One of the axioms of Biblical teachings is that human beings have “fallen from grace,” in that there was a time when humans (Adam and Eve) were in harmony with God, but this connection was lost due to disobedience. The Bible describes how after Eve ate the forbidden apple, she realized her nakedness and felt ashamed now that she had the knowledge of good and evil. Many religious thinkers view this parable as pointing to the corrupting influence of civilization on human sensibilities, which in some corners has produced an excessive aversion towards modernity that continues to this day within all three Biblical traditions. From Islamic clerics to orthodox Jews to the teachings of the Pope, reactionary stances on many issues of cultural change and progress are commonplace amongst the world’s religious leaders on issues as far ranging as stem cell research, access to contraceptives, women’s rights, and gay rights.
These religious leaders have it all backwards, which is why their teachings are so at odds with modern life.
Humanity didn’t start out pure; just the opposite. While there is no clear dividing line between our pre-human ancestors and modern homo-sapiens, we can rest assured that our ancestral brethren were largely ignorant, selfish, warlike, and amoral. Our ascension to moral beings did not come from the grace of God, but through thousands of years of trial and error, hard work, deep thought, and intellectual evolution. Almost all of the things we can point to as moral progress and largely take for granted in Western societies– the end of slavery, equal rights for all races as well as between men and women, and basic democratic freedoms– are nowhere to be found in the Bible. In fact, what is so amazing about the United States of America is that the Founders (however imperfect) crafted this country’s principal documents without a single reference to the Bible, church, Jesus, or God. Think about that the next time someone tries to say that we are a “Christian nation.” (The Founders were largely deists, who while acknowledging a higher power, knew that human morality did not rest in religious texts. There is one reference to the “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence, which is purposefully vague and about as ambiguous as you could get in the 18th century without overtly offending the religious order.)
The mistaken belief that somehow it is society that corrupts people is most evident in common perceptions of children. They are often referred to as “angels” when nothing could be farther from the truth. However lovable, children are the most self-centered of creatures, and this is why having good parents to raise them is so important. It is ironic that the religions that so emphasize the role of parenting are the same ones that idealize children, as if it is we who should be emulating them. That is a recipe more for Lord of Flies than any type of heavenly kingdom. (It is likely that much of the current obsession with microscopic human embryos exhibited by religious fundamentalists is due to their belief that somehow purity is inversely proportional to a person’s physical development; i.e. the longer people are tainted and corrupted by the world the farther they are from God. This also helps explain why many religious people believe killing an embryo is murder but are not necessarily opposed to capital punishment or even war, or why virginity is so often associated with saintliness).
No doubt, much of the great progress in human rights and freedoms has been initiated by religious people, but the calls for equality have been based on the principle that our common humanity transcends our differences (in simple religious terms we are all children of the same Creator), not any detailed reading of religious texts. In fact, this foundation can be arrived at completely independent of religion, which is what makes it so extraordinarily powerful.
One of the most striking moral advances in history has been humanity’s belief that all individuals have value. Although this thinking has been inspired by many religious thinkers, any objective look at the world demonstrates that whatever force created the universe isn’t particularly concerned with the well-being of individual humans. From plagues to earthquakes to tsunamis to droughts, natural forces have been and continue to be unmerciful in their disregard for the lives of individuals. But we as a collective human society have elevated the status of individuals to a privileged place, and this is a most amazing and beautiful thing; in the face of natural forces that kill people with no remorse, we have decided that we should value each and every person. And, in fact, we go to great lengths to try to protect individuals and imbue them with rights that are nowhere evident in almost any religious text.
As I have pointed out in earlier pieces, the reactionary and pre-modern impulses found in many of today’s religions have a parallel on the Far Left, which sees its utopia in “traditional” societies that came before the advent of modern life. No doubt the evils inflicted on indigenous peoples are some of humanity’s greatest shames, but it is foolish to put these societies on pedestals. They were just as prone to slavery, oppression, constant warfare, and environmental excesses as today’s dominant powers; their influence only tempered by their lower level of technology and smaller numbers.
In summary, religion has it backwards; it is civilization, reason, and science that have led us to a nobler destiny, not some deity who lives outside of us that can bestow upon us its grace. The world of the Bible was an undemocratic world where basic freedoms were virtually non-existent, and God rarely, if ever, did much about it. In fact, some of the greatest cruelty was perpetrated directly by God (read the accounts for yourself if you don’t believe me). Luckily, we humans did care, and we have made great strides through our persistence and self-sacrifice. This is why I will always put my faith in humanity above all else. Despite all the evidence that the universe couldn’t care less about individuals, one of our greatest accomplishments is assigning individuals inalienable rights.
As science continues to teach us how closely related we are to all living things on this planet, hopefully we will make the next logical step in our moral evolution and extend rights and obligations to the non-human world, in addition to those segments of the human population that still don’t enjoy the basic human rights that are common to most everyone in the advanced, and largely non-religious, industrial societies.
P.S. The death this week of Simon Weisenthal reminds me yet again that after the tremendous cruelty inflected on millions of innocents during the Holocaust, it was not God or any other supernatural being that tried to bring justice to the perpetrators, but a humble man determined that the Nazis not escape judgment.