Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What is Religion?

Some folks spend a lot of time trying to debunk religion.   While this may result in a lot of fun videos, I think it is a waste of time.   There are reasons why mankind has developed religions over the centuries.

The interesting thing about religions is that all of mankind has developed religions, all over the world, independently of one another.  Every civilization has some sort of belief system that evolved over time, merged or morphed with another, or split off into a distinct sub-group.   Very few civilizations exist which have no religion at all.

Why is this?  Religion fills a need in people's lives, apparently.  And from a Darwinian point of view, it may be a survival skill - something that binds people together, gets them organized (and taking orders) and gives them strength to survive in a world that was, at one time, very hostile and dangerous (and in some places, still is).

So why do we still have religions?  What do they really mean?   Here are my thoughts on the matter.

The Big 3 Questions:

All religions, I believe set out to answer what I call "The Big Three" unanswerable questions in life:
1.  Why are we here?

2.  What is consciousness?

3.  What happens when we die?
It doesn't matter which religion you look at - from pagan rituals, to Roman and Greek Gods, to Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Shinto - whatever - they all set out to answer these unanswerable questions.

That basically is the definition of Faith and Belief - believing these answers, which cannot be otherwise verified, are the correct answers to unanswerable questions.

So, how did we end up with these religions - and why are they all so different, yet fundamentally the same?

Well, you have to go back to prehistoric times - at least times before written history.   Once man created language and learned how to talk (and listen), Man created memories.   And recitation of memories became a big deal - oral tradition.   Sitting around the fire near the mouth of a cave, stories and traditions could be handed down from one generation to another, perhaps changing slightly with each telling and iteration.

Of course, one of the first things to be remembered was who was descended from who.   And maybe that is why the early parts of the Bible have a lot of "begatting" recitations as to who begat who.   It is the family tree.

It helps, with memorization, to put words to song, or in poems, or as a chant, and that is one reason why many older stories are told in songs or verse - to ease memorization and reduce the amount of material that is altered over time.

And along with all of this came stories.   Mankind likes stories - which is why we have books, films, television, and so on.   We like to be told tall tales, as a form of escapism.   And no doubt, that is how many of the far-fetched "stories" told in every religion came into being - as a form of entertainment.   And it doesn't matter which religion you are talking about, there are lots of these types of stories - which form the fabric of the belief-system of the religion.

And then, of course there are rules.   It seems every religion has rules, and probably these came about when people found out that eating raw oysters could make you sick, or that pork could give you trichinosis.  These rules made a lot of sense, in an era before penicillin existed and illness and death came unexpectedly and without apparent cause.

Or take sex - which most religions seem to want to regulate.   No doubt primitive man realized quite quickly that while sex was super-fun to do, if you whored around a whole lot, you ended up with nasty infections and diseases.  Obviously you displeased God, right?  So you were supposed to stick to one partner - preferably of the opposite gender - as it would help you and your people to thrive and survive.

Of course, later on, we found out reasons why some of these misfortunes befell us.  And thankfully, the world is now safe for oysters and lobsters.

The Invention of Gods:

Spirits and Gods, of course came about in these fireside discussions as explanations for supernatural and even natural events.   A bolt of lightening, a prairie fire, or an earthquake were unexplainable events for primitive man, so spirits or Gods were invented to explain these things.   Again, belief being a system of trying to explain unexplainable events.   To primitive peoples, things like floods and wildfires and sudden death were unexplainable.

Multiple Gods or Spirits were used in older religions.   The Greeks had numerous Gods, each with his own powers and dominions.   The Egyptians also had numerous Gods, as did the Sumarians, and the lot.  The Romans adopted the Greek Gods and renamed them, but still worshiped different Gods for different reasons.

In the far East and in Native American cultures, multiple Gods or Spirits also developed.   The Japanese had a complex set of beliefs in the spirit world, with different types of spirits controlling the destiny of different aspects of life.   Native Americans had somewhat similar spirit beliefs.

The use of Gods or Spirits are an easy way to explain the unexplainable.   If a thunderbolt hits your house, well, you pissed off Thor, the God of Thunder.   Or maybe you shouldn't have built on the top of the tallest hill.  Or if your entire family dies of malaria, perhaps your house was built on the head of dragon and had bad Feng Shui - and offended the spirits.   Or perhaps you just built it in a swamp, and you just thought mosquitoes were a nuisance and not a threat.

These beliefs also helped answer some of these "Big 3" questions, particularly question number three - when you die, you go to some happier place, so death isn't so bad after all.   This is a comforting answer to a scary question.   And we shall see, this answer can be manipulated to worldly ends.   If you die, you go to a happier place - provided you do as we say while you are on this Earth.

We look at some more primitive belief systems today and chuckle at their naivete.  We have rational explanations, now, for many of these mystical events of the past, so we no longer rely on appeasing the Gods or Spirits to ensure our safety.

And we know about food-borne illnesses, too.   So despite what Leviticus says, we chow down on Lobster, oysters, and crab - as well as bacon.   There are still some in this world - in far off primitive places - who don't understand modern technology and science.   And as expected, they tend to place more weight in appeasing ancient spirits than in penicillin.

Modern man may have solved some of these smaller riddles.  But larger questions remain unanswered.   Since we can't answer the "big 3" questions - and never will be able to answer them - belief and religion are still with us.

The Invention of One God:

Monotheism might be viewed as an improvement or evolution of God-worship, at least in modern times.  Those proposing monotheism were often persecuted during their days.   But once the idea took hold, those who believed in multiple Gods often found themselves on the persecution end of the stick - and their beliefs referred to as "pagan" or "barbarian" or "savage".

Monotheism tries to explain everything in terms of one God, and in a way, there is a parallel between this and Einstein's elusive theory of everything.  Hmmm... .maybe religion and science aren't that far apart after all.

The advantages of monotheism are many - with only one God, you have one-stop shopping, which makes controlling a religion easier to do.   No longer do you have to chase down belief systems for a number of Gods (administered by priests of multiple temples) but rather you can have one God, and one Bible (Torah, Koran, whatever) setting down how that God functions and what the rules are.

And these rules, in addition to preventing people from being killed by bad oysters (or having deformed babies due to incest, catching venereal diseases through promiscuity, or whatever) allowed the folks who ran the religion to control the actions of many people.   Pretty soon religious leaders were calling themselves Gods (or saying they spoke to God), and getting people to obey them.   Hey, if some dude says he'll send a lightning bolt through your house if you don't obey him, chances are you'll listen - if you know nothing about how lightning works.

The weird thing about monotheism is how it has devolved over the years to the polymorphous God.  Catholics seem to be the worst about this.   To being with, we are told Jesus is like God, Jr. - literally the Son-Of-God - although some scholars point out that the divinity of Jesus is something that might have come along long after he died.   Then they threw in the Holy Ghost, which I wrote about before.

In addition to Gods, many folks pray to Saints and even Relics.

But Catholics have more Gods than that - well, sort of Junior Gods, actually.   Saints - which number in the thousands - are prayed to, along with holy relics and the like.  And like the polygods of old, each Saint has a different super-power (sort of like superheros, our new Gods).  Depending on whether you want forgiveness, to sell your house, cured from illness or protection on a journey, there is a different saint and a different medallion, emblem, statue, or place to pray.   It is pretty polytheistic for a monotheistic religion to be sure (and a colorful one, at that).

Creation Stories:

Nearly every religion has some sort of creation story.   Whether it is the Earth resting on the back of a turtle or Genesis.  They all have some tale to tell, and none of them are factually correct.   Back in a time before carbon dating and archeology, you could tell someone the world was created 5,000 years ago, and since that seemed like a long time, they'd believe it.

Sadly, these types of stories run smack into hard facts today, and even more sadly, some folks try to bend the facts to fit the stories of old.   "Creation Science" tries to salvage old Bible stories by trying to literally interpret them as being true - instead of viewing them for that they were and are - verbal histories handed down from primitive times and written and transcribed and re-told again and again.   They were not the "word of God" as he didn't write them.   In fact, come to think of it, no one really has an explanation for that, do they?   Who told the original story of Genesis?  Did Adam and Eve tell this story to their kids, and so forth?  Or was there some third party observer?

Creation stories help answer questions #1 and #2.   Why are we here?  God created the universe and he created us.  Go forth and procreate, so the church will have a standing army.   

I don't think one should take creation stories literally.  To do so would undermine your own faith.   Belief is a powerful tool, and I'd save it for questions that are really unanswerable.

For example, while it is pretty easy to disprove the world was made 5,000 years ago, how the universe was made remains a mystery, and probably will always be so.   While we have many theories about the Big Bang or whatever, they are constantly revised and changed, and to my knowledge, no one has come up with an explanation as to what was here before that event.  And maybe that is the great thing about science - it may answer one question, but each question it answers leaves two new questions unanswered.

Rather than view this as a threat to belief, maybe it is an indication there is still room for belief in the world.

Angry God, Happy God: 

In most early religions, or religions in parts of the world that are beset with poverty, deprivation, and violence, God is depicted as pissed off all the time.  In the Old Testament, which was written (or evolved from oral tradition) at a time when life was full of hardship (see, e.g., book of Job), God does a lot of smiting and smoting of various people.   He is not a happy God,  but rather one ready to "go off" on a hair-trigger.

And today, we see this same depiction of God in poorer countries and countries beset by violence and troubles.  In part of the Arab world beset by poverty and violence, fundamentalist Islam takes hold - and God is depicted as angry all the time - and righteously smiting those who have it coming.   In more affluent places in the Arab world, such as  Saudi Arabia, God is a much nicer kind of guy.  And even within a country, the angry God is more popular among the poor, while happy God is worshiped by the wealthy.

And the same holds true for other religions.   The poor in America often believe in a smiting God.   God is pissed off, they believe, and their lives are proof of that - full of hardship and disappointment.  Meanwhile, wealthy Unitarians and Presbyterians, driving to church in their Volvos and Lexuses (with golf clubs in the trunk for a round of golf later at the country club) have a more charitable view of God.  to them, God has been pretty good, and they look at him not as someone who smites and smotes, but rather someone who has rained down upon them an unbelievable prosperity.   And not surprisingly their religion reflects this - with less emphasis on "Thall Shall Not" and more on "God is Love".

It's a lot easier to say "God is Love" when God clearly loves you, right?

I believe there is a pattern here.  As people become more prosperous, they become less religious - or at least their religious views become more relaxed.   After 9/11 it was reported that church attendance soared in the United States - because a bad thing had happened.  But since then (and since life has gotten better) it has diminished somewhat.   While some sources report church attendance as high as nearly 40% in the USA, some church sources claim these numbers are inflated - and that regular attendance is as low as 20%.  

Historically, church attendance has been in the decline - among wealthy industrialized countries.   Some blame this on boredom of church services, or changes in cultural values.  I think that part of it might be that in times of hardship, people look to God (and try to figure out what they did to piss him off) and in good times, they figure, well, they be must be making God happy - after all, have you seen my new Jet Ski?

And you see this trend historically, I believe.   Ancient Gods were constantly testing and trying their subjects - bring down plagues of one sort or another.   Today we have the same problems, but we blame them on natural phenomenon.   Prosperous people and prosperous countries worship happy Gods.   Poor people and poor countries worship angry Gods.  It is as simple as that.

But What About Jesus?

Believe it or not, only a small minority of people on the Earth believe that Jesus is the son of God.   It is a minority religion.   Some folks believe Jesus was a prophet.  Some folks believe he didn't exist, but was a made-up construct.   Still others think he existed and the historical accounts in the Bible are more or less correct, but that the "son of God" thing was tacked on decades or centuries later.

Regardless of what you believe, the message of Jesus was profoundly different from that of earlier Gods and religions.   The premise was the same set forth in A Beautiful Mind - namely that in addition to competition, cooperation can also work to benefit mankind.   In fact, cooperation offers a more optimal outcome in most instances.  Love thy neighbor and turn the other cheek - in place of an eye-for-an-eye.

And this sort of hippie-talk was no doubt threatening to a power structure based on brutality and violence.  So, old Jesus had to go.   That's how that sort of thing works, as Galileo would discover Centuries later, as people who invoked Jesus' name tried to have him crucified.

Sadly, today, it seems that most "Christians" seem to miss this aspect of Christianity.   To them, Jesus is just a brand-name for their particular form of hate.   And as they see it, Jesus is an ass-kicking action hero, whose return is imminent.  And when he comes back, watch out, sinners! 

Some Fundamentalist Christians have beliefs that have less to do with the teachings of Jesus than intolerance.  The same could be said for fundamentalist Muslims.

So while what Jesus teaches is sort of a "Bible 2.0" upgrade from the Old Testament, it really doesn't change too much, in terms of how religion is wielded in the modern world.

So What Do You Believe?

Most people believe in the religion they are born into and exposed to.  Conversions to foreign religions are not common - but usually accompanied by intensive recruitment, such as that practiced by the "cults" of the 1970's.  I know you think you have a profound belief in your religion that you somehow think it is something you discovered personally.  But for the most part, what religion you "believe" in has less to do with your profound internal beliefs, than with what your parents believed and what part of the world you are born into.   If you were born in the USA it is safe to say you (statistically) are Christian.   If you were born in Pakistan or Indonesia, odds are, you are a Muslim.

What you may think of as "profound beliefs" may have less to do with the actual values of your belief system, than your exposure to a particular brand of religion and your affiliation to a "brand name" of belief.   And that is a scary thought, so naturally it will be shouted down.  Feel free to flame.

For me, growing up in a wealthy Western country and coming from a fairly prosperous family, naturally I tend to identify with Western religions and of course, a happy God, not an angry one.  Like most of my peers, I don't take religion all that seriously or literally.   Funny stories in the Bible about people living inside of fish are not necessarily true.  Trying to re-work the world to make them true seems to me like an exercise in futility.

And to me, anyway, it seems abundantly clear and obvious to any thinking person that an organized religion is a keen way to control people and most importantly, get at their money.   Whether it is the Catholic Church or Scientology, the first thing they ask you for is cash-money.

But what about the Big-3 questions?  The ones that can't be answered - and never will be answered - by Science or man?    Well, from my perspective, the answers will be revealed to me in about 25 years or so (God willing, pun intended) as they will also eventually be revealed to each and every one of you as well.

So why take the word of another human being - who has substantially all the same life experiences you have had - as the final word on imponderable questions about life?   The answers lie all within us, not without.  Why take the word of what some guy from 3,000 years ago, who wore a sheet and wiped his ass with his hands?  What does he know that you don't?  Why does he have a special insight?

And no, I don't think the coma dreams of some 6-year-old kid are "proof" of the existence of  Christian heaven.   Sorry, no sale.

But what about all these religious documents?  The Bible, the Torah, The Koran, etc?   Well, those are fine and dandy for those folks who believe in them.  To me, they are just interesting stories written to fill the void that many folks have in their lives.  

But what about Heaven and Hell?  To me, these seem like obvious constructs of the human mind - created with earthly, not heavenly, ends in mind.  They are simplistic talismans designed to control people in the here-and-now with promises of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die.  If you can't see that, I think you are being particularly dense - perhaps intentionally.

But more importantly, logically, the premise is flawed.   If we posit there is an all-knowing God, who has infinite wisdom and intelligence, then it goes without saying he (or she) isn't a petulant brat or bully, hell-bent (if you'll pardon the pun) on punishing someone on a lake of eternal fire, for the sin of eating shellfish.  An all-knowing God would be a little smarter than that - and quite a bit more compassionate.

God - whatever that is - has to be a nice guy.  Omnipotence doesn't breed assholism.

In fact, that is the primary problem with organized religions and their written bibles - that they posit that God has all the temperament and behavioral problems of, well, man.   God did not so much make man in his own image, as we have imagined ourselves in his.   And imagined we have.   What we perceive to be as God is an invention of man - a construct.   I posit that it is as impossible for us to truly perceive God as it is for us to correctly measure both the position and momentum of an electron.

But you know, if I was on the fantail of the Titanic, as it made its final plunge into the icy depths of the North Atlantic, I probably would be reciting Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want..."

Why?  Not because I think it really meant anything.  Just that it would be more calming than going "OH MY GOD, WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!  AAAAARRRRRRGH!"   And let's face it, better to spend the last 45 seconds of your life calm and collected than screaming like a little schoolgirl....

And that's about it....