Among the issues most commonly discussed are individuality, the rights of the individual, the limits of legitimate government, morality, history, economics, government policy, science, business, education, health care, energy, and man-made global warming evaluations. My posts are aimed at thinking, intelligent individuals, whose comments are very welcome.

"No matter how vast your knowledge or how modest, it is your own mind that has to acquire it." Ayn Rand

13 February 2005

The Invention of Gods

I have been reading Homer Smith's Man and His Gods (Little Brown & Co., Boston, 1952). I last read this book 20 years ago and I think I am finding it more interesting now even than I did then.

From fifty to twenty-five hundred years ago, it is easy to understand why many men invented gods to explain the world they lived in. They knew little about physics and the many things it could explain. They often did not even know the basics about validating what they did know about the world. Why did the sun rise each and every day? Why was it or the moon sometimes greatly dimmed? How could trees grow? How could man exist and think? Why was life so uncertain with fearful storms, floods, earthquakes, lightning and thunder, diseases, plagues of locusts, and strange tribes thundering out of nowhere in the East and killing, kidnapping, and plundering?

Not only did they not understand these phenomena, but was there any hope that some force could be induced to intervene to save you from the many uncertainties of life? Could the sacrifice of cattle and sheep bribe the gods to act on your behalf? If they were not enough, could you sacrifice a daughter or a son and get their favorable attention. Maybe simple praise was often enough, especially if you could devote all the members of your tribe to the praise of that one god, say as the Jews praised Yahweh. If your tribe did that, then could your god overcome the gods of the fierce tribes around yours? Was your god the better warrior? Would he fight for you if you discovered his law and kept it? The Jews long carried Yahweh into battle with them in the form of a stone in the Ark, which was awkward when once the Ark was captured.

Since the rigors of survival on earth were always great, could one hope for a better life in an afterlife? While many religions long held hope for an after-life, this hope seems to have developed rather late among the Jews and was never accepted by many of them. If one could, then did that afterlife have to earned by renouncing such pleasures and happiness as might occasionally be found in life on earth? Or could you devise an easier approach to everlasting life in which you simply proclaimed all men to be sinners, preferably from the instant of birth, and after a life of sinning be forgiven by a simple act of faith that the Messiah had come to earth to remove the consequences of man's sin and give him an unearned reward of everlasting life? Perhaps you could select an obscure moral teacher of 100 or more years ago and claim him to be the true Messiah, among hundreds of pretenders, and over the next several hundred years borrow ideas from many other older or competing religions to give your religion greater popular appeal.

To win their dedicated effort, you would give your priestly hierarchy ever more power over the people's thought, property, and lives. Could you eliminate the competing religions by killing their followers and tearing down their temples to a much greater extent they had done that to you when were a weaker sect? Yes. Could you establish a dogma encompassing an immortal man, Jesus, born of a virgin mother and yet escape the taunts of the Jews who claimed the one God, Yahweh, was now transformed into the three gods, Yahweh, the Logos or Holy Ghost who impregnated the Virgin Mary, and Christ? Could you explain evil without that evil being a part of God? Could you create a Devil or Satan to explain evil, without having still another god? Could you use Satan to scare the people into dependence upon the priestly class? Could you subjugate women by claiming that they especially were tools of Satan in tempting men? Could you make everyone more miserable by telling them that sex was evil and giving it up was a good way to improve one's chance for everlasting life? Could you use this misery to gain still more control over unhappy people and induce them to greater hopes for the next life?

Did Jesus actually teach any or most of these ideas? Over a few hundred years they evolved and were agreed upon for their efficacy in resolving, or at least eliminating, the many theological disputes that arose since so little was known about what Jesus had taught. The dogma of belief was also designed for the sake of moving power from secular authorities into the hands of the Church's authorities. In those first several hundred years, the dogma borrowed heavily from other religions to adapt their most popular ideas, so Christianity could compete better.

Could you plunge civilization into the Dark Ages by destroying the knowledge of the past? Destroy the great library of Alexandria, Egypt and the smattering of manuscripts elsewhere and the resulting ignorance would eliminate those pesky competing ideas. Even knowledge of mathematics and physics should be declared evil and the work of Satan, so no one could think that any explanation for anything was possible but that it was God's choice that it should be so. The resulting human misery was of no consequence, since only the after-life was important, unless of course, you were a pope or bishop with concubines, great wealth, and the power to control kings.

No matter how arcane the deviation from the accepted religious dogma might be, excommunicate or kill the heretic and stamp out any threatening idea before the entire edifice of Christian dogma crumbles. Should the many heretical Cartharist inhabitants of the rich and learned area of Albigensium, in southern France in 1209, after 200 years of increasing deviance, be tolerated? No, Pope Innocent III (oh, the irony of that name) launched a crusade against that richest area of Europe and over 20 years a million people were killed and their rich lands were taken by the church and the warriors. But who were heretics and who were true believers? Answer: Kill them all and God will sort them out. It makes sense. The good win everlasting life faster and the heretics still go to hell. But this was done by the Church, so we cannot call it mass murder. The scale of this murder, in proportion to the numbers of people in Europe then, was fully the equal of the mass murders of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.

Later, when Europe came into civil war for hundreds of years as Catholics fought Protestants and millions of people died, more from the sickness and starvation caused, than the fighting directly, the suffering continued. The Church also fought the re-awakening of learning in Europe and tried to prevent the Enlightenment. Eventually, reason sufficiently prevailed by demonstrating a remarkable ability to improve life on earth and the Church had to make some practical accommodations with this spurt of knowledge. Science and its rational use in industry, agriculture, and medicine allowed man to more and more rapidly increase his understanding of reality and gave him much better control over the conditions of his life. The Church has retreated somewhat and largely says that they retain the only knowledge of our spiritual needs. Christians rarely proclaim that the existence of God can be proven, but we must believe on faith, not upon the outcome of a rational examination of the reality we experience. They claim that only God can serve as a source of ethics and they can tell us what acts in life are ethical and which are not.

Well, given the history of the evolution of religion and that particularly of Christianity, this self-proclaimed knowledge of God's will and of ethics is mighty strange. The Church still preaches that self-sacrifice is good, that this world is evil, that man is by nature sinful and is stained by sin even at birth, and claims that an everlasting life, wished for by so many, can easily be won without too much effort at living a good life before death.

Ethics should be the knowledge we hold about what gives value to the individual, who is the only valuer of whose existence we have rational knowledge. We know that man's means of survival on earth is the use of his rational faculty. We know nothing about a life after death. Ethics should tell us how to act to realize our happiness in life, including how this can be done in harmony with the rational values and interests of others.

A proposed ethics which jetisons the values achievable on earth and in this life for a hypothetical after-life is a fool's choice. Of course, those who choose to make this choice should be allowed the exercise of their freedom of conscience to do so. They should not be free to use the political process, whether through democracy or dictatorial rule, to impose this insanity upon others or to use the morality derived from the trade of this life for a hypothetical after-life to restrain the free choice of others.

Among other ethical choices people make, the Christians (or Moslems or Jews or Hindus) should not be allowed to restrict the pleasure of sex between consenting adults to that limited realm their religions grimly tolerate to prevent too much rebellion from their own ranks. Religion should not be allowed to dictate the terms of the legal contract for a civil union between adults either. They may argue that the sanctity of marriage must be preserved. Of course, the sanctity of marriage comes from the values of those who marry. If those values are religious, then that will be the source of the sanctity. For others, the spiritual values providing sanctity to their marriage will come from their values, if they have them. In no case does the government legal contract convey sanctity. The government does not hold such spiritual power to grant. It only gives a legal contract. That contract should not be controlled by religious beliefs. Within their church, the religious will try to find that sanctity in their irrational beliefs. An Objectivist will find it within his or her rational value system. Yes, the passionately held values of an Objectivist are spiritual and gain power by being rational.

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