some new scientific or social revolution (indeed, science often influences society) comes about, it is initially met with much opposition from the church. This stems from the idea that the more we explain things, the less we "need" God to explain them for us. This idea has always sat wrong with me. In his book Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Bishop John Shelby Spong quotes one of his theology professors, Clifford L. Stanley: "Any god who can be killed ought to be killed." I assert that the fundamentalist idea of God of the Bible is far too small if he can be offed by a few human advances, and that is a God that doesn't deserve to be believed in. I believe in a God, yes, and my God is too great to be destroyed by anything humans can come up with.

Point 3
Engineered obedience training.
"If you want to talk to God, then communicate directly instead of using third-party intermediaries."

This is the section where Pavlina quotes Karl Marx's "opiate of the masses" deal, as I did at the very top. I actually feel like this ALSO ties into the first two points in basically saying that you shouldn't be a blind follower, and that you should determine for yourself what's right and what's wrong.

However, that quote up there is something powerful I believe in. In my religious confusion, I had come across many online sources that assert the importance of a personal relationship with God rather than being just a part of a religion. But here's the catch: how do you develop a personal relationship with God? The earliest answers to these questions are now the biggest religions of today. I believe the Bible was written in such a way because of the time-culture influence. However divinely inspired the Bible or any other religious text may be, the writing was still left to man and all his flaws. Man made it understandable to other men of the time. What if the Bible were written today? Actually, you can witness the development of a religion very recently. Go look up Scientology. But again, I digress. Let's move on.

Point 4
Toilet-bowl time management.
"If you devote serious time to the practice of religion, it’s safe to say you practice toilet-bowl time management, flushing much of your precious life down the drain with little or nothing to show for it."

This is where our agreements come to an end, Pavlina, and if I may be as frank as you, then you sound completely ignorant.
Don't you notice the numerous religious missions all over the world dedicated to helping out the less fortunate? They do much more than build churches and preach. They build shelters, schools, donate goods to the poor, and this all arises from the spirit of giving that Christianity supports. I understand that there are plenty of crazies in the Christian community that soured the taste of religion for many, but don't let a few bad apples ruin the batch.

I'd like to point out my Uncle Russ, who hosts his blog, Our Hope & Trust, right here on Blogger. He's been in the Philippines with his family for about a year now, and he's been there working against the issue of human sex trafficking, which runs rampant in the Philippines and South Asia in general. And yes, he's doing it with the help of a religious institution. He is a deeply devoted Christian, and that devotion has lead him to leave his home in California temporarily to pursue this cause. On Facebook he doesn't bombard my News Feed with religious slaps to the face, rather, he posts links to organizations (both religious and non) that fight human sex trafficking all over the world.

Is that a waste of his time, or anyone else's for that matter?

I also wanted to quote something else from this section. It looks like Pavlina really starts to loose himself here.
"I especially remember listening to a lot of bad sermons; most priests are hideously poor speakers. Maybe it’s because they drink alcohol while on duty.
Now if you really go overboard and throw in learning a dead language for good measure, you can kiss years of your life goodbye."

Really? That's just below the belt, now. Granted, the whole piece is opinionated and does not cite anything, but it'd be nice to show a little respect. Am I supposed to believe all priests drink alcohol while on duty, all the time?
And learning a dead language. If you encountered someone learning that without the context of religion, is it still a waste of time? I don't think the study of anything is a waste of time, if it's to your pleasure. As I mentioned before, the world is full of things all too ready to satiate the curiosity of the human mind. Religious scholars who want to delve deeper into the history of religious texts learn Hebrew and Greek, so that they can understand them at the source, instead of settling for the translated and surely edited English versions that circulate the world today. Can you really blame them for doing their own research?

Point 5 / Point 6
Support your local pedophile. / Incest is best.

I had to put these together because my opinions of them are the same.

Really, Pavlina?

I thought you were doing so well earlier, in points 1-3.
"When you donate money to a religious organization, you’re doing much worse than throwing your money away. You’re actively funding evil."

Because actively funding projects such as missions I mentioned above is so evil, right? Here he begins to speak with such conviction, such certainty. Just remember that in points 1-3, he called us to use our brains and not believe everything you're fed. I'm calling you to do the same here.
"One of my Catholic high school teachers was later revealed to be a repeat child molester… written up in the newspaper and everything. I didn’t see any suspicious behavior at the time, and to be totally honest, I actually liked that teacher and was shocked to learn of his extracurricular activities. He was shuffled from one location to another by those who knew about his appetite for young flesh."

In middle school, I had a gym teacher who was a repeat child sex offender. This was a public school, and for all I know, he may or may not be religious. He was moved to my school, shuffled around in the same manner "by those who knew about his appetite for young flesh." After I left the middle school, I got word that he was moved to a nearby high school. These things don't just happen to Catholics, they happen everywhere, and the systems are just the same. I feel like Pavlina is grasping for anything that would absolutely discredit not only the Catholic church, but all religion ever—anything that would make him right. I suppose he is right, in his world. After all, his truth is his reality is his perspective, right?

Also, I love how he went from this:
"Religious “truths” are inherently rooted in a fixed perspective, but real truth is perspective-independent."

to this:
"Religions frequently promote inbred social networks."

Please tell me I'm not the only one that notices this stark change in tone and, clearly, intention. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that the above quote is absolutely false.
"Certain religions are overtly intolerant of outsiders, but to one degree or another, all major religions cast non-subscribers in a negative light... This us-vs-them prejudice is totally incongruent with conscious living."

And nobody is stopping me from saying that "non-subscribers" are casting all major religions in a negative light. Why? Because it's true. Pavlina has become a shining example of such, and I certainly hope that he does not subscribe to the "us-vs-them" prejudice, otherwise he is, plainly and simply, a hypocrite.

Point 7
Idiocy or hypocrisy - pick one.

"When you subscribe to an established religion, you have only two options. You can become an idiot, or you can become a hypocrite.

First, there’s the idiocy route. You can willingly swallow all of the contrived, man-made drivel that’s fed to you...

Next, we have the hypocrisy option...In this case you become an apologist for your own religion. You don’t want to be identified with the extreme fanatics, nor do you want to be associated with the non-believers. You figure you can straddle both sides. On earth you’ll basically live as a non-practitioner (or a very sloppy and inconsistent practitioner), but when you eventually die, you’ve still got the membership card to show God."

Interesting that he should mention hypocrisy right now, because the way I see it, he is buying right into that hypocrisy. By illustrating that these are the only two options, he is admitting that all religious people are either fundamentalists or "lukewarm" believers, as they say in the Bible. He does not allow religion the right to adjust itself, he allows it to stay right where it is while he condemns everybody who believes it the way he sees it. The hypocrisy is so blatant that it's laughable now. It's like he wants to keep you down if you're religious, so that he can beat you like this. Isn't that what he said religions do—keep people down so they can control them?

And what about people like me, who grew up on a religion, but refuses to totally buy into it? Is he damning me for being a hypocrite, or is he praising me for coming into my own? He can't judge me for what I choose to believe or not to believe, or what anybody else chooses for believe, for that matter. After all, it's our perspective—our reality.

Nonbelievers often judge believers as being hypocritical, bigoted, and closed-minded. However, when it comes to religion and believers, nonbelievers are just as guilty of the same thing! It isn't entirely impossible to simply disagree and get along, people, come on.

Point 8
Inherited falsehood.
"Many religions are just a mish-mash of what came before. For example, Christianity is largely based on pagan rituals."

All right, he seems to have gotten back on track now with the facts and such, although he still retains a rather snarky tone. I have interesting things to say about that, I'll say them later. What he did say is true, and there are plenty of examples to prove it: December 25 was chosen to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ because it coincides with the feast of the Son of Isis. From this link:
"In ancient Babylon, the feast of the Son of Isis (Goddess of Nature) was celebrated on December 25. Raucous partying, gluttonous eating and drinking, and gift-giving were traditions of this feast. "

Why did this happen? Nobody back then knew, based on our modern calendar, when Jesus was actually born. Nowadays, scholars assert that he was actually born in September, a few weeks after Passover. But back then, nobody knew, and they had to pick a date. Early Christians, eager to convert, would take old rituals and "mod" them to suit Christian beliefs so that the new paradigm wouldn't come as such a shock to whom they were preaching. And so the feast of the Son of Isis became the birth of the Son of God, and both were celebrated the same way and people were converted comfortably. There is as much a historical social aspect to this as anything else.

Again, this is why I stress the importance of not completely buying into the ancient texts. What should be looked as is the simple truths that exist: the values of compassion, tolerance, etc. The beautiful thing is, you can pretty much find those values in any other system of religion. If that doesn't resemble some sort of universal truth or at least thought, then I don't know what else does.

Point 9
Compassion in chains.
"When you externalize compassion into a set of rules and laws, what you’re left with isn’t compassion at all. True compassion is a matter of conscious choice, and that requires the absence of force-backed rules and laws."

True, I agree. This is why it's not great to follow such rules and laws by rote.
"The more religious a person becomes, the less compassionate s/he is. The illusion of compassion substitutes for the real thing. Religious people tend to be the most bigoted and non-accepting people on earth."

There it is again. Does he intend to exclude himself from this categorization? Because he is acting pretty bigoted right now. He may not be religious, but he sure can condemn.

Point 10
Faith is fear.
"Religion will teach you to fear being different, to fear standing up for yourself, and to fear being an independent thinker. It will erode your self-trust by explaining why you’re unable to successfully manage life on your own terms: You are unworthy. You’re a sinner. You’re unclean. You belong to a lesser caste. Of course the solution is always the same — submit to the will of an external authority. Give away your power. Live in fear for the rest of your life, and hope it will all turn out okay in the end."

Despite all the debate I've put forth concerning Pavlina and his article, I have to say that this bit hit it home for me. I'm fully aware of what he's saying here, and I've been aware of it. I'm still swimming in uncertainty: if a person truly believes in a certain religion, Pavlina, would you damn him or her for standing up for it? I have met Christians from all walks of faith, including those who are absolutely certain of their faith, and they live their lives fully and happily believing that what they believe and do is good. Not all Christians are living in fear. Perhaps they are fully aware of their faith and what it entails, and they accept that. I would call that conscious living just as much as I'd call the way of the nonbeliever sure in his nonfaith.

I do my best not to pass judgement on others, instead, I seek to understand. However, I'm only human, so I realize my flaws and if this comes off as judgemental, then... well, my bad. While reading this article I was so acutely aware of Pavlina's tone and argument points. It was really interesting to me, and I'm being completely honest. He went from cool, calm and collected to snarky, brash and borderline insulting. To me, he started to lose himself in hypocrisy. He mentioned having gone to Catholic school, and he concludes with this:
"God isn’t going to smite you for not formally worshipping him. If he didn’t smite me by now, it’s a safe bet you’ll slide beneath the radar as well. And if that doesn’t work, you can borrow my fake ID. I’ve been baptized and confirmed, and I’m the son of an altar boy and the nephew of a priest, so I’m sure I’ll be fine. ;)"
It's clear that he has quite the religious background. I don't mean to judge him, but by my experience, nonreligious people who initially come from very religious backgrounds are often the most resistent to religion—because if it left a bad taste in their mouth, then it must've been strong, having been so close to home.

As for me
I'm currently doing my own research. Reading the Bible, reading the work of Bishop John Shelby Spong, and in the future I hope to read other religious texts. I think there's something there, some similarities that can possibly speak out to a "greater truth" that transcends religion. Do I believe in God? Yes, I do. I, however, do not believe he is a big bearded man sitting in the sky waiting for us all to die. God is more like a driving force, indeed something much greater than any of us can make him out to be.
My conclusion
Whew, that was long and hard. I honestly thought I wasn't going to make it all the way through, but I did, and it was... well, it was fun. In the past few days I've done a lot of debating and arguing over various topics (mostly courtesy of Jose), so I suppose you can say the time was ripe for something like this. I'm actually planning on sending this to Mr. Steve Pavlina, not as an insult or attack, but rather another side of debate, a critique of his article, if you will. I know his article is over a year old by now, but I hope he still gives this a chance. We all want to be heard, don't we? And by who other than the one who inspired what I wrote?

Anyway, to give an overall summary of my critique of his article: It was good and his points were clear until around the middle when he started to get all up in arms—I mentioned borderline insulting already, and the hypocrisy and whatnot. I also mentioned my quasi-psychoanalysis of why all that change in tone might have happened.

To Mr. Pavlina, and everyone in general, I have one last thing to say: You are as controlled by what you hate as you are by what you love.

Think about it.

I was going to wait to write this until I had finished reading the book Why Christianity Must Change or Die by John Shelby Spong, but I'm barely into the first chapter, and I know I would've lost my debate-fire for Pavlina's article had I waited to finish. I do recommend it, however, for people all along the scale of belief (or nonbelief). You can bet I'll write something on it once I finish.

Oh hey, real quick before I sign off—check out Steve Pavlina's article, "How to be a Man." I know I linked it up there, but it was so irrelevant to the topic and so far away that I didn't want it to be missed down here. It really is a great article. Remember, masculinity isn't just for males!

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