The Future–and Presence–of an Illusion

Q: Dr. Hurd, in a recent Daily Dose of Reason column at, you wrote the following: ‘People are the authors of their own destiny, for better or worse. Let’s be honest. Wasn’t it this idea that religion was designed to extinguish?’ Could you elaborate?


A: I don’t mean to imply that there is, or ever was, some gigantic conspiracy to impose supernaturalism on the public for the sake of control.

Throughout history, dictators (both in families and in governments) have advanced or exploited religion for their own authoritarian ends, but this refers to their motivation, not to some conspiracy.

To understand the ‘purpose’ that religion serves, you have to understand why a person departs from reason and enters the realm of faith and supernaturalism in the first place. Essentially, the reason is fear.

In a caveman context, where an individual is still trying to figure out, say, what the sun is, or what rain, or thunder, or lightning is, an overriding emotion of fear is more forgivable. Even the caveman must get beyond his fear in order to make the next step. In today’s scientific age, we know better, but many among us still cling to religion because there is still much we do not know. Some find it reassuring, in this context, to conclude: ‘There is much we do not know. We must assume that the realm of the unknowable is God’s realm.’

Now, to me, this not only makes no logical sense—it’s not in the least bit reassuring. If there are things we do not know, I adopt the view that they are, eventually, knowable. Maybe, in fact, with time and thought, we will be able to come to know and understand these things. If it’s beyond the scope of what we’re able or willing to do, then maybe someone else will—in a day, a month, a year or a century. To me, it’s far more reassuring to assume that human reason and human thought—my own, or another’s, either today, or far in the future—can figure things out. I don’t find it at all reassuring to imagine a supernatural, superhuman being, for which no evidence exists, as having its ‘reasons’ for doing what it does. Aside from the fact that there’s no basis, other than a completely arbitrary and imagined one, for creating such a ghostly figure, why on earth do I want to cede all control to such an imagined being? If you ask me, that’s a recipe for anxiety and panic, not a recipe for serenity and control over one’s own destiny and rationality.

The old saying, ‘We have met the enemy—and it is us’ serves as the perfect context for religion. We can blame Popes, mullahs, fundamentalist crazies and religious dictators all we want. Certainly these religious types who impose force on others are profoundly evil, and deserve to be both fought and condemned.

However, none of these characters would enjoy any power at all if millions of individuals did not first compromise their reason. The compromise of reason means surrendering human knowledge—your own, as well as the collectively accumulated knowledge of humans over the centuries—in favor of’fear.

As much as I disagree with Sigmund Freud, I agree with much of what he expressed in his book, ‘The Future of an Illusion.’ He talked about how ‘God’ is a projection of the human mind, developed for psychological and emotional reasons, all arising out of fear. It’s a sad and shocking statement to make, from the point-of-view of many, but it’s still the truth: God is nothing more than a figment of man’s imagination. In counseling sessions, I often hear a person from a religious background say: ‘I’m told that God has a reason for everything. Then why am I suffering? What is God’s reason for this?’ I can only reply: ‘You’d have to ask God.’

But of course, God is completely subject to interpretation. ‘God’ is a concept that, among other things, generates the false promise of rational intelligent explanation for what is—at the same time, and in contradiction—held to be completely unintelligible. When all else fails, the faithful dutifully, yet sanctimoniously, mutter ‘God works in mysterious ways.’

Under religion, instead of living with the hard reality that, for example, your child died of an incurable disease because human thought has not yet discovered a cause and cure, you are expected to simply accept that ‘God has his reasons.’ Isn’t it horrible enough to lose your child to illness, without projecting a higher being whose wisdom is so (conveniently) infinite that you can’t be expected to understand why it chose to do such a horrible thing? I find it hard to conceive of anything crueler or more self-defeating, than this approach to developing perspective.

Religion is supposed to instill hope in people. To me, it’s much more hopeful to say that the human mind, while fallible and still ignorant in many ways, is capable of ultimately discovering everything necessary to maximize efficiency and happiness in life.

I suppose the bottom line is this: Is life and living all there is, or is there ‘something more’ lurking out there, outside of existence and outside of life?

How you answer this question will determine your attitude towards life.

My vote goes to reason, in this life. Others will continue to fearfully vote for the magical and supernatural. Others will try to hedge their bets by splitting their vote, and, in the process, undermining both reason and whatever they might get from the ‘supernatural.’


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