Saturday, September 17, 2016

Religion, State and Paths to Power. The Confidence Game Persists.

Four thousand years ago, the Babylonians believed that their kings were appointed by their gods to lead them. “Many of the texts composed for royal rituals lay great emphasis on the state-like organization of the pantheon which had a clearly defined hierarchy and areas of responsibility like those of ministers.” Ellil (and later Marduk) “presided over the divine assembly and conferred kingship.” (Leick, p. 102). Beliefs such as this come as no surprise to evidence-based thinkers. In the context of the western culture from which the majority of readers descend, we are familiar with a history where Cardinals of the Church were “Princes of Rome” who possessed great tracts of land and fought wars to maintain their wealth. Where the Church sold indulgences to increase its’ profits. Where kings, backed by clergy, claimed their authority came from God. The point of commonality, between an earlier agricultural society of the Fertile Crescent and this later one of Medieval Europe, is the treatment of religion as a path to power. These agreements between king and clergy have always been a con game. Kings understood that having a religion propagandize their divine right to rule, made the job of exploitation easier. Religious leaders understood that if they attached themselves to a powerful leader and became the state religion, wealth and influence would follow.

Conditions have changed markedly since those times. The beliefs of the Babylonian state religion exists only in clay cuneiform tablets. Europe long ago exchanged its kings and state religions for secular republics. But Christianity is still the dominant religion in the west, and dominant religions are still a path to power. Among the Catholic branch of Christianity, the sexual domination of children and the breadth of cultural influence are examples of the currency of power. Not to forget that actual currency remains immeasurably important: the Catholic Church is still one of the wealthiest organizations in the world. Among the Protestant branch of Christianity, there is also the clamor to expand influence in the public sphere. The United States in particular is infested with holy policy wonks attempting to replace Evolution with Creation, push prayer into the schools and interfere in a woman’s private decision concerning whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Despite numerous media exposés of greed and sex scandals among the Protestant clergy, their flock is still just that: a group of sheep being fleeced of all their cash and all of their independence of thought. Of course the sophistication among some of the worshippers has changed. Who among evidence-based Atheists and free-thinkers has not conversed with a Christian of some stripe who understands scientific method? How many internet conversations have you had where a believer felt that their Christianity was a private affair that made them a more compassionate person, but they didn’t hate you for thinking differently? Unfortunately the existence of reasonable, dare I say humanistic, Christians does not mean that the institution to which they give money is anything more than a mercenary flim-flam. The anecdote of one rational individual, or one church that is not seeking to force itself on the public sphere, does not vindicate the systemic intentions of a vast institutional convention.

From Babylon, to Medieval Europe, to the present, the con endures. The institution continues to seek power and influence. It is unlikely to fail anytime soon. Their propaganda is more appealing: Eternal life with your cosmic daddy after you die. In heaven you can eat all the candy you want and not get diabetes. Whatever you fantasize is yours; and you get to share it with all of the people and pets you now mourn. So what do we offer: when you die, your brain ceases to function. All you ever thought you were just switches-off forever and you rot in the dirt. In a tough world where most people are willing to accept pretty silly, unverifiable myths, that help them deny some hard facts, who do you think is going to attract the larger numbers? The best we can do is offer an alternative based on evidence. Those who are intrepid and educated enough to accept reality over superstition, will affect and expand our community. As long as we don’t become attached to evangelizing our views, as long as we do not require others to think as we do, we will not become frustrated or disheartened. We’ll leave that discouragement to the opposition. The very existence of a vocal, informed community, devoted to evidence-based ideas, stands as a bulwark against the domination of power-hungry swindlers peddling myths. We’ve gained a lot of ground in the past couple of millennia, evolving from governments based upon divine kingships and clerical power to secular republics. Let’s defend it.

Leick, Gwendolyn. The Babylonians. New York: Routledge, 2003.