As I mentioned in last week’s “Week in Freethought History,” Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was known to quip, “Christianity might be a good thing, if anyone ever tried it.” Whatever we might think of the relative merits of the dominant religion in the United States, its got a lot of promise.
I’m reminded of a political cartoon I saw in a blog posting recently, comparing the moral failings between Democrats and Republicans. The cartoonist graphically represented the respective political parties racing to leap the moral bar, with the Democrat easily clearing his and the Republican falling over his, only… the Republican bar is set so high that it sounds ironic for the low-bar Democrat to taunt him as a “hypocrite.”
As Americans, we celebrate ourselves for being #1 in work ethic and diversity, in our free speech and free markets, in our legal system and our form of government – even while ignoring our true standing in the world: 9th in adult literacy, 17th in women’s rights, 17th in democracy, 30th in life expectancy, 33rd in science literacy, 35th in effectiveness of education, 37th in quality of health care, 41st in press freedom. We set the bar pretty high, and famously fall short of it, as if to say, “Being American might be a good thing, if anyone ever tried it.”
But I still love being an American and I still believe in my country’s promise – however far short of it we fall. Why criticize? Because I’m reminded of what Carl Sagan said in another context in The Demon-Haunted World (1996, p. 12): “For me it is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. Which attitude is better geared for our long-term survival? Which gives us more leverage on our future?”
But I hold religion to a different standard. In religion, I’m constantly reminded of the wide divergence of promise vs. reality. Promoters of Islam, after they run through their emotional apologetics, typically fall back on the great Muslim lights of their civilization:
• in astronomy – such as Thabit ibn Qurra (d. 901), Albatenius (d. 929), Alfraganus (d. 861?), al-Ghazali (d. 1111) and al-Tusi (d. 1274)
• in geography – such as Abulcasis (d. 1013) and Dreses (d. 1166)
• in mathematics – such as ibn Musa (d. 850), Abul Wafa (d. 998) and Omar Khayyam (d. 1123)
• in medicine such as Avicenna (d. 1037), Rhazes (d. 925), Ibn Zuhr (d. 1161) and Ibn al-Nafis (d. 1288)
• and in law – such as Alboacen (d. 1058), Averroës (d. 1198) and Rumi (d. 1273).
And yet, from Muslim chemist Jabir Ibn Haiyan (Geber), who died in 815, to Muslim explorer Ibn Battuta, who died in 1369, there was a span of less than 600 years of Muslim science… and that ended over 600 years ago! You would be hard pressed to find a Muslim name, from a predominantly Muslim country, in any scientific journal today. If we’re talking about increasing human contentment, it is as if we could say, “Islam might be a good thing, if anyone ever tried it.”
I mentioned Christianity at the beginning of this Reflection. And I’ve spoken before about the broken promises of Christianity. Many are failings, but many are out-and-out lies. In fact, there is a website devoted to the top 10 people who give Christianity a bad name – and these failures to meet the Christian ideal are hardly a comprehensive list:
• Sun Myung Moon, the autocratic leader of the Unification Church;
• David Koresh, the charismatic religious leader during the 1993 Waco Siege;
• Pat Robertson, the TV evangelist whose remarks have run from willfully ignorant to truly bizarre;
• Matthew F. Hale, the white supremacist serving 40 years in prison for attempting in 2005 to solicit the murder of Judge Joan Lefkow;
• Michael Bray, the Christian terrorist who served 46 months of a 10 year sentence for conspiring to bomb 10 abortion clinics in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington D. C., in 1985;
• Paul Jennings Hill, who was executed in 2003 for murdering abortion doctor John Britton and his bodyguard;
• Marshall Herff Applewhite, Jr., who organized the 1997 “Heaven’s Gate” mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, California;
• Jim Jones, the charismatic religious leader who organized the 1978 “People’s Temple” mass suicide in Guiana;
• Charles Coughlin, the Jesuit Catholic who supported Hitler and anti-Semitism in his 1930s radio programs; and
• Fred Phelps, Sr., the gay-bashing, racist leader of the Westboro Baptist Church.
Oh, yes, I’ve heard it before: “No true Christian would…” and so on. Baloney.
And that doesn’t even cover the lies. One website, entitled “What Has Christianity Done For the World,” lists human rights, charity, education and science as the social benefits of Christianity. To these can be added a few more from Roman Catholic apologists: the elevation of the status of women, the abolition of slavery, and the promotion of rights for workers. I’ve put the lie to each one of these claims from the historical record with numerous pages in my Freethought Almanac blog. Christianity dabbles in these areas, but they were never the first, or the boldest, defenders of human dignity – and far from agents of the sum of human happiness.
We are told by Christians and Muslims that God made the world and everything in it. But if humans have to fix things – being God’s beta testers – God is a slacker as an intelligent designer. Yes, “Christianity might be a good thing, if anyone ever tried it.” But if you count wars, inquisitions, pogroms and the consistent and ongoing stifling of science, the less we try it, the better off we are!
The preceding was a commentary in an ongoing series of “Reflections” by John Mill. John Mill is the radio persona of Ronald Bruce Meyer and can be heard on “American Heathen.” “The American Heathen” Internet radio broadcast is aired, live, on Saturday nights from 7:00pm-10:00pm Central Time (8-11pm Eastern Time) on ShockNetRadio.com. Copyright © 2012 Ronald Bruce Meyer.
Copyright © 2012 Ronald Bruce Meyer. To hear an audio version of this Reflection, click on this link: If Anyone Ever Tried It
"It would be safe to say that I'm agnostic." Matthews says. "I think it's very ignorant to say, 'Well, for everything, God has a plan.'"