Elayne Riggs' Journal (for Leah)

Saturday, April 07, 2007

On the Evolution of Religion

This is my contribution to the Blog Against Theocracy blogswarm, or blogburst, or whatever the kids are calling it these days.

Tomorrow is Easter, a pagan festival dedicated to the great mother goddess, or goddess of fertility, depending on whence the people of the moment hailed. It's also the one time in four years when the calendars of five major Christian faiths, all of whom mark the day as the time when Jesus was resurrected, coincide with one another. In addition, Passover is still being celebrated; I know this because The Ten Commandments is on TV as I type (a terrific story even given the utter lack of historical evidence for any basis in truth). Also, there's a bunch of matzoh in the house. And I'm sure people more familiar with Islam and with Asian religions can cite other festivals of faith going on now.

And all of this has always fascinated me, the way different human beings all have different myths to explain the unknowable, to give comfort in hard times, and to celebrate with community the changing of the seasons and years. Of particular interest is the similar stories that weave their way through different cultures (such as the uncanny correlations in rituals following a loved one's death between Judaism and Hinduism, the oldest major religion and the third largest in the world today) and evolve to suit the times (such as how much Christian celebrations appropriated from pagan festivals). Religion, like government, is an ever-changing aspect of our civilization.

But people who seek to use religion for their own gain count on adherents tend not to see things that way. And when they're successful, the result is not very good for many of those adherents. As The Truffle notes:
If you look at how theocracies are run, you notice that good works are not high on the list of priorities. Theocrats generally do not spread God's will by opening shelters for needy families. They do not collect clothes to give to poor people. They don't run soup kitchens or teach songs to kids. They don't publish religious story books. They don't do anything constructive or fun. No, theocrats spend a lot of time banning things and punishing people.
People who crave rule by religion have a very narrow, very myopic, and often very opposite interpretation of said religion than do the flocks of the faithful.

There are a lot of up-sides to community, but one of the down-sides is that they do often tend to react like sheep. (Not for nothing does the ovian motif keep cropping up in religious observances.) While there is strength in numbers, there's also a coresponding weakness, a desire to blend in with the crowd and not question traditions. But civilization, language, everything about us as humans is an ongoing, evolving thing. Nothing stays the same over time, and our relatively short individual lifespans can work against our understanding of this basic truism. Nothing is immutable. And yes, two millennia or six or more is a good run for a belief system, but it's a blink of an eye in the overall cosmic scheme of things.

Ordinarily I wouldn't mind so much if people can't accept that. It's a lot to absorb, and if it goes against what one has been taught for much of one's life it's no wonder so many can't grasp it. But when "my religion is immutable" turns into "and therefore its precepts are the only ones that are true and I must make everyone follow them, by force if necessary," that's where I have major problems.

Our government is set up to prevent the tyranny of the majority. I have never been a member of a majority religion, nor am I ever likely to be. My religion is, for me, usually a private matter between me and my deity of choice. I am as uncomfortable with public spectacles and displays of religion as I am with public displays of jingoism. It all reminds me just a bit too much of Leni Riefenstahl films. It's bad enough that so much of what's going on in the US now is reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s; I don't need self-appointed religious leaders acting like that too.

Besides, I'm not all that enamored of any religion that relegates women, half the population, to second-class status. And unfortunately that's most of the major religions operating in this country today. Including the one into which I was born.

Recommended so far: blog posts against theocracy by Tristero's series and Terrance at Pam's House Blend. To find out more about how to get involved to keep private religious matters separate from the public sphere where folks of many beliefs -- and no beliefs -- have to work together, visit First Freedom First.