The dogmatic nature of religious belief and the simplistic beliefs of the majority of the faithful who don’t think much about their religion, primes believers with the idea that it is wrong to think. They are told to have faith, which is in other words, to believe without thinking. The reward they get for switching off their thinking is peace of mind, which is actually an excellent reward, and obviously one worth achieving. The punishment they get is that having switched off their critical thinking, they become, as far as independent thought goes, more sheep than human, and it is ironic that the analogy is also used in the Bible. People are encouraged to be like sheep – to follow without thinking.
As Burns wrote, “The man o’ independent mind, he looks and laughs at a’ that.”
Unfortunately, the churches also prime their followers to disbelieve any scientific advance that conflicts with their traditional/ancient teachings, as well as any advance that the leader of their religion/cult/sect teaches them that they should disbelieve. We know, they say, that what we teach is absolutely true, and is the Word of God, and therefore anything that conflicts with that must be wrong.
Thinking thoughts that are a threat to the status quo of any particular religious establishment, leaders, or that are contrary to the church core beliefs, is therefore discouraged, and the churches run meetings such as, in Christianity, Alpha courses, where the beliefs of the church and the advantages of believing in the doctrines that are taught, can be reinforced. That there are advantages, of course, does not mean the beliefs are in any way true, although this point is not made in Alpha courses.
In places such as Saudi Arabia, where unlike in the western world, the religious establishment still has the power to do what it likes, if you even express any doubts about Islam, you are liable to severe punishment and possible beheading. This forces conformity and kills good people every year.
Although in the west the power to behead and burn has been taken away from churches, countless thousands were tortured and burned for heresy when western churches had the power to do what they liked. And they still do everything in their power to stay in control by providing an alternative, though muddled, way to explain the world, through threats of eternal torture for free thinkers, and social and welfare benefits for members who keep the faith.
The end result is that the faithful often struggle to make sense of this world, where major advances in, for example, biology, are often based on the ‘forbidden’ principle of evolution and survival of the fittest bacteria, in direct conflict with the ideas of those who adopt fundamentalist religious beliefs. The faithful must deny the realities of the discoveries that have been made or invent a way to explain them through their religion. But inventing a way to explain physical causes through religion adds an unnecessary cause. If your computer breaks, there is a physical rather than metaphysical cause. In every case, on every broken computer examined by every IT expert in the world, the cause of every computer failure has been shown to be the failure of an electronic component. God has never been shown to be involved in computers or in any other aspect of our physical reality.
Why then, think God is responsible for the other things that happen? Or even just the good things. The root cause is that our legacy of religious belief is from the time of superstition, when people had no way except magic of explaining the everyday things that happened, and they didn’t have even the basics of scientific discovery, logical thought, and knowledge to help them understand things. As Richard Dawkins points out in The God Delusion, all the major world religions derive from the time when possession by evil spirits was thought to be the cause of disease. Religion provided explanations for the world we see around us. It was the answer to everything. Why do birds fly? God made them like that. Why did Granny die? God took her home. Why do we get ill? God is punishing us. Why have we a bumper crop? God is thanking us for that virgin we sacrificed.
Unfortunately, many people have been unable to make the leap into the modern world, and they still believe in supernatural explanations for things that we now understand to have natural causes.
Advances in genetics have made the lives of believers even more difficult, because the ‘tree of life’ can now be traced genetically, through the relationship of genes that we have in common with other species. Believers in, for example, the Bible’s Genesis account, have to come up with increasingly convoluted and far fetched arguments to try to fit the massive advances we are making into their world view, such as
‘God made the world complete with all the fossils we find, to test our faith,’ or ‘All the different races of man evolved from the survivors of Noah’s Ark in the last 6000 years. Including the Australian aborigines who got there over 40,000 years ago.
Incidentally, there is only 60m of sea level trapped in the polar ice caps, so where has the flood water gone? For water to have covered all the mountain tops, it would have to be over five miles high. Anyone who believes in the Biblical flood has not thought much about the matter, which is part of the point of this essay.
The sad fact is that religious people desperately cling to their teachings, and to avoid destroying their own beliefs, avoid thinking about the challenges to those beliefs. As a result, many religious people choose to get offended at any challenge instead of arguing a case they know is unwinnable. Their religion traps them in a limbo of dogmatism from which escape is difficult. Few will become scientists, philosophers, or thinkers of any kind. Few will dare to express truly original thought. And that’s a Bad Thing About Religion.