Drawing the Line at Religion: Charles Cheves

By Charles Cheves

I enjoyed reading Steven Pinker’s convention speech (Jan/Feb 05), and thought I might add a few comments concerning religion as a human universal.

When I was a law student at the University of Florida many years ago, I signed up for a summer school course called “Jurisprudence,” which was a survey of the relationship between the law and other disciplines, particularly philosophy. The course was taught by a brilliant visiting professor from Rutgers named Thomas Cowan.

One day Professor Cowan drew a large pyramid upside down on the blackboard. Pointing to the bottom where the lines intersected, he said it represented the human brain at birth, empty of all knowledge. Raising his hand between the diverging sides of the figure, he said that as a person grows older, more and more knowledge is acquired. This process can continue until death, the scope and degree of acceleration depending upon an individual’s education, level of intelligence, and continued intellectual curiosity.

At some point, Cowan told us, most folks find this continual expansion of knowledge and effort to comprehend life’s questions frustrating and burdensome, because it contradicts common perceptions, necessitates constantly opening the mind to new ideas and concepts, and can interfere with relationships and career. Drawing a horizontal line across the open end of the pyramid, Cowan said that most folks find it convenient, easier, even necessary, to stop this natural process, and frequently do so by capping it off with religious faith, a concept in which they have been indoctrinated from an early age. Of course, drawing the line may only be the natural result of mental laziness or slowness, but frequently it is a conscious decision.

My own parents were a fairly representative example of this phenomenon. They were raised in deeply religious families. They were college graduates, reasonably intelligent, a teacher and a school administrator. Busy with demanding jobs, parenting, and community activities, they did not follow up their formal educations at church-affiliated Georgia colleges by reading the classics, biography and history. They had no exposure to philosophy.

In the Georgia and Alabama towns where they lived, regular church attendance and participation as deacon and Sunday school teachers were expected of them, and almost certainly were a prerequisite for employment in the public school system. They were undoubtedly as mentally capable of intellectual expansion as I have been, but it was simply impractical, if not impossible, and certainly much easier and more convenient to substitute religious faith for intellectual curiosity.

From the earliest days of human existence, for hundreds of thousands of years, religion was the only way to explain natural phenomena. From the time Western civilization emerged from the dark ages, an era completely dominated by religious fantasy and superstition, organized religion has fought a determined delaying action against the advancement of scientific knowledge.

The fight continues today, with the help of politicians who are either sincerely religious, evil hypocrites, or unscrupulous frauds. Only a couple of centuries ago, our intelligent, educated founding fathers were religious, deists at least, believing in a creator, because no Darwin had come along to explain evolution. Obstacles to rational thought about religion have only begun to be reduced during the last 150 years or so of human history, a relatively insignificant period of time, and they are still formidable.

Religion, born of ignorance and superstition, still offers a powerful carrot/stick approach via life after death and heaven vs. hell. Why should we be surprised that religion is so deeply embedded in our culture, or that humans find it extremely difficult to consider religion rationally? Rational thought on the subject certainly has never been encouraged by our public education system, and will not be in the foreseeable future.

I’m not even certain how I managed to think my way out of the religious morass in which I was raised. Somewhere along the line, as I read, thought, and confronted legal concepts and life’s problems, it just didn’t make sense any more. Without suggesting that I am unusually bright, I do believe that I and all those who have rejected religion as a superstitious fraud are probably smarter than average. We are lucky.

As a lawyer in private practice with my own firm, nobody could fire me because I publicly rejected religion, and I even had some deeply religious clients whose appreciation for success in court outweighed concerns for my lost soul. I didn’t have to draw Professor Cowan’s line. I respect those for whom rational views may involve risks but follow them anyhow. I congratulate those who were lucky enough to be raised by intelligent, rational atheists who helped them penetrate the fog of ignorance.

Charles Cheves, a retired attorney, has been a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation since 1984.

Freedom From Religion Foundation