I am the author of Kaleidoscope and I thought it might be helpful to offer some thoughts about the book’s themes to potential readers. Because I parody superstitious belief (mostly religious, but not exclusively), I suspect many believers will take offense. I think it’s very important to understand this response and specifically what elicits it, since this provides great insight into how superstitious belief systems survive and replicate. The idea of Hell and how that drives the acceptance of absurdities is one of the most obvious examples. I speak from personal experience when I say that this belief, installed at an early age, has a dramatic effect on whether a person will continue to believe in something despite the absence of facts. As many in the freethought community have noted, the idea of Hell is perhaps the most unethical and abusive aspect of religious belief systems, both because it is designed to scare people into believing and keep them in fear, and because it remains one of the primary selling points of the dogma. Needless to say, if you have to resort to the threat of eternal damnation to convince someone of the truth of what you’re saying, you’re surely coming from a weak place. In addition, at the risk of colossal understatement, it doesn’t speak well of your chosen god.
My personal view is that much of religion’s negative impact (both today and historically) is based on the notion of Original Sin. While I don’t have the space to expand on that here, I encourage people to consider that idea carefully. That is, what are some of the ramifications of people viewing themselves and others as inherently sinful, dirty, unworthy in the eyes of God, etc? In my view, this has an enormous impact on everything from marriage equality to self-esteem to how we treat each other to scientific research. In short, even though some in the religious community might argue that Original Sin is no longer stressed from the pulpit, I contend that it is still enormously pervasive, even if not always on the surface.
Recently, there’s been quite a bit of attention given to the metaphor of religion as a virus. The basic idea is that ideas such as eternal hellfire for not believing attach themselves to healthy ideas (such as love your neighbor, etc.) in a parasitical fashion, and they grab hold because they have such a profound psychological impact (particularly on the young). Obviously, believers have resisted this notion, some even going as far to suggest that intellectual inquiry and skepticism of religious claims might be the real virus. I encourage readers to evaluate this question for themselves. The virus metaphor might not be completely apropos, though I do think it’s useful.
It seems rather obvious to me that good ideas (such as love your neighbor, do unto others, etc.) need no further justification, no superstition, and no threat of hellfire behind them. And this raises an additional question: Could religion could survive without the dogma (i.e. if it was simply a moral philosophy and there were no miracles, no virgin birth, etc)? While this is probably impossible to prove, my tentative conclusion is that it would not (that is, everything else being equal, membership in any Christian church that didn’t profess belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus would lose a healthy chunk of its membership). Obviously, secular humanism survives without any reference to superstition, but how that thought system operates is radically different than how a religious one does, and the humanist community is much different in how it approaches questions about the nature of the universe and humanity’s role in it. Exploring these differences is beyond the scope of this essay, but having spent a lot of time with both groups, the difference is both noticeable and profound, even when the practical results aren’t always much different.
One other idea that has caused some controversy is that religious moderates enable fundamentalists/extremists. Again, no time to expand on that here, although I will briefly discuss the example of faith healing. Although I suspect that most believers would join freethinkers in condemning faith healing (especially when it affects the health of a child), faith healing is based on a simple, widely accepted idea – prayer works. To the extent believers maintain that prayer works, they enable the thought patterns of parents who let their children suffer and die. And it’s no answer to say that most believers don’t specifically condone faith healing. What they condone is much more dangerous.
While I’ll let readers evaluate the stereotype of the ignorant religious believer, it can surely be said that many believers actively ignore evidence in the service of their religious beliefs. Creationism is the classic example. It represents two highly negative forces–a very active form of ignorance and an inappropriate value judgment. Ultimately, believers have decided that humanity’s evolutionary story isn’t “noble” enough for them, so they’ll do whatever it takes to avoid facing it. This is one of the most stark incompatibilities between religion and science. Freethinkers accept the world as it is, believers try to evade it.
In my mind (and this is a primary theme in Kaleidoscope), the question is this: Do we timidly accept the primitive dogma in ancient texts or do we rise to our highest potential as a species by embracing our unique abilities, trusting our own minds, and taking full responsibility for our own destinies?
-- Paul Gehrman