Wouldn’t It Be Nice? Jonathan Samuelson

Jonathan Samuelson received $1,000 for his second-place winning essay in the 2007 FFRF high school essay contest.

Jonathan, a recent graduate of Tarpon Springs High School, plans to attend Johns Hopkins University to study Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. He would like to someday work in the field of cryptography. Jon’s other interests include community service, philosophy, martial arts, and violin.

By Jonathan Samuelson

The power of religion lies in the comfort it lends to its followers. In the first place, fear of death is universally shared. Death, in Shakespeare’s words that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns,” is an unknown and therefore terrifying prospect. Most of us would prefer something, anything, to the bleak idea of utter annihilation–a concept that by its very nature a sentient mind is unable to grasp. The traditional Heaven is the alternative, a place where our unnoticed kindnesses are recognized and the labor that consumes much of our lives rewarded, a place where we can be reunited with those who have departed for it too soon and spend eternity together in bliss. For the self-righteous, the idea of “Heaven” implies a “Hell” also, where wrongdoers and those who interpret religion differently are punished for eternity by the proverbial lake of fire.

Of course, people cannot be sorted into heaven and hell unless there is someone to do the sorting. There must be a God in charge, and who better than the one who created the universe and humankind in the first place? For something, so far as we know, cannot come from nothing, and the infinite variations of nature are clearly the work of the all-powerful architect of creation (nature’s beauty, therefore, can be marveled at as an insight into the mind of its creator rather than the convergence of mutagenic chemicals, random variations of genetic code, and the perfectly logical tendency of the most fit organisms to survive and reproduce). Such a being is powerful and formidable beyond belief–how best to gain his favor? The idea of an amoral or immoral god is a terrifying one. The only comforting answer is that we will be rewarded for doing what is right.

What, then, is the right thing to do? Fortunately, God has left instructions. Unfortunately, there are several different and frequently conflicting sets of instructions left by many different Gods, each of whom denies the existence of the others and promises posthumous punishment for observing their rules. This conundrum, however, can be neatly sidestepped by asserting a blind faith in whichever set one has been brought up to follow: coincidentally, each god considers faith to be the highest of virtues. Thus, each set of beliefs conveniently comes with its own justification and promise of reward. Such systems of belief provide a stark, comforting order in the midst of a seemingly chaotic world.

But what about the beliefs that you object to? In the civilized world at least, the days are past when one was forced to completely accept a religion. Now one can take advantage of the myriad of branches that each religion has split into. The Catholic church differs from the Orthodox church which differs from the Protestant church which itself is split into innumerable different branches. Practices and religious laws also vary from country to country and even regionally within those countries. If none of the existing interpretations works you can simply disregard whichever ones you like: religious texts are written so uncleariy and mistranslated and edited so much that one can simply say “this part is metaphorical”or “this part was added by biased religious leaders.” Or, one can escape the fundamentalism and ignorance of conventional religion by the often-heard assertion: “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.” By picking and choosing the beliefs one already agrees with, the comfort religion provides can be retained while the parts one disagrees with can be eliminated without challenging preconceived notions.

Given the confusion over the multitudes of interpretations that a supposedly universal set of beliefs has, it seems ridiculous to even attempt to gain an understanding of ethics through religion. The logical missteps and circular reasoning are almost comical: the bible is truth because God says so; we know what God says by reading the bible. Blind faith is the virtue by which we accept other virtues, but those who have blind faith in the wrong set of beliefs will be punished for eternity. Is this any way to determine a code of ethics? Of course not. The entire concept of religion exists to alleviate fears that every person has; its moral backbone is a necessity that was added by its proponents to give it the credibility needed to be seen as any more than a pipe dream.

Many, however, seem to think that a code of ethics can only come from an all-knowing supreme being. After all, it makes sense that only the omnipotent and omniscient could be certain of right and wrong, given how easily philosophical positions can be swayed or challenged. The world is a complicated place, and it is easy to overlook crucial details that can invalidate an argument. Yet we have seen the confusion brought about by the supposed word of supreme beings. No amount of rationalizing can remove the impossibility of accepting religion in all its contradictory forms. Humankind needs a system of ethics; we must know right and wrong before we can act. Even if it is impossible for mere mortals to determine it for ourselves religion (whether the “word of God” or man’s interpretation of it) has been proven useless. We no longer have any choice but to attempt to separate right from wrong ourselves.

And why should it be impossible for humans to create a system of ethics? Civilization has existed for millennia in various degrees of barbarity. Children will be born, crops will be sown, and technology will improve even if our beliefs regress to the childlike mysticism of the ancient Egyptians or Babylonians. A system of ethics is absolutely crucial to the existence of any society and as long as we have any semblance of society we must at least be doing something right. The difficulty lies in determining what exactly that something is. Through rational debate and discourse we can ensure that different ideas are heard. By evaluating the effects of ethics on society (observe the inevitable collapse of totalitarian governments over time, or the fall of Rome after the corruption of many of its citizens and politicians) we can gauge their effectiveness. To err is human, and only by acknowledging errors (rather than crying “herey!” at the first sign of dissent) can we seek to improve what we have. It is possible, even probable, that no system we devise will be perfect, but by continuously improving what we have we can build a better world for ourselves and our children. Religion as a means of determining ethics has utterly failed us; the only path left open to us is to work together, use our minds, and figure it out for ourselves.

Freedom From Religion Foundation