Daily Archives: November 2, 2008

Other sources of belief

Until now written sources of religious belief have been mentioned, but there are other sources that are of less traditional nature. Scriptures have some scientific basis, as some of them have been proved true either in content or thanks to archeological findings, which is one of the reasons why religious scriptures haven’t completely lost their authority over the leading groups of society. The other reason is the fact that their information can be openly shared by everybody. It is still considered acceptable to involve the clergy in social events like weddings and in many countries people may even in court or parliament pledge their allegiance on an important religious book or in God’s name.

Other phenomena, however, usually cannot be shared by more than one person or group and appear only once. Yet unusual events that apparently contradict the laws of nature, have great impact on people. Some of them, for instance baby Jesus talking to the people from the crib, have been written down in religious scriptures (in this case the Bible) and have been used as an example to people of how God may defy the laws of nature to show His power, or His mere existence. Other phenomena like God’s name written on fish, corn circles, crying Madonna’s and Hindu Ganesh-statues drinking milk, are recorded by the media and cause quite a stir among believers – and skeptics. The first obvious question is: is this true or a setup? The second question may be: what is their message and who sent it? Is it God’s way to manifest Himself to man, is it something else? These are fascinating phenomena, yet we shouldn’t call them divine revelations as their origin is unknown. Believers can call those phenomena that have been written down in their scripture a phenomenon of divine origin meant to be a sign to mankind. Therefore… a divine revelation. Where provability is another issue.

These mysterious events and phenomena have a non-religious aspect too. Some people possess qualities like clairvoyance and sometimes even detectives of police use their services. This is however a danger area, as many people have commercially exploited their ‘gift’ when there was none, especially the medical care sector seems prone to people who use obscure tactics instead of scientifically acknowledged methods. For this reason several religions, Islam for instance, have forbidden the use of magicians, so does the law in many countries in most, necessarily protected, fields of interest, however, religion and society don’t deny the existence of ‘supernatural’ phenomena either. There is a big difference between a magician or a quack on the one hand and supernatural phenomena on the other, but since we usually can’t prove their difference when we need it, only in retrospect, prudence is the best way to deal with the subject.

The most important source of belief other than the scripture and supernatural events, however, is life itself. Our planet with all its inhabitants, the earth, water, sky and not to forget the other celestial bodies. Believers see nature and its delicate system as enough proof of God’s existence. Only a careful and highly skilled planner and creator could produce such an immense system as nature and universe. The miracle of birth and the fact that each human being is made within the same complicated structure that we still don’t fully comprehend, is proof of God’s existence and power, they say. This is an abominable concept in non-believers’ eyes. Nature is a power in itself of which we will finally gain full academic knowledge and then we shall see that all those gods and scriptures were inventions of politicians. The idea that one of the many scriptures might be more truthful than others, is not very tempting to non-believers. To many people, also some who belief in God, religious scriptures are nothing but man made legal and political works. Religious scriptures are a necessary prerequisite to proper belief to some and to others they are a mere jammer. Indeed the wonders of nature are enough inspiration to some to believe in a divine creator.

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Difference in beliefs as a source of conflict and open question

Once we spend some thought upon belief, we inevitably meet the issue of plurality in religion. Is the origin of a new religion or religious school of thought the work of a man or thinker, or is it a new divine revelation? This question is both the most essential and unanswerable. However, the consequences of new religious ideas are considerable and it is up to all of us to lead them into desirable directions. It is tempting to accuse a religious innovator of self-invented holiness, for what proof can he offer. And can we offer, for that matter! Tolerance towards difference in religion and religious innovation has differed through history as religion as a factor of truth and order in society differed. Had religion a limited role, tolerance of dissidence increased, or so it appeared. Sometimes the ruling class was tolerant and had to put up with a minority that claimed to hold the final truth. For instance, in the Roman era the conquered peoples were allowed to leave an image of their god or gods in the Pantheon, together with the other gods among whom the Roman gods. The just emerging Christians refused this, because their main concept was that of one unique god next to whom no room is allowed for other gods. This apparently threatening attitude ended Roman tolerance towards Christians. Even today we witness persecution and oppression of minorities, sometimes even the majority of a people, by the dominant religious group.

Why does it exist: intolerance towards dissident thinkers and believers?
Change of religion is always accompanied by guilt feeling in both the person who changes religion and the people around him or her. There is fear for divine sanctions when a person leaves the truth and painful self-criticism of those around him. And what is truth when we have no absolute knowledge of it. Leaving the faith is therefore a painful process, also for the bystanders who fear for the dissident’s well-being and future. A change into the other direction, from free or atheist thinking into strict religion, is considered no less a threat to the modern freethinking bystanders than an individual leaving strict religion in a strict religious society. Apart from that, no one appreciates rejection of cherished truths. Guilt feeling, fear for unknown sanctions and hurt pride are as much causing religious intolerance as hunger for power. These fears are also the reason for religious communities living separated from each other. Most of all, the individual’s transfer to the other community is sometimes felt as an extra threat and therefore it is surrounded by heavy prohibitions and barriers.  As soon as people perceive that their opinions have not been proved to be necessarily and obviously superior over other people’s, tolerance towards others is likely to increase, unless those others persist in defensiveness. The pure fear of the other’s possible intolerance and greed for conquest in itself leads to intolerance and defensiveness. Another way towards more tolerance is fatigue of intolerance and the violence it leads to, or the lapse of time. Tolerance comes from within ourselves, however, we depend on others to make it. Often people scream before even having been hit when we all should remember that we make tolerance and freedom ourselves by our willingness to listen and negotiate with others. It takes trust not to immediately assume an aggressive propagandist agenda in the other when they open their mouth about their religious and other beliefs. This is a difficult yet compulsory task, if peaceful and pleasant cohabitation is what we want.

It should be noted that there is a big difference between ‘enlightened’ and ‘tolerant’ belief. ‘Strict’ beliefs can be tolerant when the believer enforces them on him- or herself only. Enforcing a view is not the same as propagating and stimulating others to follow it. As soon as enlightened views are forced upon societies through the law and it’s inhabitants disagree, one may wonder if they loose their enlightening force. The most tolerant philosophies have been forced on people through canon’s barrels and concentration camps. There is no natural connection between strictness and (in)tolerance.

We also should note that ties of family and friendship are not confined to nationality, language or faith. People marry and make friends across the borders. This urges to lessons in trust and tolerance.

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Divine sanctioning versus atheism

The other  topic atheism wants to abolish, is divine sanctioning. Believers cannot imagine that nothing comes after death. Every religion promises some form of life after death, either in a new world or within the universe we know. Sanctioning good or bad behavior and intentions during life by the divine power or judge is seen as an essential settlement. The aim of life and its meaning is improvement of position in the hereafter within the frame of a divine plan. Atheists as rejectors of a divine plan and judgement, see this as an invention of power-politicians to legitimize their position. Man’s striving for power and rankings is in their view a biological selection mechanism from which the strongest specimens triumph and survive in the end. However, exercising power for power itself is another important motive for exercising religious dominance over others, according to many. Godly sanctions are as much a human invention as God himself, even when the intentions were decent. In the non-religious view, religion in the best sense of the word is a regulating and civilizing institution meant to avoid chaos in a society that gives little room to empirical and technological knowledge gain.

The main item that non-religious people campaign against, is legal sanctioning of behavior displayed by the living on the basis of religious scriptures and ideas. How can a human-invented authority impose limitations and penalties on living people? The usefulness of the sanctions is not the issue here.

For believers, however, divine sanctioning has a more complex and differentiated meaning, as determined by their creed. Sanctioning in the hereafter means in most religions final settlement of injustice or negligence in the present life. ‘Now’ people may get away with misdemeanor, ‘then’ they have to face it and ‘now’ the good ones aren’t always properly rewarded for their good actions. Some religions consider divinely inspired punishment as a purification before the hereafter.

A special and complex place is reserved for divine sanctioning in the present life. The religions give their own answers to events like natural disaster, illness, death at young or quite old age, but also to difference in wealth, intellect, race, or species. Is underdevelopment or the opposite, high development, a punishment, a reward or a test for man? We can ask ourselves these same questions for dumbness, red hair or for achievements that are highly valued or, on the contrary, considered highly destructive. Can we say that wealth and intellect are a divine reward, proof that He has better intentions for the person blessed with them than for the disabled sick inhabitant of a slum? Or, for that matter, the other way round? To what extend can we see living conditions, events and our natural abilities as God’s work? A believer answers according the scriptures he or she adheres to, but also according own philosophy. The vicissitudes of destiny cause the differences between people, which is sometimes seen in a negative way and sometimes as a task to assume responsibility for each other as a community. Where non-believers reject any divine role in events, believers have according their creed their specific answers to this question: is God good, does God want good for mankind? The answer is not uniform, however, we see in every religion a connection between God’s judgement and man’s reaction to good or bad luck, as well as specific recommendations or tasks on how a believer should react to good or bad luck. Good and bad luck are part of the ‘examination paper’ for man.

When high emphasis is put on divine sanctioning, religion poses high demands on the faithful. We may call a faith ‘strict’ when it strives for justice. It introduces aims and rules for behavior and intentions, with appropriate sanctions. The less second chances are possible, the more important becomes obedience to the rules. Islam acknowledges only one chance: this life. It will be judged and we hear whether we go to paradise or hell. Hinduism acknowledges reincarnation in which the next life offers a new chance for improvement. The most ‘enlightened’ forms of religion, which we can find among several Protestant churches, do not acknowledge any negative sanctioning in the hereafter. Such enlightened faith doesn’t strive for bringing law and order, nor does it pose demands on society and politics and it doesn’t ‘need’ a forceful reigning god. The influence of religion on society should be limited, according such free faith, and faith is a binding emotional value rather than a source of guidance. There is an interesting aspect to enlightened faith: why have negative sanctions been abolished and on who’s authority? Such religion has been made ‘nice’ and easy, yet one may wonder whether the adherents really want to drive out the darkness for another reason: fear. The big snowman doesn’t exist when we close the curtains. Does it work or is it arbitrary one-sidedness? It is impossible to dogmatize about it, since we can’t see what’s in store for us.

Some religions see a connection between social and economic position and divine sanctioning. Hinduism has a clear and simple view: those who did well in the previous life, now enjoy a high position in society. Those who didn’t, may now have returned as animals or low ranking people. Some Protestant schools of thought believe that good or bad behavior has no influence on our fate in the hereafter, they think that our behavior and fate in the hereafter are determined before birth. Islam abstains from a moral judgement on social-economic position and good or bad luck. It emphasizes the way the faithful handle these events and living conditions. A believer is always grateful and loving; punishment can also imply purification before the afterlife.

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Disbelief another form of belief or a creative expression of independence?

In the modern era we have seen people at a large scale loose belief in a god and holy scripture. Especially in Europe and other countries of the west. However, scriptures like the Bible and Qur’an mention disbelief in God and there are historic accounts about atheists during the Caliphate of ‘Ali, son in law of the prophet Mohammed (pbuh). Every Biblical prophet had to cope with non-believers, this fact being the reason behind their mission: trying to familiarize their people with God. So non-belief in God is not new, though nowadays it is (or seems) more widespread.

The reasons for disbelief are not only disbelief in a deity altogether and disbelief in scriptures that proved to be incompatible with scientific knowledge, there is also a strong disbelief in the role of the clergy and a sense of disappointment in God as a source of goodness. The second reason, the influence of science, is in the west a relatively modern phenomenon. However, the first cracks in the Church’s infallibility appeared during Renaissance, perhaps the most famous being Galilee’s theory of the earth being round in stead of flat. The other three reasons for disbelief are more universal and exist in probably any culture and historical period. Not every person is interested in a truth that cannot be proved, but why is this the case? Why does one person accept God and does the other reject Him? And why do some people accept God in spite of natural disaster like early death or tsunamis or human corruption in His most prominent servants and do these phenomena scare others away from God? It seems impossible to solve and the issue makes clear that belief is a matter of personal perception. Believers see their own existence and perception as sufficient proof for the truth of their beliefs, something which non-believers cannot accept. Rejection of the metaphysical world, however, cannot be proved to be solid judgement either. There is no proof that a metaphysical world doesn’t exist. There is nothing wrong with rejecting holy scriptures that proved to be untruthful nor with rejecting a corrupt religious organization of society, but that is of quite a different order than metaphysics. The scientific approach has many merits, but it is a limited one. It does not answer the questions, nor does it display the places that are beyond our shared observation.

So disbelief in a deity basically is another form of belief, no matter how sophisticated it may be worded. The question that follows, is: what is wrong with disbelief being another form of belief? Belief in a deity is a subjective, perceptive approach to life, but so is atheism. Belief stops and knowledge begins as soon as a phenomenon has been empirically observed and displayed to others. This is not (some say: not yet) the case with the metaphysical world of God. Belief has become the sore tooth in not only the west; it is blamed for oppression of the free will and for hindering scientific, economic and political development. There is some truth to that, as we have seen religious clergy in oppressive roles, but do the people really find more freedom in non-religious systems? The first thing we should acknowledge is that we know many secular systems, but very few non-religious, atheistic systems. Communism is an atheistic political system, but apart from communism, there aren’t many. Most other countries allow a role for religious political parties in their political landscape and even in their legislation. Almost every country acknowledges national religious holidays, to name something. We could go a step further: creating a formal atheistic state is incompatible with our nowadays most appreciated form of government namely the secular state. It implies that atheism is the state doctrine and favors atheism over belief in God. What can we say in defense of the atheistic state as a liberal and equitable system? We can defend such a choice once atheism has been proved to be the truth beyond any doubt.

Contrary to what many think, disbelief in God is not a new phenomenon. The Biblical and Qur’anic scriptures give us many definitions and descriptions of disbelief in God. The Qur’an also accentuates that nonbelievers see their rejection of God as some form of modernity. What is modern about disbelief in a god? Religious scriptures are old, perhaps they are the oldest we possess. It appears that the first religious revelation came with the first man and that the first man raised us to be religious people. The unprovability of God’s existence, of which the Bible even makes a formal statement since Babel Tower, makes it likely that also in early days people came to doubt His existence. However belief in God seems to have preceded rejection, hence the modern aspect of disbelief. This brings us to a second question: what is more difficult: to believe or disbelieve in a god? Is disbelief reinventing the wheel or is it an expression of creativity, sophistication and independence?

If we want to answer whether disbelief in God is just another form of belief or a creative and modernizing force, we should think about the aim of divine revelation.

Divine revelation in the first place intends to introduce the deity to man. Who is He (or they, or She), what is His plan for His creation, what is man’s place in it, what future has He in store for both individual people and man as an entity (or entities).

Secondly every revelation gives more or less detailed rules for how people should live together and how they may or should communicate with the deity. If God is approached the right way, following established protocol, a relationship between God and man will develop. Rules for cohabitation of people with each other and with other creatures are important components of the ritual worship of God. Religious rules are to be applied for the whole life span and therefore they demand discipline. We may classify discipline a difficult aspect of belief. One of atheists’ main criticism against religion is its dislike of obedience to God and religious verdicts. It is seen as something not belonging to the naturally curious human mind to believe in an invisible abstraction and therefore part of an oppressive tradition. The idea of obeisance to an abstract non-empirical concept, God, is unacceptable to atheists, especially since there are more than one of these abstract concepts, religions. Only concrete absolute truths should be enforced on society, hence the modern preference for a secular system, a preference now also existing among many believers,. The idea of not formally enforcing abstract concepts is not a prerogative for atheists.

On the other hand, not only atheists consider religious belief a less committal approach to life. It seems easier to believe in something of which absolute knowledge is absent than having to prove it and therefore we can afford some freedom in our actions. Knowledge demands precision whereas faith doesn’t. We don’t absolutely know if God exists so how much do we need to worry about God’s judgement and don’t absolutely know the sanction to disbelief. Plus we do not absolutely know to what extend God ‘needs’ our commitment and obedience. Is God Himself-enough or does He really need our love and prayers? Is our life, our future in God’s power? Will God grant our wishes for the hereafter as we can’t reach Him directly? The naturally easygoing commitment of religious belief gives great joy and space to the believer, which is the easy aspect of belief. Belief invites creative people to express, visualize, their beliefs and this visualization makes it possible to share beliefs with others. This challenge has inspired people through the ages to great works of art, however, also the creative process not only needs discipline, the believing artist inevitably stumbles on the impossibility to observe the deity, the soul, the consciousness, emotion, mental processes and the metaphysical world. Yet faith is a source of creativity and this creativity is perhaps the most attractive aspect of faith.

Non-absolute commitment to the faith, however, also explains the phenomenon of the corrupt and oppressive clergyman who does not live by his own religious rules, even he does not really seem to fear. Persistent faithfulness seems to be difficult, even for the clergy, even though the clergyman as much as anybody else has his own personal integrity and discipline, or lack of it, all depending on the individual, when surrendering to invisible values. This commitment to the principles of an abstract concept and the discipline and integrity it demands, is the difficult aspect of faith. Therefore it is not as self-evident as it seems: religious belief as the lazy alternative to independent thinking.

Obedience to God, scripture and religious clergy seems a non-creative, easy way out of the exercise of forming oneself a life philosophy by free thinking and research. This is why atheists see believers as uncreative credulous people. Those who believe can rely on the comfortable guidance of an expert organization. The believer has, in the view of the non-believer, an easy life where every question about every aspect of life is promptly answered by scriptures and their highly schooled authoritative commentators. Creativity, independent thinking, acquiring knowledge and, perhaps most of all, self determination are off-limits to believers, unnecessary also, in the atheist view. Indeed this makes non-belief in a god a difficult choice: for what should come in place of a religiously inspired society and life philosophy? Can we really by our own force invent a system of values and rules, let alone make it consistent? A believer will answer to this question: everything we think and act, our entire being, is under divine guidance, even when the deity grants us freedom. Therefore man cannot act independently, or at most within restricted fields where the deity allows it. The non-believer says: man emerged from natural processes where no god was ever involved. Man must on his own force build a just society and not hide himself behind self-invented non-empirical philosophies which are no more than organizational simplification instruments and are harmful to detergent philosophies and most of all, to the truth. In the non-religious view truth is no more than empirical observation, everything else is mere opinion, ‘every person’s own truth’, or the unknown yet to be discovered. Non-believers are especially proud of how scientific achievement could improve comfort for man and all this apparently against the sayings of the religious scriptures. Indeed technological and medical knowledge could enervate parts of the religious scriptures and also traditionally low ranking people could emancipate from religious taboos that proved to be incompatible with reality. Therefore much seems to plea in favor of the non-religious outlook, however still no answer comes to the question why so many topics in religious scriptures are dealt with adequately, as shown by archeological findings, nor to the main question that science cannot answer: what does the secret room behind the blind door look like. So it is not necessarily true that religious belief offers more ease and security than atheism. Too much emphasis is also laid on the social aspect of religion and too often people forget the most important personal choice that believers must make every time again. The choice for a religion is a choice for an abstract metaphysical world, not for a group culture, even though that may be a natural choice, especially when we choose for our family’s tradition.

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Written revelation as main source of religious belief

The relation of the human mind with the supernatural, metaphysical area, is an unknown field to us. We have not been able to observe God and therefore God’s existence itself is a topic of debate.  We don’t know destiny, the future, no one has come back from the hereafter to tell us about it, we do not know the face of evil and if a divine judgement truly awaits us and what criteria it uses. We hear and read about these issues through the various religious organizations. The metaphysical world is like an unknown and unreachable room behind a blind door. Metaphysical belief is visualizing and conceptualizing this secret room. Through the ages people have formed and institutionalized different ideas about God, many of these ideas are still prevalent and worshipped today. Some are culture bound, others are shared by more ethnic groups and nations. And in some countries institutionalized belief in God is a part of formal legislation while others emphatically exclude religion from the law system. The main questions are: where do these concepts of God come from and have they any validity? Is it possible to answer these questions at all? Secondly, is any of these concepts the correct one?

Validity is the necessary basis for authority, without clear proof one cannot say that a theory is true and enforceable. When considering religion, we meet a huge issue namely its legitimate enforceability: every religion claims to be truly revealed by a supernatural force to mankind through a messenger or prophet and claims witnesses to the process of revelation. Either the messenger or the witnesses or their descendants write this revelation down and publish it. This last aspect, witness, makes it unwise to discard or ignore the notion of revelation, even if the quality of written revelations should contain faults and imperfections. It’s obvious there has been something that we may call an exchange of information. An important dimension for validation of any religious scripture is time. When religious principles appeared and were written down, they had live witnesses who could enforce them. Collective memory however becomes history and three generations later and it looses authority, unless the preservation of texts and other memorabilia is well taken care of. This care has not always and everywhere been good or sincere, which gives religion in general a bad cloud, even when not all written scripture is ill-preserved. Another aspect of revelation is its uniqueness. There is no structure, no repetition, no pattern in revelation. Revelation is therefore no part of the laws of nature nor science. The issue of a revealed concept of God naturally leads to the next question: what is religion?

Religion is the institutionalized worship of a supernatural power, usually called a God.

Institutionalized means a set of shared values and formalized rules that have a certain authority over a group of people who feel committed to this institution. This commitment also gives them a sense of connection to each other.

Faith can very well be an individual state of mind, religion however is a group phenomenon. The aim of religion is not only presenting individual people to God and vice versa, but also providing solid morals for leading the life that the supernatural power has intended for his creatures. Religion is always about promoting something positive for mankind which should be brought into practice, even though it doesn’t always work out according the good intentions.

Religion as an institution is like any other linked to authority and sanctioning. The religion prescribes not only rules, but also institutions and leadership roles to teach and enforce these rules, set an example to the faithful and punish transgressions. Many religions have complicated and appealing ceremonial surrounding the worship of the deity and also the roles the faithful are supposed to play. However, those who don’t belong to the religious community, don’t understand it, may disapprove or at best find it a strange or an attractive scene to look at. Misunderstanding of other religious communities combined with trying to impose one’s own view on belief and morality is the main cause of intolerance and violence between communities. Not only that, it also leads to intolerance and violence within the own community. Some members transgress the rules or worse, quit the faith. In some religious communities this last phenomenon is unforgivable. Yet it is an inevitable part of faith: people may start or give up their belief in the deity, as the deity is invisible.

The origin of religion is a revelation of some kind, yet the origin behind this revelation is obscure. It cannot be exposed or validated and that gives plenty of room to disbelief in a deity. Some people witnessed this mysterious revelation and can be convinced that its origin is supernatural and divine, others tend to say that it is a fraud or that the messenger is in a state of mental illness. It is a fascinating question why people are so tenacious to their beliefs. Or their disbeliefs!

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