Thursday, April 9, 2009

On Religion: Public and Personal Utility

(This was posted in response to ongoing discussion of religion at a discussion group I attend on Tuesday Nights)

We seem to talk about religion,in our group, far more than any other subject (interesting, since from what I gather none of us belongs to any religious belief system) and it has me spending a lot of my leisure time (haha) thinking about religion and solidifying my personal opinions about it.  
I have to start by admitting that I view religion from a fairly utilitarian point of view. I believe that it is a tool, and that, like any other tool, it has the potential to be used for good or bad means and that its proper value resides in whether or not it provides greater or lesser happiness for the individuals who use it or are used by it.  
In my observations of religion and its uses I have come to believe a few major ideas: 1)that religion's usefulness is individually determined and inseparable from the particular individual's thinking processes and experiences (and therefore incapable of being universally useful). 2)that religion serves as an effective tool for protection of and from "the masses," and 3)that religion serves as an important component of deriving 'happiness' and 'meaning' in the lives of many individuals.  
First, and perhaps most important to the members of our little group, it is important to acknowledge that there is no religion that has, or will likely ever, appeal or work for every person. Like most mass-marketed items and ideas, religion is a thing that must, necessarily, be marketed to the mass of people. It is meant to appeal to the largest numbers of people and therefore should target those of average intelligence, habits, curiosities, tastes, and vices. No successful religion would ever market itself to exceptionally independent,eccentric, determined, intelligent, and thoughtful individuals... these people are impossible to cater to as a group because they (we) are impossible to predict and convince and have such disparate and often eclectic interests that the singular argument/scenario that would possibly work for one would completely miss the mark for each other one.  Beyond that, the self-motivated and intellectual individual is also not the target audience of religion because it would not even be useful to succeed in capturing our devotion.  
Which brings us to 2)The primary usefulness of religion, to society, is to create a set of guidelines and ethos that are simple, clear, and protect/endorse the values and mores of the society/community as a whole. The reason it is useful, and I believe necessary, to have such a clear set of guidelines for "the masses" is because they are unwilling or incapable of taking the time and exerting the effort necessary to understand and clarify the difference between "right" and "wrong" for themselves.  
We (the thinkers), on the other hand, are quite willing and insistent that we figure these things out on our own and are pretty much never going to violate the common principles of society (by raping, murdering, stealing, beating or otherwise violating others) in any way that will harm the community as a whole (though we might get kinky as often as possible ;) ). "The masses," on the other hand, without some sort of black and white list of do's and dont's, can often be counted on to act foolishly, selfishly, and without foresight. They will often act out of a desire for instant gratification and without consideration of the far-reaching effects their actions might reap. This is where church comes in.  
There are many areas of life which law (rightfully, in my opinion) does not intrude. Law does not tell us how to teach and raise our children, law does not tell us how to treat our neighbors, our families, or ourselves. Law does not explain "why" it is wrong to murder, rape, or steal. Law does not act as the larger parent of the community-- the church assumes that role. And as the larger community parent I believe religion is very useful and good-- as long as its powers and influences are not abused.  
Last, I believe that religion serves a very useful and positive role in the lives of billions of people the world over. In the individual practice and ritual of religious faith, most believers find a sense of comfort and meaning that seems irreplaceable and (I believe) worthy of admiration. While religion, as a political entity, may have been the frame of extreme cruelty and mass murder, I think it has been the source of the greatest quantity of individual happiness and satisfaction in the history of its existence. 
For the mass of its adherents, religion is the friend they can rely on when they face their darkest humiliations and most painful afflictions, religion is the parent they run to when they are suffering and afraid, it is the shelter they depend on when they are feeling alone and confused, it is the mentor they turn to for wisdom and advice on facing the hardships and losses of living, and religion is the singular hope that sustains them when they face the death of a loved one or of their own impending mortality.  
While many people, such as we, may not need the solace and guidance of God or faith, it is apparent that the majority of humans desire to have it and thrive under religion's certainty and structure.  
Perhaps the need for religion IS stupidity, cowardice, laziness, or insanity. I would like to think, though, that it is not. I prefer to believe that the desire to have faith in God or religion is simply a symptom of the natural human desire to explain things that seem inexplicable, to justify the hurts and injustices that life will always mete out, and find a dependable source of comfort and undying love, even if the whole world seems to be against you.  
So, I feel that religion is useful and good, in the end. I believe that, for the people it works for, it produces far more happiness than unhappiness. I believe it is a useful tool to guide and contain 'the masses' and their whims, and most of all, I would hate to deny or lessen the personal happinesses it brings to individuals who need it and use it in their lives.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

My Father and Religion

My father has been very ill since mid-November.  He first had pneumonia (for months) and finally got over it in late february and then suddenly devloped further breathing problems and found out that he had copious amounts of fluid surrounding his lungs and making it hard for him to breathe.  He was admitted to the hospital a few weeks ago; they tried to drain the fluid but were unable to get all of it so they operated on him to get it all out.

He is now on the mend and is supposed to be released from the hospital friday or saturday.  They say he should recover completely and be back to his normal self.

This has been a difficult ordeal for all of us; my older brother has born the brunt of his care and I have been helpless to do anything since I am so far away.  His illness, though, has taught me a lot about myself and my feelings for my father.

For as long as I can remember, I believed that I didn't love my dad.  He is not a good person; he has hurt many people in his life, he is not kind, he has no empathy for anyone, is narcissistic, abusive, critical, a pedophile, sexist, racist, and downright mean.  My first nightmare, when I was young enough to be in a baby-bed, featured him as the boogey monster; killing my mom and brother so he could have me all to himself.  All of my nightmares as a child were a variation on that theme... always him, big and powerful, killing and torturing my loved-ones so he could have me.

For I was his favorite child, and he was very obvious about it.  And even though (or perhaps because) I was unattached and didn't like him, and my brother followed him around like an abused puppy, I was always his little princess and got (forced to endure) the mass of his affection.

As soon as I was able  to stop regular visitation with him I did.  I saw him as rarely as possible and believed that I didn't care about him at all.  In the past few years I have patiently listened as he talked for hours about nothing in particular, I saw him as much as my sense of daughterly duty required, and have basically provided the bare minimum of my time and thought.  I have little anger for him, because I don't think he is capable of being a better person than he is, no expectations that he will change, and very little bitterness about what I should have had from him as a father.  All of those things would do nothing to change the past and would only make me unhappy if I were to hang onto them.

And I always thought it would not bother me when he eventually died; until January when he thought he had lung cancer.  When he told me that news I cried for hours, I was sad for days, and preoccupied with his loss for the months since then.  Whether or not I actually LOVE him, he is a huge part of my life.  I can't actually imagine the world without him in it, and I have come to realize that I will lose a part of myself when he is gone.

There is nothing for me to do now except be as good of a daughter to him as I can be.  To listen without reproof when he advises me, counsel him to forget about petty worries and concentrate on getting better, pretend to follow his wisdom, and tell him that I know he did his best for both of his children.

Because, I feel sorry for this man.  The only good I know of that he has brought to this world is the children he created and the children we have produced.  He has lived as a selfish and mean person and is alone because of it.  He has hurt, even destroyed, other people and I'm sure that he is now regretting his bad deeds.  He knows he is nearing the end of his life and he is very much alone in his suffering.

Many might say he deserves this suffering, and more.  Perhaps he does, but it is still hard to see. And now he is finding God and I hope he is finding comfort in it... I hope he will come to peace with what he has and has not done and end his life in comfort.

And this is what I believe religion is for on a personal level.  It is a vehicle for finding comfort and meaning throughout the hardships of life and in the yawning endlessness of death.  I do not have religion or it's comfort, but I hope that Lily will possess the faith I cannot find.  I believe that religion, or belief in God, makes people happier and that the happiness it brings to individuals is reason enough to support its being.

For that is what is important in life... happiness.  We all look for it and will hopefully find it during our time here on earth.  I know that many people cite the cruelty and war that has historically been wrought by religious fanatacism as a reason for religion to be done away with.  I know that religion has been the cause of more death and destruction than any other source in history... but I would say that it was not relion that caused such wrong-doing, but rather a fanatacism that can be attached to any belief, any cause.

I have personally seen faith as a mostly good influence in the lives of my friends and family.  It is, for them, a source of strength and satisfaction.  I would not want to see that taken away from them any more than I would want to be forced to lie and say I have faith when I have none.