50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God (29 page)

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Religious ignorance is of crucial importance to the question of
whether or not gods exist because it seems to enable a sense of confidence and even superiority in the minds of believers. The less
believers know about rival religions, the more confident they tend to
be that they believe in the real god or gods. In the age of television and
the Internet many more people than ever before have access to information about the world's various religions. Unfortunately, much of
what they hear, see, and read only reinforces the worst stereotypes and
therefore strengthens their feelings of superiority. Some Christians
think all Muslims are crazy terrorists, for example. Considering the
images and conversations that dominate the news media, it's no
wonder. Some Muslims think all Christians are warmongers who want
to conquer the world. Some Christians think Hindus are under the
spell of Satan and worship demonic statues. Some Protestants think
the same thing about Catholics. Some Christians and Muslims think
all Jews are members of a secret club that controls the world. Some
atheists think all believers are dim and deluded bigots. It is too easy to
assume superiority for your group when you haven't taken the time to
learn very much about other people. Arrogance comes when people
are not educated about religions and cultures other than their own.
Prejudice comes when we do not get out and mix with people who are
in tribes other than our own. One of the biggest drawbacks of organized religions is that they provide more unnecessary and dangerous
labels for humankind. Religions have always been very good at creating and maintaining groups. Religions too often give people yet
another excuse to divide themselves up into teams so that they can fear
and hate "outsiders." Sadly, ignorance within and between religions
will continue for some time to be both a source of prejudice and a
source of unjustified confidence in the existence of gods.

In case anyone suspects that I am biased against believers and
judge them too harshly about their lack of religious knowledge, many
surveys have confirmed that most religious people really are clueless
about religion. Stephen Prothero, a professor of religious studies at
Boston University, is the author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know And Doesn't. His book offers a revealing
look at just how ignorant many believers are about other religions and
often even their own. He focuses on what American Christians don't
know about Christianity and other major religions. The results are surprising for a country that takes its religion so seriously. "If religion is
this important, we ought to know something about it, particularly in a
democracy, in which political power is vested in voters," writes
Prothero. "But the average voter knows embarrassingly little about
Christianity and other religions" (Prothero 2007, 5-6).

He finds that Americans also stumble when asked about nonChristian belief systems. "When it comes to religions other than Christianity, Americans fare far worse. One might hope that US citizens
would know that the most basic formulas of the world's religions: the
five pillars of Islam, for example, or Buddhism's Four Noble Truths.
But most Americans have difficulty even naming these religions"
(Prothero 2007, 6).

Do not assume that Americans are unique. According to Prothero,
most of the world's believers know very little about religions other
than their own, too. My experiences in talking with various believers
around the world confirm this. Prothero correctly points out that it is
dangerous when billions of people passionately believe in things that
they barely know anything about. It is also dangerous when two or
more groups of believers are in conflict and neither side knows very
much about the beliefs and motivations of the other. "Today religious
illiteracy is at least as pervasive as cultural illiteracy and certainly
more dangerous," Prothero writes. "Religious illiteracy is more dangerous because religion is the most volatile constituent of culture,
because religion has been, in addition to one of the greatest forces for
good in world history, one of the greatest forces for evil" (Prothero
2007, 4).

Prothero calls for schools to teach students more about religions to
address this problem. Easier said than done, however. This would be a
huge challenge as the line between education and indoctrination could
easily blur in many schools. I agree that it would be good if students were taught about the history and the supernatural claims of at least
ten or fifteen of the more popular religions. However, I am not sure
that religious people would be happy with the likely results of such an
effort because one of the fastest ways to turn a believer into a nonbeliever is religious education. Teach someone, especially a child, an
honest and objective overview of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, traditional Chinese beliefs, Buddhism, animism, Sikhism, Judaism,
Jainism, Bahism, plus the basics of a few extinct religions, and there
is a good chance that this enlightened person will have a hard time
convincing themselves that one of these belief systems is valid and all
the others are not. Religious ignorance is faith's ally. Religious education is faith's enemy.

I am convinced that one of the reasons, perhaps the reason, that I
don't believe in any gods is because I took the time to learn a little bit
about them. My academic background in history and anthropology left
me thinking that it was less likely that gods created us and more likely
that we created them. There are so many gods and yet not a single one
of them has enough compelling evidence to jump ahead of the pack.
This makes it difficult to justify believing in one above all others. The
lack of religious knowledge that is common among believers also
explains why virtually every believer on earth today believes in the
god that his or her parents believed in and/or the god that is most popular in their culture. But how can anyone feel confident that they got
it right if their choice of a god and religion was based less on information than on ignorance?

A common behavior that betrays how common religious ignorance
and prejudice is in the West is that virtually every believer and nonbeliever consistently leaves out every god but one when they discuss
belief. "Is there a God?" "Is God dead?" "Where was God on September 11?" It's always singular and with a "G" in uppercase. Why
do most believers in North America, South America, and Europe act
as if there is only one god worthy of talking about or debating? This
makes no sense because believers say gods are unrestricted by time
and geography. For example, an obscure long-forgotten Sumerian god could be the one real god and nobody even brings him up anymore.
Isn't it an insult to polytheists when only one god is discussed as if that
covers it all? After all, their claim that many gods exist is no more or
less supported by evidence than the monotheists' claim that there is
only one god. Perhaps if believers knew more about past and current
religions, they would be more inclusive.

Competent religious education is a direct threat to belief because
it is far easier to believe in a particular god when one operates under
the false assumption that it is the only god belief on the table. When
one discovers that there are many thousands of gods that humans have
come up with throughout history, confidence may waver. "Wait a
minute," thinks the newly educated believer. "If people have been
making up gods by the thousands since the beginning of civilization
and probably earlier, then how can I be sure that my god is not made
up too? If other religions claim to have miracles, prophecies, and holy
books, then what reason do I have to think my religion is true and
theirs is not? If people who believe in other gods experience personal
encounters with their god, then how do I know my personal encounter
was real? How can I be sure my religion makes more sense than theirs
when there are so many similarities between them?"

The believer who declares that his or her religion makes more
sense than all others makes a hollow claim. There is no superior religion when it comes to claims about the existence of gods. Yes, some
religions may have followers who are economically superior or may
be rooted in societies with greater military power, but when it comes
to the claims a religion makes about the existence of a god or gods
there is no ascending scale of credibility. All gods are equal. They are
equally without good evidence and equally without strong arguments.
No one today considers it but the truth is, Hera is just as likely to be a
real god as Jesus is. Jupiter has the same amount of evidence supporting his existence that Ganesha has. But believers who know
nothing of other gods and other religions cannot know this. People
who are confident that they belong to the one belief system that is
superior to all others must ask themselves how it is that they know this. Most likely, it is a conviction that depends upon a lack of knowledge about other religions. Sensible believers who consider this are
likely to realize that they must look elsewhere to justify their belief. A
declaration of religious superiority is nothing more than evidence of
ignorance.

CHAPTER 29 BIBLIOGRAPHY AND
RECOMMENDED READING

Barna, George. The Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators. Dallas, TX: Word
Publishing, 1996. Contains some surprising statistics about America's
believers.

Bowker, John. World Religions: The Great Faiths Explored and Explained.
New York: DK Publishing, 1997. Excellent artwork highlights this general reader on religion. Good for young readers.

Crapo, Richley H. Anthropology of Religion: The Unity and Diversity of
Religions. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003. A good anthropological
overview of religion.

Knott, Kim. Hindusim: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Excellent, easy-to-read introduction to one of the
world's most popular but least understood religions.

Prothero, Steven. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to
Know And Doesn't. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.

Trainor, Keven, ed., Buddhism: The Illustrated Guide. New York: Oxford
University Press, 2004. Beautifully illustrated sweeping survey of Buddhism. Great for casual browsing.

The Upanishads. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1965. Sacred writings of
the Hindu religion.

 
OaP&'r 30
My god changes lives.

asked Jesus to come into my heart-and He set me free
from homosexuality-forever. That day God changed my
life, and I will be eternally grateful to Him for what He did. Within
two days I was out of my partner's bed, and within two weeks I moved
out of my partner's home and was on my way and walk with Jesus
Christ. My life now is wonderful. I am truly free, and it is all because
of Jesus Christ and His love for me."

These are the words of Stephen Bennett, a "former homosexual."
His story is posted on a religious Web site called "Hope for Homosexuals" that seeks to convince gay people that Jesus can change them
into heterosexuals.

Ted Haggard, a former White House adviser, antigay activist, and
mega-church preacher, was exposed in 2007 for having a longtime
sexual relationship with a male prostitute. After just three weeks of
prayer and religious counseling, however, he was "cured" of homosexuality (Gorski 2007).

These are remarkable claims. Sexuality is a powerful thing and for
it to be so dramatically reengineered is clear evidence that a god is real,
say many believers. But the gods do not only change sexual orientation,
it seems. According to believers, they also cure alcoholism, drug addiction, promiscuity, and many other problems. But is this good evidence
for the existence of Jesus? No, it is not. It could be compelling evidence
if it was only Christians who claimed their god changes lives. The reality is, however, that numerous people within virtually every religion
make the exact same claims. Tom Cruise says Scientology cured or at
least significantly improved his dyslexia (Morton 2008, 245). Does that
mean Lord Xenu, a central character in Scientology doctrine, really
exists? When Mormons say their religion changed their lives, are we all
to conclude that the Book of Mormon must be true? There are countless
stories of Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and animists who say a god changed
their life. I have heard many of these stories firsthand. I have even seen
a few of them happen right before my eyes. I can't say for sure that a
god was responsible but that's what the believers claimed.

What is really going on here? How are so many lives being redirected in such dramatic fashion if there is not a god behind it? Christians, for example, have challenged me to explain how an imaginary
god could possibly get a gay man to stop dating men. They are also
curious as to how a make-believe messiah could ever get so many
people to stop drinking, stop taking drugs, stop beating their wives,
stop gambling, or stop smoking. The answer I offer is that Jesus must
do it the same way that Allah does it, the same way Ganesha does it,
the same way that Dionysus used to do it, and the same way thousands
of spirits in the forest do it for animists.

BOOK: 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God
9.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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