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THOUGHTS ON RELIGION
One Man's Quest for Understanding
N. D. Guerre
This original work is published anonymously and dedicated to the public domain without any claim to copyright protection. It may be reproduced or distributed in whole or in part in any medium without limitation, restriction or permission.
April 24, 2006
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TABLE OF CONTENTSINTRODUCTION
Why do so many people believe in God? I have contemplated the existence of God for all of my adult life. It fascinates me that so many otherwise intelligent, educated people, many of whom are my closest friends, believe in God. And yet I cannot fathom it. It has never made any sense to me. I do not pretend to understand what life is all about, and I do not need to make up explanations. I am willing to admit that I simply do not know all the answers to life's mysteries.
I used to call myself an agnostic - it sounded better than atheist. The term "atheist" has acquired the connotation of someone evil or undesirable. Perhaps religious people have fostered that notion to help reinforce their sense of self-righteousness. But it conceals a hidden insecurity. At a subconscious level, some people try to enhance their ego by putting down others. They think: "If you don't believe as I do, you must be a bad person, and therefore, I'm better than you are." People often make an association between good character (honesty, fairness, compassion, and integrity) and religious values, with the inference that if you are not religious, you must somehow be of bad character.
Just recently, for example, I heard about a Boy Scout, an Eagle Scout at that, who was being threatened by the Boy Scouts of America with expulsion if he did not refute his atheistic beliefs. This was for being honest (a Boy Scout creed) about his religious beliefs. The argument advanced by the organization was that he would not be a "good role model". In other words, an atheist cannot, in their opinion, be a good person.
And you don't have to be an atheist or agnostic. In many religions, if you don't belong to that particular sect, you are considered a sinner, an infidel, a bad person - someone condemned to eternal hell and damnation. People define themselves by excluding or demonizing others.
I was brought up to be honest and fair, to be considerate of other people. Sure, I have the same weaknesses that everyone else has. I make mistakes; I do dumb things; I hurt other people's feelings without meaning to. But I believe my behavior is grounded in strong moral values. I'm conscientious about what is right and wrong. But does that mean I have to be religious?
It seems that here in America I am in an incredibly small minority. I have read that the United States is the most religious nation on Earth. For example, 59% of Americans say that religion plays a very important role in their lives compared to 11% in France. And in Germany, only 3 percent of Protestants routinely attend church. 94% of Americans believe in some form of God, 81% call themselves Christian, and perhaps less than 5% would call themselves atheists or agnostics.
My parents were not particularly religious. Although I was expected to attend church school (Presbyterian USA) every Sunday, we rarely went to church service. I attended church a few times during college and at various locations where I have worked, usually at a friend's urging. I remember visiting a Presbyterian church in the South and being asked if I "was saved". The really strange thing was, I didn't know at first what the lady meant! How could I have attended Sunday school for so many years, even joined the church for that matter, and not learned the central issue of Christianity, namely the concept of salvation.
Anyway, I must have gradually drifted away from the church. I remember my Sunday school teacher told us that we might lose faith during our college years, when we would be exposed to different philosophies. But I don't think I ever had any strong convictions. The ideas just didn't stick. At first it didn't seem to matter. I considered myself an agnostic. I would tell myself that I really didn't know if God existed or not. But as time went by, I became more certain of my beliefs.
It may just be coincidental, but it seems that since I began this exercise four and a half years ago in the fall of 2001, there has been a surge of interest in religious matters. Numerous articles and programs have appeared in the media about the origins and history of the Judeo, Christian and Muslim faiths. First Amendment issues have once again been thrust into the spotlight. In this "politically correct" phase we are currently going through, it sometimes seems that Christians are being singled out for "persecution". There are issues about removing the Ten Commandments from public places, removing all forms of Christian symbolism during Christmas, removing prayer from the schools, removing God from our Pledge of Allegiance, and on and on. No wonder Christians feel they're being picked on. In Pasco County, Florida recently, officials banned Christmas trees from public buildings after the county attorney decided they were religious symbols! Christians are an easy target - many of our institutions and customs are Christian based simply because it has been the dominant faith of this nation for two centuries.
Feeling threatened by the perceived rising tide of atheism, some Christians are calling for a boycott of secular public schools. One would wonder if these people are so insecure that they fear their beliefs cannot stand on their own merits or that they should receive help from the government and expect the public schools to reinforce their beliefs. Since when did we charge the public schools with promoting Christian beliefs? Besides, would Jesus approve of his followers withdrawing from society in order to preserve the purity of their beliefs? What if the Apostle Paul had not spread the Christian message throughout the non-Christian world? If the earliest Christians had isolated themselves from non-believers, gone only to Christian schools and bought only from Christian merchants, it's unlikely Christianity would have become what it is today.
I wouldn't necessarily disagree with any philosophy or religion whose sole purpose was to emulate and promote Christ's teachings of humanity and compassion for the poor and disadvantaged. I'm sure religion serves a useful purpose in dealing with suffering, uncertainty, fear and moral issues. Unfortunately, these admirable qualities are too often associated with a god hypothesis. It's only the idea of a god, especially a vengeful god intent on punishing the disbeliever, that I take issue with. When religious people start telling me I'm a miserable sinner, and that I have to believe in their God or Jesus Christ to keep from going to hell for eternity, I draw the line. They become fair game for my observations and criticisms. These observations, however, apply to all theocratic religions. The reader may assume that I am particularly harsh on Christianity, but that is only because it is the religion I am most familiar with.
But the question here is about whether God exists and why humans tend to believe that some sort of god exists. You can be forced to do or say many things, but you cannot even force yourself to believe something if you don't believe it! I cannot make myself believe in a god if common sense and intelligent reasoning tell me otherwise.
Religious people think that unbelievers must be very unhappy, unfulfilled people. They know the positive role religion has played in their lives, they know the comfort and assurance they have felt. They know how their faith has sustained them through life's inevitable trials. So they assume that people who don't share their faith must not be coping very well. They probably think these people must be miserable souls. They may even feel sorry for them.
But I am doing just fine, thank you! Perhaps one reason I am not religious is that I have been very fortunate throughout my life. Perhaps I am not as vulnerable to the promise of a better life. I have enjoyed excellent health. I have never gone hungry or felt insecure. I have a loving wife, a comfortable home and money in the bank. Of course that doesn't guarantee happiness, but it helps. Most important, however, I feel content with myself and my life. There is an ancient truth that says that "acceptance of divine revelation presupposes in the subject a natural awareness of insufficiency or dissatisfaction."30
I have chosen to remain anonymous. That is because this subject, unfortunately, cannot be shared with others without arousing strong emotions and animosities. Countless people have suffered and even died over these issues, and I have no desire to create hard feelings or to isolate myself from friends and family.
Throughout this document one will find numerous repetitions. I have attempted to unify many of these ideas, but often I may simply find a different way to express the same general idea. And often the same subject can be legitimately included under more than one heading.
In many respects this work constitutes a summary of my ongoing study of religion. In addition to my own opinions and observations, I will occasionally make notes on subjects I wish to remember, such as current or historical events, religious practices and biblical references. This document was written over a four and a half year period from late 2001 to early 2006. Therefore, references to current events often reflect the time period when the comments were written and may not necessarily be updated to the date of publication.
In this document I will frequently criticize religious people for allowing their prejudices and preconceptions to cloud their thinking. My cynicism at times may seem palatable. But I recognize that I frequently succumb to the same common human tendency toward intellectual bias. I will filter what I hear and read so as to favor those things that complement my beliefs. I will freely admit that I too am guilty of this same offense.
I am fairly certain that most religious people, even assuming they have read this far, would pass judgment at this point without bothering to read this document in its entirety. That would be unfortunate, for I believe that I have made some good arguments for what I believe. What I write here are simply my beliefs. No one, as yet at least, can prove that God exists or that he does not exist.
September 11, 2001
The events of September 11, 2001 focused renewed attention on the subject of religion. Clearly, religious belief played a major role in this calamity. People will say that the Islamic fundamentalists' beliefs are a perversion of religion. But I would suggest that they are simply different in the specifics of their faith, just as all religious sects and denominations vary only in their specific beliefs. They are all variations on the same basic theme. They all teach that only their beliefs are correct, that only they hear the true word of God. The rest of the world is heathen, infidels, unbelievers. It all depends on your perspective.
The imams of Saudi Arabia openly preach hatred toward the United States and our allies. They hate even the idea that non-believers have a presence in their sacred land, home of some of Islam's holiest sites. Saudi Arabia is a breeding ground for terrorists. Fifteen of the nineteen highjackers on 9-11 were Saudis, as is Osama bin Laden himself. It is said that the root cause of bin Laden's hatred toward America is our military presence in Saudi Arabia since the first Gulf War.
Perhaps religion is simply the vehicle by which these people can express their hatred. They are not that different from any group that hates another group that is somehow different. One characteristic of such a group is that they blame their problems and insecurities on the influence of evil somehow attributed to the other group. Or their problem may be rooted in poor self-esteem. Everyone wants to feel good about themselves. We all have a need to nourish our egos. But at some level, these people are unsure about themselves. By joining a group with similar beliefs, they feel empowered, accepted and reassured, their egos feed on each other and they can convince themselves that they are better than everyone else.
Why do they hate us so? Could it also be because we represent everything they desire but cannot have? Here we have a group of people who are, for the most part, poor and repressed. They see people in other cultures who have a better life than they do, and they resent it. Israel has come to represent such a culture. The Israelis have established a thriving, modern economy in the Middle East where, all around them, the Arabs still live in antiquity (in spite of their vast oil reserves). The Arabs then use Israel as a scapegoat for their own failures. They know (again at some deep level of their psychic) that they can't measure up. How do they cope? They join a group with similar feelings, feed on each other's ignorance and feel empowered. Perhaps Islam is attractive because, in some interpretations of the Quran, there is justification for persecuting the non-believer. Certainly, Islam is not alone in sanctioning this kind of behavior. The Christian church has a long history of repression, violence and intolerance, notably the crusades and the inquisition.
I'm certainly no expert on Muslim fundamentalism, so these conjectures are nothing more. Our government would have us believe that the root cause of Muslim inspired terrorism is their hatred of everything the free world represents: democracy, freedom of expression, separation of church and state and lifestyle issues like sexual liberalism and what they see as religious and moral decadence. In other words, they hate us for who we are. But there are experts in Muslim culture who believe that, more importantly, they hate us for what we do. That is to say, they hate our presence and influence in countries that are predominately Muslim. They see our presence as a threat to their religion; they perceive us as enemies of Islam. In their religious fervor, they see themselves as defending Islam against attack. To them, their jihad against the West is defensive rather than offensive. If this is true, one can easily argue that our invasion of Iraq was exactly the worst thing we could have done!
Fundamentalists will pick and choose those beliefs that suit their purpose and desires. Muslim extremists, like the Taliban or al Qaeda for example, claim to adhere to a lifestyle harboring back to the 11th century. But they have no qualms about using modern technology like satellite phones, modern weapons, Toyota pickups and commercial aircraft to further their aims. They enjoy the benefits of modern society while at the same time condemning it.
At times it seems to me these people (Muslim extremists, al Qaeda, Palestinians) are acting out of pure emotion rather than rational common sense. Like most religions, Islam fulfills the deep seated emotional needs of its followers. Their actions are motivated by a particularly strong religious fervor. I am told that fundamentalist Islam is even more passionate in its beliefs than fundamentalist Christianity.
Perhaps they feel they have no other recourse than to pursue terrorism. As a semi-organized group, how can they fight their perceived enemies? They know they can't take on nations and governments by conventional military action. Their arsenals (at least for now) are limited. So they reason that they can somehow accomplish their objectives by terrorism. Many think they have a mandate from God (Allah) to rid their part of the world of all the infidels who do not share their beliefs and the governments that support them.
But by what twisted logic do they think terrorism will further their cause? What do they hope to accomplish? Do they actually think we're going to give in to their demands? Of course not! Terrorist acts against unarmed, innocent civilians can only increase the resolve of civilized people to fight back.
Another reason that Islam attracts these kinds of people is the promise of salvation (to borrow a Christian term), of favor with God (Allah) if they die for the cause, if they die in the execution of what they perceive as God's will. Thus we have the suicide terrorist. This provides two convenient motives: first it tempers the natural fear of dying and second it provides hope for a better life. These people believe that their actions will guarantee a direct accent to paradise, into the presence of Allah himself who will be pleased, that they will become martyrs. They are told that 72 dark-eyed virgins will be waiting for them in paradise!
They believe that only they are in God's good graces, that God will guide and protect them in their mission, that we, the so-called "infidels", are God's enemies, evil people that God wants eliminated. The terrorist's objective is always to strike fear into the hearts of the infidel, to make us tremble at the wrath of God.
I see a "holy war" coming. I fear that this movement of religious fundamentalism and extremism will get out of hand. We (the US, certain of our allies and the governments of many Islamic countries) continue to aggravate and intimidate these people with aggressive policies of occupation and oppression. Their numbers and frustration are growing.
Many people turn to religion for comfort and answers. I can understand how religion gives people comfort. But it certainly doesn't provide any answers.
After September 11, I saw so many people praising and thanking God, reaching out to him for answers. If they believe that God rules the universe, then they must accept that he also caused, or at least allowed, this catastrophe to happen. Most fundamentalists, in fact, believe that all natural and human events are part of some grand plan of God's. So why would you want to praise God (unless you were a terrorist)!
I see this same phenomenon after natural disasters, people thanking God to have survived. How can they be thanking God – this God of theirs may have just killed a thousand people and they're thanking him! A mother's son dies in an automobile accident, and she says "thank the Lord he didn't suffer long". For heaven's sake lady, wake up; your Lord just took away your son, and you're thanking him?
Then there was the lady whose home burned down after being struck by lightning. "God was taking care of us" she said, referring to the fact the family was not home at the time. Apparently, he wasn't looking after the house very well. She said she could only wonder why this happened. "I'm hoping the Lord will give me an answer." Why do people think there has to be some divine reason for everything that happens? Lightning strikes because of known electrical properties of the atmosphere, not because some god pushed the lightning button.
A family grieves over their infant son who was borne with a rare liver disease. These people are praising God, saying things like "God has chosen (our son) for a special purpose." or "We pray that He will receive the glory in whatever outcome we face." and "We fully trust that God will provide for our every need." Surely they must realize that if their faith is true, God must have created their son's illness in the first place.
In his eulogy to his father, Michael Reagan talked about how his father would hug him whenever he entered the room, even though Alzheimer's disease had robbed his father's memory of who he was. He referred to it was a gift from God. I just don't understand this kind of reasoning – why would he thank his God for a hug when this same God had erased his father's memory?
I saw an interview on TV recently with the father of a lady who died of asthma, leaving her 21 month old son alone for four days before anyone knew what had happened. The grandfather said that he thanked God for sparing his grandson. That doesn't make any sense - that was the same God who took away his daughter!
After Hurricane Jeanne hit Florida, President Bush said he went to church "and thanked God that so few people have lost their lives." Of course his God had just decimated Florida for the forth time, killed over a hundred people all told, and yet he was thanking God?
We worry about man-made "weapons of mass destruction". But natural disasters and disease have killed on a grand scale since time immemorial. Pandemics have killed millions of people. The Asian tsunami of 2004 was a colossal disaster of biblical proportions. So many innocent people lost their lives and countless more were left homeless and grieving for loved ones. There was suffering beyond anything I can imagine. Such a disaster makes 9/11 look like child's play! And yet we don't call God a terrorist. Why? He certainly meets the definition: someone who purposely kills or injures innocent people. And what would be God's reason? Is he trying to tell us something, as some would have us believe? That's just about the dumbest thing I can imagine! Others believe that he creates our misery because Adam and Eve disobeyed him – another totally insane idea. Or maybe he just hates us for some reason. None of this makes any sense whatsoever!
Of course, the Arab media is blaming the tsunami on the wrath of Allah. They say that it was Allah's retribution on all those infidel tourists for their sinful ways. The vast majority of victims, who were Muslim, died as martyrs, they will tell you! Talk about convoluted reasoning! Why is it every time there is a disaster, religious people will say it was God's retribution or punishment?
Now the worst natural disaster in US history has struck the gulf coast. Before it's all over, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita will have killed over a thousand people and caused unprecedented economic loses. As I am writing this, the television news channels are showing the utter destruction of this horrific catastrophe. We are only beginning to realize the absolute misery and human suffering this storm has caused. And yet already I am hearing the inevitable references to God's judgment. One writer states that "this should truly be a wake-up call for (these people) to find Jesus". Others have suggested that these mostly poor, black survivors somehow deserved this calamity because of a perceived sinful lifestyle of crime, loose morals and prostitution, the clear implication being that this disaster was some sort of divine punishment. How these alleged Christians could be so incredibly insensitive to the plight of so many people is beyond me.
In the wake of such disasters, we hear all kinds of angry criticism and blame for the inadequate preparation, slow response and poor relief efforts of government officials. These suffering people are understandably angry; but the curious thing is, you never hear anyone venting their anger at God, who after all is supposed to have caused all this misery and destruction. Instead, we hear praises to God for his blessings! One Baton Rouge parishioner was quoted as saying: "We understand a lot of people have lost faith and hope. We want to help them turn their eyes to God. God spared so many people." Doesn't that seem like an odd thing to say after God has just wiped out the entire Gulf coast, killing hundreds of people? Is everyone afraid to blame God for fear that he might take offense and bring even more calamity?
If someone flies a large commercial airliner into a building, killing thousands, or blows up a train killing hundreds, we call him a terrorist and seek justice. If someone creates an earthquake, hurricane or tsunami that kills hundreds of thousands, we call him God and give thanks!
Think of a scenario where someone encounters two friends on the street and tries to rob them. One person puts up a fight and gets shot dead. The other survives the ordeal. Now imagine the survivor thanking the robber for sparing his life! Now wouldn't that be ridiculous!
On the Larry King Show recently, religious leaders were asked the question: why would a loving God allow these things to happen? All sorts of answers and excuses were given, all involving God and references to some sort of divine plan or purpose. But the obvious question was never asked: why would we even think there is a God who would cause this to happen? To me, natural disasters illustrate a perfect argument against the existence of God. Doesn't it seem more logical to assume that natural disasters occur because of natural processes, not because of some willful act? Believers, when confronted by contradictory information or logic will find any reason to deny the obvious in order to justify the existence of their God.
These people say that we cannot understand the will of God. Every time you point out something that doesn't make sense, they will say "well, God acts in mysterious ways; it is not our place to question him." Or "God has a plan which we cannot understand." Billy Graham would say "it is a mystery". And besides, these people believe they will all meet again in heaven anyway, so perhaps they can accept suffering more easily than the rest of us. Rather than search for convoluted reasons to explain why God would allow something so horrible to happen, wouldn't it be more reasonable to assume there is no God? If we assume there is no God, then we can at least begin to understand these calamities. Natural events occur for natural reasons, much of which we already understand. When the facts do not reasonably support a theory, one should suspect the theory is false.
In the Bible, Job says "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord." Paul says "In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus." Yet these men suffered terrible misfortunes. So why would they praise God? Religious people somehow reason that, since their God is a loving God, he must have a good reason for our suffering and that we should just accept it and give thanks. "The lessons of Job's encounter with God should reverberate through all who question God's reasons for their lives and sufferings. When contrasted with the glory of God and His larger purposes, our minds are far too puny to ever fully grasp His overall plans and purposes. We need to trust that hardship and suffering, while hard to accept, are part of that plan."50
Why do bad things happen to good people? People want to know. Religious people will say that we simply cannot understand God's will, that we should not try. (Romans 11:33) Some will explain that it is a test of their religious faith. This sounds to me like no explanation at all, like a convenient way to avoid the obvious: that bad things sometimes happen for perfectly understandable reasons. In the case of 9-11, it was because nineteen idiots flew four airliners into heavily populated buildings!
Some families of passengers on the ill fated United Flight 93 thought that perhaps these people, many of whom were athletic and pro-active, were placed on the flight by God for a higher purpose. They believe that to ascribe the events of September 11 to fate is to absolve everyone of responsibility. "It's easier to think it was fate," Joan Glick said "Then everyone is off the hook."2 But it's also easy to say "it was God's will".
In an article recently, Jessica Lynch, the rescued Iraqi prisoner of war, was said to have asked the question: "Why did I survive when others didn't? I mean, obviously, there has to be a reason." Why does there always have to be a reason for why things happen? Why do people act like there has to be some sort of divine plan for everything that happens?
After the Columbia space shuttle disaster, there were people in Iraq – and probably throughout the Muslim world – who said that this was "God's retribution on America". People try to find a divine reason for everything. They will say that a disaster was God's wrath for not being faithful. Or people will say that we cannot know God's reasons for letting something bad happen. Why can't people accept the idea that things often happen for natural and understandable reasons. A tornado happens because of the convergence of warm moist air with cold dry air, cars wreck because someone wasn't watching where they were driving, and planes fly into buildings because of someone's perverted religious beliefs. Things just happen; why does there always have to be a purpose; why does there have to be a god involved?
Ancient cultures attributed natural disasters to the wrath of their gods. The 1804 Hawaiian epidemic on Oahu killed thousands, and to the kahunas or spiritual leaders it was clear that the gods were very angry. Offerings were prepared: hundreds of hogs, coconuts and bananas, even human sacrifices, were of no avail and the epidemic ran its course.
Many religious fundamentalists (e.g. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson) say that the events of September 11 were a wake-up call from God to repent of our sins (abortion, homosexuality, paganism, feminism, sex in entertainment, forbidding prayer in schools, etc.). They believe God was sending us a message. Are they telling us that someone capable of creating the universe is unable to come up with any better way to communicate with us? See Divine Communication.
Why doesn't God tell us all, in a clear and consistent manner, exactly what he wants us to do or not to do (which he is surely capable of doing) instead of casting down calamitous retributions every time we fail to understand these indirect, obscure messages he supposedly sends to us by way of signs (strange, unexplained happenings), prophets, saviours and ancient texts.
The following article was recently e-mailed to me. It is very thought provoking, and I believe correct in many regards. But it implies that the events of September 11, 2001 are in some way a result of our increasingly sinful and secular lifestyle:
Is God Trying to Tell Us Something?
Did you see where Billy Graham's daughter being interviewed on the Early Show a few days ago about the September 11th terrorist attack and Jane Clayson asked her "How could God let something like this happen?"
Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said "I believe that God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman that He is, I believe that He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand that He leave us alone?
"Let's see, I think it started when Madeline Murray O'Hare (she was murdered, her body was found recently) complained she didn't want any prayer in our schools, and we said OK. Then, someone said you better not read the Bible in school... the Bible that says thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself. And we said, OK. Then, Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn't spank our children when they misbehave because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr. Spock's son committed suicide) and we said an expert should know what he's talking about so we said OK.
"Then, someone said teachers and principals better not discipline our children when they misbehave. And the school administrators said no faculty member in this school better touch a student when they misbehave because we don't want any bad publicity, and we surely don't want to be sued. (There's big difference between disciplining and touching, beating, smacking, humiliating, kicking, etc.) And we said, OK.
"Then someone said, let's let our daughters have abortions if they want, and they won't even have to tell their parents. And we said, OK.
"Then some wise school board member said, since boys will be boys and they're going to do it anyway, let's give our sons all the condoms they want, so they can have all the fun they desire, and we won't have to tell their parents they got them at school. And we said, OK.
"Then some of our top elected officials said it doesn't matter what we do in private as long as we do our jobs. And agreeing with them, we said it doesn't matter to me what anyone, including the President, does in private as long as I have a job and the economy is good.
"And then someone said let's print magazines with pictures of nude women and call it wholesome, down-to-Earth appreciation for the beauty of the female body. And we said, OK.
"And then someone else took that appreciation a step further and published pictures of nude children and then stepped further still by making them available on the internet. And we said OK, they're entitled to their free speech.
"And then the entertainment industry said, let's make TV shows and movies that promote profanity, violence, and illicit sex. And let's record music that encourages rape, drugs, murder, suicide, and satanic themes. And we said it's just entertainment, it has no adverse effect, and nobody takes it seriously anyway, so go right ahead.
"Now we're asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don't know right from wrong, and why it doesn't bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves. Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with "We reap what we sow."
"Then there was the student who wrote "Dear God, Why didn't you save the little girl killed in her classroom?" Sincerely, Concerned Student... And the reply "Dear Concerned Student, I am not allowed in schools". Sincerely, God.
"Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world's going to hell. Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says. Funny how everyone wants to go to heaven provided they do not have to believe, think, say, or do anything the Bible says.
"Funny how someone can say "I believe in God" but still follow Satan who, by the way, also "believes" in God. Funny how we are quick to judge but not to be judged. Funny how you can send a thousand 'jokes' through e-mail and they spread like wildfire, but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing. Funny how the lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene pass freely through cyberspace, but the public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace. Funny how someone can be so fired up for Christ on Sunday, but be an invisible Christian the rest of the week.
"Are you laughing yet??
"Funny how when you go to forward this message, you will not send it to many on your address list because you're not sure what they believe, or what they will think of you for sending it to them. Funny how I can be more worried about what other people think of me than what God thinks of me.
"Are you thinking yet???
Anne Graham laments that people will hesitate to forward her message. She explains this fact by correctly observing that often one may not be sure of the recipient's religious beliefs. In fact, this lack of universal belief is one of my primary arguments against the existence of God. Although she does make some excellent points about our lifestyle and morals, this article seems to imply that 9-11, if not retribution by God, was at least allowed to happen because of our sinful behavior. To think that 9-11 was some sort of message from an angry God, chastising us for our bad behavior, seems utterly ridiculous to me.
Hello, are you thinking yet??
THE NATURE OF RELIGION
All religions rely on belief in that which cannot be observed, demonstrated or proven. That is essentially the definition of faith. Christian fundamentalists will tell you that what matters most to God is simply that you believe in him. (That is, you believe whatever they believe you should believe!) What's wrong with this picture? God wants us to believe in something he keeps hidden from us, something intrinsically non-existent. If there really is a God, wouldn't he want to reveal himself? Rather than tell us directly, he prefers to let mankind flounder around trying to find the "truth". And as a result, mankind comes up with a thousand different opinions as to the "truth" Quite frankly, this has the markings of "manmade" all over it.
Every religion in one form or another seeks the favor of their gods, protection against the dangers and uncertainties of life, spiritual community with fellow human beings, courage in conflict, comfort in grief, guidance in their daily concerns and, in most cases, hope for some sort of immortality.
Consider what all religions have in common:
1. They try to explain what happens after we die.
Religious people will ask of the non-believer: "Aren't you concerned about what will happen to you when you die?" This is probably the principal reason for religious belief. It fills the need to calm our fears about death. Every religion has an answer to that question. We all want to believe there has to be something after death. We all want to believe that things will be better in a life hereafter.
2. They attempt to explain the unknown and unexplainable.
Religion provides reassurance to overcome our insecurities about life. Who are we? Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is the meaning of our lives? People want answers to these questions. They don't know who they are or where they are going. For some people, the contemplation of life can be overwhelming. Fear and anxiety are the precursors of religion.
I believe that all religious dogma stem from a need to allay our fears and uncertainties about life and death. It is all so very hard to understand. That's why we have religion – it's relatively easy to make up explanations that will answer our questions and calm our fears.
Our unique ability to think rationally makes us vulnerable to religious beliefs. We are capable of reasoning and analysis. This leads to all sorts of questions and fears about things we do not understand. Who are we? What is our purpose? What is the meaning of life? It leaves us feeling empty, alone and frightened. Then along comes someone who tells us that there is a god who created us and loves us, that we do indeed have a purpose, that we will leave our miserable existence when we die and go to a land of milk and honey. Oh, what a wonderful feeling!
It is human nature to crave relationships and security. We are social creatures. >From birth, we cling to our mother's breast. We look to our parents for comfort and guidance (at least until our adolescent years). Many people, as they mature, feel a continuing need for that security. In our subconscious, we may revert to our childhood fears of abandonment. And so it is not hard to understand why so many people need a "heavenly father".
People are afraid of things they cannot understand. Through religious belief, they attribute events to either good spirits or bad spirits. They create rituals to appease their gods or ward off evil. They believe in a devil to whom they can attribute the evil of the world.
Some people are uncomfortable with the fact that many of the events in our lives are beyond our control. It is human nature to want to be in control, to determine for ourselves how our lives will play out. But many things impact our lives that we cannot control. By creating a God, who we believe does control these events, we can rest assured that whatever happens must be God's will and therefore acceptable. Religion helps people deal with what they cannot control or understand.
You hear a lot among religious people about truth. Truth is a central theme in every religion. Every religion it seems has a corner on the truth. And one religion's truth is another's blasphemy. But when it comes to religion, truth is whatever you wish to make it. Religious people talk about false teachers or prophets. They condemn "heresy" as anything contrary to the established teachings of their church. In medieval times, one accused of heresy could be condemned to death, or worse!
Many fundamentalist Christians believe that the Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, etc. are cults because they believe things that are not "the true word of God". In a campus magazine in 2000, Bob Jones III referred to Catholics, Mormons and Muslims as non-Christian cults, a statement for which he was roundly criticized. "It is a surprise to me that anybody would think that there was something untoward about a Christian institution being opposed to a false religious system." In other words, a cult or "false religion" is any group of people who believe differently than you do. Every religion believes that only it knows the "truth". But if you approach any subject with preconceived ideas or beliefs (e.g. religious dogma), how can you ever be sure of arriving at the truth?
3. They believe that people have a spirit.
People speak of three components of the self: body, mind and spirit. When we speak of the body or the mind, it's pretty clear what we're talking about. But the spirit – how do you define the spirit? Many people feel a need to believe that there is more than just a body and a mind, that there is a certain essence of who we are that transcends the body and mind. They believe we have a soul. They speak of the soul like it is some sort of blueprint of who we are - like a record of our genes - that God keeps on file for future reference on the Day of Judgment.
People often feel that there is something missing in their lives. As described by the famous writer, C. S. Lewis, they may be looking for a certain joy they experienced as a child. They may have a compelling desire to capture some past experience that was deeply religious in nature, an awareness of something larger than life. But as Lewis eventually discovers, just the desire itself becomes the most gratifying religious experience, in this case the desire to feel closer to God. He, like many religious people, believed that one cannot attain true joy or happiness apart from God. In this sense, we can consider the spirit as that part of us in which God resides. This kind of spirit is often referred to as the "Holy Spirit". (See Divine Communication)
4. They believe they can predict the future.
This is called prophecy, and there's lots of it in the Bible. Some believe that God has a plan that spans from the beginning to the end of time, including a plan for each one of us. This begs the question: If God has pre-ordained everything that happens in the universe, if we have no control over our lives, why make any kind of effort at all? Why, for example, worry about diet and exercise if God has already decided when and how we will die?
Some believe that there are secret codes in the Bible that foretell the future. They believe these codes "warn that our time left on Earth may be short" as suggested in a recent book on the subject. In the chapter on Divine Communication I explore this strange practice of God's to communicate with us by means of ancient texts, signs (events people believe are messages from God) and strange codes embedded in religious texts. Is this some sort of game God is playing with us? "Let's see now" he says "how many people can we confuse today," or "how many people can we send to hell because they refused to play the game?"
5. They provide comfort to the sick, the bereaved, the disadvantaged, and the persecuted.
Religion provides the reassurance that something better awaits the believer in a life hereafter. There is so much suffering and oppression in the world and always has been. Some of this is brought on by religious and political oppression and some by natural disasters and disease. It is natural that suffering people want to believe that there is a better life after death. They want to believe that the God whom they worship will reward them with an eternal life in paradise.
Perhaps the most famous of Christ's teachings is the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew, and from this, the Beatitudes: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 5:3-10)
Furthermore, in the case of oppression, it is natural that people want to see their oppressors punished; they want revenge. The bad people, of course, will go to hell. In Revelation we are promised that there will be suffering like never before. But believers have nothing to fear because they will ascend to a heavenly eternal paradise. The pale horse of the Apocalypse, for example, signifies death and Hades. After death you stay in Hades until the judgment. Then those who did not accept Jesus Christ as their personal saviour will go to hell with all its horrible suffering for eternity. (Sorry, it's too late to change your mind after you get there.) It is curious to note that according to fundamentalist Protestant belief (as opposed to Catholic belief, for example) even Adolph Hitler may have gotten into heaven if he accepted Christ as this saviour before he died!
Life is full of pain and suffering. There are accidents, disasters, disease and wars. We suffer the loss of loved ones. Life can be tough. I can understand why people want answers to life's perplexing questions and reassurance that it's going to be alright, that it's all part of some greater plan that we cannot understand. We need the illusion of someone greater than us to hold our hand and comfort us.
In the introduction, I pointed out that I have been lucky and have escaped much of the suffering I see and read about every day. Perhaps that is one reason I am not religious. Perhaps some day I will look at my religious friends and envy them for their peace and assurance. Perhaps some day I too will crave the spiritual support that comes with religious belief. I'm not arguing that point here. What I am saying is that I cannot simply "turn on" that spirituality by will. I cannot believe what I don't believe.
6. They provide a guide to individual behavior.
Without certain constraints, humans are naturally driven to self destruction. We are selfish. We are aggressive. We are naturally susceptible to fear, hate, love, jealousy and a host of other emotions. We do not understand our sexual urges (being as they are of animal origin) and therefore create rules (both secular and religious) to control these urges.
A common doctrine of Judeo-Christian religions is that man was condemned to a life of sin because of the transgressions of Adam and Eve. This idea seems utterly absurd to me. Why should I be punished for someone else's behavior thousands of years ago? It is far more reasonable to believe that human beings (having evolved from lower forms) retain elements of a primitive mind that, at one time, served a useful purpose. (Fear, for example, was a defensive mechanism that prepared us for a fight or flight response.) Today, many of these behaviors are unnecessary and often inappropriate. Many of these behaviors are what religionists call sin. It is necessary, in any civilized society, to counter these impulses by rational thought and self discipline. One purpose of religion, like secular government, is to set limits on human behavior, to establish rules and enforce those rules by threat of punishment.
Look at the civil wars in Africa where unrestrained and undisciplined soldiers raid a village, force their way into homes, and seemingly for the thrill of it, kill innocent civilians or dismember them by hacking off their hands, arms and legs. Of course they rape the women first. Clearly, civilized society needs some form of self-control.
We have the seeds of evil in each one of us. Under stress, or peer pressure, or when a mob mentality sets in, we are all capable of actions we would later be ashamed of. It is at times like this that we need moral restraints. Unfortunately, mankind has always had a natural inclination toward violence. (Isn't it curious that God does likewise?) Religious people are not immune to this weakness. Look at all the wars and persecution brought about by religious conflict.
"For a hell-raising species like ours - with too much intelligence for our own good and too little discipline to know what to do with it – there have always been other, more utilitarian reasons to get religion. Chief among them is survival.
"Even among people who regard spiritual life as wishful hocus-pocus, there is a growing sense that humans may not be able to survive without it. It's hard enough getting by in a fang-and-claw world in which killing, thieving and cheating pay such rich dividends. It's harder still when there's no moral cop walking the beat to blow the whistle when things get out of control."52
One argument for religion is that we all need to be accountable to someone for our actions, that there is a basic human need to answer to a higher authority. Sure, we are to some extent accountable to ourselves, our parents, our spouse, our neighbors or a judge, but these accountabilities are usually negotiable and not necessarily absolute. On the other hand, if we believe that a god is watching us and that he will someday judge our actions, there is a powerful influence to be on our best behavior! God's judgment is non-negotiable.
Our human need for some ultimate authority to govern our behavior reminds me of how the ethnic and racial factions in some third-world countries can never seem to settle their differences by themselves and end up with either an outside influence forcing a settlement or the strong hand of an oppressive dictator to maintain order. It's also reminds me of how parents are sometimes needed to force squabbling children to behave.
In order to try and understand these behavioral impediments, man has conveniently created the Devil or Satan. That way people can blame the Devil for all their undesirable urges without really trying to understand the underlying cause - which is, of course, the evolution of our primitive mind. More on that later. (Evolution & Creation)
Christians often associate good moral values with their religion, as if somehow Christianity was a prerequisite for morality. But religion is not the only basis for teaching values. I believe the teaching of values belongs primarily in the home, and this can be done with or without religious overtones.
Unfortunately, too many homes are unstable today. Parents are relinquishing their responsibilities to teach good behavior to their children. (It's hard to teach good values if you don't have any yourself.) As a result, we see people every day doing things I was taught were wrong. In spite of the fact that there is a resurgence of interest in religious issues, and that apparently a vast majority believe in a personal God, we are witnessing a gradual breakdown in what I was taught were Judeo-Christian moral values. Some examples of moral breakdown are corporate leaders who get obscenely rich at the expense of their stakeholders or, as in one famous case recently, cheat on stock transactions; people who cheat on their tax returns; politicians who sell their influence; sex scandals even in the church; the pervasiveness of the idea of getting something for nothing, e.g. the popularity of playing the lottery; Hollywood's portrayal (both TV and the movies) of dysfunctional behavior as the norm; students who cheat on tests. In an interview, one student, when asked why he cheated, answered that he didn't think much about it since it wasn't any different than what he observed in the adult world. Everyone's doing it, so it must be alright.
7. Another element of religious belief is that we cannot rely on ourselves to solve all our problems.
The secular man believes he is in control of his life, that he can rely on his judgment and that he doesn't need to depend on a supreme being for guidance. This sort of pride and self-confidence is considered sinful by most religions. These people teach that we should feel humble before God, confessing our inability to manage our own lives and the need for eternal guidance. They would suggest that we should be ashamed to feel pride in ourselves and our accomplishments. C.S. Lewis describes pride as a "spiritual cancer".
One reason for these feelings is that many people cannot seem to find satisfaction with their accomplishments. No matter how successful they may be, they feel that there is something missing. There is an emptiness, a loneliness, a pervasive feeling that their lives are without purpose or meaning. There is the realization that some day they will die and all their efforts, along with their very identity, will be lost forever. To these people, God fulfills a need to understand that life is all part of some divine, eternal plan. Even a successful, prosperous life without God seems unfulfilling and pointless.
In his book The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren states: "One problem long-term Christians have is that they forget how hopeless it felt to be without Christ. We must remember that no matter how contented or successful people appear to be, without Christ they are hopelessly lost and headed for eternal separation from God."63
8. One last thought: To some extent, religion is about power and control.
This has been especially true in the past. The church would dupe the people with promises of eternal happiness, so they would not revolt against the established order and demand their share of earthly goods. More recently, free societies have realized there is a more democratic means to govern the affairs of men. And they have recognized the danger of allowing religious institutions to share in that power.
So these are things religions have in common. Some of these functions serve useful purposes. Many people need comfort, security, guidance and discipline. Human suffering is rampant everywhere. Life can be tough. Life can be painful. People need some way to ease the pain. And, of course, people often need constraints on their behavior. In this regard, religion can play an important role for many people.
Religious fundamentalists are by definition people who take the "word of God" literally. Whether it is written in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Quran or whatever, it is considered the irrefutable, absolute word of God. If you believe that these writings are indeed divine, then you must accept all of them. You cannot pick and choose those parts you accept and reject the rest; that is not your prerogative. Therefore, I submit that most people who would consider themselves religious fundamentalists are not. Most Christians will tell you that they believe in God, Jesus Christ and the teaching of the Bible, but in fact they choose what they want to believe and tailor their beliefs to conform to their own values.
These people can usually find some passage in the Bible (or Quran, etc.) that will support their behavior and beliefs. These books cover almost every subject imaginable. One can almost always find something that can be construed as supporting one's beliefs. Often the quoted passage will require considerable interpretation and convolution to make it fit the required conjecture. After all, slavery was once justified on the basis of biblical texts. The Bible tells us, for example, that Abraham kept slaves. Some Muslims believe the Quran condones Jihad or holy war. They, of course, believe that God is uniquely on their side and that killing the infidel is a holy obligation! In the past, some Christians believed that torturing people to get them to convert was permissible in God's sight.
Look at how conflicting views exist in different religions. In 1843, Joseph Smith had a vision wherein God instructed him that polygamy was OK. It's in LDS scripture (Book of Mormon, Sect. 132). These people still believe that polygamy exists in the afterlife - sort of like the 72 virgins promised to Islamic martyrs. How compelling a thought, at least if you're a man.
And if you can't find a suitable passage in scripture to support your point of view, just make up something! Against every logical argument, religionists will fabricate any manner of explanation to justify and defend their beliefs. Regarding the fossil record as proof of evolution, they will say that God placed these fossils in the ground to confuse us (See Science & Religion). Regarding the overpopulation of the Earth before Adam's mistake with the fruit (before there was such a thing as death), they will tell you that God had a plan to send the excess population to other planets (See Original Sin and Christ's Salvation).
Also, many doctrines in the Old Testament are ridiculously out-of-date by today's standards. The five books of the Pentateuch go on and on, ad nauseam, about God's commandments and laws regarding just about everything: sin, disease, bodily functions, forbidden food, offerings and sacraments, cleanliness, holiness, festivals and Sabbaths, etc. Each of these laws specifies elaborate rituals to meet God's demands.
Offerings to God were common in ancient cultures: there were burnt and wave offerings of animals (without blemish please) grains and wine, offerings for peace or fellowship, offerings for sin and guilt. There were offerings for the first of everything: the first male child, the first fruit of a newly planted tree or the first harvest of the season. Many of the food offerings were consumed by the priests; they weren't dummies! The priests saw to it that they had the best of everything. For example, God commanded Moses to make Aaron and his sons sacred garments made of gold and the finest fabrics in order to give them "dignity and honor" as priests. (Exodus 28:1-5) And it wasn't beneath their dignity to accept money either: "And Moses gave their redemption money to Aaron and his sons, according to the word of the Lord, as the Lord commanded Moses." (Numbers 3:51)
It might be noted here that this practice of lining the pockets of church officials became an accepted practice in many religions. The practice of indulgences was common in the Middle Ages: for coins dropped in the coffers, there was an implied assurance of complete pardon for sins and the release of beloved souls from Purgatory. Look at all the wealth accumulated by the Catholic Church and many Protestant churches as well. Look at the magnificent cathedrals of Europe. And this was often at a time when most of the common people were destitute.
Ancient Israelites believed that God intended that the blood of certain animals be used to make atonement for their sins. The poor animal became a substitute for sacrificing one's own life. The sinner would hear the bleating cries of an innocent lamb, see its blood spilled on the altar, and understand it was to atone for his sin. The custom of making offerings to a god reminds me of the ancient Mayas, and I'm sure other ancient peoples, who didn't take any chances appeasing their gods with animals, and instead used live humans in these bloody rites.
There is the common theme of redemption throughout the Bible. Redemption means to buy back or exchange. In ancient times, that included the sacrifice of animals as redemption for one's sin. (The person could buy his forgiveness by sacrificing the animal instead of himself.) The idea was that sin could not be ignored - God demands an accounting. However, as shown repeatedly in the Bible, the sinner does not always have to pay the price. God permits a substitution – in the Old Testament it was the blood of sacrificed animals; in the New Testament it is the blood of Christ at Calvary, the belief that Christ's blood was shed in place of ours as redemption for our sins, that Christ became the sacrificial lamb. (John 1:29, 36).
This is the Christian concept of redemption: Christ was perfect and without sin. This qualified him to act as a surrogate for us. His death on the cross paid the price for our sins. God credits us with all that righteousness from Christ's account. If we accept Christ, if we are "in Christ", God will credit us with Christ's righteousness and forgive our sins.
Exclusivity of Doctrine
One thing many religions have in common is the conviction that people outside their group are wrong, and that those non-believers need to be converted, saved or even killed. Many religions will not tolerate people who do not agree with them. In times past a person could be put to death (or worse) for heresy if he professed a religious belief contrary to the prevailing view. Throughout history, people have been persecuted for religious reasons. Countless people have suffered horrible, inhuman torture and execution simply because of their beliefs. Why is this? Do these persecutors feel compassion for the non-believer and genuinely desire to "help" that person - do they really fear that the non-believer will go to hell if they don't intercede? Or do they feel threatened - are they so insecure about their own beliefs that they feel they have to eliminate anyone who might somehow prove that they are wrong?
Of course, this tendency to want to belong to a group is common to many aspects of human behavior, not just religious behavior. There is a psychology of group behavior that appeals to us humans (probably derived from when our survival depended on the protection offered by a group). Similarly, we tend to oppose other groups. Such group examples include: nations, ethnic groups, religions, gangs, etc.
Take the current situation in Iraq. The so called coalition has succeeded in ousting to old regime, but must now overcome a fierce insurgency and build a stable government from scratch. One big complication is that various religious factions will want to control the government. The majority Shiites will insist on a fundamentalist Shiite theocracy, like the one in Iran. Then they will insist that everyone believe as they do. Why is it that so many religious people think that everyone else must believe as they do? Do we really think they will form a government that guarantees religious freedom of choice to all its citizens? I don't think so. Most Muslims, at least most fundamentalist Muslims, feel that to not believe as they do is the ultimate transgression, punishable even by death. This attitude has often permeated religious doctrine. Take for example the Crusades, the Inquisition and September 11, 2001.
In the Middle East, Jews and Muslims both believe that they are God's chosen people, that God made a covenant with them and only them. They each believe that Judea belongs to them. They each believe, as all religions believe, that everyone else in the world is out of favor with God, and that only they will inherit the kingdom of heaven.
I read a book recently by Billy Graham about Armageddon. He was warning about false prophets and people claiming to be Christ or bearing false witness. In particular, Graham emphasized the problem of cults, which he perceives as false religions. (Any religion is false if you don't agree with its teachings.) He goes to some length to describe these cults. One characteristic is that they all claim to teach the truth and that you will achieve salvation only if you follow their tenets. As I read these cult descriptions, I couldn't help thinking that he was describing himself!
Rick Warren believes that at the gates of heaven, God will ask the following question: "What did you do with my Son, Jesus Christ?" He goes on to say that "God won't ask about your religious background or doctrinal views. The only thing that will matter is, did you accept what Jesus did for you and did you learn to love and trust him?"18 This is a typical Christian point of view. But what about the Jew, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist? Those are "religious backgrounds" that would be excluded according to the Christian way of thinking.
Here I talk about Christian attitudes, but not even Christians can agree among themselves. There are dozens of mainstream Christian denominations that differentiate themselves in matters of doctrine and belief. Even within a denomination there are disagreements. Where I live, for example, there are at least four different sects of the Presbyterian Church!
Most fundamentalist Protestants would consider Catholicism to be a false religion. After all, Protestantism was born as a rebellion against the Catholic Church and its perceived corruption, rituals and icons. The basic tenet of Protestant belief is that faith in Jesus Christ alone is sufficient to achieve salvation, whereas Catholicism requires ritual confession and atonement – even at one time the payment of indulgences – to attain salvation.
I hear a common refrain among fundamentalists. It goes something like this: "Unfortunately, there is a great deal of confusion by some people in the church about such and such." Then the self-appointed authority will go on to clear up the confusion: "These people are mistaken. Now let me tell you the truth about such and such!" Trouble is, they all think they're telling the truth! Only they understand the will of God, and everyone else is wrong!
Another religious author writes: "Many Christians are opposing themselves and don't know it. Some have been taught incorrectly. Many unknowingly oppose themselves because of a lack of knowledge and understanding of God's Word." In other words, if you don't believe as I do, you are "opposing yourself".
Every religious sect believes that their God is the true god and everyone else's is a false god. Lt. Gen. William Boykin has gotten into trouble for mixing politics and religion. He told a church group that a Somali warlord, who had claimed the protection of Allah, had been defeated by the Christian God. "My God was bigger than his … I knew that my God was a real God and that his was an idol." Boykin has also said that the enemy in the fight against terrorism is Satan and that God had put George W. Bush in the White House. People like Gen. Boykin would cast the war on terrorism in religious terms. Certainly the radical Muslims have; to them, we are the "Great Satan".
Of course, our country's founders had the wisdom to understand this perverse, intolerant side of religious belief, and as a result, built the separation of church and state into our constitution for that very reason.