Excerpted from the essay/ebook:
“Believing the Unbelievable”
by Barbara G. Walker
Why are human beings so frequently prone to believing the unbelievable, trusting the improbable, being convinced by the very eccentricity of the impossible? As a species, we seem to want marvels and miracles more than facts. This might account for the almost assured success of nearly every would-be cult leader, no matter how bizarre his or her program may be. In fact, the wilder the better. The likes of Joseph Smith, Charles Taze Russell, Mary Baker Eddy, L. Ron Hubbard, and even the notorious Jim Jones readily attracted believers—as shown by such notable successes as Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, and Scientology. Jones’s cult may have had a similar burgeoning if it had not unfortunately turned suicidal.
Religious assertions that would seem improbable even in the context of Grimm’s fairy tales are confidently put forth as believable, and routinely labeled miraculous. The Catholic Church actually has a set agenda for identifying what it calls “genuine” miracles, which all Catholics are called upon to believe without doubting.
Doubt, in fact, is often described as an evil, whereas unquestioning credulity is the virtue known as “faith.” Millions of literal Bible believers allow themselves to be convinced that a man can live for three days in the stomach of a whale, or that city walls can be knocked down by blowing a ram’s horn, or that all humanity incestuously descended from a single pair, or that representatives of every animal species were once crammed into a boat built by a single man, either by twos or by sevens, depending on which chapter of Genesis you read. Oddly enough, when the same or similar stories are found in writings older than the bible, they are simply regarded as myths, and not believable.
But those who insist on obedience to bible literalism must be consistent enough to insist on some rather drastic behaviors. For instance, they must kill all homosexuals, witches, adulterers, non-virginal brides, all people who work on Sunday, and any family member who doesn’t worship Yahweh. Jesus tells them that they may keep slaves, and even beat them (Luke 12). Jesus also tells them that a man wishing to be sure of getting into heaven must be not just circumcised but castrated; he must be made a eunuch “for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” (Matthew 19).
Perhaps this particular promise comforted the thousands of castrati who sang the soprano parts in church choirs through the centuries, when the church ruled that female voices were too “impure” to be heard at mass.
However, by the fifth century the church had found Jesus’s view of castration to be something less than popular, and so quietly ignored it. The third-century church father Origen, who had also advocated it, was posthumously excommunicated and his writings consigned to obscurity. It has been a consistent church policy to ignore any of Jesus’s teachings that will not advance church welfare, such as the statement that it is easier for a camel to get through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to get into heaven. Of course the church has flourished throughout the centuries precisely by promising blessed immortality to the rich.
Churches tell people what to believe. Saint Ignatius Loyola wrote: “We should always be disposed to believe that which appears white is really black, if the hierarchy of the Church so decides.” If the belief happens to conflict with scripture, it’s usually the text that gets sidelined, erased, or reinterpreted. Dubious attitudes toward church edicts are almost always regarded as wicked, due to devilish influence. To grant the doubters any credence at all is so devoutly feared by the devout that, throughout history, defenders of any faith have been notoriously prone to attack nonbelievers with wars, crusades, pogroms, rape, murder, pillage, torture and the stake.
The violence inspired by religion has exceeded all other forms of human violence. Indeed, every nation wishing to institute aggression against another nation has depended on religion to label the enemy an evil to be eradicated. Faith can always be trusted to inspire some humans to destroy large numbers of other humans.