Religion And Freedom
H.L. Mencken said: "I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind—that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking."
Mencken is right about the damage religion does to clear honest thinking. All religion harms one's ability to reason correctly to some degree and some are much worse than others. It is the very nature of religion itself that is the reason it interferes with one's ability to reason. Correct reason requires that one to never allow a contradiction in one's thinking or beliefs. To hold any two things as true which are in contradiction with each other means that one or both of those things is untrue.
The fundamental nature of every religion requires the belief in something for which there is no evidence or rational explanation. The religious name for this belief is faith. All that any religion teaches must be, "accepted," based on some authority or, "teaching," without evidence, and often in contradiction of evidence. The proper name for all such beliefs is superstition.
Most people are superstitious; most people do embrace some kind of religion. I have no interest in disuading others from believing whatever they choose to believe. It is not my purpose to challenge anyone's religious beliefs. My purpose is to present the truth for those who truly desire to know it, and the truth is that religion is dangerous, almost universally evil, and insidiously subtle. This is about that danger, evil, and subtlety.
The Subtlety of Religion
There is a strange kind of aura that has grown up around religion that no doubt got its start with the struggle for religious freedom. Many of the earlier settlers in the, "New World," were refugees who escaped the religious intolerance and persecution of Europe. One of the first concepts of freedom was the idea of religious tolerance—the belief that every individual ought to be free to believe, teach, and practice whatever he chose without interference. It is, in fact, what I believe.
Over the years the idea of religious tolerance has morphed into something else, a kind of tacit religious political correctness. Religious tolerance no longer means one must never interfere in another's beliefs and practices, but one must also avoid ever saying anything offensive about anyone's religious belief, and even show respect to other's beliefs, no matter how wrong or absurd they are.
H.L. Mencken also observed this absurd religious P.C. attitude:
"The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. Its evil effects must be plain enough to everyone. All it accomplishes is (a) to throw a veil of sanctity about ideas that violate every intellectual decency, and (b) to make every theologian a sort of chartered libertine. No doubt it is mainly to blame for the appalling slowness with which really sound notions make their way in the world. The minute a new one is launched, in whatever field, some imbecile of a theologian is certain to fall upon it, seeking to put it down. The most effective way to defend it, of course, would be to fall upon the theologian, for the only really workable defense, in polemics as in war, is a vigorous offensive. But the convention that I have mentioned frowns upon that device as indecent, and so theologians continue their assault upon sense without much resistance, and the enlightenment is unpleasantly delayed.
"There is, in fact, nothing about religious opinions that entitles them to any more respect than other opinions get. On the contrary, they tend to be noticeably silly. ... No, there is nothing notably dignified about religious ideas. They run, rather, to a peculiarly puerile and tedious kind of nonsense. At their best, they are borrowed from metaphysicians, which is to say, from men who devote their lives to proving that twice two is not always or necessarily four. At their worst, they smell of spiritualism and fortune telling. Nor is there any visible virtue in the men who merchant them professionally. Few theologians know anything that is worth knowing, even about theology, and not many of them are honest. ... He disseminates his blather, not innocently, like a philosopher, but maliciously, like a politician. In a well-organized world he would be on the stone-pile. But in the world as it exists we are asked to listen to him, not only politely, but even reverently, and with our mouths open." [The American Mercury, March, 1930]
Mencken's rhetoric may have offended some but there was nothing wrong with his using it no matter who it offended. What is wrong is to expect anyone who knows the truth to keep their mouth shut just to protect the tender sensibilities of the ignorant and superstitious. Mencken addressed that too:
"It is the natural tendency of the ignorant to believe what is not true. In order to overcome that tendency it is not sufficient to exhibit the true; it is also necessary to expose and denounce the false. To admit that the false has any standing in court, that it ought to be handled gently because millions of morons cherish it and thousands of quacks make their livings propagating it—to admit this, as the more of the reconcilers of science and religion inevitably do, is to abandon a just cause to its enemies, cravenly and without excuse." [The American Mercury, March, 1930]
Freedom of Mind
Freedom means freedom to believe anything one chooses, no matter how absurd or mistaken. Freedom itself, however, is not possible to those whose own mind is aleady enslaved by some mystic superstition or otherworldly unreality. They may be politically free, but true freedom is not possible to them.
Having accepted the contradiction which is religion, they will never be able to comprehend the objective nature of the real world and that which is required to live successfully and happily in it.
Most religions make the entire objective of life, not life in this world, but some future world for which any real success or happiness in this world must be sacrificed, or at least willingly surrendered. Even more absurd are those religionists who claim to be seeking freedom from state oppression but are looking forward to living in an eternal totalitarian dictatorship called the "kingdom of God."
One writer on a liberty site wrote, "All human beings are created in the Image of God." What any individual is, they have chosen to be. As Ayn Rand said:
"As man must produce the physical values he needs to sustain his life, so he must acquire the values of character that make his life worth sustaining—that as man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul—that to live requires a sense of self-value, but man, who has no automatic values, has no automatic sense of self-esteem and must earn it by shaping his soul in the image of his moral ideal, in the image of Man, the rational being he is born able to create, but must create by choice—that the first precondition of self-esteem is that radiant selfishness of soul which desires the best in all things, in values of matter and spirit, a soul that seeks above all else to achieve its own moral perfection, valuing nothing higher than itself."
No doubt, the religious are "created" in the image of their God, but it is they who have created themselves. And what is that image to which they have molded themselves?
"All their gods are like themselves, petty, moody, neurotic, and thin-skinned. Their gods demand veneration and worship, as if a god would need to be honored by such worthless creatures. Their gods fly into rages like children at the first hint of contempt. Insult one of their pitiful gods, and you'll be tormented forever, because all their gods are like themselves, spiteful, vindictive, and so insecure they require the constant praise of others, because within themselves, they are nothing. Well... they are nothing!" ["The Wisdom of Tathagatagarbha"]
The belief that something else other than one's own choices determined the kind of person one is relieves one of the responsibility for what one is.
Perhaps the most important concept related to freedom is the concept of individual responsibility. It is closely related to the concept of volition, of course, which means everything a human being does, as a human being, in both thought and action, must be consciously chosen.
It is because human beings are volitional beings that freedom is required for their success and happiness. Beings incapable of choosing would have no need of freedom—freedom means freedom to choose.
It is the fact that everything a human does is consciously chosen that makes him responsible for all his choices and actions and for all that he is.
Most religions deny true human volition making the life of every individual determined by God or some other supernatural agency (such as a sinful nature). For the few that do not see man as some kind of puppet-of-the-gods, it is the responsibility for one's choices religion denies or covers up. Perhaps the most evil concept that comes out of religion is the concept of forgiveness.
The whole purpose of forgiveness is to relieve the individual of responsibility for their choices and actions. No matter what they think or do, they can always be forgiven, they are taught. Of course, in reality they cannot. There is no forgiveness for wrong choices and actions and the consequences for such actions cannot be evaded. Those consequences are justice. The so-called "forgiveness" offered by religion is simply institutionalized injustice.
The greatest harm religion does to those who embrace one is that it convinces them they can do wrong and get away with it, because they will be forgiven. It convinces them they have some kind of moral worth, because their God loves them, no matter how worthless they actually are. And it convinces them they hold the moral high ground because they are the, "chosen of God," one of the believers, one of the insiders, which in spite of their false humility convinces them they are really a little better than everyone else.
This last is not the worst of things one might believe. So long as the religious do not use political power to force their superstitions on others, they are often the most honest and trustworthy of people, and often good workers, which are real virtues. The real harm of religion is the dangerously unrealistic view of life and reality it produces in those who embrace it.