“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then why call him omnipotent?
Is he able to prevent evil, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Than why call him God?” [Epicurus, 341-270 BCE]
In its origins, religion probably appeared to satisfy a need for purpose and understanding in the face of very limited knowledge. Religion filled the void the only way it could: it prescribed truth, when no other truth was readily available. There had to be a reason for the storm that wiped out the year’s harvest and it was because the people did not properly honour the god of wind… This took many forms in different religions, but effectively, the concept of “dogma” was introduced.
A dogma is a prominent tool religions use to avoid criticism of their teachings. It is a certain statement attached to the end of a story-telling chain sometimes spanning generations and it is declared as “not up for debate”. When used, a dogma bares similarities to a debating strategy, namely appeal to authority: “this is our faith, it is the faith of Abraham, Moses, Isaac, Jakob…”, meaning since they didn’t question it, you shouldn’t either. However, the strategy has merit only when legitimate authority is used, and even then only limited merit. With religions, it usually translates into “holy men” telling people what one deity or another wants. Faith, requiring no proof (“blessed are those who believe without seeing”), is itself a concept which suggests sticking to an effectively arbitrary set of declarations and opinions about the world in spite of any arguments to the contrary. In the context of religion, there is no distinction between “blind faith” and “faith”: the “blind” qualifier is already firmly built in.
Over the centuries and in spite of extreme clergy efforts (including witch hunts, executions, torture, unceasing threats…), necessity and curiosity made humanity’s knowledge grow immensely. Not only that, but the more humanity learned, the faster it learned more. As a result, religions lost their role as the source of knowledge about the world and receded back to a very Machiavellian self-preservation role only. Acquisition of knowledge revealed cornerstone religious stories to be senseless, so much so that it is now extremely difficult to tell them to adults with a straight face: “a hand-full of people built a giant ship using not much more than axes to house samples of all living species for 6 weeks…”, “72 virgins…with large, round breasts…the penis of the Elected never softens…”, Jonah’s trip in a whale’s stomach, conception without sex 2000 years ago, a god living in the sky judging everything everyone does, the story of Genesis etc. Religions didn’t bother making much sense in other ways, either: for example, Stalin is generally recognised as a monster because he killed millions, but Christians consider Yahweh a loving father even though he supposedly drowned nearly all life on Earth…but the absurdities are more than obvious enough to warrant further elaboration. A substantial part of core religious teachings are obviously senseless and maybe the strongest confirmation is given by the faithful themselves. By that, I mean that almost all people have in common that they’re atheistic about almost all deities humanity ever believed in: the only difference, then, between a Muslim or a Christian and an atheist is that an atheist goes one god further.
Because religions were revealed to be so obviously senseless, it became not only useful, but absolutely mandatory for indoctrination to start with children, and religions have achieved roaring success there. They’ve managed to set things up so that it starts immediately from birth: no major religion passes the opportunity to immediately initiate a new human being into its ranks, after which they make sure that they have a role to play along every step of the way to adulthood. This is patently obvious from looking at e.g. Christians, Muslims or Jews: 3 out of 7 Christian sacraments are targeted at the first 13 years of life, and the attention Muslims and Jews direct toward indoctrination of their children is equally obvious (circumcision at birth, reading the Tora at age 3-4, bar mitzvah…). In addition to indoctrinating children from birth, religions have to make it perpetual, i.e. they have to make sure that children are raised in a way which will make them do the same with their children.
Indoctrination from birth is a necessary, but not sufficient condition to make sure a religion spreads and survives. They also have to provide at least an illusion of value, something people will want to hand over to their children. They therefore make themselves alluring, promising things in high demand: justice (“final judgement”), pleasure and serenity (sitting at the hand of God for eternity), damnation of the rich and powerful (a form of retribution, when no other is readily available), 72 virgins (no such thing for women, of course…), the institute of confession (“no problem: 3 prayers and you’re right as rain again…”), among other things. Notice, by the way, that while at least some of these things might sound like a lot to promise, not one of them is verifiable, i.e. a priest gets to promise them without ever having to take responsibility for the promise. There also has to be real pressure to conform on non-believers: it often comes in the form of religious states imposing religious beliefs and values by law and force, social pressure from believers, ostracising, etc. Finally, they had to put pressure on existing believers to stick to the flock, e.g. “believers are saved, but everyone else will be damned eternally”. In a number of Muslim countries, the penalty for leaving the flock is death.
It is important to realise that religions are not attractive because they’re the way they are, but the other way around: they’re the way they are to be attractive and thus survive as religions. They have proven over and over that they would do anything to survive, including e.g. playing a pivotal role in the kidnapping of between 30.000 and 300.000 children in Spain between 1950. and 1990., concealing rampant paedophilia in the clergy’s ranks (simply shuffling their paedophiles around the country instead, putting children in danger again) and even declaring huge parts of their teachings as hyperbole or metaphor, failing to find any other way to defend them against the rising tide of human knowledge.
In that sense, human minds as a whole can (and probably should) be viewed as a fruitful environment for blossoming of certain types of ideas. Today’s dominant religions are simply the result of evolutionary processes on religious ideas, so religions with the most robust self-preservation strategies enjoy billions of followers and the majority of the world’s religions effectively died as a result of natural selection of ideas. A religion can be seen as a self-propagating set of related, but otherwise arbitrary ideas, a cultural self-replicating tool to make people believe nonsense and behave irrationally, or, if you will, a memetic parasite on human minds.
By the way, rationality and spirituality are at odds with one another: it has been shown that the more rational people are (i.e., the more they think analytically), the less religious they are. I would be surprised if there aren’t numerous sociological reports detailing how religious conviction is inversely proportional to the level of education and the affluence of an individual and the society he or she lives in. As a result, successful religions promote “rational thought” only within the (very tight) confounds of their own dogmata, and that, too, only shyly. One consequence of this is the invention of the concept of “heresy”: a concept which really only means “thoughts we do not allow you to have or promote”, regardless of the reasoning behind them. History has shown that clerics consider terrorism and force – including lethal force – a perfectly legitimate tool in enforcing adherence to the “right kind” of thinking.
Come back to the special interests promoting religions, religions are interesting phenomena in themselves, but have powerful proponents, among which rulers and clerics. Many rulers (although not all of them) love religion: the way it shamelessly promotes submission to authority, the idea that justice will be served in the afterlife (so it doesn’t have to be served right now…), strict discipline (so that discipline enforced by the ruler doesn’t seem severe in comparison), the way it introduces arbitrary divisions among people (always useful when looking for an excuse for war) etc. Religion is one of their best and most cynical tools and they will gladly aid their particular clerics in stifling any dissent in the name of “moral”, “order”, “decency” and other excuses for horrid crimes over the centuries.
It is no accident, by the way, that dominant national religions are frequently identified with right wing political groups. Social effects of successful religions (delaying justice till judgement day, subservience to authority, discipline, poverty as a lifestyle, “us” vs. “them”) protect and promote the status quo, which also happens to be the main agenda of right-wing political parties, sometimes appropriately called “conservatives”.
Let us move on to clerics. First of all, it has to be said that there is no doubt that a number of side-effects of religion are positive: strict discipline promotes endurance and self-sacrifice in pursuit of goals, various related charities provide basic social services etc. Few ideas are able to make a global impact without a good PR campaign and that is in essence what religious charity work is. It is a kind of sponsorship: a religion provides certain resources to society in return for a positive public image and the opportunity to indoctrinate anyone and everyone it comes in contact with along the way (drug addicts, the poor, orphans etc.). Clerics are an interest group whose well-being, way of life, social status and self-image depend on promoting their religion. It is extremely unreasonable to assume that they will routinely be both willing and able to look above all of that, see the broader picture and consider the possibility that what they’ve been doing was completely wrong.
I’ve skipped a number of issues, like why the question of the existence of a god is immaterial, why it’s important to make the faithful feel weak, small and “sinful” etc, but these few paragraphs have been a short meandering overview of why religions exist, how successful religions function and what gives them such incredible reach. Anyone who agrees with most of the above will probably also come to an interesting and inevitable conclusion, which is that given the millenia religions have endured, the billions of people they’ve won over and the amount of dedication, time and resources devoted to them, fundamental teachings of the most widespread religions of the world can easily be called the biggest lies in human history. Part 2 is dedicated to what effects religions have on society and – to cut to the point – why it would be great to get rid of them.