In this essay, I present a very basic reason why I am convinced that orthodox religion (as opposed to religious sensibility or mysticism) is really bad for the human species. In addition, I have another reason, which I will post as a later entry.
There is a famous story about an essay contest in England. The topic was, “What is wrong with the world?” The British writer G. K. Chesterton wrote the winning entry. It consisted of two words: “I am.”
In addressing the question of “Whose fault is the human condition,” I am not going to focus on individuals, as Chesterton did. Instead I am asking about larger human institutions or frames of thought. In particular, I want to consider science and religion: which of these two institutions or frames of thought has had more of an impact on the sad, bloody human condition? The answer is religion. I refer herein to conventional, orthodox religion.
Preachers such as the late D. James Kennedy have been relentless in blaming all human evils on evolution and on science. Of course, this makes no sense. Humans have been killing and oppressing one another as long as there has been evidence of human existence. Humans have always had religion, but have only recently had science. In fact the decline in atrocities has been coincident in time with the spread of science.
But there is another reason that I blame religion as a major cause of human suffering. From a religious viewpoints, either God created human nature, or else God allowed Satan to create human nature. Either way, our nature is God’s will. That’s what makes it human nature; we cannot change it. We can “be saved,” they say. But most of the people I know who “have the Holy Spirit living inside of them” live in just as worldly a fashion as those whom they despise as hell-bound sinners. At the very least, even “saved” people still have human nature, Holy Ghost or no. There are lots of good people, religious or not.
Therefore, from a religious perspective, “is” and “ought” are the same in human nature. Not necessarily in human action, but in human nature. Consider this example. Men are more violent than women. According to religion, this is the way things ought to be; God made us that way. As a matter of fact, it is bad for men to not be violent. I vividly remember a radio broadcast in which James Dobson, a major voice of the religious right, condemned the Berenstain Bears cartoons because they depicted a father bear who was not sufficiently assertive and masculine. It is always men who start wars and who do most of the fighting. And this is the way God made us, religious people claim. Women are supposed to stay home, stay quiet, and stay pregnant with fetuses of future warriors.
Evolutionary science, on the other hand, separates “is” from “ought” in human nature. Darwin proposed sexual selection as the reason that male animals are more “pugnacious.” Males fight more because they evolved that way. Maybe it made sense in the Stone Age. But today it is an evolutionary mismatch—what conferred fitness benefits in the Stone Age is now maladaptive except for a few lucky dictators. Evolutionists do not obtain morals from Stone Age biological and cultural adaptations. Religious people, in contrast, have to obtain their morals from the way God made us. Was God correct in ordering the Israelites to kill all the Canaanites, even the kids? If God is unchanging, then either he is wrong or else all of the Old Testament killing was right. If God said it was right in the past, then it is still right. But if an adaptation evolved in the past, it is not necessarily adaptive today.
I believe I am justified in attributing a great deal of modern human suffering to the idea, strongly held by many Christians, Jews, and Muslims, that God made men to be fighters and that is the way it is supposed to be now and forever. For religious people, Homo bellicosus was intelligently designed. But to evolutionists, Homo sapiens is an ape struggling to subdue its old ape behavior with modern cultural evolution.
It has been this way for a long time. An historian who gave a series of lectures about the Paleolithic claimed that, until the start of agriculture, humanity progressed by “extensification,” that is, by moving into new territory and doing the same things as before. But when the territory was all gone, by about ten thousand years ago, humans had to turn to “intensification.” For example, humans could get more food from the same amount of earth by intensive agriculture than by extensive hunting and gathering. But I believe this historian had his dates wrong. With the exception of North and South America (and, of course, Antarctica), the entire world has been filled with humans for a long time. No extensification (aside from the people who migrated over the Bering Strait over 14,000 years ago) has been possible for at least the last 50,000 years. Modern humans, moving into Siberia, encountered Denisovans; and moving into Europe, they encountered Neanderthals. Modern Homo sapiens had to practice intensification to take resources away from other human species and, later, from one another. Before agriculture, intensification took the form of conflict, much of it inspired by religion. There were religion-spewing conquistadores 30,000 years ago in Europe, just as there were 500 years ago in America.
I will take one further step. Orthodox religion is part of the Stone Age adaptation that conferred success at the time but which now needs to be transcended. Not necessarily by atheism; perhaps orthodoxy should be transcended by a different kind of religion. I think the Earth has had about all of the Moses-and-Joshua style conquest that it can handle; maybe it needs some more of the prophetic voice of people like Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. And, wouldn’t you know it, in the Old Testament there were no female priests; but there were a few women prophets.
Religion is an adaptation, but one which, like so many others, we need to modify in the new world we have created.
A shorter version of this essay appears in the current issue of Humanist.