Are All Religions Equally Crazy?
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But then I started thinking:
How much crazier is this than any other religion?
How much crazier is this than talking snakes? People living inside giant fish? Boats that carry two of every living creature on the planet? Magic crackers that turn into the body of your god when you eat them? Magic fruit that ruins the lives of all your descendants? Virgins giving birth? Sprinkling magic water on babies so if they die they won't burn forever in Hell? A planet that was created 6,000 years ago, despite an overwhelming body of evidence to the contrary from every relevant scientific field? A god who sacrifices himself to himself to save the world from the punishment he himself was planning to dole out?
And let's not just pick on Christianity. How much crazier is this than ritual washing in a polluted magic river? Transferring your sins to a live chicken, waving it over your head, and having it slaughtered? Transferring your sins to a bundle of money, waving it over your head, and donating the money to charity, because the chicken thing is just too weird? The compulsory covering of women's bodies from head to toe? The compulsory wearing of hats? A god who's okay with you smoking weed, but doesn't want you drinking alcohol? A god who's okay with you drinking alcohol, but doesn't want you smoking weed? A god who doesn't want you to draw pictures of real things? A god who wants you to cut off your daughter's clitoris? A god who wants you to cut off the tip of your baby boy's penis?
Plenty of religions are loaded with crazy when you scratch the surface. You don't even have to scratch very hard.
So why do these older, more mainstream religions seem less crazy?
A lot of it, I think, is popularity. If lots of people believe something, we're more likely to give it credibility. This is a bias that all human brains are vulnerable to, and it's largely unconscious. (Although many religious believers will make this argument consciously and overtly. Spend enough time in the atheist blogosphere, and I guarantee you'll see it pop up: "How can you dismiss something that so many people believe in?") We're social animals, and we're wired to think that if everyone else thinks something, it's probably true. Or at the very least, that it's not batshit insane on the face of it, and we ought to give it serious consideration.
From a strictly evolutionary standpoint, this bias makes sense. Other people can, in fact, be a useful reality check: if everyone in your tribe is screaming "Tiger!" and you don't see one, it still makes sense to run. But it's a confounding bias to contend with when you're rigorously examining a truth claim. It makes it hard to voice unpopular perceptions... and indeed even to conceive of them. It's very, very difficult to be the first person to say out loud, "The Emperor has no clothes." It's even more difficult to say it to ourselves.
Then adding to this de-crazification phenomenon, we have the power of time. In the earlier days of a religion, the battier elements are much more prominent. But with time, if a religion flourishes and becomes more mainstream, the rough edges get smoothed off. "Our Savior is returning within a generation" turns into "Our Savior is returning one of these days." "You have to wear a ginormous hat all the time" turns into "It'd be nice if you wore a little hat in the temple." "God created the entire universe out of nothing in six days" turns into "God created matter and energy and the laws of physics and let them unfold into life as we know it, and when we say 'day' we don't mean a literal 'day,' and it's absurd and unfair for you to think that we do." The battier elements get abandoned entirely, or get hidden out of sight, or get shoved to the back burner as trivial and peripheral, or start being seen as metaphorical instead of literal. ( 45 percent of all U.S. Catholics don't even know that, according to the doctrine of their own Catholic Church, the magic cracker literally becomes the body of their god when they eat it. They think it's symbolic. They apparently weren't paying attention in catechism class.)