By David Walsh
Over dinner last night Elizabeth, Kirsha and I chatted about my recent blogs and I remonstrated with myself that they focused on death, darkness and injury. Although that seems to not entirely be my fault I thought it might be time to court some controversy instead.
Another topic of conversation was the significant number of comments appended to Diary of a Disaster that offered prayers on my behalf. That’s curious, as I have made plain my opposition to belief without evidence but, on the whole, I understand that those who made the remarks have my best interests at heart, and prayers are unlikely to do me damage. I say ‘unlikely’, but if I were a devotee of the power of prayer, harm might well have ensued. A widely reported study of the efficacy of prayer determined that there was no difference in recovery rates of cardiac bypass patients between a group that was prayed for without their knowledge and a group that was not prayed for. However, a third group, members of which were prayed for with their knowledge, performed significantly more poorly than the other two groups, presumably because they assumed that if their condition required divine intervention things were going very poorly indeed. This might be analogous to the nocebo effect.1
Anyway, the dinner table conversation reminded me of the odd things I used to believe. I was raised by my mum to be a devout Catholic. Mum was tolerant of other religions, she could only feel sympathy for them; after all, non-Catholics were headed for damnation. What didn’t occur to me then, but has occurred to me and many others before and since, was to query the value of belief in the ridiculous. So that’s the subject of today’s sermon.
After considerable indoctrination, and a quick refresher from www.catholicbible101.com, here’s how I remember the Ten Commandments.
I am The Lord Thy God.
1. Thou shalt not have other gods besides me.
2. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord God in vain.
3. Remember to keep holy the Sabbath Day.
4. Honour thy father and your mother.
5. Thou shalt not kill.
6. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
7. Thou shalt not steal.
8. Thou shalt not bear false witness.
9. Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife.
10. Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s goods.
Curiously, the first commandment originally didn’t seem to be because there was only one God. One rendition goes on: ‘(For the Lord thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the anger of the Lord thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee from off the face of the earth’ (Deuteronomy 6:15). Jealousy, by definition, involves more than two. And promising retribution reeks of attention monopolising. Early Jews were monolatrous, not monotheist.
Violating the first three commandments would cause no obvious harm. They are rather stupid and apparently unnecessary rules, really. But nevertheless, they are at the top of the list. Christ got in trouble for violating the Sabbath when he fed his disciples. A couple of centuries before that, the Hasideans initially refused to fight on the Sabbath:
We will not come forth, neither will we obey the king’s edict, to profane the Sabbath Day… Let us all die in our innocency: and heaven and earth shall be witnesses for us, that you put us to death wrongfully. So they gave them battle on the Sabbath: and they were slain with their wives, and their children, and their cattle, to the number of a thousand persons (1 Maccabees: 2).
Could there be compensation for this suicidal commitment to arbitrary rules?
The first three commandments are, in fact, deliberately ridiculous. At a time when those who weren’t your friends were your enemies (nearly every time before modern secular states), recognition of those within your group and those outside your group was paramount. The compensation comes from un-counterfeitable in-crowd recognition. Those who share your beliefs are part of your tribe. And those who won’t contemplate them are clearly not your friends.
Rules that make sense, like ‘Thou shalt not steal’ and ‘Thou shalt not kill’, are cross-cultural and therefore do not serve to differentiate between friends and foes. So the most pointless rules are, oxymoronically, the most valuable, as far as in-group recognition goes.
As I said, I believed in all this stuff when I was young. It seems that our capacity to learn quickly as children is enhanced by initial credulity. When a young child is shown how to do something with a few unnecessary steps, he or she will mimic the demonstration with the extraneous steps in place. Chimpanzees don’t do that, and for a while their constant questioning accelerates their learning. But, as tasks become more complex and thus not obviously amenable to analysis, human children surge ahead. It seems that a kid’s willingness to accept what they are told, from the rational to the resurrection, is co-opted by religion to bind us to our tribe. And the effort required to stop believing costs us; often, isolation results. That can cause suffering when one leaves a cult, and it can cause death when one loses one’s support system.
Because the consequences of failing to recognise a stranger can be severe, the method employed to recognise strangers can be extreme, as illustrated by the biblical derivation of our modern word ‘shibboleth’ (defined, in part, in The Free Dictionary as ‘A custom, phrase, or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to, or as a stumbling block to becoming a member of, a particular social class, profession, etc.’) Apparently, ‘shibboleth’, which in Hebrew means an ear of corn, is difficult for foreigners to say, viz.:
And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand (Judges 12:5-6).
Throughout history many outrageous (to an outsider) beliefs have defined many peoples. Jared Diamond (in the wonderful The World Until Yesterday) gives some examples:
There is a monkey god who travels thousands of kilometers at a single somersault (Hindu).
A woman who had not been fertilized by a man became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy, whose body eventually after his death was carried up to a place called heaven, often represented as being located in the sky (Catholic).
Men who sacrifice their lives in battle for the religion will be carried to a heaven populated by beautiful virgin women (Islam).
On a hilltop near Manchester Village in western New York State on September 21, 1823, the Angel Moroni appeared to a man named Joseph Smith and revealed to him buried golden plates awaiting translation as a lost book of the Bible, the Book of Mormon (Mormon).
A supernatural being gave a chunk of desert in the Middle East to the being’s favourite group of people, as their home forever (Jewish).
To this, I append a few of my own, and I start with Buddhism, since it has so far gotten off scot-free.
Many Buddhists in Burma believe that the Islamic sacred number 786 suggests that Islam intends to overthrow Buddhism in the twenty-first century, since 7+8+6=21. This apparently justifies a violent suppression of Islam.
Sadly, desperate times generate even more desperate beliefs. In South Africa in the nineteenth century, a teenage girl, Nongqawuse, preached that if her Xhosa people destroyed their own crops and cattle the spirits would sweep the British settlers into the sea. Improbably, over 300,000 cattle were slaughtered, and the resultant famine reduced the local Xhosa population by about 40,000. Nongqawuse labelled the small minority who refused to kill their cattle the ‘stingy ones’, and blamed them for the failure of her prophecy.
Thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide in 1997 so that their souls could board the alien spacecraft that was trailing the comet Hale-Bopp.
If those last few examples of crass commitment suggest that cults are more way out than established religions, consider martyrdom, the Crusades, the inquisition, and institutional sex abuse, just to use my most familiar faith as an exemplar. Martyrs are a byproduct of strong group identification, whereas the latter iniquities are a pathology of an extraordinarily strong desire to preserve and promote the in-group over others.
In grade six my teacher told me the story of Dominic Savio, who was a member of the Salesians, the order that founded my school (which was then called Savio, but now Dominic). Although Savio died at age fourteen there were, apparently, many indicia of his sanctity, including his ability to remember a page of catechism after one read (plausible), and his ability to be in two places at once (less so). A little research has led me to believe that the latter claim was fabricated by the priest who told us these tales, since it doesn’t seem to be documented anywhere. However, at the time I accepted the veracity of both tales without consideration of Carl Sagan’s (and other’s) dictum: ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. We ignore this self-evident standard since we have a long (evolutionary and societal) history of benefiting from in-group identification. Had I then had reason to question my priests and teachers I would have suffered repercussions. Believing is both easier and more binding than feigning belief.
A couple of years later, after the Christian house-of-cards had collapsed around me, my questioning of the tenets of another priest resulted in me being forced to stand outside, whatever the weather, while religious instruction was given. Despite himself, he did me an enormous favour.
And here I note that contained within my short essay are 83,000 fatalities (not counting the victims of prayer), and a threat to wipe non-believers from the face of the Earth. Next stop, Hollywood.
1I don’t usually feel the need for references but some might wish to follow this one up. H Benson, JA Dusek, JB Sherwood, et al. ‘Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in Cardiac Bypass Patients: a Multicenter Randomized Trial of Uncertainty and Certainty of Receiving Intercessory Prayer.’ American Heart Journal, April 2006.