Some close friends and family of mine are people of faith. As an agnostic*, I admire that quality about them. The asterisk on agnostic is because, according to some, I am an atheist – I am certainly not enough of a theologian to qualify things further than to explain that I do not believe in the existence of God or an afterlife. I do not believe because I have seen no evidence in the traditional sense of the scientific process. The reason I consider myself agnostic rather than atheistic is that I also do not consider the existing evidence to exclude the possibility (based on my understanding of God).
But I digress.
While I admire faith in some others, particularly as I do find the moral philosophy of most religion exceptional (such as the teachings of Jesus), I abhor the way many practise religious belief and use it to persecute and oppress others. This is not to say the persecution of the Holocaust or Inquisition, but the daily oppression of, “My religion says that people should live this way and I mean to make life intolerable for anyone who doesn’t”.
That repulsion about religion relates to some fundamental questions I encountered in my thinking, and today I mean to propose several of them.
This piece is about religion in general – any sort of spiritual or theological belief. It does not seek to criticise or critique any one particular faith for their specific beliefs (though I may refer to specific beliefs as examples). I suspect some readers will not trust that I am entreating about religion generally but rather attacking a specific faith, being an American who so strongly enjoys his Irish heritage, and that seems like an excellent place to begin:
? – If there is so much truth to religion, why do so few people come by a particular religious understanding on their own? That is, why do children tend to practise the faith of their parents and, by extension, entire communities and regions favour one particular faith?
Case in point:
Yes, I realise that this graphic simplifies matters. The United States is not exclusively Protestant Christian – taken as one group against the sum of all other faiths, they are not even the majority. As a single belief taken against the members of each other belief individually though, they have long been the majority. That traces back to the foundations of America, Protestants seeking freedom from religious persecution in Europe (note the prevalence of Catholicism across much of Europe, except for Great Britain).
Consider also that before the arrival of our Protestant ancestors to permanent settlements in what became the United States, the continent featured indigenous citizens with their own beliefs. They do not feature on this map because the religion of the settlers took prominence (for reasons that should be clear and not require a lengthy and unnecessary tangent here).
If Protestantism took hold because of its inherent truth, then why is China and Southeast Asia various shades of yellow? Why is India predominantly Hindu? Why did the Middle East reject these teachings in favour of various forms of Islam?
In short, if the merits of a particular religion are so intrinsic in the fabric of being, why is a child born in India so much more likely to practise Hinduism than Protestantism?
If Hindu practitioners had reached South America and southern Africa first, would we see orange spread across the map? Quite possibly. What does that say about the relationship between humans and religion that European faiths dominate non-European regions of the world where the Europeans invaded and brought missionaries?
To me that does not reflect the discovery of universal truth; it reflects the imposition of narrow ideology.
? – Related to the first, if we were to destroy all memory and all documented record of human experience in this universe, poof, would we arrive back at the conclusion of a particular religious faith?
We would erase with that all of the scientific progress of humanity, but therein we find the beauty of science. Science does not discover anything, not really. The things science “discovers” were there all along – science merely observes and articulates it. The speed at which we arrive back at the same level of current understanding might be different, but we would recognise immutable laws of the universe like gravity and Newtonian physics. This object will remain at rest until an outside force acts upon it, at which point it will travel in a straight line at constant velocity until another outside force acts upon it, like an apple falling from a tree and bouncing away. We would “rediscover” those truths.
What about religion? Without the Torah or Bible or Qur’an to describe critical moments in history, would humanity rediscover those precise details? I have no doubt that humanity would discover religion and non-scientific explanations for things, such as the origins of the universe, but would they match the religious understandings we know today?
? – Why do some practitioners of a particular faith defend that faith so vehemently against non-believers, but then level the same doubts and accusations against other faiths?
The conclusion of the previous question brought me to this one. If I said, “Without the Biblical account of the tale of Jonah, how would anyone today know of that parable?” That would raise an expected defence from someone who believed in the teaching. That same person, however, might have a critical attitude towards Hindu or Muslim parables, viewing them as works of fiction, contrived pieces that beg the point they try to make in an effort to control practitioners of the faith.
We see this often in an America governed largely by Judeo-Christian values where people raise fears of Sharia law. There is a great fear among some that Muslims, in an effort to spread their religion, would want to establish a caliphate in the United States. This comes from the very crowd who seek to govern the United States according to Judeo-Christian values (admittedly, as mentioned before, I find those values largely admirable) despite having so many citizens who are neither Jewish or Christian. It’s the imposition of a religious ideology on others.
? – What is the fear of science among some religious practitioners?
As a rational mind, the advantage of the scientific process always appealed to me. As a religious thinker with absolute faith in my belief, I should think I would likewise invite that process as my ultimate vindication. Science does not create anything – it does not manipulate nature. It observes and articulates it for human understanding. If the teaching of a religious ideology is true, the scientific research surrounding that topic will only serve to confirm those tenets.
Some religious folks I know will point to the ignorance of science on a particular topic as evidence of its flawed nature. That is evidence of its cautious, respectful nature. Science does not jump to conclusions, it works at them slowly, methodically, and with a deliberate amount of bureaucracy. Humans are flawed thinkers as much as we are rational ones. The scientific process, specifically the element of reliable replication, is meant to remove our biases and flawed thinking from the understanding.
? – What is this strange concept of “God’s plan” or “God’s will” that people wield?
Apologies, I could not come up with a less inflammatory way to phrase that question for a header – I will expound on what I mean now though. Several religions feature the idea of some divine plan. Things that happen in our lives are part of that plan – they test our character or serve to prepare us for life after this existence. Attitudes about this include, to a degree, free will – that how we respond to those events will shape our life and future – and predestination – that a set plan exists and we are merely actors.
In either of these cases I encounter a curious question. Incidentally, it’s a question that people of a religious faith sometimes pose as a defence to critiques of this matter: how can anyone profess to know God’s will?
If there is a plan, how do you know what it is? If this is a test, how do you know the answer God wants you to provide? Perhaps taking the course of action you find so objectionable is precisely what one is meant to do in that situation. It makes sense to one’s mind, but that would presume that one knew God’s will and that is impossible.
This is perhaps the principle reason I love Jesus’ teaching not to judge others. They are doing the best they can. Even when they are making a terrible decision and one’s interest is 100% well-intentioned and meant to help protect that person: they are making the decision that seems best to them and they must live with the consequences. It would be foolish of anyone to conclude that their decision is wrong, at least according to a religious understanding.
This is not to say that there is no distinction between right and wrong – it’s to say that no person is in a place to judge right or wrong in a religious sense. Perhaps that person’s wrong act was a necessity in that grand plan to precipitate the right acts of several others, or as part of some necessary test.
The idea of assigning right and wrong is a social one, part of the social contract we have for living alongside one another.
Specifically, the issue is where people start to violate several of their own religious principles in the pursuit of correcting the single perceived violation of another person. This is where, for me, I begin to distinguish between faithful that I admire and those I abhor for their oppressive nature.
? – Less a question and more of an observation, fear of eternal damnation cannot be the motivator for good behaviour.
A lot falls under this umbrella. The idea that strict adherence to religious ideology is the only path to eternal happiness; the idea that people of a different faith or, especially, people of no faith cannot be moral souls.
If I behave in a way that is morally responsible towards others, does it matter that I did so because of what Jesus said? Because of what Muhammad said? Because of what Buddha said? Because, in my own introspection, it seemed like the morally responsible thing to do?
To take a Catholic perspective, the one with which I am most familiar, do I have any reason to believe that as an agnostic I might find myself standing before Peter at the gates one day only to hear him say, “You did everything well, son, but you did it because you felt it was right rather than because God required it so we’re going to have to ask you to leave”?
People get annoyed when a contestant gives the correct answer with a slight mispronunciation on Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune. Could you imagine as a Christian finding out that you were denied paradise because, even though you lived perfectly, you listened to Jesus rather than Confucius?
Furthermore, if the only reason one behaves in a morally responsible way is to avoid eternal damnation or some form of punishment after this life, then does that make the person good? That seems to me an important element to moral behaviour. If I am behaving a certain way out of self interest, that would imply that if my self interest in the situation changed then so too would my behaviour. Does that change the moral calculus of that situation?
? – How does one account for the somewhat linear nature of many religions – that is, how does one accept the disagreement between faiths and sects when the origins for several reflect tragically human behaviour?
Jesus was Jewish. A joke I often shared among my peers at Sunday school was, “If indeed only one religion will receive salvation at the end of days, I have my concerns about a Christian faith whose saviour is Jewish.”
I also love Lewis Black’s bit about the New and Old Testaments: “Our book wasn’t good enough for you Christians, was it?” Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad all exist in a single chronology with (and this is reductive) the major split being where each faith delineates things.
For Christians, Jesus is the prophet and son of God. As a boy, I understood the Jewish attitude towards this to be, “I mean, Jesus was definitely real and a fantastic Jewish person, but settle down now.” For the Islamic community, the story continues, “And then Muhammad showed up…” and Jews and Christians alike plugged their ears. Thus the God in Western monotheism is both the same entity and not the same entity.
Within Christianity, I view things like the historical schisms. The Church of England represents perhaps the largest of these schisms, and when one looks at the historical context it does not amount to much of a theological disagreement. The King of England disliked what the Papacy had to say about his behaviour, and so he created a new sect. On Wednesday there was a new Protestant offshoot of Christianity. On Tuesday, for all intents and purposes, they all believed the same thing.
Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” has a wonderful segment on this with Brian attempting to hide from Roman guards by posing as an orator. His rambling nonsense wins the curiosity of a fickle crowd who immediately adopt him as a prophet. As he flees the scene, they seize on a gourd he had carried as a symbol. When he later loses a sandal in the pursuit, the mob fragments into multiple sects as they disagree about whether to follow the gourd or the sandal and what either of the objects represents:
(Side note – I have a piece here on John Cleese and Michael Palin’s brilliant debate about this film with two people who I do not recall – both defending Christianity against the film. It also examines criticisms of ideological thinking in general)
For the purposes of this piece though, again, what does that say about the nature of human involvement with religion? There was a time when Christianity was a single entity without all of these sects. There was a time before Christianity. The formation of Christianity, its spread throughout the world, and its fragmentation into these various sects were human decisions rather than divine acts. Does that make them all right? All wrong? Does it make one superior to all others? Does it indicate that they are all imperfect?
Feel free to respond below with your thoughts on religion and to any of these questions. If agreeable, indicate your religious perspective when replying so others understand the particular perspective they are hearing and, above all, be kind. Aggressive responses towards others will not be retained because this is all about personal perspective and opinion. People in this discussion have a right to express those.