By Sid Schwab / Herald columnist
“Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by a difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought to be deprecated.”
— George Washington, 1792
To the distress of many religious and political leaders, increasing numbers of Americans, especially Christians, are becoming unchurched. Which is ironic; it’s the actions of those worried leaders, their attacks on people who don’t believe or love like them, forcing their zealotry into legislation, that younger generations find off-putting. That, and the hypocrisy, as the loudest political proclaimers of Christian faith, and their voters, treat people in need in the most un-Christlike ways (UVA Today: tinyurl.com/nochurch4u).
Children born into a religion follow suit. Eventually, some will question what they were taught; for example, given the misery so evident everywhere, the Biblical descriptions of God. Of course, opinions about the literal truth of the Book vary from absolute to not at all.
At birth, we’re atheist. Humans aren’t born believing, any more than they’re born racist. Awareness of mortality preceded religion and still does. “Am I going to die,” children ask before wondering about gods. “What happens when we die?” The answers they receive depend on accidents of where, when and to whom they’re born.
To relieve that existential angst, immutable — if untestable — credenda are a human need. And, since no truths are manifest, the need produces them. “If you’re good, you go to heaven. If you’re bad, hell.” “We’re reincarnated till we get it right.” “We become stardust.” “We get our own planet.” “Your thetan forgets your past life and starts you over.” “We live on in the hearts of those who cherish our memory.” “We needn’t fear death, because we experienced it before we were born, and it’s that to which we return.” Each offers comfort to some.
First came polytheism: forest gods, specialist gods, dozens of them, enough to explain the fearsome: volcanoes, earthquakes, thunder and lightning, disease. Good things, too: love, food, intoxicants. No god fully in control, lesser ones tormenting each other and us, creating havoc because they can. But, at the end, a promise of life beyond death.
To many millions, that capricious, celestial chaos comports better with life’s vicissitudes than one all-powerful, all-knowing, loving god who allows, or causes, boundless pain and suffering, even in innocent children; born in sin, eons removed from a lady who ate an apple, doomed unless forgiven. Meting out, to the unforgiven, eternal roasting on the coals of hellfire seems unloving, too. Not everyone agrees.
For every person accepting religious doctrine with absolute certitude, there’s a billion others who believe completely differently, with equal certainty. Since they can’t all be correct, absent objective criteria of rightness, there’s little reason to assume all but one are wrong. The same applies to holy books and texts, multiply translated and revised; one at the behest of a 17th-century king; others appearing only a few decades past. Contradicting each other, unquestioningly accepted, summarily dismissed. Which speaks less of truth or falsehood than of the inescapable urge, across all cultures, to make peace with life and death. That’s the origin and purpose of every religion. For most people, their choice satisfies.
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman said, “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.” Me, too. But I don’t consider it superior to certainty; it’s a state of mind. My skepticism, however, harms no one, except, some insist, me; whereas, as America moves ever closer to punitive, far-right (un)Christian theocracy, its lawmakers and judges are intentionally harming different-believers.
Florida’s Republican governor, Ron “Full armor of God” DeSantis, got stick-it-to-the-libs laughs for treating desperate asylum-seekers, including children, told they were following the rules, in the most dehumanizing, unchristian way imaginable. Tucker Carlson was tickled red. He, DeSantis, and the MAGAwful who laughed with them, make one wish hell is real. And, for the stuck-it-to libs who gathered, lovingly, to provide aid, heaven (Washington Post: tinyurl.com/vineyard4u).
The point isn’t whose religion is right or wrong, for, in this life, we’ll never know. In our corner of a vast, unknowable universe, we Earthlings have produced widely divergent responses to mortality; each of which, objectively, has as much claim on truth as any other. Therefore, one ought to be humble about one’s personal choice, accepting that others settled upon theirs for reasons that deserve the same respect as yours. Which means public policy should be kept separate from all religions: yours, mine, theirs. That is the point.
Those who need to legislate their beliefs into secular law must be so insecure in their truth that knowing others disagree frightens them unto death. Pour souls, they have it backward.
Email Sid Schwab at email@example.com.