JR'S Free Thought Pages
What is Religion?
Some Thoughts on Conceptual and other Bewildering Issues
By JR, April 2021
"Religions are conclusions for which the facts of nature supply no major premises." – Ambrose Bierce
“If there is one idea that may be called intrinsically coercive, it is the idea of truth; since what is true is independent of what anyone wants or believes. “ - David Stove
“The irrationality of religious beliefs consists in them being groundless, and inconsistent with other beliefs that we know to be true.” - David Stove
Religion is often so broadly defined that anything qualifies, including fishing, baseball, chess, stamp collecting and the pursuit and worship of money . But surely if every human activity is a religion, nothing is. Other than the enlightening courses in the philosophy of mathematics and philosophy of science I took during graduate work in philosophy, one of the most valuable was a course called “Conceptual Analysis”. Adherence to clarity of thought and rules of logic regarding any rational exercise would be futile without clear conceptions and terminological intelligibility. How can one argue about the existence of “god” or the “soul” for example, without a transparent and unambiguous understanding of their meaning? Surely one cannot believe what one cannot comprehend.
In our postmodern increasingly illiterate and irrational world the propensity and willingness of people to use words with cavalier disregard for their meaning has become an epidemic. This trend also includes the comingling of fact and opinion; people are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. And, as Mark Twain pointed out, the problem with most people is not so much all the things they don’t know, but the things they claim to know that are not true. Yes, there is an all powerful omniscient invisible green goblin in the sky that created the universe and everything in it – and it loves you. 
Religion commonly understood refers to a practise or set of practices in which generally poorly defined, often opaque, supernatural agencies are invoked, the most important of which is “God”. This transcendent entity is typically, particularly with monotheisms, claimed to possess dual properties of omnipotence and omniscience, both of which are scientific/empirical impossibilities. An added property, unique to Islam and Christianity is that this omnipotent supernatural being is incapable of error or wrongdoing; in other words he/she/it is perfect intellectually and morally, which are also empirical impossibilities. Both Christians and Muslims believe that their particular deity created the universe and everything in it by the flick of a light switch, despite scientific explanations that entail generally accepted theories and powerful explanations. They also claim that god’s word in either the Bible or Koran respectively must be taken as the absolute truth and obeyed – or suffer eternity in their torture chambers called Hell. Islam, by the way, literally means “Submission”, but both of these cosmic dictatorships demand obedience – or one suffers the dire consequences. For non-believers such as yours truly, the eternal damnation of Hell is the one way ticket destination provided by their god – infinite horror, pain and suffering reserved for phantom “witches” – or heretics and scientists (read Matthew 10:43, Luke 12:51-53 and John 3:36) .
For both Christians and Moslems and their intolerant cruel vindictive dictator in the sky, our planet earth is merely a bus stop on the journey to some opaque ethereal destination called “heaven”. So why bother caring about the bus stop earth, the societal norms, intellect and moral behaviour of its apparently most intelligent beings called homo saps or the dismal conditions of the natural environment that resembles a trash heap? Why does it matter what we believe, how we act, acquire knowledge and truth or what sort of societal arrangements we embrace; why question anything?
Religion is often confused or even conflated with “spirituality” which I understand is a sense of awe and wonder at the world of nature and the universe. This would include the sense of intellectual exuberance at trying to understand our natural world and how one can coexist within it as a moral agent with conscience, well-being, love and compassion. How anyone can willingly embrace such an immoral, anti-democratic, often tyrannical and debased world view like Christianity or Islam, the two dominant monotheisms, has always mystified me. The mere fact that people don’t seem to be bothered by self-imposed surrender, slavery and intellectual suicide is repugnant to me. Certainly when one seriously examines history, the ledger for both of these intolerant and violent religions is deeply mired on the debit side both morally and intellectually.
“I try not to have faith” – Noam Chomsky
Religions such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and hundreds of others persists despite the numerous epistemic nails in their coffins that have been hammered tight by Copernicus, Darwin, Einstein and countless other scientists since. The poet T. S. Eliot, a Catholic, once said that people can only handle so much reality. Then surely religion serves to placate the emotional insecurities people have about the real world, one of which is a major weapon in the war against reality. It’s a generally accepted fact that self deception, emotionally driven confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance and muddled thinking are an integral part of human cognition. Consider the following thought experiment. Suppose you are a person who had lived for two decades, never reading or hearing anything about religion or any other superstition. You meet a person who informs you:
“I believe in a god-man, son of the invisible Mr. Big Guy in the Sky, who was born of a virgin. He claimed to perform miracles of healing but was eventually executed by the Roman Empire for seditious revolutionary and anti-religious behaviour (wrong religion) then resurrected from death and, despite this death, answers my prayers. By adopting this faith and believing in these things I am promised everlasting life. And most importantly these beliefs make me feel better.”
You ask yourself, “Has such a person ever existed?” Beliefs are supposed to be consistent with logic, epistemic consistency, coherence, based on the preponderance of evidence and a reflection of the empirical real world as it currently exists. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), published by the American Psychiatric Association, is the most widely used reference work for clinicians in the field of mental health. It defines “delusion” as a “false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary.” As any psychiatrist or other clinician can attest, there are patients who often suffer from debilitating religious delusions. And the criterion that a belief is widely shared suggests that a belief can be delusional in one context and normal in another, even if the reasons for believing it are held constant. Does a lone psychotic guru become sane merely by attracting a crowd of devotees? If we are measuring sanity in terms of sheer numbers of subscribers, then atheists and agnostics in the most religious country in the Western World (on a par with Iran or Saudi Arabia) the United States of America, must be delusional: a diagnosis which would condemn to eternal damnation 95 percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences. There are, in fact, more people in the United States who cannot read than who doubt the existence of the Christian God. In twenty-first-century America, disbelief in the God of Abraham is about as radical a phenomenon as can be found. But so is a commitment to the basic principles of scientific and mathematical thinking; not to mention a detailed understanding of how science is done, algebra, geometry and calculus, Evolutionary Theory, genetics, special relativity and an understanding of probability and statistics including Bayesian analysis. 
The era when religion ruled and theocracy, monarchy and the divine right of kings prevailed was rightly called “The Dark Ages”. We are entering into such a dark age today of anti-intellectualism and epistemic relativism in a capitalist world order that does not understand the moral notion of limits, entirely dominating not only our personal lives but is destroying the earth’s ecosystems, its air, water and soils of the planet, putting all life forms at risk. But this agenda is not new. Just read the bible which informs humans that they have domination over everything on the planet including all other life forms and that we ought to go forth and multiply while given a carte blanche mandate to exploit all that exists. At the altar of profit ends and means are conflated as everything on the planet is being transmogrified into a commodity, including our personal freedom, independence of thought and soon the entire land, waterways and soon the air we need to breathe. Buddy can you spare some clean air?
The worst aspect of a god is the representation of authoritarianism, control, hierarchy, manipulation, fear, fabricated carrot-stick morality, false reward and cruel punishment at its most barbaric - an anti-democratic oppressive arrangement antithetical to human well-being, freedom and flourishing. It is a hierarchical bureaucratic political model that has been adopted almost in its entirety by the modern capitalist state, but is present in the state regardless of its ideological and political orientation and organization. This includes laws written by what Adam Smith called the oligarchs and ruling classes of his own day - “the masters of mankind”. In our own era this includes the moneyed authoritative classes and power elites that have created grotesque social and economic inequalities, massive bureaucracies, maintained and protected by police, prisons and spy agencies that confront and inflict the countless punishments on anyone challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. Freedom, especially the political brand, is only permitted within narrow parameters dictated by the global capitalist system. It’s not unlike theocracies with their myths and propaganda of heaven, hell and the punitive arm of Catholicism, the infamous Inquisition that included vicious torture and execution by fire for unbelievers and sceptics.  The present case which is the anti-democratic dogma of globalized finance capitalism called neo-liberalism with doctrines that can rightly described as what Mussolini called “corporatism”, namely “been there, done that” fascism. I submit that our current vulture capitalist regimes are as authoritarian, unjust, immoral and oppressive as any political, monarchical or theocratic power regime that has existed throughout human history. We are now facing an even more vile form of oligarchic corporatism, what renegade Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis called “Techno-Feudalism”.
No one is born believing in gods, supernatural entities or any of its inane religious dogmas; but neither is anyone born believing in political or socio-economic doctrines. Children, after all, are naturally curious, innately open-minded as they all seem to be hardened empiricists. But they are born into a world dominated by superstitions, magical thinking and mystical mumbo jumbo such as religion, in addition to a pre-existing authoritarian exploitive socio-economic and political arrangement called capitalism. Selfishness and not caring about others is not some ingrained “human nature” or deterministic unavoidable genetic trait. But indoctrination plays a crucial role in how children view the world.
However, the mentally healthy and un-indoctrinated child is born into a socio-economic system based on authoritarianism whereby irrationality and delusional ideas prevail. In order to better understand the behavior of the adult believer, it is essential to understand how these magical world views affects behavior and the life of the mind as the child enters the age of reason.
No sooner does a young child show its first mental stirrings, curiosity, language and mathematical skills it is corralled by parents and societal organizations such as the church and schools. It is made clear to him that his natural empiricism, curiosity and moral sensibilities are not allowed to develop freely with regard to his feeling for the natural world, caring for others, sense of fairness, reciprocity, compassion and desire for real truth and knowledge. If a child wants to belong and avoid being punished with general contempt and chastisements he must submit to the prevailing authorities. This fear, docility and self-censoring of innate curiosity and sense of freedom must be stifled at the risk of dire consequences at the hands of the church, schools and eventually, the state. Submissiveness, obedience, humility, unquestioned belief, faith and trust in authorities of every stripe are deemed intellectual and ethical virtues. These societal and psychological mechanisms are gang rapes of the inquisitive mind.
Any un-indoctrinated child of five years or older informed of an invisible being called “god” with supernatural powers and other mystical attributes would surely not be believed by an intelligent child any more than would ghosts, goblins and the invisible flying pink unicorn. My mother’s bedtime stories were always qualified by “this is only fiction and not real” but most of those fables were more believable than the ones taught in Sunday school and church. Our natural cognitive state would be atheism and deep scepticism with regarded to any other supernatural or paranormal phenomena and agencies such as gods, angels, demons and the tooth fairy. As Bertrand Russell wrote,
I think all the great religions of the world both untrue and harmful. It is evident as a matter of logic that, since they disagree, not more than one of them can be true. With very few exceptions, the religion that a man accepts is that of the community in which he lives, which makes it obvious that the influence of environment is what led him to accept the religion in question.
There is a story attributed to Russell about two atheists who are mired in a lengthy hopeless dialogue. One claims to be a Protestant atheist and the other a Catholic atheist and hence considered each other hopelessly incompatible. I consider the descriptions of these two people self-contradictions; after all both are former Christians who have obviously rejected their religions at some point and decided to become unbelievers. Surely there ought to be no disagreements about any religion since the religions to which they once belonged have been abandoned. Many key figures in the history of philosophy from Plato to Russell have rightly argued that authoritarian pronouncements from sources such as political dictators to monotheistic religion and their deities can never be the source of morals, only our rationality, conscience and the realization of the consequences of our acts. Russell wrote,
You find as you look round the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, ... every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized Churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion ... has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world. ... Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown ... and the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother, who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand-in-hand.
If Christians for example behaved better than others who are not Christian, there may be something to say in their favor, despite the irrationality and paucity of evidence for any of their doctrines. There is no evidence that theists are more ethical than non-believers. Not only have psychological studies failed to find a significant correlation between frequency of religious worship and moral conduct, but convicted criminals are much more likely to be theists than atheists. There are surprisingly few non-believers in prison. In 2013 study of 218,000 inmates in US prisons, only one fifth of one percent (that’s 0.2%) were atheists. Although in the general population the number of atheists in the United States, the most religious of all Western countries, is about 10% and growing.
Atheism is, after all, a simple concept and a negative one at that, a form of rejection or disbelief. An atheist is simply someone who does not believe in a god or gods or typically does not believe in any supernatural agents. It implies nothing beyond that disbelief, whether it is political affiliation or any other form of belief - other than the fact that almost all atheists hold to a scientific and humanist world view. For example, 95% of all members of the National Academy of Sciences are atheists. Sadly, despite the corrosive effects of logic, philosophy and science it would seem that the irrationalities, absurdities and contradictions of religious belief and organized religion (which today are more like business enterprises than anything else) are likely to survive as long as there are emotional, psychological and social forces to sustain them. But if Christians, for example, were to employ the same arguments in rejecting competing religions and applied them to their own, it would similarly disappear in a puff of smoke.
Throughout history, both Christianity and Islam when not holding absolute theocratic power have invariably been tools used by secular political orders to control the masses, rendering them docile and dependent. As Napoleon once stated, “Religion keeps the poor from murdering the rich”. Religions, in particular Christianity, are the vehicles that those in power have generally used to add an aura of determinism to the status quo. After Emperor Constantine “converted” to Christianity, he issued the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, which gave all Roman citizens the freedom to worship whatever deity they pleased. Whether Constantine converted to Christianity or whether it was a ploy of political opportunism in the failing Empire is open to debate, but it was a disaster for Christianity as any moral or revolutionary force in the world. However, the religious liberty was brief. Then as now, Christians were not satisfied with freedom of religion; they wanted total power and domination. Constantine relented. As Edward Gibbon remarks, “with the knowledge of truth the emperor imbibed the maxims of persecution.” After only twelve short years of religious freedom, the Council of Nicea in 325 CE outlawed paganism as the persecution, torture and brutal execution of heretics, pagans and Jews, dissenters, women, and freethinkers began and continued for a thousand years and onward despite the Enlightenment and Scientific revolution up to the modern era.
From that point onward Christianity as any semblance of a moral force was destroyed by its elevation to the state religion of the Roman Empire by King Constantine in the 4th century CE. This elevated status kick started the Dark Ages as Christians proceeded to destroy the Classical World, including the famous library of Alexandria thus postponing the Humanist Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution for a thousand years.
Later Christianity, in embracing colonialism, slavery, genocide of Indigenous populations and an exploitive capitalist system that mandates an acquiescent working class, those in positions of power, the corporate elite, financial vultures and management classes, have created a continuum of social stratification from extremely poor to extremely rich that not only allow harsh inequalities, injustice and other immoralities, but encourage them. I recall a popular philosophy professor I had in graduate school who would vacillate between anger and laughter at the courses in “business ethics” that were offered in his department, describing them as egregiously oxymoronic and farcical. These were courses that were typical during the onset of the corporatization of academia that has decimated the universities, especially the liberal arts programs.
A final quote from a science fiction writer I discovered as an inquisitive teen:
Religion is sometimes a source for happiness, and I would not deprive anyone of happiness. But it is a comfort appropriate for the weak, not for the strong ... The great trouble with religion - any religion - is that a religionist, having accepted certain propositions by faith, cannot thereafter judge those propositions by evidence. One may bask in the warm fire of faith, or choose to live in the bleak uncertainty of reason - but one cannot have both. - Robert A. Heinlein
Then there's the late "Hitch" who never pulled any punches when skewering religion...
 I think it may be argued that if religion is loosely conceived as the obsession with and worship of power and authority, regardless of whether its source lies in real living things or merely symbols of supremacy, then in our capitalist societies, money would qualify. It’s certainly the “religion” of the United States of America, often referred to as the “almighty dollar”. But the demented psychotic drive for the accumulation of money as an end in itself, even at the cost of ethical principle, life and limb very much resembles the fanaticism of a fundamentalist cult or religion. The deity of money is legitimized and driven by what seems to be a theocratic deity and sacred doctrines in what is called “economics” with its mysterious conjectures and dubious doctrines such as “the invisible hand of the market” and EMH, the disembodied “efficient market hypothesis”. This includes a massive hierarchical bureaucracy of “lords of finance”, their incontrovertible commandments and a political dictatorship that serves the interests of wealthy power elites, global capitalists and the billionaire classes who control the techno-capitalist states throughout the world. In this sense, capitalism and the obsessive pursuit and worship of mammon and the maintenance of the system that drives it at all costs, is a religion.
The primary problem is that every religion, or at least at any rate every religion of which I am aware, is incomprehensible when it is not clearly false. Of course, something which is incomprehensible to us might nevertheless be true. A few clever religious people often remind the non-religious of this obvious fact. But, though it is a fact, it is no help to the believer or non-believer because there are always many competing incomprehensibilities from religious and countless other sources of superstition, pseudoscience and the paranormal that are competing for our attention and eventual acceptance. An astute thinker once said that a philosopher is a man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there; the theologian is the one who finds him. The early Christian theologian and apologist Tertullian said that he believed in the Christian religion not in spite of its absurdity, but because of it. But in the seemingly endless marketplace of absurdity, including thousands of religions throughout history, assuming one cares about them, how does one choose?
 Postmodernists and other purveyors of relativism (“Anything Goes” according to the Cole Porter song) inform us that there is no such thing as objective meaning, morals or truth, since meaning, morals and truth are the products of perception and interpretation, and interpretation and perception are always prone to misinterpretation and error. To cite just one example; many critics seize on this radical skepticism about meaning, morals and truth as a basis for denying that one work of literature can be more meaningful, insightful or intellectually superior than another. For example, there is no special reason to teach Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Tolstoy rather than Stephen King, The Three Little Pigs and Beavis and Butthead, when objectivity, value and meaning cannot be applied to any of them. What we now have in our universities are philosophy, history literature being replaced by the humdrum banalities of business administration, marketing and stock market analysis.
 The periphery between mental illness and respectable religious belief can be difficult to distinguish. This was made especially dramatic in a court case about ten years ago that involved a small group of very committed devout Christians accused of murdering an eighteen-month-old infant. The problem began when the boy ceased to say “Amen” before meals. Believing that he had developed “a spirit of rebellion,” the group, which included the boy’s mother, deprived him of food and water until he died. Upon being indicted, the mother accepted an unusual plea agreement: she vowed to cooperate in the prosecution of her co-defendants under the condition that all charges be dropped if her son were resurrected. The prosecutor accepted this plea provided that that resurrection was “Jesus-like” and did not include reincarnation as another person or animal. Despite the fact that this band of delusional lunatics carried the boy’s corpse around in a green suitcase for over a year, awaiting his re-emergence from death, there is, at least according to the US courts, no reason to believe that any of these cretins suffer from a mental illness. It is obvious, however, that they suffer from a serious cognitive virus called religion.
 Influential Christian theologian John Calvin defended totalitarian Christian rule; that is, a theocracy. He considered the set of laws and the magistrate is to enforce the religious teachings of the Church, not unlike the legal system today with respect to the state serving and protecting the capitalist system. The function of the state for Calvin was to serve, protect and enforce the laws of God as dictated in the Bible and to institute the absolute authority of God on earth. As a French Protestant, Calvin was persecuted in France but was welcomed to Geneva in 1451. He then set out to reform its government and its laws according to his interpretation of the dictates of his Christian God. He crafted a legal system that sought to control every aspect of life (sound familiar?), the upshot of which was an infamous reign of terror. Even learned intellectuals such as Michael Servetus could not rely on justice, freedom of thought and protection from persecution by Calvin. After being condemned to death by the Spanish Inquisition for his two books on the Trinity, Servetus managed to escape from prison and made his way to Geneva, thinking that Calvin would protect him. But Calvin had him arrested, tried, condemned, and barbecued at the stake in 1553 in accordance with the metaphysics of terror.
What the Inquisition and the secular dystopias of the twentieth century have in common is the primacy of belief and the desire to control not only action, but thought. The totalitarian movements of the twentieth century are modeled on the Christian Inquisition. Like the latter, they are not satisfied with conduct, they insist on the right beliefs and dispositions. Like the Inquisitorial trials in the Dark Ages, Witch burnings in 17th century Puritan America, the hysterical anti-communist witch hunts following both World Wars, the purge trials of Stalin during the 1930s that included the murder of Leon Trotsky, the betrayal of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 by the West, the American incited anti-communist cold and hot wars such as in Korea and Vietnam were not about moral conduct, but ideological dogma and groundless belief. We are only beginning to realize that such efforts such as the endless American wars in the Middle East cannot avoid courting massive death and disaster. When politics or economics preoccupy itself with beliefs, propaganda, indoctrination and inculcated inner dispositions and not with truth and ethical conduct, the result is a dystopian nightmare, not unlike the moral and political dysfunction, growing fascism. Equally terrifying fictions can be written about the Inquisition and the witch trials in Rome, Spain, England and New England. These are regimes, among countless others, that aspire to thought-control, whether Christian or secular, are never satisfied with prohibitions and punishments. One cannot exclude the totalitarian hegemonic nature of globalized finance capitalism in Western countries in particular that resemble fascist police states.
In this sense, our doctrinaire so-called capitalist “democracies” with their surveillance systems and police state spy agencies are not unlike those of an omnipotent all-seeing god that tracks your every move and thought. And within capitalist doctrines there are the lords of finance and worshipers of mammon, superstitions such as the “invisible hand of the market” and EMH. These and other characteristics surely resemble the dogmatic faiths of monotheistic religions such as Islam and Christianity.
Christianity makes highly dubious claims about what we refer to as “human nature’. We are informed that all humans are born into a state of depravity and “sin”. But we are provided with a fictitious solution, salvation in the form of faith in god and his man Jesus, born of a virgin. No, god did not do the adulterous wild thing with Mary, defying the scientific understanding of a 12 year old. You believe this and other fairy tales or burn in hell.
It was argued by Thomas Hobbes that fear of punishment or the threat of violent death is a necessary and sufficient means to control human nature which he assumes (other than himself) is depraved and vile. In light of this fierce reality claimed by Hobbes and other conservative thinkers such as Edmund Burke, terror is necessary to repress, tame, and domesticate man’s beastly self-serving instincts. This Christian idea of man born into depravity and evil is odd coming from a self-professed atheist. In other words, “civilization” is merely a thin veneer, a façade behind which lurks a primeval unredeemable savage beast called home sapiens. But both Christianity and Hobbes are clearly wrong, in spite of the same non-evidential assumption regarding human nature accepted by most indoctrinated people. Even fear of corporal punishment, prison and eternal hellfire is not enough.
Yet as Friedrich Nietzsche rightly observed, punishment succeeds primarily in hardening the criminal and making him resolve to proceed more cautiously. Moreover, those who rely on the fear of punishment as the foundation of civilization cannot explain why many people comply with the moral principles such as the Golden Rule and the state laws even when there is no chance of being found out if they don’t. Nietzsche and Freud provide an explanation that eludes the likes of Hobbes, Machiavelli and most “might is right” political conservatives. But there are always psychopaths who covet power, free riders and those who don’t give a rat’s as about justice and fairness, like the dog owners on your street who don’t clean up their dogs shit from someone else’s (or public) property. The assumption seems to be a false dichotomy whereby one must either dominate or be dominated. One ought to remember the anarchist’s warning about the illegitimacy of almost all power, the very antithesis of democracy and egalitarianism. After al power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. What does this reveal about gods? And why should we trust power from any source, whether it is the capitalist state and its politicians or the wealthy elites, corporations, banks or the politicians whose interests they serve backed up by laws, police, prisons and military?
Scientific Realities v Religion: