The Modern Survival Guide #22
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. I pray that this work inspires some thought and interest in readers, and in this article I’ll be talking about my views on religions.
Let me start this off with a disclaimer: The purpose of this article isn’t to challenge your personal faith. I have no stake in your attitude about God, the gods, or the great void of the universe. I am a scientifically minded individual, but part of that worldview must necessarily be that there is always room for God.
That being said, the same viewpoint must necessarily leave open the possibility that there is no God, or at least that He doesn’t work the way we think He does.¹ But I’m not going to challenge your beliefs; at least, I’m going to try not to. More on that later.
With that out of the way, let’s dive in. As a member of a large, multicultural society, you’re going to need to deal with religions. Note the plural — not just your religion. How you address religions will determine, to some extent, your social life, your political life, and of course your religious life. That’s a fairly big portion of your existence.
And why do we have to think about multiple religions, one might reasonably ask? Why not just pay attention to the One True Religion, which is of course your religion? Simple. Everyone else also thinks their religion is the One True Religion. Otherwise, they logically wouldn’t follow that religion. All the things you feel about your faith? Other people feel the exact same way about theirs. Even the atheists. Especially the atheists. So, it’s important to take that into account in your life, or you will become part of a problem.
With that in mind, let’s look at four key aspects of dealing with religions in the modern world: Don’t be a religious nutjob. Don’t tolerate religious nutjobs. Don’t legislate religion. And stay humble.
The Guide sayeth: Thou shalt not be a Nutjob. And it was good.
I’m going to use a very technical term here: Religious Nutjob. For the purposes of this article, this is a person whose whole life is built around not just being religious, but being utterly convinced of their religious viewpoint, and utterly intolerant of any other viewpoint. A Nutjob doesn’t just disagree with other religions, they actively seek to suppress them. That’s dangerous in modern society — conflicts start over this sort of thing, and there are a lot of weapons lying around these days.
There’s an issue here — a lot of people would say that absolute devotion to one’s religion and absolute rejection of other religious viewpoints is actually the ideal state of religious attitude, indeed that this is the only attitude proper for a true believer. These people are wrong. They have confused faith with pride, and theology with blind adherence to dogma. They’ve wedded themselves to an ideology that promotes inter-religious conflict for no good reason — we’ll talk about that more in the Humility section. There is no good reason to be a Nutjob.
There are three logical endpoints of Nutjobbery, and the first is a theocracy. This is a government based on religion, and it’s what happens when Nutjobs rise to power. Theocracies have a long and exhausting history here on planet Earth, and it’s almost always bad. Any evil that you can imagine becomes acceptable if it’s a divine mandate, and once the priests are in power everything is a divine mandate. For reference, check out ISIL. Or the Inquisition.
The second logical endpoint of Nutjobbery is a schism or cult. This is what happens when a Nutjob goes up against their own religion, thinks they know better, and branches off a new sect. Schisms and cults aren’t anywhere near as nasty as theocracies, but you should still watch out for them because, again, when Nutjobs are in authority positions everything is a divine mandate. An extreme example would be the Branch Davidians. It’s worth noting that given sufficient time, most schisms and cults slowly morph into mainstream religions, and the Nutjobs tend to be forced back into the background.
The third logical endpoint of Nutjobbery is just being a jerk. This Nutjob isn’t in power, and isn’t fighting their own religion… they’re just too adamantly religious for anyone else to actually feel comfortable around them for any great length of time. I would personally class a large number of radio preachers and televangelists into this category.
Almost everyone has a family member or friend like this. This is the aunt who will lecture you for an hour on the sins of homosexuality, the cousin who thinks Catholics are going to hell because they’re “not true Christians,” and that one friend who campaigns to close the local bar because they serve drinks on Sundays (and those are just the Christian Nutjobs). Jerks like this aren’t normally dangerous, but they are harmful… mostly for your sanity and stress levels.
Nutjobs are dangerous. Nutjobs are annoying. Nutjobs make the world worse even when they think they’re making the world better. Don’t be a Nutjob.
The Guide sayeth: Thou shalt not tolerate Nutjobs. And it was good.
Ok, so not being a Nutjob is relatively straightforward — it literally only requires inaction. But what about opposing them? Well, the short answer is that we all have to, otherwise they win.
Nutjobs tend to do pretty well in religious settings because they have faith and determination in spades. After all, once you know you’re right because God said so, the world becomes very easy to navigate and your path becomes very clear. Religions are a perfect environment for this kind of fervor and blind faith (closely seconded by politics), and among the religiously inclined such attributes can be quite attractive. Left unchecked, Nutjobs tend to acquire power, wealth, and a dedicated group of followers.
Most organized religions figured this out pretty quickly, which is one reason why we have things like Holy Books (to record the exact belief structures of the religion so that people can’t make up new ones), concepts like Heresy (to punish people for schisms), and religious bureaucratic structures (to keep a thumb on the priests and prevent wild acquisitions of power). These things don’t stop Nutjobs, but rather try to drive them down productive avenues.
However, this kind of control doesn’t work as well as it used to, and it never really worked that well. Modern communications allow Nutjobs an easy soapbox, and modern transport allows them a wide range and deep recruiting pool. The result is that it’s less and less on religious authorities to tamp down on the Nutjobs in their mix, and more and more on the rest of us (and, of course, secular authority). Keeping Nutjobs from ruining tolerant societies is one of the major battlegrounds of the modern culture wars.
“But,” I hear you ask, “isn’t it a little weird to espouse a tolerant society that refuses to tolerate Nutjobs?” Welcome to the wonderful world of logical paradoxes, my friend. The only thing a tolerant society cannot tolerate is intolerance, because otherwise, bit by bit, you no longer have a tolerant society. In this sense, the request for tolerance isn’t difficult: simply refrain from stopping other people from doing their thing. To relate this back to the Harm Principle (see #21), you can espouse whichever religious principles you like, so long as you don’t try to force others to do the same or actively harm people by practicing your religion. The US Founding Fathers understood this very well, which is why we have the 1st Amendment.
So how can you oppose Nutjobs? Simple: speak up. This is a contest of words and ideas. Nutjobs win in democracies when they are louder than their opponents; it’s as simple as that. Never assume that your fellow citizen is a rational, thoughtful, principled individual — that’s a sure path to disappointment. Instead, always assume that they will believe the message they hear the most, regardless of their stated moral views and ideals. Do your part to make sure it’s a message you can stomach.
Speaking up can take all sorts of forms. Call in to radio shows. Post things on social media. Comment on articles. Share stories and articles you find compelling. Write to your newspaper. Talk to your friends. Run for office. Shout down Uncle Rodney at Thanksgiving when he starts talking about the Jews. This is no different from making your voice heard on any other issue.
But, with that said, a word of warning: be careful of the martyrdom complex. Many Nutjobs, particularly Christian Nutjobs, can draw power from opposition. They’ll call it “persecution,” and accuse you of every violation that they themselves happily commit in God’s name, and they will not see the irony. They will draw a sense of vindication and purpose from outright opposition, and they will communicate this to their followers. Tailor your messaging accordingly — sometimes subtlety is the way forward.
The Guide sayeth: Thou shalt not legislate religion! And it was good.
Building on these themes, the survival of any religion in modern society is highly dependent on everyone agreeing to avoid religion-promoting legislation. This seems counter-intuitive to some people, but think about it — maybe you’re ok with legislation that requires your religious convictions… but how do you know that’s what will get passed?
There are dozens of religions in the US, and all it takes to pass laws is a majority in any given area. Pretty soon you’d have counties where it’s illegal to be a Pagan, states where you have to be Mormon, whole regions where you have to be Presbyterian or Baptist. If you’re Christian and that doesn’t scare you, flip the script. Counties where you have to be Muslim. States where you have to be Jewish. Cities that require you to be a Scientologist. Are you still OK with the idea of legal promotion of religion?
And, again, this is why we have the 1st Amendment.
A lot of religious people, and particularly the Nutjobs, have trouble with this concept. But it is absolutely necessary to our religious freedom (and the maintenance of a democracy that doesn’t incorporate some Nutjob’s version of God’s law) to keep religion out of the law as much as possible.
The Guide sayeth: Stay humble! And it was good.
It’s easy to not be a Nutjob as a secular person — just don’t try to impose your religious views on others. That doesn’t even require effort. But avoiding becoming a Nutjob as a religious person is a bit trickier, because it requires humility. Staying humble while being devoutly religious is hard, because in this context staying humble means entertaining the concept of doubt. And doubt is really, really hard to maintain in a religious mental setting.
So I’m just gonna say it.
You do not know the truth of God.
Almost by definition, and certainly by logic, you can’t. If there is a God, a supreme being so vast and terrible in power that It created the universe, or even just our tiny little corner of it, that Creature’s mind eclipses yours like the shadow of a world shading an orange. It’s truths are beyond you, and beyond everyone else you’ve ever met and who’s ever existed, period full stop.
Whatever your beliefs happen to be, they are the result of people having ideas (or, if you prefer, inspiration), writing things down, and then other people interpreting those things. If you don’t believe that, if you seriously believe that you know the inerrant word of God… that’s OK, just don’t be a Nutjob. Take a class in linguistics, though, and get back to me.
But let’s accept, for the sake of argument, that God’s mind is not your mind, God’s way is not your way, and God’s truth is beyond even the most fevered writings of the Saints, imams, and monks of the world. That kind of God has an intelligence that is bigger than you, more complex than you can imagine, because compared to it you are an ant, or a bacterium. It holds a higher order of thought by orders of magnitude.
That is the mind required to be a God, to come up with things like quantum physics —or to invent life in all its craziness — and as much as we might wish to contemplate Its will, if you believe in such a being you implicitly acknowledge that you are lost before the complexity of Its power. Claiming to fully know Its mind as rendered through any human agency, especially through such a dubious medium as language, is frankly prideful in the extreme, and only a Nutjob would be so foolish as to render the mysteries of the Holy into absolutes.
Consequently, there is no good reason to promote religious conflict. By definition, if you are doing so you are challenging the faith of another person based solely on your own faith. It’s the ultimate he-said-she-said fight, a clash of castles in the sky, and there is no way to prove your opponent wrong because the fight is about faith, and faith is not about proof. You can have discussions, sure. Sure, you can convert people. But don’t fight about it. I might as well start a war over which gaming console is preferable — I’d at least have more empirical evidence.
Instead, be humble. Acknowledge that whatever you think you know about God, or the gods, or the lack of gods, someone has an equally fervent and equally valid viewpoint (with the provision that Harm Principle exclusions apply). God is a great mystery. Think of other religions as fellow seekers (or at worst, roadside attractions) on the path to enlightenment. If Nutjobs come to power in another religion, by all means oppose them, but recognize that the Nutjobs don’t define the religion — they twist it, subvert it, and pervert it, but they aren’t it.²
Thus endeth the reading…
In summary, this can all be boiled down to a couple of thou-shalt-nots: don’t assume that only you are correct, and don’t stop other people from praying to different gods. That’s all it takes to survive and thrive in a multi-religious society.
But that’s a kicker, isn’t it? Remember what I said in the intro about not trying to challenge your beliefs? Well, I lied. Any discussion of religion is a challenge to someone’s beliefs. The doubt required for genuine religious humility is an inherent challenge to faith, and a request for tolerance is a direct challenge to several different religions’ insistence on their perfect knowledge of God’s Word. But walking that line, maintaining faith with humility and tolerance, is absolutely required if you want to be religious and live in a modern, tolerant society. Otherwise, sooner or later, it’s war all over again.
¹In case it wasn’t blindingly obvious from the discussions so far, I’m not a good person to go to for absolutes, and I’m not particularly religious. I see things in shades of grey. If that immediately sets you against my viewpoint, feel free to ignore this article… but I hope you don’t.
²Now, I know some smart person is going to say something like, “But what if the religion itself is evil???” I’m looking at you, Islamophobes. My answer is that every modern, mainstream religion has had to come to terms with the reality of other religions existing, and they have universally responded to this by moderating their more extreme aspects. Nutjobs pop up constantly, but the religions as a whole consist of people who just want to raise their children, do their job, and come home to their spouses. That’s what most people want, and religions reflect their people. Conflict isn’t good for normality. And so Mormons have mostly stopped endorsing polygamy, Christians have mostly stopped burning people at the stake, and the coalition fighting ISIL is mostly Muslim.