Control for me and you – why Religion can’t play nice

Last week I posted about the Mars One project, and a Muslim cleric’s declaration that to join a colony on Mars would be against the Quran.  It was, in my opinion, a silly little story.  It inspires pictures of stuffy bearded religious men shut away from the modern world, denouncing trips to space as evil because they have no understanding of how science works.  Usually people like this can be and are easily ignored, except to laugh about.  Yet as silly and fun as that story was, it wasn’t without its dark side.

When I first read the story, I was surprised that Muslim scholars felt the need to even discuss a proposed Mars mission.  What was the purpose?  The Quran was written in the 7th century.  What could the authors of it have to say about a trip they couldn’t have possibly fathomed at the time?  The answer to that comes from the clerics who wrote the fatwa.  The original fatwa against traveling to Mars included this quote:

“Man’s life is not his or her own property; it is God’s creation, and therefore suicide is prohibited in all religions, and of course by law.”

According to these Muslim clerics, you don’t own your own life. While here they are specifically making the point that you’re not allowed to commit suicide, it’s not hard to find more restrictive rules and strictures.  To religious believers, your life and choices aren’t your own to make.

There are few ideas I find as abhorrent as that.  Possessions are transitory in this life.  Stuff never lasts.  Stuff breaks, stuff wears out, stuff gets stolen.  The only thing we truly possess is ourselves and our lives.  To take somebody’s belonging is wrong, but to take somebody’s choice or agency is detestable.  The very foundation of freedom is someone’s right to make their own decisions, to control their own lives.  Religion, however, doesn’t see it that way.

See, religion is mostly about control.  Religious leaders usually try to dress it up in nicer terms.  They’ll talk about “spiritual guidance” or leading a “life of fulfillment.”  But those nice sounding phrases don’t change the fact that they want you to act in a specific way.  If you don’t live the way proscribed, you’ll quickly learn about what sort of consequences – both in this life and beyond – you’ll face.

For example, the above quote states clearly that your own life doesn’t belong to you, but to god.  What does god want you to do with your life that he allegedly gave you?  Since he’s been pretty silent on the matter, religious leaders claim the authority to step in and tell you in god’s place.  So now your life doesn’t belong to god, it belongs to these clerics.  They claim that to go against their will is going against god’s will, and is therefore evil.

This is the insidious way that religion exerts control over people.  Religious leaders aren’t getting direct instructions from god, though they’ll claim they are.  Instead they’re taking documents of questionable veracity written by ignorant and primitive people years ago, interpreting it as they want to, and slapping the label “god’s will” on it.

I don’t even necessarily think that religious leaders are being intentionally malicious in their attempts to control people.  Most of them truly believe that they’re in the right, that they’re doing god’s will.  But that doesn’t change the fact that they are trying to exert their will upon others to make them act in a specific fashion.

To be fair, while I object to anyone claiming divine authority to tell me what I can and cannot do, that’s just me.  If someone else chooses to submit themselves to clerical authority, or to live their lives by religious guildlines, that’s their right.  If it stopped there, I’d have a lot fewer problems with religion.  But many religious authorities don’t limit themselves those who elect to follow them.  They expand, they try to extend their influence into the rest of society.  They’re not content with telling the people of their own congregations how to live their lives, they feel they must force their rules on everyone else as well.

Take, for example, the gay marriage debate in the U.S.  It’s not enough for the religious right to claim that homosexuality is a sin, but they must stop all homosexuals from having equal rights.  They try to pass laws to ban gay marriage, or even protect people who discriminate against gays.  Christian leaders cry out about freedom while doing their best to take away people’s ability to live by a different code than their own.  And when other people oppose them, they call it an infringement on their religious beliefs.  They believe it’s their right to take other’s rights away.

Islam is no better.  The Quran not only commands Muslims to convert everyone else to Islam, but even commands that they kill anyone who won’t convert.  According to a site (ironically) named ReligionofPeace.org,

“Muslims are commanded to fight unbelievers until they are either dead, converted to Islam, or in a permanent state of subjugation under Muslim domination.  Allowing people of other faiths to live and worship independently of Islamic rule is not an option.”

Their holy book demands not only that believers live by a certain specific code, but that they spread that code to non-believers as well – by the sword if necessary.  Expanding human knowledge, exploring our universe is secondary to that command.  Interestingly, it was the the Islamic world that was the center of human discovery and scientific thought when the Christian world was mired in ignorance and superstition.  Today, however, they believe more in purity of faith than in great human endeavors.

It’s not enough that religion makes unproven and unprovable claims based on bad ideas, but it also spreads those ideas, sometimes violently.  Believers not only have to live by absurd and arbitrary rules, but they feel compelled to force everyone else to as well.  Religion is a chain that ties back the human race.  Religion inhibits our growth based on the written claims of ignorant primitives and illiterate peasants from thousands of years ago.  The fact that people still put more credence in magical claims that have never once been proven over established knowledge and repeatable science is untenable.  The problems we face in this world need answers that religion can’t provide, but reason and science can.

Religion has had it’s time to try to make the world better, and those efforts have consistently failed.  Reason gives us better answers than religion ever did.  Perhaps now is the time to move on from religion, and allow reason to guide us.

Interestingly enough, the bible itself offers us the best advice on how we should treat religion.  First Corinthians says,

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Humanity spent thousands of years believing in superstitious claims and divine providence, but those claims have never held up to the light of reason.  It’s time for us as a species to put away the childish beliefs of our ancestors.

***  After writing this piece, I handed it off to my trusty editor (who also occasionally claims the title of wife).  She gave me some good ideas about transitions I needed, spots where my arguments were weak, and general advice to make this a stronger post.  She’s good at that sort of stuff.  But then she said that she didn’t agree with this post at all.  She said I’m 80% right, but the 20% I’m missing is hugely important.

See, she was religious when we first met, heavily so.  And she told me, in no uncertain terms, that while there were certainly rules to follow, she still had plenty of freedom within the constraints of those rules.  She didn’t feel controlled, and a lot of the rules she did follow were good.  For example, she never had sex before she and I were engaged (yes, she gave me permission to say this on here).  And in her case, that was a great decision.  She knows herself well enough to know that the drama that comes with the decision to have sex with a boyfriend would have seriously messed her up.  She was tempted, but feels to this day that she made the right choice in not succumbing to that temptation.

And look, she’s right on one point.  Religious rules aren’t all terrible.  For example, I’m a big fan of the 9th Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”  That’s just generally good advice for living a good life and getting along in the community.  It’s not the fact that a rule comes from religion that makes it bad.

The problem with religious rules comes twofold.  First, rules are given with little reason or justification outside of “god’s will”.  Religions never make a case for why they believe what they do, they just tell it, clear and without compromise.  Having sex before marriage is wrong.  Period.  End of story.  There’s no grey area.

The second problem is that the punishments for breaking religious rules are far more strict than needed.  Someone who does have sex before marriage is shamed, considered a slut or dirty or damaged, and will also face eternal torment for going against god’s will unless they straighten the course of their lives and follow the rules again.

There’s no dialog to be had with religious rules.  I had a friend years ago who was very sexually active.  She had polyamorous relationships, multiple sex partners, whatever she wanted.  And she was happy and content with that life.  She felt no shame for being who she was.  That lifestyle would’ve never worked for my wife.  She would’ve never felt comfortable or content living that way.  Which is fine.  What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for the other.

But from a religious standpoint, my wife was right and my friend was wrong. There’s no other way for them to look at it, and they won’t give any good reason as to why that is.

That’s why reason and science are a superior way of thinking.  If someone makes a claim, they have to prove it.  If they can’t, then their claim will be dismissed.  And if a claim that’s already been accepted can be proven to be false, it’s easily discarded in lieu of something better.

To say someone believes something religiously means they believe it without question, argument, or doubt.  I think that’s everything wrong with religion right there.

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3 thoughts on “Control for me and you – why Religion can’t play nice

  1. There are lots of people for whom religion is a part of the fabric of their lives. It provides them comfort, hope and community. And they live and let live. It’s the extremists on both ends of this that are the problem—the control freaks and the lawless. I often wonder what the world would be like if everyone was honest, cared for their fellow man and the planet, lived with sensible rules, and didn’t need to have all the toys for themselves to win.

    • It’s true. I always remember a meme I saw a long time ago with a picture of a hasidic jew over the caption, “Can’t eat bacon. Doesn’t try to make it illegal.” If all people treated their beliefs like that, I never would’ve started a blog.

  2. Pingback: Commandments for a Modern World Losing it’s Religion: A Sermon on a Sunday | Marc Gilbert-Widmann

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