One of the defining attributes of all the world’s religions through history is that they create imaginary crimes; that is, arbitrary rules the obeying of which helps no person, and the breaking of which hurts no person. In the beginning, many religions start off as simple, humble affairs; some even have the audacity to insist that our only duty is to love one another. But as time goes by, those simple faiths inevitably become complex and elaborated.
Clergy and theologians, who’d have a tough time justifying their pay if all they did was echo the words of the previous generation, come up with new laws and teachings which are claimed to purify the heart and make the path to God easier. Often, the habits of the founders are self-consciously imitated (even to the point of mimicking the way they brushed their teeth), turning simple customs into binding rules.
With time, these rules multiply and accumulate until they become overwhelming. Surveying the world’s major religions, the list of prohibitions goes on and on: rules against eating meat on certain days, against eating certain kinds of animals at all, against eating food prepared without the proper rituals, against working on certain ways, against cutting – or refraining from cutting – one’s hair, against speaking certain words, against unapproved forms of consensual sexual intimacy, against reading disapproved books, against marrying or befriending nonbelievers, even against participating in outside society in general. This list could be extended almost without limit, but the point is that for many religious believers, life is hedged about on every side with arbitrary and seemingly pointless rules. Virtually every commonplace activity, no matter how mundane, has been barred by the rules of some sect.
Sadly, because of the violently deluded, these imaginary crimes often result in real harm. In the Middle Ages, there was the imaginary crime of “host-nailing,” where Christians imagined that Jews were stealing consecrated wafers from churches and driving nails through them in order to crucify Jesus afresh and prolong his suffering. Across Europe, Christian mobs incited to frenzy by these wild accusations regularly went on rampages where they brutally murdered hundreds of innocent Jews.
The ridiculous accusation of host-nailing finds a parallel today in the imaginary crime of depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammed. Like medieval Christians, modern Muslims have been all too willing to condone violence against anyone, even a non-Muslim, who violates the Islamic prohibition on creating images of their prophet. Again, such an act harms no one, has no relation to human needs or concerns, yet terrorist leaders and the deranged mobs who follow at their heels have been positively eager to call for destruction and bloodshed in order to avenge their hurt feelings.
I’ve quoted it before, in “No Commandments“, but this passage from a rabbi bears repeating:
“That most of the [kosher] laws are divine ordinances without reason given is 100 per cent the point. It is very easy not to murder people. Very easy. It is a little bit harder not to steal because one is tempted occasionally. So that is no great proof that I believe in God or am fulfilling His [sic] will. But, if He tells me not to have a cup of coffee with milk in it with my mincemeat and peaches at lunchtime, that is a test. The only reason I am doing that is because I have been told to so do. It is something difficult.”
The arbitrary, reasonless nature of religious edicts is freely admitted by many of their own believers. Breaking these rules does no harm to anyone, has no effect on the world at all, but there are still millions of people who take them so seriously that any transgression, even by a non-believer, will be met with insane fury and howling threats of violence. (Warning: Link leads to a very long comment thread; loading may be slow.)
There are many good, non-arbitrary rules in religion: injunctions to care for one’s fellow man, to help the poor and the needy, to promote peace and wisdom. But these rules are good precisely because they have tangible effects on human welfare, and can be justified on that basis without appealing to the supernatural. Defending them requires no divine revelation, merely the human sense of conscience and the observation that we are all better off in a world where more people are happy.
On the other hand, any rule that can only be justified by appealing to God’s will is by definition pointless and arbitrary. Such rules have no connection to reality or to human concerns. Obeying these rules does not make us morally better or make anyone else better off; it merely inculcates in people the habit of obedience. Worse, it stirs a spirit of irrational hatred and antipathy to those who call these imaginary crimes what they are and refuse to be bound by them.