1st Century Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, in his monumental universal history Bibliotheca historica, wrote, “It is to the interest of states to be deceived in religion.” Roman historian, Livy, wrote in admiration of Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, who “introduced the fear of the gods as the most efficacious means of controlling an ignorant and barbarous populace.” Roman philosopher, Seneca, added, “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” And English philosopher, William Hazlitt, wrote, “The garb of religion is the best cloak for power.”
There are always two equally participating parties in a lie – the person who tells the lie and the person who believes it. Even as religion has been a means of control over people, it has also offered something people want. The well-known line of Karl Marx states, “Religion is the opium of the people.” Marx believed that religion had certain practical functions in society that were similar to the function of opium in a sick or injured person: it reduced people's immediate suffering and provided them with pleasant illusions, but it also reduced their energy and their willingness to confront the oppressive, heartless, and soulless reality that capitalism had forced them into.
Religion offers an escape from a grim and grinding world, typically caused by an oppressive ruling class. Religion tells people that God loves them as his own children, how he is in control of all things, will provide for and protect them, and how the faithful have a future eternal life of perfect happiness in Heaven. Russian revolutionary, Mikhail Bakunin, wrote, “People go to church for the same reasons they go to a tavern: to stupefy themselves, to forget their misery, to imagine themselves, for a few minutes anyway, free and happy.”
But for those few hours of escape, religion commits the greatest injustice against humankind by corroding the part of us that is capable of accessing what human beings most deeply want and need. American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, developed the notion of the “hierarchy of needs,” which uses a triangle to convey the layers of fundamental needs all human beings have. On the bottom of the triangle are safety and security needs such as basic human survival, personal and financial security, health and well-being, and safety against illness and oppression. Maslow next identified needs of love, belonging and a stable self-respect and self-esteem. Nearing the top of the hierarchy, Maslow said human beings ultimately desire self-actualization and self-transcendence – reaching one’s full potential as an individual person, and meaningful engagement with a reality greater than oneself.
For a human being to consciously direct their lives in order to meet these essential needs they would have to have a strong sense of self-worth, self-trust and self-reliance. But these are the exact qualities that religion too often strips away from a person. Throughout history, religion has repeatedly discouraged people from thinking for themselves, dissuaded them from questioning what they’ve been told, and discredited their ability to direct their own lives. Religion weakens people’s relationship with themselves, and replaces it with a dependency on a particular belief-system, and the leaders and organization that represents it. Religion has often used this arrangement to control people and further its own self-serving ends.
For example, the Christian religion inflicted a deep wound upon humankind with the lie that human beings are born bad. The doctrine of original sin teaches that all people are born with a sinful nature. No idea has more influenced and shaped the course of Western Civilization than this falsehood. You don’t have to be a Christian to have been impacted by it. It’s in the water. The underlying assumption that pervades all of society is that people when left to themselves naturally do evil and destructive things.
These ideas keep the Christian religion in business. Christianity manufactured a problem that doesn’t exist and established itself as the cure. Jesus, the Bible and the church are held out as the remedy to humankind’s hopeless condition. Jesus paid the price for humankind’s sin, the only means by which one can gain eternal life. The Bible is God’s one-and-only word to humankind, the revelation of his will. And the church is the authority to represent and interpret both Jesus and the Bible. The church holds the carrot and the stick to control the masses. Belief and obedience are rewarded by God’s blessing and heaven (carrot). Unbelief and disobedience result in misery and eternal damnation (stick).
The effect of the original sin doctrine is human repression. Human repression is a state in which a person is prevented from validating and expressing his or her humanity. What I mean by “humanity” are one’s natural thoughts and feelings that occur spontaneously in response to the world around us. Since its inception Institutional Christianity has been vilifying people’s humanity. It has cast a wide shadow of shame, leaving the masses with the belief that there is something fundamentally and intrinsically wrong with who we are. We doubt ourselves. We fear ourselves. We doubt and fear each other.
A.C. Grayling wrote, “That is one of the reasons why religion has survived into the modern world: it tells people what to think and do, gratifying their reluctance to make the effort, or to take the risk, of achieving self-understanding and on that basis choosing a course that would be a fulfilling expression of their individual talents for living well. In wanting a quick answer to ‘what should I do, how should I live?’ people grab a one-size-fits-all model from a shelf in the ideas supermarket, and leave it at that.”
Religion doesn't have to be this way. It could embrace the inherent worth and dignity of every person; inspire the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; encourage the free and responsible search for truth and meaning; practice justice, equity and compassion in human relations; and empower and equip people toward realizing their fullest potentialities and possibilities. Yes, it could do this; it just doesn't have a great track record of doing so.