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Religion as a Social Construct

I sent the following lengthy message to a gal on an online dating site whom I don’t anticipate hearing from again. Don’t weep for me. Now is not the time for me to be dating, but I like intellectual stimulation, she initiated contact, and her profile gave me something to talk about. It mentioned that she disapproved of “religion as a social construct.” I told her that, although I would say the same thing, this phrase could mean a lot of different things and asked what she meant by it. She answered, and then asked what I meant by it…

As far as I’m concerned, the history of the major religions root back to efforts to regulate/legislate human behavior, at a time when the people cobbling together all the rules and regulations had no real understanding of human behavior. Religious law, and the myths and stories and “histories” surrounding the law, are almost entirely reactive, but in extremely shallow ways. At best, it’s a rudimentary philosophical system combined with collections of fairy tales designed to explain the inexplicable and collections of “histories” designed to revel in the glories of past leaders and use those glories as evidence that their God is the best god.

Obviously that means I agree with you that humanity has evolved beyond the need for religion. Where I think it breaks down, as a social construct, is that it appeals very specifically to difficult but natural human urges—such as sexual desire, greed, or “egoism”—and tells people how to handle it. I just don’t think what they tell them is applicable, given our incredible understanding of psychology and neurology.

Aristotle, whose works came a short 100 years after the Hebrew Bible was written down for the first time, understood more about human instinct and how to cope with negative urges than any of the rabbis piecing together their stories and laws. And Christianity, which rose almost in direct response to rabbinical corruption and complicity with the Roman overlords, muddies the philosophical waters even more by impressing upon its followers the requirement to suffer and sacrifice in order to lead a “good,” “happy” life.

In other words, it appeals to real human struggles while providing all the wrong answers. This leads to two courses of action: do what the Good Book says and feel miserable (and tell yourself you SHOULD feel miserable, because suffering will lead to greater rewards in heaven)…or DON’T do what the Good Book says and still feel miserable, because you’re guilty and ashamed of not living up to what you think your code of ethics/morality is and should be. What kind of life is that? Even the “good” aspects of religion generally teaches its followers how to lead a life of needless guilt, anxiety, and poor self-esteem. Imagine the pervasive effect on society when an overwhelming majority believes in SOMETHING, and that something teaches them to feel badly about themselves, up to and including feeling badly for not feeling badly ENOUGH.

It’s a comforting delusion for anyone who believes, but that’s what makes it dangerous. I want to see a vast difference between my kind-hearted, devout friends and someone like Fred Phelps or Osama bin Laden…but the sad fact is people like that don’t actually corrupt or pervert their faith—they merely follow it to the letter, including all the contradictions, instead of picking out the small amount of good stuff and ignoring the bad like more down-to-earth people do. But the bad is still in there, and it informs the way these beliefs are taught and spread.

Quick example (because this isn’t long enough): “It is better to give than to receive.” I’m not going to make the opposite argument; rather, my argument is, why does one have to be better than the other? Telling an excited child on Christmas NOT to be excited about all the awesome presents they’re going to get leaves them needlessly guilty and confused—because there’s nothing WRONG with being excited about receiving a bunch of gifts…and it generally teaches them the rather poor message that the only purpose OF giving is the expectation of something in return (be it an awesome Lego Star Wars set or, you know…divine rewards). Isn’t it more important to teach kids that giving and receiving are not opposites but entwined actions of roughly equal value?

A gift from a parent is hypothetically an expression of unconditional love, and we can argue until the cows come home about whether or not expressions of love should be conflated with physical goods. Often it ISN’T—it’s a reward, or an expectation of future performance (e.g., receiving a shiny new bike you don’t deserve on the implicit condition that you stop getting caught lighting firecrackers in the alley)—but let’s roll with the hypothesis that the ideal gift is one that’s of pure heart. Wouldn’t that lead someone to associate gifts with simple good vibes rather than implicit strings attached? Might that lead them to want to give as much as (or more than) they receive? And yet still, healthily, feel excited when receiving a gift?

But if a child learns that giving a gift is an expression of unconditional love rather than expressions of (at best) conditional love or (at worst) authority/guilt, and when he questions that, the response is, “It’s better to give than to receive,” it’s easy to understand why such conflicting ideas will knot up the brain over time. Being glad to get something is not the same as avarice. There’s no shame in wanting things, material or otherwise. The problem with religion is that it generally teaches that there IS shame in wanting things, particularly the most basic human desires. Putting these desires into a healthier context than religion has ever offered—in other words, showing society that they don’t have to ACT on certain urges, but the mere fact of having them is neither evil nor shameful—is the only way I can see to righting the course of an increasingly chaotic world.

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