Deconstructing religion and power by Barbara G. Walker

By Barbara G. Walker

The very first lesson that we learn in life is that we are utterly powerless. We can’t do anything for ourselves. If we feel the pangs of hunger, we can only cry until a mysteriously benevolent giant woman comes and puts us to her breast or to a bottle. If we are in pain, only a giant entity can relieve us.

Unlike those powerful ones, we can’t walk or talk or use our hands. We can see things we want but can’t reach them without help. We must lie in our own filth until someone cleans us. We can only cry and hope that the giants will be kind enough to attend to our needs. Usually they do, and then we smile.

Of course we can see here not only the prehistoric giants in every mythology, but also the genesis of all later deities, beginning with our human babyhood, when we are utterly dependent on others who are bigger, wiser, stronger and greater than ourselves. It also explains why the first and oldest deity in every early mythology is the Mother/Creatress, our first and oldest perception of any beneficent divinity and humanity’s most basic concept of the power to create life, which our primitive ancestors perceived as being embodied only in women.

Even before we learn to use words, we are keenly aware that vocal sounds are necessary to gain the attention of our caretakers. From the first instant of birth, we wail our protest against our sudden traumatic expulsion from our peaceful intrauterine Eden. In the infant’s instinctive cries we can see the original rationale of prayer: When you make sounds that the powerful ones can hear, you get their cooperation.

On this simple concept are based all the magical formulae, addresses, appeals, charms, blessings and curses, invocations and evocations of all religious traditions, plus the incredibly arrogant belief that the universe has supreme powers willing and able to pay attention and obey our tiny human vocalizations. It gives us a completely false sense of our own importance, as well as an equally false conviction of our ability to influence nature.

Like babies, we feel ourselves to be at the center of everything. Adding to the foolishness of this concept, we postulate deities whose works are eternal and unalterable, then imagine that our individual wishes have the power to alter them. When the prayers don’t work, of course we must invent excuses: It wasn’t God’s will, or we are too sinful, or some demon thwarted us, or we didn’t use the right words. Never is it suggested that there aren’t any divine ears listening in the first place.

To make nature amenable to our whims, we humans invent thousands of humanlike intelligences supposedly in charge of events, so we can make things happen the way we want them to happen. We can talk to spirits of the sun, the moon, the stars, trees, crops, animals, ghosts, land and sea, night and day, health and sickness, luck and fortune, life and death, good and evil; everything has its animating force subject to human influence.
In our self-centered fear of our own impotence, we love to imagine ourselves able to induce these entities to obey our will. We may wrap them all up in a single package and call it Goddess or God, a being willing to change the course of events to take care of our every need (even though, paradoxically, S/He has already established it unalterably for all time).

How pathetic we are, thinking so highly of ourselves in a universe far more vast then we can even begin to imagine, mostly unknown, and certainly unhuman. Power — how desperately we wish to claim it, and how little we actually have.

Submit, or else

Over the centuries, some of the cannier members of the human community found ways to achieve genuine power over their fellows, by exploiting naive beliefs for their own incomes and social prestige. Shamans, witches, sorcerers, mystics, priests, and other “spiritually enlightened” pretenders have made a living off the laity for thousands of years, sometimes providing genuine help but more often insisting on meaningless, symbolic rituals in return for their upkeep. Once the believer is convinced of the necessity for ritual, its practice can develop exponentially, as shown by today’s international religious corporations, busily convincing each new generation that it must continue the customs forever — or else!

The imagined consequences of apostasy become correspondingly more dire: apocalypse, world doom, eternities of torture in hell. Fear of abandonment is the major driving force for the power claimed by religion — the same fear that haunts a helpless baby, knowing in his inner mind that if left alone, he will die.

Unfortunately, religious authorities’ lust for power is not satisfied merely by comforting the believer; it requires much more. Its endless greed insists on the conversion of ever-increasing numbers. Its hatred is fueled against those who refuse to believe, or believe differently. When supplied with temporal power to wage war against the so-called infidel, it does so with enthusiastic abandon. The atrocities committed in religious warfare and persecutions are the most numerous and most vicious in all of human history. While prating of love, many religions actually preach hatred — against the nonbeliever, the sinner, the pagan, the unconverted heathen, the wrong race or the wrong sex, which has been the female sex ever since the advent of monotheistic patriarchy.

The God of the Old Testament, even having supposedly said “Thou shalt not kill,” insisted on literally millions of massacres throughout all of his “sacred” books. The same God still insists on infidel destruction today, via the Quranic tradition that affirms it.
Today, the destructive lust for power that fuels both politics and religion has created a worldwide danger, a possible route to a real and final dissolution of the human race. We must do away with religion’s false beliefs and recognize our dependence on one another rather than on imaginary deities. We must admit that, as far as we are ever likely to know, we are alone in the universe and must take better care of the only planet on which we can live. Ultimately, our survival may depend on realistic recognition of our powerlessness, so that we can use our brains to better advantage and achieve real improvements in our lot as a species.

Science, not religion, gives us a power that is useful, and does not foster ignorance or hatred. May we soon transcend our spiritual infancy and grow up.

Barbara G. Walker is the author of Belief and Unbelief, Man Made God, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Feminist Fairy Tales, et al.

Freedom From Religion Foundation