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April 24, 2009

Robert L. Sharp: Talking about religion

I approach this subject with extreme trepidation. Not only because, as I mentioned in a previous column about the beginning of life, all good etiquette books advise not to talk about politics, religion or money at social events.

Karl Marx famously said (in paraphrase of a long convoluted paragraph translated from the original German), "Religion is the ... opium of the people." But then so are diversions such as cigarettes and whiskey and wild wild women. And crossword puzzles, movie magazines, and, well -- opium, or other hallucinatory equivalents.

According to Marx, religion is an expression of economic injustice. He wasn't so much down on religion, seeing it not as disease, but merely a symptom.

Phil Zuckerman, an associate professor of sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont, has also posited an economic correlation to the practice of a religious faith, contrary to the position of the major faiths that worship of their deity and obedience to their laws are essential for a peaceful, healthy society. (

Quoting Zuckerman: "The 2004 United Nations' Human Development Report, which ranked 177 countries on a 'Human Development Index,' measures such indicators of societal health as life expectancy, adult literacy, per-capita income, educational attainment and so on."

According to this report, the five top nations were Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands."

These countries also rank highest in the percentage of nonbelievers.

Correlation is not causation, but I'd call this the "Reverse No Atheists in Foxholes Syndrome."

Zuckerman found the opposite is also true: Societies with nonexistent atheism, with the exception of Ireland and the United States, are among the most destitute.

A 2004 Fox News poll reported 92 percent of Americans say they believe in God. But what kind of God do people believe in?

Before the monotheistic Jews simplified the deity business, most religions had many gods. The god of war, the god of weather, the god of fertility, the god of art and gods of different facets of nature. And don't get me started on Hinduism and Shinto.

A 2006 Pew survey found people identify with one of four types of god.

A is the authoritarian god, worshiped by 31.4 percent of respondents. This deity is highly involved, responsible for earthly events such as tsunamis or economic upturns and "capable of meting out punishment to those who are unfaithful or ungodly."

B is the benevolent god, the choice of 23 percent of respondents. He also is involved in human affairs but isn't in the smiting business. This god is "mainly a force of positive influence in the world and is less willing to condemn or punish individuals."

C is the critical god, who "really does not interact with the world." But believers in this god -- 16 percent of the sample -- still watch their Ps and Qs because god C "views the current state of the world unfavorably" and will punish evildoers "in another life."

Last but not least is D, the distant god, and 24 percent of respondents endorsed this version of the deity, "a cosmic force which set the laws of nature in motion" but has no interest in human activities.

Of course, all the above requires faith, even at a time when in civil life, seven of the Ten Commandments are not legally enforceable.

Drawing on Bart Kosko, of the Electrical Engineering Faculty at the University of Southern California, "Faith is unwarranted belief. Faith is belief without evidence or despite evidence to the contrary. It takes large doses of such faith to support the very existence of casinos, psychic hotlines, astrology columns, mall Santas and most organized religions."

Religion is culturally and temporally based. For the vast majority of people, their religion is something that was part of their family birthright and taught to them while very young and impressionable. How else would you get groups to go to such effort to distinguish themselves with unique clothing, various special activities and food allowances and taboos.

I was brought up in a Protestant church and escaped when I could. They lost me at repetitive reading. "What is he saying and why are we saying it back?"

I identify with the fellow who wasn't so much an atheist or agnostic, since he really didn't care one way or the other. He decided a more accurate description for his religious perspective would be "apatheism" which he defines as "a disinclination to care all that much about one's own religion, and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people's."

Ooooh, was that thunder ... and lightning?

Robert L. Sharp grew up in Linden (population 1,000) and spent most of the following 30 years as an international banker in Asia, including four years as a Naval officer in that part of the world.

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