Religion: The Ultimate Tool
Religion is the most effective tool ever devised by man. Now, before you give a knee-jerk reaction to this assertion and walk away, dismissing my words, I ask you read this essay in total and reserve your judgement for after my argumentation. I make this claim after much thought, with reason behind it, reason that leads to this conclusion as inevitable truth. I say that religion is nothing but a tool, and I mean it. A tool for what, you ask? All tools have a purpose, and religions, all of them, are no exception. Their purpose is to control, and to that end, they serve with minimal effort on the part of those who wield them. Let us examine how they do so.
If you wish to rule a people, you can do so either with force of arms, or by winning their hearts and minds. The former works through fear backed up with physical enforcement. The latter can be effected by many means. The former requires constant vigilance and the means to exert a force large enough to quell a populace, while the latter, once achieved, can police itself, thereby requiring less effort to maintain. What techniques might then be used to win a people’s hearts and minds? It seems the two are intimately tied together, for the one effects the other. And they are.
One would hope that reason might be sufficient – that given a sufficiently logical argument backed by scientifically observable and verifiable evidence, a people might be properly persuaded. This does work, to some extent, but only in an educated populace. This leads to one of the first methods used to control people – miseducation. Discourage or outright ban a scientific education, replace it with a non-factual dogmatic system, and vilify those with scientific and logical evidence-based literacy. This causes people to stop question, to accept ideas only that fit within the dogma, and to believe misinformation so long as it fits within the new non-factual system. Many dictatorships and other forms of tyranny throughout history have used this approach – clamping down on schools and universities, eliminating scientists, philosophers, and other leaders of thought until the remainder fall in step to back up the government party line. Socrates paid the ultimate price for refusing to bow to the state. The Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, Cuba, and numerous other authoritarian states executed pogroms against the educated after taking power.
Control the truth. Say something often enough, loudly enough, and no matter how absurd it is, people will start to believe it, despite evidence to the contrary. This is slightly different from miseducation, as it can, and is done, in societies where strong education systems still exist. Essentially, it is the art of lying. We have seen it used repeatedly throughout history, at it is a common tactic of certain less scrupulous politicians today. Some great examples of this can be found among the Birthers, people who insist President Obama is not a native born citizen despite the existence, and display, of both his Hawai’i birth certificate and hospital records of birth. We saw in Hearst’s campaign to outlaw hemp, iin the lie that Columbus discovered the Americas first, the misconception that people used to believe the Earth was flat, and in the dominance of the geocentric model of the solar system for over a millennium. Lie enough, often enough, in the right way, and people will believe and do what you want.
Fear. As products of evolution, where a species’ survival and continuance relies upon the ability of individuals to live long enough to reproduce, we are profoundly influenced by fear. It causes us to stop thinking, to react, and do so quickly, with one of two courses of action: to avoid the object of our fears, or to destroy it. So what better way to manipulate a populace than to prey upon their fears? Give them something, or someone, to fear, and they will become much more pliable. Their attention will become focused on their terror, allowing you to take measures to “protect” them from it. Measures that just so happen to fit in to your real agenda. States make great use of this through xenophobia to push their citizens to sealing borders, declaring war, and accept undue security measures which restrict their liberties. It was used by great effect by the NDAP (the Nazi party) to shift blame for Germany’s problems onto an innocent group, and is used today in the growing Islamophobia that is being used to justify increased security measures which restrict our liberties.
Language is a two way street. Not only is it a means by which to communicate one’s thoughts, but it actively serves to structure them. The vast majority of us think not only in pictures, but words. Because of this, our thoughts must stretch and squeeze to fit within these words, and our knowledge of their meanings and connotations. Change the words, change their meanings, even slightly, and you change people’s thoughts. All political affiliations make heavy use of this, as do all militaries. Great examples in our time are the ever evolving terminologies for people with disabilities, for gender politics, and the attempts by political parties to turn labels applicable to their opponents into derogatory insults. The written page, the news media, conversations – they are all a battleground for your mind.
Iconography is the creation of symbols meant to inspire emotions or loyalty. Organizations use it to represent themselves. Companies use them to “brand” themselves, a means by which they trick people into remembering their products. Governments use it to inspire patriotism and identify themselves and their militaries. Flags, corporate logos, types of salutes, heraldric crests – these are all examples of iconography. This method works because humans are very visual. It is a quick poke to our more primitive functions that rests in our memory and allows us to quickly recognize things, and to attach emotions thereto.
Even better than fear, than lying, than miseducation, is ritual, or ceremony. Structured activities that require people follow precise sets of instructions to accomplish given tasks, they require repetition. Repetition begets habit. We all know how habits maintain themselves, and, once established, how difficult they are to break. We see this when we find ourselves absentmindedly doing something we hadn’t intended to do, out of sheer force of habit, such as taking that off-ramp to work when you’d intended to go somewhere else. This makes ceremony and ritualism self-maintaining and self-policing. The people who participate in them do most the work for you. They give the designer of the ceremony great control over the participants. It is no accident that every single military in history has made heavy use of ceremony – it provides structure to the soldiers’ lives, and molds their thought processes in a way that makes them pliant and obedient, even when the authority figures are not around. States use it to instill patriotism (and more extreme nationalism) with homage to national anthems and pledges of allegiance. Even more innocent clubs and organizations make use of ceremony to give members a feeling of belonging and set the tone and mood of the group.
I have addressed six means of manipulating a people, but did not yet address their use in religion. That is because religions, all of them, make use of all five techniques. I’ll touch on each in turn.
Miseducation – each religion has its own book or writings – teaching of how the universe is. These teachings often have little correlation to factual reality. Each will have its own creation story, some saying the universe came from nothing, some that is was born of one or more deities, others from yet other sources. Each will have different ideas of the origin of humanity, of the course of early history, of the source of weather and other phenomena. Their worshippers are expected to hold to these teachings as truth, and anything that contradicts them is to be disregarded as flat wrong, whether substantiated evidence exists or not. This kind of indoctrination is the large part of why the geocentric model of the solar system dominated for over a millennium – it fit in with the ideas of the Greek pantheon, and also fit nicely into the teachings of the Abrahamic religions – despite evidence and math-based reasoning presented by Aristarchus of Samos. And it continues to prove problematic as various religious groups use their dogma to deny climate change and evolution.
When all else fails, lie. This has been put to great effect by religious figures since the dawn of time. Even in religious texts, we see examples of it, such as the stories of the Sanhedrin, made up of Pharisees and Sadducees, lying to Pontius Pilate about Jesus’ statements that they might maneuver him to remove Jesus as a thorn in their sides. The Catholic Church was more recently caught in lies designed to protect pedophiliac members of their clergy, and Oracles of Greece were known to not be above lying in order to sway leaders into or out of wars as they saw fit.
The most common use of fear in religion involves the afterlife. Nobody knows what happens after we die, if anything, and we all have an instinctual fear of death. So what better way to alter people’s behavior than with threats of an unpleasant afterlife – be it images of hell and eternal damnation (common to more than just Abrahamic religions – the Norse and Greek pantheons both had planes of eternal torture), or various forms of Kharmic retribution (don’t live your life the way you should? You’ll be a cockroach in your next life, or some such). They all have the same message – misbehave now, and pay for it later. Further, many religions even present supernatural bogeyman who will mete out even more immediate justice, bringing that threat into the present. In the book of Genesis in the Torah and the Old Testament, God smote Sodom and Gomorrah for their evil ways. In Druidic teachings, the fair folk might wreak mischief if you were to not follow certain rituals. Displease a Shaman in many shamanistic religions and you might find yourself cursed with bad luck, or worse. By whatever means, it is all the same – using fear to alter behavior.
Language. Give me a religion and I will point you to a glossary of terms unique to that theology. Each has its own word for its leaders, or holy men. Some have their own terms for good or evil, or varying concepts thereof. The very word “holy” is one devised exclusively for religious purposes – it has no meaning whatsoever outside the context of theology. Nor do the words “god,” “deity,” “heaven,” “hell,” or any further pieces of verbiage. All this terminology serves to shape your thoughts – even an atheist immediately conjures certain mental imagery when hearing (or seeing) the word “hell.” It can’t be helped. And that is exactly the point – shape the vocabulary, shape the thoughts, and shape the behavior.
Iconography. Religions are no exception to organizational use of iconography. Each has its own holy symbol – used to represent the creed at large, and many have symbols within their theology for representing different ideas. Each Greek god had its own symbol. In Christianity, the Angels each have their own. While not as powerful a technique as the others, it still helps provide recognition and a touch of inspired loyalty to its followers.
Nothing defines a religion better than its ceremonies and ritualistic trappings. Every single religion relies on them. Adherents must attend gatherings at certain times, headed by authority figures in the hierocracy. Certain behaviors are proscribed, while others are mandated as part of daily activities –Muslims and Jews may not eat pork, Mormons must don special underwear, and Hindus cannot eat beef. Most religions require prayer, or meditation, usually on a daily basis. These are both the same thing – an active exercise in molding your thoughts to fit a specific paradigm. All of these are ritualist behavior designed to build self-sustaining habits and ways of thought.
So we see that religions use ALL the techniques of manipulation. And they do so quite well. So effectively, in fact, that they are self-policing, self-maintaining, self-perpetuating, even to the point that followers will actively attempt to spread the religion to others, requiring almost no effort on the part of the leaders of the theology. For many religions, criticism of the creed means offense, and is met most harshly, often even violently. Worse, should you attempt to point out how the adherents’ behaviors have been modified, they will swear it is not so, and take possibly even greater offense. It is difficult for people to admit when they’ve been had.
But religion has one more tool at its disposal, and it is quite an insidious one. Faith. When all else fails, when all the other methods do not produce the desired results, every religion falls back on this. Belief without question. That is the very definition of faith. When something the priesthood says, or the writings say, doesn’t make sense, the answer is always: “You must have faith.” It is the ultimate trump card, basically bullying the believers to fall in line. It uses the human desire to believe, to be included, and the fear of rejection all rolled up into one. And if you can get people to accept that they certain things must never be questioned, that they just are, and that’s that, well, then you can get them to do, quite literally, anything.
It is the very self-policing nature, and the denial of being manipulated, with that final twist of faith, that all make religion the most effective tool designed by man. It requires minimal effort to achieve maximum effect. Once you have your followers hooked, they do all the work for you. They convince themselves for you. So when you hint that the great deity might be displeased (or pleased, as may be the case), your followers will jump.
Does this mean we should do away with religion altogether? That’s a good question. It certainly has no place in a nation’s government. There is too much room for abuse, and that nation’s laws would then be framed in the best interest of the religion rather than of the people. But theology did at one point have its place. It did help people come to grips with a frightening and confusing world in the time before our scientific knowledge of the world was sufficient to truly understand it and master it. But do we need religion anymore? While I’m inclined to say no, we don’t, and am further inclined to say it now does more harm than good, I cannot make that decision for others. I’d just like for them to be aware of what that creed is really for – not their interest, but that of those at the head of the thearchy.