My opinion of religion is perhaps more complicated than that of most people. I don’t subscribe to any particular religions (anymore), but I also don’t agree with those who talk as if religion is something than can be eradicated from the planet. I think it’s more a feature than a bug; at this point I believe it is wired into who we are.
I suspect if we wiped out all of our gods today, we would invent new ones tomorrow because they are a key part of how our species tries to transcend itself. We crave something higher than ourselves to trust and to emulate, something that inspires enough awe to create social cohesion and motivate personal sacrifice.
Personally, I think the “higher power” we really need is our own future selves, which keep trying to assert themselves in our dreams, our aspirations, and even in our own internal dialogue. But that’s a discussion for another post.
I’ve noticed groups who boast of their freedom from religion often exhibit some of the same traits they denigrate in others: the tribalistic superiority, the hero worship, the quest for ideological purity, and the compulsive language policing. Our desire for a higher intelligence to come save us finds its way into just about every subculture I’ve inhabited, whether it takes the form of gods, or superheroes, aliens, or artificial intelligence.
One way or another, we know we need something bigger and better than what we currently are in order to survive and thrive in the long term. This realization almost leads me to decide people like me should just leave religions alone and let them do their thing. Let them have their magic feather because without it they won’t ever attempt greater things.
But I worry giving God credit for our salvation creates more problems than it solves. To explain what I mean, perhaps I should first stop and explain how I view religion as a phenomenon.
What Are Religions For?
I think religion is just one expression or form of culture among many. Maybe it’s a whole category of cultural expression, even. I agree with those who argue that religion is a kind of technology—it is a tool we developed along the way for preserving and transmitting values, memories, and artifacts to future generations. It’s simply one way among many to try and save our collective identities from extinction.
That’s what all cultures are for, really. They are the collection of memories, beliefs, language, songs, art, rituals, and traditions which each generation wants to pass down to the next in order to preserve their sense of social identity. Religion is just one kind of cultural technology we’ve created over the years and it has survived as long as it has because it works very well. Putting our own words into to mouths of our gods has a way of making them last much, much longer.
But there’s at least one big problem with this: When you attribute divine authority to your beliefs and practices, it makes them harder to critique and evaluate. This conundrum showed up this past weekend in a discussion with a friend on the origins of morality.
On Sunday, I posted Lori‘s article entitled “Where Do Morals Come From?” arguing that they evolved from our common need to care for our own for the survival of the species. A Christian friend later commented:
Obviously the super conservative southern Christians you’ve encountered wouldn’t affirm this, but there *is* in Christian history the notion that all good (no matter who accomplishes it) is of God. This ties to theological notions of omnipresence, the imago dei, and Luke 9:49-50.
She is right that Christians won’t agree on this. But then, Christians disagree about all kinds of things. Her point here is that some strains of Christianity are generous enough to acknowledge that non-Christians—people without the Holy Spirit—are just as capable of demonstrating goodness as are “believers.” Some won’t even give us that much, but those who do still demand something in return:
God must get credit for our goodness somehow, both in the knowing and in the doing. That’s the one non-negotiable for them. Either morality comes through “common grace” or it comes through some vestigial trait left over from being created “in God’s image.” The details are less important than the fact that humans must never get the ultimate credit for their own goodness no matter what. Lose this, and you lose the whole premise of Christianity.
As far as I can tell, the one thing that all forms of Christianity cannot spare is the insistence that humans are not and cannot be the source of their own goodness. The source of their own evil, sure, of their own weakness and brokenness, yes. But never the source of our own goodness. God must get the credit always. And even the moral standards themselves must originate with God, otherwise they couldn’t be timeless (Narrator: they’re not).
The Problem with Gods
My Christian friend felt the need to assert that even if our evolutionary past is responsible for the development of our morality, we must ultimately give credit to God for that awareness. I see one problem with that, though. I summed it up as concisely as I could:
But why the need to attribute it to gods? What’s wrong with simply acknowledging that we ourselves are the ones making these rules?
If our constantly changing morals keep getting attributed to the same unchanging source, at what point does the attribution become nonsensical? At some point, shouldn’t who or what gets the credit for our goodness become less important than figuring out how to sort out for ourselves which standards of goodness are really worth adhering to and which ones aren’t?
If anything, the tendency to attribute goodness to gods only makes us less likely to question them.
And that right there is the gist of my problem with religion in general and Christianity in particular. It strongly discourages people from questioning the rules we live by when we keep putting the rules that we make into the mouth of God. I mean, how can God be wrong? Any being who knows more than we do should be trusted implicitly, right?
The reality, however, is that we ourselves are making these rules. And no matter how convinced we are that we’ve got them right, there will come a day when we see that at least something about our rules didn’t really stand the test of time. The more we learn and grow as a species, the more we realize that the things we used to see as clearly good or clearly evil are not entirely either one. Morality is far more situational than most of us will ever accept.
Furthermore, we will never agree on basic principles around which a government can survive and thrive without finding neutral ground on which to build our society, ground that is fundamentally nonsectarian. We can’t even have a productive conversation as long as it always ends with, “but God said…”
We won’t even be able to agree which God is right, much less whether or not gods are real things. And we certainly will never agree on how best to hear or respond as a group. We’re going to need something more stable and steady than gods if we’re going to make it as a species.
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