"By pursuing his own interest [every individual] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good." ~ Adam Smith
The God Slide
Column by tzo.
Exclusive to STR
Religion is always a fun topic to address, since no one ever really gets fired up about it . . . .
While Voluntaryists acknowledge that government is aggressive, unethical, and is often likened to religion in that it is based on superstitious beliefs, it is commonly held that religion is only dangerous when coupled with government force. If people want to believe in and participate in religion without introducing coercive government into the equation, then it’s harmless. Live and let live.
However, I would contend that the believer is psychologically harming himself. Believing in things that don’t exist in reality is by definition delusional, and there are consequences to this self-damaging behavior that can manifest themselves in society, and some of these consequences can prove hazardous to many people.
Now how does one generally acquire religious beliefs? Ninety-nine times out of a hundred they are transferred from parent to child, a download that the youngster has no real defense against.
Is that aggression? Abuse? Not exactly. Is the subsequent adult that received such indoctrination as a child able to critically think his way through and unwind all the logical contradictions and overcome the emotional attachments involved? Very many can't.
So if an individual is being psychologically harmed by ideas he willingly holds in his mind, but those ideas would not be there except for the fact that someone else put them there when he was young and impressionable, then who is harming whom? Is the person harming himself or has harm come to him through the actions of others? The answer is “yes” to both.
But again, the harm is relatively harmless. Right?
Well, it is vitally important for human beings to have an accurate understanding of the world around them: Don't walk off cliffs and don't poke sleeping tigers with sticks. We are built to discover logical explanations that correspond with reality, and this is key to human survival.
So now consider the Big Questions: How did I get here? Why am I here? What happens after I die? Where did all this come from? Since the human mind has a natural aversion to "I don’t know," it wants to fill in the holes, and even a bad answer is better than no answer (Of course, no answer is an answer as well, if one can see it and accept it as such.).
It turns out that these Big Questions can have fantastical, illogical answers without having any obvious immediate consequences, and so haphazard answers can get plugged in and the thirst for knowledge can be quenched. And that’s good enough because after all, there usually are more pressing needs to attend to.
So once again, what's the big deal?
Well, positing the existence of a god all on its own is ultimately an unsatisfying answer. It merely pushes the line of questions back to the god’s motivations. If it created everything, it must have a plan. What is it? Musings turn into suppositions turn into beliefs turn into written scripture that gets compiled into complicated tomes that only certain experts can interpret. These experts become the supernatural conduit through which the god can express his will. Now you have a religion—a collection of irrational beliefs, myths, and rules that are handed down by an imagined divine power to select human “divine authorities” here on Earth.
And it turns out the answers these “authorities” provide for the Big Questions are anything but haphazard, but rather purposeful concoctions meant to take advantage of anyone gullible enough to be taken in. A control structure based on deception and irrationality is created, and that’s a problem.
Having irrational beliefs means that one doesn't trust oneself to accurately decipher reality. There are invisible forces that are to be believed in, and the only reason they are believed in is that they have been accepted from a perceived authority who told them it was so (looking primarily at you, Moms and Dads).
Now consider the self-esteem of a person who cannot trust his own senses but must rely on external authority to explain to him the mysterious world in which he is immersed because it is beyond his capability to understand on his own. Consider that the young mind taught religion is being trained to see himself as being incompetent to understand the world around him through his own rational and logical examinations.
“God made the world. God made me. God will watch over me. God has a plan. All my success is due to God. I am a servant to his will. I will try to understand what he wishes me to do and I will try to live that out. I will find others who believe as I do, and we will help each other along. We will share the true answers to the great secrets. We will build a community of believers. We will select our leaders among men . . . .”
How long before, “God hath decreed that this land be rightfully ours, cast out the infidels!”? Sounds a little extreme, but if that’s what the little feller with the funny hat and robes says . . . .
Can a group of people with these attributes be counted on to understand and support the idea that all men are created equal and have equal rights? How can they, when they automatically categorize themselves as lesser humans who must defer to a class of superior humans on whom they depend to explain reality to them and to dispense justice for them?
They are rule-followers, and their scripture comes down from on high and is passed along to them via the super-humans who are the natural conduits to this higher power. And if they feel they should be subject to that higher power as well as the small group of humans who represent that power here on Earth, then you better believe that they are going to want to drag you down to their level and make sure you don't go around trying to live as a sovereign individual. Blasphemy! Allow us to correct the error of your ways. You'll thank us later, in the afterlife.
So no, religion without state power behind it is not necessarily harmful per se. Irrational belief systems are not harmful per se. But when you get a population of irrational believers, the end result—consciously pursued or not—will be to create a State, which is merely an expression of an external authority on Earth that is to be obeyed.
There will always be those who can sniff out the weak and provide them with “protection” for a price. Where there is demand, supply will eventually be found. When enough of these dependents are gathered together, they become a big club that can be wielded against those who choose not to believe in Santa. The end result is that we all end up having to dress up as elves and pretend to go to work in Santa’s workshop. Humiliating.
The God Slide is just one type of the various “external authority” slides that exist and like all the rest, it is extremely slippery and there is always a collection of folks at the bottom ready to catch you. They are the government, and they are there to help.
So while there is no overt aggression going on in the intergenerational transfer of irrational beliefs, rationality needs to put up a fight against irrationality. The non-coercive weapons to be used are persuasion and peer pressure, which can be extremely effective. These are, in fact, the very same tools used by all religions and governments who wish to bend human beings to conform to their irrational propositions.
Turning the tables and pressuring people to conform to rationality and to reject irrationality in all of its forms is the remedy to this anti-intellectual mindset. And more importantly, it is vital to persuade people to stop passing off superstition as fact to the next generation while they are young, vulnerable, and impressionable, thereby undermining their rational faculty.
Widespread irrational beliefs can have serious consequences in society. There once was a widespread irrational belief that some animals that look just like men weren’t really men because their skin contained high levels of melanin, and this brilliant non-thinking coincided with slavery and institutionalized racism. Now that people are generally not taught such irrational lessons, the peculiar institution has subsided. Coincidence?
As it stands now, more than 9 out of 10 Americans believe in God and at least 9.999 out of 10 Americans believe in government. Coincidence?