Under God: The Influence of Western Religious Dogma on Modern Views

      One can always make observations about the past, or note similarities and differences in a culture alien to ours, but it is complicated to objectively observe that which surrounds us, in the same way that a fish cannot be expected to comment on water. Since the advent of the Judeo-Christian ethic and the creation of the monolithic entity known as the Church, we of the Western world have been immersed in its influence and its history -- to a point where it is difficult to realize exactly how it has influenced our ways of thinking. This subject is vast and far-reaching, but there have been several major foci of religious thought that continue to affect us, and affect especially the views of those who subscribe to that religion.

      Faith, of course, is itself a positive quality. A sense of faith in deity can provide a focus in life, a promise of hope or belonging, the strength to persevere in an overbearing world, and a foundation of ethics in a person who might otherwise become "lost" or unguided in life. However, dogma -- the authoritative and absolute doctrines of the Church -- often gets in the way of the basics of such faith, and it can be argued that the long-term influences of Western religious dogma can be, and has been, detrimental to the progress of human thought.

      This view can be supported by the very history of the Church itself. Once the sole source of knowledge and learning, those in the higher religious echelons began to refuse that learning to the masses. Aggressive campaigns were launched to suppress the learning of science, particularly those sciences that appeared to threaten Scriptural claims. By doing so, the Church established itself as a moral absolute: that its words were not to be challenged and its books infallible, even while it now engages in ad hoc claims or reluctant concessions that are attempts to "catch up" with undeniable facts revealed by science. However, as much as today's Church scrambles to maintain its integrity, its longtime hindrance to learning and to beliefs incompatible with its mythos has had a profound effect on the modern day. Many discoveries and differing methods of thought have been ground underfoot in the interest of preserving Scriptural assertions. The loss of so much vital knowledge, science, and forward thinking is incalculable, and it is impossible to guess how far we as a species would be if it had been left to advance on its own.

      This authoritative presence has had another palpable influence. The same tendency to quell the pursuit of knowledge and establish Western religious dogma as the absolute Truth has led to a lack of critical thought in much of the modern population, especially in those who subscribe to that belief. While the methodology of science suggests no affirmation of truth without evidence and repeatable experimentation, religious theory demands acceptance without evidence. This lack of questioning has led to an inclination of many to also accept claims from other sources without measuring critically the likelihood of those claims; for instance, it can be shown that many people trust television media, despite evidence that its goals lean more toward commercial profit than the dissemination of truth. Also, the continued popularity of unusual urban legends, sensationalist tabloids, and conspiracy theories seem to indicate that many modern people do not utilize much more critical thought than the person of the Church's heyday. Once by force, and now by guilt and a moral high ground, strict theistic doctrine seems to have made people less likely to question authority, less likely to question data unless it conflicts with their beliefs, and more likely to engage in logical fallacy when attempting to support those beliefs.

      Even the attitudes of the modern person have their roots in Western religious thinking. The mores of a thousand years ago still inform our outlook on many subjects. Not very long ago humans accepted as fact the divine right of kings, and even less long ago the justification of slavery could still be supported by the canonical books of the Church; two of the Biblical Ten Commandments assume the existence of slavery. In modern times the Western world still struggles with viewpoints maintained by religious absolutes. Our disposition toward sexual behavior and gender roles is changing -- at a snail's pace - to accept those of other persuasions and the concept of premarital sex, yet the public is still mostly ingrained with specific norms: that sex should occur only after marriage, both should exist only between a man and a woman, and the patriarchal view that women are somehow subservient to men. A sense of guilt has also been heavily associated with sex to support this approach. Additionally, it is unusual to claim a desire not to have children. Western culture has been inundated with the notion that each life is precious and each child a blessing so that people are pushed to marry, to provide their parents with grandchildren, and continue the family name; it is a common view that one must "leave a mark" through their offspring rather than create their own mark on the world.

      Common Western religious philosophy also has difficulty with accepting or even comprehending other beliefs; long ago the Church -- rather cleverly -- recognized other faiths, but absorbed those faiths into the "bad" part of Christianity. A goat-legged pagan deity of hedonism became the devil, nonbelievers became heretics, and feminine reverence was distorted into whoredom. This approach has left many of us with an automatic tendency to dismiss out of hand alternate systems of belief or even a lack of belief, or to regard those systems as "wrong" or "misguided." Any modern-day Wiccan or atheist can relate personal anecdotes of rejection and prejudice, and it is becoming apparent that to be a follower of Islam means an increased risk of nervous attention from one's neighbors and the authorities. It is indubitable that the tendency to demonize other views has made it arduous to reach understanding and harmony between differing races and faiths.

      It can be argued that many of the influences brought about by Western religious dogma are positive or at least neutral. Our ceremonies for the joining of a couple, our attitudes toward death, our habits in changing a female's family name to match the male's, and our choices of holidays, can all be seen as just cultural richness. The charitable organizations that help others in need are wonderful and humane entities -- but the functions of those organizations did not need a religious doctrine to bring them into existence, despite our compulsion to believe that moral and ethical qualities can only be provided by deity. As loving and meek as modern religious influence claims to be, and commendable as recent movements by religious communities to promote peace are, we still are swayed by bellicose and vengeful imperialist views about warfare and conquest. As well-intentioned as people are in spirit, the continuing influence of religious dogma seems to have impaired their ability to resolve rifts between cultures and beliefs. As intelligent as a single person is, a mass of people who subscribe to a narrow doctrine cannot often bring about positive social change or new discovery. One begins to wonder whether benign human contact and perspicacity really need that doctrine, or whether the hindrance outweighs the benefit.

David Elsensohn, February 2003

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