“Religion is the opiate of the masses,” Karl Marx said, and how right he was. Studies have shown as income inequality increases, so does the frequency of prayer. The more religious a society, the more accepting of fictional justifications commonly espoused by a particular faith that allow a population to accept unacceptable socioeconomic disparities. The United States, contrary to its status as the pioneers of science, is disproportionately preoccupied with an imaginary friend than its European or Australian colleagues. We are also living with income disparity levels not seen in America since 1774! There is significant evidence this has been detrimental to our development as a nation, our pursuit of happiness as well as perpetuating the culture of constant war and foreign occupation that has irreversibly scarred the USA. We are far too religious for our own good.
I intend to elucidate my hypothesis using three separate spheres of influence of religion on society:
1. Physical and logical brain functions
2. Emotional development and happiness
3. The culture of war fostered by religion and the military.
Physical Impact of Prayer on the Brain
Medical science has shown the hippocampus is the part of the brain involved in memory forming, organizing, and storing. The more one learns about the world, the less mysterious it becomes and one is less likely to accept oversimplified “god did it” type answers. My ability to differentiate between a creationist tale of my world versus the scientific facts of its real age (the biblical 10,000 years over the actual age of 4.6 billion years) may have stifled my scientific potential. I refer to a study of hippocampus atrophy in adults over fifty-eight with a focus on Life Changing Religious Experiences as a variable. With increased religiosity one observes a decrease in the function of the hippocampus. It seems watching the 700 Club can be hazardous to your health.
I am guilty of perpetuating this mythology on my own children, as it is inescapable in our society. My youngest goes to preschool where they learn about Christmas and Santa, which doesn’t bother me one bit. Sadly, I have resorted to using the ‘Santa Claus is watching you’ threat on my toddler to keep him in line, and this is probably not much different than telling a child god or big brother is watching you. It’s as if you are selecting which myths your child should believe and for how long, which is no different than cherry-picking which parts of the bible you feel are veracious. The victims of childhood indoctrination have a hard time knowing which parts of the Bible they should accept as literally true and which are merely allegorical and not to be taken literally. For example, if one rejects the account in Genesis of a six-day creation, and the account of the lives of the descendants of Adam and Eve to Noah and beyond, upon which the claimed young age of earth is based, why does one not also reject the account of original sin, the fall of Man and of the need for forgiveness and redemption upon which the entire Christian faith depends and upon which the entire rationale for Jesus’s sacrifice is supposedly based? What in these stories distinguishes one from the other with sufficient reason to reject one and accept the other? It’s nice to believe in fantasy and to encourage imagination, but living life with the lack of true rationality may just make us less happy. The available rankings of the world’s happiest nations actually strengthens this correlation between a more rational society and a more satisfied populace.
Happiness and Emotional Well-being
If you take a look at the top ten happiest countries you’d notice a disproportionate percentage of the top ten happiest are Scandinavian countries. Also noteworthy is the very same countries which appear on that list are also the least religious. Is there an absolute correlation? No, of course not. But we can learn from the greatest example of historical suffering and stagnation since the Roman Empire, which was known as the Dark Ages. This was an era where superstition reigned supreme and it clearly demonstrated the negative impacts religion can have on a society dominated by its stern enforcement and absolute power over men. The modern day examples of societies becoming more humane, compassionate and progressive are extremely obvious, where the most secular nations enjoy the highest standards of living. I posed the question, ‘do less religious societies have a higher level of morality?’ to author Phil Zuckerman, researcher and professor. He replied:
“Yes, I would argue that most of the least religious nations on earth today are the most moral in terms of having the best health care, elder care, child care, maternity/paternity leave, most humane prisons, no death penalty, lowest murder rates, lowest levels of corruption, lowest levels of police brutality, best care for the physically disabled, most sane environmental policies, women’s rights, gay rights, good educational systems, etc. However, I can’t say with 100% surety that is is because they are strongly secular. Correlation is not causation. But I can say this: many countries have become more humane and moral in the wake of religion weakening. Perfect examples include Japan and Scandinavia.”
When you have a nation who believes that the only way to salvation is for the country to revert back to the teachings of the Old Testament and this must be added to the Constitution, we are indeed in trouble. Too much fear and hate is perpetuated by many of these groups claiming to represent Christ and promoting this kind of nonsense is only detrimental to a society’s progress. Our government’s dominance by the Moral Majority and the Faith Based Initiative have kept our civil rights at levels far less evolved than many other western democracies.
The Culture of Perpetual War Fostered by Religious Fundamentalism
The United States military, the most expensive and largest on earth has an unusually anti-secular attitude. Mikey Weinstein, a graduate of the US Air Force Academy and head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, says “mandated religion has no place within the technologically most lethal creation of the US government.” A survey commissioned by the Air Force Academy in 2010 showed some improvements in the climate of religious tolerance on campus, but also found that many cadets still felt pressured to take part in religious activities. Nearly half of the non-Christian cadets surveyed, for example, said their fellow students have a “low tolerance” for atheists, a 20 percent jump from a similar 2008 survey. This came on the heels of reports that Air Force missileers were receiving Bible-centered ethics training, with the aim of helping them shake off lingering doubts about firing nuclear weapons. The training – which had been in place for almost two decades and was known jokingly among the airmen as “Jesus loves nukes” – was halted in 2011. God and country is a big part of the military culture, as anytime there’s a ceremony of any type, there’s always prayer.
The most fundamentalist chaplains are often selected to lead prayer with military groups. A motivational pastor from the Central Christian Church in Las Vegas, Raymond Giunta, 47 led a prayer breakfast at the Pentagon in early December. Turns out this is the same Pastor Giunta who was found to have taken more than $10,200 in cemetery trust funds intended for graveyard upkeep while he worked as the director of the California Cemetery Board in the mid-1990’s. Fundamentalist “Pentacostal” religion seems to dominate the military, and it went up all the way to General Petraeus.
General David Petraeus, recently disgraced, is a very “spiritual” military leader. He heavily pushed the concept of Spiritual Fitness Tests, Spiritual Fitness Concerts and Spiritual Fitness Centers and spared no expense attracting Christian Fundamentalist performers. Funny how that whole holier than thou thing worked out for him, isn’t it? I find it rather interesting how the military has perverted the message of Christ to mean we should take over any part of the world we desire, especially those parts that believe in a different god than Jesus. Without the fallacy of this religiosity, the military would probably not be able to sell its barbaric message to so many in the Military Industrial Complex, namely the United States Congress who funds it so very generously.
It’s a personal decision to believe what one chooses to believe. However when that belief is forced upon a society in one way or another, it seems it can only create a culture that mirrors the devolution of Medieval Europe, replete with all the inequality, brutality and intolerance that comes with the mandated belief in the unproven. Constitutionally, we’re a society which allows for religion, not a religion that allows for society. In 1988, America was #1 in “where to be born” list. Now it is joint 16th. It would be nice if religion could be considered a factor in our diminished status.