My upbringing was not especially religious; my parents attended church, and took their kids to Sunday school, but more out of social habit and propriety, was my impression, rather than from any deep-seated faith. My parents both grew up in small-town Illinois, where they attended Methodist churches. When they settled in Apple Valley in 1958 or so, when I was perhaps 3 years old, we attended Church of the Valley (http://www.churchofthevalley.net/), a Presbyterian church along Highway 18; it didn’t seem to matter much that they switched from one Protestant sect to another. My single memory of that church—I was only 6 years old before we moved away from Apple Valley—was that we met Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, popular TV stars of the 1950s, now likely forgotten, who’d retired to Apple Valley and who also attended that church.
When we moved to Reseda in 1962 we attended another Presbyterian Church, called almost identically Kirk O’ the Valley (https://kirkval.org/), on Vanowen down the street from the large public library. There I attended Sunday School, where we were read children’s versions of stories out of the Bible, with pictures. My mother sang in the church choir, and did two services each Sunday morning. After the first service, and Sunday School, my father took us kids to the nearby supermarket Piggly Wiggly—long gone, but I think at Vanowen and Tampa—where we ate donuts, until the second service was over. It was during these years that I attained some rite of passage—confirmation?—and was given my very own Bible, bound in red, which I still have.
In early 1968 we moved to Glen Ellyn, Illinois. There we attended Southminster Presbyterian Church (https://www.southminsterpc.org/; north of us on South Park Blvd., halfway to the center of town). I don’t recall attending services at all, but I do recall attending youth group meetings on Sunday evenings, and I recall some of the projects we did, including visiting nursing homes to pass out magazines or, once, to put on a play. One meeting I remember distinctly is when the group leader walked us through the lyrics of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” as if they held deep theological significance (never mind the ironic tone they struck in the film, which I didn’t see until years later). During the three years we lived in Glen Ellyn, we took frequent weekend trips to Cambridge, where my parents had grown up and where my grandfather, aunt, and cousins still lived, and on those Sundays we attended the Methodist church in town.
And one other youth group meeting I recall. I was thinking that throughout all these various Sunday Schools for children and youth groups for teenagers, they were never about instruction into what the church believed and why. They were about stories and dressing up on Sundays and hanging out with one’s tribe, learning its ways, to define itself distinct from other tribes; about ritual, not intellect. But I do recall an except to that general rule, at the Illinois youth group. The leader was discussing how Presbyterian beliefs were different than those of other Christian sects, the Methodists maybe. I think the example was about predestination, but it doesn’t matter. The point was that he explained what *our* beliefs were, and what the *other* beliefs were, in such tones as to make it *obvious* that we were right and the others were misguided. His intonation and body language left no doubt, and the youths listening had no choice but to agree; it was a groupthink, not a matter for discussion, certainly not one of reason or evidence.
Earlier in California and especially in Illinois I had discovered books. Not just science fiction books, but astronomy books and general science and puzzle books by various authors. (I went through a very brief phase of being fascinated by UFOs and various supernatural mysteries, through the books of Frank Edwards and others. This was cured by discovering the nonfiction of science fiction authors, ironically – I say that because of the popular impression, at least then, that science fiction authors “believe” in UFOs or whatnot, when in fact science fiction authors, being educated or at least familiar with scientific methods, are far less credulous than the average citizen. But more about this another time.)
We returned to California in the summer of 1971, in between my 10th and 11th grades in high school, just as I turned 16. After an interlude of some weeks in Apple Valley, we settled in a neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley then called Sepulveda, now called North Hills (despite the conspicuous absence of any more than half of one hill in the region), coincidentally half a block from my Uncle Bob’s house. My parents dutifully sought out the nearest Presbyterian church, Valley Presbyterian Church (https://www.valleypresbyterian.org/) on Haskell, right across the street from my high school. I may have attended once. I told my parents the next week that I’d prefer to stay home. They weren’t surprised, given my reading and the topics I found interesting. They did stage a kind of intervention, though: a pastor from the church came to the house to visit me. We sat on the sofa and he talked and invited me to pray to Jesus, or accept Jesus into my heart, or somesuch. I didn’t roll my eyes or burst out laughing; I probably just sat there uncomfortably and said nothing, and he got the hint. No doubt he checked in with my parents and the subject of my attending church never came up again.
And I’ve rarely been in any kind of church ever since, except to attend weddings.
And my siblings? As I’ll discuss elsewhere, I wasn’t especially close to my siblings, all younger than me – Sue by 4 years, Lisa by 7 years, Kevin by 9 years – simply due to age differences, especially between me and my brother. Sue was the opposite of me, in terms of temperament and intellect. For purposes of this discussion, I don’t remember anything about her church attendance. Lisa, on the other hand, took to religion in those Sepulveda years, when she was in grade school and junior high. Yet my impression and remembrance are that she found going to church charming and fun; she liked the carols and the stories; it served as her social group; it wasn’t so much about commitment to a faith. In later years she devoured the C.S. Lewis books. (I suggested Ursula K. Le Guin; she found her books dour.) And my younger brother Kevin, I have little impression at all from this era. But his life has been the major religious drama in our family. Just as I graduated from college, my parents, and Lisa and Kevin, moved to small town Tennessee (Sue and I stayed in LA). Kevin finished high school there and married his high school sweetheart from a devout Christian family, and so converted, and allowed his wife to home-school their three children, in ways I can only imagine (I’ve asked). Kevin once promised to explain to me his conversion from indifferent atheism to committed Christianity, but he never has. (Of course, I completely understand: it’s all about marrying into a religious family and community.)
In later years I reflected that none of my church attendance was about any kind of education. Sunday school and church services weren’t about education; they were about stories, and ritual, and communing. The principles of the religion were assumed, and repeated so often they became unchallengeable, the way the social principles of one’s community, or country, are absorbed and assumed. Of course Sunday school could never instruct children in the content of its religion, in the way a class in algebra or science would, because there’s no reason or evidence behind the religion’s beliefs. (Parents, I suspect, become adept at deflecting questions about religious beliefs from their children – e.g. why doesn’t Billy’s family celebrate Christmas? – in much the same way they deflect questions about sex.)
In later years I became fascinated by religion in principle. Writers like E.O. Wilson (in ON HUMAN NATURE) treated religion as a human behavior that could be understood as serving an evolutionary purpose, especially in a group selective way. Where there are two rival tribes or nations competing for resources, the social bonding within each group is strengthened by shared beliefs, especially shared beliefs in the superiority of one’s tribe as favored in the eyes the gods, or god. (The Old Testament is drenched with belief that God, presumably the creator or the entire, incredibly immense universe that we perceive today, had a special concern for one tribe of herdsmen in the Middle East desert, on this one tiny planet. It seemed to me obvious that other tribes had analogous beliefs, and it’s only an accident of history, not divine providence, that led one tribe’s beliefs to later prevail. One or another of them had to, and it’s apparent that history is mostly a series of accidents, coincidences, and circumstances.) In an odd sense, the more incredible the claims of a tribal religion, the more resistant they are to ordinary reason, the better they serve as a basis for these social bonds. The cost of accepting such beliefs leads to the sunk cost fallacy, where beliefs persist because the cost of giving them up and rearranging one’s life is too high.
I’ve also read a bit of comparative religion. A recent insightful book is Stephen Prothero’s GOD IS NOT ONE, from 2010, subtitled “The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.”
(Prothero wrote an earlier book called RELIGIOUS LITERACY, in 2007, keying off the bestselling CULTURAL LITERACY from 1987, by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.; Prothero argued that most Americans, despite their supposed faith, know very little about the Bible, let alone anything about other faiths. He proposed a high school course in religious literacy, replacing, perhaps, algebra. I appreciated his motive that people should know more about the religions they supposedly believe, but I was not amused by his suggestion to replace a course about how to think for one about blind tradition.)
Prothero’s 2010 book is to challenge the nostrum that all religions are more or less the same, that they all worship the same god. No, they’re not, no they don’t. His central observation is that all the major religions presume to identify some crucial problem that afflicts humanity, and offers a cure.
- Christianity identifies the problem as sin; the cure is salvation.
- Islam thinks the problem is pride; the cure is submission.
- Confucianism identifies the problem is chaos; the solution is social order.
- Judaism identifies the problem as exile; the solution is to return to God.
- Buddhism identifies the problem as suffering; the solution is awakening.
And, to take a later example, L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology identifies the problem as childhood traumas (engrams), and provides an (expensive) solution for “clearing” them. All of these are analogous to the snake-oil salesman who arrives in town, squints at a citizen’s face, and says, “How long have you had that rash?? Fortunately”—pulls bottle out of his satchel—“I have the cure!” Dressed up.
They’re not the same, but they all play off human psychology, the need for simple answers, the need for shared cultural beliefs and tribal unity, and are in no way about objectively identifying truths about the universe.
(there will be more)
My take on religion and its role in society, circa 2004
Back when I first read Sam Harris’s THE END OF FAITH, published 2004, and later books by Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, et al, I took notes on the books but also wrote down my general take on the appeal of religious faith and how I thought religion functions in society. These sum up my attitudes about the subject over my early life, beginning in my middle teenage years when I politely declined to continue attending church with my family, up until publication of those books (and some websites) led me to consider the issues more closely.
- One idea I haven’t seen discussed (I wrote in 2004) is why most people, who assume religion to be a good thing per se, thereby are much more disrespectful of atheists than of people who follow different religions from their own. You’d think if someone believes their own religion is the only truth and all others are mistaken and whose believers are condemned to hell, that those of other religions are just as wrong as those who follow no religion. Yet the disregard most people express for atheists isn’t consistent with that. My own interpretation of these circumstances is that people assume religion—any religion—is a good thing per se, because it signals a degree of social conformity and tribal identity, without which (as in the atheist’s case) a person is an unpredictable ‘free agent’ representing a greater risk to society or oneself than anyone subscribing to any religion. A person following a religion has ‘submitted’, in just the way the literal term Islam indicates.
- This is perhaps why it doesn’t seem to bother most people that the particular religion they follow is merely that which they were born into. It was never a matter of considered choice. It doesn’t matter, in some sense; any religion will do. (A curious example, in a sense, of ‘relativist’ thinking, that believers worry about in the absence of religion.)
- It’s also the case, I think, and this is something Harris at least doesn’t allow for (but Steven Pinker in his later books does), is that *most* people who say they are religious do *not* in fact believe as literal fact all the details of what their religious books say. Or even *know* what those books say. In fact, most people haven’t made deliberate study of what to ‘believe’, because following the example of their family or community doesn’t require them to. If pressed, I suspect most US Christians, for example, would disavow the many harsh passages of the Bible, while insisting on adhering to the general spirit of a God-focused universe and a Jesus-centered regard for humanity. (I suppose these are the ‘moderates’ Harris does speak of, in his first book.)
- Another idea the religious themselves don’t appreciate the easy way any talk of ‘god’ conflates to the same ‘god’. For example, a common ‘proof’ of god is that of the first cause: everything has a cause, the universe exists, it must have had a cause, etc. Even if you accept this, how does the idea of ‘god’ as first cause presume that any particular idea about god, any particular religion, is thereby justified? But religious defenders do this all the time. It’s very sloppy thinking.
- Elementary illustrations of how events are recorded in history, from the accuracy of the daily paper to childhood games of ‘telephone’, not to mention how tales grow in the telling, become folk tales, and change over generations, should make anyone skeptical of the veracity of any ‘holy book’. Is this how people assume all those *other* holy books came to exist, perhaps?
- Harris does mention a profound irony in the way religious defenders accuse scientists of being arrogant, when in fact it’s the scientists who happily admit what they do not know, and the religious defenders who presume that the creator of the universe has particular interest in their own daily lives. Human religions are, in the broad sense, a reflection of the natural but naïve notion that humans are the center of existence, all that matters, and everything not known can be disregarded.
- Another idea I haven’t seen anyone suggest, or put forward [I later collected many such examples and even formulated 10 Provisional Conclusions, not the same as commandments but similarly structured]: what rationalists/atheists/whatever need is some very simple, easily listed, set of precepts that would serve as a counterpart to the ’10 Commandments’. Here again religionists claim that without such precepts, there’s no basis for morality, etc. (As if, without checking the list in the Bible, no religious person would ever guess there’s anything wrong with stealing or murdering.) It should be easy to come up with a set of (non-religious) principles that would in fact serve as an easily-agreed to basis for morality. (Starting with the Golden Rule)
- The central issue about religion is—why believe that particular unverifiable myth as opposed to any other? What is the reason? It’s easy to understand the existence of this ancient text or that holy book on purely historical grounds, and based on easy-to-imagine primitive rules of social conduct and naïve speculation about the nature of the universe. Such justification entails no basis for accepting the content of said book as true. Why is God or Allah any more plausible than Zeus or Ooga-boogah the Rain God?
- Because of social tradition and community or personal circumstance? That seems to me like the best possible answer. I understand that most people who subscribe to a religion don’t do it because for whatever reason they’ve signed on to every article of its faith—every verse of the Bible or Koran, as the word of God. But so many, so many social habits have been adopted, without thinking, because of tradition, and personal exposure at impressionable ages, and subservience to community standards. None of them have anything to do with the reality that would still exist if human history started over, or the reality that would exist for an intelligence arising on another planet. Real reality can be rediscovered from itself. There is no Christian reality, vs Islam reality or Catholic reality.
Over the past 15 years I haven’t substantially changed my thoughts on any of these points, but let’s see if I can add a few refinements.
- In science fictional portrayals of the far future it is routine to ignore religion and/or assume that society has matured and left behind such irrational belief systems. Some works by Arthur C. Clarke (I’m recalling Childhood’s End) state this decline in religion explicitly, and statistics do in fact show that the better-educated and wealthy a nation is, in the modern world, the less religious they are – think northern Europe including England. Suggesting that as the world grows more wealthy and peaceful, the trends Pinker detects, religious faith will dissolve away. The US, as in so many things, being an exception that proves the rule. Because of those statistics I still find the idea of a future global society, one that has overcome poverty and improved education, plausible, if such threats as resource shortage and climate change can be solved. On the other hand, religion endures not because of its epistemological plausibility but because of its social function; it’s a way of bonding social groups, and the nominal acceptance of the tenants of any particular religious is a way of signaling loyalty to the group. The more outlandish the tenants, the better, for this function. That’s why, given so many ways humanity might slip back from modern culture, I’m sure religion will never go away.
- At best—and this is my provisional conclusion of recent years—the understanding that religion’s supernatural claims about reality are obsolete is largely a private, individual project. Educated, well-read people easily perceive the contingent nature of religious belief, and its social functions, and will disregard its presumptions to identify cosmological truth, not only because of the rival claims of thousands of other religions, and the way their claims arose from the traditions of primitive tribes, but also of course because of the systematically discovered and tested discoveries of science in recent centuries and decades. But you still don’t casually mention this in public. The nature of social grouping, especially in physical small towns or neighborhoods, makes this difficult to acknowledge of speak of. Conversely, any number of virtual social groups, or groups bound by profession, do support this understanding, at least in the way no members of these groups would ever imagine their fellow members were among the faithful. But the individual has to find them. Charles Mackay, 1841, in “Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions,” wrote “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”
- Studies show that casual believers know less about the content of their holy books than atheists. The best way to create an atheist, I think Isaac Asimov once said, is to actually read the Bible. Or the Koran. And see how they reflect the superstitions and values of desert tribes who lived thousands of years ago when people had no knowledge of the world beyond what they could see the horizon. How history was written by the winners.
- Religious faith is an abjection of intellectual honesty. Humanity has compiled more information about the nature of the world and universe than ever before, and it is all available to anyone, easily. Those of us who accept this understanding see those inside religious faith who deny or ignore this see the obvious special pleading and psychological motivations. The faithful can’t accept the reality of the physical universe and so ignore it, but we rationalists out here completely understand the motivations of the faithful to deny or ignore reality.
- Religion is to be respected only the extent it gives people something to do in the way of bonding themselves to their neighbors, serving as social groups analogous to those for sports fans.
I’m going to add a final section that states, as succinctly as possible, why I do not adhere to any religion, why I think Jesus is not my savior (from what?), or any other religion’s solution to their imaginary problems. Why smart people think religious faith is bunk. The reason why intellectuals avoid the subject and politely dismiss the faithful as a bit…dim.