The clergy dazzle us with heaven,
Or they damn us into hell.
— The world turned upside down by Leon Rosselson
Our most trusted institutions – church and state – have sometimes been useful. The state provides us with some physical security and modest public services; and the church sometimes provides real emotional comfort to some people during the darkest hours of their lives. But for the few useful services these institutions sometimes provide they are also primarily responsible for causing massive misery, and impeding social progress. It has always been like that, and it still is.
The United States, for example, is the self-proclaimed leader of the modern world. It’s the richest and most powerful country on the planet, with the most advanced technologies known to human beings. Yet huge swathes of its population suffer dreadful poverty, injustice and endure the terrors of homelessness; and vast numbers of Americans, many of whom are well-educated, seriously believe the biblical explanation of evolution, rather than Darwin’s.
But the US is far from being alone in this situation. Similar examples can be provided in many other supposedly modern countries. For example, Britain’s Times newspaper recently published an article (25.2.17) which illustrated the point quite well.
The Times is Britain’s most well-established national paper. It’s considered by many to be a “serious” publication, one that could be entirely trusted to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It could never possibly soil its pages with tittle-tattle and salacious gossip. The article in question is on a page which normally dedicates itself to details about the weddings of society’s bright young things – elite society, that is, not the riff-raff. Titled “We had our first kiss on our wedding day“, I’m ashamed to confess I read on. The story became even stranger.
It told of a young couple of committed Christians who, “Guided by their Christian principles, they had decided not even to kiss before they were married”. That seemed strange enough, when another bit caught my eye. Apparently, prior to the couple even meeting, Judith, the young lady of the story, “had understood from God that the next person to ask her out would be the person she would end up marrying”.
A lot of people in our modern first world societies believe that the power of religion is a spent force, either a thing of the past, or merely a feature of “backward” primitive tribes people or oppressive Middle Eastern countries. When we hear about Christian fanatics in our own countries there’s a tendency to think these people couldn’t be particularly intelligent: surely no one receiving a modern education could also be able to be so completely indoctrinated to seriously believe that God was going to send her a husband, and he would be the very next person to ask her out. Anyone reading Judith’s story could be forgiven for thinking she couldn’t possibly be the sharpest tool in the box.
But we’re told the girl’s a pharmacist! She’s not only had a good education, she has a degree from one of the best universities in the country – King’s College London – in the sciences! In other words, her education should have trained her mind to value reason above superstition, proof above fantasy. Yet here’s this modern well-educated young woman, living in one of the most modern supposedly free and advanced cities on the planet, trusting her future home-life to something she believes she was told in a prayer.
This verifies an irrefutable fact: the power of religion in our supposedly modern world is still a very considerable force.
Nothing proves the existence of widespread institutionalised brainwashing quite so well as religion – any religion. The proof is presented daily, from stories such as Judith’s to Americans forbidding the lessons of Darwin, to Islamic women “choosing” to conceal their whole bodies from public view, to the fairytale world of countless bizarre deities believed to exist by hundreds of millions of Indians. Religion is still an awesome power. Yet the other irrefutable fact that accompanies it is that the existence of God, or multiple gods – the bedrock of nearly all religion – simply cannot be proven. If that paradox doesn’t clearly demonstrate the effect of mass brainwashing, it’s difficult to know what could.
So what? One might ask, people should be free to believe whatever they want to believe. Fair point; but what if that belief is seriously harmful?
Religion could be directly linked to more mass murders, destruction and human suffering than any other single cause – not necessarily the actual reason for all the killing, destruction and suffering, but the excuse used to justify it all. History is full of evidence, from the Crusades, through the wars of the Reformation and the terrors of the Inquisition, to the recent horrors of the holocaust in WW2, partition of India and today’s living nightmare of the Middle East. All are “justified” by the perpetrators in religious terms. This fact was acknowledged two hundred years ago, and Adam Smith wrote the following about the biggest genocide in history – the extermination of native Americans by Europeans:
[T]he council of Castile determined to take possession of countries of which the inhabitants were plainly incapable of defending themselves. The pious purpose of converting them to Christianity sanctified the injustice of the project.1
So, given this vast catalogue of bloodshed and misery, in which religion is closely implicated, it can reasonably be argued that a simple condition be attached to the view that people should be free to believe whatever they want to believe: the condition that no one be harmed as a result.
The power of the meek
The many blood-soaked pages of history, the cause of which can directly or indirectly be laid at the door of religion, are simply inexcusable, and hard proof that no one should trust or believe in religion – any religion. The fact that religion of one kind or another, since the beginning of recorded history, has been able to get away with causing or justifying the murders, torture and oppression of billions of human lives is down to the awesome power of brainwashing. Most human beings have wonderful brains, capable of achieving incredible things. The fact that these marvellous organs are so routinely tricked into believing things that are impossible to prove, things that our naturally rational minds would otherwise automatically reject instantly, is because of brainwashing. From our earliest childhood most of us are conditioned to believing as true the incredible fantasies of religion. Our rational thought processes are cleverly circumvented by requiring us to believe in a devious concept, something called “faith”.
A dictionary definition of faith reads “Confidence, reliance, belief esp. without evidence or proof.”2 The essence of the thing is summed up in those few words “esp. without evidence or proof”. Where religion is concerned, we’re nearly all conditioned from birth by those we trust the most – our families, teachers and priests – to reject the natural function of our wonderful brains, reject the natural instinct to look for evidence and proof, and automatically believe as absolute truth the incredible fantasies of religion. If this caused no harm, if it had no more effect than the telling of a children’s fairytale, it could possibly be tolerated. But that’s not what happens, not by a very long way.
The ancient litany of bloodshed and suffering caused or excused by religion is pretty well accepted by quite a lot of people, but what’s perhaps less well-understood is a more general and arguably more sinister side effect of religion: meek submissiveness.
Wherever priests control people through their doctrines of faith, suffering millions are told their suffering is part of some divine plan, or a consequence of their own wicked lives. Immediately after the devastating tsunami that ruined millions of lives in the Far East in 2004, for example, Muslim priests went around remote villages in parts of Indonesia berating survivors for having caused the catastrophe by living in sin, and no longer attending their mosques. Catastrophes that are truly caused by humans are similarly explained away.
During the iniquitous Highland Clearances, for example, cynically marketed as “Improvement” by the mighty Scottish lairds that caused them:
With a few noble exceptions, the ministers chose the side of the landlords, who built them new manses, made carriage roads to their doors, and invited them to share in the new prosperity now and then with the grant of a few acres of sheep pasturage. In return the churchmen gave God’s authority to Improvement, and threatened the more truculent of the evicted with damnation.3
All around the world, whenever some new war raises its hideous head, or some tyrannical regime imposes yet more oppression on its own long-suffering masses, priests can often be found encouraging the killers to see their gruesome work as the will of some god; and urging the victims to meekly accept their hardships as being a result of their own wickedness, or something terrible they did in a previous life, or simply part of some majestic cosmic plan that they’re too naïve or ignorant to comprehend. They’re comforted with the assurance that their tormentors will be made to pay a terrible price at some sort of mythical judgment day, whilst they will be welcomed with open arms by some great redeemer and showered with every comfort imaginable: … as Joe Hill said, “pie in the sky – when you die”.
This conditioned acquiescence to suffering is of vital importance to those inflicting the suffering, and it’s been the primary role of priests throughout history to do the conditioning. If it was to disappear, if, instead of believing that suffering was the will of some mythical god or another, rather than the obvious fault of some very real human being, people might be inspired to seek immediate secular justice rather than humbly accept a theoretical divine reckoning. If people understood that most likely there is no afterlife, no judgment day, no heavenly rewards, no pie in the sky, then perhaps they might be inspired to ensure secular justice in the here and now, and material rewards for their labours when they’re fit and young enough to enjoy them. It was Edmund Burke who said “All that’s needed for evil to prevail is that good men do nothing”. It has always been left to priests to define goodness, and they’ve been very efficient in their work.
The writer Bill Blum was recently interviewed by Gary Corseri and was asked “How do we free ourselves [from another century of war/destruction and madness?”. Blum replied, “Only a revolution can produce the changes you speak of.”
I think he’s right, but there are revolutions, and revolutions.
Revolutions do indeed produce change. But they seldom produce lasting change, and they often make things considerably worse, or at least not significantly better. For a revolution to be really effective in producing real, long-lasting, beneficial change it needs one vital ingredient – an ideological goal. Revolution without ideology is no use to man or beast.
One of the most effective and far-reaching societal changes in western history was achieved not so much by a revolutionary human being, but by a revolutionary piece of paper.
The story of Martin Luther nailing a piece of paper to the door of a church in Wittenberg in 1517, listing 95 theses may or may not be true (if true, it must have been a sizeable piece of paper). But the fact that he wrote the theses is beyond dispute. Equally beyond dispute is that his action sparked a world-changing revolution which is still being fought today (in Northern Ireland, for example). Almost needless to say, religion is deeply implicated.
In other words, it’s not enough for a revolution to simply destroy an existing system – it has to be able to replace it with something better. And that something needs to be good and effective and able to withstand inevitable counterattacks.
In both the French and Russian revolutions, for example, major constitutional changes were introduced soon afterwards. But reactionary forces are never easily defeated. If the people in both France and Russia had been left alone to develop their new constitutions much of the bloodshed that followed may never have happened. But they weren’t left alone. Immediately following both revolutions foreign powers conspired to overthrow the revolutionaries. In France this led first to “The Terror”, and then the Napoleonic Wars. In Russia it led to Stalin’s purges, the “Cold War” and eventually to Gorbachev.
France and Russia are examples of reasonably successful revolutions – because they both produced clear ideological reforms which, although much battered subsequently, nevertheless produced a net improvement: three steps forward, two steps backward. Cuba too, managed a successful revolution, closely accompanied with major ideological reforms; but these are troubling times for Cubans, and it remains to be seen if it has become institutionally strong enough to withstand the effect of losing its exceptionally outstanding leader.
Revolution without reformation is simply mindless destruction. So when Bill Blum suggests that only revolution can produce the changes we need I think he’s only partly right. For a revolution to be really successful in terms of producing desirable change it must have clear ideological goals; it must have reformation at its heart.
First things first
When Martin Luther triggered The Reformation in 1517 he almost certainly did not have revolution in mind. His contribution to the cataclysmic events that followed was a simple statement of the things that he perceived were wrong with the way the church went about its daily business – business being an accurate word to describe its activities at the time. Compared with the many points he could have included, Luther’s list is relatively modest, focusing almost entirely on the church’s main money-making scam of the day, the selling of “indulgences”. But as this was such a significant source of income for the church, and closely linked to its power over people, Luther’s criticisms had the effect of shaking the very foundations of the church so severely that it would never again wield the same power it had prior to 1517.
Also included in Luther’s list are a few theses of changes that should be made. For example, thesis 45 reads:
Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath.
Once again, compared with changes he could have suggested, Luther’s proposals are modest – but this should not diminish the impact they must have had in their day.
What this lesson shows is the potential power of simply preparing a list clearly identifying the main wrongs of the world – together with a few helpful suggestions of how to improve things. Luther created a focal point around which opinion could, and did, polarize, leading to the irreversible split in the Christian church that followed.
Our list of issues for a new reformation needs to focus on the disease, not merely the symptoms. In other words, we need a list that attacks the reasons for the problems we have, rather than just the problems. Most people know, understand and agree about the horrors of war, homelessness, unemployment, environmental catastrophe… and so on, but the reasons for those problems are addressed less often.
So let’s begin. What might our new list look like?
- Political sovereignty. Although many countries profess to have democratic governments, almost none do. Switzerland arguably comes the closest. Other so-called democracies are terrified of giving real political power to the people. In Britain, for example, national referendums – real opportunities for the people to make real political decisions – have only happened three times in its entire history. The US, the supposed global champion of democracy, has never had one at all. But the Swiss have them about once a month. So this situation must change. We the people must have direct democracy, everywhere, direct control over all political decision-making, all the time.
- Good information. Direct democracy and free and easy access to good, trustworthy information go together like bread and butter. It’s impossible to make a good decision without having good information. Although we now have the greatest information-providing technology the world has ever known, the information that most people are provided with is abysmally bad. This is because information is carefully managed in such a way that people are left permanently in the dark. The process begins in childhood with inadequate education using a system that’s little different to institutionalised brainwashing. It then continues throughout life with a combination of misinformation and outright lies peddled by the mainstream media, combined with a vast amount of distraction, which serves to divert people’s attention from issues they need to know about and understand. This situation must change. We need an education system where young minds are taught real history, our history, people’s history; and where they’re taught how to think independent, rational thoughts; where religion is taught as an historical curiosity; where young university graduates with science degrees from one of the best universities in the world could not seriously believe that some god will send them their future husband in the shape of the very next boy to ask them out. And we need a public information service where people can easily obtain a real balance of fact and opinion about any issue of importance.
- Economic and social justice. Since their earliest days the economies of most nation states have been managed in such a way that tiny groups of elites profit hugely through exploitation of the poor, and destruction of the natural environment. That situation is largely unchanged still today. It must change. Creating a just economic system capable of providing comfort and security for all would be one of the easiest things to achieve – as most people would desire such a world and contribute to providing it. The obstacle to achieving it is tiny, but very powerful – the super-rich. The key to resolving the problem lies in political sovereignty. Once we the people, the 99%, are properly informed and have full control of political power – instead of the super-rich – social and economic justice will automatically follow.
- Environmental consciousness. Our planet is being destroyed by the super-rich. It’s currently going through a mass extinction of species the like of which hasn’t been seen since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. The super-rich are completely indifferent to the long-term health of our life-sustaining planet. The only thing that matters to them is quick maximum profit, now. For them the future can take care of itself. This must change. The basic problem causing environmental catastrophe (apart from the super-rich) is human overpopulation. Endless population growth is a basic requirement of the super-rich, not us, the 99%. To ensure continual growth of maximum profit the super-rich need an ever-growing supply of cheap labour, and an ever-growing source of consumers. There are far too many human beings. We must begin to reduce our own numbers. This requires nothing more drastic than teaching each woman to make sure she has no more than two children.
- Disestablishmentarianism. Religion has combined with the super-rich throughout history to create the world we have, a world controlled by the super-rich to serve the interests of the super-rich. This must change. Religion – all religion – must be seen for the phoney fantasy it is. In a world where children were properly educated religion could not be possible, except as an historical curiosity – in much the same way as we now view the religions of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, for example. Whilst individual people should be free to believe whatever nonsense they like (so long as no one is hurt), no church of any kind should have institutionalised control or influence over the activities of government. Religions have only ever provided one real use – ethical guidance; and given the hypocritical ways in which they’ve often practiced their own guidance, it could be argued that this function of religion has only had limited use. However, the vital role of ethical guidance to society needs to be recognised. Fortunately it can be simply provided for by recognition of the ancient principle of the Golden Rule: to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves in the same circumstances – this principle to be extended to animals as well as other human beings.
This is just a modest little list for reform, covering a mere five points. Before we have the revolution that Bill Blum has rightly recognised we need, we must have clear ideological goals. Modest though this list is, there can be little doubt that if it was acted upon to drive forward a new reformation, it would change the world – for the better.
We will not worship the god they serve,
The god of greed who feeds the rich while poor folk starve.
— The world turned upside down by Leon Rosselson
- Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, p. 711. [↩]
- The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary. [↩]
- The Highland Clearances by John Prebble, p. 63. [↩]