30 August 2008

Why I am an Infidel

I realize Bertrand Russell wrote one of these a few decades ago, but this is basically my own story.

At some point I had logically concluded that there was not any basis for belief. There was no evidence. There was no reason in it. This wasn't something I needed to put a ton of thought into. Those who have somehow read my lengthy treatise on moral reasoning will probably recognize the difference between me thinking a lot on a subject and me concluding from limited consideration of facts. The actual final decision was probably reached around 8 or 9, though obviously there's some scholarship since. There are perhaps those who would argue there is reason in faith (I will address this point some other time), but this does depend on critical personal factors. Personally I found no reason in it. The simple explanation I had available to answer people who asked (and there were some throughout my lower education), was that there was no evidence. That this was in fact a sufficient explanation does not seem to occur to others, but in most cases this was politely accepted.
There were however significant exceptions. The first was a discussion in which a friend (who shall remain unnamed) made the claim that my belief was ridiculous because 95% of people believe in some sort of god (it might have been 99%, it was outrageously high either way). His conclusion was that if I held my opinions, it must mean everyone else is wrong which was a horribly arrogant opinion to make. Now, considering my general persona is disdain for automatic conformity, this wasn't a terribly useful argument. But it did spur some research into the topic. The first and most obvious conclusion was the percentage of 'unbelievers' is considerably higher than 5% of the world. It's much higher than that even in America. The percentage is somewhere between 15% and 25% (and roughly the same in America itself), depending on how one accounts for religious persecution in places like China or the Middle East. Using a distorted figure to make secular findings seem obscure or against impossible odds is intellectually dishonest. And of course, breeds exactly the type of automatic conformity that I'm not a big fan of. I was not pleased to discover this, but I do not feel that the deception was intentional on the part of my friend (rather whoever fed him the line, whatever pastor/minister he had). I don't hold it against him, but we have had less and less contact from the migration of time and life anyway. On occasion this is unfortunate.

Christianity makes up the lion's share of religions with over 2 billion served. Many Christians will be both surprised and reassured to know this based on previous conversations often expecting, of all things, Hindus to outnumber them. Agnostics/atheists/secularists are difficult to define but basically share one major attribute: they don't believe in any God with any degree of certainty. This was around 1.5 billion people globally. Islam was next (1.1B). The other religions are generally not actively engaged in proselytizing others and none exceeded the half billion point (yes, even those dreaded Vishnu worshipers). Buddhists, Hindus and Jews for example generally accept new members, but don't bother recruiting new ones in the same way as Muslims or Christians do. Further historical research discovered that the principle reasons behind this were political. Testifying to one's faith or not in some way disregarding it at moments of truth is considered important in most religions. Attempting to sway others into your church is however a completely political means of attaining power (and is not consistent with either Islam or Christianity anyway). Both major religions attest to the importance of free will in the decision to turn toward (or away from) God, and not the means of coercion or force to compel this end. Both have subsequently openly and theologically violated this precondition at various points in their history. The relative importance of this finding was pounded home by an argument with another friend (also unnamed and not on here) in which he claimed that Buddhists do not go to heaven because they do not believe in Jesus. While there are several theological mandates in old testament tradition that hold up God as a jealous being incapable of accepting others, I'm not sure that this is a mainstream Christian mandate (I'm pretty sure Catholics don't hold this for example). I'm quite certain it's not an Islamic mandate (excepting that Muslims who convert out of Islam are punishable..fear isn't exactly interesting means of holding my beliefs either). Besides, it seems awfully arrogant to presume to know what God does or how people are to be judged anyway. Given the precondition that it is arrogant to assume one is right and everyone else is wrong, there are an awful lot of people who are wrong. Basically everyone who believes in heaven and hell is condemned by some other faith and those people who don't are likewise condemned by people who have such beliefs.

I felt it was important next to understand how religions began to take hold of societies as opposed to various individual codes or mystical investigations into the uncontrollable events of the ancient world (such as weather or cataclysm). Historical research into theological practices became the next subject of importance as this line of thinking directly relates to the historical evolution of religions and the political institutions they spawned. Ancient (pagan) priesthoods were essentially models of authority, using the figure of god to speak with great authority on matters like property or women (usually considered property). The means of religion was often held to establish the divinity of leadership and create unquestionable support for the often severe social stratification that emerged as those leaders took more and more to honor themselves off the labors of their subjects. This process continued even as leaders established more secular origins or instead called upon some divine process to establish the rights of dynastic kingdoms. Politics and religion have always made bedfellows. The innovation of separation was a Western instituted idea (starting with philosophers like Socrates or Aristotle) and actually managed to become a seedling in religious doctrine in Christianity. At least while it was a dominated practice persecuted by the Romans. The very fact that the Christian church eventually became settled in the ancient imperial city of Rome, rather than a more locally important holy city like Jerusalem, indicates the political nature of the movement by its leaders.

I suspect most people of faith are disturbed at seeing religious politics in general, preferring instead their own private ministrations. This is laudable. My readings of most theological scholars is that this is precisely the individual purpose of religion: to learn how to orient one's self toward others and toward ourselves (and of course, in the process toward God). The reason none of the major current religions espouse importance on priesthoods or even the necessity of such is that they are, in fact, counter-revolutions to pre-dominating authorities (such as the pantheon of Roman or Greek civilizations). It would make no sense to seek authority from such people on a new divine process. That they have created institutions is largely from political interventionism. It is true that these can be founded upon, and generally do, conducting works of public good and decency to demonstrate the charity and goodwill engendered by people of that shared faith. I'd prefer that this is the usual use of religious associations and have usually found it to be the case personally (certainly from people I am associated freely with who are strongly religious). But that's not how such institutions came about in the first place, it's merely a convenient and useful byproduct of the existence of such institutions.

The most damning effect of religious institutions (and perhaps the reason I was turned off at a young age to them) is the means of mobilizing faithful political support for various means of controlling people outside the congregation itself. This is probably the most significant reason I am Libertarian and not at all interested in Republicanism for its strong ties to faith-based initiatives. I don't see how this is a justifiable use of religion, to impose order and morality upon other people who do not hold the same views. It is acceptable practice to argue, and to demonstrate your own views, but there is no inherent righteousness in declaring others to be sinful, immoral or wrong, to judge the behavior of others yourself and to then declare their actions illegal through the political process. There are innumerable commands or parables in the bible itself, for example, which declare this to be a sin in and of itself.

Unfortunately there are numerous edicts which violate this principle on several issues: the Drug War, Prohibition, abortion, homosexuality, birth control, pre-marital sexual relations (age restrictions on sexual behaviors), prohibitions of specific sex acts (between consenting adults), not to mention the battle over evolutionary theory in science classes, the prevention of sex education in favor of abstinence-only, etc. I have vigorously opposed such initiatives and I freely support religious peoples (and others) demonstrating a need for such things, but only where they can demonstrate an actual legal need for such things as it would necessarily improve societal conditions (and not where it would in someway satisfy their own sense of moral decency). I see no necessary condition between imposing our private sensibilities onto the private domain of other people, so long as it remains the private domain or to engage in legal acts which restrict the ability of people to practice such private acts (usually a common behavior in anti-homosexual laws for example by banning gay unions/marriages or restricting the rights of said unions). All of this is in spite of the fact that I myself am engaged in few, if any, of these supposed moral injustices. I do not use drugs, I do not drink, I wouldn't be in favor of abortions personally (though probably I'd accept someone who had one on my behalf, should that cause arise), I am not homosexual, etc. The people who partake of these activities are not my concern unless they make it my concern by acting in a harmful way; such as by endangering my life by driving while intoxicated..or on their cell phone. I feel that's an important distinction. Others may disagree, but I challenge them to demonstrate that legal restrictions on such activities actually dissuade social harms from occurring and do not in point of fact precipitate other social harms from occurring. The drug war is my most popular example herein, but I could very easily sum up a series of problems posed by restricting homosexuals from certain rights.

There are legal and moral grounds for a number of moral principles that are commonly found in religious doctrines (such as don't murder, rape or steal). None of these however require that people hold religious backgrounds to arrive at the inescapable conclusion that these are generally immoral and should not be done, despite whatever claims of origin they have from religious scholars. It simply makes more sense to organize a diverse and large society in that way. Put another way, why would people want to live in a society where they could be murdered randomly by another person without some just cause (such if as they attacked the other person or their kin physically). Or why would people wish to live in a society where anyone could sexually engage us at anytime, regardless of wish to do so..or why would we wish to live in a society where our possessions could be taken without merit or warning while we work to raise our families (historically our crops, everybody farmed). We would instead live in solitude or in much smaller communities around people who we would trust not to partake of these and to help defend us against those who would (barbarians historically). In other words, one doesn't have to be religious to arrive at many moral conclusions and to live accordingly. The fact that we use secular laws to attempt enforce these conclusions only makes it easier. The fact that religious peoples would use secular laws to enforce their own unique conclusions however is appalling to me and a principle reason why I hold no interest in personal faith because of this potential for manipulation of opinions, and the use of coercive force to impose them on others.

None of these investigations really led me to discern however the purpose of faith itself for other people. So I started reading the actual texts (or rather translations of them, I don't read in Aramaic, Hindi, Arab-Aramaic or ancient Hebrew). I found there a mass of stories. Personally I found little difference between the premises of ancient mythology (usually the polytheistic religions of Greece, Norse, Egypt, etc) and the mythological tales of Christianity, Hindus or Islam. All of them root in metaphysical wonder for many objects within the story. The endowment of supernatural powers is usually a critical feature for having something to worship in the first place for example (and it is curious that Islam generally lacks 'miracles' in this respect). Within each faith's principle texts I found a number of powerful inconsistencies between the words of their prophets and the behavior of the people who supposedly follow them. Gandhi has a quotation where he declares "I like your Christ, your Christians are so unlike your Christ". This seems to be a good summation of my interpretations of religion and religious peoples. I rather liked the stories about Jesus or Mohammad (some more than others). There was much to be admired or learned in them. The trouble seems to be that few people understood what they were trying to say, often taking specific instances out of context or not understanding that a generalization of behavior is rather difficult to achieve. There's a reason that analogy and parable are so common in philosophy and theological text: people have to relate to the content before they're able to practice it at all. This is an important lesson: CONTEXT. The Bible or the Qu'ran were written in specific contexts. There are ways to interpret those contexts into the modern world and there are ways to take it literally and presume that things held as true then are still true now. In fact, a good number of inquisitive peoples have shown a number of religious dogmas to be based on the hokey superstitions of the people who founded the religion (or the people around the person who did the prophesying) or subsequent adaptations as the religions sought to convert new peoples. For example, there is no mention in the Bible of when Jesus was actually born (the specific date). By tradition we celebrate this on Christmas (December 25th) and there is some scholastic support to show this is at least seasonably accurate. But the presence of several pagan rituals on or about the same time frame indicates that the official date was probably an evolution of conversion politics in particular the Roman worship of Sol Invictus and the association of festivals in late December to honor him. It's far easier to convert people when there is a similarity of customs (even if it becomes an exchange of customs). Does that make celebration of Jesus irrelevant, no. In fact I find Christmas to be a worthwhile holiday for people to celebrate, regardless of why because of the natural utility of practicing charity and selfless behaviors. But it does demonstrate that not everything that comes out of a religious dogma or doctrine is based on factual data. It can often be a matter of convenience or the presence of superstitious traditions overriding the general utility of the message.

Islam suffers from similar issues as it adopts the traditional lifestyle of the Bedouin nomads and merchants of the Arabian peninsula and attempts to proclaim this a superior or godly manner of living. The fact that many particulars of Islam (such as the style of women's dress) are ignored in say, Indonesia or America, by modern Muslims may be offensive to some, but it is a perfectly legitimate way of interpreting one's faith. In fact, there's some scholarship on Islam which demonstrates that some of the more rigorous codes (particularly regarding martyrdom and women) arise from translation issues from Arab-Aramaic to medieval Arabic. Words which would be more liberally translated are used in a specific manner most comfortable to the people of the time. For example, the idea of women covering their faces and bodies could be just an edict that they should be chaste with the image of a belt fastened about the waist (not the harsh chastity belt, a simple belt suffices). The strict and harsh interpretation leads to a good deal of feminist aggression toward Islamic countries, but I doubt there are many feminists who would argue that women/humans SHOULD be overtly sexual or that there is no sensible reason to protect against undesirable sexual attention (desired sexual attention is a different story). Simple use of linguistic changes or language abuses in translation could very easily pose similar problems as the Bible or other canonical texts have been passed down over the centuries. And in most cases, the text was received from decades of oral tradition, further amplifying the problem of interpretive scholarship as information passes much less precisely without written records through the varieties of individual inflection upon the original story. I often wondered how Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 would deal with that problem even with individuals memorizing segments of banned books.

After some exposure to the Bible, the Qu'ran, Vedas and others, I came to a few conclusions about religion in general. One: religion is evolved from a political institution. The 10 Commandments for example are largely related to the issue of private property laws at the time, at least if people read the originals and not the paraphrased (political) modern versions. Adultery for example had to do with the value of virgin women as property when married off, not the (useful) fidelity of monogamous human beings. Maybe the modern version is more useful and respectful to women, but it still doesn't really manage to imply a moral code that makes sense. In fact it's often used to imply that sexual relations of any kind are a dirty act, and how people are somehow able to rationalize that they are okay once we have rings on our fingers after years of being told otherwise is a difficult leap. Two: religion typically uses metaphysical and untestable (supernatural) explanations for the unexplained events of the times in which the religion was founded and grew into. Superstition is not my speed and without empirical rational data. I saw no need to accept as unquestioned fact the stories of unwitnessed events (or even witnessed miracles, certainly the explanation of such). When there is a large amount of empirical observation and scientific tests into what were previously mystical events, even documented biblical disasters, I question the need to accept without reservation superstitious explanations for such things. Three: Religion's main purpose and only viable use is on the personal (micro) level. The ability of religious people to organize for good should not be discounted, but the propensity of religious authorities to abuse such organization for nefarious aims seems to historically exceed this behavior. It is reasonable for theological study to occur, and for people who wish to gather to demonstrate or reaffirm their faith to use organized religion as a basis for this behavior. It is not reasonable to extend the belief that this faith is the only sensible way to live or to impose it forcibly upon the will of others. Therefore, organized macro uses of religion are fewer and should engender, even from those within the faith itself, the question of external motivations when they occur. Four: It isn't necessary for secularists or atheists to attempt to remove from public discourse or public arenas all religious directives or appearances, but rather only those which violate fundamental human rights to free associations and freedom of worship (or the absence of such). That's a war we (secularists) do have hopeless odds on, at least in my lifetime, if we want to remove from public life all traces of religion. It doesn't really seem necessary anyway, much as I railed against the forced removal of second-hand smoke from Ohio's bars and businesses despite finding it more annoying than religions.

This does however include removing from scientific inquiry the necessity of studying God, who as a supernatural or metaphysical construct, is not within the bounds of scientific study anyway. Where there remain questions regarding the interpretation of events or the implausible explanations of supernatural causes, more study and more observation is required to elicit answers (not the lazy or overly simplified answer that we can't know or God did it). Most secularists are more concerned with real (physical) questions that have answers, such as how people should relate to one another. There's a Confucian story where he was asked by one of his students "How should I please God?". Confucius replied "There are many matters here concerning man that we should not bother with pleasing God". In further explanation: there's so much out there and so much we as individuals must do to accord ourselves with others, that there's no reason to even worry about what God wants from us. Much less try to ascertain what that might be, and certainly not to proclaim that we know for certain what that is and to direct others as to what we "know" about the uncertain nature of God. People who live in certainty of this may indeed be happier than people who doubt (or don't care), but I question their ability to live in accordance with those beliefs every time one attempts to impose them on someone else.
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