terça-feira, 31 de maio de 2011

Why I am not a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist

by Peter Meyer

Why I am not a Christian

I was born in a nominally Christian country, and at an early age attended "Sunday school", where well-meaning people tried to indoctrinate me in the Christian religion. It never made any sense to me.

My parents were not religious. My mother occasionally attended church because she had a good voice and liked to sing in the choir. As I recall, my father never set foot in a church except for the occasional wedding. My paternal grandfather had no time for religion, but my paternal grandmother was a devout Protestant. When I was about nine years old she gave me books with many pictures illustrating biblical themes. Being a curious lad I read these, but they made no great impression on me. My grandmother died when I was thirteen and her religious influence upon me, such as it was, promptly ceased. Thus the religious indoctrination of children by their parents, which warps the minds and blights the lives of so many innocent children, was not practiced upon me as a child, thank God.

The nearest church to where we lived (in a large city) was just down the road — it was a Methodist church (though even now I have no idea of what distinguishes Methodists from, say, Presbyterians, and really couldn't care less). Since it was the closest, I was sent (at a young age) to church there each Sunday, until at the age of twelve I announced that I wasn't going anymore. My mother was only slightly scandalized, and after a token objection said no more about it. My father only smiled at my announcement and, I suppose, felt pleased that his son was no fool.

Thereafter I had only the usual exposure to Christianity that anyone coming of age in a modern, largely secular, Western society has. The occasional visit at the front door by a Jehovah's Witness, earnestly seeking to save my soul, produced in me only disdain for that sect. I did feel a yearning for spiritual truth but found nothing satisfying in Christianity, except in the writings of the Christian mystics, in particular, Meister Eckhart (who was regarded as a heretic by the Catholic Church in his time). But the more I learnt of Christian doctrine the less that religion appealed to me (not that it ever did), and I can truthfully say that I was never a Christian.

A good word, however, should be put in for some forms of art of a Christian nature. Renaissance Italian art is full of Christian scenes, and much of the music of J.S.Bach (e.g., his St. Matthew Passion and his exquisitely beautiful Cantata BWV82, "Ich habe genug") has explicit Christian content. But, of course, the beauty of the art created within a particular religious context does not imply the truth of the doctrines of that religion. The artists would have created their art with or without benefit of religion, provided that they were not prevented from doing so by political repression (as happened in Stalinist Russia).

Unfortunately much of Christian art consists of depicting the sufferings and agony of Jesus on the Cross. This reflects the obsession of Christianity with the Crucifixion, so much so that Osho referred contemptuously to Christianity as "Crosstianity". The obsession with "our sins" having been "washed away by the Blood of the Lamb" would be regarded as evidence of a serious mental illness in an individual within any sane society, but when this is an obsession of millions of people it becomes "religious faith", held by many others (curiously) to be something that should never be criticized.

My (fortunately) few conversations with Christians about their faith usually left me with the impression that (a) it was desperately important to them for some reason that others shared their beliefs and (b) that they were insane. Their favorite strategy is to assume that the Bible is literally true, and then justify their beliefs because "God says so in the Bible". If so, God contradicts himself, as in the inconsistencies in the Gospels regarding the birthplace and ancestry of Jesus. Christians conveniently forget (if they ever knew of them) many passages in the Old Testament which are repugnant to ordinary moral sense, such as that if a woman marries and is found not to be a virgin at the time of her marriage then she is to be killed (Deuteronomy 22:13-21). But you can't argue with someone who has faith because for them there can be no possible refutation of what they believe, so rational argument is entirely useless. They cling to their belief so strongly that they make no distinction between who they are and what they believe.

If a Christian were to suggest to me that the only way to save my soul from eternal damnation was to embrace the Christian Faith, I would not point to all the murders and genocides which have been committed in the name of the Christian God (and there are so many that it should be enough to make anyone who is aware of them ashamed to call themselves a Christian). Rather I would reply as follows.

Christianity these days comes in many varieties, but all trace their roots to the Nicene Creed, which was produced by the Council of Nicaea. If a person does not subscribe to the Nicene Creed then they are not a Christian, in the sense of being a member of the Christian Church, although someone who admires Jesus Christ greatly might call themselves a Christian, just as someone who admires Richard Wagner greatly might call themselves a Wagnerian.

The Nicene Creed is:
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. 
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
What evidence is there for any of this? Only the first sentence (minus the metaphorical "father" and "maker") might contain some truth, insofar as it makes some sense to posit a source for all existing things, a "ground of being".

But the remainder of the Creed is ridiculous. How can any sane person believe this stuff? It has not even been established to the satisfaction of modern historians that the Jesus of the Bible ever existed as a person. Even granting that there was such a person, the claims made regarding his "being of one substance with the Father" who "came down from heaven", died, "rose again" and now "sits on the right hand of the Father" are (if they make sense at all) highly implausible assertions with absolutely no supporting evidence. That many millions of people have believed these absurd claims provides no evidence that they are true.

Furthermore the Creed explicitly asserts what is repulsive, namely, that we are all inherently sinners (in other words, criminals in the eyes of God), that we are in need of salvation, and that Jesus Christ sacrificed himself (in a most horrible manner: crucifixion) so as to save us (why was such a sacrifice necessary at all?). Implied is that anyone who does not believe this will be condemned (after death and subsequent bodily resurrection, despite one's body having rotted in the grave, if not destroyed entirely by fire) by Christ himself to eternal damnation and torment. Such a doctrine, which is clearly pathological, can only have been formulated and propagated by sick minds (foremost among whom was womanizer-turned-"saint", Augustine of Hippo).

There is no point in examining the curious details of the Creed (e.g., that Christ was "begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father") because the Nicene Creed is simply a statement of faith (as it was intended to be) and there is absolutely no reason to suppose that it is true (in fact, since it is absurd it is very likely to be false). One is asked to believe but no reason is given, or evidence presented, for why one should believe. 

(Understandably not, because there is usually an ulterior motive underlying any admonition to believe something. In the case of religious belief the ulterior motive is usually social control or the financial benefit of some part of an organized religion.) Believing with no evidence to support belief is not a virtue but rather a sign of stupidity. Anyone who says, as Barack Obama did in August 2008 at a "Faith Forum" in California, "I believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins, [and] that I am redeemed through him", or as John McCain said at the same event in response to the question of what his Christian faith means to him, "It means I'm saved and forgiven" (for bombing, strafing and terrorizing Vietnamese peasants?), is either mendacious or intellectually deficient.

It is true that there are people whose intellectual abilities are such that we cannot say they are unintelligent and yet who regard themselves as Christians. This is because, although there may be no reason to believe the Nicene Creed, there are conditions under which a person will accept and cling to it. This may be the occurrence of some emotional "crisis" but mainly results from childhood conditioning, in which parents with Christian beliefs inculcate these beliefs in their innocent and unsuspecting children, before the minds of those children have developed to the point where they can intelligently decide about the truth of what they are being told. (The same thing happens, of course, in all religions.) If a person values their upbringing by their parents then they will be inclined to maintain the faith taught to them by their parents, unless they are sufficiently intelligent to be able (upon mature reflection) to distinguish between the love and support that they received from their parents and the false teachings that were given to them before they had developed the mental ability whereby to accept or reject those teachings.

Oh ... about prayer. A scientific study (reported in the American Heart Journal, April 2006) discovered no beneficial effect of prayer, but rather the contrary: that sick people who know they are being prayed for tend to fare significantly worse than sick people who are either not being prayed for or who are unaware that they are being prayed for, with no difference between these last two groups. However, like paranormal phenomena, the efficacy of prayer is unlikely to be demonstrable in the laboratory. But many people claim to believe their prayers are answered, and that they believe in "God" because (they assume) "God" answers their prayers. But even assuming that their prayers are answered, this does not show that the biblical "God" answered them. Fact is, the universe is a magical place, although this is denied by the modern scientific view of the world, which assumes that reality consists only of atoms, molecules, radiation and their interaction. But this view, known as physicalism is a false view of the world. The universe is more like a vast, super-intelligent, living being (on many levels) — call it (with Einstein) "God" if you wish, just don't confuse it with the Christian "God". 

Sometimes the universe, or some part of it, in its limitless artistic creativity, mysteriously accords with our wishes, and desirable things happen which were rather improbable. To attribute this to a biblical "God" answering one's prayers is not only unjustified but also displays a lack of imagination and a very limited mentality.

Why I am not a Jew

The main reason I am not a Jew (apart from the fact that I would never wish to be one) is that I was not born a Jew. Whatever (if anything) defines a race, it is certainly some quality which is passed down from mother to child. The usual criterion for being a Jew (not necessarily an orthodox Jew) is that one's mother was a Jew at the time of one's birth. For this reason Judaism could be characterized as a "racist" religion, or perhaps better (since "racist" is a pejorative term) as an "ethnic" religion (as is Hinduism, see below).

Judaism is, however, in fact a racist religion, in the sense of 'racist' as 'supremacist', because it holds that Jews are superior to non-Jews, pejoratively called goyim (a word which has associations with "cattle"). Some (perhaps not all) orthodox male Jews recite each day this prayer to their God: "I give thanks that I was not born a goy, was not born a woman and was not born a slave." On passing a Christian church it is traditional for an orthodox Jew to spit in disgust (sometimes, in Jerusalem at least, to spit on Christians themselves).

Racism (the belief that members of one's race or in-group are superior to all others) has always been endemic to mankind, but enlightened thought regards it as indefensible. 

Orthodox Jews, however, are immune to this influence, and persist in their racist, supremicist attitude to all others. No-one of moral sense, then, could consider becoming a Jew. Those who do so presumably seek to remove their sense of inferiority by identifying with a group which considers itself superior to all others (and actively opposes assimilation of its members to the wider society).

That orthodox Judaism considers Jews to be superior to, and to have no moral obligations toward, non-Jews (or at least little more than they have toward animals) is shown by the words of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935):
The difference between the Jewish soul ... and the soul of all the Gentiles ... is greater and deeper than the difference between the soul of a man and the soul of an animal.
Those seeking a fuller understanding of Talmudic Judaism should visit the website Come and Hear (from which this quotation is taken).

A word of defense shoud be added for those unfortunate enough to have been born of Jewish parents (and thus regarded by many others as Jewish) but who have freed themselves from their childhood conditioning and from the Jewish assumption of superiority over others. A man may have been born a Jew but have come to see the defects of the religion, and perhaps feel something like shame for his former close, if involuntary, association with it.

Orthodox Judaism, like Islam (see below), is a totalitarian religion. Those who succeed in converting to orthodox Judaism have to learn many rules. You will have to wear less revealing clothing all year round (which in the summer can make you feel hotter); you will have to be concerned wherever you go about the food you can buy and eat; you will have to make sure that you don't carry anything in your pockets outside your home on the Sabbath, and many other considerations. You will need two sets of dishes, two sets of pots and pans (and at least one more set for Passover), and you will have to keep different types of food separate. You will have to wait six hours after eating meat foods before eating dairy foods. Judaism will guide your steps and your thoughts every moment of your waking life. —

The principal defect of the Jewish religion (apart from its assumption of the moral superiority of Jews over non-Jews) is that the God worshipped by the Jewish people is a jealous, vicious, bloodthirsty, psychopathic tyrant. Richard Dawkins (in The God Delusion, Chapter 2) has well described YHWH as follows:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
The following, from Deuteronomy, Chapter 20, reveals YHWH as a psychopath:
20:10 When you come to a city to fight against it, then first proclaim peace toward it. 
20:11 If it answers for peace, and opens its gates to you, then all the people found therein shall be your slaves, and they shall serve you. 
20:12 If it won’t make peace, but will make war against you, then you shall besiege it. 
20:13 And when the LORD thy God has delivered it into your hands, you shall kill every male inside with the edge of your sword.
20:14 But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the fortunes inside, shall you take for yourself; and you shall eat all the good things of your enemy, which the LORD thy God has given you.

20:15 Thus you shall do to every city even faraway which are not among your chosen nations.
20:16 In these cities, which the LORD thy God gives you for an inheritance, you shall leave nothing left alive ...

In response to this section an adherent of this religion wrote: "And in defense of G-d, during the time He was given to ‘fits of rage’ paganism was prevalent and He showed the world the seriousness of the sin of idolatry." But any entity, divine or otherwise, who is subject to fits of rage (as Adolf Hitler was) is a morally repulsive entity, quite unworthy of respect.

What sort of person would worship such a God? The person who worships such a psychopathic homicidal God must surely believe that the qualities exemplified by that God are in some way admirable (after all, he is the Creator of the World and the Divine Authority), and thus that it is excusable to deceive, enslave and even kill all who follow another (or no) religion — after all, according to Rabbi Kook they are little better than animals. Can such a person be held to possess any moral consciousness? Are those who identify with this religion not rightly to be regarded as themselves psychopathic?

Why I am not a Muslim

As a young man, since I was a seeker after spiritual truth, I read much about religion and the various religions. Naturally I discovered Sufism (or at least, that there was a spiritual tradition of that name), and read about the Sufi quest for union with the divine, which appealed to me (and which is considered heretical by orthodox Muslims).

I also discovered the beauty of Islamic art. The geometrical designs found in Islamic art and architecture are a wonder, and some grand mosques (especially when illuminated at night) appear sublime. However, as noted previously, the beauty of the art (and architecture) of a religion is not evidence of the truth of its doctrines.

When one examines how Muslims live and act there are are good and bad features. The good is that there is a strict code of ethics, according to which good Muslims are honest, reliable, fair, generous and considerate of others; they do not lie, cheat or steal. Fine. I wish everyone was like that.

On the other hand, Muslims act this way (if they do) because they are are following a strict code of conduct (not just a code of ethics) which tells them how to act in all situations. There is not just a Muslim way to pray (which, in the case of the Sunnis, is the same in all mosques from Casablanca to Jakarta) there is also a Muslim way to do anything (including defecating). 

This code of conduct, which regulates the behavior of a strict Muslim in every way (Islam is thus a totalitarian religion), is modeled on the life of the Prophet Muhammad and subsequent Muslim religious leaders. If Muhammad did something in a certain way then that must be the right way to do it and as a good Muslim one must do it that way. Thus in Muslim societies cats are looked upon with favor but dogs are not (consequently cats far outnumber dogs) because Muhammad supposedly liked cats but disliked dogs.

As another example, in September 2008 a Moroccan mullah approved the marriage of a man to a 9-year-old girl, on the grounds that one of Muhammad's wives was nine years old when he married her. So if Muhammad is to be taken as a role model for all Muslim men, then it is OK for them to marry 9-year-old girls (presumably for reasons other than the welfare of the girl). In fairness it should be mentioned that other Moroccan mullahs condemned this decision. However, this example shows that it is (at best) ridiculous to model your life upon the behavior of someone living in 7th C. Arabia, as if the world had not changed in over a thousand years.

A characteristic of all contemporary Islamic societies is their repression of women. Drawing attention to this can be fatal. In 2008 an Afghan student of journalism, Parwez Kambakhsh, was convicted of blasphemy, and sentenced to death, for asking questions in class about women's rights under Islam and for distributing an article on this subject which he had obtained from the internet. In October 2008 an Afghan appeals court commuted his sentence to 20 years imprisonment.

The repression of women in Islamic societies is most clearly apparent in the attempt (by strict Muslim women as well as men) to force all Muslim women to wear the head scarf (hijab). Supposedly Allah has decreed that women should cover their hair and wear clothing that conceals any indication that they possess breasts (and thus are women). Wearing of this attire is said to be an "obligation to Allah", and women who wear this attire are said to show "gratefulness to Allah" (for what? for living in a society where they are not free to do as they wish and must continually conform to the demands of others?). Thus women who do not wear the head scarf, or who wear clothes revealing, not the form of their breasts, but any sign that they even possess breasts, are considered by strict Muslims to be breaking "an obligation to Allah" and to be "ungrateful to Allah". This would be merely ridiculous (since Allah is a fictitious entity) were it not for the fact that women in Islamic societies are, if not forced, then seriously enjoined, to conform to this custom. It is sad to see a society in which no women are permitted to reveal their hair (they have to keep it covered entirely with the hijab) and are afraid to wear any clothing which reveals that they are women. This prudishness (this enforced prudishness) is one of the qualities of Islam which make it less than admirable.

But you don't have to be a Muslim to view the tendency of some Western women to flaunt their breasts (there's a saying, If you've got 'em, flaunt 'em) as a cheap way of attracting the attention of men as little short of shameless.

No danger of this in Muslim countries. Even in "moderate" Muslim countries such as Malaysia it is not uncommon for a man never to allow his wife to leave the house unless she is covered from head to toe in a black chador, with only a narrow slit revealing her eyes, so she can walk. Does the husband look upon his wife at home naked, and gloat that he, only he, can ever view any part of her body apart from her eyes, hands and feet? In Afghanistan, and in some parts of North India, Muslim women are generally not allowed out in public unless they are wearing a burkha which does not even have a slit for the eyes; instead the woman must view the world through a small mesh. This is an inhumane, barbaric, disgraceful and shameful imposition upon women in Muslim countries, and (since there is no distinction in Islam between religion and society) reveals Islam as a religion which degrades women to mere property owned by men.

Muslims generally are presented in the Western media in a bad light (in contrast to the taboo against any criticism of Israel). This says less about Muslims than it does about the Western media, namely, that is is controlled by Zionists (who wish to demonize Muslims so as to whip up American hysteria for Middle Eastern wars against countries perceived to be a possible threat to Israel). Muslims, as with Jews, Christians, etc., should be free to practice whatever religion they wish (or none, if they can finally overcome their childhood conditioning). My observations concerning Islam presented in this article are not meant to encourage anti-Muslim sentiment; they are presented simply to explain why I am not a Muslim (and would not wish to become one).

Muslims believe that the prescription for an ideal human society has been revealed by Allah in the Koran. Thus there is, and can be, no distinction in Islam between "sacred" and "secular" or between "church" and "state". This distinction is fundamental to modern Western society. Thus the political values of the modern West and of Islam are irreconcilable. It is not possible, e.g., to uphold the values of French society and to be a Muslim at the same time. Many Muslims in Europe aspire to the creation of enclaves under the rule of sharia law. These would be no-go zones for non-Muslims, and in effect mean the loss of territory to the host state. By allowing millions of Muslims to settle in Western Europe — originally at the request of Western capitalists (no doubt accompanied by financial inducements to legislators) for an ongoing supply of cheap labor — European governments have imported a time bomb which may ultimately destroy European society.
Today, the long clash between Christendom and Islam is still evident in the political and ethnic geography of Europe ... Today, the borders of many European countries, Canada, and the United States are practically wide open, and the old enemy is invited to come in and make himself at home. And many 'Christians' in the West are just too busy enjoying their material prosperity to be bothered with unpleasant history. But the enemy has not forgotten history. He remembers it all too well, and he is still deadly serious about his religion. His goal over the years has not changed in the slightest, and he is very patient. The enemy within is now smiling, just biding his time. ... The final chapter, it seems, has yet to be written... — Robert McMullen, Remember Lepanto!
Muslims often claim that Islam is "a religion of peace". This is not true. There are some passages in the Koran which suggest this (presumably in the suras delivered before Muhammad's new religion ran into significant opposition) but later passages suggest that recalcitrant unbelievers should be dealt with harshly. And it should not be forgotten that Buddhism was destroyed in India around 1300 CE largely as a result of wholesale slaughter of Buddhist monks (with destruction of monasteries and burning of libraries) carried out by fanatical Muslim invaders from Afghanistan.

"Islam" means "submission", more exactly, submission to the will of God (Allah), and a "Muslim" is "one who submits". One who submits has thus given control of his life over to something else, in this case, to the decrees of the mullahs who interpret the Koran and to the social customs characteristic of Islamic societies. A Muslim is thus not a free person. It is thus hard to see how anyone who values their freedom could remain a Muslim, still less convert to that religion.

Muslims are fatalists, since they believe that everything happens according to the will of God, and nothing happens unless God wills it (Inshallah). This is a prescription for the abrogation of personal responsibility. Strictly speaking, one cannot be held responsible for one's actions if everything happens because Allah wills it to be so. (Of course, this does not prevent thieves being punished under Sharia Law by having their right hand cut off — actually quite a deterrent to potential thieves.) And if something doesn't go according to plan, well, it's the will of Allah. Maybe tomorrow, Inshallah.

Islam is a grim religion. Of the five religions considered here, Islam is the most intolerant and the most puritanical. (A puritan is someone who worries constantly that someone, somewhere, may be having a good time.) In January 2010 Malaysia's "Islamic morality police" arrested dozens of Muslims for the crime of "khalwat", or "close proximity", under a sharia law that prohibits Muslims from being alone with a member of the opposite sex before marriage.

It is not just the Taliban that seeks to ban singing and dancing. When Muslims gained political power in the Malaysian state of Kelantan in the 1990s they banned several forms of traditional performing arts, including costumed dance/drama and shadow puppetry (mostly based on themes from the Hindu Ramayana), on the grounds that these were non-Islamic, thereby depriving a generation of Kelantanese of their own cultural traditions.

Then there is Ramadan. During the month of Ramadan a Muslim must not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. This is especially burdensome when Ramadan occurs during the summer in hot countries. This religious requirement forces Muslim families to get up at 4 a.m. in the morning so they can have breakfast before the sun rises. It disrupts whole societies for a whole month. The reason, it is is said, is so Muslims can appreciate the plight of the poor who have little to eat. While fasting for a day or two from time to time may be a good thing, this month-long self-denial of food and drink during the daytime is imposed on everyone (except those excused due to ill-health). Muslims do not have a choice whether to fast during Ramadan; they must do it, or else face censure from other Muslims. This is an example of the totalitarian nature of Islam. There is no place in Islam for individual freedom. A Muslim's every deed, word and thought is determined by his submission to the religion. To someone who values the idea of individual liberty, this is repulsive.

The preceding is sufficient to explain why I am not a Muslim. But basically I am not a Muslim because to be a Muslim it is both necessary and sufficient (regardless of which Muslim tradition a person belongs to) to believe two things: (i) There is a god (who calls himself "Allah"), and just one god, who created mankind and who decreed how people should live their lives. (ii) A 7th C. Arab named "Muhammad" was the messenger who conveyed to all of mankind the decrees of Allah. I believe neither of these.

There is simply no evidence of the existence of Allah beyond the assertions of Muhammad and the claims of all those since him who have believed what he said. It is said that Muhammad received revelations, claimed to be from Allah. These were spoken to Muhammad by an entity named "Gabriel" and subsequently codified in the form of the Koran. (Actually, on his first appearance, Gabriel showed Muhummad a book, and asked him to read. But apparently Gabriel or Allah was not aware, or had forgotten, that the future Prophet was illiterate. So Muhammad had to memorize what Gabriel said to him.) But if all who hear voices were to found religions then we would have more religions than we could count.

And assuming that Muhammad actually did hear a voice speaking to him, one which was totally convincing to him (so that his level of conviction was enough to convince others), what do we know of the origin of this voice? It might have been some malevolent spirit, who actually wished to do harm to mankind by subjecting humans to limiting and stultifying beliefs. It might have been an extraterrestrial intent upon foisting upon mankind an ideology by which to control humans (as has been suggested by William Bramley in his book The Gods of Eden), to make them into little more than manipulable robots whose programmed behavior is entirely predictable. Thus even if Muhammad was a messenger, and even if the source of that message was something outside of Muhammad's own mind, we do not know what the source of that message was. Would you believe just anyone who came up to you and delivered the contents of a "revelation" that they had received?

But, of course, Muhammad was not "just anyone". But then neither was Jesus (if he existed), Zoroaster, Moses, John of Patmos (Revelation), John Dee (Enochian Keys), Emmanuel Swedenborg (Heaven and Hell), Baha'u'llah (Bahai), Joseph Smith Jr. (Mormonism), Aleister Crowley (Thelema), Alice Baily (Ascended Masters), Benjamin Creme (more Ascended Masters), L. Ron Hubbard (Scientology), J. Z. Knight (Ramtha), Ken Carey (Starseed Transmissions), the authors of the Urantia Book and many others who have claimed to have received messages from a supernatural source. They can't all be right.

But even assuming the existence of "Allah" — the entity who authored the messages delivered to Muhammad (which were later written up in the Koran) — there is reason to believe that this entity is not great, supremely intelligent, all-powerful, merciful and compassionate, as Muslims believe. Intellectual incompetence is suggested by the nature of the Islamic Calendar (traced back, as all things Islamic, to the Koran, in this case, surah 9, verses 36-37), whose years (each consisting of twelve lunar cycles) are shorter than seasonal years (by about eleven days). In every 100 years of the Islamic Calendar the summer solstice occurs only 97 times. This calendar is (to put it kindly) seriously flawed.

That "Allah" is either incompetent or malicious is suggested by the fact of the sectarian division between Sunnis and Shias. If everything happens according to the will of Allah, then it was Allah's will that the third Caliph, Uthman, be murdered while at prayer. And it was Allah's will that Uthman's successor Ali (the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet) be murdered by one of his own soldiers. And it was Allah's will that Ali's sons, Hassan and Hussein, be killed at the Battle of Karbala. And it was Allah's will that these murders (and related events) gave rise to a split within Islam which has resulted in centuries of hatred and conflict, and in recent memory the Sunni vs. Shia Iraq-Iran War of 1980-88 (somewhat inconsistent with the idea of Islam as "a religion of peace"). Every year at Ashoura Shias conduct hate-fests in which they remember the murders of Hassan and Hussein and denounce "the treacherous Sunnis". If all this was Allah's intention (and since he created and ordains everything then it must have been) then it seems he is not the great and compassionate being that Muslims believe.

But lest I should be misunderstood, I wish to make it clear that I do not regard Allah as either incompetent or malicious. Rather Allah is a figment of the Prophet's imagination which has been propagated down through the centuries through the minds of millions of believers — with huge (and unfortunate) effects on the societies in which most of those believers lived and live today.

Of course, something very similar is true of the Judeo-Christian God, the main difference being that this figment of the imagination did not originate with just one man but with many over a period of centuries.

Why I am not a Hindu

In India when a man opens his business in the morning he may, if he is a Hindu, perform a small ritual honoring Lakshmi, Ganesha or some other god or goddess, say a prayer while standing before an image of the deity, and recite a mantra a few times. He believes (or at least hopes) that this will induce the god or goddess to look favorably upon his business for that day. (Chinese do something similar each morning with Chinese gods and goddesses.) Very nice, endearing even. And all over India hundreds of millions of people revere these deities, which are also admired by many Westerners who have travelled in India (and among my few personal possessions there are pictures of Ganesha, Lakshmi, Shiva, Parvarti and Saraswati). But there is about as much evidence for their existence (other than in the minds of their devotees) as there is for the existence of the Christian god, which is to say, very little. But there is an important difference. Devotion to Ganesha, Lakshmi, etc., has few, if any, harmful effects, and perhaps has positive ones. In contrast, devotion to the Christian god (and to the Jewish god as well) has justified many men (so they believed) in the murder of many others. 

Whatever Jesus is alleged to have taught in the New Testament, the historical fact is that Christianity is a genocidal religion.

Hinduism, however, although it has a pronounced xenophobic character, is not known to have been used as a justification for purges and genocide. Hindus may regard non-Hindus as lacking proper spiritual understanding, but feel no need to convert them, still less at the point of a sword.

That's not to say that Hinduism is all sweetness and light. The original thugs were Hindus who worshiped the goddess Kali by garrotting people they found travelling in isolated places (a practice known as thugee, rightly viewed by the rulers of British India with horror, and they succeeded in suppressing it, along with the gruesome custom of suttee). And animal sacrifice was, and still is, common in India. (Of course, the number sacrificed is very small compared to the millions of chickens, pigs, sheep and cows slaughtered daily, without so much as a prayer, in the slaughter-houses of Western countries.)

To be specific, the main reason I am not a Hindu (apart from no great desire to be one) is that I was not born a Hindu. Hinduism, like Judaism, is an ethnic religion, and, strictly speaking, the only way to become a Hindu is to be born a Hindu.

Also I'm not fond of superstition, and Hinduism is 95% superstition: beliefs and practices which have been handed down, carried over, passed on, transmitted, from one generation to the next for many centuries, but which have no basis other than this. One of the least-admirable Hindu superstitions is the belief in caste, that a person is born into a certain caste as reward or punishment for actions in previous lives. (That does not mean that high-caste Hindus always have an easy life; there are plenty of rickshaw drivers in India who are brahmins.)

The belief held by caste Hindus that they are superior to "outcasts" (previously called "untouchables", then "harijans", now "Dalits") is rife in India, and is a form of racist bigotry. 

Caste Hindus were recently reported as demanding that Dalits remove their shoes in the presence of those caste Hindus, beating them if they refused. These caste Hindus regularly attack Dalits, and drive them from their homes, with impunity (the police in India do nothing to stop this). Dalits (which include millions of "tribal people", the original inhabitants of India) are now fighting back, as we see in the Naxalite insurgency in Central India.

In village India girls are engaged to be married before they are old enough to speak. Traditionally they were married off at the age of 8 or 9, but now (due to government intervention) it's usually 12 or 13. No consideration is ever given to what the girl thinks about it. And, once married, she is, according to Hindu tradition, her husband's slave.

Although the gruesome practice of casting a widow upon the funeral pyre of her dead husband ("suttee") was suppressed by the British in the 19th Century, there are customs still common in Hindu India that are equally barbaric. For example, the practice of killing one or both of a boy and girl from the same sub-caste ("gotra") who marry. As one traditional Hindu woman said: "What can you do with a girl who insists on marrying within her gotra other than kill her?" India is a land of horrors. Anyone who spends a few months reading the daily newspapers (at least in India the press is free and thriving) will obtain ample evidence of this.

However, Hinduism does have a few things in its favor, the major one being the value given to actual spiritual experience (which is denigrated in Christianity and Islam in favor of faith and subordination to authority). The "holy men" of India are revered not because they hold some position in a church hierarchy but because they are believed to have (or have had) actual experience of a divine reality which transcends everyday physical reality, a state of consciousness in which the ego is snuffed out and there is awareness only of an undifferentiated universal unity. The possibility of this is viewed with skepticism in the mainstream Western view of the world (which regards all reality as physical, a belief which is the root cause of the present mass insanity afflicting the West).

There are some similarities between Hinduism and traditional Chinese religion, since both have a pantheon of deities, to whom offerings and prayers are made daily (though Hinduism lacks the ancestor worship which is a major part of Chinese religion). Offering incense and prayers to Lakshmi or Kuan Yin would seem to be a harmless practice, and to my knowledge no-one was ever murdered because they refused to do so, in contrast to the Abrahamic religions, where at various times and places your refusal to acknowledge the Jewish, Christian or Muslim "God" — as the one, true "God" — would result in your being killed.

Why I am not a Buddhist

During my first year at university, when I studied natural science and mathematics, I came to regard myself as an atheist. But then I began to read about Buddhism, and I felt attracted by this religion (though some would deny that it is in fact a religion). I read books by Christmas Humphreys and Edward Conze, and, unlike Christianity, the doctrines of Buddhism at least made sense: This world is a place of suffering; all beings seek to escape from suffering; a sage appeared in India about 2500 years ago who discovered a path to freedom from suffering; he taught this path to others; this teaching was propogated and expanded into many lands and became what we know today as Buddhism.

Later, along with many other young people in the psychedelic sixties, I read the books of Lama Anagarika Govinda, Evans-Wentz, John Blofeld and others (but not Lobsang Rampa), and I was particularly attracted by Tibetan Buddhist art, with its marvellous depiction of various tantric deities. As with Islam, Christianity and Hinduism, the art of a religion is something that attracts people, but the beauty of the art does not entail the truth of the doctrine.

Buddhist art, however, did not emerge until many centuries after the enunciation of the doctrine by the historical Buddha, known as Shakyamuni ("Shakya" was the name of his family and "muni" means a sage). Texts recording his life and teachings were also not written until some centuries after the death of Shakyamuni. These texts have passed through the hands of editors for two millennia and what the Buddha did and taught over two thousand years ago cannot now be known exactly.

It seems he was born into a minor royal family, given the name Siddhartha Gautama, and had a privileged upbringing. He was protected from awareness of the usual sufferings of life — illness, old age and death — until, as a young man (having by this time married and fathered a son) he ventured outside the palace walls and came upon instances of all of these at first hand, an experience which appalled him. (This should alert us to the possibility that this story is not quite accurate; did no-one ever get sick, grow old or die within the palace walls?) Thereafter (so the story goes) Siddhartha concluded that this world was so full of suffering that escape from it (permanently, not just at death, since it was then widely believed that this led to rebirth) was the thing most worth seeking. Accordingly he left his wife and child, forsook his comfortable palace life, and became a wandering ascetic, living in the forest, seeking those who could teach him how to escape the sufferings of this world. For six years he practiced yoga and austerities, but his quest was futile, and he then decided to abandon the extreme asceticism which had reduced him to skin and bones.

At this point there appears a girl, named "Sujata", who is said to have tended cows, and was no doubt familiar with the psilocybin-containing mushrooms which grow on cow dung. Or perhaps she was not in fact a cowgirl but a reference to cows is made as a veiled allusion to such mushrooms. Whether Siddhartha sought her out (if psychedelic mushrooms were used in ancient India, as seems likely, then of course he would have known about it) or she (taking pity on his hitherto fruitless quest) approached him is not known, but he accepted from her a bowl of milk or something made with milk. His experience following drinking the milk was (as sometimes happens with strong psychedelics) at first somewhat hellish (he was attacked by demonic entities), but his courage allowed him to pass through this difficult phase and he attained a state in which egoic identity was abandoned and a profound spiritual awareness supervened; thus was his quest at last fulfilled, his goal attained.

The textual tradition, however, presents Siddhartha's Enlightenment as the result of an elaborate reasoning process: What is the cause of old age, sickness and death? Answer: Birth. What is the cause of birth? Existence. What is the cause of existence? Attachment. And so on: Attachment is caused by desire, which is caused by sensation, which is caused by contact, which is caused by the six senses, which is caused by 'name-and-form', which is caused by perception, which is caused by impression, which is caused by ignorance. Thus the removal of ignorance removes impression, whose removal removes perception, etc., up to removal of old age, sickness and death. Wonderful! (But how is ignorance removed?)

Thus, it is said, did the Buddha conquer old age, sickness and death! But, strangely, he grew old, got sick and died (as have hundreds of millions of his followers since his time), which would seem to somewhat undermine this claim.

Siddhartha's Enlightenment, although traditionally presented as a process of analytical reasoning as given above, is also presented as an event of cosmic magnitude, whereby he attained omniscience and (at least according to the Mahayana doctrine, wherein the Buddha is represented as god-like, or as an incarnation of a divinity superior to any particular god) a state beyond all limitations. It may have been something like the enlightenment experience of the shaman's apprentice described in the second "Life" by Knecht in Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game:
A strange tremor passed through the young man, an intimation of many links and associations, repetitions and crosscurrents among things and events. ... For a moment it seemed to him that the mind could grasp everything ... There must, it seemed to Knecht at this moment, be a center in the vast net of associations; if you were at this center you could know everything, could see all that had been and all that was to come. Knowledge must pour in upon one who stood at this center as water ran to the valley ... He would be the perfect, wise, insurpassable man.
This sort of experience (which certainly does occur) is clearly at a higher level than that of ordinary consciousness, and is very different from the rational analysis presented in the monastic texts as the content of Siddhartha's "Enlightenment".

But granting that Siddhartha did attain this state of profound illumination, he could not have done so merely by discursive thought, since then his insight could be presented conceptually (as given above: attachment is caused by desire, and so on) and anyone of sufficient conceptual ability could follow it and reach the same state. Thinking, though much to be encouraged, cannot produce Enlightenment. Really no explanation is given for how it happened that Siddhartha attained this supreme accomplishment at this point in his life.  

This event, as described in the texts, is miraculous. It is curious that some people, calling themselves Buddhists, who would normally be skeptical of miracles (as claimed, e.g., by the Catholic Church with the virgin birth and so on) readily accept what appears to be the miracle of the Buddha's Englightenment. But, of course, for faith there are no obstacles, and nothing is too improbable to be believed.

Some weeks later, according to the received tradition, Shakyamuni met some ascetics with whom he had previously practiced austerities and he mentioned his insights to them. What he actually said to them we can never know, but according to the teachings of the monastic tradition he taught the "Four Noble Truths" and the "Eightfold Path". The Eightfold Path consists of practical injunctions, such as gaining one's livelihood without harming others, which are entirely admirable. The Four Noble Truths assert that this worldly life is full of suffering, that the cause of suffering is attachment, desire and ignorance, that there is a way to free oneself from these "mental defilements" (namely, the Eightfold Path), and that diligent practice of this will result in a state of complete ataraxia and non-attachment (including a realization of the illusory nature of the ego), with the all-important boon of the cessation of rebirth (and thus of old age, sickness and death).

Since rebirth, that is, reincarnation, has not been a commonly held belief in the West since Christianity rose to prominence in the 4th Century, and since Buddhism hardly makes any sense except in the context of escaping from rebirth, it is curious that it appeals to Westerners. If one does not believe in rebirth then it makes no sense to try to escape rebirth. 

Westerners who adopt Buddhism apparently accept the doctrine of reincarnation as part of the territory. But if one previously (before becoming a Buddhist) did not believe in reincarnation, what could lead one to do so? Perhaps Western Buddhists are actually less interested in escape from rebirth (in which they do not really believe) than in attaining "Enlightenment" (which, according to the Vajrayana, is possible in this lifetime, though according to the Mahayana generally thousands of lifetimes, and thus rebirths, are required).

Buddhist teaching does include some important insights, such as that everything which is compounded will eventually decay into its component parts (thus one shouldn't become too attached to anything), and that in fact everything is compounded (apart from Nirvana, the state of awareness which is beyond all distinctions) and has no real self-existence (this includes one's own ego).

However it is a central teaching of Buddhism that worldly life is basically one of suffering, and for the wise person the only goal should be to escape from it. Thus Buddhism is world-denying and life-denying. It sees no value in the things of this world, except as a means of escape from it. And it's not just material things that are devalued; all things are devalued, including love of wife and children (as Shakyamuni demonstrated when he abandoned his family in order to practice austerities in the forest, leaving his wife without a husband to care for her and his son without a father to raise him). For me, however, this worldly life has value, not as a means (as it is for some people) for pursuing fame, wealth or power over others, but as a venue for experience and action — the experience of friendship, love, beauty, exploration, adventure, the gaining of understanding and knowledge (including spiritual knowledge), and engaging in creative activity (as well as just having a good time occasionally).

A lot of people learn about Buddhist ethics, as expressed in the Eightfold Path, and decide that this is a good guide for how to live one's life. Thus they become sympathetic to the doctrines of Buddhism (which, as elaborated in Mahayana Buddhism, go way beyond the simple doctrine of Shakyamuni into some abstruse philosophical doctrines, though the dubious claim is made that all such doctrines can be traced to "the Buddha", if not to Shakyamuni then to some "celestial" Buddha or to a deity said to be a manifestation of "Buddhahood", none of whom was ever mentioned by Shakyamuni).

But a distinction should be drawn between being sympathetic to Buddhism and being a Buddhist. The latter occurs only after one has "taken refuge". This step, said by its advocates to be "very important", is done by reciting three times something along the lines of: "I go for refuge to the Buddha, I go for refuge to the Dharma, I go for refuge to the Sangha." (The Dharma is the doctrine and the Sangha is either the community of Buddhist monks or of all Buddhists.) One is admonished to recite this "from the heart". Then having taken refuge, one continues to recite the refuge formula daily as a mark of commitment to achieving Enlightenment (which, unfortunately, never seems to happen). In Tibetan Buddhism one is encouraged to recite the refuge formula 100,000 times as part of the so-called "preliminary practices" (preliminary, that is, to the really interesting teachings). One who has spent the two or three years needed to do this (together with the 100,000 prostrations, the 100,000 mandala offerings, etc.) is unlikely ever to acknowledge it as simply a form of self-indoctrination (viewable in hindsight as pathetic).

Explanations of the refuge formula expound on the meaning of the words "Buddha", "Dharma" and "Sangha" — exoterically the historical Buddha, his doctrine and the community of monks or of Buddhists (though there are esoteric interpretations as well). But rarely, if ever, is anything said about what "going for refuge" actually means. It is usually explained metaphorically. In a non-religious context one "takes refuge", for example, by finding shelter in a solid building while a storm is raging. Since Buddhism is presented as a path to escape from the sufferings of worldy life and to attain "Enlightenment", perhaps "taking refuge" provides shelter from those sufferings. Or perhaps one finds shelter from the effects of the three so-called "root defilements" (of the mind): ignorance, greed and hatred (nothing is ever said about desire for control and manipulation of others for one's own benefit). But this is stretching the metaphor, and in any case one should ask: What is the practical consequence of "taking refuge". The short answer is that it means giving control over your thoughts and actions to other people.

Of course, those expounding the Buddhist doctrine do not present it in this way, but in a more positive light. Taking refuge is said to "open the door" to all the practices in the Buddhist tradition and to give one "a definite positive direction" in which to move. Thus, it is said, it creates the conditions for the realization of "countless benefits" and gives one safety from rebirth in the lower realms. Ignoring the usual hype of "countless benefits", and the dubious claim of protection from undesirable rebirths (which is impressive only if you already believe in the danger of rebirth "in a lower realm"), this amounts to saying: "Now you can adopt the ways of thinking and daily practices which those whom you regard as your teachers say you should adopt, and think and act accordingly." In other words, one who has "taken refuge" says in effect: "Tell me what to do."

Perhaps we should put it more kindly: One who has "taken refuge" says: "I have faith (because I was told that 'the most important thing is faith') that the historical Buddha attained complete Enlightenment and taught a method whereby others (such as me) can attain Enlightenment also (if I practice diligently), so please tell me what to do to achieve this goal."

But what is the basis for this "faith"? As noted above, the historical Buddha lived about 2500 years ago, his teachings were not written down until long after his passing, and since then (like the Bible) have passed through the hands of many editors (many with a vested interest in obtaining "followers", especially those inclined to be generous when the construction of new monasteries — or in Western countries, "dharma centers" — is contemplated). If the teaching of the historical Buddha provided a path to Enlightenment then surely there would be, even now, at least a few Enlightened people around. Have you met any? Of course, there are many Buddhists who are admirable in one way or another (the same is true of many non-Buddhists). But to my knowledge none has attained "Enlightenment" (though there are some who have occasionally attained the unitive state sought by mystics). So why should one believe (have faith) that there is a method, which can be learnt, for attaining the goal of "Enlightenment"? Is not this goal actually a pie-in-the-sky come-on which benefits mostly those who have made a career out of teaching the so-called path to attain it?

It is the same in all religions. One who is a Christian, a Muslim or a Buddhist has abandoned any attempt at thinking for themselves, has adopted a faith (because there are short-term psychological benefits in doing so), and has accepted a self-imposed obligation to think and act as "good" Christians, Muslims and Buddhists are supposed to think and act. Of course, this is not the same in all religions. A strict Muslim prays to Allah five times a day, but a Buddhist need only recite the refuge formula. A Buddhist avoids killing any living creature but a Muslim may kill an unbeliever if this is permitted by the judgment of some mullah. A strict Muslim shuns alcohol but a Catholic drinks wine during the Mass (believing, if they are a good Catholic, that they are drinking the blood of Jesus Christ — a pale imitation of the original practice of drinking an infusion, of red color, of the psychoactive Amanita mushroom).

And how are the followers of any particular religion "supposed" to think and act, if they are to be "good" Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists? They follow the dictates of authority. That authority usually manifests in the form of priests, pastors, bishops, rabbis, mullahs, pandits, lamas and any person learned in the textual tradition of the religion. Such people "shepherd" the faithful along "the true path", and those who are shepherded are actually just like sheep, who cannot think for themselves. (There is actually a small book written for such people; it is called Buddhism for Sheep.)

In fact, such people are worse than sheep. A sheep is what it is and cannot be more or less than what it is. But a human being has the ability to observe intelligently, to think, to judge something in the light of past accumulated experiences, and (whether or not this is "permitted") to seek new experiences in order to widen their knowledge. Those who adopt some expression of faith and then say, "O great lama (priest, rabbi, mullah, whatever), tell me what to do!", are allowing themselves to be controlled by others and are choosing not to exercise their full human potential.

It is not surprising that governments everywhere (even in China) are tolerant of, or even supportive of, Buddhism (as shown by the large number of Tibetan Buddhist "dharma centers" which have sprung up in Western countries in recent decades). Those people who wouldn't hurt a fly, or at least, have "compassion for all sentient beings", are unlikely to present much threat to authoritarian and tyrannical regimes. Buddhist doctrine does not encourage resistance against social injustice, because (following the ideal of the historical Buddha) society is something to be abandoned, left behind, so as better to practice renunciation of the world and attainment of "Enlightenment".

Although it may be useful to talk with those who have spent time seeking spiritual knowledge, the best teacher is experience. Those who desire to increase their knowledge of spiritual reality have only to strive for this any way they can, always relying on their own innate intelligence, and lessons will be provided. As the historical Buddha is reported to have said (his last words to his followers), "Seek out your own salvation with diligence." One way to interpret this is: You have to follow your own path (always being true to yourself), not some path laid down for you by some "authority", however much surrounded by the elaborate trappings of high office or venerated by thousands of gullible genuflecting devotees.
Oh ... about merit. This is allegedly acquired by performing good deeds, especially making offerings. It is supposedly gained by performing practices conducive to spiritual advancement, such as making offerings to Mahayana deities, meditating on their qualities and requesting blessings. Acquisition of merit allegedly produces a happier life and a better rebirth. It is customary among Mahayana Buddhists, at the conclusion of such practices, to "dedicate the merit", which is a transfer of merit to other beings in order to help them on their spiritual path. But in the ordinary meaning of the term, merit is in the eye of the beholder, it does not exist substantially. So who keeps track of the amount of merit one has gained? Who keeps track of the transfer of merit when it is "dedicated"? Is there some bodhisattva whose task this is? Since Buddhists believe in countless beings existing in countless worlds, this would seem to be a very difficult task. Or is this concept of merit really fictitious? And has this fictitious concept been promoted by the monastic hierarchy because it encourages Buddhists to make offerings to that hierarchy, thereby ensuring that the monks can eat, live in monasteries, and occupy themselves in performing rituals and chanting scriptures (leaving it to others to do the manual work)?

Finally, I am not a Buddhist because a Buddhist cannot say "I am a Buddhist" without in effect denying a central tenet of Buddhist doctrine. When someone says "I am a Buddhist", they implicitly assert the existence of something to which the word "I" refers. This contradicts a central theme of the teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha, namely, that "the ego" is an illusion, that there is no "self" which exists apart from and as the object of that form of consciousness which we know as "self-awareness".

When religious people say "I am a Buddhist", "I am a Christian", etc., what they are really doing is asserting self-identity. They are identifying themselves (or their selves) in a particular manner. They are not content simply to experience the world (outer and perhaps inner) and to act. No, they must be something. And something important. They must be "a believer in Christ" (the Son of God the Father and the Redeemer of our Sins), or "a follower of the holy Prophet Muhammad" (to whom Allah delivered his Message to Humanity), or "one who has taken refuge in the Buddha" (who attained Supreme Enlightenment for the benefit of all beings). This is really pathetic. It is just a form of egoism. Such people cannot live without the crutch of the illusion, not only that they are really self-existent entities, but that their lives are significant because they are following devoutly the teachings (or alleged teachings) of some historical or quasi-historical personage to whom is attributed divine, semi-divine or nearly-divine status. Who needs it?

Concluding remarks on religion

In his book The God Delusion Richard Dawkins argues very well (within the limitations of his erroneous physicalism) that the concept of a supernatural personal God who designed and created the universe, watches over it (and us), and intercedes occasionally, is a delusion.

More exactly, religion, or rather each of the five religions considered in this article, is a collective delusion: a delusion held in common by many people (the belief of each of them reinforced by their seeing that many others believe the same thing). Some collective delusions are harmful to their followers (e.g., Scientology) whereas some are relatively benign (e.g., the ancestor worship of China and Vietnam). In no case, however, should any religion be granted any respect unless there is clear evidence that it has beneficial effects for its followers (rather than its proponents), and certainly no religion should be granted any social or political privilege simply because it calls itself a religion. No representative of any religion (no monk, priest, pastor, rabbi, mullah, swami or lama) deserves any respect other than what is due to them as scholars, artists, entertainers, dispensers of wisdom or by virtue of their personal qualities as human beings. Absurd, ridiculous, harmful, pernicious and morally reprehensible beliefs, attitudes and practices should be exposed as such, and not granted any respect simply because they are part of some religion. And religion should absolutely have no part in education (except as a subject for study), politics or the administration of society. Free inquiry, open debate, publication and dissemination (e.g., via the internet, if it remains free) of the results of that inquiry and debate, and the freedom and opportunity for people to educate themselves and to engage in discussion, will do more good for humanity than slavish adherence to the teachings, admonitions and strictures of any religion or all of them.

Organized religion, like war, is a racket. A priestly caste makes a living from it by exploiting aspects of human psychology, such as the fear of death, human propensities toward guilt and shame (a speciality of the monotheistic religions), the desire for "freedom from suffering" and for "salvation", and the (entirely commendable) aspiration for spiritual knowledge. 

While there is nothing wrong with providing financial or other support to someone who provides a benefit, e.g., a shaman in a traditional society who is able to heal as a result of his journeys into the spirit world, one does best to avoid any religious teacher who requires payment for the granting of some alleged spiritual benefit (such as an "initiation"), though one might willingly pay to acquire the pleasurable conviction of having received such a benefit, or to be entertained by some exotic performance involving the uttering of mantras and ringing of bells. Of course, there's nothing wrong with a financial contribution toward food for a collective meal after a satisfying evening of singing hymns in praise of Lakshmi or other deities, but suspicions should be aroused when many people (sometimes hundreds) are required to pay a hefty fee (like $50) for the bestowal of some alleged spiritual benefit and no accounting is ever given (except in vague terms) of where the money goes.

Some exponents of religion say: "The most important thing is faith! (In our religion, of course.) If people don't have faith, and follow our moral teachings, then what's to stop them from lying, stealing and killing each other?" Firstly, this position assumes what is false, namely, that humans are inherently vicious and must somehow be restrained from evil actions. Secondly, religious faith has never stopped religious people from lying, stealing and killing, even killing others of the same religion (examples could fill many pages). Thirdly, if some religious people do not lie, steal and kill, why assume it is due to their religious faith rather than to their inherent moral awareness?

Proponents of a religion often try to justify it (as above) as providing moral guidance, but what is offered is actually just the assertion of some supposed authority — Jehovah, Jesus, the Buddha, Allah or whatever. And these "authorities" differ, so on what basis is a decision to be made as to which moral precepts express true morality? If there is such a basis for deciding among them then those precepts themselves are not needed. And there is such a basis: Ethical conduct is that which seeks to avoid inflicting actual (not supposed or imagined) harm upon others (both other humans and other forms of life); where alternative courses of action all involve some actual harm to others then the moral choice is that action which results (or is likely to result) in the least harm. This is sufficient as a basis for moral action. No faith in Jesus, Jehovah or any other "authority" is needed in order for this basis to be quite clear. And one important implication is: If an action does not result in actual harm to any other living being then it cannot be considered immoral (and if it is not immoral then it should not be illegal).

Though human dignity entails leading an ethical life, there is absolutely no need to lead a "religious" life, and one who wishes to free themselves from delusion will not do so. It is sufficient to live so as to do no harm to others (except to prevent harm), to live honestly, to face life with optimism, courage and curiosity, and to endeavor to improve oneself and contribute something of worth to humanity, while at the same time always seeking to free oneself from false beliefs acquired unconsciously, and to understand how the world really is (at various levels) and whether there may not be a path beyond the death of the body to some place unconstrained by the limitations of this physical world.

All major religions arose many centuries ago, when human mentality was comparatively undeveloped and was characterized (at least among most people) by simple-minded thinking. 
Those religions developed when humanity was still in a childlike state, with people ready to believe whatever they were told by authority figures. In recent centuries our species has advanced beyond childhood into adolescence (but not yet adulthood). The stories that are still told by religion, which are fit for children, are no longer fit for intelligent people in the 21st Century. This does not mean that materialism or physicalism should be embraced. 
Rather we need (for the survival of the human species) to attain a widespread understanding of how the world really is, including its spiritual dimension as well as its physical. As Stanislav Grof has said, through psychedelic (and similar) experiences "it is possible to obtain profound revelations concerning the master blueprint of the universe designed by cosmic intelligence of such astonishing proportions that it is far beyond the limits of our everyday imagination." Indeed. It is now possible (as it was 2000 years ago, before the sacred rites of Eleusis and similar initiatory practices were forcibly suppressed by the Huns and those of a similar barbaric mentality, a mentality which persists even today among those politicians and lawmakers maintaining their pernicious "war on drugs") for anyone to obtain a realization that our everyday world is just a part of a far larger spiritual universe whose nature utterly transcends our ability to understand it, and in comparison with which the materialist and self-centered concerns (beyond survival) of most people — still stuck in our species' adolescent condition — are unworthy of our human potential.

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