With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. ~ Steven Weinberg
God, I love whiskey. Love, love, love it. I also have a sweet little thing going with Vodka, on the side. And if I’m being honest, I’ve been known to drink rum, tequila, wine, beer… Essentially, I’m a liquor slut. But whiskey is my first love. The Juliet to my Romeo. The Kate to my Leo. The Tina to my Ike. Hmm, that last one might not be the best example.
What I’m saying is I love me some spirits. The visible kind. Not the Casper kind.
Am I an alcoholic? Well, no, I don’t go to meetings. Har har. But seriously, no, I’m not an alcoholic. I’m a heavy drinker, but my love for the stuff hasn’t crossed the line to a need for the stuff (maybe down the line; fingers crossed).
Why is alcohol bad? Well, it can cause you to lose control. It can make you ill. It can kill you. Those who give in to its control may lose their jobs, their families, their homes. Essentially, alcohol can make you lose your life in whatever form that may take.
Why is alcohol good? Oh, the reasons are innumerable. The taste. The way it makes you feel. The way it socially lubricates. The way it can take a long, hard day and just erase it, even if only temporarily. It makes a dull party fun and makes a fun party memorable (up until the point that you can no longer remember). I could go further, but I’ll press on.
With self-control and balance, alcohol can always be good. It’s only when drinking passes a certain threshold that it switches sides and becomes bad. It is, like most everything else in our life, a wonderful gift to modern man, up until the moment that it is taken in excess.
So, what’s my point? The title of this post isn’t about alcohol, obviously. (And yes, I known the whole -oholics thing on the end of words is stupid, but it’s also an easy shorthand that everyone understands.)
Faith is a lot like alcohol. It functions in a person to bring about positive feelings. For instance, it can help you through hardships and tragedy, or soften your fear of death or insignificance. It also can be a kind of social lubricant, as it provides a bond between people, even complete strangers. As well, it gives the sense that your life has a purpose, which is essentially like saying it gives you confidence in your self-worth. Quite a bit like alcohol, wouldn’t you say? (I was going to make a joke about faith not tasting very good, but I don’t want to hammer on Catholic Priests too much in this post.)
And like alcohol, when faith is taken too far, it stops being so good. Faith can lead to bigotry. It can be the root of abuse (in any form you can imagine). It can lead to murder, both singular and mass. Faith has been behind some of the greatest atrocities in human history. Essentially, faith taken to the extreme is religion. Just as a drinker who has too much alcohol can become an alcoholic, a person who allows faith too much control of his or her life can become a Religious Extremist: A Religioholic. (I swear, I won’t use that term ever again.)
The atheist argument against religion almost always leads to the same point: The Crusades. 9/11. Catholic Abuse of Choirboys. Essentially, it just becomes a litany of well-known evils. Usually, the faithful respond in kind, listing off famous Atheists who have done horrible things: Hitler (not an Atheist; a Catholic, or just a generic theist). Stalin. Pol Pot. Fair enough, those last two were pretty convincingly atheists. But, that of course misses the point. The actions of Stalin and Pol Pot were not done in the name of no-God. They did not kill millions because they felt compelled by the non-existence of God to kill. They did it because they were evil fucks, and as Hitler proved, an evil fuck can believe in God. Evil fucks will do evil fucking shit, and they have done it since the beginning of time, belief in God or not.
My point is not to say, “Belief in God makes you do evil things.” As is evidenced by the billions of believers (in whatever religious/faith system) who have never killed a person in the name of their God, having faith is not inherently a bad thing (it is not inherently a good thing either, but I’ll get to that).
As I said before, faith is like alcohol. Follow me down this metaphor trail: There are millions of people who enjoy a drink now or then, on holidays, or when family is around. They have a few drinks, have a good day and then go about their daily lives and rarely think about another drink. Then, there are millions who drink on a regular basis, but it’s more like a weekly affair, they have their drinks on the weekend and then they go the rest of their week sober as a priest on Sunday.
Then we get to the heavier drinkers. There are those who drink daily, not to an unhealthy degree, more of a European style drinker, where wine with dinner is a normal occurrence, and that person rarely gets drunk (maybe at parties or on special events). These people know how to enjoy drinking and rarely let it get the better of them (everyone has a weak night once in awhile).
Then we get to the alcoholics. Contrary to socially conscious wisdom, there are actually two kinds of alcoholics: Fuck ups and Functioning Alcoholics. AA and recovering alcoholics may tell you that the functioning alcoholic is a myth, but the fact is, there are people who drink to excess and still manage to hold onto steady work, pay bills, maintain a family. Are they healthy? No. Are they living up to their highest potential? Probably not. But they are functioning, getting through life with no major disasters.
I hope you don’t need me to spell out the metaphor here. If you’re religious, you fall somewhere along this spectrum, too, just reword the last 3 paragraphs so they read about religious activity instead of drinking and it should make sense.
When I was religious, I was right in that middle ground. I was a daily indulger in my faith, it was central to my life, but I had aspects of my life that didn’t revolve around religion and at times, I actually wanted a break from it all. Don’t get me wrong, there were periods in my life where I definitely straddled the fence of being a Functioning Religioh… er… I mean, religious extremist. But I’d say I remained fairly firmly planted in the real world, even at my most zealous.
We all know who the Alcoholics of Faith are. Suicide Bombers. Abortion doctor killers. The Pope. (I’m not going to apologize; the man has been given all the authority in the world by his religious followers and he uses it to protect his own ass, not those of the children who have been abused. If the Catholic church weren’t so powerful, he’d be arrested.)
But who are the Functioning Alcoholics of Faith? Well, Fred Phelps for one. Some people would question me putting him in this category and not the former, but I think it’s fair. He hasn’t physically harmed anyone (that I know of), he’s just a vile piece of shit who spews hatred. He’s a horrible person, yes, but he functions within the bounds of the law; he’s a pathetic weasel in that way.
Pat Robertson would also go in this group. Ted Haggard, too. Any number of Fundamentalist Preacher types. And this is true in other religions, too, but I live in America and so I really don’t see much outside of the Christian bubble. These kinds of people don’t necessarily do evil themselves, but their hateful, disgusting preaching can lead to it, either by inciting people to action or by influencing politics.
I draw the line at them, because below that are the many charitable, loving, peaceable members of faith, those who are not perfect and may on occasion cause harm to their fellow human being, but who in general try to be decent people with at least some inclination towards actively bettering other’s lives.
Here’s where the problem lies. Without those decent, loving, Brady Bunch members of faith, there could be no religious extremists. Religious extremism cannot last in a bubble. Suicide bombers are going to kill themselves all off. Abortion clinic bombers are going to all go to jail. This Pope will die off, sooner than later we hope. Alcoholism is not a sustainable lifestyle. Even the functioning types will die off without a network of drinkers and alcohol providers around.
Those people who say, “Faith is a good thing, religion is where it goes wrong,” mean well, but what they don’t seem to get is that faith is the root of it all. Religion is merely a way of harnessing faith. But if people didn’t have faith, religion would have no power. What makes faith a powerful tool is that there are no limitations on it. Anything that is believed with no evidence (or with only the most flimsy of evidence) is a manifestation of faith, and when it comes to unprovable beliefs, any one is as good as any other.
You can’t very well criticize a suicide bomber’s faith by any practical standards if your own faith is no more provable than his. Yes, your faith in peace, love and lollipops may be more palatable to your average consumer, but that doesn’t mean it’s any more right. The largest religious body is Catholicism, and you see the horrors being done under their watch, so we can hardly say Might Makes Right in that scenario.
Whether you believe in a hippie, peace-loving Jesus or alien overlords, reincarnation or the Flying Spaghetti Monsters (or Goblets, for that matter), if your faith is based on nothing more than your personal feelings or the inconsequential evidence of your psuedo-scientific pursuits, you have no means with which to judge other people’s faith as good or bad. Other than your feelings, of course, but that just puts us back in the merry-go-round of whose feelings do we trust, yours or those of any one of the other 7 billion people on earth.
Your willingness to put aside any sort of critical evaluation for faith (and how could you critically evaluate a matter of faith) leaves the door open for the Religious Extremists. This isn’t a slippery slope argument where I say faith inevitably leads to extremism. I simply mean, there will always be nutjobs and those who can’t handle their liquor (in whatever denomination available), and those who unquestionably support faith as a virtue are the enablers of the religious world, providing a zone of safety where religious faith cannot be questioned and religious extremism can fester.
I’ve heard it countless times when I’ve called out a specific religious misdeed. Instead of religious people saying, “Yeah, I agree, that was horrible,” they chime in with a lot of, ‘Yeah, but…’ statements.
“You can’t generalize about all religions from that one instance.”
“You can’t lump all Catholics in with them.”
“Plenty of religious people donate money to charity.”
You’re right. Instead of focusing on the atrocity perpetrated by some religious leader or group in the name of God, your energy is better used making sure I don’t brush with too broad a stroke.
Never fear, I get it. Most religious people are decent people. But they would be decent people without religion, too (if religion is the only thing keeping a rapist or murderer from unleashing his true self, I don’t want to live next door to him). Yeah, maybe faith makes them happier, but alcohol can do the same thing. And alcohol can be measured out.
So, what is my conclusion? Do I think we should abolish all religious belief, ban it from America like it was a drug? No, of course not, no more than I would want anyone to ban alcohol (and as any student of history could tell you, it clearly wouldn’t work).
I’m writing to an audience of one. You. I’m not seeking to encourage mass changes in our society, or to turn public consensus against faith. It’s religion’s job to control the mind of the masses.
I’m merely asking you, consider the failings of your faith. Consider the limitations. And question your feelings. Remember the wisdom of the prophet Thom Yorke: Just ‘cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.
(I hold science in such high esteem precisely because it’s mechanism of knowledge is built on questioning and testing perception.)
I get it, your faith brings you happiness, relieves some pain in your life, and brings you closer to family and friends.
Alcohol can do the same thing, though. And while you may drive your car into a tree under its influence, you’ll never fly a 747 into a building because of it.
Think about that the next time you’re saying, “Oh, don’t worry about me, I can handle my religion. I’m not like my dad, I’m only a social believer, I can quit anytime I want.”