Religion And The Animal Agenda

Religion generally seeks to instruct us in how to create functioning earthly societies by threatening or bribing us with supernatural sanctions or unearthly paradises. The believer and the atheist thus share the same goals, but disagree about how to achieve them. This being so, we might as well call religion a set of techniques for achieving our earthly objectives, or the animal agenda of survival, resource accumulation and reproduction.

Christian leaders and writers have successfully led everyone up the garden path by the contradiction of their faith with “the World, the Flesh and the Devil”. Or money, sex and power, as some reformulate the ancient triad of enemies. In reality, however, what Christianity is actually telling the punters is that they can get their power, and often their money – but rarely, alas, their sex – through the church rather than from the World. Come to us, we have the better deal! The Christian joke about becoming a missionary – “the pay is lousy but the fringe benefits are out of this world” – is revealing. Implicit here is the concept of the lucrative career; an unbeliever is simply a person who is mistaken about where the real moolah is.

Pious Catholics set out to earn a personal reward by “giving a child to God”, which in the girls’ case can sometimes mean a lifetime of enclosure and mortification. Carthaginians looking for similar personal rewards used to tip their firstborn into a furnace. We may ask which of the two forms of infant sacrifice is the crueller.

That religion is mostly about enlisting the aid of heaven to enhance life here on earth, or to obtain a similar but better earthly life in heaven, is not really very surprising, or even very reprehensible. We should, however, bear it in mind when people utter the big bow-wow phrases like “experiencing transcendental unity” or “communing with the Infinite”. People don’t on the whole, want to commune with the infinite; they want God (or whoever or whatever), to get them a job, find them a husband, protect their children or cure their arthritis.

What then of philanthropy? Motives for doing good to one’s fellows can vary from genuine benevolence through expiation of guilt to fear of hell – that is, sheer bribery – and it is not for us to say where the balance lies in any given person.

The concept of “pay it forward” that was recently made into a film was supposed to be an ethical advance. Rather than do good only to those who have already done good to us, we are exhorted to do good to others so that the good deed will one day return to us. This is still, however, wholly self-interested; sacrificing your life for others cannot possibly be a form of “paying it forward”, as you will not be around for it to find its way back to you. Paying it forward is a blatant form of investment, looking for a high yield, and is thereby not in the ethical realm at all.

If most of what we call religion is actually technology for fulfilling the animal agenda, for Getting Stuff, then what is left? In order to qualify as a separate category, distinct from “the continuation of earthly striving by other means”, as Clausewitz might have said, then religion should be about something other than the following: the projection of love or fear of the parent, the attempt to deserve the parent’s approval, the desire to obtain benefits or avoid evils in this world, and the same for the next world. Or, if we forbear to call it religion, let us posit something that involves transcending that animal agenda rather than achieving it in a roundabout and possibly ineffectual manner.

The only contrast lies in what is done, not because it suits our objectives or benefits us, in this life or the next, but in the teeth of our own interests. This is the Kantian ethic. For Kant, an act was only moral if it was done against our inclination, solely because it was right. I do not take Kant to mean that if we enjoy being virtuous, then virtuous acts are not then good acts; I take him to mean that they are not then moral acts. In other words, “moral” is a narrower concept than “good”. This capacity for moral acts, that is, acts that are not remotely conducive to our own interests – including the interest of going to heaven or not going to hell – is the only thing that can possibly distinguish man from the animals. We must now ask whether it is only possible to atheists.

The antithesis to the three Abrahamic religions, with their technological approach to worship of God, is Krishna in the Gita: Do thy duty in indifference to the fruit thereof.

Posted on July 4, 2009 at 11:34 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, Religion As Worldly Toolbox

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