Religion: The Dell Computer of the Masses

I have never seriously entertained the idea of belonging to a religion. Of course, that may have something to do with growing up in a thoroughly secular household. As a child, Sunday was the dreaded day of the week: the day that I sat at home trying to pull my way through the intolerable “Sunday Morning Cartoons,” a horrendous block of Baby Huey, Woody Woodpecker, and other Hanna Barbara drivel sandwiched between “The 700 Club” and “American Gladiators,” and impatiently wait for my friends to get back from Church. I did attend Church a few times with relatives and friends. I would’ve rather been watching the soul-sucking Sunday morning cartoons.

Clearly, part of my distaste for Church was due to the inevitable result produced from the incommensurable combination of young children and Church. There is perhaps nothing worse you can do to a six year-old boy than to wake him up on a beautiful summer’s day at 7 a.m., throw a suit on him, and ask him to sit and be quiet and still while a man talks for 163 hours about something not quite understood, but that certainly isn’t ninjas or dinosaurs. Seeing that the majority of American parents, not to mention the rest of the world, subject their kids to this torturous activity it is a wonder that religion still thrives.

But, it remains true that the correlation between the religion of our parents and our own religious beliefs is incredibly high. The majority of people in the world have preserved the religious and ideological commitments of their parents. Although it would be false to believe that my secular upbringing didn’t play a major role in my current non-religious atheism, I do believe that a few personal characteristics also played a part.

To me, the immediate, unpalatable aspect of religion is its pat simplicity. Pre-packaged belief systems have always drawn scorn from me. They turn the act of philosophy into little more than the wholesale purchasing of another’s secondhand dogma. And, although I am all for buying other types of secondhand merchandise, I don’t wish to have another’s, or another group’s, beliefs passed onto me. Everything owned by another is likely to get worn down and corrupted; beliefs are no different. I prefer to construct my own, thank you very much.

In the clearest recollections of my cognitive life I cannot remember thinking that I would be able to stumble across a prepackaged set of beliefs that would explain the universe. From the moment of my first philosophical thought – the common “how do we know that we see the same colors?” – I knew that one of the central features of my life would be a struggle for answers. In many ways, this characteristic is perhaps the hallmark of being a philosopher: understanding that there are no easy answers and liking that fact.

Not to say that religion, or being religious, is inherently easy. For many believers dealing with the torrential questions of faith – of true believers vs. apostates – can be a lifelong and painful process. For believers, however, the truth is presumed to be known and only the details up in the air – their difficulty is derived from within a known destination. In many ways this is the difference between theology and philosophy: theology takes much for granted and interests itself with the details, philosophy takes nothing for granted.

Perhaps the most important trait of a religion is its preexistence to the believer. If you happen to be one who creates a religion you are certainly of a fundamentally different ilk than those who wish to purchase your dogma down the line. (Of course, for the major religions, this is likewise true of the founder’s immediate followers who did not simply buy into the beliefs of their parents but performed a profoundly radical and rebellious act that compromised their position in society. This, to say the least, is not the attitude of the majority of the believers of major faiths today.) I would be tempted to call the founders of religions “philosophers” if so many religions didn’t seem to be the product of charismatic madmen and eccentrics (Mormonism and Scientology I’m primarily looking in your direction) who simply believed that every belief that popped into their heads were revelations from God.

Whether it comes from madness or magnificence, to produce a belief system anew is to engage in an act of creativity. To buy into a preexisting belief system is to engage in an act of slothful mimicry. But, then again, humans have always looked for the easiest path.

One of the beautiful aspects of a market economy is that demands are satisfied. One of the most common demands is for simplicity. Polaroid found a profit bonanza when it produced a camera that satisfied the demand for simplicity before anything else. The camera wouldn’t need to be focused. The film wouldn’t need to be developed. The consumer wouldn’t have to work to gain a desirable product. A product that, although substantially sub par in nearly every respect to the photographs of knowledgeable professionals who had constructed piecemeal arrays of equipment, was able to be produced with very little cost to the consumer. Of course, the costs considered here are not simply monetary. The vast amount of time, dedication and money required to become a professional photographer who creates perfect photos from carefully chosen equipment is simply not worth it to the majority of people. They would rather buy their camera, take some pictures, and get on with some more important things.

Satisfying the demand for simplicity has given the modern consumer an untold number of amenities. Specialization has made us the jacks of many trades and the masters of a few, if any. But, the cost/benefit analysis is wholly justifiable. If you don’t have to know anything about photography and you can still take pictures, why not? Within any given day lights will tell us when to get our cars fixed, our largely self-sufficient computers will perform necessary maintenance, our taxes will be efficiently completed by accountants, mutual funds will manipulate our money, and our souls will be saved, all with little effort from us. Other people have done all the work; we can just reap the benefits.

But, there will always be experts. The products wouldn’t exist if experts and visionaries didn’t invent and innovate. And, experts will always be there to deride the choices of the majority for simplicity over complexity (such as this essay). Most experienced and skilled computer users wouldn’t consider purchasing a Dell or a Gateway; machines that curtail options, functionality and customizability in the name of price and simplicity. The machines, designed to easily fulfill the average consumer’s basic uses for a computer with as little headache as possible, are seen as preposterous to experienced computer users who don’t want their hands held as they cross the information superhighway and frankly know enough to cross safely on their own. In the end, with the esoteric ability to bend a computer to their will (an adroitness that came at a high cost), such experienced users will have more fulfilling and varied experiences with computers.

If beliefs are seen as commodities, which in some sense they certainly are, then they also undergo similar “market pressures” that affect their spread and survival. Again, the demand for simplicity is certainly prevalent, as are demands for beliefs that create status, conform to the majority, rebel against the majority, and produce other material, or non-material, gains. Likewise, the nature of the market may change and belief systems that previously had satisfied old demands prove to be unworkable with new demands. See ancient polytheism on this subject. One could earnestly try to predict the behavior of the market, expecting certain beliefs to be “big gainers” or good investments. What is apparent, however, is that the truth of a belief system is not the central demarcating criterion for its marketableness. Any religious person should readily admit this fact. Within any religion, an explanation for the hundreds of other “false” religions holding billions in their thrall is necessary, if not always given. Many religious people are blatantly unforgiving to those who do not understand the plain, obvious truth of their convictions. All the while they treat billions of other believers as victims of mass deceptions and fail to see why someone would feel similarly about them.

But, the fact remains that the histories of the major religions are fraught with intense doctrinal disputes. Eventually, once a palatable interpretation emerged and the consumers found a product they could buy, the situations resolved themselves. This, of course, is essential to any religion. A religion without believers is hardly a religion. A product without a market will soon disappear. When Paul and the later evangelists turned Christianity into a religion more about Jesus’ death than his life (as it unquestionably wasn’t to Jesus’ initial followers) they greatly simplified Christian dogma. Centering dogma on the data of Jesus’ life – sayings, beliefs, actions, implications – is inherently more difficult than centering upon the comparatively simple facts of his death. A life has is more data with which to deal. This type of Christianity – a more Eastern and Gnostic flavor that was widely practiced in the early centuries of Christianity – imposed higher costs, mainly in time and effort, upon the believers. Therefore, in this regard, Paul’s streamlined interpretation – modern Christianity’s interpretation – was/is simply more marketable. It slices, it dices, it saves your soul.

On the other side is philosophy. When philosophy is in its truest form (which may be a big ‚Äúif‚Äù) it is to belief what programmers and engineers are to computers; the experts. Philosophers are supremely concerned with the nature, justification, and truth of beliefs. They incur high costs to deal seriously with issues into which most people do not care to invest effort. They are the auto mechanics, accountants, and plumbers of belief. (Well ma’am…Your epistemology is shot, your rationality needs a tune-up, and you need a 20,000 beliefs service on your credulity.) By concerning themselves with method rather than result ‚Äì that is placing primacy upon accurate processes that achieve justified outcomes ‚Äì philosophers engage in an activity with no predetermined destination. Philosophical treatises spend hundreds of pages discussing the reasoning and rationality behind conclusions. By understanding the method the result is justified. Unlike Christian dogma, no true philosopher would ever be more concerned with, say, Socrates‚Äôs death (which could certainly be spun into a golden fleece of sacrificial dogma) than with what he said. Or, to put it another way, the beliefs that make up a meaningful life are never a destination, they are a process.

With all my familial history given its due weight, I am also not religious because I see it as too conveniently simple and alluring. Religions are always intellectual commodities that bow to the pressures of demand. Therefore, those that survive will always be as accommodating as my Dell computer. I highly doubt that the truth is accommodating; at least not in the “I win/you lose” style of religious belief.

Believing that the answers to the most fundamental questions of life, the universe, and everything are conveniently presented, for the most part, within the belief system that (TADA!) you happened to be born into is simple intellectual slovenliness. And, although I may have numerous beliefs that are quite comforting and painful to challenge, I will continue to choose an activity that attempts to reconcile that fact with the truth rather than partake in a quick-fix activity such as religion. With consumer goods such as computers and cars the growth in simplicity has garnered incredible dividends. But, when it comes to ultimate and monumentally important philosophical issues I will choose complexity over simplicity. The stakes are substantially higher and the costs are more than worth the trade-off. I will build my computer from scratch.

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1 Response to Religion: The Dell Computer of the Masses

  1. Anthony says:

    I find this to be a unique argument against religion as a whole, but I think as an argument, it is flawed.

    I am a non-practicing Catholic, and with a little over 12 years of Catholic school education and I feel that I am qualified to say that looking deeper within any major religion reveals more complexity than simplicity. I have also taken numerous classes in world religions and in philosophy. The wealth of history and knowledge obtained from intense study of religion and its origins is far from a simple task, nor is it general or easy as buying a Dell.

    The author seems to hint at the fact that since most religions are imparted from parent to child they are some how less valid or not as important. I should point out that one of this is one of the author’s flaws. Philosophy and reason are also imparted to us as relatively young adults through school. I am almost certain that the author, who is by self-description a philosopher, must have studied Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, and various other philosophers including (gasp!) religious icons such as St. Thomas Aquinas. If both of theology and religion are taught to many children, how come there are still so many highly educated people who believe in God or follow one particular religion. It has been my experience that the religion of Catholicism is highly philosophical, I just make the leap of faith to believe in God.

    Right now I’m typing this on the third upgrade of a computer I built by myself a little over four years ago. While I agree that there are those radical elements of any religion that take an OVERLY simplistic view of their own beliefs, I argue that there are many more that are highly educated and challenged by not only their beliefs, but the beliefs and conclusions of other religions and philosophies. There are those who want the Polaroid, the Dell computer. However it has been my experience that there are those who want to take the time into researching which digital camera will produce the best results and is best for them. There are those who are willing to learn how to build a new computer from the motherboard up. There are those who study their religion vigorously, also studying with the same veracity other religions and philosophies.

    It is my conclusion that the author takes an overly simplistic line of argumentation against religion. A much more valid (and of course a much more difficult) line of argumentation would be not in how simplistic or void of philosophy religion is, but in WHY people believe in God, not why people follow a particular religion.

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