Saturday, September 21, 2013

Religion: America's Drug of Choice

by Alex Romeo

In a recent post, Dr. Stephan T. Mayo explores the implications of Marx’s belief that religion functions as a kind of opiate, preventing the masses from changing society for the better by getting them to fixate on their future lives in heaven. Mayo, like many academic philosophers, feels compelled to offer a “fair and balanced” position on religion that avoids offending the delicate sensibilities of any believers who might read his piece.

I am not a “professional” philosopher, so, thankfully, I am under no such constraints. I’m a proud activist and an even prouder atheist. And in my mind, it is precisely my atheism that makes me so effective as a catalyst for social change.

There was a time, however, when I wasn’t quite so clear about my position on religion as I am now. As a na├»ve philosopher major at NYU, I dabbled at one point or another during my college years with most of the world’s major religions. I even had a stint as a Christian, having been persuaded by a classmate that I had the hots for to get involved for a year with the Catholic Worker movement in Manhattan.

But by my senior year I had been immersed in the ideas of Marxism and anarchism and had begun to realize that political activism was my true calling. After senior year, I moved into an anarchist community and began to work with other like-minded friends to change the unjust social structures in our society that condemn millions of Americans to lives of poverty, deprivation, and despair.

After ten years of doing this type of work, I can tell you without any hesitation, that the greatest enemy of social change is religion. Faith in an all-powerful, all-knowing God, and faith in the existence of some warm and fuzzy afterlife induces a kind of intellectual and moral inertia in the hearts and minds of believers that makes them simply incapable of acting collectively to fight against social and economic injustice.

Now, I’m not even talking here about mindless evangelic types, like the ones we have occupying most of the southern portion of the United States. These are people whose religious faith has literally turned them into zombies, rejecting reason, science, and most of the enlightened ideas of the past two centuries. These are people who dismiss climate change as some kind of liberal hoax, even though their communities have been hit hardest by droughts and wildfires that are directly attributed to climate change. And these are people who have placed their trust in the very right-wing politics that have driven them into the underclass.

I’m not talking about these types of believers who are, quite simply, beyond all hope and reason. I’m talking here about the average run-of-the-mill, everyday sort of believer. The kind of people who go to church or services on Sundays and who sincerely do their best to try to live according to the dictates of their own faith. These are not rabid reactionaries, racists, or homophobes. They’re decent, ordinary people, who feel badly about the poor and may even be involved in charitable activities, like working in soup kitchens or volunteering at homeless shelters.

They are the true enemy and need to be eradicated.

How can I say this, you might be wondering? Because the ordinary believers, no matter how compassionate they might seem, actually work against long-term progressive social change. They opt to engage in charity rather than activism, and aim at amelioration of unjust social structures rather than completely uprooting these unjust social structures And all their efforts do is perpetuate a status quo that has led to greater income inequality, worse working conditions for the poor and middle class, and the degradation of our planet’s fragile ecosystems.

This, I believe, is where Marx’s idea of religion as an opiate for the masses comes into play. The believer—by the very nature of his faith—is forced to see his ultimate destiny as transcending this world. This world is merely a way station on the journey to the believer’s true home—heaven. So no matter how committed the believers might be to social justice, there is always a limit to how far he is willing to go in his quest to fight for those who are the victims of injustice. Acts of charity are fine; political agitation and revolt is not. The very charity that stem from the believer’s faith act as a kind of opiate that eases the conscience of the believer (“At least I’m doing something.”), but at the same time prevents him from engaging in truly valuable forms of political activism (“That’s going too far for me”).

And, if things don’t work out quite so well in this world, the believer always has the consolation that the benevolent father-figure he calls God will make things turn out just fine in the next life.

In the end Marx was completely correct in his assessment of religious faith of all types. Once the idea of God is dead, and the delusion of an afterlife eliminated, then we have only this world to contend with. The fantasy world of the next life becomes just that—a fiction that I can contemptuously dismiss as a kind of insane temporary delusion.

In the end there is only one real choice: stay addicted to the opiate of religious belief and allow this world—my true and only home—to become a shithole, or I can work with others to change society and make it more just and humane.

What other option is there?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Examining Marx's Opiate of the People

Stephan T. Mayo
Professor of Philosophy
Molloy College
The great architect of the international workers revolution, Karl Marx, set out as an objective to critique all of the societal props that were, in his view, maintaining the Middle-class capitalist dominance over the oppressed and exploited working class. Religion stood high on his list as a mythical appeasement mechanism wielded by the ruling class over the workers. It functioned as “the opiate for the people,” a kind of drug that eased the harsh pangs of the underlying reality of their subsistent wages, social alienation and enslavement. Religion provided “pie in the sky when you die” so that worker disgruntlement under capitalism would not break out into revolt due to the fact that their sacrifice now would be rewarded in the afterlife. This notion that religion is merely a sop to tamp down the reality of harsh and emendable current conditions has recently made a comeback. Recent studies show that religious belief and practices are highest in the poorest and least technologically developed countries and that the more developed a country is the least religious is its population.  These trends have been used to support the Marxist critique of religion.

Theistic criticisms of the Marxist analysis accuse him of reduction of religious belief to one of its manifestations, thereby missing the true essence of religion. Rather than denying outright that religion has the psychologically comforting effect of ameliorating harsh economic conditions, many theists grant this consequence of religious belief.  However, that leaves standing the actual evidence and reasonableness of the theistic position. These would still be present even if religion were more psychologically disturbing and anxiety producing than an atheistic outlook, as many of the scrupulous can attest.

Using the analogy of patriotism, it is quite clear that the patriot enjoys positive emotions when singing anthems, saluting the flag, celebrating national holidays or listening to patriotic oratory. She could also be comforted that, despite her personal struggles in the current economy, her Nation is great and doing well. However, patriotism does not necessarily mean that one is an uncritical jingoist (“my country right or wrong”) One could remain loyal to the country while descrying the excesses of patriotic fervor and while being highly critical of one’s nation’s foreign or domestic policies. To draw the analogy, the religious need not make the comfort they draw from their faith to be the primary basis of it. To be an enlightened citizen one can appreciate the strengths of one’s nation and its promise while recognizing its failures and weaknesses. For the faithful the affirmation of their religion may recognize its evidential reasonableness while acknowledging the emotional excessiveness and irresponsible complacency for bad and emendable social conditions that many religious believers fall into.

Monday, September 9, 2013

A Different Sort of Wager

Michael S. Russo
Professor of Philosophy
Molloy College
I remember reading Pascal’s wager as a freshman in college.  Even back then I thought there was something cold and calculating about the argument.  After the extraordinary leap of logic that Anselm makes in his ontological argument and the majestic cosmological vision of Thomas Aquinas’ five ways, Pascal’s wager seemed like a middle class banker’s approach to the question of God’s existence.  I wish that I could say that Pascal’s argument has grown on me over time, but, if anything, I hate the argument even more now than I did as a freshman. 
Let’s start with a brief summary of what Pascal claims are our options with respect to belief in the existence of God: 

Our first option, he says, is to assume that God exists and live our lives accordingly (i.e., with as much faith, hope, and love as we can muster).  If God does exists, says Pascal, we’ve won the big prize—eternal life with him in heaven; if he doesn’t exist, on the other hand, nothing much is lost.   

The second option is to live our lives assuming God doesn’t exist.  If, in fact, he doesn’t, then there’s no problem.  But there’s also the possibility that God does exist, and he may not take kindly to those who have rejected him (Just think about how hot the fires of hell must be and how interminably long they’ll last….Yikes!).   

According to Pascal, the sensible betting man, then, will always choose option 1 (belief in God), since the rewards for belief are great and the penalty for unbelief is too horrible to even consider.   

In an attempt to show where Pascal goes wrong, I’d like to offer my wager-like argument.  My wager makes the exact opposite point of Pascal’s, but I think that it stands up much better than the French logician’s argument does.    

Once again, let’s assume we have two options:  (1) believe in God and live out our lives with faith and devotion or (2) reject the belief in God and live out our lives as atheists.   

Let’s start with the second option first.  If we reject belief in God as a silly superstition of a bygone era, there are certainly consequences to holding this belief, as Pascal maintains.  But what exactly are those consequences?  If God doesn’t exist, then we are free to live out our lives with enlightened self-interest.  There would be no rules we would be forced to follow, except those leading to our own happiness and the happiness of those we love, no transcendent commands hanging over our heads, no life lived in fear of damnation.   Certainly, all this will come to an end with death, but at least while we’re alive we’d actually be living, instead of postponing our ultimate happiness to the next life.  And our lives would probably be a heck of a lot more fun while we’re here, because we’re living for ourselves instead of in observance of some antiquated religious precepts.   

But what if God does exist and we’ve opted not to believe in him?  Isn’t the danger involved in this choice so great that it is best to be avoided at all costs?  That may be true, but only if we believe in a very nasty and vindictive sort of God—a petty potentate who punishes his followers who fail to acknowledge his greatness by unceasing acts of submission and groveling.  Is that the kind of God who really can claim the title “Supreme Being”?  He certainly doesn’t sound all that supreme to me.  I like to think that a Supreme Being, if he does in fact exist, would be at least as moral as the most moral human being imaginable—a Gandhi or an Albert Schweitzer, for example.  It’s hard to imagine our most moral human being behaving like a petty potentate when he encounters those who refuse to acknowledge his greatness.  Rather, our most moral human being would probably respond to resistance the way a bemused parent does towards difficult children—with tolerance, sympathy, and, ultimately, forgiveness.  So, if our God is actually more like Gandhi than Benito Mussolini, the consequences for not believing in him—if we are following our consciences, at least—would probably not be all that horrible.   

Now back to the first option: we opt to believe in God.  If he exists, there seems to be no problem—no problem, that is, if he really is the petty potentate who demands obedience, even at the cost of the conscience of his followers.  That sort of God would certainly reward blind faith.  But again, let’s imagine that our God is at least as moral as the most moral human being that we can imagine.  Would such a superior being reward his followers for believing in him and groveling over him out of fear, or ignorance, or the desire for reward?  I think not.  In fact, if our God were at least as enlightened as the most moral human being he would probably respect the conscientious atheist much more than the groveling sycophant who simply is covering his bets in order to reap the big reward (eternal life in heaven).  

Finally, let’s say we believe in God and he doesn’t really exist.  Pascal would say that this is no problem really, because we’d still be living a much more moral and decent life than the non-believer.  But one could argue that possessing faith in the absence of a legitimate object of faith is the height of folly.  You’d be wasting much of your life praying, going to services, doing devotions, and following commands, duties, and obligations that don’t make any sense in the absence of our petty potentate-like God.  Even if you only spend three hours a week engaged in worship and acts of service—and this would seem to be the bare minimum amount that any serious deity desiring the devotion of his followers would expect—that would mean that you’ve spent 11,520 hours over the course of your life focused on appeasing a being who doesn’t actually exist.  In that amount of time just imagine all the wonderful things that you could have been doing instead—spending more time with family and friends, enjoying nature, working to make the world you live in a better place, or just sleeping an extra 42 minutes a day (some people would kill to have that extra time in bed!). 

Now, I am certainly not arguing that God doesn’t exist; nor am I arguing that the life of an atheist makes more sense than that of a believer.  The point of this exercise is to show that if we opt to follow Pascal and use a wager-type approach to religious belief, the argument for unbelief is as strong—if not stronger—than that for belief.  In the end, the gambler’s approach to matters of faith is as foolish an exercise as playing roulette by always putting all your chips on black rather than red, because you’ve heard that black has a higher probability of winning than red.  Even if you do win in the end, the experience of playing this sort of game is simply not all that much fun.  If, however, you actually derive some deep satisfaction from the act of gambling itself, if you leave a casino feeling like you life has a greater meaning and purpose, than by all means continue to gamble.   

Of course, my analogy here is that religious faith makes sense if it brings greater meaning, purpose, and happiness to one’s life.  And this is true regardless of whether or not God exists.  So believe and enjoy, believe and find peace, but please, don’t believe simply to hedge your bets.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

On the Existence of God

Michael S. Russo
Professor of Philosophy
Molloy College
As a young student of philosophy, I remember reading St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument and being simply amazed by the majesty and elegance of his “proof” for the existence of God.    “The being greater than which none can be conceived”—That’s Anselm’s idea of God, and the reality of this being is so self-evident that one would have to be an utter fool to think that God does not exist.  Anselm’s argument is, in fact, so elegant that, as an 18 year old, I could only think, “That’s it, man.  All questions about God’s existence now must be put to rest.”
But as the years passed, I changed—as young men always do—and my certainty about the existence of a Supreme Being like the one Anselm talks about became somewhat less certain. 
I imagine that if I were living in Europe in the 11th century, I really would have had to be a fool not to believe that the universe was governed by an all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing God.  Go to any town in just about any country in Europe today and the first thing you will see, rising above all the other buildings and smack in the center of town, is a massive church or cathedral of some sort.  And when you walk inside one of these European churches, you can’t help but be impressed by their scale: these are simply monstrous buildings that aim at inspiring awe and devotion in anyone who enters them.
In the 11th century, when Anselm lived, just about every aspect of life was centered around the Church and on religious practices and devotions.  In every country there were mystics and saints who claimed to have experienced the vision of God and, as a result, were given incredible spiritual gifts to reward their faith.  Medieval Europe, in short, was a God-centered place where miracles abounded, and you truly would have to be a fool not to believe that there was a pretty powerful God behind everything.
But we’re not living in the Middle Ages any more.  We’re living in the 21st century and are products of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution of the 20th century.  We have alternative narratives now that do a pretty good job explaining the origin and nature of the universe.   God, it would seem is no longer needed to account for why we are here (evolution does that) and where we are ultimately heading (the answer:  biological decomposition).
Now there are those—evangelicals and religious conservatives, in particular—who seem to have made it their mission to reject any and all scientific evidence that contradicts the “sacred truths” they read in the Bible.  For these men and women the existence of God is as self-evident today as it was in the 11th century.  And , if scientific fact disputes any “truths” contained in Sacred  Scripture, then the answer is to reject science rather than attempt to understand Scripture in a less literalistic light.   
No, the existence of God can by no means be considered self-evidently true any longer, and we must acknowledge that modern science does provide us with a quite plausible way to explain reality without bringing the idea of God into the discussion.  But that doesn’t mean that the belief in God’s existence is unreasonable.  There is nothing logically contradictory about believing that the universe was created by an all-powerful being, who has existed for all eternity, and who, for one reason or another, is interested in the well-being of puny creatures like ourselves.   A contemporary scientist might find this idea implausible, but, if he were truly objective, he would be forced to acknowledge that God’s existence, at the very least, is not completely and totally outside the realm of possibility.
I prefer to treat the question of God’s existence with a healthy balance of skepticism and openness.   We ought to be skeptical about religious beliefs for the same reason that we ought to be skeptical about all truth claims—because there is a heck of a lot of nonsense in our world that is being passed off as “objective” or “eternal” truth and we ought to be suspicious of it all.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t at the same time be open to the possibility that such “truths” could actually turn out to be quite true.  
“Skepticism + openness.”   That should be the philosopher’s motto.  And, when it comes to religious questions like the existence of God, that same motto should be our guide and our yardstick.   “God exists;” “God doesn’t exist.”  Show me the evidence for either proposition and then let’s argue about this point the way real philosophers should: passionately, objectively, and, preferably, over a nice cold pint of beer.