Religious persons who are fundamentalist in their beliefs, meaning those who think that their “holy book” should be interpreted literally, constitute approximately twenty percent of the population in the United States. Despite this, they are a ubiquitous presence on our political scene, giving the impression that they are much more numerous than they actually are. The majority of religious people interpret their faith in a more liberal, worldly fashion, rejecting the concept of biblical inerrancy so dear to the hearts of the conservatives.
Religious belief in general is much different today than in earlier times. We see this in countless areas of society and in our daily lives. One of these is in the field of education. Most academic scholars recognize that religions are living, evolving entities, in contradistinction to those on the far right who seek to ignore that point and return their religion to a more primitive and, in their view, pristine time and form. Many of these academics hold that, due to its evolving nature, it is wrong to judge religions on the basis of their original texts or by their past histories. They contend that the original texts should not be interpreted literally, but instead viewed as being illustrative of truths and moral values we all share. What they are trying to do is to reconcile religion and reason. This proves to be an exercise in futility.
If one wishes to promote the veracity of faith, however it is manifested, one must eventually demote or even denigrate human reason. Historically, this is just what most theologians have done, yet many contemporary scholars attempt to reconcile the two. What they do not or will not recognize is that the only alternative to reason is unreason. For if one rejects the faculty of reason and insists that emotions can create truth (which is the domain of faith) one must also reject the validity of all one’s senses and mental processes, since their emotions may contradict them at any time. But to do this is to reject in toto one’s grasp of reality. The end result of accepting any idea on faith is to render thinking superfluous and unnecessary. This is why all religions are inherently anti-intellectual.
The liberal religious person who maintains that religions are evolving organisms ignores the fact that religions are supposed to represent eternal truths that transcend the ages. This is a consequence of the nearly universal view of god as being unchanging (conveniently ignoring the changes in god’s character from the beginning to the end of the Bible).
The idea of interpreting the Bible (or any other religious text) in any way other than literally is a comparatively recent phenomenon, originating in the period known as the Enlightenment, when people for the first time began to realize that, just maybe, the Bible may be problematic if we interpret it exactly as written. Such a development was inevitable as the world re-discovered the power of thinking and began to emerge from the Christian Dark Ages. With the unleashing of human reason, the world began to witness unparalleled technological advances and scientific discoveries. History thus shows that every time a religion has “modernized,” it has not done so at its own instigation; rather in each and every instance the church has been forcibly dragged into the modern world, fighting change at every turn. Only when the benefits of reason untrammeled by religious dogma became obvious and the advancement of science and technology became irreversible did the church make any attempt to accommodate itself to modern society. In many ways, the Middle Ages did not end with the beginning of the Renaissance but in 1870 when the Vatican surrendered its last temporal lands.
The efforts of organized religions to enter the modern world are really only a product of the twentieth century. During that time, religious people began doing something that they had never done before: they began to look at the world around them, noticed what are acceptable social mores and values, and then tried to re-interpret their religious beliefs to fit in with this new world. In previous times, the iron fist of religion determined these values and woe to the person who questioned them. Religion’s reluctant acceptance of at least some of the aspects of modernity was a necessity, lest it disappear altogether as an archaic relic of the past. Naturally, this has led to some very drastic re-interpretation of some of the more barbaric ancient texts. To cite but one example, Luke 14:26, which has Jesus saying “If any man come to me and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” has been magically re-interpreted. Many biblical scholars now hold that the word “hate” doesn’t really mean hate, only to “love less.” This ignores the original language in which hate means exactly what we think it to mean.
Despite the efforts of organized religions to stifle them, science and other disciplines have grown. For religion, this has necessitated a drastic overhaul of some very basic ideological tenets. The very idea of god has undergone such a transformation that our ancestors, if they were able to appear today, would dismiss all these modern conceptions of god as rank heresy.
In earlier times, god was a seemingly plausible explanation for the workings of nature, given the absence of the scientific method. It remained plausible only as long as humankind remained in a prescientific and pre-rational state; as people began to put two and two together and the sciences began to emerge, god had to be re-interpreted, a process that continues to this day. Rather than literally being within a stone’s throw of us, he became more and more remote and theology of necessity became more and more vague. The more we learned about the world around us, the less anthropomorphic god became, and the less we needed to cite him to explain natural phenomena. By the time of the late sixteenth century, a few philosophers even began to have the temerity to challenge the basic concepts about god’s nature.
Pre-literate people had no doubts about the nature of their gods, or about what they did. However, as our knowledge of the world grew, our presumptions about the various gods shrank. Science has relieved god of his responsibilities and stripped him of his identity. He is no longer thought to be material, occupying a definite location in the universe. Now, he is said to be “spiritual” and to “transcend” the universe. There is a direct proportion here: the more we know about reality, the more vague the various ideas about god become.
Religions arose out of our ancestor’s attempts to make sense of their surroundings. Their primitive notions simply do not correspond with current knowledge, and all the word games of today’s liberal theologians and university professors cannot change that fact. The scientific method, as well as plain old common sense, has made a mockery of people’s attempts to discover or understand anything by mysticism or divine revelation. Every time we learn something new, we replace an earlier belief. Imagining that earlier belief to be sacred does not make it either timeless or true. Those who attempt to reconcile these outmoded and false beliefs with the realities of contemporary science are holding on to the shell of religion while stripping it of its substance.
Actually, the liberalizing tendency of modern theology is not without historical precedent. The same type of mental gymnastics being employed to justify Christianity were used by the pagan philosophers of antiquity who were attempting to salvage the remnants of the Greco-Roman mythological traditions. The techniques are identical; deny the literal reality of those myths, and claim them to be allegorical. No one today believes in the Greco-Roman gods. The same fate will eventually befall Christianity.
In ancient times revealed “truths” had much to tell humans about what and how they should think and act. Religion set the tone for society’s conduct and that viewpoint eventually led to countless tyrannical, oppressive and anti-intellectual governments and regimes. In the case of Christianity, the end result was to check progress for over fifteen hundred years and to cast a pallid cloud of gloom over the human race that continues to have repercussions to this day. All religions, not excepting Christianity, have nothing to offer us about philosophy, science, sociology, morality, or any real human needs.
By contrast, atheism and other forms of freethought promote loftier aspirations. Rather than promote dead theology, we promote living ideas. We would build a hospital rather than a church, a school instead of a synagogue, and a library in place of a mosque. We do not worship the ignorance and superstition of the past but instead work to build a better future. We do not degrade ourselves through prayer, but see to educate and elevate ourselves through reading and hard, honest work. We do not encourage base instincts through the survival of primitive, pointless rituals, but hold that humanity, if unchecked by superstition, can indeed create a better, safer, and saner world for all of us.