Posted: 03 October 2007 Updated: 31 May 2011: minor revisions and fixed a mistake.
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I was born into a family that was decidedly religious; we were lutherans. At the time, the "synod" (the flavor of lutheranism) we belonged to was the "evangelical" one. Times have changed - more on this later. As a result of this family orientation, I was given little to no choice in the matter. I was dressed up and sent off to Sunday School and we also attended services on Sunday as routinely as clockwork. My mother, especially, was very committed to her religion. I can recall being just as enthusiastic about Sunday School as I was about regular school! This was not something I had a choice about -- and that was that. Being something of a person opposed to arbitrary authority from an early age, this was the beginnings of my rebellion against this system. Why should I get up early, get dressed up in uncomfortable clothes, and sit through a session involving a lot of boring mumbo-jumbo that didn't seem to have much of anything to do with me?
For those who not familiar with this version of religion, shortly after we lutherans are born, we're supposed to be baptized into the faith. Being dysfunctional human beings at birth, we can't profess faith on our own, so we're assigned "godparents" (my Aunt Fran and Uncle Irving, in my case) who participated in the baptism and swore they would see to it that I was raised a lutheran if, god forbid, my parents were killed or somehow dropped the ball. If I were to die before confirmation ... coming next ... baptism is supposed to punch my ticket for a trip to heaven, despite my lack of capabilities as an infant. If someone dies before baptism, apparently they're destined to burn in hell or something, since doctrine says we were all "born in sin". This apparently is the "original sin" of Adam, which evidently was a long time ago (even for fundamentalists!). Talk about having the "sins of the fathers" visited upon you! The soul of an unbaptized baby burning in hell (or whatever) seems like a pretty tough thing to do to newborn unlucky enough to die before being baptized. Anyway ...
As I matured into my teenage years, a number of things happened. I was packed off to confirmation classes where we were taught the particular doctrine that characterizes our church. We were supposed to study this stuff to the point where we could be "confirmed" into the church. This was already a familiar routine: study a bunch of stuff you couldn't care less about, do whatever was obviously necessary to please the teacher, and you would "pass" the course. With my mother's enthusiastic support, I passed my confirmation examinations and was duly allowed to join the church. Among the perks of being confirmed (I'm a little hazy on the others ...), we became eligible to get a tiny glass of wine, along with a wafer of unleavened something passing for bread on "communion" Sunday (once a month). These items are symbols of the blood and body of christ, in analogy to the last supper (before christ was betrayed by Judas and crucified). At that age, the wine seemed like a big deal. Thus, I was a confirmed member of the lutheran church, but not for long, as it would turn out.
This was also a time when I was deep in the throes of typical teenage rejection of all authority. No reason to let religion slip through unchallenged. So, shortly thereafter, I renounced all this and basically refused to play the game any more. Needless to say, this put me into direct conflict with my parents, especially my mother. But she was unable to change my mind and, despite having inherited many of her traits (but not her faith), I turned away from that path. I had seen the hypocrisies of the "faithful" (including a relative who was an ordained Lutheran minister but a greedy bastard, as it turned out) and refused to accept the tenets of the faith. Over and beyond the hypocrisies, I was fast becoming a fledgling scientist, and could see logical flaws in the whole business that made it impossible for me to accept these teachings. I'll detail these logical issues in the next section. But I've never turned back to this belief system, despite having recognized a spiritual side to myself. More on that later ...
Most of the logical problems associated with formal religions arise from the infinite powers associated with the presumed deity. Infinity is a concept poorly appreciated by most religious zealots. If a being has infinite powers (omnipotent), can s/he create an object s/he can't move? A logical conundrum that defies facile resolution because it turns infinite power onto itself. If the presumed all-knowing (omniscient) being created me, then s/he knows what my choices will be throughout my life, from beginning to end. Thus, it's logically inescapable that s/he created me specifically to make those choices -- and to suffer the consequences for them. Where's free will in that? Sorry, but free will is out of the logical window of plausibility when the creator is omniscient and omnipotent. Those nasty infinities ...
Moreover, what sort of supreme being gives a rat's ass about what I believe in? If this deity is capable of creating the vastness and complexity of the Universe (to say nothing of the cosmological possibility of other, neighboring Universes), why does s/he care what some pissant human being on a backwater planet (Earth) in a run-of-the-mill galaxy believes about him/her? Sounds like a deity with a serious ego problem. Is this a god you really want to worship and honor? Believe in him/her? - eternal life in paradise. Don't believe? - eternal torment in hades. Hmmmm ... sounds like some time spent on psychoanalysis could be helpful for this so-called Deity. Especially since he presumably knows what your choices are going to be, because he knows everything. In fact, you must have been created to make those very choices!!
Believers always seem to respond to such questions either with the irrational fury of the religious zealot who defends every aspect of the faith with fanatical zeal, or with some form or another of the phrase "god works in mysterious ways." In other words, since we see no easy way to explain away this conundrum, we leave it as one of the great mysteries of the world, as created by our version of the creator. Take it on faith that god understands this, but apparently has not seen fit to give us an understandable explanation. We may be his/her favorite creations, but apparently s/he designed us (clearly intentionally) without the capacity to understand his/her mysterious ways.
In his book, God: The Failed Hypothesis, Victor J. Stenger declines to include any of these arguments against the "god hypothesis" - essentially, he says they're too easy to pick on. I prefer not to give formal religions such a free pass on the logical inconsistencies associated with omnipotence and omniscience (he also mentions the omnibenevolence of god, which is thoroughly contradicted by what this deity is described as having done and condoned, especially in the old testament). If the faithful believe in the three O's (as Stenger describes them), then they have to accept and try to explain the logic flaws that permeate faith-based religion. See also The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.
Every religion believes that its vision of the creator is the correct one, naturally. Faith in their particular deity is necessary, whereas any other faith, especially in any other deity, is a fast track to eternal damnation. This creates a pretty stiff penalty if you happen to be born into a family that instills in you a faith in the wrong god, no? Not only do you have to choose to have faith in the correct god, but you have to believe you made the correct choice (see above discussion of free will). Perhaps in the accident of your birth, you had little or no choice about what god to worship - not only your family but everyone around you believed in a specific form of religious dogma. What if this accident dooms you to an infinite afterlife of pain and anguish? Is there any way to be sure if your choice was the right one? But wait! Having faith and asking such questions are mutually exclusive. You're not supposed even to ask such questions. Although your creator gave you a brain with enough logical capability to confront you with such questions, once you find out that other forms of religion exist, your obligation is to suppress immediately the need to get such questions answered. No "doubting Thomas" is tolerated. Allah doesn't deign to provide answers to such snotty questions from upstart humans or even permit them to be asked. Believe -- or be damned! Those are your only choices, for most formal religions. Not firmly and totally with us? Then you have to be against us and worthy only of elimination on our path to righteousness.
And of course, every formal religion inevitably fractionates into multiple sects (40,000+ christian flavors, alone!) that all have differences in dogma, ranging from nearly trivial to substantial. You have to say your prayers in just this way, or you'll be on your way to infinite agony, and we may be eager to ensure you get there as a penalty for not making what we believe to be the correct choices. The church liturgy has to follow a particular order and say the words in a very specific way, or you might as well be an atheist -- no deviations in liturgy are tolerated. Change the words or alter the beliefs in any way, and new sect is born. No swaying from the specific set of beliefs about an invisible supreme being can be tolerated. Kill the infidels! Slaughter the unbelievers! Cleanse the world of these abominations ... sunnis versus shiites, protestants versus catholics, fundamentalists versus non-fundamentalists, baptists against the episcopalians, hindus against muslims, mormons versus everybody, and so on and on, seemingly ad infinitum. The past, the present, and the future are saturated with the blood of millions killed by believers seeking to rid the world of anyone with different beliefs. Formal, monotheistic religious faith encourages and sometimes even mandates a deadly form of intolerance more vengeful and bitter than racism and tribalism. Or perhaps it's a particularly virulent form of racism/tribalism - us against them for the right to spread our dogma. A sort of religious version of evolution -- survival of the fittest, dripping with the blood of the unbelievers. Holy scriptures of most formal religions are full of calls to purge the world of those opposed to the specific dogma of that particular faith. You can find whatever unspeakable act of vengeance supported by your interpretation of religious scripture.
Formal religions seem to wage their most vicious wars against those of similar, but only slightly different versions of that faith. Look at the history of religions -- at one time, all christians were actually jews, including christ himself. I remember being raised as an "evangelical" lutheran to regard the "Missouri synod" lutherans with the utmost contempt. Despite all christian and muslim religions having originated with judaism, things evolved (or devolved) into pogroms and anti-semitism in its most extreme forms -- the holocaust -- well before the time of Hitler. Anti-semitism persists today amidst the muslim fanatics of the Middle East (despite the somewhat embarrassing fact that the majority of muslims in the Middle East are "semitic" people racially), as well as such "christians" as the ku klux klan and skinheads around the world. And the old testament justifies comparable acts by the jews on their opponents, even documenting what we would now consider to be ethnic cleansing and razing of lands occupied by the enemies of the "chosen people". By today's standards, these would be considered "crimes against humanity", and in my opinion, they are! All religions believe they are the chosen ones! Most of them use that as justification to commit heinous sectarian war crimes. God is always on our side -- it's the people saying the same thing on the other side that are mistaken. Surely not we.
Formal religions around the planet are united in seeking to glorify god (by whatever name) and claiming his/her support, but they inevitably want to restrict the ways to do it. Our way or we'll kill you. Fundamentalist religious fanatics of all sects are brothers under the skin in this respect. Out of all the diverse formal religions, which one is the right one? Like Carl Sagan, it seems to me that the simplest way out of the dilemma of having to choose which among them is correct is to reject them all.
So why are formal religions so dogmatic and intolerant? Why this powerful need either to convert the unbelievers or eradicate them? I'm no psychologist, but I have some ideas.
I've argued elsewhere that a need to feel important, to feel that your life has meaning beyond your own self, is such a strong need in humans that it can sometimes trump virtually anything else: food, sex, and even the will to live. This is the force that drives young muslims (and others) to kill themselves in terrorist acts despite the prohibition for suicide in the muslim faith (and others). People who give their lives for a cause evidently feel this need. Many people have suffered persecution willingly, just for their beliefs. We in American society often salute them for it when it involves a patriotic cause (Nationalism can be a form of religion that can be compatible with many formal religions, if your nationalist principles support freedom of religion, at least in principle.), for example, so there apparently is widespread social acceptance of those willing to make sacrifices for a cause - up to a point. The problem can be just where to draw the line. Some draw no such line but sacrifice anything and everything for their cause. We refer to such as fanatics, or zealots.
Fanatics wholly and without any reservation give themselves to a cause they feel to be greater than themselves. Of course, giving your life is basically an unselfish act, whereas taking a life (including your own) is basically a selfish act. When the need to feel important requires you to take lives (perhaps even your own, in the process), then in my view, this is where this human need has become perverted. Cynical leaders take advantage of young believers to carry out acts of barbarity to further the faith (and usually some underlying political agenda).
Most religions ask (and even require) their members to proselytize on behalf of their faith, seeking to convert unbelievers to the "true way". Abrahamic religion's "holy" texts call upon the faithful to "enlighten" the unbelievers, and justify eradication of those who refuse to be converted. This is also a way to make yourself feel important, but it serves another, more subtle need. When you have beliefs, it's human to have doubts - if not overtly, then in the back of your consciousness, perhaps even buried so deeply you're unaware of them on a conscious level. If you can convert someone else, this reinforces the correctness of your beliefs. "Wow! I convinced someone else to convert!" This reinforces your beliefs, and tends to reduce your level of self-doubt. Doubt, of course, is B-A-D. Faith demands the absence of doubt.
What I dislike intensely about religious zealots is their profession of absolute belief in their dogma. They claim to have discovered answers for all the deep mysteries of human existence (except those that jehovah has seen fit to keep mysterious - see above). Whenever someone claims absolute certainty about something so deep and profound as the mysteries of human existence, I'm instantly repelled by that. The fanatic bothers me because of his/her absolute certainty, which is probably underlain by internal doubts they don't want even to think about. I find very few things in life I'm absolutely certain of - and surely I accept no dogma so confidently that I would take a life to validate that dogma.
From an early age, once I recognized my lifelong goal was to be a scientist, I accepted the basic tenets of science. Some see those as forming another sort of religious dogma, but there are many reasons why science and religion are very different, in the same way that science differs from mythology. First of all, and perhaps most important for this discussion, is that in science, any argument by authority is completely without validity. You're never asked to believe in something because So-and So said it was that way. It's always possible to dispute anything in science, even the most fundamental principles. If you wish to overturn some existing understanding in science, all you have to do is present your evidence. Of course, changing people's minds is always a challenge, and if it's a thoroughly entrenched part of scientific consensus, it will be necessary to present extraordinarily convincing evidence. But that possibility always remains open. Scientific "dogma" is not holy writ - any and all of is open to doubt and revision, if need be.
And no one has the right to force others to accept their evidence. If you're not convinced by a scientific argument, no one will burn you at the stake or torture you until you deny your own views. Arguments in science are never finalized. but always provisional - there's only the current consensus among scientists (see my essay about how science works). You're allowed to continue to try to convince others, no matter how stubbornly they refuse to accept your ideas. The history of science is replete with stories about how someone had an idea that was initially rejected by most other scientists, but then later came to be embraced by the consensus.
Although most religions prohibit "false witness", it's generally not the case that lying is some sort of monumental, mortal sin. In science, however, falsehoods are complete anathema. Occasionally, egregious examples of faked data arise, often in response to various pressures put on scientists. Whenever they're discovered, the whole scientific community experiences a collective revulsion. Retribution can be massive and careers of those committing such things are typically ended instantly. Lying in any form is totally unacceptable, and being completely open and forthcoming about what you did to obtain your results is mandatory. From the start, this was a characteristic of being a scientist that I found pleasing. This means that you generally can trust most of your colleagues - unless they've demonstrated otherwise. Trust is fragile - it can be lost forever with a single careless deed - but it's widespread among scientists because it simply has to be. It's not that moral behavior in issues of trust is more valued in science than in religion, but it's one of the pillars without which science must collapse, whereas in religion, it's not so high on the sin meter. It's only one of the 10 commandments, and not one considered such a big deal.
Some people rationalize the inherent clash between science and religion by arguing that they're independent of one another - separate worlds ("non-overlapping magisteria") that don't ever intrude on each other's sphere of influence. In this view, science doesn't consider ultimate causes, but rather seeks explanation of observations. Religion, they say, concerns the spiritual and moral world, about which science has nothing to offer. I see things rather differently. Amidst other stuff, scriptures provide supernatural "explanations" for events in the natural world. They convey a world view consistent with the pre-scientific era in which they were written (mostly before the end of the first century of the modern era that is supposed to be marked by the birth of christ - a person whose very existence has no historical basis) that inevitably comes into conflict with science - witness the clashes between evolutionary biology and fundamentalists. If religious dogma doesn't clash with science, the faithful have no need to dispute that science. But the fact is that these worlds do touch each other and clash. In such conflicts, science is characterized as the vanguard of godless atheism and as such is worthy only of condemnation and perhaps even persecution. Compromises, such as proposing for example that god works through evolution, guiding it according to his/her design, simply don't work; science can't accept any supernatural explanations. Religious faith rejects any explanation that conflicts with their holy writ. Thus, a clash is inevitable.
To be a scientist, you might be able to countenance religious faith in your personal life (although I have to admit to being mystified by any scientist who can accommodate the obvious disconnect between science and faith-based religion), but it can have no formal role in your scientific professional life. As a person of faith in some formal religion, you might be able to avoid conflict with some science, but you eventually will have to resolve the contradictions between science and religion in some way if you're going to retain your faith. In a way, I admire fundamentalists, at least in one way: if you really choose to believe in a particular set of dogma, living by your own interpretation of the words in your scriptures is not really much of a commitment to the faith. Was the world created in seven days or did humans evolve from an initially non-living planet over billions of years? You can think of the biblical stories as parables, or allegories, or whatever, but it seems to me that having faith in the dogma written in those scriptures requires you to take them at face value. Anything less is simply rationalization of the contradictions with the evidence-driven world of science. It's called "cherry-picking" - only accept the parts of the dogma that don't conflict with science.
Science can be said to begin when people began to develop myths to explain events in the world. But when mythology gives way to empirical testing of hypotheses, a fork in the road, has been chosen, a Rubicon has been crossed. You can continue to "explain" the world on the basis of some ancient text and its associated dogma, or you can choose to follow the pragmatic and verifiable world of empirical testing of ideas. Ultimately, scientists and believers follow diverging paths. I can tolerate those who choose to believe, but I dislike their patronizing proselytizing and when they become violently intolerant of other belief systems, I really don't want them around at all.
If there's any principle that defines how science differs from religion, it's that science rejects the very notion of a sacred truth. Any scientific hypothesis is open to question and it's not some sort of sin to raise such questions. In fact, science makes progress only when existing scientific ideas are questioned and ultimately replaced by newer hypotheses that fit the observed world more effectively than those they replaced. Faith-based religion, on the other hand, is the exact opposite: sacred truths (as documented in writings considered to be sacred texts) can't be questioned. To do so is forbidden. Both science and religion can be said to be children of philosophy - but religion is Cain to science's Abel. They simply cannot be reconciled. One denies the other - they are destined to clash.
For what it's worth, I don't think Stenger's book (see above) provides scientific "proof" that god doesn't exist. In fact, it seems logically impossible to "prove" the non-existence of god, because the non-existence of such a deity necessarily would leave no evidence of that non-existence. In order to allow for the possibility of evidence for the existence of god, god would have to exist! However, Stenger's book provides considerable evidence that is consistent with the unprovable counter-hypothesis that god does not exist. Proof, in science, is basically not possible - see my essay on how science works. What we scientists do is create an idea (a hypothesis) that explains the evidence we see. Such an idea can't be proven, in the sense of a purely logical syllogism. Under the premise that god doesn't exist, there would naturally be no evidence about a non-existent god. The best we can ever do regarding some hypothesis in science is to show that the evidence is consistent with the hypothesis; the evidence fails to refute it although it would be logically possible for that evidence to do so. If some hypothesis is to be tested, the evidence must be inherently capable of being inconsistent with that hypothesis. If I have a hypothesis about the thermodynamics of gases, my data needs to include temperatures, pressures, and densities - data about some other property of gas (such as its transparency) would be of no value in deciding the validity of thermodynamical statements. For religious faithful, of course, they are specifically charged with the responsibility to accept whatever their scriptures tell them in the complete absence of any evidence - such unquestioning belief is the highest standard of faith, but it's not permissible in science. Stenger's book proceeds from the premise that if there is a deity, then the deity should be detectable via the processes described in the supposedly holy scriptures: answering prayers, working supernatural miracles, etc. There's no evidence for any of that, so it appears logical that absence of any evidence consistent with the premise (i.e., a deity operating according to the sacred documents) is consistent with the hypothesis that such a deity does not exist. Stenger's basic idea is that he wants to discard any rational basis for believing in god, which I believe he accomplishes quite convincingly. If you're bound and determined to believe in god, then admit that it's irrational, and you should abandon any search for rational proofs. But believers continue to try to do so. They want to hijack rationality to validate their irrationality. Unfortunately, they don't really understand rational arguments and when you back them into a corner - bingo! "My lord works in mysterious ways!" It's the universal apologist's rationalization.
The big step forward from pre-scientific philosophy was introduced by the Greeks in the pre-christian era (but, notably, suppressed in the Dark Ages, only to reappear in the Renaissance) - the fork in the road to which I referred earlier - this was the notion that ideas could be tested against the evidence gathered in the natural world, by direct experiment or by observation. But no experiment or observation can be considered definitive in the sense of absolute truth. Hence, we always regard any scientific understanding as provisional, subject to re-examination and revision in the face of substantial new evidence or when superceded by an idea that has more explanatory power. Scientific data can be inconsistent with some idea, thereby casting doubt on its validity, but it can never prove an idea once and for all. Hence, scientific analysis can't ever "prove" the non-existence of god, any more than believers can "prove" god's existence. Any sort of supernatural "explanation" (as in so-called "intelligent design" ideas) in fact offers no explanatory power whatsoever. 'god did it.' is no explanation at all, and so is scientific anathema. The laws of gravity, on the other hand, offer an example of how science strives to explain many observations of the natural world - Newton's ideas of gravity have been replaced by Einstein's but the basic notion of a principle that explains the observations in a predictable, quantitative way is obviously a lot more useful and meaningful than simply shrugging and saying that god wants things to fall. Darwin's principle of natural selection is the basis for powerful evolutionary biology that routinely explains the sorts of observations we see in the world - for example, the development of antibotic-resistant strains of microbial life. In the case of microbes, their time scale is such that we can observe them. For larger, more complex forms of life, the same evolutionary principles apply but simply require longer time scales.
Note that there's no obvious conflict between some parts of science and the "sacred texts" of the major monotheistic religions because those texts were written in an era preceding the flowering of science in the Renaissance. There's relatively little content in those texts that science now addresses. Hence, for example, there'a no "creationist meteorology" because those sacred texts are completely mute about modern meteorological dynamics. It's only when the mythology of the eras in which the so-called sacred texts were written clashes with science that the faithful feel compelled to dispute scientific findings - e.g., astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology, etc. Very few people today, even among the faithful, believe the Sun revolves around the Earth, but at one time, to make such an assertion (as Copernicus did, followed by Galileo, who was arguably the most famous victim of persecution by the church) was considered heresy and forbidden by the catholic church. Such clashes are inevitable and neither science nor religion can compromise their principles: either there are or there are not "sacred truths". But some people who accept the notion that galaxies are billions of light years away can, at the same time, rationalize our ability to see them from a world claimed (by interpreters of the bible) to be only a few thousand years old by stubbornly insisting that god created the stream of photons from these distant galaxies to allow us to see them! This stretches my credibility to the breaking point - such an "explanation" is manifestly absurd. It requires a god working diligently to disguise the truth. What sort of deity would want to do that, and why? Is there some reason to make it impossible to rely on evidence in order to accept an irrational belief? This sort of "argument" simply represents human attempts to rationalize the irrational.
An interesting aspect of the words contained in those scriptures is their ambiguity. All human communication has ambiguity built in. Words can be interpreted in various ways, and subtle shades of meaning are often difficult to distinguish. Even when words remain fixed in time, their meanings inevitably evolve. What did the original authors of these scriptures really mean when they wrote them? Since those authors are no longer available, we can't ask them. We can only understand those words in the context of our times. If those scriptures are indeed the transcriptions of the word of jehovah/allah/god (JAG), then it seems we're going to be unable to get clarifications, short of the "end of days". If they were written by humans under the inspiration of JAG (as opposed to JAG's dictation), then it's at least conceivable that the humans might have screwed up occasionally in their choice of words. Dictaphones and tape recorders weren't around when the scriptures were first written.
Further, there is a potential evolution of the the actual words during the time when they had to be translated by hand from one language to another. It's obvious that some words and phrases translate poorly from one language to another. Can we be certain that the subtle shifts in meaning associated with translation have not crept into the texts as we now have them? I don't see how. Further, even when copying the texts verbatim, transcription errors are likely to have occurred over the ages. What guarantee is there that the words in the copies of the texts we now have are the same as originally written, or as intended by the author(s)? I don't see any.
There are places in all scriptures that can be interpreted as contradicting other passages, and even offering different versions of the same stories. New testament scriptures had to be approved by a committee to be included in the bible - some original texts by disciples of christ weren't included in the "approved" version of the new testament (the biblical canon) because they didn't match with the committee's dogma of the day. Biblical accounts (like nearly all human documents) encompass conflicting versions of the life of christ. How are we to resolve such things? In science, there's a premium on being able to repeat experiments that confirm or deny particular hypotheses. Scientific textbooks aren't holy writ - they state the existing understanding of the author(s) and represent only a sort of "waypoint" along a path that can never end. You can walk that path only if you're willing to challenge existing understanding and propose new ways to see and understand the physical Universe. In religion, conflicts are resolved by human authorities claiming to have the imprimatur of the deity ...
The old saying about the inevitability of death and taxes is at least half right. We observe empirically that all humans die sooner or later. The only exceptions to that are some questionable claims made by some formal religions, and those claims are apparently beyond empirical verification, absent the second coming of christ (often forecast to be imminent, but yet to happen). Once we realize that death is a part of life, we find it hard to imagine the cessation of our consciousness - a world going on without experiencing it through our senses. For most of us, the prospect of death is frightening, in part because our bodies have a will to live, and in part because the experience might be painful. Of course, in some cases, dying is painful and can be associated with extended periods of suffering. Death in such cases might ultimately be a blessing, an end to the agony. But we have powerful inhibitions (and even laws) against suicide or killing someone (euthanasia) to end their ordeal. So it seems we're obligated to drink fully from the death cup, whatever it contains and whether we like it or not. But wait! Religions offer an afterlife. Death is an illusion. I'm immortal after all. The appeal of that is hardly can be denied.
A theme common to almost all the major religions, therefore, is the existence of life after death. They differ about the details, perhaps substantially, but that concept is a key one for the faithful. Somehow, the "soul" will live on without a physical body, at least temporarily. This afterlife is seen generally to be a reward for having faith in the particular dogma of your choice. In some religions, even the unfaithful get an afterlife, but it's a very bad one, consisting of eternal torment in some wholly awful place or being reincarnated in some undesirable way. It seems evident to me that this hope for life after death is at the heart of why we have religions in the first place. It's a way to compensate for the fear of death and so will be a powerful attraction to potential converts. Who cares about this mortal body if my soul will live on in Paradise? No worries for the faithful. It's easy to see how this would be a great comfort. And it would also help relieve the pain when people you know die - we'll meet again in the afterlife, and my loss of friends and family is only for so long as I live as a mortal human being. Sounds like it's too good to be true and so, as the old saying goes, it very likely is too good to be true. Since I haven't been through that "great divide" and come back, I can't say for sure, of course.
My good friend, David Matthews II, offers the following excellent thoughts regarding eternal life (in Heaven or Hell):
The concept of everlasting life (but only after death) was created to give people the fantasy that there was someplace better for good people to go to that would make the suffering worthwhile. Unfortunately, as soon as one talks about such a pleasant place, the discussion turns to "Well, if everything is so much better there than here, why not just kill yourselves and get it over with?" And of course that isn’t good for the religious leader (unless you’re Jim Jones or David Koresh). So they said "Well, if you kill yourself, you’re screwed."
Likewise, the idea of a place of eternal punishment was invented for two reasons:
- Fear. To threaten people to do certain actions so that they wouldn’t face eternal punishment.
- Apathy. It’s easy to excuse the criminal activities of lords and leaders if the masses were reassured that eventually there would be some kind of “cosmic justice” so they wouldn’t try to rise up and enact it themselves.
Some have argued that it's a bad gamble to be an unbeliever, an atheist. If you choose to believe, either you're right and you go on to eternal bliss, or you're wrong and you will suffer the fate of believers and unbelievers alike: when you die, you are gone, forever. It would seem that the optimum strategy is to believe, just in case it's true. You have nothing to lose and only can gain - unless you picked the wrong dogma to believe in -- see above. Then it's off to hades with you, and good riddance. However, I obviously don't see it this way. I just don't like being forced to make a life choice out of fear. This seems rather like being forced to vote a certain way at the point of a gun. This is the sort of "supreme being" I'm supposed to worship and give my life for? Sounds more like some sort of swaggering bully -- my way or the highway: the highway to hell! Richard Dawkins is right about the god of the bible and the koran - he's a psychotic!
An interesting facet of formal religious dogma is the central role that humans play in the Universe. We are JAG's chosen ones, out of all the vastness of the known universe. Somehow, we humans remain at the spiritual center of JAG's Universe -- with time, it's become clear that we've learned we're not at the physical center of the solar system, nor the physical center of the galaxy, nor the physical center of the universe (if it's even possible to define where that might be). Science has demoted us repeatedly in terms of the physical world, and it's not at all clear that if other sentient beings exist beyond the Earth, we are even the "chosen ones" among that grouping. Most modern religions have come to accept this demotion in the physical world - except perhaps for the most fanatical fundamentalists. Thus, what people accept as religious dogma is the result of how the authority figures in that religions choose to interpret the holy scriptures, and that interpretation has evolved with time. Science has revealed that much of the mythology regarding the natural world in these sacred texts is false. No one but fundamentalists believe in these myths anymore. These 'holy scriptures' do not now and never have contained absolute truth!
Of course, it's likely that if we do encounter another sentient life form and we're able to communicate with them, then they probably thought they were the chosen ones by their deity (or deities) before they encountered other life forms. The aliens who make first contact with us might be involved in some sort of interplanetary proselytizing mission, or even an religious Holy War, converting other life forms or destroying them if they refuse (a la The Chronicles of Riddick). Time will tell what we might encounter in terms of another sentient life form. Given our own history, when an advanced culture on Earth has encountered a less advanced culture, our track record of tolerance for their technical ignorance is not very good. If we encounter a life form less advanced than we, perhaps we'd give them the same that we've done in the past. And if the first sentient life form we encounter is more advanced than we, we might well be subjected to a dose of our own medicine. At this point, it's simple speculation - no doubt it will be an adventure for us, either way.
I've written elsewhere (see item #5) about our "dominion" over the Earth. One interpretation of scriptures is that everything on the planet has been given to us by the deity to do with as we please - assuming we've chosen to adhere to the right faith. The only reason that any non-human species exists is to serve us, we being the crowns of the creation. Not all believers accept this belief, however. And it's another place where holy texts and science touch - and clash. If we humans were instantly to disappear, most of the species on Earth would do just fine, and many would begin to prosper after a long decline initiated by our "stewardship" of the Earth. A few species, like domesticated corn (and some dog breeds), would have difficulty because we've caused them to bend to our wills in such a way that they would be hard-pressed to survive to produce more than a handful of generations. For the most part, though, non-human species would get along just fine without us. On the other hand, we are far more dependent on other species than some would have you believe. If insects disappeared, we'd be in deep trouble, for example. Same for some bacteria. The empirical evidence here on Earth seems to offer a different perspective on our role within the Earth's ecosystem. Our species isn't as special as some religions would have you believe.
We also tend to forget that before the current set of major world religions developed - a few thousand years ago, at best - there were other forms of religious worship completely unrelated to the existing set of major religions. By most current dogma, these ancient people were doomed to oblivion at best. They couldn't have believed in the current major religions because they didn't exist at the time. Hence, too bad for them. If we think about those religions at all, it's generally in a patronizing way. Aren't such beliefs quaint? Obviously, they were simply myths that deserve only an academic interest. Of course, I'm confident that at that time, at least some of the people believing in those myths were quite willing to kill unbelievers and to give their lives for the advancement of their religious causes, just as fanatical believers are today. Human sacrifices were definitely on the agenda for many of them, which we see as a particularly dark side to some of these "quaint" belief systems. We think of human sacrifice with some horror perhaps, and see those ancient believers as having been deluded by by those myths. Such myths might well have been invented by the power-wielding members of their societies to keep the citizens cowed and willing to do as they were told. But of course we modern humans would never submit to something like that, right? Our unverifiable beliefs aren't simply myths, right? No one in the existing religious hierarchies ever asks for sacrifices to maintain power, right?
Some of my believer friends have asked me, "What would limit your behavior in the absence of punishment by a vengeful deity?" To them, it seems, the only reason not to run a red light is the threat of being caught by the police and punished for that transgression. As I see it, there are at least two other reasons to not run a red light:
Thus, I don't need the threat of punishment by authority to obey traffic laws. Under some circumstances, I've disobeyed traffic laws, of course. I don't believe that in the process of willful breaking of those laws, I've ever threatened either of my reasons listed above. But of course, if I'd been caught, I'd have been given a ticket, and I couldn't contest the validity of that punishment. In fact, like most of my readers, I have been caught on a few occasions, and I've accepted the consequences.
Morality, in my opinion, has a far deeper source than the threat of punishment. There's even scientific research to back up such claims. For example, zoologists have shown that you can't have an ecology consisting entirely of predators - individuals who take what they want, when they want it, at whatever cost it might involve for others. Even a society with a 50-50 split between predators and prey is impossible. In every society, however, a few predators are simply inevitable. Their cost is not such that that society can't sustain it, overall, and likely is an inevitable component of any society, but it clearly has major impacts on individuals. I choose not be such a predator, but I can understand how it might be attractive to some. If you review, say, the ten commandments, most of them involve either worshipping the wrong deity, or taking something from others - i.e., predation in one way or another. Despite the ten commandments, virtually all humans have violated one or more of them during their lifetimes. Despite that, life seems to go on. As I see it, I don't need the threat of eternal damnation to choose to live a moral life to the best of my ability. If you see your faith in a vengeful JAG as based on the threat of his/her vengeance, then it seems to me that your morality has a pretty shaky basis.
Understanding that human society is built on cooperation, not on predation, is a fairly modern idea, I think. But it's the view I choose to have. Morality works because it's built on something more substantial than punishment by the creator -- it's built on the so-called "golden rule". Treat others as you would ask them to treat you. I doubt that non-sentient creatures have any sense of morality. They don't know right from wrong - they simply do whatever their instincts tell them to do. Those instincts have evolved because that behavior is good for that species. It's not immoral that a lion kills a lamb -- it's simply part of a grand scheme that life has evolved. Much that drives religious belief has its roots in evolutionary survival advantages, such as tribalism. Ecology involves a sort of cooperation, but it doesn't guarantee all beings an equal chance to survive. Some must die that others may live, and predatory pressure works to the betterment of the prey species as a whole, if not for individuals. But humans operate on a different level. We understand the difference between cooperation and predation. A species that preys on itself has some obvious potential survival problems, especially if that becomes widespread. Morality is generally good for individuals, as well as the species on the whole. I believe that if most humans didn't operate on the golden rule most of the time, we simply wouldn't have survived. We don't have the physical attributes to compete with many powerful predator species, but we can think and form societies where we work together for the common good of us all. Cooperation among individuals for the betterment of all isn't uniquely human (think of ants or bees), but it seems to be a pretty successful survival strategy that has nothing to do with the moral commandments of an invisible deity in the sky. Religion has hijacked human evolutionary survival instincts to extend and perpetuate its power over society.
Most of the world's major religions have another common thread: at least one human being who is actually divine, or at least in direct communication with JAG. From dictionary.com, I find the following definition of a cult to be useful:
4. a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.
as well as this somewhat pejorative version:
6. religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.
From the same source, I find the following definition of a religion:
1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs
as well as:
3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices
You can read into these definitions whatever you like, but I'm struck by the basic similarity between these two. In our society, the word "cult" is generally given the negative interpretation above, whereas religions are generally given the positive spin of the first definition I found, above. Given that many religions seem to have their origins in a person considered by his followers (I'm deliberately using the gender-specific pronoun here.) to be divine or at least in direct communication with the divine. Jesus certainly fits this description (not only is christ divine, but he is actually god himself - and the so-called holy spirit, thrown in for good measure), as do Moses, Mohammed, Joseph Smith, and even Buddha. In recent history, we have Jim Jones (People's Temple), David Koresh (Branch Davidians), L. Ron Hubbard (Scientology), Fumihiro Joyu (Aum Supreme Truth), Charles Manson (The Family), Sun Myung Moon (Unification Church), etc. Any set of followers of a faith healer (including Christian Science) can be considered cults. What these cults have in common is the belief that their chosen prophet speaks for their deity - I see no functional distinction among the demagogues who make such claims and produce such followings, including those who originated (or are claimed to have originated) the major monotheistic religions. Incidentally, there's no evidence that a real, historical human being fitting the description in the new testament of jesus christ ever actually existed.
We often become aware of these cults when they commit some horrible act, usually including murder and/or mass suicide. An interesting feature of many cults is that the leaders exploit their followers, usually sexually and almost always economically. Although the mormons presently repudiate polygamy, it was certainly a feature of the early church and a breakaway sect of fundamentalist Mormons continue the practice. Suicide pacts are not particularly helpful for the survival and prosperity of a cult, obviously. Many cults fail to survive the deaths of their founders, though a few have. Some of those are now considered religions ...
It seems to me that there just isn't much of a difference between religions and cults -- religions gain respectability simply through persistence and numbers of converts. They may evolve beyond some of the practices they followed when they were small in numbers (like the mormons) and as the secular societies around them evolve. When they get big enough, then many cults are granted status as "respectable" religions (including tax exempt status in the USA). Given that JAG is not performing daily conversions of water into wine, and that most sane people don't believe that JAG speaks to us in so many words, the faithful are willing to accept virtually everything posited through the words of some prophet or authority figure - i.e., someone who apparently knows just precisely what JAG wants and is eager to pass the Word on to us. This is just as true for religions as it is for cults. Functionally, I just don't see the distinction if you accept the notion that it's impossible to know absolute truth. To me, only the arrogant, the deceptive, the insane, and the foolish can claim to know absolute truth. I would choose not to follow such a person.
It's also interesting to me that we find it "quaint" when we learn that mortal humans are assigned deity status, such as the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. European royalty was not that long ago considered divine in a sort of merger between the secular and the religious. As noted, we currently seem quite dismissive of such notions from the point of view of the present. However, depending on which faith we subscribe to, the faithful seem just as willing to accept the divinity of our chosen religion's human prophet(s). From where I sit, it's hard to tell the difference.
I'm quite willing to accept that formal religions have their redeeming values as well as traits I find worrisome. Their morality often matches mine and good deeds are done by many believers. When not engaging in violence or condemnation of unbelievers, the followers of formal religions have accomplished wonderful things. The fact that some of them engage in hypocrisy or even evil deeds behind closed doors (as in the recently uncovered child molestations by catholic priests) is not a condemnation of those religions, but rather of the individuals and their failings. Human beings are indeed far from perfect and their misdeeds don't necessarily imply that their ideals are somehow to blame for those misdeeds -- although I believe I can argue that religious faith is responsible for many misdeeds (e.g., the crusades, or the modern muslim "jihads"). It's been said by a christian friend of mine that you should never let a hypocrite stand between you and your god. I accept that notion, but my rejection of formal religion is not based solely on the misdeeds and hypocrisy of the so-called believers.
Moderate followers of religious denominations repudiate the excesses of fanatics, of course. However, it recently became clear to me that moderates are simply choosing not to accept some part of the dogma that constitutes the core of their faith -- it's called "cherry picking". That homosexuals are condemned in the bible seems to suggest that killing them is removing a scourge from the world, a good thing. Moderates have chosen not to take that literally, it seems. The same applies to non-believers and infidels, of course. JAG (as documented in the sacred texts of monotheistic religions) encourages the faithful to eliminate such elements without mercy -- men, women, and children. Currently, our secular society in the USA views such murders as hate crimes or crimes against humanity and justifiably so, in my opinion. But moderates choose not to advocate such things and argue that the fanatics willing to commit such atrocities don't represent the true form of their religions. I see believers who fall into the "moderate" wing as being inconsistent with the dogma in which they profess belief during their religious rituals. The documents in which they profess their faith command them to commit such barbaric acts of retribution on those condemned within those sacred texts, no matter what discomfort they might feel personally. Abraham was rewarded for being willing to kill his own son when JAG commanded him to do so. That message seems pretty clear ...
If someone finds comfort in this life by believing, who am I to deny them that comfort? Let them draw from religion whatever they can to help them deal with the problems that life inevitably presents us, including death. But I ask them not to force me to accept and live by their beliefs. I have my own ways of dealing with life and my own way of connecting with "god", as I'll discuss in what follows. I mean no disrespect for them personally if I reject their beliefs. I make no generalizations about them in their beliefs, so I ask that they not pre-judge me because I don't share their faith. Let me live my life unfettered by any obligation to accept their faith and its restrictions on how people should live. Further, moderate believers unwilling to use violent means to force their denomination's dogma on others need to understand that their religious belief is inherently dangerous -- what choice will they make when asked to commit acts of violence by their fellow believers? One need only look to the muslim world of today as embodied in muslim theocracies, and see this belief system operating to force moderate muslims to go along with the fanatics. The very loyalty that profession of faith implies is being used to encourage terrorism to advance the doctrine. If you're not with me, you're against me ...
Clearly, I find all formal faith-based religions to be unacceptable, although some are more egregious than others. Their deities are laced with logical dilemmas, are vengeful, intolerant, sadistic, and apparently suffering from an apparently mystifying lack of self-confidence, requiring my veneration in order that I might sit by their side in heaven. Sorry, that's not a very appealing supreme being -- threatening me with pain and suffering to induce my worship. If there's a creator of the universe as we know it, surely that being would have no more time to worry about me than I would fret over the choices of microbe infesting a flea on the back of an African elephant. It's a huge Universe out there, with complexity we haven't begun to fathom. Surely that being would have some limitations to its power and knowledge, however far beyond my comprehension that power and knowledge might seem to me. Surely such a being would have many more things to worry about than the beliefs of one among billions on one small planet among billions, in one galaxy among billions. To a hypotheical sentient bacterium, a human being would seem pretty powerful -- although vulnerable to bacterial infection! We haven't figured out a way yet to get bacteria to worship us ...
O.K., so where does my spiritualism arise? My church is not some human edifice -- it's the natural world. My connections to the "almighty" are not through ritual and dogma. When I have a "religious experience", it's not mediated by someone ordained to lead me to enlightenment. Its origins come from the natural world and my sense of being a part of it. When I'm alone in the wild (sometimes during a storm chase), there are times when something wonderful happens. Out there alone, I can slow down, become attuned to what's happening in the world, and find myself by losing my "self" -- that's when I feel connected to the infinite. I have no conscious control of this - it just happens from time to time, unpredictably. It seems to me that this arises from a feeling that I'm not a man apart from the world, but a part of it. Robinson Jeffers talks about this in his poetry, inspired by the Big Sur country. John Muir describes it in his lyrical prose about the Sierras. Thoreau wrote about it, in connection with his time at Walden Pond. I sometimes can feel it so deeply that it seems I must burst with it - this feeling of connection to the universe and my love for the connected whole. Such moments come only when I'm alone, and always in a context where I'm caught in the moment and my "self" has disappeared. My spiritualism is evidently rooted in a sort of pantheism , or perhaps transcendentalism. although I feel no desire to be associated with a "movement" - it's a personal thing, not something I feel compelled to "join". I'm already joined to this and need no confirmation from others of like belief. Interestingly, the same loss of "self" can come to me when I'm doing science, or photography, or when hiking and camping. It always happens spontaneously and it is truly transcendental. It can't be codified, it can't be reduced to ritual, and it can't be shared in any conscious way with someone else.
Whatever power is responsible for the Universe certainly would deserve veneration, if not outright worship. I admit the logical possibility that there might be some sort of creator that comes close to the anthropomorphic JAG figure touted by formal religions, although certainly not infinitely wise nor infinitely powerful. Apparently, if such an anthropomorphic creator exists, s/he isn't very intrusive in our daily affairs, perhaps because his/her plate is full with the rest of the universe most of the time. If s/he exists, it would be nice if it got demonstrated in a tangible way once in a while. Why force a person created with curiosity and logic to accept your existence on faith, with tangible miracles performed thousands of years ago to a select group of humans and then no more? I may not understand the mind of JAG, but what we do know about him/her ought to make some sense! Anyone capable of creating a universe ought to make sense.
Obviously, I make no claim to understand the "meaning of Life" or any of the great mysteries that we all humans share. There might be a sort of "plan" but it might not be so anthropomorphic as a set of rules writ by the moving finger of JAG on tablets of stone. Likely it's a complex thing that would tax my human capabilities to grasp. I can accept my limitations, and certainly can imagine a deity so complex that his/her plan would far surpass my understanding. But I think I can expect that the activities guided by that plan should make sense in the way that scientific explanations for what goes on in the natural world make sense!
I resent efforts by religious zealots to impose limitations on what I should say, do, and even think. Since I don't impose my personal beliefs on others, above all I expect that others will afford me the same privilege - the golden rule. What I think is my own damned business, and I don't have to justify it or even explain it to anyone. And I shouldn't be forced to accept "blue laws" imposed on secular society by some political activists among some the faithful (e.g., the southern baptists) on everyone.
I see life to be a great gift, as is the Earth and the universe in which we reside. I don't see that gift as having been bestowed by some deity -- I don't understand where it came from or why it was given to me, but I'm grateful for it, nevertheless. What I see in the world is wonderful and awesome beyond my comprehension. If I can learn something about how the natural world works, so much the better. I don't have to understand it all, though I surely would like to. That would be my main motivation to live forever. I'd love to see it all, somehow, and drink in all of its beauty and wonder. But that's impossible -- so I do the best I can with the gifts I've been given. I'd be overtly grateful to the creator if I thought s/he/it was listening -- I try to let the way I run my life reflect that gratitude, even if there's no one expecting to be the recipient of that gratitude.
I want to live a moral life and do what I can to make the world a better place for all of us -- not because of the threat of eternal damnation, not because of the possibility of being rewarded in an afterlife, but simply because it makes me feel good to do so. And I have the sense that it somehow is the right thing to do, independent of any set of religious rules.