Home > Uncategorized > Religion: The Problem? The Symptom? Both?

Religion: The Problem? The Symptom? Both?

My latest TV addiction is The Borgias on Showtime, an historical drama portraying the exploits of the infamous family of Pope Alexander VI in the late 15th Century.   Great writing, great acting, great production values.  It’s just fun to watch.  With all the church-sponsored wars, torture, heretic-burning, and papal children, this mini-series just might do more to discredit organized religion than the writings of “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens)  Sure it’s historical fiction, but I don’t think they have really had to embellish the dark side of Christian history all that much.  The show should help dispel the myth that the Church has been mystically guided and protected by the Holy Spirit through the centuries.

But while I was watching the show this question came to mind:  Is religion the problem or the symptom?  What I mean is– would all the crusades, inquisitions, and witch-hunts of history have happened anyway, regardless of what religion was in power?  Let’s say Christianity did not become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, but Mithraism or the cult of  Osiris instead.  Would Galileo still have been declared dangerous for putting forth a view of the cosmos that conflicted with the conventional wisdom?

Homo Sapiens is an intensely and incorrigibly tribal species.  We naturally look for ways to define “the other.” And religion has been one of the most potent expressions of our tribal tendencies.  I’d be willing to bet that for most believers today, the tribal identity of their religion matters far more than the metaphysical claims.   And that, of course, is one reason atheists, agnostics and other freethinkers are so often perceived to be such a threat.    Our ancestral past has generally conditioned most people to viscerally condemn and ostracize those who threaten the tribe.    Most people don’t want to be sitting in the home team bleachers wearing the colors of the visiting team.

Well, the days of the Borgias are clearly not entirely behind us.  There are still plenty of religious folk who would like to impose their ways on others.  Last week I read in The Times that Buddhists and Muslims are now fighting in Myanmar.  Buddhists?!  I thought they were supposed to be peaceful. Go figure.

But the quickly increasing numbers of skeptics and doubters gives me hope.  Maybe we as a species are slowly and painfully maturing.  Maybe we are gradually shedding the parochial tribalism of the past as we come to understand that the only hope for the future of our fragile planet is to recognize all humans as members of the same tribe.



  1. June 19, 2012 at 5:07 pm

    You’re right, Buddhists are generally a very peaceful group.

    Which should make you wonder, what the Muslims (generally not a peaceful group) did to make the peaceful Buddhists…not be peaceful anymore…

  2. June 19, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    Both. Given that the primal nature of humanity has been tribal for the past 10,000, part of that need to define the “other” is connecting with like-minded members of the tribe who lift us up and make us feel good about where we are. It makes us feel better when we’re on a team that defines “others” in a simlar fashion as we do. It doesn’t matter if it’s religion, politics, sports, big business, medical research, social groups, cooking clubs, keep going… The “other” is always at least more fallible than we are – if not wrong.

    People jump ship from one high paying job to another because of a corporate relationship gone wrong (and they take the client where they’re being welcomed with open arms). A research team loses funding for an important research project because someone on the review board would rather see a group from a more renowned institution get top billing for the study. All the drama of the Borgias happens throughout humanity every day. Power, money, brain chemistry, physical urges, prestige – all things dramatized in the Borgias – all these things continue to exacerbate the differences between factions of our human tribe.

    IMHO – what we might consider immoral or unethical religious behaviors in the Borgias (or in old testament stories long before the Borgias, when religion was not organized in the sense that we understand it today) – murder, torture, blackmail, prostitution, starving people, burning (or stoning) people to death – are all symptoms of our humanity as well as problems that we continue to perpetuate regardless of religion.

  3. Andrew
    June 20, 2012 at 1:28 am

    “Let’s say Christianity did not become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, but Mithraism or the cult of Osiris instead. Would Galileo still have been declared dangerous for putting forth a view of the cosmos that conflicted with the conventional wisdom?”

    Christianity is pretty much the same thing as Mithraism and Osirisism, so yes. Events probably would have turned out much the same regardless. In fact they could have been much worse.

  4. John Stutzer
    June 21, 2012 at 1:17 am

    “Religion: The Problem? The Symptom? Both?”

    D: None of the above.

    Lee Iacocca famously said “If you can find a better car – buy it!”

    Religion is helluva lot more convenient than the truth, which is why so few people drive around in Dawkins or Hitchens.

  5. Liv
    June 21, 2012 at 4:09 am

    The fundamental issue is not actually religion itself. I think it’s pretty safe to say that all religion is a construct of humanity. Therefore, it’s also safe to say that humanity itself is the issue. If people had not found ways to dominate and control using Christianity (or indeed any religion at all), then they would have devised (and continue to devise) another mechanism.

    As for Buddhists getting all het up and violent, well, I’m a Buddhist and I can tell you that being a practitioner of Buddhism certainly doesn’t make you some remarkable human being that experiences life devoid of emotions including those so disparaged like anger (or greed or whatever). What I would say is that these people are probably suffering to the point where they have lost focus with their practice. Or perhaps what they are practicing isn’t really correct, which is why the suffering is not resolved. The practice of Buddhism is to develop an understanding of human nature and life itself so that events are viewed from a perspective that allows someone to experience the hardship or joy without getting too tangled up in it. It’s not some sentimental peace love and mungbeans religion that many people seem to think it is. It’s strict and harsh and unsentimental. Bad things happen. It’s how people respond that matters. Unfortunately, if there are Buddhists (or anyone for that matter) responding with violence with deliberation, well, it’s only going to perpetuate the problem isn’t it?

    • June 21, 2012 at 7:54 pm

      Thanks for sharing.

      As I understand it, Buddhism in its purest form is non-theistic. The presense of gods in some forms of Buddhism around the world is a later development. Does theism play any role in your own practice of Buddhism?

      • Liv
        June 21, 2012 at 11:02 pm

        Theism has absolutely no place in Buddhism whatsoever. It’s commonly misunderstood that Buddhists should pray to Buddha and various other deities (and in some forms of Buddhism that is indeed the case – not limited to, but certainly more so with Hinayana schools such as Theravada Buddhism and some other Japanese forms of Buddhism such as the Pure Land sect (which reveres Amida Buddha). As far as my form of Buddhism (Nichiren) teaches, it is a practice that deals only in reality. I think often the misunderstandings arise from reference to demons, ghosts, deities and the like in the sutras, but they are actually only there to represent the various aspects of our own humanity and to demonstrate that an unshakeable happiness is available to every human being no matter who they are or what they’ve done and not just those who waste their lives performing austerities or living in caves (which, incidentally, Shakyamuni never taught!!) Also, you may be interested to know that while Buddhism teaches about “past lives,” reincarnation is not a Buddhist concept and actually has no place in Buddhist philosophy. Attachment to the self is a cause of suffering so there is no anihilation and no continuation. And yes, wrapping our minds around some of these concepts is quite difficult!! If it was somehow proven that there is in fact an afterlife, there would be no problem in Buddhism to adopt that understanding. But of course, no one can prove it, so it’s not something to concern oneself with. So no, there is no theism. I hope that wasn’t too long winded!!

  6. John Stutzer
    June 21, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    What Live said!

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