Thursday, February 7, 2013

How Fragile Religion Can Be

The news that more members of the Phelps family have left the Westboro Baptist Church set me to pondering just how rickety the whole structure is that props up the organized religions.  Religions are built on myths that serve both positive and destructive ends.  They provide a 'tribal' identity that can be of value in difficult times, when the members support one another.  They do engage in various charitable activities.  They provide comfort in trying circumstances.  But at the same time, that tribalism can become associated with demonization of outsiders, at times to the point of violent acts directed at those outsiders.  This is a dark aspect of all religions, and it promotes the notion that any departure, however minor, from the faith's dogma is simply not permissible.  Questioning the canonical ideas of the faith is discouraged.  Obedience to the doctrine is non-negotiable.

I was raised in a very religious home, but it never took with me.  The things I learned about my family's religion made no sense to me.  Thus, I never had a moment of de-conversion.  But many of my atheist friends have such stories about how their faith melted away for various reasons.  For many of those who abandon religion, it began with some nagging doubts about the beliefs in which they'd been indoctrinated.

A common theme when I'm engaging in religious discussions with believers is their evident stubborn insistence on hanging on to all of the doctrine, as ambiguous, immoral, and even contradictory as it is.  In the case of christianity, the faithful have done two things to promote this dogged persistence: 

1.  The faithful don't generally dwell on the apparent contradictions, obvious immoralities, and ambiguities within their sacred documents.  They prefer those aspects of their sacred texts are never mentioned.  To do so might raise embarrassing questions within the flock (followers are supposed to be like sheep, after all).

2.  Christian apologists have had time (around 2000 years!) to develop all sorts of ways to rationalize those contradictions, immoralities, and ambiguities, so even if someone stumbles upon something that doesn't make sense, their faithful clergy and apologist brethren have a comforting, ready-made "solution" to the obvious problems.  A quick wave of divinely-inspired hands, and ba-da-boom!  The problem disappears!! Although it's pretty evident that the bible was written by humans long ago, cobbled together by, among other things, plagiarizing from earlier myths.  These documents are pretty far from perfect, but since the "proper" interpretation of them is in the hands of the clergy, the myth of their perfection can be maintained.

But this brings me to my main point.  If you have any doubts about your religion, those doubts can balloon to the point where the whole rickety structure comes apart before your eyes.  Your moment of doubt can explode the mythology because religious belief is fragile.  It's not very robust because certain aspects of it simply can't be challenged without losing your faith in it all.  Whereas truly free thinking welcomes challenges and can withstand the presentation of new evidence that topples old cherished ideas, the abrahamic religions are little more than a shaky house of cards, ready to collapse in a heap when key tenets are challenged.  All of the articles of religious doctrine are necessary and interlinked - you can't challenge any part of it without implicitly challenging all of it!  This is one reason why there are more than 40,000 different christian sects - they each have a unique doctrine and if you challenge any part of it, you either have to convert to another sect or abandon religion altogether.

Many find comfort in their religious beliefs, and I have no problem with that so long as they don't push their beliefs on me.  But it's also clear that many dislike being challenged on matters of their faith.  Somehow, they've come to see their faith as an integral part of their very existence - to have it challenged would be to shake the very foundations of their life.  Many doubters simply suppress their doubt because they fear what might happen if they were to allow those doubts to shake their faith.  Any argument, no matter how irrational, no matter how contrived, is acceptable to paper over those doubts, and allow the believer to keep the security blanket of religion.  It's understandable why believers resist any challenge to their faith.  In time, some of them will eventually have their doubts crystallized by some event in their lives, and wind up de-converted.  Most won't.   They prefer to allow the shaky structure to teeter, preserving their comforting delusions.