Religion: Kitten, Cat, or Tiger?

Three Conceptual Models For Religions In Society

Religions: Kitten, Cat, or Tiger?

I would like to propose three conceptual models for religion in society. 

The Kitten: Religion is a harmless, joy-giving plus in a person’s life. 

It is sweet and good and loving, a fluffy little bundle that could not possibly hurt anyone. Everyone who has it benefits from it, and everyone agrees that more people should have it. Society itself benefits from having it. 

The Cat: Religion gives pleasure to the people who have it. However, it does have claws and teeth and occasionally harms people when it’s in a bad mood. 

The majority of people who have it seem to benefit from it, but it remains fully capable of drawing blood. It is still a plus in most people’s lives, and though society must keep a wary eye out for the teeth and claws, it should continue to be a prominent part of the local culture. 

The Tiger: Religion is incredibly dangerous, a streamlined predator that menaces not only those who have it but also those around them. It is only safe when caged; it doesn’t even have to be in a bad mood; it only has to be itself, and someone will get hurt. 

On the general principles of free will and self-determination, people should probably have the right to have it, but it should stay safely caged—in private—at all times. 

Free will and self-determination are bedrock principles and good for society, but society overall would definitely be better off without having religion itself running around loose. 

Of course, we’re all aware that large numbers of people see religion as The Kitten. Religion is always positive, always loving, and could not possibly hurt anybody. It seems to me that the majority of agnostics, and even some atheists, see religion as The Cat. 

Yes, they would admit there have been unfortunate incidents such as the Crusades and the Inquisition. And sure, there are those idiot parents who, because of their faith, deny life-saving medical care to their children. 

And, yes, okay, there was that Jim Jones thing, and the Heaven’s Gate thing, and sure, Scientology is a nutty, fringe, culty thing that victimizes its hapless adherents. But overall, religion gives people hope and solace and stuff like that. 

If nothing else, it keeps the dangerous idiots from rising up and killing us all. In the main, it’s just not all that dangerous and has had little impact on history or the overall shape of society today. 

As for The Tiger, you’d actually have to work to make that a convincing case because, hey, where’s the danger in having it around? 

I mean, seriously, here we are in a world of modern wonders—you know, computers and jet planes, surgery and antibiotics, schools and libraries and democracy—and yet ancient religions are still very much with us. 

I see religion as The Tiger and nothing but The Tiger. I’m disturbed that more people don’t see it as I do, but I guess I’m not all that surprised. 

Yet, I’d like to make the following case for The Tiger. If you believe a thing, it has some real effect on you. “I believe I could win the lottery because, hey, somebody has to, so why not me?” That belief—a small-to-middling one as beliefs go—will cost a lot of people somewhere between $300 to $1,800 in the coming year. 

If your state or local taxes went up by $1,800 this year, would that bother you? Well, yeah. But a five-dollar-a-day lottery “player” pays that same amount and thinks nothing of it. He believes he’ll win all of his money back plus a lot more. 

It’s not a tax, it’s more like an investment, right? If you believe a thing, it affects you, but if you believe a thing strongly, it affects you a lot. It could affect pretty much every aspect of your life. “I’m going to start a band and be rich and famous!” 

Hey, if you’re going to be rich and famous, why do you need high school? Or a college fund? Or the goodwill of your parents or peers? Better to spend that time and money practicing and buying better instruments and amps. 

And to hell with anybody who stands in your way. If you believe a thing, it affects you. If you believe a thing strongly, it affects you a lot. 

But if everybody believes a thing strongly, they create an entire culture wrapped around that belief. “Something must be done about these treacherous, secretive, manipulative Jews.” 

The Germans of the 1930s didn’t just sit at home being mildly, privately amused by this belief. No, they built an entire society on the idea. 

One of the side effects was that eleven million people were murdered, and another side effect was a war that directly or indirectly killed another fifty million. “People with dark skin are inferior to those of us with lighter skins.” 

The North Americans of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries didn’t just chat about this quaint belief over tea and biscuits. 

No, they built an entire society on the idea, one side effect of which was that in the 1860 census alone, almost four million of those people with dark skin were trapped in slavery

The interesting thing is that most people of those times, both in Germany and the U.S., not only thought those beliefs were normal, they thought they were right and even good. Strong, widely-held beliefs affect everything—every part of the society in which they hold sway, and those beliefs even affect people outside of the society. 

Here’s the U.S. Supreme Court—the Supreme Court!— weighing in on slavery in the 1857 Dred Scott decision: “Any person descended from Africans, whether slave or free, is not a citizen of the United States.” 

Looking back on it, you have to ask, “What the hell was wrong with those people? What were they thinking??” What was wrong with them was just this: By our standards, they were crazy as hell. But because just about everybody was crazy the same way, very few people noticed. Which made a horror of the lives of four million people. 

The strongly-held and widespread belief about slaves in the U.S. wasn’t just a little bit bad, it was a nightmare. Likewise, the strongly-held and widespread belief about Jews in Germany wasn’t just a little bit bad, it was a nightmare. 

Let’s talk about another belief. Say some people believe this: This is not real life. You only get to have real-life after you die. And even then, it’s only good if you passed the big test in this temporary, prototype life. 

Part of the test is that you have to tell everybody about the real-life, and if anybody disagrees with you, considering they’re not really alive anyway, it’s perfectly okay to torment or even “kill” them. 

Real-life, and the testing-phase life that precedes it, is ruled by this big, powerful guy who is more important than anybody or anything you know. 

Nothing is more important than he is. He and the things he says—passed on in this big, special book and by the people who interpret it for us—are more important than your health, more important than the life and death of your kids, more important than the love of your life, more important than democracy and justice and freedom, more important than the entire earth and all it contains. 

In fact, in the very near future, the big powerful guy is going to destroy the entire earth and all it contains—every last puppy and baby and symphony and sunset. 

And that’s a good thing because it will allow us and everybody we know to get on with our real lives, which are going to be perfect and last forever. 

Oh, and by the way, because we believe all this, we’re the Chosen Ones, and pretty much nothing we do to the bad, Un-Chosen Ones is really all that wrong.

Imagine people believing this thing very, very strongly for the past thousand years, right up to today. Now imagine what sort of society they’d create. 

It would be a crazy one, don’t you think? Completely bonkers. It would have to be. I mean, if you really believed that nothing around you was real? And that being dead would be a good thing? 

That you should go out and do anything and everything you could to convince others? And that it was all going to end soon, and hurrah for that? 

And yet. Here we are, living in wealth and luxury and contentment. The sun shines, the birds sing, we go to work each day, and have dinner each night. It all seems so normal. Is the world really all that crazy? I have to be wrong about it, right? 

We’ve got the TV, the internet, the power to fly across a continent in a few hours. We’ve got eyeglasses and cell phones and a car in every driveway. Books and libraries. Barbie and Buzz Lightyear and Happy Meals. Skiing and whitewater rafting and skateboard parks. What could possibly be wrong with our beautiful modern society? 

But again, it is impossible to have a strongly held belief in your head and not have it affect your thoughts and actions in extremely powerful ways. Ways which, paradoxically, you might not even notice. 

What evidence do I have to support the claim? How about this: Did you know there’s a safe and easy way to prevent teen pregnancy? A way to dramatically lower the number of abortions? It’s simplicity itself: Provide sex education. 

Make condoms and other contraceptives available. Give teens the facts and the tools to accomplish the early-life goal of not getting pregnant. 

If you tell teens where babies come from, and let them know that unexpected mommyhood and daddyhood will put a serious crimp in all those wild, youthful plans for being a jet setting supermodel or a motorcycle-riding vagabond off to see America, and if you then tell them how to prevent babies until they’re consciously ready to be mommies and daddies, they will tend, statistically, to make a greater percentage of informed, wise decisions on a potential pregnancy. 

They’ll have fewer abortions. Is that a no-brainer? 

Well, heck yeah. But among the rankest foes of abortion in the U.S., that faction of conservative Christians who also drive around with bumper stickers that read, “It’s a Child, Not a Choice!” and “You Can’t Be Both Pro-Abortion and Catholic,” you will find virtually zero in equally fervent favor of the two most effective techniques— contraception and sex education—for achieving that goal. How much misery do you suppose those millions of unwanted pregnancies have caused—to the unready parents, to the unwanted children, to the cash-strapped society required to support them? 

A lot. That misery is literally incalculable because we can’t even bring ourselves to think about the possibility of misery in such cases. Our mainstream social pointer on the question of pregnancy is set at “Boundless, Swooning Joy,” and it’s difficult to even have a conversation about any other view. 

Crazy. More crazy: Harold Camping, leader of Christian broadcast ministry Family Radio Worldwide, received nationwide media coverage for predicting the world would end on May 21, 2011. 

This guy is so looney-tunes Warner Brothers should sue him for copyright infringement. And yet his prediction was covered as straight news. 

As I recall, not a single newscaster said anything critical about the man or his prediction. Let’s take one more example of crazy, something with no obvious connection to Christianity

Forty-seven U.S. companies have been involved in the manufacture of landmines. From 1969 to 1992, “we” exported more than four million mines to at least thirty-four countries. 

Even years after regional wars have been concluded, all those unrecovered landmines continue to cripple women and children and kill farmers—to the tune of 26,000 people annually—and also critically injure or kill wildlife. 

In Vietnam, more than forty years after the end of the war, landmines are still killing about one hundred people every year—about sixty of which, on average, are children. 

There are estimated to be 800,000 active landmines still in the country, enough to kill or critically injure the entire population of Austin or San Francisco. 

To some of us, this will come across as old news. Why am I even writing about it? But the point is that the whole situation is wacky as hell. American companies. American workers. Going to work each day to make landmines that would—how can I put this delicately?—blow the freakin’ legs off children. And then sleeping well that night. (Companies in the continental United States supposedly stopped manufacturing landmines in 1997, but the U.S. still has the largest stockpile of the clever little things in the world.) 

Someone sat down and invented these things, knowing they would kill mostly civilian adults and children. And someone else, a lot of someone elses, right here in America, though it was a dandy idea to make money off them. 

Following this, a lot of other someone elses put them in fields all over the world without bothering to note where they were. And three hundred million someone elses just sort of sat back and yawned. As it turns out, there is a connection to religion in the making and placing of landmines. 

The landmine industry flourished on U.S. soil for so many years because a majority of the people involved, and a majority of the American public, didn’t even bother to think about it. It wasn’t important because, according to their beliefs, nobody was really dying. 

They were only … passing on. Besides, even if people were injured or killed way off in those distant places, that was all up to God, wasn’t it? 

If their lives and deaths were wholly the responsibility of God, no mere assembler of landmines here in America was guilty of any moral crime. Heck, maybe even God was using them as a tool of redemption for those godless heathens. 

The point of all this is that there’s a level of crazy built into our culture, and it appears to spring directly from the fact that we’re trained to be crazy. 

To think in an irrational manner and believe unbelievable things. This isn’t some cultural accident, or just a simple holdover ignorance from the time when we were f lea-scratching, upright beasts. This is organized. Deliberate. 

There is, in our society, an established, streamlined, all-pervasive, and aggressive-as hell institution—actually a collection of institutions—hellbent on spreading the crazy. We live in a society that features a Crazy School. 

Crazy School doesn’t just teach its own curriculum, it The craziness is almost completely invisible to the people being crushed under it. 

Works to un-teach everything else—to squash all questions, all doubts, all competitors for the public podium. To confuse every discussion with lies and nonsense so its victims can no longer think straight about any subject. 

This is precisely why the phrase “President Trump” is now a part of our everyday language. This one institution—and it has no rivals in this mission, not anywhere in Earth culture—is religion. Not religion the fluffy kitten. 

Not religion the friendly cat that just occasionally scratches. But religion the tiger, with its historically obvious teeth and claws: lies, intimidation, subjugation, suppression, terror, torture, murder, and war. 

A tiger that is still with us, and has, as its fierce main mission, to get us to believe things that are unprovable, unsupportable, undefendable ... but that somehow must be believed, supported, and defended. 

To believe the unprovable, unsupportable, indefensible is somehow the greatest of virtues. To doubt it is the vilest and most terrible of sins—a threat to our own immortal souls. 

Teach that to a whole people, for all of their histories, and you create not just craziness for the individual, but also profound misery, vast pain, and ugliness for hapless future generations. 

But the weird sort of reverse-miracle attendant on the whole thing is that the craziness is almost completely invisible to the people being crushed under it. 

As long as everybody stays crazy, as long as you kill or discredit anyone who begins to edge toward sanity, the crazy can stay clamped down for hundreds, even thousands, of years. 

And so it has. Occasional bright sparks of sanity have given us science, technology, medicine, and reason itself. 

But those sparks, like diamonds in mud, are used as tools to spread the crazy because they still exist in a matrix of crazy that pervades, opposes, or perverts just about every advance toward greater sanity, such that we have technological wonders gifted to us by the sanity-sparks of science—radio, TV, computers, the web. 

Such that we can build landmines to blow the legs off children and sleep well at night. Such that the freedom to not have children is opposed by powerful voices right now, today, at the highest levels of American government. 

Such that every major disaster in the world is followed by televised religious voices blaming either the victims, marriage equality, pornography, or all of the above and using the human horror as a sales pitch to raise money to grow more craziness. 

Such that there are large numbers of us who accept that the world is ending soon and that this is a good thing much to be desired. Such that there are world-scale problems—global warming, for instance—that cannot even be brought up in a public forum without being shouted down by a ready chorus of crazies. 

And such that the spreading and consuming of this deadly craziness is seen—by most of us still—as the most staunchly and passionately defended human right. And that, excuse me, is just plain nuts.

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Hank Fox

By Hank Fox

Hank Fox is the author of Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist: Simple Thoughts About Reason, Gods & Faith. A former blogger on the Patheos network (A Citizen of Earth) and Freethought Blogs (Blue Collar Atheist), he now blogs independently as A Citizen of Earth.

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