I don't grok religion. I don't know why, it just slides right off my brain like it was non-stick coated. I don't mean I don't understand certain religious beliefs, I mean I don't understand why anyone has those beliefs. Generally, religious people have the religion they grew up with, which says to me that it's an emotional thing, a comfort thing. In other words, people believe and behave the way that they do because they are used to believing and behaving that way.
I think we can all agree that the Heaven's Gate cultists were nuts. They killed themselves so their souls could go to another planet on board a UFO that was hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet, for crying out loud. But are the Raelians similarly nuts? The head of that religion believes a 25,000 year old alien named Yahweh communicated with him directly in an encounter he had with a UFO in 1973. The beliefs of the Raelians really aren't all that much more outlandish than the beliefs of Scientologists, with their beliefs in extraterrestrial past lives.
As of 1999, 47 % of Americans believed that the Antichrist was already walking the earth (a Jew, of course, according to Jerry Falwell) and 45% believe Jesus will return in their lifetimes. So, basically, half of all Americans think the end of the world is imminent. Are these beliefs really any different from what mainstream fundamentalist Christians believe? The Heaven's Gaters believed that their souls were rising up somewhere to be taken to an extraterrestrial paradise. Falwell's crowd thinks that they will be taken up into a supernatural paradise. What is different between the beliefs of the Gate-ists and the Rapture-ists? Is it just the ubiquitousness of their belief system?
Religion requires belief in shadowy, ill-defined worlds of things that can never seen, never be experienced. Things that aren't actually there. Some of these beliefs, apparently, are things to be respected; some are not. If my friend comes to me and says, "Dude, I totally saw a unicorn last week," I am expected to disbelieve him. If he says, "Dude, Jesus totally rose from the dead two thousand years ago," there are those that say that, if I do disbelieve him, I will be punished for all eternity. Yet, ultimately, why are these two things different? If anything, the latter case is worse. I can judge my friend's character based on how well I know him, and whether he has a tendency to say outrageous things, so I should be able to judge whether it is reasonable or not to believe that he actually did see a unicorn. When he talks of Jesus, he's just repeating something he was told by others. All religion is hearsay.
My sister is finishing up her psych rotation, and told me a story about a woman that is absolutely convinced the voices in her head will not stop unless she returns to the small town of her birth and marries the priest that baptized her. Obviously she belongs in the psych ward. But why don't the majority of Americans that believe in angels belong there right alongside of her? If I told you that there was a leprechaun in my garden, you'd lock me up. If I told you an angel had visited me in my garden, there are a lot of people that would sit down and politely ask what he had to say.
There's a lot more spinning in my head, but I'm going to end this now before I ramble on and bore you, gentle reader (too late). More later.