Thursday, May 26, 2011

Quick thoughts on religion

While I'm on the topic of religion via the previous post, I thought I'd discuss why I'm not an atheist. It certainly seems to make me a bit of an oddity in most of the circles I move in these days.

There was definitely a time during my mid-twenties when I was headed that way. Not just towards atheism, but the snobby practice of that mode of thought, in which rejecting the concept of god serves as the foundation of intellectual stature and as credentials as a good progressive.

At the time it seemed justified. Most of the believers in my early life weren't exactly examples of enlightened behavior. Particularly when it came to practicing what they preached. Then there was the historical fact that religion has a blood-soaked history.

A village of ethnic Albanian Muslim Kosovars located in the mountains between Macedonia and Kosovo. It was 'cleansed' by the Serbs in 1998.

Oddly enough, it was briefly seeing the aftermath of that same dark side in Kosovo in late 1999 and early 2000 that jolted me off course and stopped me from becoming an atheist.

I had an epiphany while riding in a Humvee gun turret late at night and watching a stream of refugees several miles long crossing back over the mountains from Macedonia into Kosovo.

Most of them appeared to be in their forties, fifties, or sixties. They were on foot in subzero temperatures, and carrying their possessions and goods that they had bought in Macedonia in flimsy plastic shopping bags. They had at least ten miles behind them, and many more to go.

And that's when it hit me. If religion carries such a heavy cost in wars and periodic bouts of misery, and yet it's still such a durable and almost universal phenomenon among human cultures, it must provide some critical utility to our species.

Much mud in Kosovo

Or put differently: Religion would not have as lasted as long as it has in this survival-of-the-fittest world of ours if it did not do something profoundly useful. It would not be so widespread--with all but a handful of very recent cultures embracing beliefs from the animistic to monotheistic--if it did not play an important role in getting human beings through life.

When I say almost universal, I mean that religious beliefs are a central part of nearly every past and present culture that anthropologists have documented. Only a handful of very recent states like Revolutionary France and communist nations have attempted to create wholly atheistic cultures. Those societies either abandoned the attempt after tremendous amounts of bloodshed directed at their own citizens, or imploded.

Left to right: Albanian kids, Turkish EOD sergeant, and Macedonian kids at a car wash in Skopje, Macedonia

So whether there is a divinity or not, religion appears to have a tremendous utility in keeping society and cultures going. That, and believers certainly seem to be much better at reproducing than non-believers. Making them, ironically enough, much better suited to existence in a world of Darwinian natural selection.

At any rate, this realization and it's sharp contradiction of my existing views was a good kick in the intellectual pants. It was a reminder of how much I don't know about the world, and also of how much we as a species have yet to learn. In part because we are finite creatures bound up existing only in once place and only at one time. But also in part because this science thing is still rather new in the scope of human history, let alone in geologic or cosmologic terms. In many ways, we're really just getting started with it.

My final motive for not embracing atheism has been the unfortunate sense of scorn for believers that I've sensed from many atheists. Unfortunately, for a clear majority among those I've me living both in Western Europe and in the States, atheism serves as a strong in-group/out-group exclusion mechanism. It helps to separate who "we" are from who the "they" are in a way that's just as black-and-white as the delineating beliefs of the extremists they deride.

In my view, it's this same hostility that's helped poison the current political atmosphere in the US. Since the 1960s, it's done much to alienate the New Left and current day progressives from the working class and a significant portion of the middle class. Something that would have been unthinkable fifty years ago, when an alliance between the more tolerant Liberals of the WWII generation and the blue collar majority of America formed the foundation of politics and the social contract here in the US.

At least that's my take on the matter.

Hence my description of myself as a either cheerful agnostic or a long-lapsed Buddhist (practiced during the 1990s and it still colors my worldview.)

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