Saturday, June 23, 2012

Religious Benefits, Santa, and Agnosticism

Religion, for all of its flaws, does have some beneficial side effects. I won’t deny that, as that would be extremely hypocritical of me since my entire motivation here is to advance truth and reality, and there really are some good things that can be derived from religion. It provides comfort in the face of death if you believe you’ll go to heaven (and it allows those left behind a measure of peace if they think you went to heaven). It can make you feel special if you think a supernatural being is listening to your prayers and watching over you. Churches provide a sense of community and belonging, and serve as a weekly excuse for a social gathering. Religion can also be used as a means of getting children to behave--if you can get your kids to believe that there is an invisible man watching their every move, and then get them to believe that he gets mad when they do “bad” things and might go so far as to send them to Hell for eternity if they misbehave too much...it seems like that should do a reasonable job of convincing them to be good kids.

However, none of these are legitimate reasons to continue being religious. Believing that people go to heaven after they die doesn’t mean that they do, regardless of how much comfort that provides. It would make me happier if I believed that I was going to win the lottery or marry Mila Kunis, but that doesn’t change the fact that neither of those things are actually going to happen. Just as believing I was going to win the lottery would have a detrimental effect on my career as I would likely stop caring about my job, believing in heaven can cause people to take their earthly lives less seriously (which, obviously, would be a terrible mistake). Believing in the power of prayer to change your life is just as bad, as relying on mythical beings to fix your problems instead of doing it yourself has a terrible track record. Inspiration is all well and good; reliance is not.

What about the “benefits” that don’t have negative side effects? There’s nothing wrong with feeling connected to other members of a church and sharing experiences with them and making friends. In fact, I think this is one of the reasons that religion still exists as it’s one of the few tangible benefits people get from believing in a god: the fellowship of other believers. If you’re afraid of losing that sense of community if you lose your religion, why not find a different community to be a part of that isn’t based on irrational belief and behavior? Join a book club. Join a sports league. Have a weekly movie night with friends. Go to meetup.com and find literally anything that interests you. Even if you decide that you want to join a Twilight fan club, at least you’ll be conscious of the fact that what you read is fictional. Plus, you still get to lionize a mythical character with some cool powers. Just call him Edward instead of Allah.

What about raising kids as Christians to gain the behavioral benefits? I humbly submit a secular solution to that, too. Many adults wholeheartedly believe in God, which leads to some confusion about whether or not kids should believe in God when they get older. Plus, using God requires wasting countless Sunday mornings if you’re going to throw yourself into the whole religion thing (not to mention all the pesky praying and tithing and guilt). What if we could all use a previously agreed-upon fictional character that watches over kids with the same punishment/reward system for behavior? Why not use Santa instead of God?

Santa Claus is really just a nicer version of God. We imagine them both to be nice old men with flowing white beards. People care about them the most during December, and even go so far as to sing special songs for them. Both have supernatural powers, like causing worldwide floods or eating millions of cookies in a single evening. They both promise to reward us if we’re good. As such, the consequences of ticking them off are used by parents in an attempt to get kids to behave. We learn about them both from our parents rather than in school. Those of us who operate logically grow up and figure out that, even though our parents told us they were real, we should stop believing in them and letting them determine our actions because they do not exist.

Some people figure out sooner than others that Santa doesn't exist, just like some people figure out sooner than others that God doesn't exist. OK, so technically I don't know that God doesn't exist...but I don't know that Santa doesn't exist, either. There is no incontrovertible evidence that Santa is a myth. I can stay up all night by the Christmas tree and confirm that a jolly fat man never leaves any presents there. I could set up a hidden camera to film my living room every night of the year while I sleep just to make sure that I have no surprise visitors from the chimney. This would not prove that he hadn’t visited other houses overnight; maybe he neglected mine because I was on the naughty list. Or maybe he retired because there’s too damn many people on this planet for him to deal with. I don’t know for sure, although at this point it seems safe to say, with greater than 99% confidence, that there does not exist a jolly old fat man with a long white beard who dresses in red velvet and flies around in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer at supersonic speeds once a year to deposit presents and fill stockings and eat cookies that may have been left lying around for him with an uncanny ability to determine the desires of each person he bestows presents upon. But again, he could just be retired.

So do I have proof that he does not exist? No, I don’t, just like I don’t have proof that God does not exist. Although at this point it seems safe to say, with greater than 99% confidence, that there does not exist a kind old man with a long white beard who lives in the heavens (but also has an invisible branch of Himself that is omnipresent on Earth) who created the Earth yet refuses to prove it and designed men and women and all creatures on Earth (including the extinct creatures who roamed the Earth far longer than 6,000 years ago even though that's when He created it) and got mad at all the people He created and so decided to kill all the ones who did not build a giant boat and allowed the one guy who did to live for 900 years and proceeded to have a love/hate, on-again-off-again relationship with all of humanity for a few thousand years before he got tired of being a vengeful God and decided to have supernatural sex with a random broad so she could bear His son whom He would summarily kill about 30 years later to atone for all of the sins that had ever occurred or would occur by invoking the law of the universe that states “if you’re a deity you can wipe out all the misdeeds of an entire race by killing your own son as long as you proceed to resurrect him three days later.” Also, He seems to like to put people who fuck little kids in positions of high esteem within His church. And I think he let a guy live inside a fish for a few days for some reason.

So, no, I can’t prove that this supernatural being doesn’t exist (although it is equally impossible for anyone but Him to prove that he does (which He oh so conveniently refuses to do)), so that is what atheists mean when they say that they’re technically agnostics. I don’t believe that God exists anymore than I believe that Santa exists, but since there is no proof of His non-existence that technically makes me agnostic.

Getting back to Santa, the world would be a much better place if he just replaced God entirely. Kids are naturally prone to misbehave, but they respond to rewards and punishment. That’s one of the few benefits that God provides. If we just had a secular Christmas every other month or so, we could do away with all this religion nonsense. Santa doesn’t require you to worship him or his reindeer, he just requires you to be well-behaved. Santa doesn’t encroach on your weekends (or any of your free time, for that matter). His only restrictions for what you can and cannot do is how it affects other people; as long as you’re not having a detrimental effect on others, you can do whatever the hell you want as far as Santa is concerned. You can masturbate and have sex whenever and however and with whoever you please, given that you don’t harm anyone else in the process. He’ll even let you be gay if you want.

The best thing about Santa? No one ever thought he wanted them to kill anyone. No one ever started a war because they favored Santa over the Easter Bunny. No one has ever committed jihad in order to punish those that don’t believe in Santa. No one has ever killed others for living on a piece of the North Pole that Santa promised them. You know what people do in the name of Santa? Nice things. If we’re going to believe in a fictional character to influence our behavior, let’s at least pick a good one. I nominate Santa for the office of God.

4 comments:

  1. Hmm, where to begin?
    If there is no heaven or afterlife, how do you explain all the stories of NDEs (near death experiences)?
    Do we who try to obey God really only do it b/c we're afraid of spankings?
    Don't the teachings of Jesus have as much to do with life on earth as the hereafter?
    Can you give some of us credit for not expecting an ancient document to be a modern textbook? Or thinking that people are responsible for the bad things they do?
    If you substitute Santa for God, how long do you think it would take for soldiers to wear red uniforms?

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  2. Taking your questions point by point:

    -The simplest explanation for near death experiences is that the brain does not operate normally when it is deprived of oxygen (which happens when the heart stops pumping blood up there) which causes hallucinations. For people to have memories of the time while they were briefly “dead,” their brain would have to still be functioning on some level in order to store those memories, but it clearly doesn’t function at an optimal level.
    -If by “spankings” you mean “Hell” then yes, absolutely. Without the idea of consequences, either here or in the afterlife, the major religions would cease to exist. The idea that people adhere to a religion for reasons other than trying to affect their own life is absurd. It’s the only way to justify all the bullshit that occurs in the name of religion--”it’s God’s will.” Why would you worship a being who is a complete jerk by today’s moral standards unless you had come to accept that they made the rules, so you have no choice but to do as they please or risk going to Hell for eternity?
    -Sort of. Behavioral direction for life on earth is directly tied to their consequences in the hereafter. So, yes, Jesus was teaching about living on earth, but those teachings were tied to what God considers a “good” life worthy of entrance into Heaven.
    -Sure, I’ll give you credit for not taking the Bible literally because it’s obviously full of a bunch of questionable material and the world would be full of even more senseless behavior than it already is if all Christians took the Bible literally. However, this is the only book officially licensed by the man upstairs, which should imply that 1) He approves of its contents and 2) it carries more weight than anything else in the world in regards to Christianity. You can attribute its fallibility to the fact that it was written by man, but it’s still the foundation of Christianity.
    -I don’t really recommend substituting anything for God. I was just using Santa as an alternative for getting kids to behave. I do, however, find it interesting that Santa is closer to an ideal god than any of the religious gods we’ve created.

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  3. A note on the topic of NDEs. The exact same phenomena reported by the experiencers of NDEs are reported by astronauts, fighter jet pilots, scientists, etc. when they are subjected to high G forces (as in a centrifuge or hard-turning aircraft). This forces the blood and therefore oxygen supply from the brain, which, as Kyle suggests above, seems to also be the cause of NDEs.

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