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Belief Manifesto 4 - Conclusion

Religious differences have caused more and bloodier wars, more suffering, more persecution, more harmful laws, and justified more hatred than anything. So much human energy has been expended on religion that could have been used more beneficially elsewhere.

I've pondered those thoughts for a long time, and I believe them. I used to think these observations justified going on the offensive against religion, to dismantle it as an institution, but then I realized something. While it is ironic institutions regarded as "holy" and "good" as religion manage to spawn so much suffering, religion manages to rise above it all, and still does a lot of good.

Religion is an easy target for those who spread suffering because religious interpretation is so subjective. Relgious texts are plentiful, diverse, and vague enough to be interpreted however a reader chooses. The believer can find passages to justify whatever was already in his or her heart, and then argue their point convincingly. You can't prove or disprove anything about religion, and this is at once the very thing that has allowed religion to endure so long and it's fundamental flaw. A double-edged sword, if you will.

So people use religion to justify what is in their hearts. Some use it to reduce suffering, and some use it to create suffering. If religion did not exist, people would find surrogates to religion to achieve their goals. Further, I think people are afraid to ponder a universe that is random and without purpose. Society would be lost without the (real or imagined) sense of purpose religion gives. Hats off to Karl Marx, for truly, "religion is the opiate of the masses." Given how well society behaves when it believes something greater is watching and judging, how would it be if society believed there were nothing? If for no other reason, religion should be maintained to prevent anarchy.

And with that, I'm done. My beliefs change constantly, and so in another five years, I'll probably believe something else. My wife thinks my frustration with George Bush's brand of Christian Conservatism has caused me to go over the edge by announcing myself agnostic. Perhaps she's right -- I take the opposing extreme position to U.S. society's currently prevailing extreme belief. So when the current U.S. political climate changes, as it always does, we'll see if I start wearing red bowties and thumping my Bible again.

Some resources I found helpful for this series of posts:

:: Bryan Travis :: 01/16/2006 @ 14:13 :: [link] ::

Belief Manifesto 3

We'll probably have children someday, which will raise the question -- how should our children be exposed to religion and spirituality? My wife and I don't share the same beliefs, so this is something we'll have to sort out.

I struggle with an internal conflict between faith and reason, and I would not wish such confusion upon anyone, especially my own children. It is an epic existential crisis. But I am what I am, and I have to deal with it.

The wish I bestow upon my children is for them to be open-minded. I think I am more close-minded than not, more than I'd like to be. All good parents hope for their children to be better than them, and I do not want my kids to share their father's prejudices.

When I was a close-minded believer, I thumped my Bible and told people who worked on Sunday they were sinning. We dislike in others what we dislike most in ourselves, so as a close-minded agnostic, I hold Bible-thumpers in contempt, even as I admit I used to be one of them. You'd think I could understand them and cut them some slack, but alas, how soon I've forgotten what it was like! I also know that I probably wrapped myself in the vestments of hardline evangelical Christianity to deny the doubts that had begun causing cracks in my beliefs. Just like people who smear putty into cracks in their house's foundation soon realize they're living a pipe dream, the cracks in my religion burgeoned into something huge.

I think the world's long-standing religions offer allegorical stories to teach the collective wisdom, ethics, and morality of humanity. For this reason, I am thankful for being raised in the church; however, the literal interpretation of those allegories causes trouble and confusion, and it is something I could have done without.

I doubt there is a better environment than the church to teach my children to know the difference between right and wrong. I want my children to appreciate the impermanence and suffering inherent in life caused by desire and envy. I want them to seek a way out of suffering, and to find joy.

So in the church, I hope for my children to judge fairly what is right and wrong. I hope they will be independent thinkers, questioning what they are told, and accepting things on the basis of their own thinking, not the thinking of others. Blind faith has caused bloodier wars and more deaths and human misery than anything else. If my children choose to accept religion, I wish for them to understand it is a double-edged sword, capable of great good and also great evil.

Someday, perhaps my children will ask me if there is a God, much as I asked my parents. Perhaps, if they are not cursed with my existential pathos, they will never need to ask. But if they do, I will answer that church tells us about a God. If my children then ask whether I believe in God, then I will know they are thinking abstractly, able to analyze conflicting ideas. I will know my children are ready to decide for themselves. So then, and only then, will I tell my children the truth about my belief in a God, which is "I don't know, because anything I am willing to accept as God is indescribable and unknowable... but in the sum total of my experiences and how they've shaped my thinking, I find it hard to believe."

Part of me hopes to be asked someday, but mostly I hope never to go there.

:: Bryan Travis :: 01/06/2006 @ 13:44 :: [link] ::

Belief Manifesto 2

I was raised in a conservative Southern Baptist church, and since the age of 12, I've been locked in a continual struggle of faith and fear versus proof and reason. For me, proof won out over faith some time ago, but I couldn't completely let go until reason had won out over fear.

I am agnostic, meaning I'm uncertain about the existence of God. Some folks might like to change my mind and "convert" me, but as a corollary to my belief that I can never know, the same applies to everyone else -- you can't know, either. There is faith, and there is proof. Some seek to convert the world by offering biblical passages and religious rhetoric as proof of God or God's will. This is a fundamental logical flaw -- one cannot offer the purported word of God as proof of God's existence without first giving proof (or at the very least, some independent plausible evidence) of God.

I've tried to take in the religious rhetoric and biblical teachings and embrace them. Allegorically, they are fine. When it comes to accepting them as a metaphysical explanation of the universe, however, they fall apart in my mind. With the passage of 2,000 - 5,000 years, it seems to so obvious these stories were conceived in the minds of people living in a different time. They do not convey a eternal truths -- they convey the culture of a long ago society.

As a child, I was told God was constant and unchanging, but the incongruence of the Old Testament God and New Testament God were troubling. When I asked about it, I was told God "make a new covenant" with humanity. The much more logical explanation to me was that the Old Testament was written by a people living in a volatile world ridden with external and internal strife. At various times, the people of Israel were nomadic, a kingdom, overthrown, a kingdom again, and conquered again. They were often at war with others, and when they weren't at war with outsiders, they were at war with themselves. Their God reflected their society, loving one day, angry and murderous the next.

For example, in 2 Kings 2:23-24, a group of kids made fun of the prophet Elisha and his bald head. In my Christian upbringing, I was taught to focus on the New Testament and Jesus' example of taking the high road and "turning the other cheek." The rules were different in the Old Testament. Elisha cursed the kids in the name of the Lord, and a couple bears killed 42 of the kids. Because the kids were killed after Elisha cursed them, it's implied the actions of the bears are the work of God.

This kind of stuff (and the rest of what happens in 2 Kings chapter 2) doesn't happen today. Or maybe it does. Maybe when wild animals maul children, it is the work of God responding to the curses of unrecognized present-day prophets. If you accept the 2 Kings 2:23-24 story, you must accept this statement: God killed kids for being kids (and if you don't, skip to the next paragraph). You must also accept one of these statements: One, God is constant and causes similar deaths today (and on this point, I will argue with you the concept of a benevolent God); or two, God doesn't kill like this today (and on this point, I will argue with you that God is not constant).

Another possibility is God didn't cause the kids to die, and this story is the author's peculiar way of warning the reader against laughing at prophets, because even though God doesn't cause it to happen, terrible things may happen to those who poke fun at God's workers, however disjointed that line of thinking may be. Maybe Satan does it to make God look bad and fool everyone? But how can a benevolent God allow this to happen? The book of Job is dedicated to discussing this question, but in the end, the answer God gives is, "because I say so." Ipse dixit.

So what is my take on all this? Remember what I said about Occam's Razor in the last post? Occam's Razor states the most probable explanation is the one requiring the fewest unproven assumptions. There was probably an eccentric bald man, and people called him a prophet. Adolescents, unsure of themselves and striving for peer acceptance, make fun of people, especially eccentric bald men. The eccentric bald man had recently lost his mentor and friend, and was in a foul mood that day, so he lost his temper and gave the kids a tongue-lashing. Some time later, some of the same kids stumbled upon a group of bears, and being kids, foolishly taunted them. Or maybe the bears were rabid. It doesn't matter, but the bears killed some of the kids. Trying desperately to make sense of this tragedy, the townsfolk attributed the death of these kids to taunting the prophet who passed through town a while back. Yes, my interpretation is dull and simple, and it implies the universe is random, and people suffer and die senselessly. Yes, it does all those things. It is what it is. My explanation is dull and simple, and that's the beauty of Occam's Razor.

I was told one must approach worship with the mind of a child. Actually, I think this statement attributed to Jesus (Matthew 18:3-4 -- "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.") is an allegorical teaching of the importance of humility, but it has been said to me as a warning not to question or over-analyze Christianity and the bible.

Whatever that passage really means, I have tried approaching my religion with the openness and heart of a child. I've been so moved in worship that I've been overcome by wave after wave of sobbing repentence. I attended a charismatic Christian church in college and regularly waved my hand in the air as we sang, and even spoke in tongues a time or two and had hands laid on me (that's when a group of people stand around you, place the palm of a hand on your head or upper torso, and pray for you). And after everything, honestly, a lot of it strikes me as the stuff of fairy tales. So much for the mind of a child. Read here for some examples by Marshall Brain, founder of the popular howstuffworks.com website, and while you're at it, the entire website whydoesgodhateamputees.com is well presented; the author's thinking is better organized than mine, but I'm trying to express my own original thinking here, so this is what you get for reading my weblog.

Christians find it easy to consider believers of other religions deluded. How many believe in the Greek/Roman gods? Would they proclaim Allah as the one true God, and that Mohammed was his prophet? And how about the countless Hindu gods, Buddha, and Native American spirit gods?

Likewise, believers of other religions find it easy to consider Christians delusional in favor of their own beliefs. I will quote directly a bit from Marshall Brain's website because it is so well put:

"Here is the thing that I would like to help you understand: The four billion people who are not Christians look at the Christian story in exactly the same way that you look at the Santa story, the Mormon story and the Muslim story. In other words, there are four billion people who stand outside of the Christian bubble, and they can see reality clearly. The fact is, the Christian story is completely imaginary."

:: Bryan Travis :: 01/04/2006 @ 04:35 :: [link] ::