Shattering the Sacred Myths - Chapter 15

Politics and Religion

 
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Explores the relationship between politics and religion leading up to the rise of the religious right in America and the emergence of political Islam.

After the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War, many people believed that the long centuries of global conflict were finally over. Dictatorships began falling like dominoes and it seemed like democracy would spread rapidly around the globe, giving rise to a new world order based upon freedom, market economics, and peace. Even the United States cut back on military spending and began closing its overseas bases.

Apart from the Iranian revolution, few Western commentators cared about the growing popularity of radical Islam throughout Asia and the Middle East. Most Westerners had become desensitized to the ongoing conflicts in Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, and Chechnya. The victory of the Taliban, which brought peace to Afghanistan, was seen as a welcome curiosity. The Western world was ignoring the growing hatred that many Muslims were feeling towards what was perceived to be a continuation of Christian and Jewish imperialism.

The resurgence of Christianity in the United States and the return of family values were applauded by most conservative commentators. Christianity enjoyed the respect of being one of the historical foundations of Western culture, and apart from dividing the community over issues like abortion and homosexuality, religious faith seemed like a reassuring alternative to the postmodern uncertainty of relativism and skepticism.

Religious hostility was mostly confined to a few troubled regions where people with differing religious faiths shared the same area of land. Religious differences often fueled bitter power struggles for political control of the land, which occasionally erupted into violence and bloodshed.

With the collapse of communism, the market economy finally won the worldwide right to decide the distribution of wealth. But with technological advancement and the convergence of regional cultures into a single worldwide television and Internet culture, it suddenly became apparent that as well as the global competition for resources and the uneven distribution of material wealth, there was one more major unsolved source of global hostility.

The clash of civilizations

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were a rude awakening for the Western world. It suddenly seemed like the conflict between capitalism and communism had only delayed a more serious and potentially devastating three-way battle between Christian beliefs, Islamic beliefs, and secular democratic materialism, with each region of the world having its own cultural investments to protect.

A fierce debate is now raging between Christians, Muslims, and secular intellectuals in the world media and on the Internet. And if the American invasion of Iraq has taught us anything, it is that we must expect the political and religious tensions to continue to rise over the coming decades, with increased military spending, an escalation in global conflict, and the possibility of nuclear terrorism.

While many observers have strong feelings about the current world crisis, there seems to be very little agreement about why it is happening or what should be done about it. Corporate media commentators only seem to focus on personality politics and other contemporary aspects of the conflict. Most Western commentators are merely mouthpieces for either the secular left or religious right, from where they earn their living by helping to fan the flames of hostility. The opinions of politicians are driven mostly by vested interests, and the universities are too gripped by political correctness to provide any authoritative analysis or practical solutions.

It could be argued that in order to properly understand the situation, you first need to be aware of the long-term patterns that underlie the history of human beliefs. But it is surprising how little the average person knows or even cares about how Christianity and Islam were ever able to rise to dominate the mass consciousness in the first place. Few secular thinkers seem to be able to make sense out of Christianity or Islam, and most believers are too mesmerized by their own beliefs to know what is real and what is not. Nobody has yet been able to deconstruct the myths in a convincing way, and very few have been brave enough to try.

Shattering the sacred myths

This book began with a simple, easy to read, step-by-step explanation of how humans evolved from self-replicating organic molecules through random mutation and natural selection. It then hinted that the evolutionary process may be transforming into something new as the race for military superiority and higher profits drives the ongoing discovery of more advanced technologies. It reflected on whether the inevitable change from natural evolution to ‘consciously controlled evolution’ through genetic engineering and artificial intelligence could suggest some kind of mysterious cosmic plan underlying the evolution of intelligent life. And it suggested that questioning the possibility of a purpose behind natural evolution is the only meaningful way to debate the existence of God.

After having established a strictly rational and yet metaphysically open-minded context, this book then proceeded to methodically deconstruct three thousand years of popular belief, focusing primarily on Judaism, Greek philosophy, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. The underlying theme of the book has been that these religions and moral philosophies arose over the centuries not only as explanations for our earthly existence, but also as strategies for regulating the distribution of political power.

The rise of Christianity

Our interpretation of the history of ideas and beliefs began around three thousand years ago, when the Jewish priesthood took advantage of the newly discovered power of alphabetic writing to craft a detailed mythology about a single God of creation. Using myths about miracles, the priests succeeded in uniting their population under a single belief and giving them a practical set of laws and values. Guided by their communal faith, the Jewish people themselves became the lawkeepers, and under the watchful eye of a powerful priesthood, kings were held accountable to the same standards as commoners.

Greek storytellers also adopted alphabetic writing, but they were unable to make their traditional myths about a family of selfish gods sound convincing, and interaction between the gods was often unfriendly, and so Greek religious morality was largely ineffective. The Greek economy depended heavily on slave labor, and peace between the Greek cities was only ever achieved through domination by military force. But the advantage of having a failed religion was that without any powerful priesthood to stifle free inquiry, Greek thinkers were free to pursue science and philosophy.

While most Greeks continued to follow their traditional religions and other popular forms of superstition, philosophers like Plato tried to find a more rational way of convincing people to care as much about their community as they did about themselves. But despite the development of many profound philosophical insights over the centuries, at the end of the day, the only popular alternative to blind religious faith seemed to be the skeptical rejection of any universal truths or values.

The failure of Greek philosophy to establish a widely acceptable metaphysical worldview and system of cooperative morality would eventually prove to be disastrous. The Romans inherited this failure from the Greeks, and so the Roman Empire was ruled mostly through terror and corruption. Under the command of self-serving generals, Rome’s armies raped and pillaged the entire region, occasionally exterminating entire populations. Slavery was unquestioned and people were slaughtered for the entertainment of bloodthirsty crowds.

While the Romans were using force to establish their authority over the Jews, one Jewish sect was developing a new collection of religious scriptures. Based upon the successful foundations of the old Jewish mythology, but also incorporating new lessons gained from recent centuries of moral philosophy, the cult of Jesus established a believable myth about God having appeared on earth in the form of a man to teach people right from wrong.

Congregations soon began appearing all over the empire as the story of Jesus aroused the admiration and satisfied the hopes of a growing number of believers. Christianity was particularly popular among the poor and oppressed because it preached that everyone was equal in the eyes of God, and it gave people hope for happiness after death.

As Christianity spread, it became a popular political movement, united in its opposition to many of the unnecessarily cruel and vulgar aspects of Roman tradition. A civil war around the year 306 allowed Christian forces to gain control of the empire. Shortly afterwards, the empire lost its aggressive sense of self-preservation and began to crumble, but Christianity continued to spread, eventually uniting all of Europe under a Christian understanding of existence.

Unfortunately, by building one set of myths upon another, the price paid by the Christians for their peaceful and forgiving morality was that Christian ideas about history and human nature had almost nothing in common with reality. Greek science and philosophy were soon denounced as heresy. Rational thinkers were persecuted and their libraries of knowledge were burned, plunging the entire region into a dark age that lasted for the next thousand years.

The rise of Islam

Arab tribes were still fighting each other for limited desert resources as Christianity spread into the Arabian Peninsula. Christianity’s success at unifying the masses under a common metaphysical worldview and system of cooperative morality inspired Muhammad to unite the Arab tribes under his own interpretation of Christianity.

However, while Christianity preached peace and forgiveness, Muhammad’s new religion embraced war as justifiable means of spreading Arab language, law and culture. The Islamic Empire grew rapidly, and united under Islam, the Arabs, Persians and Turks became enormously powerful. But as copies of the Koran multiplied and Islamic law grew more rigid, the Muslim world gradually slipped into its own dark age, as books containing blasphemous ideas were burned and freethinkers were either persecuted or killed.

Filling the moral void

People’s ideas about right and wrong generally reflect their own selfish interests or the interests of the group they belong to. Groups with conflicting interests often have different ideas about right and wrong, and these differences can escalate into power struggles. When the struggle for power is not restrained by laws or morals, then whichever group gains power will usually try to further its own interests at the expense of everyone else.

The powerless and oppressed can try to resist, but unless they can effectively threaten those in power, then resistance is futile. Those in power will usually try to get away with as much as they possibly can before resistance rises to a point where the costs start to outweigh the benefits. One thing that helps to lessen the severity of oppression is the fear that opposing power centers might gain popular support.

All of the major religions arose as alternative centers of power, using myths and other means to establish new ideas about right and wrong that encouraged greater self-restraint and cooperation between believers. Mystical books containing these ideas grew into sacred scriptures as the poor and oppressed became believers, often in the hope of safeguarding their interests against violent greed-driven powermongers. Royalty and other forms of dictatorship were forced to temper their abuse of power in order to compete with the priesthoods for the affections of the people.

However, whenever priests became powerful enough to silence dissent and stifle free enquiry, then they would do so in order to protect the myths that they used to uphold their moral laws and values.

Priesthood dictatorships like the medieval Catholic Church, the Islamic Empire, or the Chinese Confucian bureaucracy maintained their iron grip on power through both armed force and ideological conditioning. The only serious threats they faced were from heresy or foreign invasion, and heresy was easily suppressed by outlawing freedom of thought. Most of Europe and Asia has spent much of the last few thousand years lingering in the deep darkness of aggressive religious oppression.

The decline of Christianity

European intellectuals were never entirely comfortable with the Christian mythology, but very few of them were brave enough to speak out against it. Following the rediscovery of Greek philosophy and the invention of the printing press, Europe’s population was exposed to an avalanche of books containing skeptical ideas, and heretics finally began to feel that it was safe to openly criticize the Church. As the iron grip of Christianity began to slip, vigorous new forms of science and philosophy struggled to emerge from the thick blanket of censorship.

Following the discovery of gunpowder and the invention of new navigational instruments for ocean-going vessels, a thousand years of relatively peaceful Christian unity fell apart as European warlords battled each other for the right to conquer the world and capture its resources. After the pope lost control of northern Europe, state churches became mere instruments through which palaces could control popular thought.

The founders of the United States guaranteed their nation’s aggressive competitiveness and freethinking spirit by keeping religious influences out of their democratic constitution. Old churches competed with new ones in America to fill the metaphysical and moral void. In the intense competition between the different sects for popularity and political favor, Christianity often became merely a moral pretense for powerful political interests, at times even becoming a convenient justification for racism, sexism, and slavery.

The industrial age

None of the ancient religions were equipped to deal with the rise of industrial capitalism. The Catholic Church declared the modern world to be evil as business leaders wrestled political control away from aristocrats and clergymen. Christian compassion was hardly compatible with capitalist values like competition and profit. Without any democratic rights to protect them, workers across Europe and Asia became factory slaves for an increasingly rich and powerful elite.

Although many capitalists were fiercely secular and opposed to any kind of moral system that tried to restrain them from fully exploiting the available resources, they still upheld traditional religion as a means of pacifying the poor. Meanwhile, many of the poor turned instead to socialist ideologies. Even working class Christians felt that the religious ideals of brotherly love, compassion, and equality had more in common with socialist politics than with conservative policies dedicated to preserving the power of the wealthy.

Communism gained an enormous following by promising to empower the poor though revolution. In many ways, it was just like another religion, attracting new followers by preaching myths about history and human nature. Devoted communists even resorted to terrorism, hoping to gain power by force in order to impose their political myths and economic morals upon everyone else.

The communists despised traditional religion, and when the growing popularity of communism threatened to eradicate Christianity from Europe, church leaders supported the rise of fascist dictators who vowed to crush the godless ideology. In South America and other parts of the world, church leaders fought the spread of communism by supporting right wing military dictatorships employing death squads.

The widespread fear of communism proved to be well founded. People living under communist dictatorships became brainwashed victims, and freethinkers were imprisoned and killed as a new mini dark age descended over parts of Europe and Asia.

The rise of secular philosophy

Christianity received a crippling blow in the late 1800s with the widespread acceptance of the theory of evolution. Skeptics could now easily dismiss the Bible as little more than a collection of ancient myths. Intellectuals abandoned Christianity, and scientists and philosophers were finally free to speculate unhindered.

New schools of philosophy began to flourish. Marx called for a working class revolution. Nietzsche predicted the end of baseless religious and philosophical moralizing. Utilitarians valued whatever made people happy. Existentialists celebrated the meaninglessness of life. Secular humanists tried to put a friendly face on godlessness. At the same time, idealistic thinkers of every conceivable flavor continued to argue that somewhere in nature there was a place for eternal and unquestionable human values.

But the most popular philosophies are often the ones that appeal to people’s baser instincts rather than their higher intellect. Despite the claims of well-meaning secular moralists, the loss of faith in any universal truths or values made people more conscious of their own personal desires and less concerned about the suffering of others.

Nationalism, Fascism, and Nazism rose in fierce competition to communism. These ideologies also preached myths in order to promote values that promised to empower the impressionable masses. And they also used violence to silence their critics.

With Europe’s ineffective state churches failing to provide any moral foundation for peace, without any other popular peace-loving morality to restrain the imperialistic ambitions of Europe’s warlords, and with the development of modern weapons like machine guns, long distance artillery, battleships, submarines, tanks, poison gas, and combat aircraft, Europe’s descent into self-destruction seemed inevitable.

The invention of the television produced another devastating blow for Christianity. As new ideas filled the minds of the young, Christianity lost its dominating influence over popular culture. At the same time, the availability of the birth control pill broke the connection between sex and pregnancy. Social and sexual revolution soon swept across the industrialized world.

While many Christians supported reforms like the formation of the United Nations, the establishment of human rights, and the end of institutionalized racism, the moral authority upon which Christianity rested was directly threatened by women’s liberation, sexual freedom, and the legalization of homosexuality. Not only had their mythology been discredited, but now also their sexual morality had become redundant and was seen as unnecessarily oppressive and outdated. Although many people still called themselves Christians out of sentiment for tradition, real Christians were becoming an unpopular minority. The continued secularization of Europe and America now seemed almost unstoppable.

The failure of secular philosophy

The victory of secularism brought little comfort to the masses. Despite having all of the best academic talent in the world on their side, secular thinkers failed to offer people any easy-to-believe family-friendly explanation for why they exist, and they failed to agree on any convincing foundation for cooperative morality. Just like the skeptics in ancient Greece, they failed to provide any satisfactory alternative to traditional religion to which the increasingly confused masses could be easily migrated.

Instead, as the Western world celebrated its newfound freedom from religious morality, popular culture became a slave to market forces and rapidly descended to the lowest common denominator, often becoming a dismal reflection of human greed, ego, and perversity. ‘Living for sex’ became a popular lifestyle choice alongside militant superficiality and new age extraterrestrial mysticism. ‘Greed is good’ became the dominant political ideology. Even in the universities, scientific reasoning was abandoned in favor of academic neomarxism, postmodern relativism, and political correctness.

While most people just plod along and follow the herd without ever questioning their existence, the truth is that if we have no cosmic purpose then our lives have no real meaning or value. If there is no universal foundation for unconditional cooperation or personal self-sacrifice, then there is no reason to restrain ourselves from taking advantage of any opportunity to enrich and indulge ourselves regardless of the cost to powerless strangers. But most people are too sensitive to believe such mercenary talk, and so they will look for any alternative to fill the metaphysical and moral void.

The rise of the religious right

In the modern democratic world, various ideologies, each with their own ideas about right and wrong, compete for believers and a share of political power. People are generally attracted to whatever ideology best protects their personal interests, and in the democratic political power struggle, they vote for the party that best represents that ideology.

No ideology can please the majority of people, and under democracy, political movements with common interests are forced to compromise with each other in order to gain a share of political power. The laws they pass may not please everyone, but they usually keep enough people happy to keep the ruling coalition in power.

Historical declarations and political manifestos pronouncing universal rights and wrongs, and holy books declaring eternal morals and values can be very effective propaganda tools in the political power struggle. They condition their readers with persuasive moral rhetoric, enflaming their passions and strengthening their resolve to gain power and impose their ideas about right and wrong upon everyone else.

The modern industrialized world has plenty of distractions and not many intelligent educated people are interested in traditional religion anymore. But in traditionally Christian countries like the United States, a significant number of people still believe that every word of the Bible is literally true.

Without any intellectual credibility, and with their moral authority reduced to vilifying homosexuals and picketing abortion clinics, these people have finally dropped any pretense of political neutrality, and in order to preserve their beliefs, they have joined their old capitalist allies on the political right. Together they form coalitions of social and economic conservatives.

Not too many hardcore capitalists even believe in God, but they welcome the fundamentalist voting block as a way of allowing them to tailor their economic policies less towards the interests of the upper middle class and more towards the interests of a smaller and wealthier elite. Abortion and homosexuality are easy issues to exploit for the sake of extra votes.

The Christian fundamentalists have just as much to gain from sharing power with the economic conservatives. They benefit from the scaling back of government schools and welfare programs in favor of church run schools and church based charities. Not only can they indoctrinate more children, they can also convert more of the poor who become dependent on their handouts.

One thing that the Christians and economic conservatives have in common is their hatred for what they perceive to be rampant forms of social degeneracy that they blame on the aggressive liberalism of recent decades. They see traditional religious values as the most potent cultural force for combating teenage pregnancy, the breakdown of family relationships, the spread of sexual diseases, drug and alcohol abuse, street gangs, gun violence, and popular forms of entertainment that encourage these types of behavior.

The rise of radical Islam

Centuries ago, when Muslim clerics saw the effect that the printing press was having in Europe, it was banned in Muslim lands in order to hold back the inevitable tide of heretical ideas. This not only helped to preserve the dominance of Islam, it also condemned the Muslim world to cultural and economic stagnation.

Over a period of time leading up to the end of the First World War, the Islamic Empire was conquered by the European powers and carved up into manageable states. Most of the military strongmen who rose to power in the region were keen to modernize their economies and societies by removing Islamic influences from the law. Although many people remained deeply religious, religion was reduced to being a private matter for each individual.

After the discovery of oil in the region, and as oil became a vital strategic resource for the industrialized world, the Western powers formed alliances with regional kings and dictators in order to secure cheap reliable oil supplies. While the dictators and their friends and families became oil billionaires, the lack of any economic accountability and the repression of all political opposition condemned the growing population of the region to unemployment, poverty, and hopelessness.

With the dictators having nothing to gain and everything to lose from democratic reform, and with the Western powers seemingly opposed to democracy in the region for fear of destabilizing their allies, radical Islam came to be seen by many as the only viable political opposition force; fiercely opposed to both political corruption and Western imperialism, well funded by the religious establishment, and actively concerned for the welfare of even the poorest sections of the community.

After the Islamic revolution in Iran, regional dictators began to introduce Islamic laws and other reforms in order to appease their increasingly influential fundamentalist critics. The resurgence of Islam has actually strengthened many dictators, who have been able to manipulate religious sentiment to deflect public anger away from themselves by fueling popular hatred towards America and Israel.

The remnants of the old Islamic Empire are trapped in a vicious cycle of dictatorship, Western imperialism, Islamic fundamentalism, and religious intolerance. Unless the kings and dictators can be persuaded to introduce democratic reforms, then they will inevitably face popular uprisings, military coups, and foreign invasions that will more than likely just prolong the calamity.

Religious reform

Few people realize the seriousness of the current world crisis. The traditional religions are floundering and failing while academic philosophy remains paralyzed by reactionary skepticism and superficial political idealism. Entire populations are being blindly led by thoughtless materialistic forces while the followers of traditional religion are becoming increasingly aggressive in their fight to preserve ancient religious superstitions. The general level of ignorance across the entire population concerning issues relating to our existence is overwhelming.

Christian fundamentalists know that the future of the Christian mythology depends on discrediting the theory of natural evolution. However, by attempting to discredit evolution, the fundamentalists have only succeeded in radicalizing a new generation of pro-evolutionary scientists. And by joining the economic conservatives to become a mainstream political force, the religious right have unwittingly turned their religion into a legitimate target for political attack. The more politically active that Christianity becomes, the more it will provoke a powerful tide of anti-Christian sentiment among liberal minded people.

For a growing number of people, the Bible and the Koran have completely lost their sacred appeal and have become hated symbols of ignorance and oppression. For thousands of years, these books have survived by threatening those who criticize them. But with the uncensored freedom of speech that now exists on the Internet, no realistic threat can stop the scathing condemnation that both religions now receive on countless Internet websites. The Koran in particular is now facing widespread criticism, seen by many as an excuse, if not a motivation, for authoritarianism and terror. According to popular Internet opinion, Islam has lost its legitimacy as any kind of moral foundation upon which to base a modern civilization.

Technological advancements are often followed by social changes, and since the beginning of the technological age, we have witnessed a gradual decline in institutionalized ignorance and oppression. Religious leaders may not realize it yet, but they are no longer free to brainwash the masses without facing fierce intellectual resistance. The fear and censorship that once protected them is now gone, and because of the dangers posed by religious extremism in an age of devastating new technologies, the reevaluation of religious beliefs is now imperative.

The ultimate ideological showdown has finally begun, and if this book is any indication of things to come, we are going to see a noticeable transformation in popular thought, as more people become exposed to new ideas about the history of religion, and as mainstream media commentators become more confident about criticizing religion without fear.

Continue to chapter 16 ... Replacing Religion with Science