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The Happy Heretic

Peace on Earth

by Judith Hayes

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 16, Number 4.

In Indonesia, in a single year, 1999-2000, nearly 2,000 people died in Christian-Muslim religious wars. The ink had just dried on the 1998 Middle East Peace Accord between the Israelis and the Palestinians when the car bombings began in Jerusalem. In October 1998 a young man named Matthew Shepard was horribly beaten to death simply because he was gay. Fanatic Christian Fundamentalists carried placards at his funeral with slogans such as, "God Hates Fags." In the early 1990s, the world watched in shock and horror as the Roman Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Bosnian Muslims slaughtered each other relentlessly. 

Hitler's concentration camps killed six million people simply because they were Jewish. In the seventeenth century the putative U.S.A. hosted witch trials in which scores of people were found guilty of being in league with the Devil, and these "witches," mostly women, were put to death. The seventeenth century also witnessed the Thirty Years' War in Europe, where Protestant and Catholic soldiers killed each other, along with thousands of hapless civilians, for 30 straight years.

In 1231 Pope Gregory set up the Holy Office of the Inquisition to seek out heretics and witches who were then tortured and killed. Scores of thousands were murdered. Countless thousands died during the Crusades that were conducted periodically from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. During these same centuries the Aztecs were ritually sacrificing humans to appease their gods. According to the "Holy" Bible, Jewish tribes slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people, for centuries, in the name of their God. The atrocities were recounted with glee.

I would not be surprised if the very first Stone Age humans to draw a deity on a cave wall followed up their inspiration by killing any other humans who refused to recognize the supremacy of their Cave Wall God. It just seems to go with the territory. So it is no small irony that at this time of year "Peace on Earth" echoes all over the planet. Merry Christmas? Well, by the most conservative of estimates, of the 2,000 Christmases we've had so far, during at least 850 of them people were being murdered in the name of Christianity. Irony indeed. 

John Lennon's wonderful song "Imagine" asks us to imagine a world without, among many other things, religion. It is an almost impossible task. A world without religion would be a world we do not recognize. The question is: Would the world have been, and would it be today, a better place without any religion at all? To be sure, wars have been fought for nonreligious reasons. Yet in how many of those wars did the combatants pray to their various Gods for protection and victory? Probably most if not all. And how many soldiers would have marched bravely into battle without assurances that their God would protect them, or, failing that, at least provide a heaven (or reincarnation) for them on the other side of death? It's an interesting question because humans, like all animals, have an instinct for survival, and charging headlong into a barrage of bullets and cannon fire is a counterintuitive and basically stupid thing to do. However, with a prayer on your lips, and a God who will reward you one way or another (survival or Paradise) it is much easier to throw caution to the wind and ignore your instinctive, sensible fear of danger. Yes, there are atheists in foxholes, but they at least fully appreciate their predicament. Death is death. 

But now try to picture what this world might be like today if all of the energy, time, intelligence, and billions of dollars that have been poured into religions over the centuries, right up to and including today, had instead been devoted to agriculture, medicine, science, and engineering-toward improving the human condition. The possibilities are mind-boggling: diseases cured, poverty eliminated, global population stabilized, a pure environment. These are not impossibilities. We are a clever species. We don't lack the talent. We lack the direction for that talent. Imagine if we developed that human compassion to its fullest-again, the focus of secular humanism. Imagine a world where every baby that is born is wanted . . . where no children are frightened with tales of hellfire and devils . . . where there are no "holy" books espousing sexism and religious bigotry . . . where individual self-esteem, not a sense of sin and guilt, is valued and encouraged in all the world's children . . . where "holy" wars are nonexistent. . . . Try to imagine . . . Peace on Earth.

2000 Judith Hayes


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