What really irks me about religion coverage in this country is the remarkable credulity with which it is regularly treated. Of course that’s not limited to religion, but it’s an important thing to understand when thinking about the sorry state of contemporary journalism. It’s easy to assume that conservative parties get free reign simply because the majority of newspapers are conservative in political orientation. That part is factually true, and there’s certainly something to it, especially where editorial endorsements are concerned. But a broader question is the extent to which the media is capable of engaging in serious critical inquiry anyways, even in situations where politics and business interests don’t intervene directly. Like religion coverage, for instance.
Recently, for instance, the Globe & Mail assembled its religion experts — who to my eye include two Muslims, two Christians, a Jew, and no atheists — to tackle the innovative and insightful question: “Is Religious Faith the Cure for Terrorism?” These experts generally agreed that religion as such is not a cause of terrorism (no surprise, since all of them were religious), but also that religions which preach “exclusivity” or political violence are detestable. Even though they came from three religions with fantastically mutually exclusive theologies, all agreed that religion should play a vital role in teaching peace, tolerance, and fulfillment to today’s youth.
It’s interesting, as a sidenote, that while religion obviously is not the only cause of terrorism, today terrorism is primarily a problem of the religious right, something which received short shrift in the Globe piece. I’m sure I’m not the only one who noticed that in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, as people were speculating about the guilty party, the only real speculation seemed to be about whether the bomber was a far-right Christian extremist or a far-right Muslim extremist. No one suggested, for instance, that it was probably a communist disgruntled by the structural injustice of late modern capitalism, although there have been periods in the past when Western terrorism really was a product mainly of the atheist left.
The Globe piece is inoffensive — gratingly, irritatingly inoffensive. So is Postmedia’s latest religion panel, which tackles the equally hard-hitting question: “Why do so many prayers go unanswered?” Once again there were no atheists (there were two Christians, a Baha’i, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Jew), although sometimes Postmedia does invite one. The answers to Postmedia were a little more diverse, but not by much. No one, for instance, suggested that no prayers were answered, although the Buddhist came close. No one offered even the crudest, most rudimentary method for determining whether any prayers had been answered, either, although everyone except the Buddhist confidently assured us that prayers are indeed answered.
Successful religions are very good at this sort of sleight of hand, and not by accident. The most obvious answer to Postmedia’s question, the one that requires the fewest unsubstantiated assumptions about God(s), is that the reason prayers don’t get answered is because there’s nobody there to hear them. Such an explanation would also be consistent with the cosmological implications of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (to the left), which is considerably more recent and which does not inspire confidence that there is a God who either knows or cares about wars, terrorism, miracle cures for cancer, lost car keys, or any of the other piffling requests sent to the heavens on a regular basis.
(Earth is not present in the Ultra Deep Field, of course, but if it was, it would be the small green and blue planet circling one of the 100 trillion or so little stars that make up each of those few thousand tiny white specks in the image. And that’s in a sliver of the night sky just a fraction the size of a full Moon.)
But there appears to be no need to convene a newspaper panel to ask, for instance, whether there is any truth to religious claims. The reason for this — and there are disturbing implications for how the media and Canadians think about politics — is that truth is simply not an important aspect of the sort of religion the media finds appealing. I don’t know whether this is true for most Canadians or not, but judging by what they tell pollsters about their faith, I don’t think many would be terribly upset by either of the religion panels.
This is important — amazing, even — because if you approached religion by asking whether its truth claims were valid instead of asking whether it was good (or bad) for people, it would immediately become obvious that there’s something innately preposterous about assembling a group of people representing faiths with diametrically opposed theologies and asking them to make broad statements about religion in general. It’s even more surprising that they would go along with this. Of course it’s not nearly so amazing if, just like the reporters, these particular religious folks don’t take truth very seriously either.
Thus we arrive at modern religion in Canada: a vaguely stated belief that some sort of God exists, condemns violence but answers prayers, is simply indifferent to the specific contents of his followers’ rather detailed religious creeds, is eagerly standing by to usher us into a better life when we pass away, and expects basically nothing from us in return. That’s precisely the sort of religion that the theory of evolution leads us to believe should arise in a free marketplace of ideas: one that offers people easy explanations for existential questions, some feel-good promises to buoy us up when we’re feeling down, and which charges nothing.
Most religions didn’t start out that way. There was a time, as their various scriptures make quite clear, when Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all made quite exacting demands on their followers in terms of what they had to believe and what they had to do. We’ve steadily dispensed with those aspects of religion because they’re unnecessary and expensive. In evolutionary struggles, unnecessary expensive things get eliminated. The things that make a belief system attractive are a lower cost and a greater benefits package than other belief systems. Thus the ideal religious belief system is one which provides people with existential explanations that require very little thought, moral codes that provoke very few severe dilemmas or crises of conscience, and assurances that better things await us as long as we “just believe,” without us having to actually pay much or anything in exchange. Sound familiar?
You will note, of course, that according to what I’ve sketched out here, the truthfulness of a religion is actually irrelevant to its success. That remains the case unless, of course, God exists, in which case you would expect him to intervene to ensure the success of his preferred creed even if natural selection was working against him. As in politics, so in religion: for the majority, the accuracy of their religious beliefs is simply irrelevant. This is a profoundly disturbing notion, but if true, it would be additional support for the theory that I’ve been banging on about so incessantly over the past week, which is, stated simply, that most people don’t care enough to devote any serious attention to fundamental questions about things like politics or religion.