I confess I have never been able to generate within myself much empathy with the anger that so many invest in debates about spirituality.
Frequent generous participant Ryan of Secular Ethics provides what I take to be a heated response. It consists mostly of a series of statements, each of which begins "Some people are angry because..." Each statement ends with a criticism about religion.
Ryan begins with "Some people are angry because they don't want to be affected by others' religious beliefs."
He ends with what he finds to be most compelling:
It would bother me if a large group of people--especially a majority of my country or the world--believed that 2 + 2 = 5. Would it bother you?
As I expressed my initial thought, I was thinking mostly of the anger sometimes expressed by believers, adherents to religious faith. I don't have an emotional understanding of anger by members of my faith, of any faith, toward those who believe differently, or toward those who do not believe at all.
Is there a temptation to take offense on behalf of God? A character in the film "The Big Country" is played by Gregory Peck. He is asked a question, not about his heavenly father, but rather about his biological father. Still, his answer strikes me as appropiate here. In a discussion about what is or is not worth physical violence, he is asked whether he would be willing to defend his father's honor. He answers, according to my flawed memory, "It has never occurred to me that his honor would need defending."
If, as we are sometimes taught, we are the body of Christ, a few may believe God depends on them to be his fists, striking out when they reckon the Lord would take insult and lose his temper. This is the sort of believer, I suspect, who sees God as expelled from schoolhouses or government buildings, when icons or Commandments are not displayed. To me, this would be a weak sort of deity.
We operate at our peril, figuratively, when we are tempted to paint too detailed a picture of God, describing a Creator beyond our imagination. Still, my own imagination presents picture of God bestowing a special place in his heart for the compassionate human who shakes an angry fist at the Lord.
I suppose there is a perverse logic in seeking to impose a religious belief on another. One who sees me as doomed to an eternity of incredible pain might feel it charitable to compel me to believe, for my own sake. From those who would torture Jews into conversion during the Middle Ages to those who corner hapless passersby in the village square today, I do not see how that terrible reasoning would include hatred.
Yet there it is. Those who choose Door Number One sometimes convince themselves that those who choose Door Number Two, or no door at all, are doomed. And I sense more than a bit of glee at the prospect.
It is possible that my own surroundings as a teenager, extending into early adulthood, influence me. I am comfortable around skeptics, even those who might hold my religious beliefs in disdain.
Reader Emily writes to ask if I see a distinction between spirituality and religion. I suppose I do. To me, religion is an artifact, a way of putting a reality beyond my ability to comprehend into a recognizable form. Religion offers to me a relationship more than any certainty.
John Myste offers a rapier wit when he attacks my faith. I laugh with him at the absurdity he exposes. If there is any resentment on my part because the absurdity he attacks is my own, I am not conscious of it. He most recently expresses a kinder, gentler question.
Do you then think it is possible that the Unity social philosophy is more in line with your own, but the Methodist philosophy offers one thing that the Unity philosophy lacks, one deal-breaking thing: It sees God as a sentient law-declaring Entity that one should follow?
It is a discussion we have had before:
It is possible that God is less personality than principle. I have a harder time seeing myself in a loving relationship with a principle, but that may be my own limitation. I would see it as akin to worshiping gravity. I don't reject the idea as much as I find it impossible to sustain. I lack the emotional,maybe spiritual, energy.
I suppose I credit such formulations with the same sort of veracity as would a parent on being told that a child is simply a fortunate interactive collection of molecules and electrical impulses: Nodding in understanding, but experiencing a relationship with that child as transcending that explanation. The desk at which I sit is mostly space and energy. My experience is that I am at a desk.
It is possible that God, along with all that flows from God, is an illusion. If oppression, slavery, justice, and love are illusions, if they are constructs we design to endow our own lives with meaning, it is an idea I can grasp but cannot sustain. A psychology professor once explained to me that consciousness is an illusion. Although I acknowledge that as a theoretical possibility, I still had to suppress a laugh. We sacrifice politeness only with cause, do we not? My question was unexpressed: If consciousness is an illusion, who is around to be fooled?
In retrospect, it is obvious to me that, in the comment that provoked my friend Ryan, I was expressing the inverse of what I intended. It is inverse, isn't it? I was thinking of the anger expressed by believers. I can't quite see from whence it flows. Still, at least some of Ryan's objections to religion strike me as objections to something other than religion itself.
I don't get angry about religion unless some "elected official" wants to ignore that part of the first amendment that talks about "the free exercise thereof" and thus tries to force me to ignore the dictates of my faith and conscience.
T. Paine is a little clever here. He objects to requiring an employer, even indirectly, to support birth control. I would expand on his objection. I object to government dictating how I worship. I object to my boss requiring me to follow a set of religious principles that are not my own. I object to any government or employer requiring that others worship according to my own beliefs.
Sometimes government will prohibit some religious practices. Human sacrifice comes to mind. Sometimes government requires what may be a violation of personal belief. Henry David Thoreau was angry when a well meaning friend secured his release from jail. Thoreau objected to paying his taxes when a portion of those taxes would finance what he saw as an unjust war. He saw it as his duty to submit to criminal penalties. He also saw it as the duty of those who administer the law to apply those penalties.
Like Ryan, I object to the evils perpetrated in the name of religion. History is replete with violence and death. Intolerance takes many forms, but it is usually accompanied by an unjustified certainty, an elevation of some ideal above the value of mere humans. Beliefs, whether in religion, or racial purity, or in many movements, have morphed into a sort of sociopathy.
I embrace the good that comes from a healthy relationship I believe to be possible for any individual, a relationship with both God and man. Do we see the good in countless religious folk who walked with King and, before him, Gandhi? Do we walk in spirit with Desmond Tutu against apartheid? Do we walk with Dietrich Bonhoeffer against Nazism?
I continue to practice my own beliefs while knowing they are flawed. They pretty much have to be, confined as I am by the limits of what wisdom is available to me. I continue because I experience those beliefs as true.
My beliefs are limited. There is a sort of believer's agnosticism within me. I carry with me, folded with the occasional dollar bill, a paper containing a prayer by the late Father Thomas Merton:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
In the end, I offer no polemic to justify my belief. I have no compelling argument outside what the occasional witness might find or reject through personal introspection.
If a friend's different set of beliefs offends my neighbors, I do not see why.
If a neighbor's complete lack of belief makes my friends angry, I do not understand it.
If my beliefs offend, I accept that anger, although it is a mystery to me.
I can only tell you why I believe.
It is really quite simple.
I can't help it.
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I took your original comment to mean that you can't understand why people get angry over personal beliefs; I responded accordingly.
I'd still like a clear answer: Would you be bothered to learn that some people believe that 2 + 2 = 5? Are you afflicted, as I am, with "someone's wrong on the internet" syndrome?
People who lead (themselves or others) become who they want to be, or try to, and they justify it in the name of religion. People who follow, and lack the ability to think very philosophically, are the problem. They can be easily manipulated with religious fear. I tend to think they would be a problem without religion also.
Such as people who agree with political dogma without political thought.
@JMyste, "That argument makes the false assumption that such a thing can be quantifiable."
I'm not sure if I agree or disagree with this. I don't think things necessarily have to be quantifiable to make the comparison (if that makes sense...I might be misunderstanding something), but I think a larger problem is perception. I hope we can all agree that molestation of children is wrong, but opinions aren't so well settled on Mother Teresa or baptism of Holocaust victims.
If "bad people" will be bad with or without religion, "good people" will be good with or without religion, and people easily manipulated by fear will be easily manipulated by fear with or without religion, it seems that religion is unnecessary. But since religion also tends to promote illogical or unsupported beliefs about the world and declare often arbitrary (or outdated) moral codes to be absolute, it appears to do more harm than good in the sense that it causes unnecessary harm without bringing to the table any value that cannot be derived elsewhere.
Your assumption is that the purpose of religion is to make us good. Religion fulfills a personal need, which has nothing to do with how good someone behaves.
Ryan, I sincerely feel very sad for you, sir. I realize this is one more case where my words will have no impact on you whatsoever but I cannot help myself. How many millions and millions of people are healed in Catholic hospitals, educated in religious affiliated schools, or are the recipients of aid from religious charities; all because people of faith are trying to actually LIVE that faith as dictated by “arbitrary and outdated” moral codes to love one’s neighbor.
You are fascinating man, Ryan. What a cold world you must live in though.
I don't know about purpose, but religion certainly has various functions. If bad people will be bad people even with religion and good people will be good people even without religion, which remaining functions do you believe satisfy actual needs that cannot be satisfied in some other way?
I have never claimed that religious people never do good in the world. I have also never claimed that religious people have not used their religious beliefs as justification for their good behavior.
But the fact that some religions promote good behavior has no bearing on whether or not people of another or no religion can be good. A good person has a certain set of desires and beliefs and acts upon them intelligently; neither trait requires any sort of belief in the supernatural.
As for the bit about arbitrary and outdated moral codes, of course I do not mean that every aspect of a given religious moral code is arbitrary and outdated. There is value, for example, in raising people to not murder each other. A prohibition on shellfish consumption or gay marriage, on the other hand, no longer makes any sense.
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