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Religion: A Fortress Built on Sand

Updated on May 11, 2016
Scottmonster profile image

Scott is a graduate student and historian who is interested in politics, social movements, education, and religion

The Fortress

“I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.” -Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

Imagine you are a General assigned the task of toppling an enemy's fortification. Your army is strong, well supplied, and structured around logic and reason. Your first task is to examine the structure of your adversary and survey the outlying areas. You see the fortification has been built on an island, and surrounded by redoubts, moats, and trenches that connect the smaller outer defenses to the main structure. The castle's walls are high, and well garrisoned. A direct assault is simply not possible. Victory does not seem possible. Then you smile. You smile because you realize that the opposition has built their castle on sand. For all of its appearance of greatness, you know that in time, the castle will collapse on itself because it has no foundation.

Religion is a fortress built on sand, on an island called faith, garrisoned by taboo. It survives because, like the fortress of my previous paragraph, no direct assault is possible, leaving the masses no hope of thinking the mission can be accomplished. However, despite all of this, each century the castle erodes a little more.

The Island of Faith is a cop-out, a defeat--an admission that the truths of religion are unknowable through evidence and reason. It is only indemonstrable assertions that require the suspension of reason, and weak ideas that require faith. -Dan Barker

We all have faith. Society is not possible without faith, and it shouldn't be too hard to see. There's nothing intrinsically valuable about money, and yet because we all have faith in it, the world's economic system works. We're always aware that there are crazy people in the world, that not all of our neighbors are good-natured, and yet we have faith that we can still live our lives in relative peace and comfort without carrying guns everywhere we go, or padlocking all our doors and windows. When we read books, or newspapers, we can never know for certain that what we're reading is true, yet we don't doubt everything outside our own experiences as a result, rather we have faith that the systems put in place for dispersing information are well made. Faith is critical to the social contract.

Yet, while faith is necessary for society to grow and for individuals to live, not all faith should be treated equally. Not all faith is made equally. Imagine you were about to go under the surgeon's knife. While you're being prepped, the surgeon says, "don't worry, I haven't done this before, but I have great faith that this will all go well." Would that make you feel better?

As Dan Barker, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and former evangelical preacher, has argued sensibly and persuasively, there is no claim that is ever made stronger by attaching the word "faith" to it. Try it, and if you think you've found one, let me know!

"I am a great person." "I have faith I'm a great person."

"I am qualified for the job," "I have faith that I'm qualified for the job."

When we think about faith, we don't normally abandon all common sense or scrutiny. Again, imagine someone tells you about their extreme faith that aliens visit them in their sleep. You might not question their sincerity, you might not question the possibility, but would you say that the claim is beyond scrutiny because an individual believes it? If so, then presumably aliens regularly come to Earth, Elvis is still alive, and the Loch Ness monster is a real threat to swimmers.

Religion is the exception to all this. When a person says that what they believe is apart of their faith, they have played a trump card. They have made it clear that they are not interested in logic, debate, or new ideas.They have fallen back on a "don't hurt my feelings" type argument. In absence of thought, they have made clear that what they believe is not a subject they wish to, or are capable of explaining. They have created an island. A magical place disconnected from the continent of reality.

The Soldiers of Taboo

In the long run, nothing can withstand reason and experience, and the contradiction religion offers to both is palpable. -Sigmund Freud

There are plenty of topics which are labeled as taboo for good reason, Religion isn't one of them. The religious should not be allowed any sort of special right to be offended that no other group is allowed. How is it that we ever allowed a small group of people to claim knowledge of what they could not possibly know, while simultaneously telling everyone else that it's not polite to talk about this negatively?

The religious remind us day in and day out of their conviction, they wear symbols of their faith, they yell it in the streets, they advertise it everywhere. They ask us to forget that better than 90% of the prison population believes in God, while better than 90% of scientists don't. And yet, if a person even suspects that they're speaking to an atheist, they begin dismissing and rationalizing anything said.

Thanks largely to taboo, when an atheist speaks, they are almost immediately labeled as militant. It doesn't matter how respectful you are, it doesn't matter how logically or sensitively you make an argument. Once a person knows that you're not a member of their group, they either begin to defend all aspects of their faith (as if their very identity were on the line), or simply end the conversation. It doesn't matter that the leading killers of Christians are other Christians, that the leading killers of Muslims are other Muslims... We should remember that every group in American history which sought rights and a platform to be heard has been labeled as militant. This applies to the women's suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, the abolitionist movement, any peace movement, and many more.

Taboo means that the closest we can come to assigning responsibility for pedophilia in the Catholic Church is making jokes. It means that when we talk about college educated, and wealthy individuals seeking martyrdom in the name of Islam, we must say it is everything but religion which drove them to do it.

As a history student, I often wondered how anyone could have read Mein Kampf, and then been surprised about what Hitler did. After 9/11 I found out. No matter how many times suicide bombers tell us why they are killing themselves, the message simply doesn't sink in, not because we don't understand the message, but because we simply don't want to believe it's true. We don't want to blame their faith, because once some people's faith is questioned, then everyone else's gets put on the table as well. I find this akin to the "kings don't kill kings" theory of the medieval age. The point is, we SHOULD QUESTION EVERYTHING, MOST ESPECIALLY THAT WHICH IS OFF LIMITS FOR NO GOOD REASON.

A Foundation built on Sand

Throughout the last 400 years... the clergy have fought a losing battle against science, in astronomy and geology, in anatomy and physiology, in biology and psychology and sociology. Ousted from one position, they have taken up another. After being worsted in astronomy, they did their best to prevent the rise of geology; they fought against Darwin in biology, and at the present time they fight against scientific theories of psychology and education. At each stage, they try to make the public forget their earlier obstructionism, in order that their present obscurantism may not be recognized for what it is. -Bertrand Russell

Trying to figure out what a moderate theist believes is like trying to nail jello to a wall. There are no rules, no guiding principles, no foundation. Take Christianity for example. You would think that if there was any single axiom for which all Christians could agree, it would be found in the divinity of Jesus Christ. So do all Christians believe Christ was divine? The answer is no. For every religious abolitionist in America, there was a religious slave holder; for every religiously inspired soul who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there was a religiously inspired bigot waiting to counter protest; despite all the religious arguments against capital punishment, the Bible belt still kills more people than the rest of the country combined.

Religion comes in every flavor, if you believe that God cares what position you have sex in, or answers personal prayers, then there are religions and sects for you. If you believe God to be infinitely merciful, or simply a passive observer, there are still more religions for you. Modern quasi-secularized thought actually advocates, in many cases, adopting a potpourri of different views, no matter how divergent the overall religions are. The idea being that if it makes sense to you, and makes you feel good, then it must be wise.

When the Church had the authority to burn non-believers alive at the stake, they did. When Kings had to procure consent from the Pope for their policies, the Pope never failed to get something in return. When witches, and necromancers were up to no good, casting spells and poisoning the faithful, the Church never came up short in finding culprits. Hundreds of years later, we think of the age of faith, better known as the dark ages, as being a product of primitive man, not primitive religion. Despite my belief that any benefit of religion could be arrived at through countless other institutions, religion still possesses the ability to shed responsibility for atrocities while holding a near monopoly on human virtue.

Thankfully, their grip slipping.


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    • Scottmonster profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott Vehstedt 

      7 years ago from Washington, D.C.


      Lol. I should have guessed you'd find this one! I'd love to discuss/debate/converse on any topic in religion, and I'm always open to feedback of any sort. I was not being coy when I said I liked your arguments.

      1. Let me start with the prison thing.

      You're quite right, that my choice of phrasing was poor. No one literally asks us to forget, as I less than poetically wrote. However, I won't abandon the point. I don't believe that prison inmates "fake" being Christian because they'll get something out of it. I'm not sure there's any evidence for that. It is a statistical fact that the extreme majority of criminals and death row inmates are Christian. Are they good Christians? No. Does it say something about the religion as a whole? No. However, I think it should rightly call in to question the moral monopoly which most Christians believe their religion holds. So in sum, I could have made my point better, and I see what you're saying, though I don't agree.

      2. My main contention with what you wrote about ego being the real problem is this: Religion is an incredibly important force in driving ego! Who claims to have knowledge of the afterlife? The religious. Who thinks its ok to tell people with almost no education, who they never met, that AIDs may be bad, but wearing condoms is worse? The religious! People who think they are acting on behalf of God are capable of any atrocity. I don't need to go on here, you get the idea.

      It is wrong to say they shied away from blame, from time to time. The Catholic Church still has not apologized for supporting Hitler, or for declaring the fascist overthrow of Spain a holy war. Certainly Muslims and Protestants don't think they have anything to explain either, despite all that could be said on them....

      How does this differ from science? It differs because scientists don't call for crusades, or fatwas, or fire bombs against people who disagree with them. Can pride get in the way of their better judgment? Of course, it does for all of us from time to time. It's totally unfair to put scientists in the same category as holy men. Scientists spend decades working as experts in their field, and would never get away with crimes like sodomizing children. Reverends are typically made between the ages of 16 and 40, and once anointed, are rarely questioned.

      3. On faith.

      Of course once you start defining words without a dictionary, it's easy to make points. I use faith as I believe it is understood by the masses.

      I cannot comment too much further here, as I'm not sure I understand what your point is. It seems that the "big difference" for you, is whether or not you personally agree with the statement. I'd love a clarification.

      thanks again.

    • Scottmonster profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott Vehstedt 

      7 years ago from Washington, D.C.

      Jamagenee, I appreciate the support, but in fact the "militant" comment was in reference to a previous line of comments from Lone77star's hub. It was all in good fun I think.

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 

      7 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Scott, despite lone77star's arguments to the contrary, I don't see any indication in your well thought out statements that you're overly sensitive to "militancy". ;D

    • lone77star profile image

      Rod Martin Jr 

      7 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Oh, and I almost forgot...

      You said, "...when an atheist speaks, they are almost immediately labeled as militant." Sensitive on this point?

      I don't call you militant. Not immediately, not almost immediately, or at any time in the future, unless you become militant.

      For awhile, I enjoyed the discussions of Baileybear. Her arguments seemed well-reasoned, at first. I still don't think of her as militant, but her logic sometimes slips because of her bias. But some other atheists, especially in the forums, come across as militant and abusive -- trolling purely religious discussions, disrupting the cordial arguments already under way.

      I can tell you have great passion behind your statements. Perhaps a little too much passion to be entirely objective?

      I'd love to see a more objective argument.

    • lone77star profile image

      Rod Martin Jr 

      7 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Scottmonster, you make some good points. There is a great deal of logic here.

      However, you make some generalizations that, while they contain a shred of factual basis, are not universally true.

      The religious have done all of the crimes you mentioned. And the church frequently, but not always, has shied away from accepting their responsibility for past mistakes.

      The problem isn't religion. I hope we can have more dialog on this point. The problem comes from that attitude within self which feels "entitled to be right." This is the conscious ego -- the heart of selfishness.

      I'm curious. When has anyone in religion asked that we forget anything about prison populations as you so curiously state? And is membership in a religion something inmates adopt so it looks better in a parole hearing? How can we ever know for sure? A little skepticism can go both ways on your statements.

      Can some scientists hide their religious beliefs because of the current climate in science? Outsiderness is not an easy thing to fight when scientists also have egos. Just look at the "Clovis first" fiasco in North American anthropology. That was ego blown entirely out of proportion to the logic of science. Scientists were afraid to dig below the Clovis horizon for fear of losing their careers. Evidence hidden because of ego and dogma.

      Again, the problem is ego. Not science or religion.

      Your use of the word "faith" sounds more like "belief" or "trust."

      Just because someone believes in something does not make it true. I think that's your point; and I've made it numerous times myself. I agree that not all "belief" should be treated equally.

      And that's a big part of the problem with most believers today. They get bent out of shape when science disagrees with their "interpretation" of Holy Scripture. But, oops! That didn't say science disagrees with Holy Scripture. Science disagrees with their interpretation.

      The fixated believer cannot condone scrutiny because it is an assault on their ego -- not on their religion.

      You almost had it when you said, "They have fallen back on a 'don't hurt my feelings' type of argument." It's not religion they're protecting, but their ego.

      "Faith" has many definitions. One that is not in the dictionary, but is implicitly found in some religious texts means approximately, "perfect confidence" or "100% confidence." It also includes the connotation of "power of creation."

      "Faith" as I use it is the power to walk on water, heal the sick, part the sea and feed the multitudes on scraps and crumbs.

      The beliefs of the religious egotists are most certainly built on sand. The faith of those who know the woof and warp of creation is built on a solid foundation -- the same foundation upon which the universe is built. Big difference.


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