Fragments on Faith, the Followers, and the Divine
“He who begins by loving Christianity better than Truth will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end by loving himself better than all.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
But at least the
concerns in the example above practical and immediate. Religion invests
much of its energy on the concepts beyond practical and immediate. It is a
system of knowledge based on unquestioning certainty of ancient dogma that
casts aside any contradictions, alterations, and revelations in the name
of consistency, since that’s what god is/represents. Even practical
publishing queries are rarely addressed with seriousness: What are the old
testament and new testament doing being paired together? Fucking
everything up, actually...
The Irreligious Religious Folk
John Ashcroft was anointed with oils before he took the oath for positions he held in Washington. He doesn’t believe water boarding was torture when it was it practiced in the early years of the twenty-first century. He believes in hell.
Harry Truman kissed the bible after he toke the oath of the presidency. Then he dropped two nuclear bombs on an already near-flattened Japan (more people died in the firebombings of Tokyo than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
Why do people in power with a particularly strong religious bent choose to ignore some of the most important tenets their holy books extol? Don’t they remember that their true kingdom is not this worldly one? Is this message sadly lost in the blood and thunder pageantry of religious organizations that divide and conquer like any other organization with power?
Jesus’ comment on how he wanted his church to be molded isn’t very helpful. ‘Feed my sheep’, he told Simon Peter. Doesn’t say much about how a Holy Roman Emperor should rule over millions of people. If the two schisms weren’t enough (between East and West in 1054, then the Protestant reformation of the sixteenth century), things came to extremely harsh blows in the seventeenth century when the Wars of Religion erupted across Europe with such brutality that historians say it set general progress back by several decades (it was one of Christianity’s many takes on the still boiling Sunni vs. Shia resentment in the Middle East).
War and Christianity have got on pretty well, even if Christ himself was quite clear on his stance (chastising an disciple for attacking a guard who had come to arrest him, restoring the man’s amputated ear).
If America is a Christian nation (or if any nation claims to be one), why doesn’t it take a cue from its saviour and turn the other cheek? There appears to be no genuine attempts at this. Christianity specifically only enters into the political arena when it comes to thanks god for your success, decry abortion, criticize gay marriage, and, to a slightly lesser extent, praise Israel.
But as far as loving your neighbour as yourself, you’re on your own (and who is your neighbour? See ‘The Good Samaritan’). And don’t even try to bring up these notions when it comes to foreign policy unless you want to sound like a white-flag waving lunatic (or Ron Paul, but he’s not taking a religious viewpoint of the matter).
Then again it’s not surprising that this idea is not brought up in political debates. Being Christ-like is pretty damn unpatriotic when you ask the following: What’s wrong with letting Al Qaeda run roughshod over your country if your country is a meaningless plot of dirt in the grand scheme of things? Don’t you remember the words of Christ: ‘Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice's sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ (Matthew 5:10) When the gay atheist or Middle Eastern infidel has the knife to your throat (real or proverbial), aren’t you supposed to let it happen and go to the big party in the sky?
Sacrificing one’s life today is usually framed in a militaristic narrative. It is reserved for people who are killed in the heat of battle for their nation or cause, usually while they have an AK-47 in their hands and a couple grenades on their belt. And they’re being paid to kill the people who are trying to kill them.
Meanwhile, the greatest sacrifice didn’t throw a single punch, and had his ass soundly beaten before descending to the dead (and forgiving his killers before he took his final breath).
This not a belittling of the service of those in the armed forces the world over, but that there are people throughout its ranks that follow a religion whose progenitor abhorred violence (pushing over a table in a church is his idea of going ballistic) can come off awfully unsettling.
A community requires protection and security. How does a spiritual person contribute to this if part of the principles central to this task run counter to their beliefs?
Perhaps the difficulties first arise because of the auspices in which religion enters the political arena. The modern archetype of this is the Moral Majority movement of the late seventies-early eighties, led by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. This group entered politics with a following of several million strong, ‘running’ on the platform of rolling back some of the secular changes made to the United States in the sixties and seventies (namely abortion, but also against how children and university were educated (terrible liberalist dogma!) and, somehow, lower taxes and stronger corporations). It was framed as a crusade, which was rather accurate. Not because it involved a series of intense wars focused mainly on the medieval holy land, but because it involved a bunch of rich powerful people convincing millions of ordinary folk to throw their individuality away and support them without question.
How did foreign policy enter into this? Stupidly. If America and its way of life was the continuation of God’s divine plan and had the blessings of Jesus trapped within its borders, then clearly the godless Soviet Union and its ruthless imperial ambitions was the pawn of the antichrist, which was the pawn of the devil himself.
And the great thing about fighting Satan was that you didn’t have to show much mercy. You were supposed to beat the shit out of him and his associates. You were fighting for the souls of the world. In fact, god might get pissed if you pulled a few punches.
But there was no Armageddon. The Soviet Union fell apart with a bland, wheezing, politically decommissioned gasp.
So the rapture didn’t happen, and evangelical prayer groups in the Southern states have christened the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the new evil emperor (that’s what’s slightly impressive with fundamentalist dogma; it’s either unrelentingly strict or as interchangeable as double-A batteries).
And by siding against Ahmadinejad you immediately side with Israel, which is important as this is the holy land, where the battle of Armageddon will take place. It’s important that it remains in Jewish hands so it can be wrenched terribly from them, then finally won once and for all by a returning Jesus Christ and his loyal followers.
How many politicians who vote on defense and military matters believe this? Well, in truth it matters more that they know what their constituents believe, in which case they’ll tailor their rhetoric accordingly as to get elected and re-elected. Practical concerns, after all…
It’s becoming apparent that the people who seek to merge religion with politics are not the biblical literalists they claim to be. In fact they are the biblical interpreters, picking and choosing which passages to follow (blood and thunder, smiting of enemies) and which to ignore (a stress on charity and the forgiveness of your enemies).
It’s as if the New Testament is a personal and spiritual chicken-soup-for-the-soul tract and the Old Testament is a schizophrenic, political-if-you-want-it-to-be, allegorical history of the Jewish people.
The point simply is this: If you’re going to call yourself a Christian nation, put your money where your mouth is and preach love. If your messiah actively told his followers to put down their weapons (and actually healed the wound of an enemy), maybe you should consider that as a guide to your country’s spiritual salvation. And if it makes you look like a coward to the rest of the world, what of it? You’ll be rewarded in the afterlife.
Unless deep down in your heart you don’t believe in it. Unless there’s a part of you that thinks heaven and hell might be a fool’s errand and that just to be safe you better do whatever it takes to get ahead in this world in case it’s the only one, while still telling yourself you believe in God and Jesus to cover all your bases.
Holding these contrasting ideas in a bizarre balance is an example of survival of the fittest, really. But that’s an evolutionary term…
Jesus Christ didn’t save you, your belief in Jesus Christ did.
The power of faith is believed to be bilateral. You offer up reverence to God, he tweaks the lottery results as they happen so you win the jackpot.
This isn’t a very successful theory, and can lead people to become disillusioned with an omnipotent creature, or feel that they are not being reverent enough to warrant earthly intervention from the supreme being, which has them following the dogma of their choice more ardently.
Science has proven – yes, they had to do experiments – that praying doesn’t work. Religious people were asked to pray for patients about to undergo high-risk surgeries, but the recovery rate – when compared to similar operations for patients who were not prayed for – remained unchanged.
But obviously there are instances where prayer appears to work. And those can almost always be attributed to a mixture of coincidence, the law of averages, and cognitional omission.
You forget all the times you prayed for something and came up empty handed, but you certainly remember every time you clasped your hands together asking for the kick to be good or O72 to be called and to have it work out perfectly.
Of course the matter goes well beyond how one interprets chance. For many, believing there is a morally upstanding being calling the shots makes them happy, and this is nothing to scoff at. If you act as if you have such support, you might act with more boldness, more confidence, and accomplish the goals you set out for yourself on your own, but still give partial credit to god, even if god had nothing to do with it, it was you pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. It can be a great impetus to work harder, depending on the framing of the ethos you are following. ‘The lord helps those that helps themselves’ can be a perfect motivator to work hard, even without a lord at one end. Also: that line, ‘the lord helps those…’ isn’t biblical. Ben Franklin said it in his ‘Poor Richard’ writings.
In moments of extreme terror or trauma, it is common to hear that god saved them, or gave them some form of superhuman strength or ability for a moment.
But it’s not god acting through you, but your belief in god acting through you.
The human mind is limitless in its imagination, and this can have real world ramifications.
See the problem with authority is there has to be one of us idiots at the top, authorizing shit.
And that where authority goes awry. We need superhumans. We need uber-people.
Ideally God is the ‘person’ to get this job done, but he has a spotty attendance record, and the people who he’s supposedly appointed in the meantime haven’t always fared well.
‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s…’
A lot is owned by Caesar these days. Pretty much everything except your soul is in some way interconnected to global interests. And, uh, isn’t that the way it should be? Isn’t that cut and dry, and encapsulated in the not-at-all religious phrase, ‘you can’t take it with you’?
And another one of Jesus’ wisdom nuggets are The Beatitudes. Recommendations so damn pious even his Dad had a hard time with them.
The characteristics given to God himself are a fine example of an entity not practicing what he preaches. In fact, he has committed over half of the seven deadly sins:
Envy – blatantly announcing that, “I am jealous god”
Wrath – God – in his anger – has flooded the earth, killing all those he thought unworthy, smote thousands who stood in the way of his chosen people, and, depending on what your local religious leader is saying, keeps punishing those he decides are wicked in his own special way
Pride – “he saw what he had done and it was good”, created man in his own image
Sloth – he’s been pretty absent for the last two millennia…
Hell is a ridiculous idea meant to trick infantile minds into acting a certain way and submit to theological authority. The only shame greater than someone deciding to put this concept into the public consciousness is that the public consciousness embracing it so wholeheartedly.
That God would love all people but, because they didn’t properly love him back, would allow them to be brutally tortured for all eternity in some ‘other’ realm or reality that has taken to looking like the inside of a volcano, should make anyone question his commitment to this relationship.
That we are his mere playthings, who he sorts once and for all into good and bad piles when they reach the end of their ‘playtime’, destroys notions of human agency and any concept of bettering the world for future generations. If this is a staging area, keep your head down, be just pious enough, and you can make it to the big leagues, where you don’t really do anything but be one with god.
Christ/God in Play-doh
Gods have changed over the centuries to suit the contemporary needs of the people who follow the regional religious doctrine.
Living immersed in Western Culture, it bears repeating that a majority of citizens in the global do not follow Christianity, a sin that – in the eyes of Christianity – is dooming them to eternal damnation (of course, other religions typically take the same stance regarding any theology other than themselves, which really makes them feel like the extreme version of any product campaign).
Of course, as Western Culture has become secularized, Christians on the more conservative end of the spectrum also fear for the souls of the moderate followers of Jesus. They are losing ground to the folks who are okay with thinking Jesus was an okay guy with some hippie slogans, now excuse us while we go buy some iPads and let gay people get married. And this change is no longer limited to North America/Europe. Globalization has unleashed a culture shaped around the dominance of the West, with the rest of the world either embracing and adapting the overload of memes or rejecting them and creating memes that are distinctly local and anti-Western.
While the basic religious doctrines tend to avoid this influence, the attempt to connect to the masses (especially the young masses, when they are most susceptible to internalizing basic ‘truths’) is saturated in these far-reaching cultural vehicles. Veggie-Tales is a Christian-themed animated series, the Left Behind books are among the best selling of the last decade in the US, there is a Islam-themed take on Sesame Street in Palestine, and the internet has become a rallying point for followers – from passive to fanatical – of all religions to find similar communities in the virtual world (perhaps another sign of its waning influence in the physical one), with information and debate centuries old built into the style of message boards and blogs.
While it’s old product, it’s a new sell, and to a world used to options upon options, whether they’re buying a car, house, or hamburger. In a world where advertising promises that you can have it your way all the time, why shouldn’t the same ethos apply to your relationship with the ultimate reality?
People are trying to make Christ in there own image. How do you like your Jesus? Pious and humble, more like a spiritual guru, a regal, king like, triumphant messianic figure, or a gay-bashing, pro-lifer who will return in the near future to kick ass and take names?
The risk of this odder, more unusual approach in connecting with a different, more worldly, more tech-savvy, open-minded generation is obvious: by selling an ancient dogma, you have to tinker with the surface to draw them in and hope they aren’t turned off by unchanging heart within.
Religious Faith versus Scientific Faith
Faith is a sticky wicket. The definition of faith in the most basic sense is ‘complete trust or confidence in someone or something’. In this case, both religious tenets and dogma are held on the same level of scientific theories and dogma. Both are systems of belief, and while religion is typical the one most associated with faith as many of its assertions are not readily provable, the fact that scientific discovery is based on narratives that are constantly being revised over time to finally conclude in many cases that unknowingness is a core principle of how the universe operates (quantum physics requires this, especially with the uncertainty principle) suggests that faith is necessary for many underlying scientific tenets as well.
However, what needs to be explored is what your faith offers to you and the community (or world) around you.
Religious faith offers spiritual enrichment, a connection to the unexplainable and comfort from the things we fear (namely death), plus a sense of community for those that hold the same beliefs (although this final note is not strictly a religious quality, as the same can be said about those who enjoy similar cultural activities, including, say, sports).
Scientific faith offers discoveries that have improved the quality of life for pretty much everyone on the planet. The scientific method of repeated testability to make conclusions on how certain aspects of the laws of nature operate has given humanity hundreds of thousands of inventions that has bettered existence in a multitude of ways.
Faith for the religious is rooted in feeling and ideas too large for humankind.
Faith for the scientific is rooted in exploration and discovery, creating theories and laws as more information is acquired.
Difficulties arise when the dogma of these two faiths overlap, or try to be applied to each other’s spheres. For an extremely long period of time, the scientific explanations we now have were religious explanations. Creation stories of how earth and humanity came to be (gods fighting in the black nothingness of the universe for the Greeks, the Genesis story in the Bible for Jews and Christians) have been superseded by the Big Bang and the very, very slow creation of life from basic molecules.
A push back of sorts was the recent attempt to introduce creationism into high school science classrooms in America (creationism being the belief that an intelligent designer fills in the gaps science can’t explain). When one went over the definition of science, it’s no surprise that almost every judge who has had to preside over such cases ruled that creationism has no place being taught alongside biology or physics. These are two very different kinds of faith, with different goals (although the power each one has – or could possibly have – is still fought over).
Despite god being seen as unchanging, perfect, and absolute, our notions of god and our relationship to it have typically reflected the society we live in.
In the medieval era – and actually right up to the dawn of modern democracy and the industrial revolution – the place and actions of god reflected the feudal system, namely, a static and unchanging one. God had placed the king on top, the nobles just below, and the many serfs and workers at the bottom. You did not pray for a better life, you prayed for a continuation of your family in the same set of ordinary circumstances just so they could survive. Your family would take care of you in your old age, and was your legacy. To curse one’s future relatives was a grievous insult (“a plague a’ both your houses”, Mecurtio states in Romeo and Juliet). The idea of social advancement was left for fairy tales, since they were so unrealistic.
It was expected that this level of humility and faithfulness to the dominant religion that all in the village adhered to would get you into heaven, the only place that was free of constant toil and disease.
God was strict, harsh, and merciless in dispensing justice. And this could be applied to anyone along the hierarchy. When you were sick – and when you were, death was always a possibility – that was punishment, and a well-deserved one. For what? Well, certainly the priest could point to something.
But as life became easier in many respects, people were no longer tied to the land, or a single career, or a particular class, and so the idea of god changed as well.
Now you prayed for success for yourself, since you were witness to it all around you. Whether the people who became wealthy also prayed assiduously – in addition to their hard work and/or luck – was not the point. In many circles simply the acknowledgement that social betterment existed meant that attributing some level of that success to god could only help.
In the Western World, as more and more people were pulled out of poverty and found themselves with both time and their hands and a disposable income, the idea that this particular life could be its own sort of reward began to sink in. Don’t misunderstand this to mean that this was a clear road to atheistic utopia. Far from it. Many places in the world lived under the boot of the Western World as it grew wealthier and freer. Even in these areas there were still huge gaps between the rich and poor, but all people had, if not access to then awareness of, inventions and ideas that changed the way they were able to exist in the world. The modern world.
A world where god’s agency and supposed assertive role was quickly receding. The promise of heaven after you die was being replaced in some way with whatever you wanted to do on the weekend, and a longer, healthier existence.
And if we move to today, it gets even stranger when you look at the countries that provide its citizens with the most amount of health care and social programs throughout their lives (bureaucratic charity, where the entire community (or country) chips in). It’s usually European nations with high tax rates and low rates of church attendance, where a strong sense of community and trust in the government pervades. This secular institution has in many cases replaced the sectarian one, with the spiritual needs of the individual being left up to the individual, as opposed to a dominant theocratic structure.
And within religious organizations that seem to ruefully acknowledge this shift, there is Ted Haggard proclaiming that free market capitalism has done more for the poor than any other benevolent organization on earth. Or The Vatican speaking out against the evilness of everything – from other religions ‘invading’ Europe to practicing Yoga – all while owning one of the most expensive art collections in the world.
If you’re the leader of a flock and you’re richer than Jesus (who spoke out against material wealth), then you’ve fucked up.
God is our imagination. Our dreams and nightmares. Absolutely bliss and absolute horror. What we can imagine, God can fit effortlessly into that construction. The idea of perfection, the loving father, the cold, absolute judge. For your adherence, a large and powerful religion will try to shoehorn your own views into their dogma (and try to bring you round to their dominant views in the process).
We’ve given God human qualities by the load. It (sometimes it seem quite sensible that we should drop the ‘he’) can be as loving or as ruthless as we are.
One of the difficulties of the argument for the existence of god is that, due to the lack of physical evidence around us, it becomes a matter of faith. Which is fine in certain theological respects, as it makes sense that an entity of such power would not be noticed in any ‘human’ way or choose to participate in our little efforts here on earth. The problem is that many religions are based on an extremely personal relationship with god, who revealed itself in many physical ways thousands of years ago. God made important, history-changing appearances in certain regions of the world a long time ago, but has virtually slipped into the background since then (certainly among Catholics there have been reported sightings of one his emissaries, Mary, but it seems to be limited to nuns and children).
The problem with ‘giving yourself up to god’ (in the vein of ‘let god’s will be done’) is that by no longer asking god for things in prayer, you are accepting basically a ‘whatever happens, happens’ approach to events in reality, which mirrors that of many unbelievers. If god’s plan is unalterable and will happen anyway, and is beyond explanation of any theologian, it falls in line with completely randomness. How can one tell the difference between what god wants and what happens for any other possible reason? ‘Giving yourself up to god’ falls into that paradoxical realm of defiance and resignation. Once again, ‘what’ god is fails to be addressed, since it appears to be involved agent and immobile witness at the same time. The matter is eternally malleable.
The following is inspired by a discussion in Ron Suskind’s ‘Way of the World’ (pg.318-324):
How do you know – in a philosophical or theological sense – what is true?
Answer One: I read about it in a holy book.
So is that all it takes? Reading the correct book? What if someone reads your faith’s holy book and states, ‘I do not believe this’? Is their seeking of the truth not genuine? Are they unworthy? Does it come down to a certain moment in your life when you will accept the teachings you’ve found or reject them?
The problem is that most religious people don’t live in either of those two diametrically opposed spheres of influence. Most people are pretty mediocre followers of their religion, giving an hour a week at the place of worship, maybe some charity work, and a prayer before the odd family meal. They’ll accept the basic bits of their theology and shrug off some of the details they don’t necessarily agree with, thinking that it’s a pretty safe decision to do in case there’s an afterlife. The community they grow up in dictates their relationship with the holy book, and in most places across the developed AND developing world, fundamentalism is becoming more and more isolated.
Why is this? In part because things are becoming more and more complex, and straightforward, absolute answers – especially antiquated ones – are not particularly helpful.
‘Life is hard, but god loves you and will reward you in heaven’ might work for a medieval peasant (in part because there wasn’t an option B), but it comes off fairly unsatisfactory from the renaissance/enlightenment/industrial revolution onwards, where questioning such certainties led to great changes to the quality of human life and understanding of said life.
Besides, once you’ve accepted a position that holds eternal truth, a position that frowns upon uncertainty and questioning aspects of this truth, what kind of relationship can you have with a society that is not by any means so absolute? A society whose basis for most decisions are ‘prove it with reliable and current facts’?
People will question the reliability of the book, the factuality of the book, certain contradictions or outdated ideas in the book, but if you as a devout follower are affixed and unswerving to the points the book contains, how can there be a dialogue? And how do you view these questioners? Are they attacking you? Trying to trick you into admitting that you aren’t sure about one or two things?
But most of all, how important is the book? Is it essential? Is it impossible to find truth/god without stumbling across a holy book?
It seems that these questions should be at the centre of any spiritual journey, but instead they’re typically seen as the most insidious and duplicitous ones that need to be excised and crushed first and foremost.
‘What if I’m wrong?’ just might be the most useful question humanity ever asked itself, especially if an open-minded search for an answer results.
Answer Two: I feel it inside of me.
Considering the limits we know of human perception – both using our five senses (the unreliability of eyewitness testimony) and our internal decision-making processes (that we act upon our decisions before making our decisions) – this is a horribly weak explanation that you can’t possibly bring to an argument. You can hold onto it for yourself and live your life accordingly, but you can’t tell someone how you feel is a good enough reason that you are right and they are wrong. And because you ‘feel’ it, doesn’t mean that all the points in your dogmatic schema can then be the basis for or an influence upon public policy. Trial and error, research and revision, the acknowledgment of the democratic processes, these are the engines for the contemporary, developed, open state.
Doubt can be crippling, a sign of weakness, but doubt is the best way to look for alternatives, to explore the unknown, to push forward human progress and understanding.
Certainty kills, doubt kills, but certainty kills faster.
If you demand certainty, then your only ally is death, for death is the only thing that is certain.
Can you prove god exists/does not exists?
It depends on the qualities you ascribe to god, and your opinions on the methods used to measure these qualities.
The Diminishing Need for God
‘God’ is a pretty loaded term. It can be the laws of physics, a serious man with a white beard sitting on a cloud, or a state of being achieved through ascetic meditation. All of these are, of course, correct to the person that believes them, but it would be remiss to mention that holding differing beliefs from others has resulted in the death of millions of people since the rise of human civilization (not that ‘god’ is the only complicated idea that has this quality. ‘Politics’ works here, too).
For billions of people, God represents unchanging and constant perfection, and is therefore worshipped by people who have no direct experience of these conditions (and especially for people who are going through difficult and trying periods in their lives, since an idea of, not only a structure of perfection, but one that actually considers and engages with the individual, is extremely reassuring).
‘Reassuring’ gets to the heart of the matter. It is a very calming feeling to know that there is a grand plan, that someone is at the helm of the ship. Ideally someone who not only is aware of your existence, but cares about you, and is willing to help you out…in exchange for constant praise and loyalty.
And part of how we conceive such complex notions such as omnipotence and eternity is by giving such qualities to a person. God and gods – despite being given many qualities that are wholly inhuman – act quite human. Jealously, love, anger, and satisfaction; all these emotions and experiences are felt by them, and they act upon these emotions and experience (sometimes to the horrible detriment to humanity)
To go further: It is ‘reassuring’ in terms of life and death, as god is not only beyond death, but the originator of it. Humanity’s fear of the unknown – and death is the greatest unknown of all – is allayed by the promise of an afterlife that is also expressed in rather human terms. Trumpets, angels, clouds, anything you want (72 virgins for martyrs is a common mention in Islamic texts, but some fundamentalist Christians have taken it upon themselves to update such ideas, suggesting that in heaven angels are people’s servants, doing such tasks as driving the chosen ones around), what have you, they’re all available if your life was lived in accordance with god’s laws.
The idea is grounded in that you take your human needs and wants to heaven, or perhaps theologians would concede that having people think in these ways (heaven’s like winning the lottery! Anything you want all the time!) is the best way to have them understand the radiance and glory of the almighty, rather than try to explain omnipotence in a more philosophically-transcendent way (‘a constant state of pure understanding and reason’ might not sound as enticing for the average churchgoer).
And perhaps I am now denigrating certain people by suggesting that they cannot understand some of the more complex notions of god, but then, that has been a quandary that many have wrestled with through history. For the Egyptians and Greeks, mythologies concerning squabbling gods were used to explain how the world operated the way it did, and Jesus used parables to explain the philosophical relationship between god and man.
But there seems to be an awareness that these methods of trying to understand the divine – or the idea of a divinity – are all vaguely similar, but by no means ‘true’ in the way that other ideas and paradigms we deal with on a daily basis are true (sun rises, the need for food, flipping a switch turns a light on most/some of the, depending on where you are on the planet).
There is a basic ‘unknowingness’ when it comes to the nature of god that all religions concede, and it’s even been built into clichéd theological dismissals (‘the lord works in mysterious ways’). But because of the hierarchical and institutional structures of these religions, it also espouses that some people ‘understand’ the word/nature of god better than others, and therefore deserve a larger role in shaping the ideas of the religion for the community.
And while the priest caste (or class, or estate) has played a large role in human history, its influence in many places of the world is on the wane. When life was nasty, brutish, and short, it was a great relief to hear from a holy man that your suffering would eventually be rewarded. Today, selling the promise of eternal salvation (which no one can really challenge until it’s too late) is now competing with the constant and real rewards of temporary salvation (in the developed west: fun on the weekend, a dream career, a big screen TV, fame, fortune, pro sports, shopping, hobbies. In the rest of the world: food on the table, a job, basic security and safety in the community).
Obviously the latter can’t really touch the heights of the former, but people can touch and experience (or at least be aware of the existence of) the former on a daily basis.
This is no small detail.
So it’s little surprise then that atheism, agnosticism and a personal concept of spirituality is on the rise, but it seems to be more of a rejection of dogmatic, antiquated religions than a definitive statement that there is no god. If Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and other religions were more accommodating to alternate voices and dialogues (while also considering adapting rules to contemporary standards in the community), there would not be such a dearth of followers, at least in the West.
The term ‘atheism’ can be usurped and abused as easily as the term ‘god’ can. It is believed that atheists would say that god does not exist, but this sort of objective terminology is just as stubborn and dogmatic as religion’s assertion that god does exist. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, atheism is the theory or belief that god does not exist. This difference is important. It maintains that the truth of the statement is unverifiable, that it can only be a theory, and an unprovable one at that. ‘Celebrity atheists’ such as Dawkins and Hitchens have amped up the rhetoric of their beliefs, demanding a ‘militant atheism’, unafraid to take on those that scorn them. While they should certainly defend their positions, many – this author included – find such a term to be extremely disconcerting, one that sounds a bit too close to every sort of odious form of fundamentalism. And if they mean to use the term ‘militant’ lightheartedly, they should remember that this is regarding an issue that doesn’t really embrace lightheartedness. Or irony.
Agnosticism is the true religion of the 21st century, where uncertainty is at the heart of people’s opinions on spirituality and the unknown. This is in stark contrast to most of human history, where theology was something that was rooted so strongly in absolute certainty that questioning it at all was proof of heresy.
No one likes uncertainty, a wishy-washiness associated with that term of political death, flip-flopping, that typically means things are done much more slowly and with questions and doubt along the way. Of course, while this might seem weak and ineffective for an instinctive and assertive point of view (‘shoot first, ask questions later’), it’s also the basis for the most important foundation of knowledge in human civilization, the scientific method. Ah, science! The bane of religion’s existence, from Socrates talking out philosophical problems and Galileo being told to shut up about his damn stationary sun, all the way up to nicknaming the Higgs Boson the ‘god particle’.
Do we need god less? As long as there is uncertainty it will always be there to fill that void, but what sorts of things are we still uncertain of today? And does an ancient concept of god that is always haphazardly updating successfully fill these gaps?
The Gulf of Immediate Dismissal
It is extremely difficult to find resolution in a discussion between a non-religious person and a religious one, as both sides immediately discount large swaths of the other’s argument simply because they are religious or not. Despite having formidable points or a very calm, convincing, non-vitriolic demeanor, the other side can always cling to the notion that, underneath it all, the other side just doesn’t get ‘it’ (it, of course, being the most important philosophical concept in human existence). Why should the religious person listen to the person that spurns the gifts of god? Why should the atheist listen to the person who believes in old fairy tales?
The main difficulty when discussing such a topic is that it in many ways it is immune from the expertise or rational thinking that is welcomed in other disciplines. A vast majority of people will defer medical matters to doctors, mechanical matters to tradesmen, etc., but it’s never so clear cut what constitutes a religious expert. Even when people belong to a religious group that has a clear cut hierarchy (say, the catholic deferring to the priest, bishop, pope), the individual will still argue on behalf of their personal interpretation of what their faith entails, becoming an ‘expert’ in a way wholly different from what a doctor would be considered to be (in part by being accredited).
And unlike other disciplines, enthusiasm is considered an actual ‘point’ in these sorts of dialogues. Because so many people can feel passionately about their faith and non-faith, in some cases, civility keeps the other side from pushing rather reasonable, compromising counterpoints too heavily.
So while an atheist might be sore or annoyed that a religious person might dismiss their argument outright by accusing them of ‘not knowing what they’re talking about’, from the perspective of the faithful, it’s not too much different than when one dismisses the medical opinion of someone who, in addition to not being a doctor (a religious expert), completely eschews the modern concept of human anatomy (does not believe in any theology).
‘But they don’t know, either!’ the atheist may howl, ‘they only believe they know better than me, even though what they believe in cannot be verified, unlike your doctor example.’
Which brings us back to the main problem. Doubt and certainty, and how we treat them in a world where fewer and fewer intellectual concepts cling to such dyads.
And regarding the accusation that an atheist is being condescending, divisive, or offensive in their objections: do religious adherents recall what their take on atheists are? One of the few things that the major religions agree on is how much worse people of no faith are. Christianity and Islam haven’t been very close for many, many centuries, but in religious dialogues both would take dealing with the other – where the idea of the divine is at least accepted – than with one that doesn’t even hold that in their belief system. An atheist’s opinion is already assumed to be corrupt and meaningless, and the punishment for holding such position is damnation, that is, an (after)life of torture in hell.
What is Belief Inside a Vacuum?
Is it accepting the fact that many religious teachings have little place in the practical and daily societal interactions between people and institutions? That it has to go beyond the practical, to a more philosophical plane? Many religious leaders through history stressed ‘leaving’ their teachings and ideas in this theoretical form (or utilized very carefully beyond it), but apparently we can’t help but bring them down here where they crash and burn and cause all sorts of problems quite quickly. And somehow we’ve been able to ignore some of most benign and charitable ones
‘The lord works in mysterious ways’ is how religion politely says, ‘shut up, don’t ask questions, do what we say’. Biblically this mantra is found in the garden of eden tale, where god forbids Adam and Eve from eating fruit dangling off the tree of knowledge. But human progress occurs because people don’t shut up, continue to ask questions, seek knowledge, and follow paths different from the herd (even at extreme personal risk).
Paul Claudel: ‘Jesus came not to take away suffering, but to fill it with His presence.’ How horrifying: ‘I’m not going to help you, but I’m going to calmly, steadfastly explain in great detail why I’m not going to help’. This is the kind of sophist heavy rhetoric designed to sidestep the unanswerable questions that makes god out to look like a terrible ruler. It’s letting god off the hook and putting the onus on the person: ‘you don’t feel better? You must not have accepted Jesus as your savior.’
‘We can’t know the reasons why god lets bad things happen’. Not true actually. Just look to the holy books that explain in great detail why god does such things. Sometimes because you act against his wishes (whether you know it or not), sometimes to drive a point home (Saul, Jonah), sometimes he just wants to test you (see Abraham & Isaac, the life of Lot). In other words, god can do whatever he wants, love him or not, and you just have to take it. And if that seems like a particularly depressing position, you're going to hell if you don't accept it. What kind of terrible idea is this, to affix such an authoritarian, illogical hierarchy upon a world that is becoming more and more based on scientific laws that also don't take into consideration your own plights and whims because of the general interconnectedness among all particles and space in the ever-expanding universe? Don't misunderstand this point, the latter system is also unfair, but at least it eschews the mythic, schizophrenic (I love you, I hate you) religious element in favour of testable results.
Religion’s never had all the answers. It’s just that for so long there wasn’t anything resembling an alternative. The world has institutionalized an unreliable organizational chart based on flights of fancy. In some circles, the hierarchy of angels is treated as seriously as the periodic table.
Why would god lend a quarterback a hand but completely ignore the Somali famine?
You can’t spell ‘story’ with History
How do we know what happened in the past? How many ‘sources in agreement’ are required for us to agree that, yes, this is what happened to Julius Caesar in Rome in 44BC? How many statues or paintings of this ancient or historical figure do there have to be before we say that yes, he existed, and this is what he did? Do Roman or Greek historians have more credence than the four gospel writers?
It is as if history is always slowly being (re)created as more of it drips out from the old days. The perspective of World War II as a whole was different in the 1950s than it was in the 1970s because between those two periods it was revealed that the Allies had the Enigma code-breaking machine, and knew what the Germans were going to do ahead of time. But eventually the well dries up; historians aren’t going to come across any more manuscripts or helmets that prove this is how something happened long in the past. It would seem that the modernizing of the world – when written accounts of the same events flourished, for one thing – in the renaissance was when there was more steadiness and certainty in how history actually unfolded. It became more concrete as photography and eventually sound and video capture became commonplace. Everything up to The Dark Ages is still shrouded in a kind of romantic haze.
So how much should we be suspicious of ancient history? As much as it affects us. While we can turn to the speeches of Pericles, the ideas of Plato and the stories of the Spartans for inspiration and amusement, it does not have a great deal of influence on how we live our daily lives (Yes, Greek democracy was an inspiration for modern democracy, but we don’t comb through ancient documents to base current laws and procedures on them).
Meanwhile, certain aspects of biblical teachings DO affect how billions of people across the planet live. Plato’s Republic is discussed in first year philosophy classes, but ideas in the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran are discussed in presidential debates and in hundreds of millions of families across the globe. And in studying philosophical treatises we look for and criticize contradictions, loopholes, and logical problems, even if we support many of the general ideas held within these texts. But it does not seem that followers of the bible – whether literal or interpretive – perform the same sort of analysis. And while that’s certainly not a big problem when it comes to one’s own spirituality and moral compass, it can be quite difficult when any level of public policy or community standard is enacted with it in mind.
‘I find your lack of faith disturbing’
So says former Jedi Knight (the priest caste in the Star Wars mythology) Darth Vader, as he chokes a military commander who mocks the ‘ancient Jedi religion’ just by thinking it. No one in the Star Wars universe should doubt the force. There were practical, undeniable displays of its power on a regular basis. If priests could choke people with the power of their mind (and attribute such powers to their faith in god), church would be standing room only. It would be the foundation on which we build or knowledge.
So does this mean that we demand proof? That skeptics are all ‘Doubting Thomas’s’? Well here’s something not many people acknowledge about the anecdote from which that term emerged: Jesus acceded to Thomas’ demands, showing him his wounds. Jesus understood that faith works a lot better with a bit of practical evidence. For those that doubt, physical proof was provided. Otherwise, why not refuse Thomas outright, accusing him of lack of faith, and throwing him out as undeserving? Why agree to show him scientific evidence of the claim otherwise? He actually allowed Thomas to put his fingers through the holes in his hands. Pure observation, not a hint of faith at all.
Why do you believe? ‘I got a feeling’. Great, apply to theology, metaphysics and human institutions the same set of criteria you apply to picking red or black at the roulette table
It can be suggested there is an organizational force to the universe that is encapsulated in the discoveries of sciences (mainly physics and cosmology). Right now it’s the standard model, and people study it the way people studied the bible. These laws care not a whit whether you pray to this or that, beat your enemy/lover/children to death, eat a cow, infringe on copyright, or blow the planet to smithereens. Now if you ask what created this organization/laws, one could say, ‘I don’t know’. And if you say god, then they’ll concede that this aspect of creation is beyond what is currently knowable for humanity, so it is possible, but obviously not proven. But if you want them to get on board the idea that this creator has anything resembling a vested interest in the action of particular particles in infinitely small section of the universe (us on earth), perhaps they would vehemently deny that.
God’s got it win-win. If it gives into the prayers and pleas of the faithful, it’s a wonderful benign, giving entity that listens to and loves its followers. If it does not answer the prayers and pleas of the faithful, well, the lord works in mysterious ways, and it’s best not to question why it does what it does. Why has this persisted? Because you were punished/ostracized if you questioned it.
So no wonder the church is in decline. People are finally autonomous enough to question the institution’s claims. And since it’s never been used to this in its sixteen hundred year (or two thousand year, if you want to go back to the Bethlehem manger) history, of course it’s doing a bad job answering these queries and handling scandals that for a long time were ignored or swept under the rug. From a purely academic/historic perspective, the crumbling of these ancient institutions is fascinating. But from a still devout follower or someone within the church hierarchy, it can be confusing, insulting, and terrifying.
The threat, and certain church scholars have noted this, is not an outright battle against the dripping fangs of pure evil, but of apathy brought on by ecumenical irrelevance. Which is certainly of legitimate concern for those still involved with such an organization, just as the employees of a company whose profits are dwindling are worried about how to reverse its fortunes and save their jobs. The problem is, the devil and the hallucinatory battles of the Book of Revelation are much more interesting than the leisurely pursuits of the secularizing West. Decrying the whore of Babylon will get people’s attention…if there’s an actual whore of babylon. Calling yoga a tool of the devil/’eastern religions’ will get you laughed at.
If I Had A Hammer…
Spirituality is a conceptual tool for humanity, and religion is a conceptual tool for civilization (note the distinction: religion is the organized form of spiritual ideas, designed for a community of people). When certain tools are no longer useful or relevant for a particular community, they are discarded. For thousands of years ancient religions were practiced across the world (Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek), then faded away as new ones took their place (either by forced conversion, destruction of the civilization that practiced them, or slow fade into irrelevance). It is quite natural that adherents to contemporary religions would argue that these religions were stamped out because they were wrong/evil; they believe they are practicing the right one! And they are terrified that many people are letting the chance to be part of the right religion – and be awarded eternal salvation and the blessing of god – slip through their fingers by observing a more independent and personal form of spirituality, or turning away from religious matters altogether. In reality, we’re just switching up our tools. From hammer to a ratchet set.
Folk: What do you have?
Religious Folk: I have salvation.
Folk: No, you offer salvation, with many strings attached to it, and you might not even come through in the end.
Religious Folk: That’s the talk of heretics and non-believers.
Folk: And now you just sound like a bitter salesman: ‘if you don’t take advantage of this offer, you’re going to be tortured for all eternity’.
Religious Folk: Well if you don’t believe in god, who made us?
Folk: I have no idea, but why would I assume that the explanation would be one of a story – like all creation stories, including the many we’ve discarded and consequently labeled ‘myth’ – told thousands of years ago with no bearing on reality? Are we doing ourselves a disservice by not deeply questioning where the bedrock of our beliefs came from, by which I mean not only what we ‘feel’ is the right answer, but taking into consideration the fact that being immersed in a society that leans heavily towards one particular faith, we will naturally see that faith as correct and unassailable? And this is of course not limited to faith. Depending on the stability of the ethos and practices of the community, you’re going to go through life seeing politics, culture, social interaction and religion through a particular lens, but that doesn’t make it objectively and absolutely correct. Constant retesting and adjustment is required for all ideas to remain useful and relevant.
The Tower of Power
Religion as a powerful hierarchical organization that controls how people act is like any other powerful hierarchical organization that controls how people act, be it a form of government, corporation, or anything that provides an essential function to society.
In terms of the application of religious morals on people who do not follow them, religion is not the central problem. Power is the problem, and when a religion starts to get a bit of that, it is almost immediately corrupted, compromised, etc. You can point to horrendous abuses of the church or other religions (inquisition, with burning, crusades, subjugation of women or particular groups), just as you can with communism, fascism, and democracy ('manifest destiny' took the lives of millions of natives), or corporations acting without anything resembling a moral compass. Religion, however, is unique in that it preys on people's beliefs about life beyond death. What it offers cannot be proven because it exists in a realm beyond proof.
Religion without power becomes more of a spiritual personal choice. You can believe whatever you want, but you have to balance that properly with your own personal needs and expectations, and the needs and expectations of the community. And when there are many different beliefs, then the best thing to do is to keep the religious leanings as far away as possible from the big community decisions, because that just gums up the works. At best it slows everything down, and at worse people start throwing things at each other. And while at first there can be advantages if everyone believes the same thing - as many communities begin in that fashion - it doesn't take long before power starts to move into the hands of a few choice individuals in the town, and suddenly there are their rules applying to everything that must be adhered to. Tolerance of alternative opinions – or allowing new 'different' people to come into the community – is suddenly frowned upon, as this might jeopardize the strength of the people in power.
It should be acknowledged, however, that any attempt to excise religion from public life will most likely result in the collapse of public life as we know it, as the spiritual hunger that religion attempts to feed in such an entrenched part of our own lives and our civilization, for both passive and (extremely) active adherents. For many it will be seen as the onset of the apocalypse, the great persecution that will result in terrible wars and disasters and the return of the messiah. And even if the latter does not happen, (kind of) proving the non-believers right, well, apparently the world had to be shot to pieces to find out for sure. Good job, everybody.
An aside on the Apocalypse:
I would think it immense progress and the height of human achievement that, if our species is extinguished, we can agree, as our candle is snuffed out, that it was due to our own failings and shortsightedness, and not that we were being ultimately punished by a spooky space god who lives in the cloud and loves us and loathes us intermittently.
Problems With Perfection
Scott Adams put it very well in his ‘though experiment’ book, God’s Debris when he suggested that most people don’t believe in god, but rather believe in the idea of god.
Most people, when they talk about god, are talking about perfection. Which makes sense if you’re going to give that trait to your deity of choice that has such powers as omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience, but immediately runs into trouble when you try an ascribe the actions of god/perfection to what many would agree is a clearly imperfect world.
To keep that quality of perfection, religious dogma has to come up with some extremely illogical – and downright frightening – reasons to explain why things are the way they are (old example: floods occur because people are wicked; new example: 9/11 happened because of the ACLU and abortions).
But then, it might only look like things are terrible from a rather biased perspective. Let’s call it ‘human’. It’s a fallibility that dogs us at every turn, so it makes sense that we’d imagine an idea of infallibility (god), but then have a hard time making it work within our fallible existence.
Why does everything have to be so [fill in the blank, but typically ‘difficult’, ‘confusing’, ‘unfair’, ‘ridiculous’, ‘depressing’, ‘impossible’]?
Because think of how dull things would be if it weren’t [fill in the blank using words above]! If everything worked as well you desired or simply expected, how quickly life would become a robotic, unalterable chain reaction of just-so events. There would be no flaws, no necessity to change, no ingenuity, nothing that makes existence unique and forward moving/looking. No good or evil. There would be no need for evolution, because there would be no reason to adapt. But that’s the first step towards everything falling to pieces anyway, because if life does not adapt to changing conditions it goes extinct, which is impossible because everything is ‘perfect’, including these conditions. It is a world, then, of stasis. Which is paradoxical, because that means unchanging, and that is not possible in a world where spacetime…changes. Which leads us into the…
Now on cellular or perhaps molecular level, many who are well versed in such scholarly disciplines that study our universe would hold the opinion that it’s incredible how well the system works. How dependable it is (even while lacking a total explanation as to how the universe operates). Certain religious people loathe science because they believe it’s interfering with the will of god, but in reality science is the best example of a god-like system. So maybe certain religious people simply realize that their ideas of human gods – with their give and take, ‘I-love-you-but-I’m-vindictive-and-jealous-and-unreliable’ – are being usurped by these immutable and productive laws, and are jealous of the loss of power.
‘Imagine you’re wrong’ can be asked to both the theist and atheist, but which consideration is more terrifying? If you ask a theist, they can imagine that another religion is possibly the right one (in which case, they may be punished by that religion’s god for heresy, perhaps both during life and in the afterlife) or that there is no actual theological construct at all (when you die, the neurons in your brain cease functioning, and everything that you are goes with them). Obviously the former idea is only slightly more soothing than the latter. For someone who has invested time, thought, anguish and ecstasy over a belief system that has shaped their behavior and personality, it makes sense that the idea that they are wrong about this is abhorrent.
And apparently an atheist has an eternity of torture to look forward to. Which – for someone who sees the work of Dante as fiction and not a documentary – boggles the mind the same way ‘no god’ does for the faithful.
And Justice For All…
For most major religions, the onus is on the individual to save him or herself, to embrace the symbols of the divine and to follow the rules that prove they love and cherish the god of whatever theology they decide upon.
But why is there a choice if there is only one god? If there is only one path to salvation? Why would god or his proxies allow for such a mistake to possibly be made?
Why is Jesus able to save some people – by convincing them to worship him – and not others? Why are some people not convinced he’s the messiah here to save them if he truly is? It’s one of those questions that has a topsy-turvy type answer: ‘well, there are forces at work trying to stop god’s good work’. Forces? Such as? The devil? Evil? God created the devil. God can kick the devil’s ass, and according to most scripture he will. But what, for now are we all merely playthings in this tug of war between good and evil? It’s that endless holding pattern that religion is constantly doubling down upon. And it just so happens that the only good side is the one you believe in, and every other take on the ‘god’ question is the evil side.
No major religion has more than a third of the world’s adherents, meaning that most people are – at worst – damned to eternal suffering, or – at best – unworthy of the benefits/rewards that come with following the correct religion, which would supposedly entail unhappiness in life, and having no afterlife, or a purgatorial one. Why are billions of people allowed by god to pray to ‘it’ incorrectly? This fact alone seems to be very strong reasoning to doubt the existence of personal god who has a vested interest in our actions. That ‘it’ would let such divergences – which has manifested itself in ways ranging from polite discussions to thousands of year of warfare, violence strife, and continual hatred – occur over itself is unconscionable. And if god has no conscience, if god doesn’t care, then why should humanity have anything to do with it? And the excuse ‘we can’t understand the will of god’, has no place here. This is 4 billion people being damned immediately, before their own personal thoughts and actions are ever considered (‘you believe this? You’re screwed’). That so many people are apparently not chosen, are of lesser importance, or can be thoughtlessly discarded is an aspect of a belief system that one would hope most of the world can do without.
I will grant that the idea of god (or perhaps the nature of god) is unknowable, but I take that to such heart that I believe anything resembling an attempt to understand the whims, beliefs, principles, moods, etc. of this entity is utter folly and no more believable than a fairy tale.
Everything ever written concerning god is wholly tainted by the inherent limits of humanity. In fact, even the conception of god is proof of this limit (why do we assume there is one at all?). Consequently, religion offers nothing for me. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. are all equal in that they are particular men’s notions of the godhead thousands of years ago, that happened to include a set of rules that typically gave the persons who preached it plenty of power (granted, sometimes it took quite awhile for this power to come, but when it did, it was rarely insubstantial).
And this is not to say that religion is simply a vessel that leaders of the past and the present use to sway the masses to their point of view and for their own benefit. The basis of theology is to understand humanity’s relationship with the unknown (typically revolving what came before life and what comes after). The problem with this is that it’s obviously unknown, which is a great way to start an argument (‘god means this!’ ‘no, god means this!’) that can ultimately lead to wars.
So throw away the tall tales of people turning to salt and a heroic, Fisher King grand sacrifice that forgave the sins of others. Throw away the laws and rules that had more to do with the current state of society circa 500BC around Mount Sinai or Mecca in the early seventh century than how a entity of unimaginable power wants everyone on the planet to live until the end of time.
The fights – whether with words or weapons – between religious groups alone should be proof of this misguided adherence to a belief system that can, yes, provide great comfort and spiritual fulfillment, but also create dogmatic beliefs which can permit the suffering of many people and the prosecution of many worthwhile human pursuits.
Of course people believe in god! What a wonderful idea! It would be great if there was something in charge of everything! I’d give thanks to it and ask for help every day if it was true. But coming up with a great idea doesn’t make it true. Holding on to stories thousands of years old doesn’t make it true, either. Nor does that feeling you get when you pray or attend a religious ceremony. Am I asking for too much proof? Well extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And if this is obstinate… that doesn’t make me wrong and you right.
-regarding the ‘angels driving in heaven’, it’s from an article years back in the Atlanta Journal Constitution
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