I do not have a religion. Nor am I likely to be "converted" or persuaded to subscribe to one in this lifetime. Neither do I consider myself to be an atheist or an agnostic. I don't have a label.
On this page, I will share my thoughts about religion, its uses and misuses. I will not mention any specific religion by name and I have no intention of singling out any particular group of people for criticism. In what follows, if you do follow a particular religion, you may recognise aspects of it from time to time. It's a case of "if the cap fits..." but I trust that you will not take offence, since none is intended. You are here reading this as a member of the human race, and that is the spirit in which I am writing it.
I'm not here to make anyone wrong. What I may do is what someone I had never met before said to me last week. "Oh I've heard about you! You're the one who makes people think!" Well fair enough, that's probably a fairly accurate description, except that I don't make people think, I just encourage them to.
This is an honest inquiry into how we can know what is real and what insights religions can offer us, if any. It is also an opportunity to ask ourselves what purpose religions can usefully serve in this quest for truth, and where they sometimes go wrong in their attempt to be helpful.
Topics I will consider are:
What's good about religion?
What aspects of religion are disturbing?
How might religions lose their way?
What's left to believe in?
What's good about religion?
From my own experience, I have found most of the people who profess to have a religion to be peace-loving, kind and concerned with living a moral life. I find this very commendable and I realise that, though they sometimes fall short of their good intentions, by and large, the majority are fine, upstanding people, many of whom do considerable charitable work in the name of whatever concept of an over-arching deity they may follow.
Furthermore, there is often wisdom to be gleaned from the original teachings of their founders, whose messages seem uncannily similar when stripped of all the later embellishments and distortions.
What aspects of religion are disturbing?
I am concerned and perplexed by religious groups which:
1. encourage superstition and fantasy and prevent their adherents from engaging effectively with reality. For example, a group of ladies said to me that, according to their religion, a woman who has just given birth should not walk past a cemetery in case an evil spirit from the grave jumps into her empty tummy. Even in the UK, during my lifetime, (married) women I know would go to their religious leader after the birth of their child to be forgiven for the act that led to it's conception, having previously been told that marriage is for the procreation of children;
2. allow or encourage people to commit atrocities such as genocide or terrorist acts in the name of their religion;
3. allow the religious beliefs of their followers to be used to manipulate them for political reasons;
4. condone or protect paedophiles and child abusers;
5. condone or demand the subjugation and abuse of women or children;
6. consider any child born into their religion to be a member of that religion for life, with no possibility of free and conscious choice in the matter;
7. consider all rules imposed by their founders centuries ago, which may have been helpful at that time, to be equally appropriate today, irrespective of any evidence to the contrary;
8. take metaphorical stories to be literally true, however fantastic these may be and whatever scientific evidence exists to refute them;
9. are so afraid that their followers will stop believing in these fantasies that they ban the teaching of science in their schools and even make up alternative versions of evolutionary history to replace established scientific facts;
10. deny children access to medical treatment in favour of "faith healing", even when this may result in excessive suffering or death;
11. control large numbers of people with promises of eternal rewards and threats of eternal punishment.
Various surveys indicate that a substantial percentage of the global population subscribe to a religion and many turn a blind eye to at least one and sometimes several of the above aspects of that religion. How many of these, if any, would you tolerate and why? At what point would you/did you begin to ask questions?
I have spoken with religious leaders who themselves are asking these questions. They describe themselves as confused and adrift and yet they continue to attempt to guide their followers in spiritual matters.
How religions may lose their way
Major World religions got started in different ways, but here's a common pattern:
A wise person asks lots of questions and gains some kind of insight into life and how the world works.
The wise person shares these insights with others and teaches them practical skills to help them to gain their own insight but warns them: "Don't worship me."
The wise person dies and the students become teachers,
worship the (deceased) wise person,
and try to pass the message on.
They sometimes make mistakes in their interpretation.
They sometimes add bits of their own to impress the crowd.
Ceremonies and rituals assume great significance while useful practical skills are forgotten.
Like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy...
the original message gets distorted, more complicated and less clear
and some of the original skills are lost or neglected, so...
THE BOOK is written
Lots of people become involved in writing or re-writing the book.
Bits may be hidden and reserved for favourites.
Bits may be added to include cultural, social or political agendas or personal prejudices (such as the inferiority of women).
Bits may be deliberately left out or changed.
Some content might be disguised as metaphor as either a teaching aid or to
prevent censorship or persecution of the authors.
The book becomes LAW
Threats of punishment and rewards for good behaviour are added.
The followers become a cult, protected from outside ideas and everyone not a believer is a sinner or somehow less than human.
The followers sometimes fight among themselves about who has the right to pass on the message, who has the best interpretation of the teaching, or who is the nearest kin to the wise person.
Sub-groups and sects form and different factions hate each other as much as they hate non-believers, while often still professing that love, values and family are important aspects of their faith.
Moderate believers retain some objectivity, live and let live and try to exist in harmony with the rest of mankind, believing peace and common humanity to be more important than the letter of the law. They see stories as metaphors, remain open to scientific enquiry and never cease to ask questions.
Extreme believers take every word of the book literally,
ignore or condemn scientific evidence,
do whatever is asked of them by their leaders
and use sections of the book, often out of context, to justify what they do;
even acts of violence.
Some moderates start to see what went wrong,
Some decide to turn their backs on religion altogether in favour of a secular approach to life.
Some start to see the common threads among the world's religions and the kernel of truth behind them.
One perhaps has a profound insight and shares it with others........
and off we go again
What's left to believe in?
Plenty. That's why this website is here. And a lot of it depends on what you choose to believe and whether or not this is helpful.
Some people have said to me: But how can I choose what to believe? My beliefs are just there and I'm stuck with them." I would answer: "Well what did you believe before that? Where did your present beliefs come from? Which ones arose from your own direct experience and which ones arose from buying into what someone else told you?"
Other people have then asked me: "But if nobody told me what to believe, how would I know what to think?" I would answer that with: "Who can you think of who knows everything and can be relied upon to know what you should believe or think better than you know yourself?"
If you instantly envisage such a person, are they wearing:
a white coat?
a ceremonial robe?
or do they:
own a string of businesses?
live in a big house and drive flashy cars?
or do they:
have degrees and diplomas?
appear often on TV?
or have they written a book?
Whatever their credentials, what was it about them that convinced you to allow them greater authority over the contents of your mind than that to which you yourself feel currently entitled?
Some of us have no particular person in mind but have a fairly fuzzy idea that they should, must or ought to do this or that (a habit dubbed "musterbation" by cognitive psychologists) because "they say this", or "they say that".
Which brings us to one of life's greatest mysteries:
WHO THE HECK ARE "THEY"?
Are they our parents? our relatives? our teachers? scientists? newsreaders on the BBC? religious leaders? celebrities? internet bloggers? someone you met on the bus?
Are all of them still alive?
I know an eighty year old woman who is unhappy because she still lives her life according to the rules imposed by her great-grandmother-in-law (who passed away more than forty years ago) and is lonely but has for many years refused to go anywhere to make new friends because her late husband always said friends could not be trusted and would always let you down. At least she knows who's views of reality she bought into. When it's just the vague, unspecified and all-powerful "THEY" it's harder for us to challenge their influence upon us.
Do we need other people to tell us what is right and wrong, how to think and how to live live our lives?
Is it inconceivable that, left to our own devices, we would not all turn out to be mindless idiots with no moral conscience? OK, fair enough, some of us might, but is it possible that some of us, perhaps a majority, might draw our own conclusions as we matured and recognised the effects of our words and actions on others and so develop a sense of ethics and altruism without being threatened with dire punishments or enticed by rewards?
This is a very interesting question. It actually raises the further question of whether civilized society could have come as far as it has without religions.
If a particular person is by nature a villain, intent on mischief of some sort, what would be a better deterrent: fear of being locked away for a few years, fear of the death penalty, or the threat of eternal damnation and horrific suffering?
And while carrying out said villainous activity, would the knowledge that their misdeed may be found out by enforcers of the current legal system be as off-putting as the knowledge that an unseen, almighty being is watching their every move night and day, wherever they are, and keeping a tab that will eventually result in eternal payback time when they die? (or, perhaps worse still, the withdrawal of some promised reward they are desperately craving?)
Hmmm. Interesting thought isn't it? Maybe we do have some reason to thank religions for all the fire and brimstone stuff over the years, but my question would then be: have we not evolved sufficiently by now not to need these psychological controls? And in any case, how can we trust those who claim to have the ear of the boss upstairs regarding such matters not to mislead us on what is and is not acceptable? What about times when the aforementioned villainous activities are actually being perpetrated in response to an offered reward of eternal paradise, promised by an even dodgier character in a position of authority who gets lowlier villains to do the dirty work?
Of course, we are all so civilised now that we would never allow ourselves to be misled and manipulated in this way, would we?
Well...if we are to believe what we see on the news, it appears that many of us do. And many of us appear to be natural villains without the need to be manipulated by anyone. How is that possible? Don't villains have a conscience? If not, do they actually need the "threats of hell and hopes of paradise" thing to keep them in line so they don't endanger the rest of society or have us use up most of the national budget building prisons? Apparently, there are some societies in which prisons are not needed because there is no crime; is this because they are so much more advanced than other cultures or is it because they are too afraid that they are being watched by a judgmental deity or spirits to think about doing anything unpleasant to others?
Is it also possible that there are very few "natural villains" among us and most criminal activity is a result of financial hardship, difficult circumstances or the influence of unhelpful company? In which case, would it be more useful to sort out our social system more effectively rather than attempt to control people's behaviour by threats, punishment and locking them away?
Let's give mankind the benefit of the doubt and just assume for the moment that most people are basically good. And lets assume that most are capable of rational thought and able to see superstition and manipulation for what they are and not allow themselves to become caught up in it. Then what?
If we don't know who to believe, then what do we believe? How can we know what is true and what isn't? And what kind of beliefs can empower us to be happy and live our lives without harming others, yet don't oblige us to accept a whole load of ad-ons that fly in the face of basic common sense, let alone scientific evidence?
The debate continues.....
If you find this kind of stuff as fascinating as I do, there are one or two books on the reading list that you might enjoy.
You might also be interested to hear that recent research suggests that we switch off our powers of scepticism and vigilance when we come under the influence of charismatic people such as healers (New Scientist 2011). This may account for why some of us are so willing to override logic and believe what we are told to believe, whether sense or nonsense.
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