You should know that I am not now, nor have I ever been a religious scholar, and my knowledge of religion is strictly limited to the minimal teachings of the Anglican church which I attended as a child, and that gained from my life experiences.
Although I am sure that there is much fascinating insight to be gained into the workings of the human mind, and of world societies, I have never been inspired to conduct an exhaustive study of the religions of the world simply because I believe that most are founded upon false beliefs, have been augmented by myth, or manipulated in order to provide power to dictators. Others are simply money-making ventures for charlatans.
If I were to become an evangelist for my beliefs, it would behove me to become a theologian, a student of all religions, so that I may present empirical and anthropological evidence of the fact that gods do not exist except in the minds of people.
I can’t be bothered.
I’ve been an atheist since birth, but for first ten or twelve years of my life I didn’t know it.
I think I was christened, but I’m not sure and now there’s no one to ask.
My mother sent my brother, my sister and me to Sunday school, but I didn’t believe it was because she had any particular religious beliefs. It was just a good way of getting some time to herself once a week.
I was a member of the Church of England Boys’ Society because it was a cheap alternative to Scouts and the dogma didn’t bother me at ten years of age. I learned the Apostles’ Creed and I can still remember bits of it. It meant no more than any other piece of writing learnt by rote. I stated that I believed in God the Father Almighty, but I didn’t have any idea what it meant.
I was about twelve when I refused to go to Sunday school any more. Nothing happened. The ground didn’t open up and swallow me whole. The Devil didn’t steal me from my bed at night. My crap life kept on being crap – no worse than usual.
My transition into full-blown atheism happened naturally once I started to question the myths and legends taught to me by the church. Even at that tender age I knew that no-one could walk on water or feed a multitude with a loaf of bread and a tin of sardines and, to be fair, I doubt that even the most hardened believer would suggest now that these things actually happened.
I knew that, no matter how hard I prayed, no one was going to lift me from the swamp of shit that was my life, and make me happy. That was something I had to do for myself.
It was at about that time that I first started to wonder why other people could believe the fairy stories and I couldn’t.
That question has engaged my thoughts many times during the last half-century. I’ve come up with some answers, albeit terribly simplistic, which satisfy me but I’m sure that there are many people who would scoff at my suggestions.
Before I start to reveal my thinking, I’d say it’s important to look at the idea that religions didn’t always fail.
Although there have always been many doubters, the failure of religions as a significant component of life probably began in the early twentieth century. Its rate has since accelerated, at first gradually, then with increasing speed, until the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. According to some recent statistics the failure of religions to retain their followers has never been greater than it is in 2017.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself.
How and why did religions develop successfully?
My answer, totally unsupported by rigorous academic research, has its basis in my belief that many, if not all, people need something to believe in.
One of the most significant human emotions is fear. By controlling a person’s level of fear you are able to control that person. By appearing to provide a release from that fear you are able to gain a great deal of power over that person. This approach is used to great effect today by the American political system and mimicked to a slightly lesser extent by the Australian brand.
Early Man, and in that classification I include early Woman, had little or no scientific knowledge of his environment. He knew about satisfying his needs for food and shelter and procreation. He knew about the geography of his immediate homeland. By experience he learned about the cycles of the Sun and Moon and stars. He knew about predators, both human and animal, but he was probably ignorant of the fact that he didn’t know very much about anything else.
Knowledge is power, but understanding increases that power exponentially. The earliest people didn’t understand why there was light for a period of time, followed by darkness. They didn’t understand that there might be a long period of heat followed by a long period of cold. They may have been able to link the drive to reproduce with the birth of children, but they couldn’t explain the process.
For the early people a lack of understanding probably led to the development of fear. What must it have been like for the poor souls who first encountered fire? The earliest reaction was probably abject fear.
For the sake of argument let’s assume that fire was first created by lightning generated in an electrical storm. Early Man, Woman or Child therefore associates fire with storm-torn sky, the roar of thunder and the crack of lightning. It is clear that powerful and mysterious forces are at play.
Naturally curious, the early people seek some understanding. In their natural world everything which happens is caused by other people or by animals, so the thunder storm, lightning and fire must logically be caused by some being. This being is invisible. It does not appear to live on the ground, or require sustenance like humans, so it must be extra-terrestrial. It seems to have no body so it must be a “spirit” or a “god”.
Even a cursory examination of Australia’s Aboriginal culture, generally considered to be the longest surviving culture on the planet, introduces us to the Rainbow Serpent. Forty to sixty thousand years is a long time for anything to exist, and clearly those first Aboriginal people were not as scientifically aware as we modern people are.
In their search for understanding, many may have concluded that the spirit which created mountains, rivers and lakes must have been an enormous serpent whose body, as it travelled along the ground, caused the land to be pushed into high places, and rivers to form where its body had passed. Countless similar stories, over tens of thousands of years, have passed into legend. Aboriginal elders used these myths to interpret and explain the world, and in the absence of any conflicting evidence, the stories became fact.
Any examination of enduring world cultures will find myths and legends used to explain those things which, at the time of their invention, were inexplicable. The people who had the “knowledge”, who did the explaining, became powerful within their social group. The Kadaicha Man, the Medicine Man and their various brethren, were granted respect and fear and often held sway in decision-making.
The reduction of fear has always been a driving factor in our behaviour choices, and it may be that element of the human psyche, fear, which drives us to seek the companionship of others. Humans congregate in groups. Our habit of forming societies perhaps began in the earliest times when there was increased safety in numbers.
Groups of early people may have joined together in tribes or clans based upon a common relationship such as family membership. As families grew, so too did the social group. In a family there would have been a leader, often the strongest male, or the most skilled hunter. As tribes grew, created by the joining of many families, it would have been natural for some organisation to have taken place, even if just for a simple division of labour, and a need for leadership of the entire group would have developed.
The leader or leaders of each group may have been decided by a continuation of lineage, such as often happens in the case of royalty, or they may have been considered to be the most knowledgeable, the strongest warriors or the greatest hunters. Except in the case of leadership being inherited, it is likely that the members of a social group would have had some say in who became leader. (This might have been the preferred model since the offspring of an effective and popular king might well have proven to be an abject failure in a leadership role.)
Leadership brings with it power and perhaps “wealth” in the form of the greatest supply of food, or first access to the best food. A choice of the most desirable partner might be seen as a distinct benefit – you might choose one who still has all of their teeth – but with leadership comes the pressure of the expectations of those who are led. “Heavy lies the head which wears the crown (or the headdress or the antlers or the bearskin)”. If you are responsible for leading a large group of potentially violent people, you need someone to blame when you fail to deliver a victory in battle, or a bumper crop of corn, or herds of grazing animals for slaughter.
Whether things go right or wrong, it’s helpful to have someone else to share the credit or accept the shame. Today’s political leaders are specialists in glory-seeking and “buck-passing” but, with the exception of those leaders of strongly religious-based societies, few share their triumphs or failures with a god.
So, being in charge may create fears as significant as the fear of being alone, and it is this fear which probably inspires us to seek “joint-leadership” with someone, or something, else.
If I am in charge in any situation, whether it be of myself or of others in a group, and I make a decision which proves to be wrong, I leave myself open to censure by myself or by the group. Censure creates a negative feeling, and I don’t like it. I can avoid the risk of censure if I place the responsibility for decision-making on someone else’s shoulders. When someone else stuffs up I can blame them. It’s even better if the subject of the blame is a non-human entity, a spirit or a god, which cannot defend itself.
This is a strategy which has been in use for a very long time. A belief held by some Christians suggests that negative events, such as the death of a child or an outbreak of deadly disease, occur because it is “God’s will”. It appears also that a belief held by some fundamentalist followers of another major world religion suggests that it is appropriate to kill those who do not follow the beliefs and practices of that particular religion. It is “God’s will” to promote the growth of the religion and it is OK to dispose of dissenters.
Perhaps religions developed because there was a need for the organisation of social groups, for a set of rules by which the societies would be controlled, and because the leaders of those societies wanted to avoid taking total responsibility when things turned to shit, they created the concept of the god. No doubt it was handy having the “Ten Commandments” (or variations thereof) when the rules needed to be made. If the rules came from a supreme being, a god, who was doing the controlling, then the leaders could deny responsibility if things fell apart.
This situation existed for millennia, with little variation in the basic theme. The more primitive the society the longer the status quo might exist, but with increased knowledge and sophistication came the questioners.
At some time and in some place, some people must have said “These stories you’ve been telling us are bullshit. Yesterday I tried to walk across the lake and I nearly drowned. Last week my uncle died and my aunt asked him to come back and he didn’t. He’s still dead. If you try to turn water into wine, you’ll end up with lots of bottled water.”
The scepticism would have been met with claims that the stories were allegorical not literal, that despite there being no evidence to support the religious view, gods really existed. This existence, however, was on an alternate plane, in the mind of the believer – the belief in a god was an act of faith and required no evidence. If you questioned the existence of a deity, you were a godless individual who would be denied the wondrous offerings of the afterlife.
So, despite being omnipotent, the font of charity, accepting and forgiving of sins, gods themselves commit the sin of religious discrimination.
Religions are ancient institutions. According to the teachings of at least one religion, Adam, “the first man”, believed in a god. People have held “religious” beliefs of some sort since the beginnings of time, and they have been keen to spread their beliefs – if someone else believes that which I believe, my belief becomes stronger; if I am a bringer of new beliefs, a leader, my power is enhanced.
With a succession of conquering armies rampaging across the known worlds, worlds which ranged in size and population from relatively small geographical areas to almost the entire area of what is modern Europe and Great Britain, religions were spread. Conquered peoples were sometimes allowed to choose between conversion to a new religion, or death.
The ability to disseminate knowledge in general, and knowledge of religions in particular, began to grow rapidly with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the expansion of that wondrous institution, the Empire, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
France, Great Britain, Spain and Austria were among the nations which decided that lands and peoples other than their own, should become theirs. Political and economic power was sought. Purely commercial interests could readily be disguised by claiming that colonisation was carried out “to the glory of God”.
The size of the known world expanded dramatically with the invention of navigation which enabled ships to sail out of sight of land, and the rest sprang from there. Several myths were soon exploded – ships did not sail off the edge of the world, nor did sea monsters devour them.
Other myths, however, proliferated, as, among others, the Netherlands, Spain, France and England set about conquering the rest of the world and spreading Christianity, the “one true religion”. These maritime nations could cover the globe much more effectively than had the Romans, so Christianity went viral. Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and the rest of the world’s “primitive peoples”, were soon to learn that the beliefs which they may have held for thousands of years were false.
Aboriginals living in the Great South Land were required to forego their belief that a giant snake had been involved in the creation of the land, sea and sky, and to accept that these tasks were carried out by a different non-human being who allowed his only son, a human being, to be executed, only to return from dead, somewhere in the Middle East, a couple of thousand years ago.
By believing in the existence of this magnanimous atmospheric spirit, who loved all people equally and who dwelt in the sky in a paradise called Heaven, even a heathen could be ensured of a second and more glorious life after death.
However, if people chose not to believe in the existence of this intangible being, he would condemn them to a lingering death in the fires of Hell in order to prove just how much he loved them.
Clearly, to the invaders, the Christian version of Creation was more believable than the myth of the Rainbow Serpent.
In a short period of time, the Aboriginal culture in the land which was to become Australia, was almost destroyed. “In God’s name” missionaries infested the newly conquered land, bringing the “word of God” to the savages whose culture had managed very nicely for millennia without the intervention of Christianity. Many died as the word of God was spread.
So religions, and their attendant benefits and evils, expanded and grew, despite the growth of science which called long-held beliefs into question, and even after the doubters raised their voices, religions continued to proliferate, such was the need of people to believe in a higher power.
However, to accompany the religious expansion, the number of sceptics and the volume of their voices also increased. New knowledge of the natural world, and the spread of that knowledge around the world, caused many to critically analyse the purpose of religion and examine its practices.
With religions increasingly under the microscope, their slow but inevitable decline had begun. In the middle of the nineteenth century a theory of human development which cast strong doubt over the Adam and Eve myth, created a storm.
Part Two of Rant Two will be posted in a week or so. Any comments or questions posted will be most welcome.