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Earl Doherty

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Of Priests and Prostates, Cabbages and Kings...
July 1, 2005)

     I was at my doctor's for a check-up the other day, and while having a certain male gland checked out (OK, it was the prostate), it came up in conversation that one of the preventive measures against an enlarged prostate among older men
who don't tend to use it as much, especially if they are singlecan be regular masturbation.
     Since my father died of prostate cancer at age 67, it would seem that a healthy prostate can literally become a matter of life or death. On the way home, I reflected that I had been brought up to fear that masturbation was a mortal sin, punishable by an infinity of torment in Hell. I'm not sure if the seriousness of that act has since been downgraded by the Church, though I believe not officially. It occurred to me that not only was my doctor counseling possible eternal damnation, but that if I were a conscientious believer I might have to choose between the risk of a life cut short as my father's was, and the threat of hellfire. I was struck by the dichotomy of those two conflicting influences which many of us have had upon our minds: the doctor and the priest, science and religion, fact and fantasy. If I were a believer, which would I choose? Between the rational and the irrational, which implantation would overpower the other? Would I surrender to fear or to common sense?

     As an aside, while on the drive home I found myself imagining this scene in heaven:

God, watching: "Gabriel, sinner # 6,201,489,375 just masturbated. Reserve a place in Hell for him if he doesn't repent."
Gabriel, getting out his record book for the umpteenth time that day: "It's becoming crowded down there, Sire."
God: "Get the contractors to expand the 38th Quadrant....Have we done a temperature check there, lately?"
Gabriel: "That reminds me, Sire. Peter was complaining the other day that he can't handle the workload at the gate, what with all the checks and re-routing that has to be done. He made some remark about the disadvantages of overpopulation. I think we'll have to double the number of his assistants. Fortunately we've got a good-sized pool of saints to draw from. Seems they've got a lot of time on their hands
God: "As long as it doesn't take too much time away from their worship duties. They're not getting bored with that, I hope! I didn't send my Son to be slaughtered for a bunch of ingrates who can't even sustain enthusiastic worship for a fraction of eternity."
Gabriel: "Maybe we should reinstitute the sex hour
[at God's scowl] just a thought, Sire, just a thought...."

      In an Op-Ed piece for the latest Free Inquiry (June/July 2005), Robert Price, commenting on the new Pope ("The Grand Inquisitor Takes the Throne"), says that

"People have the right to swallow oppressive dogmas if they want to, if they have been gulled all their lives by Ratzinger and his ilk. But why do they do it? It is safe to say that each of them has not made a conscious decision to trade in his or her intellectual autonomy for unthinking submission to a party line. Few even realize that this is what is at stake. But you'd think that, after a while, believers would realize the cruelty of their ecclesiastical masters and revolt. Mother Church tells them not to have sex without having kids. No, no to birth control. This is cruel enough. But then some poor couple wants nothing more than to have kids, whom they fully intend to baptize, doing their duty to refill the ranks. And they want to try artificial insemination. But what does the Church tell them? Too bad! Can't use those newfangled methods! It's almost as if the curia were trying to figure out how best to frustrate their hapless minions at every turn." [p.16-17]

     Why is it that religious morality is so often irrational, so often inimical to the well-being of everything from the individual psyche to the planet we live on? Why is "the will of God" regularly interpreted in such repressive, self-destructive ways? Probably the most catastrophic decision in the history of religion was made in 1964, when Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical against artificial birth control. The infallible Pontiff (no doubt influenced by counselors like Joseph Ratzinger—now Pontiff himself—who must, too, have been infallible at the time) decided that God did not want any check on the production of more human beings. At the same time, He did not want to encourage more enjoyment of the human body He Himself created than was necessary. He definitely could not countenance sex outside of marriage—preferably Roman Catholic marriage, and unsullied by prior divorce. This pontifical infallibility made the Vatican proclamation impossible to retract or to modify in future, regardless of the consequences, such as the ruination of the planet through overpopulation, or the spread of AIDS and other human suffering through the banning of any use of contraceptives. Moreover, it required that the Church actively work to implement God's wishes, to interfere and foil as much as possible any international efforts to put a check on population or give women control over their own fertility. This task, for the last forty years, the Vatican has undertaken with single-minded vigor.
     In the days following my visit to the doctor, my mind explored the implications of the religious view. God develops a world with science and rationality in it. (So one presumes, since he supposedly created everything.) Then he sets up a moral system at odds with both. By the mid-20th century, it was starting to be recognized that the effects of overpopulation would eventually place the world in a position to self-destruct. At the same time, science had found a way to control that population, with other beneficial effects as corollaries, such as less risk to women's health, or a check on the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases. Humanity's inventiveness, its greater understanding of how our bodies worked, how nature could be guided and engineered to our greater well-being and advantage, promised a better future than anything the world had yet seen. In stepped religion. None of this is permissible. It is all against the will of God. Of course, the deleterious effects extend far beyond matters of sex and overpopulation. Religion is invariably founded on ancient writings, hallowed traditions, petrified prejudices. Modern science and social enlightenment rarely find themselves in sync with those primitive foundations, and so religion must try to impede science and derail social progress. New understandings of our biological origins must be suppressed. Segments of society which don't behave according to that ancient ignorance and prejudice have to be ostracized. Rival communities and nations who claim a different set of cosmological imaginings and salvation processes are dismissed as infidels.
     Those to whom we have voluntarily given this pervasive psychological power over us (voluntarily, for religion is not necessary for a rational, functioning society or the creation of laws to govern human behavior, despite what religionists claim), have thrown a monkeywrench into our personal lives and the life of nature itself, delivering it with oppressive doses of fear, guilt, and anxiety. The basis of that power is the proclamation of a world-view that is pure fantasy, unsupported by science or reason, founded on ignorance and superstition, injurious to our mental health and much else. With it, we compromise our intellects, our pleasure, our pride, our progress; and we cripple the minds of our children in the process of indoctrinating them too into this haunted, ugly universe.
     As Robert Price asks, why do we submit to it? Why do we not revolt? Some of us, of course, do. But we are voices crying in the wilderness as far as the great majority of society is concerned.
     Religion forces us to devise an ever more precarious belief structure of jerry-built explanations and buttresses. One crazy idea requires another crazy idea to shore it up, and so on in succession. If there is apparent evil in a world created by a benevolent God, it has to be our fault, not His. God would not have created us evil, therefore we fell and need redemption. If baptism is required for salvation, then infants or fetuses that die before this rite can be performed cannot be saved. If this seems heartless and cruel, one has to claim that Original Sin makes all souls, even the unborn, worthy of damnation
—though perhaps God, in His mercy, will consign the unbaptized infant or unborn to a non-suffering (if lonely) Limbo for eternity. If we face the prospect of an eternal punishment, it must be that God, though loving, feels the need to test us, to give us "free will" to make that fateful choice. Of course, we must be inculcated with evil impulses to make it a fair fight. God also lets loose a demonic agent Satan as part of the system, to wreak havoc, to mislead us, to tempt us toward damnation. (Logic forced the ancient Gnostics to postulate that since the world was so evil and imperfect, a perfect God could not have created it, and so they gave that role to an evil demigod.)
     The Christian Bible is entirely the story of the origin and course of evil in a God-directed universe, and how he has arranged to save us from that evil as well as from the world he has created us into. Such a salvation depends on a heavenly Savior Son
humanity cannot save itselfsent by a sanguinary minded God to be blood-sacrificed. (This was primitive religion's means of communing with and placating deities; if "salvation" had been invented in the 20th century, it would have been through something quite different, though perhaps entailing aspects just as horrific). This panorama includes an assortment of angels and demons, a cosmic struggle between forces of good and evil, an apocalyptic upheaval and destruction. The Christian message alienates us from our bodies and from the world we live in, filling our lives with dread and obsessive self-censure. All that is good in the human condition is denied to our own capacity and extrapolated onto an external entity; the bad is left to our own responsibility. It requires us to regard ourselves as inherent sinners, resident aliens, the deserving of whom are awaiting transport to a spiritual Utopia, leaving behind legions of the damned. (It goes without saying that the purported message of "love" gets swamped and buriedas well as rendered hypocriticalunder all this insidious nonsense, which in any case doesn't require such a wrapping to appeal to the rational and humanistic mind.)
     Such is the package carried by religion as it knocks at our door. And we have given it admittance. St. Paul accompanies the priest to help in the sales pitch, declaring as he did in 1 Corinthians that the "wisdom of the world" has been trumped by the wisdom of God. Though it looks like nothing so much as "sheer folly" to the wise man, to the scientist, to the rationalist, it is nevertheless God's system of salvation. St. Paul knows it, because it was delivered to him by the Deity Himself.

     The most profound insight modern science has given us, the critical knowledge that all previous ages and philosophies have lacked, is that we have gotten where we are through evolution. Life was not created, it evolved. God or gods were not involved, or necessary.  There are no eternal, immutable "truths" except the laws of nature, the workings of matter. Life and its manifestations, including the human, are neither good nor evil. The concepts of good and evil, love and hate, desirable and undesirable, are our own products, and we are free to do with them what we will. But it is also a law of nature, of sorts, that what we have come to judge "good" is ultimately what is most beneficial, and so in the end, according to the principles of evolution, that is what we will choose
and to a great extent have already done so. Successful life will select for the good. It is a greater guarantee for the triumph of "goodness" than all the imagined divine dictates of all the religions in history.
     The irony and the paradox, of course, is that evolution has also given us religion. It has produced the mentality in human society which thus far has largely misinterpreted everything about ourselves and the world we live in. This is not necessarily surprising, as evolution, without mind or direction, tries all things for survival; it adapts to its current surroundings to best advantage at the moment. But like modern scientific discoveries of how to understand and control our bodies and our environment, the discovery of evolution itself has finally enabled us to come to an understanding about our own nature and what to do with it
. (Which is not to say that we have learned everything there is to know, or that evolution's course has reached its end). It is a profound change of outlook, and most people have not yet come to terms with it. Many, in fact, are putting up a fierce resistance. They realize what's at stake. It has become a life and death struggle for the fantasies they hold dear. But by denying our evolutionary origins, by refusing to abandon the old unfounded scenarios, we forestall universal human cooperation and the sense of the unity of life, we impede the progress toward bettering our lot and carrying ourselves further, toward gaining freedom from fear and ignorance. We distract our attention from the only world we have, the only destiny we can confidently claim. And we create a lot of unnecessary misery for ourselves along the way.
     Doctor or priest? Science or religion? I prefer a sane and verifiable reality. But even for those who as yet are unable or unwilling to abandon belief in a supernatural dimension or higher power, we can surely do better than what Christianity and other religions have given us thus far.

Earl Doherty

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