They say that nothing is certain but death and taxes, but that's not exactly true. Also certain: war and religion. An individual nation might experience times of peace, but almost certainly there are preparations being made for war. If preparations are not being made inside the country, then preparations are being made outside the country, and, oh: Look out country No. 1!

I would love to lay down my sword and shield down by the riverside, but I'm afraid someone on the other side of the river is going to pick them up and run me through. Probably I've been reading too much history lately. Reading history is not a good way to remain hopeful.

And then there's religion. This year has seen a spate of books arguing that religion is stupid and wasteful and evil, and that God is a fantasy figure much like Santa Claus or Scarlett Johansson, and that everybody should just stop believing in this imaginary being and cease from declaring wars in his name and act like adults.

Personally, I'm an agnostic about everything, including agnosticism. For a while I believed in God, and then I fervently denied the existence of God, and now I don't care. I'm taking my chances, afterlife-wise. If a formation of singing doves arrives to convince me otherwise, I shall be all ears. Otherwise: God is not my problem.

But I am in a minority. Most people most of the time in most of the world believe in one or more supernatural entities who control some or all of the world. Societies cut off from contact with other societies create their own belief systems. They create their own rituals to reinforce their belief systems. It seems to be a hardwired part of the human brain.

I suspect it has something to do with explanations. We humans are impatient, and we demand answers. "Why does the sun rise in the East?" we ask forcefully, and then someone explains about Apollo and his chariot. And then later, someone else explains about the Earth going around the sun, and that makes more sense so most people (although not all) accept that. But then they demand, "What is the meaning of life?" and science is quiet on the matter, and so humans turn to holy books or holy men or holy quests.

It is true that some people consciously turn to ethical systems instead of to supernatural explanations. I suspect that the number of those people worldwide is about the same as the population of Oregon. China is officially atheist, but all the major religions have a foothold there, and animism is just under the surface of society. Animism is just under the surface of all societies. Water sprites! So cool.

So arguing against religion is like arguing against greed -- all your pretty dialectics aren't going to change anything. The people who believe that there's nothing to believe will read the books that tell them they're right. Probably they won't go to war over their lack of God, but you never know.

It would seem that the story of religion is the story of corruption. Religions start out embodying the best of human aspirations: peace, generosity, kindness, love -- that stuff. Then humans with ambitions notice how much power those ideas have, and they slowly move the religions around until they're all about Being Right. And the people who are not Right are Wrong, and what do we do with wrong people? We smite them! Smiting is good for them. Also, once they're smited, we get to keep their land.

"The Looming Tower," an essential book by Lawrence Wright about the history of al Qaeda, contains a section explaining how Osama bin Laden associate Ayman al-Zawahiri got around the Koranic injunction against suicide ("Do not kill yourselves," says the Koran, which seems straightforward enough) to justify suicide bombing in the name of the prophet. It's a little masterpiece of sophistry, and it shows once again that any document, no matter how unambiguous, can be clouded by elaborate theological arguments, so that black becomes white, love becomes hate and life becomes death.

Is that the fault of religion? I don't think so. The fault lies in the dark depths of the human soul, which constantly lies to itself and to others to get what it wants. This is the original quest, the one that requires no mythic superstructure. Here's what I want; now, here's how I'll explain how me getting what I want is in the best interests of others. If I do it well enough, maybe I can start a church.
Here's why

you should believe me about what you should not believe:

I'm right.

And here's how I'll prove it to you. See that guy over there? He's wrong.