Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Why Religion?


What is religion really about, and do we truly need it? An atheist wonders and asks these fundamental questions.

Obviously, a thinking person has to wonder why the universe exists, and, concomitantly, why does mankind? Also, why here on earth and, apparently, nowhere else? Which, of course, raises the consequent question: Is there a God? That may be where questioning must begin.

First of all, why should there be monotheism rather than polytheism, which satisfied humanity for so many centuries? And why has religion taken, as it still does, so many different, contradictory forms? And why has this diversity begotten so many atrocities, from the Inquisition to suicide bombing, from wars to more wars?

Furthermore, why does the Judeo-Christian Bible (there are others) state that God created Man in his image, which, among other consequences, has given rise to much laughter among the many who have sneered at the representation of God as a fatherly, white-bearded gentleman seated on a throne and exuding either severity or benevolence. Yet this would be the image in which we are created.

I have tended to concentrate my astonishment, for need of focus, on T. S. Eliot, a man of talent and intelligence, perhaps even genius, who went from making fun of the Church to becoming a good Anglican, ostensibly believing in such things as heaven and hell.

Now, heaven and hell may have had some credibility before astronomy and geology, not to mention space travel, became what they now are. Search the heavens, as we now can, for a place called Paradise; the earth, for a place called Hell. Nothing bib- lical anywhere.

Nietzsche and his likes came up with the idea that God was dead. Where then is his grave? On the highly questionable notion that the Almighty could die, some trace of his tomb must exist somewhere. But where?

I know well enough what religious belief is for. We all want to belong to a community, or fraternity, or club, to counteract isolation, loneliness, dejection. That is what, undeservedly, makes a Church so attractive. Yet just because I pray and sing hymns with a bunch of others, are they really my kin? Do they give a rap about me and I about them? Anyway, how much do we really share with Muslims, Buddhists and so many diverse religions differing from ours? And does either sharing or not sharing make us right?

Clearly, religion has its uses. Chiefly because without it, humans would be even less well-behaved, law-abiding. governable; have less of a sense of right and wrong, good and evil, and lack a moral directive. But then why does so much evil exist nonetheless, how could a civilized nation have perpetrated the Holocaust, and how can to this day so many deny that it ever existed? Persons who are not manifest idiots.

To be sure, there is all that stuff about free will with which God allegedly endowed us. But how free is free? Free to declare something white black or vice versa? Free to dispute that one plus one make two? To believe in the resurrection of the body after it has been cremated or rotted underground? Has there not always been a great contradiction between going to heaven upon death or not until Judgment Day?

That clever cuss, Tertullian, came up with the notion of faith as belief in the unprovable, of “credo quia absurdum,” which is why it is called faith, because it takes absurd things to be true—on faith. Nice enough, but that means that we can throw logic out the window, doesn’t it?

Granted religion, especially Roman Catholicism, is a kind of free spectacle for the poor, who cannot afford the real theater. Well, if it is really that sort of art for art’s sake, how can it have anything to do with God?

Still and all, why does the world exist? Why do we exist? How can we have developed so much knowledge and knowhow, so much philosophy and science? How come there are no motorcars on Mars?

There is no incontrovertible explanation for these things, despite the many millennia of time to come up with indisputable answers, which would seem like an argument for agnosticism rather than atheism. That, however, means ignorance about basic matters, and is ignorance really bliss? The very least God could have done for us is instill in us belief in his existence. Yet just to think of the multitude who still capitalize the noun and pronoun pertaining to him. How absurd!

Let me cite one significant example. A man as smart as William Buckley responded to my letter of condolence at the decease of his wife with the declaration that he could not go on living without his belief in an otherworldly reunion with her. This from a highly educated, extremely intellectual human being! Was one to pity him? Envy him? Ignore him?

What can certainly be said for religion is that it has inspired some very great music, painting, sculpture, and literature. That is, even if not necessarily voluntary, a huge gift bestowed on us. But are we to carry gratitude to the point of irrationality? Or do you really believe that God sees the sins—even the tiniest peccadilloes—of billions of human beings and lets them get away with it? Out of the candy box with your hand, Sonny, when it isn’t even your box and can do such harm to your health. To say nothing about your ineligibility for salvation.

15 comments:

  1. As a Christian, my answer to this, John -- as you may or may not remember from our conversations many years ago -- is simply that anyone seriously inquiring about religion is forced to grapple with the story of Jesus Christ. Without that, from my point of view, the religious scene becomes more or less as you describe. For many like yourself, the history of Jesus in the context of the story of the God of Abraham, Isaac. and Jacob is not to be taken seriously. For me and other believers, however, it is so compelling that it cannot be reduced to something less than it is.
    And I have found, through a lifelong struggle, that the account of evil given by that story is the only one that I can take seriously. The only intellectually acceptable alternative is Stoicism (which perhaps you represent), but that does not leave any room for the story of a crucified man whose legacy has persisted across the millennia and convinced many people of superior rationality, even today in our age of sentimental. "spirituality" on the one hand and contemptuous secularity on the other. And by the way...there are not a few thinkers who believe that secularity, the Enlightenment, and science actually emerged out of the Christian ethos, especially in its most rigorous Protestant form which banished superstition and promoted the life of the mind.
    Cordially, Fleming

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  2. I am sorry that I can't edit out a stray period after the word "sentimental" in my foregoing comment.

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  3. If I were to attend a church, it would be like St. Alban's, the church described by Robertson Davies in his final novel 'The Cunning Man'. Bostonians have the option of attending the high-Anglican Emmanuel Church, where a Bach cantata is performed almost every week, sometimes with guest conductor John Harbison (!). Emmanuel Church has great music, intellectual sermons, many congregants who are people in the arts, female ministers gently placing the Communion host on the tongue: enough to make me wanna move to Boston!

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    1. Oops, the church in Robertson Davies' 'The Cunning Man' is Saint Aidan's, based on Toronto's Church of St. Mary Magdalene.

      Below is the link to Boston's Emmanuel Church Sunday Cantata series:

      http://www.emmanuelmusic.org/calendar_tickets/13-14season/caltix13-14_cantatas.htm

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  4. "What is religion really about, and do we truly need it?"

    There is religion in the strict sense--faith in the supernatural and higher extra-normal powers--, and there is religiosity in the psychological sense, and even most secular folks are 'religious' in this sense. They too have a powerful sense of what is 'sacrosanct' and what is wicked and 'taboo'. Try making fun of homos or arguing against 'gay marriage' among elite liberals, and they don't just argue with you or try to prove you wrong. They act like they wanna stone you, shun you, silence you, and burn you at the stake. Most Liberals believe that it is eeeeeeeeeevil to oppose 'gay marriage' or even to crack jokes about homos. If you do, you are said to be 'homophobic', i.e. mentally sick with wicked evil feelings.
    And try making a case against the greatness of MLK. It is a taboo. So-called rational and skeptical liberals won't engage in a reasoned debate but use 'spiritually' charged words like 'racist', which in the liberal community means 'devil worshiper'.

    Or consider the Holocaust. Horrible event to be sure, but it should nevertheless be understood within the context of history, not worshiped as some holy event. But according to the Holocaust cult, we must worship all Jews and must pretend that all Jews for all time are holy victims of evil devilish anti-semites. This is surely irrational. While Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust deserve our sympathy, why should Jews for all time hog and demand the same sympathy from all of us? And if Germans could commit something like that, couldn't a bunch of radical crazy Jews do the same to Palestinians in the future? The true lesson of the Holocaust should be that ANY people--Germans, Jews, Palestinians, etc--can commit great horrors and any people can become victims. But our irrational and 'religious' mentality would have us kneel before Jews as if every Jew is a little Jesus who was crucified for our sins.

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  5. "First of all, why should there be monotheism rather than polytheism, which satisfied humanity for so many centuries? And why has religion taken, as it still does, so many different, contradictory forms?"

    Why did monotheism win over polytheism? Because people prefer THE TRUTH over little truths, admire THE POWER over little powers, and respect THE MYSTERY over little mysteries. Why do people climb the Everest than many little hills? How come we don't declare ten great movies in any given years as the 'best films'? Why do we want to declare one film the BEST, the WINNER? Why don't we call the eight best teams of any given year as equal champions? Why do we want only one team to win the superbowl and be declared the true champion? When different boxers claim to be the champion, why do we call for a unification bout to see who is the real champion. This is why monotheism won out over polytheism. What are the three things we look for in God or gods. (1) Power (2) meaning (3) mystery. If we stack up Jehovah against Zeus or Votan, who's gonna win? Zeus may be powerful with his lightning and Votan may be tough with his beer mug, but Jehovah is the God of all universe with all power. So, once you come to know God, all the lesser gods seem wimpy, wimpy, wimpy than hefty, hefty, hefty.

    Then, there's the issue of meaning, truth, and righteousness. In science, we don't say both Darwin and Lamack were right. We say Darwin was right and Lamarck was wrong. In math, we don't say both 2 + 2 = 4 and 2 + 2 = 5 are equally correct. We say one is correct while other answers are wrong. Same goes for God. Though religion is not math or science, it is a search for a kind of truth. Thus, if the one and only God is deemed to be Truth itself, then all the other gods must be falsehoods. Truth is not democratic. It is ruthless. The correct scientific theory disproves all the incorrect ones. Similarly, the true God banishes all the false gods. Of course, God cannot be proved or disproved, but from intellectual, philosophical, moral, and spiritual angles, the concept of God in the Bible is surely far more profound than one about some Germanic beer god or some Greek god who throws lightning bolts and beds a bunch of babes.
    And morally, people prefer the one truth over many 'truths'. So, if God says human sacrifice is wrong but some pagan god named baal or some such says human sacrifice is cool, are we to say both truths are equally valid? No, if God is morally truer than the pagan gods, then He is the true God while the pagan gods are false gods. Though we want God to be powerful, we also want Him to be good. Thus, morality, meaning, and truth are important in our contemplation of the nature of God.

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    1. But there is the third element: mystery. While we can ponder the power and meaning(goodness) of God, for God to be truly great, He must be full of mystery. If we can understand everything about God, there's nothing special about Him. After all, He can be solved like Rubick's cube, and once we master everything about Him, we can manipulate Him like a computer. For God to be truly great, there must be something eternally and infinitely mysterious about Him. Without this element, He would grow boring once we figure Him out like a crossword puzzle.
      Of course, there's an element of a con game in all this--and I speak as an atheist myself--, but then, religion should be approached as a kind of mind game, like John Lennon said.

      Religion must be contradictory since man made it, and man is contradictory. John Simon is contradictory. Everyone is. So much about our civilization is contradictory. Even the concept of man, as apart from animals and beasts, is contradictory, arbitrary, and hypocritical. Aren't we animals also? Why this distinction between us and them? Because we say a lot of pompous crap and put on airs and learn not to break wind in public? Simon calls himself a humanist, but does he really wanna put his faith in humanity? Indeed, if Simon dislikes God, gods, and religion but too many humans are prone to either worship gods or think 'religiously' even as secular atheists, why should we have any faith in man? I'd rather trust dogs and hogs than in man. I call for dogism and hogism.

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  6. "And why has this diversity(of religions) begotten so many atrocities, from the Inquisition to suicide bombing, from wars to more wars?"

    Because it's our nature. We are thinking animals driven by aggression, greed, rage, lust, will to power, and whatnot. Religion or no religion, we are gonna act like Rocky Balboa, Ivan Drago, and Conan the Barbarian.
    Why did John Simon write all those nasty reviews about actors and actresses? I mean it's just a freaking movie or play? Why get so worked up over entertainment and make-believe? And consider the violence among film critics like Sarris, Simon, Kael, Renata Adler, and rest of gang. I mean if people get this nasty over movies, imagine what these folks would have done if they were dictators of nations with nukes. Consider the invective between Simon and Siskel/Ebert gang over freaking Yoda and Empire Strikes Back. Full grown men barking at one another over some silly movie about some guy running around with a laser popsicle.
    It's in our nature to be competitive, to be ruthless, to be devious, to be nasty, etc. We invoke religion to justify ourselves, but politics, ideology, vanity, narcissism, and etc will do just as well.
    Look at the animal world. Animals don't believe in God or have any religions, but they are always clobbering one another in the most horrendous ways.

    Also, before there's peace, there must be war. As Steven Pinker said in Better Devils of Our Nature, before we have liberal-ville, we must have Leviathan(as Hobbes meant it). First, there must be order created through brute force and oppression, and for such an order to be created, there must be wars. Germany was united through wars under Bismarck. Japan was united after much fighting as seen in movies like Kagemusher and Ran. For for any order--national, religious, monarchical, etc--to establish order over a great area, first there must be war of pacification. WWII was very violent, but consider the peace that prevailed as the result of Pax America. But for there to be Pax America, there had to be War America with Americans whupping Japan and Germany real good. And for the American continent to be peaceable so that we can drive around freely, we had to kill lots of wild animals and American Indians. Terrible, yes, but the outcome of all that violence was peace upon the land. Religions, like anything else, have competed for domination, but it is through unification under domination that peace over vast areas is achieved.

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  7. "Furthermore, why does the Judeo-Christian Bible (there are others) state that God created Man in his image, which, among other consequences, has given rise to much laughter among the many who have sneered at the representation of God as a fatherly, white-bearded gentleman seated on a throne and exuding either severity or benevolence. Yet this would be the image in which we are created."

    I don't get this. What is so funny about God looking like a wise handsome old man with a magnificent beard? God would look pretty cool. The idea of man being created in God's image sounds funny if we think of people like Gary Coleman, Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, Deng Xiaoping, or Roger Ebert.
    THAT is the problem of humans being made in God's image. But then, maybe the Bible meant only Adam was made in God's image, but since then, humanity got uglier and funnier-looking via endless mutations. And by the 'image' of God, maybe what is meant was the aura around Adam than his actual physical features. It's like there's the moon and its light. The 'light' of the moon is really reflection of the rays of the sun. So, if we say moon shines in the image of the sun, we don't mean that the actual physical attributes of the moon is that of the Sun. We mean that the radiant aura of the Sun bathes the moon with the holy helio glow.

    "Now, heaven and hell may have had some credibility before astronomy and geology, not to mention space travel, became what they now are."

    This is why Simon has always been limited as a critic. He's thinking rationally and empirically about something that defies our material conception of the universe. In the physical sense, there is no hell or heaven for our bodies to enter. But the realm of the soul is entirely different. If we believe that our souls transcend and eventually take leave of our bodies, then the hell or heaven they enter is a spiritual realm that defies what we know about geology or whatever. It's like nirvana in Buddhism isn't some specific place we can find with a map but a place that exists in another dimension. Also, even within the rules of science, there's a lot of strange stuff that defies our sense of time and space. Consider the black hole. I mean it's weird. If millions of stars can be sucked into something like Michelle Obama's anus in some part of the galaxy, then the idea of heaven and hell isn't so weird--even if I don't believe in them as I'm an atheist.

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  8. "Nietzsche and his likes came up with the idea that God was dead. Where then is his grave?"

    I dunno. Lennon once said 'We are bigger than Jesus', but I still haven't found any Jesus hits on the Billboard charts.

    "I know well enough what religious belief is for. We all want to belong to a community, or fraternity, or club, to counteract isolation, loneliness, dejection. That is what, undeservedly, makes a Church so attractive."

    Actually, the appeal of religion is paradoxical. True, on the one hand, religions bring people together and make them feel deeply united and together as a community. But religious folks can feel so united and together precisely because religion also allows them to feel alone with God. Thus, religion is both the most lonely and the most communal of human practices. Remember that before Jesus went among the common folks, He fasted and prayed alone for 40 days. Recall that before Buddha preached his stuff, he meditated under some tree for many a day all alone. And lots of people who were locked away in prison maintained their sanity through silent prayer to God, thereby managing and controlling their insanity(stemming from isolation) with hope and spiritual support.

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  9. "But then why does so much evil exist nonetheless, how could a civilized nation have perpetrated the Holocaust, and how can to this day so many deny that it ever existed?"

    Because 'civilized' doesn't mean good or kind. Aztecs built a great civilization but they killed lots of folks in cruel ways. Japanese were highly civilized but look what they did in Nanking. Chinese are civilized but look how they treat dogs. French are civilized but consider their brutal war in Algeria. Jews are smart and civilized but consider the number of highly educated Jews who took part in Bolshevism and killed millions of Christian folks. Americans are civilized but look at the Atlantic Slave Trade. And look what white folks did to the American Indians who were rubbed out--along with all the noble wild animals like bisons and bears(who, in my opinion, are as good as any human). Look at Muslims who've had civilization for thousands of years but still act like desert barbarians.
    Holocaust was horrible, but in a way, it happened cuz of ultra-civilization. Civilization is, by its very nature, intolerant. Civilization rose because it ruthlessly suppressed and waged war on what it deemed as wicked, barbaric, savage, and wild. It's tempting for any civilized nation or ideology to see the Other as the enemy that must be rubbed out for the sake of progress, purity, and etc.

    So, Jewish communists and German Nazis, both so sure that they were right, killed a lot of people even though or especially because both people thought themselves so highly advanced.

    But then, the German mentality of intolerance can be found in Simon as well. Consider all the nasty reviews he's written about music, theater, and movies. In one piece, he even compared himself with a fascist-like cop with a billy club kicking the butts of worthless phony artists. Of course, as Simon has been a mere critic, he didn't kill anyone. But suppose Simon had gained political power as dictator. Imagine what might have happened to everyone who looked like Streisand or composed like Beethoven. I pray for them.

    "A man as smart as William Buckley responded to my letter of condolence at the decease of his wife with the declaration that he could not go on living without his belief in an otherworldly reunion with her. This from a highly educated, extremely intellectual human being! Was one to pity him? Envy him? Ignore him?"

    Why even give this much thought? Whatever one thinks of Buckley--and I never much cared for him as thinker or writer--, his love for his wife was deep and true, so true in fact that everything paled in comparison. When I hear such words, I'm touched by the depth of love, and theology would be the last thing on my mind. A man's life would have been fortunate to have known a love like that. Also tragic because to really love someone so deeply means to lose him or her is to lose everything. So, one dreams of heaven.

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  11. Marx called religion the opiate of the masses. I think he was right in this. It serves as a painkiller. It makes loss easier and death less terrifying. What is more frightening than nothingness? I think faith in God makes life bearable for many because it soothes emotional pain and lessens the fear of death.

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  12. Atheists are hardly to be believed. Why? Most choose life over death in spite of this belief in a futile world of no meaning and its many horrors. Self imposed death would seem the only logical outcome to such a belief system.

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  13. Dude, God is good. God is great. Dude is SO old. Forget about dirt. Dude's older than lava and shit. "Head Honcho" is what I call him. He's got white robes and sits in a massive chair. Kind of nice, but don't mess with his ass. Dude's got a temper. Dude'll rock your world. Literally. The thing about God is nobody knows shit about him so you can say anything and be just about right. I got God's back.

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