Monday, January 19, 2009

Some Skeptical Reflections on Religious Belief…Part 1

Based on personal associations and numerous conversations with religious, church-going people, over the course of my 65 years of life, it seems to me that relatively few of them believe their religion to be actually true. The tendency is to believe it useful, either as way to make one feel secure, or often as a belief that the social ethics demand some measure of lip service to a superhuman, moral code-giving being. Maybe a strong element of hope, usually for a continued existence after death, enters in. I say this at some risk of stating what many skeptics might regard as obviously true. However, let us recognize, right off, that a given religion is either true or false. We cannot, of course, know by the methods of scientific inquiry whether they are true…if one of them is in fact true, I suppose we may find out “later” (upon death).
I’ll lay my cards on the table here, and say that my strong suspicion is that they are all, in essence, false. There might be elements of truth to some or even all of them, but I am speaking here of taking any particular one of them as a whole.
I am an American, born and raised in what might be called “Christian bible belt” regions of the US, so I will also confess to having a limited perspective on all of this. I have had very limited direct social exposure to people of the Islamic persuasion, and here have to rely on what I have read. I have had slightly more exposure to those of the Judaic faith, but considerably more to those within the various Christian sects. Indeed, as a child, I was raised Presbyterian, but rather quickly, in my formative years of college, rejected it all as being largely delusional.
I have no quarrel with those who believe their religion to be true. I will refer to these as “Type 1”, or simply T1, believers, while the ones basing their association on tradition and/or usefulness, I will call “Type 2” (T2) believers. My guess is that T1’s are not the ones committing the atrocities, terror, and wars (recently so thoroughly illuminated and expounded upon by such writers of an atheistic persuasion such as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins).
An important element in the faith of many people is the ethnic or family tradition associated with their particular religion. We can scarcely doubt this, can we?---just look at the world. Is it a coincidence that those raised in Christian countries are Christian, etc etc? This group-tribe-family-clan association with a particular belief, a given tradition that one is born into, has surely been a predominant factor throughout all of human and perhaps pre-human history.
It is easy to regard those of a different tradition are somehow strange, bizarre, odd, less good and wholesome than those of ones own tribal belief. Compounding this is the fact that often the religions are associated with groups of humans having recognizably different anatomical features, making it easier to view each other as less intrinsically important, or worthy of being allowed to live in peace. We humans have a very strong inclination to be “group-ish”, a phenomena well investigated by Matt Ridley in his book “The Origins of Human Virtue”, and this groupishness has bad consequences in more global contexts.
Does a T1 really want to kill or injure someone who believes a different religion? I very much doubt it. It is the T2’s, driven mainly by group identity and an atavistic hatred for groups that are recognizably “other”, that gravitate toward violence.
One very strong hint that, in the US at least, Christian T1’s are rare is that death seems to be widely lamented as tragic. Yet Christianity seems to promise, for the “good” believers at least, a blissful post-death existence. Do people grieve because they fear their lost loved one has gone to Hell? I doubt it, though maybe this is occasionally the case. Rather, I imagine, they really hold a deep-down fear that the departed loved one has ceased to exist. In effect, they are “T2’s”.
We often see books of a Christian persuasion asking “Why do bad things [e.g., death from cancer or accident] happen to good [usually read “Christian”] people”. But, come on---if death is a release from this “vale of tears” and fallen world, as they seem to maintain that it is----would they not rejoice at the “good people” being “rescued” from it? The simple explanation for this excessive lamenting—and I of course do not blame them from my point of view, since I think it quite possible that death is non-existence---is that they do not really believe, with their whole hearts, the eschatological teachings of their religion. Yep---T2’s!
Now to be fair, I recall that a Christian philosopher—it may have been Scott Peck---said that he “believed” Christianity [and Heaven] to be true, but did not “know” it to be true. An interesting, and perhaps valid, distinction. We could digress here, and consider what “belief” means, and what “knowing” means, but I shall postpone it.
I also want to draw a sharp distinction between belief in any of the world’s religions, and a suspicion that “there is something behind the universe”. Indeed, the old question “Why is there something rather than nothing” seems to me to be at least a justified emotion, albeit a question that we cannot answer by methods of science (or any other method that I can think of). It does not follow that it is a meaningless question, but I realize I need more space to establish this, and will also postpone that for now. My guess is that there is “something”, but whatever it is as far beyond our comprehension as general relativity is beyond a dog or cat. Is there any kind of continued, post death, existence?---I do not know. Do I hope there is? I am really not sure of that, especially since I cannot really imagine what form that might take. And as Woody Allen has the fantastically advanced alien say, in hurriedly departing in his spacecraft, “we may be asking the wrong questions”, but we may not be able to even comprehend what questions we should be asking.
This is “to be continued” in a later post.

No comments: