Saturday, June 09, 2007


Today, I’d like to talk about something I heard from one of the TED conference talks.

The talk was about Evolution, but before you click that little cross button in the corner, let me assure you that I’m not going to harp on about that again, I’ve done that enough. What I want to talk about is one of the issues raised in this talk and how it applies to other things.

The speaker had an amazingly simple idea. Teach all the major religions in school. He said avoid the values and judgments, and just teach all our kids the facts about each religion.

I thought this is an idea that was outstanding in its elegance. It allows children to learn about spirituality as a whole, would breed much more understanding and tolerant viewpoints, and leave the bulk of teaching morality to the parents, where it belongs. For example, if you’re a Christian you’d learn the facts about Christianity at school and leave it up to the parents to fill in the blanks and values.

This was almost how I was taught about religion in school, with the difference being every time my religious education teacher touched on another religion it was swiftly followed by “But this is wrong because…”

However, the speaker went on to say that this idea was not received very well. He said people called it ‘ridiculous’ and ‘hilarious’.

He answered these criticisms by saying how disturbed he was that this idea could be called ridiculous when the idea is the very foundation of democracy. It’s informed opinion that makes democracy work, not blindly following one idea because you’ve been told to do so.

Moving away from religion for a second, think of it this way: If I go to vote, and have researched the candidates and weighed up the differences, I’m voting for who I believe will act in my best interests. If everyone else does the same, we end up with the best leader.

However, if we only learn about one candidate and ignore the others, because that’s who my parents or friends vote for, it’s nothing but a coin toss. We’re voting for one person despite the fact we have no idea if another candidate is better.

It’s this idea that turned me away from religion. It’s the fact that religions tend to be mutually exclusive. The way it stands right now, 75% of us are going to hell no matter what we do. Why? Because a Muslim can’t go to Christian heaven and vice versa…and the vast majority of religions say there is one God, and it’s the one we worship.

As a brief aside, this is why reasoning such as the ‘Atheist’s Wager’ makes no sense. Someone once said that it’s more reasonable to believe in God, because if you believe in God and you’re wrong, you’re just going to die, which is what you expect as an atheist anyway…but if you’re right, you’ll go to heaven instead of hell. In other words, being an atheist means either just dying or going to hell, whereas being a believer means either just dying or going to heaven.

Sounds perfectly logical, until you factor in that 75% of the world doesn’t believe in the same God you do.

But I digress.

Unfortunately, religious education today is teaching ignorance, and unfortunately, the extremist religious right has an awful lot of power. For example, George Bush senior during his presidency stated that it’s impossible to be a true patriotic citizen and an atheist because this is ‘One Nation Under God’.

This brings me neatly back to politics.

Scott Adams used this reasoning applying to terrorists, but I believe it applies to government as well.

During the start of any organization you have a core group of intelligent, rational people which in turn attracts more intelligent people to join. However, as the organization grows its overall IQ drops and the power of identifying with the group overcomes the power of reason.

This is something that I believe is hard-wired into our brains. Humans are social animals and we naturally want to join a ‘tribe’, to be surrounded by a group, and the more powerful that group, the better.

In other words, we become far more pre-occupied with being part of a group than we are with what that group’s direction and values are.

It’s like the radio DJ who stated on-air that not supporting the President, no matter what he does, is un-patriotic and un-American, when if fact the exact opposite is true. America is based on freedom and democracy, and that includes the freedom to disagree with the leadership. If we all supported any president blindly, it quickly stops being a democracy and becomes a dictatorship. The President is, and should always be, answerable to the people.

Long story short, this guy was so preoccupied with being ‘American’ and showing that he was an ‘elite’ member of this group, that he either didn’t realize or care that he was going against everything that being ‘American’ actually means. IE “I support our leader no matter what he does, and this makes me more American than you!”

Basically, for this guy, belonging to the group was more important than the values of freedom, free speech and choice…the core values of the American way of life.

If we switch back to religion for a second, this phenomenon explains why an organization that is supposed to be our moral compass and ‘How to live well’ guide is concerned with such petty, ridiculous rules such as not eating meat on Fridays.

In other words, reason goes out the window and we start obeying ridiculous, petty rules because we’re essentially fighting for a position within the group. Going to church and living well is great, but you’re obviously not a serious member of the group unless you obey the more unusual rules.

In other words, the more extremely and literally you follow your Holy Book or Political Dogma, the more ‘hardcore’ you are, and your position in that group rises.

Unfortunately, and the main point I want to make here, is this has somehow become twisted into the idea that the more extreme and unforgiving you are, the greater power within your group.

I want to talk for a quick moment about a fictional character from Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None”. She’s a purely fictional character, but emphasizes my point quite nicely, and is indicative of attitudes at the time.

Basically, this woman finds one of her maids is pregnant out of wedlock and kicks her out of the house, leaving her homeless. The maid, homeless and nowhere to go, kills herself.

The character is completely non-apologetic about this, and believes she acted like a ‘good Christian’ because she refused to tolerate ‘immorality’ under her roof.

This illustrates two things. The first is the same as the ‘patriotic’ radio DJ. Religion is meant to be about caring for your fellow man. This character could just as easily have treated this girl much better and allowed her to stay, and simply said that the Bible emphasizes forgiveness and that she was helping this girl change her ways.

Instead, by acting cruelly and disregarding forgiveness, she gets more power and status in her group. For some unknown reason, the act of punishing people who stray, and fighting people who don’t believe the same thing as you do carries much more power than forgiving and helping those who stray, and accepting that other people have viewpoints that can be just as valid as yours.

In politics as well as religion, we’ve built this awesomely effective ‘ignorance machine’. Most religions say that if you listen to or contemplate an opposing viewpoint, it’s the devil we’re listening to who’s trying to tempt and confuse us…and you’re not a ‘real, patriotic American’ if you listen to what the other side say.

In conclusion, when we talk about either religion or politics, we have a system set up that lets us act in a diametrically opposed fashion to the way these organizations were set up…while fooling ourselves into thinking we’re doing exactly what we’re supposed to.

As I stated earlier, informed choice is the bedrock of democracy, yet ignoring the other side’s opinion and blindly following the party line is considered patriotic.

I just think it’s a sad critique on the human race that we can so easily believe that blind obedience is democracy, and use Holy books that tell us all to be nice to one another as an excuse to go to war.

Finally, a closing thought:

At the start of all this we held the values of our religions and governments to be most important, but over time we’ve let these values fall away and have started paying more attention to the organization itself.

We listen to politicians tell us what we want, need and what it means to be an American, rather than following the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We ignore what our Holy Books say, and instead listen to what the priesthood tell us they mean. We’re happy to use “It’s in the Bible” as an argument against the things we don’t like, but ignore the core values and the parts of the Bible we don’t like. The Ten Commandments are very straightforward and transparent, but a quick Google search will show you there have been millions of words written on what they really mean.

As a final point, which I think sums up my whole argument, the original Bible said “Thou Shalt Not Kill”…seems straightforward, right? Don’t take someone else’s life. However, more recently this has been changed to “Thou Shalt Not Murder”.

In other words, it’s wrong to kill, unless we tell you to, because then it isn’t murder.

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