I am going to have a go at religion today. In order to do that, we need to establish some things up front that will allow us to proceed in a civil manner.
First, I think you should know that I was raised Roman Catholic – Baptism, Communion, Confirmation. I am a rational thinker and religion was unable to answer many questions for me, and as time progressed we grew apart. I am not a religious scholar, I am not a theologian. I need you to understand that much of what follows may read as ignorant or intellectual condescension – I cannot do much about that at this point, and that is why we are discussing it here today. Perhaps we can rectify some of that.
That leads me to the second item: you should not interpret what follows as definitive statements on the matter but as questions. If you are a religious person reading this and thinking, “That’s because you do not understand this”, then please feel free to reply with an explanation. I am merely musing out loud here.
If the world did not present the details of a particular faith to you, would you arrive at the same understanding of that faith? People born in predominantly Catholic countries tend to be Catholic. People born in predominantly Hindu countries tend to be Hindu. People born in predominantly Muslim countries tend to be Muslim. The same goes for Judaism, Buddhism, Protestantism, and all the rest.
To a greater degree, if humans lost our collective memory and all record of life in this universe to this point, would we rediscover any of the current faiths in their forms as we know them? Science, for example, would slowly return to us as a natural observation and inquiry process about the universe. We would re-discover concepts such as gravity and Newtonian physics. We would re-discover the nature of mathematical language to describe patterns and relationship. Would we re-discovery the ideas of Christianity? Of Hinduism?
I do not contend that faith and reason are dichotomous or at opposites end of some spectrum of understand. I do believe that the two are compatible with one another. A person devout to scientific reasoning may have faith, and those of faith may have a strong grasp of the scientific method.
Some religious persons do a phenomenal job of incorporating the logic of the universe into their faith, accepting evidence as it presents itself to provide a revised understanding of life. Others will twist or reject it though, and I do find that destructive.
If we do recover an understanding of a specific faith, such as Christianity, to what degree to we recover the details? So much of Christianity revolves around the Bible as the Word of God, and yet seems to overlook, all too conveniently, that the books comprising that Bible are the works of men. In most cases, they are not firsthand accounts of events, but re-tellings in the decades after the fact.
Taking the Bible at its literal meaning is something I feel unlikely to ever accept, given the preponderance of evidence against many of those details. An interpretative translation and understanding is another matter altogether, and one that often works nicely where science marries religious ideology.
Jesus of Nazareth, for example, is not someone that one has to accept as Lord and Saviour, as the son of God, in order to recognise the sacrosanct beauty of his moral philosophy. One can be an atheist and still appreciate the value of Jesus as a moral thinker and influence.
That in and of itself raises another question about religion that one hears often: the deviation from moral principles in the name of those religious principles. Many of the major religions of the worlds contain explicit principles regarding theft and killing, yet practitioners also observe exceptions to these rules when the victim of the offence is someone of another faith or deemed otherwise unworthy of the goodwill.
Ecclesiastical dissent, prosecutions for heresy, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, the Salem Witch trials, early persecution of monotheists, and on and on. One could dedicate volumes of works to the persecution of people because of their religious ideology (or lack of one) across the whole range of reasons – political, social, theological… Yet the tenets of any particular religion, at least internally, would argue against such behaviour.
To clarify, I am not having a go at any one religion (or any of them), but I think we need to have these discussions. Those who prescribe to a particular faith may read this and feel it specifies that faith, and that might incline them to point out the severity of similar practices in another faith. Christians get upset if you appear to mock Christ, but illustrative depictions of the Muslim prophet can result in death. There are certainly degrees of severity here, but the reaction of any violence to the expression of free speech should concern everyone.
Can one disagree with how another presents a religious faith? Absolutely. No one should be inflicting harm based on a religious faith though. Inflicting harm over an ideological difference of any kind is socially unacceptable, but to do so over a faith seems egregious.
I believe in a woman’s right to choice regarding her reproductive rights. One might believe firmly in pro-life positions. We can have a civil disagreement regarding that from an evidence-based perspective about life, viability, and human rights.
If I am an atheist and you are a Christian though, we can have no civil disagreement. We can discuss our beliefs in a civil manner, but we can have no real debate. Where is the evidence for any of the Christian faith beyond the Bible, which to a non-Christian is itself a suspect source? Where is the evidence to disprove any of it? Faith is taken on faith, not on evidence. Attempting to argue from a point of faith (even if that “faith” is atheism) is a fool’s errand. We have trouble enough attempting to persuade people with evidence to reform positions – asking someone to reform their position on faith alone?
Consider this excerpt from the “Friday Night, Saturday Morning” featuring John Cleese and Michael Palin about the controversy of their film:
Well, you see, I was given 8 or 10 years , 10 years, of a form of Christianity, which I grew to despise and dislike; largely insulted my intelligence. The sermons that were given at the age of 11 and 12, I felt, insulted my intelligence. When I got into writing this film [Life of Brian], and we all had exactly the same reaction, we started to discover a lot of stuff about Christianity, and I started to get angry. Because I started to think, why was I given this rubbish, this tenth-rate series of platitudes, when there were interesting things to have discussed. There were factual things.
Nobody ever told me, nobody ever told me that they don’t know what language the Gospels were written in, and that they don’t even know who wrote them, and they weren’t even sure what cities they were written in…
Those services were a joke. They were a joke. I remember the sermons. I remember the sermons. I remember a gentleman coming and telling us how difficult it had proved to get the Bible into Tibet. They had seven occasions. The first time they’d had landslides, the second time there’d been rains and the pages got stuck together, the third time the mules had fallen off the mountain side, the fourth time there were thunderbolts, and the seventh time, he said, God helped us and we got the Bibles into Tibet. And the obvious conclusion was that he was trying like tell to stop them getting the Bibles.
I think of this interview often, but especially when I hear utterances like “God sent Hurricane Katrina to punish the people of New Orleans”. When something terrible happens to the God people, it was a test of faith. When it happens to the bad people, it was punishment. With natural disasters, this judgement always occurs en masse, affecting thousands or millions at once.
Why is it not simply a natural course of events? These events occur under specific conditions and in specific places, to the point that we as a society have gotten better and better about predicting them. That anyone could dismiss the preponderance of evidence for the natural and physical reasons for an event in favour of a non-provable spiritual one confounds me. Storms have gotten worse because society is more sinful (which is demonstrably false in itself) is so far down the list of probably reasons for an increase in storm intensity that it should hardly be worth considering at all.
That remains my biggest criticism of religion – like any ideology, not just religious ones but especially so because of the evidence-less nature of it, one becomes so entrenched in that method of thinking that contrary evidence gets rejected or warped into something that fits within the ideology. The result is misunderstanding and unnecessary conflict.
I have often joked (pseudo-joked) that if Jesus were to come back tomorrow to fulfil the Christian prophesy, fundamentalist Christians would be the first to denounce him as a charlatan. The open-minded prepared to accept the new evidence, including atheists, would be among those most likely to accept it.
It speaks to a greater realisation that I had as I began my journey into adulthood. As a child we learned to see adults as infallible and must defer to their expertise on all matters. Given a misunderstanding between an adult and child, the tendency (rule even) was to believe the adult.
Now, at 32, I realise the truth. I understand that I do not know what I am doing, that what I believe has flaws to some degree (hopefully lesser, but who knows), and I am doing the best I can with things. When my parents were 32, I was already 4 years old. And I have the benefits of my parents sharing their life experiences with me, I have the benefit of more years in school than either of them. I believe it safe to say that I am wiser at 32 than they were. How scary is that?
That is when it first occurred to me: no one knows what they are talking about. Literally everyone is doing the best they can with life. We have experts who make scientific inquiries of things and understand the detail and nuance of a particular subject enough that we consider them expert, but no one really knows. Much of the science of the day becomes absurd in retrospect because we acquire new knowledge.
The self-assured way in which some religious persons attempt to remain unchanged across time, that point to the fallibility of science throughout history as a means of discrediting it altogether, is concerning. Is the hope that despite the evidence to contradict the beliefs and practices of the religion time will eventually swing around to prove it right?
Pushing ideologies onto anyone else without critical thought, such as two Roman Catholics deciding to raise their child as a Roman Catholic, feels inherently dangerous to me. Not the practice of being a Roman Catholic, mind you – if one reviews the information and feels that Roman Catholicism is the way to go, power to that person. It seems distinctly strange that so many people profess the exact same faith as their parents, as their community.
That is: I believe what I believe because I happened to be born to these people in this place and that is what they told me is true.
We reject some things as stories and mythologies that were once religions, but devoutly believe in others that, to millions or billions of other people, are mythology. This time we borrow from Ricky Gervais:
If you’re born in India, then you’re probably a Hindu. If you’re born in America, then you’re probably a Christian. If you’re born in Pakistan, then you’re probably a Muslim. That’s a coincidence, isn’t it? That your always born into the right god. Isn’t that lucky? All those others are going to hell, but I was born into the right religion and I’m going to heaven.
This is not a criticism of religion or an argument for atheism. It critiques the nature of acquiring faith. All of these faiths are distinct and yet we come by them through conditioning rather than naturally. The cultural influence of faith on a person cannot be ignored. The criticism is of the lack of critical thought in acquiring faith. That can result in the issue with those who examine and question their faith (as they should) ignoring or warping contrary evidence.
One never doubted the faith to be untrue, and without compelling evidence to the contrary one will never really question it to be untrue. The standard for “compelling evidence” becomes impossibly high because the faith became so ingrained in a sense of identity that the depths of existential despair one would incur by losing it too quickly would be unbearable. I understand that – I even empathise with that.
What’s more, I am not even arguing much against it. What I would ask is that religious persons, and I am referring more to the fundamentalist types at the extreme, less tolerant ends of the ideology, understand and empathise with those who do not share that faith. They may very well be correct in every respect, but the rest of us have no reason to believe that.
The biggest obstacle to this that I have encountered is a religious belief in a peculiar sort of “morality” that prescribes something like the following. If I do not do everything possible to convert or save this person who does not believe as I do, if I do not make every effort to save them from the damnation in which I believe, I risk that damnation myself. At this point I am extremely critical of religion, as indeed many people are – including members of that same faith who recognise the danger inherent in this thinking. Now we do not have a mere ideological disagreement, but faith becomes extremism and a threat to the well-being of the non-believer.
In fact, I imagine that is a lot to do with why violent crime rates are lower among secular populations than religious ones. Atheists do not have greater morals than the religious, but they also have no particular factor compelling them to violent action.
The organised part of religion, the human part, can preach arbitrary practices and social controls that supersede the pleasant morality of the underlying faith. Christianity preaches a good moral philosophy, yet we have a number of Christian groups who take aggressive action against non-believers (such as the Westboro Baptist Church).
Religion offers peace of mind, provides alms, gives shelter, establishes a sense of community, and any number of other goods in the world, but one cannot turn a blind eye to the violence and oppression associated with it either (again, particularly in an area of belief for which no evidence exists, just faith). I would like to see proactive leadership from the respective churches to address these problems.