The Tragedy of Luther

History is entirely made of missed opportunities — for everything that happened, there are an infinite number of thigs that didn’t — but one of the most tragic was in 1517. An educated person realized “Wait a minute, these stories of an invisible friend are being used by a corrupt ruling class to extort fabulous wealth from the masses!“, and decided “I’m going to throw off their nonsensical shackles, so that I can worship the invisible friend properly.”

So close! You can hear history groan as someone misses the open goal. Martin Luther recognized everything wrong with the Catholic church, which was pretty easy because at that point they were straight-up selling VIP passes to heaven*, but he’d already been so effectively dominated by church control that he couldn’t imagine a world without one.

*The church is still doing that, but now they want you to give up your beliefs in gender equality, marriage equality, and your right to defend yourself from disease or unwanted pregnancies. Which makes the money thing seem like small change.

This resulted in the Protestant church, and the coexistence of Catholicism and Protestantism may be more depressing than the original missed goal. There are more important differences between series of Star Trek. The religions are functionally identical. There are a host of theological issues, including the nature of the Host itself, but unless you’re editing a theology wiki they don’t affect your everyday life. For the average believer they both boil down to “don’t be an arsehole”. A commandment they immediately violate by calling each other sinful liars.

It’s easy to defend your faith when the competition is Norse gods and multi-armed spiritual avatars, because then there’s a clear range of options, you’ve got one you’ve already picked, and that’s all the human brain needs to disengage its higher higher functions. “This one’s mine so it’s right” is the most effective labour-saving shortcut ever invented, because thinking is hard work.

But when the two religions are the exact same faith with a few editorial corrections, how can you continue with either? Even if you’re right about the divine hairsplitting, and were born to parents reading the right revision number, how can you risk worshipping a god that pedantic? You could waste an entire life avoiding sex and gluttony only to find that you ate pork on the wrong days, or forgot a certain ritual on the third Friday of alternate Pentecost, or had been holding your hands at the wrong angle for all those prayers.

But that argument depends on religion relating only to divine truth. Which isn’t even nearly the case. I used to live near the border between the Republic of and Northern Irelands, where these religions were used as uniforms in one of the stupidest tribal conflicts in history. Both sides would use religion to keep track of who was Irish and who was English, an extra layer of information they needed because both sides were really Northern Irish. Then they’d use the team jerseys of religion to engage in the kind of hatred and violence both religions explicitly forbade.

Religion isn’t just spirituality, it’s clannishness and tribalism and belonging to a group. And all the protohumans who didn’t like joining groups helped feed hungry wolf children instead of having any of their own. Leaving a group leaves you feeling weaker and undefended – that’s why Christianity has more splinters than a shattered crucifix. Even when someone sees the bullshit in their current group, their urge is to set up another of their own. The original schism was triggered when Luther realized that the Catholic church was an extortion mechanism but still couldn’t break free of it. The non-existence of gods simply wasn’t an option on the table. The idea of a divine overseer had been installed too thoroughly. And that’s why being openly atheist is important.

Religion is still presented as a standard human value, like race or sexuality: you have your own and shouldn’t say anything about the others. Which is a great trick for people busily brainwashing children who don’t want to deal with awkward arguments. Once the idea of a god has been installed, it’s easy to continue believing in the one you already know about compared to all those weird foreign devils. Even though the existence of several thousand different gods should raise, well, several thousand questions about the validity of any of them.

That’s where open atheism comes in. Once the idea of atheism is raised, anyone struggling with the inconsistencies of faith suddenly has a simple solution. Being openly atheist normalizes the idea. People of all faiths have been raised to believe that belief is normal, standard, required, that everyone does it, all of which adds peer pressure to the psychological torture, threats of eternal hellfire, and various other things preventing them from moving forward. Because threatening children with eternal agony is not conducive to constructive thought. And still legal, apparently. Even when they break free of their old teachings, many scuttle across to a “true” religion with the soul of a hermit crab, attributing all their worries and doubts to their “false” beliefs and joining another huge group reassuring them that they’re right.

Just being atheist adds another option. You’re never going to change anyone’s mind, but you’ll help those trying to make up their own.

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4 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Luther

  1. I have to admit, I’m not really seeing the link between atheism and Martin Luther here. Even from a purely secular point of view, isn’t it entirely acceptable to attempt reform of an organization you like the *idea* of but not the execution? Additionally, can’t we turn this argument easily by saying that certain ways of being atheist are “incorrect” or “excessive” or etc.? In the end, I don’t understand how what you discuss is any different from any other organization in the world.

  2. “Religion has not civilized man, man has civilized religion”
    Robert Green Ingersoll

    The difference between Catholics and protestants might be tiny but they are fairly easy to sum up. Reading the bible, the host, the pope and kind of Mary. But the difference between Sunnis and Shias? I haven’t been able to find a decent explanation of what they believe in terms of how you actually live or practice religion that seems that different.

  3. Except that you still cling to to the belief that you actually know either way. Whether you believe in a god or not, everyone needs to accept that there is a decent chance that they are wrong.

    • Sorry, that came out harsher than intended. I shouldn’t go on the internet while exhausted. I actually do agree with the basic point of this article, but to simply assume there is no god is as much a fallacy as the reverse. The fact is that, regardless of personal belief, we simply cannot know either way.

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