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.
Recently I’ve been participating in various freethought gatherings around town. Having been active in churches my whole life, it’s been fun to compare and contrast the fellowship events of believers with those of skeptics. The biggest difference I’ve observed so far is the nature of the conversation. At freethought gatherings, the conversation frequently involves philosophy, religion, science, the Bible, and current events. The crowd tends to be fairly well-read. When I first started attending fellowship gatherings for non-believers, I expected to hear a lot of religion-bashing. And there has been some of that, but by and large it’s not the main focus of conversation.
Ironically, the conversation at freethougtht gatherings tends to be more theological, if you will, than the banter at Christian fellowship events. I’ve heard nuanced discussion about the history of religion, scriptural interpretation, and the role of religion in public life. At these events I’ve met people who have described themselves as atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and deists. However these are not different “denominations” of freethought–just different places on a continuum of disbelief.
When Christians gather for their fellowship events, generally the conversation does not include discussion about Augustine, Aquinas, or other theologians. They don’t talk about church history. And they don’t talk about the Bible. What do they talk about? Life–the kids, work, vacations, gossip. Quotidian topics. Let me be clear; this is not a criticism. I’m not saying that freethinkers are “better” than believers because they tend to talk about headier stuff. But I do think that the nature of the conversation at Christian gatherings demonstrates that metaphysical concerns are definitely not the driving force in the day-to-day life of believers in American today.
Homo Sapiens is an intensely tribal species. And religion is one of the most potent expressions of tribalism that humans have ever devised. Generally speaking religious people do not gather to ponder the meaning of life or the nature of the Atonement or the interrelationships of the Persons of the Trinity. Rather, they gather for the same reasons members of the genus homo have gathered for hundreds of thousands of years: for mutual support, for solidarity, to assuage feelings of loneliness. The particular God under whose name they gather really doesn’t matter. It could be Dionysus, Isis, Vishnu, Yahweh, whoever. The function of religion is pretty much always the same: the primal need to band together for safety and security in a hostile world.