VATICAN CITY, Holy Thursday – Watching the pilgrims arrive for Holy Week, queuing through the metal detectors at the ends of the arms of St. Peter’s Square, I feel like a teenager watching the little kids line up for Santa Claus. It is remarkable how we are willing to cast aside the sweet myth of Santa, for the reality that it is the sure love of our parents that provide gifts and good cheer, yet the myth of religion clings with most of us until death.
So many are unable to cast off the myth of religion – perhaps the stakes are too high, or unlike the Santa myth, our parents believed their entire lives. We, as a race, need to recognize that the bounty that we enjoy springs not from some supernatural entity, but from our spaceship Earth. We are simply one organic part of it. The value of our lives depends on how good a tenant we are: Our contribution to human society, to good stewardship of Earth, and to posterity are all measures of that tenancy.
Religion serves to unify a group. The godhead set down rules for life, and everyone in the group recognizes that following or breaking them has consequences – multiplied by the concept of an eternal afterlife. The problem with this is that religion causes an us / them organization of thought. For example, the Ten Commandments were meant as rules for behavior between the tribes of Israel, and had no force with respect to other tribes. It was fine to rape or plunder the Philistines.
Religion ossifies rules. Leviticus held the best rules known at the time for Bronze Age Man. Don’t eat cloven hoofed animals, you will get trichinosis; you are unclean until dark if you handle roadkill, since you have no “sanitizing wipes”; two men should not lay with one woman, we won’t know the father; etc. These made excellent sense at the time and place. The problem is that there is no mechanism for editing to add new guides and remove irrelevant ones or ones whose purpose is no longer valid, such as “go forth and multiply” when we have already done that and the Earth’s population is burgeoning.
Even when religion comes from a single source, such as the Abrahamic faiths, there arouse differences that not only separate peoples, but cause great strife and bloodshed. Muslim, Judaism and Christianity all share the same roots, but have seen terrible bloodshed in the name of God. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Caliphate conquests, the Ottoman wars, the Papal wars all were driven by religion. Recent conflicts such as that between Israel and the Palestinians, the Irish troubles, and Serbia vs Bosnia and Herzegovnia, and Kosovo are all driven by religion as well. Even within a single faith Shiite vs Sunni, Catholicism vs Protestantism the power struggles divide peoples.
With a death in my family only last night, I see how the myth of “life after death” holds a powerful claim on our beliefs. Not only is it packages of toys we are talking about, but the continuation of “MEness” contained in our sentience after death is at stake. This is a powerful question.
Don’t we surrender sentience daily in sleep? How is sentience to return after death if it has been lost in the dementia of Alzheimer’s? Do we not leave bits of ourselves in everything we do, particularly everything we teach? Are not my thoughts borrowed by everyone who reads these words? Is not the sum of a life the totality of what that person has done, and its effect on the world and humanity? Perhaps this is the true meaning of the final judgement, and not some standing before a god, but simply a clear understanding of that tally.
No promise of dancing with angels before god holds sway with me. It is inconceivable to me that so many people hold this myth firmly based only on wishful thinking and some verses in a book sustaining it. I suppose the same could be said about Ptolomy’s celestial spheres, yet people believed them for years after Copernicus and Gallileo showed them to be false.
I for one, am content with the idea that my sentience, that I hold most preciously, will most likely fade at my death or before. I measure its purpose by the good I do, and by my failures, using as a measure the best information on the “right course” I can find. This, I believe is a successful and fulfilling life plan, sans any need for supernatural interference. I will go to my final sleep knowing the good and bad I have accomplished will weigh the scales on how much of that life was used well and how much wasted. Those scales are mine, not of some supernatural being, and free of obsession will show the truth.