In his book Mortality, the late and great Christopher Hitchens wrote, “Either our convictions are enough in themselves or they are not.” Simply put yet strikingly wise, Hitchens knifes the central premise of religion: that we must not only do good, (according to god’s will) but, much more importantly, we must believe. And that belief, regardless of our deeds, will be the deciding factor in our final judgment; as if a lifetime’s worth of bad deeds may be atoned by a last-minute declaration of fear and cowardice. This precept represents the damning – if you will – flaw of religion, in that our convictions are hollow if not accompanied by the complete submission to god. In other words, god cares more about his subjects glorifying him than the way in which they lead their lives. As much as the faithful may be inclined to argue, they cannot wholly disagree if they truly believe in their holy books. God’s chief concern, in the three major monotheistic religions, is that we bow at his feet and adulate him, as if bearing us upon the earth without our consent was a gracious gesture worthy of our eternal gratitude.
So what does this say about the role of religion in general? That our deeds and moral outlook are deemed of far lesser value than our willingness to obey not just a god, but the right god, sadly represents the characteristic nature of humanity: fearfulness. And unfortunately, this succumbing to fear has cost us countless lives on the claim that one god is more true than another. Imagine a world in which religion was stripped of its petty requirements of dogmatic belief and blind obedience. A world in which the fine moral values, which religion has at least had some hand in evoking, were detached from the rigid boundaries of a jealous god and his threat of eternal damnation. How many lives could have been saved if our convictions were placed ahead of our submission? If our responsibility to morality and reason trumped the childish fear of torture after death? It is hard to say, but almost indisputably, many a war could have been settled if our commitment to each other superseded our commitment to the invisible entity above, whose demands of unbridled worship have driven far too many to pick up the sword.
If not for the fear factor inherently tied to religion, god would quite likely have no role in our world. The spiritual relationship that people draw comfort from forming with him could undoubtedly be experienced in different and more healthy ways. (After all, doesn’t the fact that reports of spiritual experiences are found abundantly in every religion sort of negate the notion that one person’s god is the true god, while all other relationships with the divine must somehow be insincere?) Plainly, god is the product of cowardice. Our creation of him stems from the woeful uncertainty of death, and has proven to be the greatest and most usable excuse for people to betray their fellow humans.
It is said that our society could not function without the moral bedrock that god provides. As I hope I have articulated, this merely reflects humanity’s lack of trust in itself; that it could not survive if not for an all-contorlling dictator. But really, would our society self-destruct without him? Or would our faculties of common sense and reason be enough to shed light upon right and wrong? I sincerely believe the latter would be true, yet my religious peers may tend to think the former. The German poet Heinrich Heine offered an astute analogy: “In dark ages people are best guided by religion, as in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind old men as guides.” I like to think that humanity is equipped with the adequate knowledge and good sense to make sound moral decisions without looking to god for guidance. In fact, I know it is possible. I see plenty of friends do it all the time. Some of the most morally responsible and conscientious people I know do not seek direction from god in order to live their lives. Of course, some do, and I respect them equally on the grounds of their decision-making – but I would contend that common sense and reason play a much larger role in their morality than they think.
It seems such a simple proposition: taking the functional aspects of religion, i.e. community, generosity, and morality, and discarding the decree of absolute subjection to a god that serves only to create a burden of moral expectations for us to carry and sets rigid limits within which our minds are restricted from freedom of thought. Yet people remain glued to god, as the fear and inconceivability of death lingers hauntingly and incessantly. In my opinion, life can be cherished more fruitfully and grasped more fully when god is removed as the solution to all problems. Fear is an inevitable human condition. Let us accept it for what it is, live boldly beside it, content in the mystical uncertainty of life and death, rather than tempering it with fallacies that produce childish feelings of comfort and distort the full and direct experience of this life – the only one we know we have. And may we have the integrity to hold our convictions, and the courage to allow that to be enough.