Anthropologists believe that the big breakthrough for our species, about 85,000 years ago, was the invention of language. Language made it possible for our ancestors to collaborate more closely, share knowledge and pass it down through generations. Most importantly it also gave them the ability to formulate abstract thought, allowing them to play out “what if” ideas in their heads. The era of “wondering man” began. And all over the world wondering man, sitting around campfires looking up at the heavens decided that there must be a “higher power” that was the architect of it all…and that there was purpose to man’s existence. This was good.
But with belief in the supernatural came religion. Religion organized and ritualized belief and gave power to its priests—priests who claimed to be closer to god and could speak for him. And they taught fear of god. Fear of god was a tool that the priests could use for power and profit. Those early priests were the first to study and chronicle the skies (and such recurring phenomena as solar eclipses). Imagine the shock and awe when a priest predicted that night could come in the middle of daytime, and it happened! The priest told his terrified audience that god had spoken to him to give him advance warning. It was the public relations coup of all time.
In the early days of religion there were many gods—proprietary gods that were the guardians of the tribes and their “standard” when they went to war. It behooved the traveler to know the gods in the region he traveled and display obeisance. In those times you were either god-fearing or you were dead.
But then came monotheism, the belief in one god for all people—in concept a pure and (potentially) unifying belief that made all the other gods appear primitive and foolish. The Jews claim to have been the ones chosen by god to see this truth, but historians and archeologists point to evidence that several monotheistic religions arose around the same time in the Middle East, and Zoroastrianism is believed by many to have preceded Judaism. (It is ironic indeed that among the recent atrocities of the Islamic State is their brutal massacre of Zoroastrians as “unbelievers”.)
Fast forward to today. Now we have literally thousands of religions and sects, each of which has been brainwashed by its priests to think that only their particular religion or sect are the true believers. In effect the priests have taken us back to the times when each tribe had its god, giving its followers the armor of righteousness and labeling all others as worshipers of false gods. They are the corrupting influence that has produced the monstrous extremism that is now threatening our civilization. The “one god” mantra of organized religion is a façade, concealing the self-interested establishment that is running it for power and personal gain.
It is easy to say that it is “only” the extremist versions of the various religions that are a problem. But that is the same flawed logic that says that guns (all the way up to assault weapons) are fine; it is only when the gun is in the hands of a screwball that is a problem. The reality is that guns promote antisocial behavior and escalate it to make it lethal. The same is true of religion.
Of course religion was never the only power holder. There was always the “power of the sword”: tribal leaders then lords, princes, kings, czars and emperors. These early power holders had a choice. They could either view the priests as their enemy or they could make peace with them—essentially a power-splitting agreement. The successful leaders chose the latter course. They realized that a war with religion could never be won. The priests, as their part of the bargain, preached to their flock that they should honor their lords and masters. The lords, for their part, endorsed the church by their attendance and accepted that the churches became rich from tithes and gifts that might have been taken by the lords as taxes. This alliance of convenience is the general rule in the world today; the exception being extreme versions of Islamism where the religious leaders are supreme, ruling both the state and the church. As we are witnessing today, this kind of theocracy can be the worst possible scenario elevating the blood thirsty warrior to “jihadist” who is carrying out God’s will… Adding to the problem is their conviction (fed by the imams) that their death for their cause will guarantee a place in heaven. Death holds no fear for them.
It is easy to denounce religious extremism, and particularly Islamic extremism. It is the ultimate evil. But the excesses of the extremists are just the most obvious signs of the rotten core that is at the heart of organized religion. Think of the harm that organized religion has done: the Spanish Inquisition torturing and killing those who did not conform, the Crusaders killing and raping Muslims convinced by their Pope that they would be rewarded in heaven, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) raping, killing and forcibly recruiting children into their army in East Africa, the Roman Catholic priests taking advantage of their trusted position to abuse children… The list is endless.
At this point I should make it clear that I have no problem with the fundamental concept of a belief in a higher power and I am not alone. But the institutionalizing of that concept into self-righteous, competing tribes just does not belong in today’s world.
It is time for us all to reject organized religion. With a world population fast approaching nine billion and with urgent issues (like global warming and pandemic disease) that require a global view, we cannot let religious tribalism divide us. Religion is one of the major obstacles standing in the way of our transition to future man and a noble future for our species. It is time for us to grow up.