I have real mixed feelings about religion. While historically, and perhaps to a lesser extent currently, it is a source of much pain and suffering. Now most sensible people might not buy into eternal suffering after death, some people still do and it is still on the smorgasbord of beliefs that is on offer. On one hand a fear of making mistakes is instilled, but on the other hand forgiveness from damnation is readily available at minimal cost. There is so much that does not make sense about religion that I could not take it seriously. At best it was a vague metaphor. And to be fair this based on primarily an exposure to Christian traditions.
The church below is one I was taken to as a child. We always went in through the door on the north (far side). The reason I mention it the northside is far less pretty and buttressed up a dark dank alleyway. It is a pretty church as these things go. All Saints Church on Vicarage Rd in Kings Heath, Birmingham.
Growing up in the UK, the religion I would put down on forms that required religion: Lutheran, which was not the standard fayre of the neighbourly Church of England. Not that I could tell you what the difference, other than the external trappings, was between the Henry VIII Protestantism and the original. My Dad was agnostically or atheistically inclined, not that he spoke about it much and my Mum Orthodox probably of the Russian flavour. So why Lutheran; well because there was a service in Latvian, most third Sundays of the month? I disliked the service, but did not mind the get together after afterwards, where the adults reminisced about the old times and the then unlikely future liberation of Latvia. The pastor gave the service in high Latvian which passed me by at 10 000 metres. We once had a relief pastor and I was amazed the sermon he gave was intelligible. So by and large I was immunized against rapture. Our organist specialized in the keys where infra-sound would have the most effect. It was always a late service 3 pm in the afternoon. So my memory of the church as cold and dark. I once went, with my now late friend Simon, for an Anglican service at 11 am; I was surprised by two things, how bright and beautiful the interior was when the sun streamed in and how Catholic the Anglican service was. Anyway I ended up leaving adolescence as a vague but Lutheran-ly confirmed deist. During my university years I eschewed traditional religion, and by the time I finished my six or seven years of education I was firmly in the agnostic camp.
But that’s enough about me. What about religion? Well let’s start with the etymology of the word. Well according to my trusty 1990 Oxford Concise, it comes from the Latin ligare ie to bind or connect. So in a literal sense it would be to reconnect. There are other interpretations that are closer to what most of us would consider religion to mean today, but let’s go with the Oxford etymology for the moment. So what might we be reconnecting with: God, society, humanity, one another, our inner selves, the environment, Mother Nature? For a traditional theist it likely would be God, and when we look at more progressive religions, they would probably point to some of the softer options mentioned. Incidentally, the verb to atone comes from middle English at one though today it is in the sense of forgiveness, it meant make/become united or reconciled.
So what about from a scientific point of view? Plainly we are connected in some sense with our environment. The nurture part of the debate is that we or at least in part are formed by our environment. But the nature part is also our environment; our genetics are shaped by our past environment. Cause and effect, if true, implies that all is connected, perhaps displaced in time. So it took a whole universe to make me, and I shape the universe however infinitesimally. Our descriptions of the four fundamental forces imply their effects reach out to infinity. In fact in some sense I am a reflection of this universe.
Here are three relatively three similar takes on the subject of interconnectivity from some different perspectives:
A human being is a part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated by the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness . This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.Albert Einstein
Einstein clearly did not believe in free will. And I suspect I see causality in a similar way as him. To deny that we in some way are not connected to the universe is for me one of the most irreligious things a person can do.
Joseph Campbell, Power of Myth
… But the ultimate mystical goal is to be united with one’s god. With that, duality is transcended and forms disappear. There is nobody there, no god, no you. Your mind, going past all concepts, has dissolved in identification with ground of your own being, because that to which the metaphorical image of your god refers to the ultimate mystery of your own being, which is the mystery of the being of the world as well.
This quote from Campbell is a little out there, but for me he is recognizing the illusion of self as a separate being. Ok this is a bit flowery for my taste, but possibly it might speak to somebody coming from a more religious background.
Enlightenment consistently signals the end of the illusion of separation. (Notice we said illusion because Buddhism teaches that, rather than doing away with separation, you awaken to the fact that it never existed to begin with). When you are enlightened, you no longer identify yourself as a distinct isolated somebody inside your body or head confronted by the world of separate objects and others. Instead, you view reality as a continuous and interdependent whole – whether this reality consists of no-self emptiness, true nature, mind, consciousness, or the everchanging flux of phenomena. At the relative level, of course, you still know the difference between your body and your neighbor’s …Buddhism for Dummies
While Buddhism seems to take on some form of compatibilist determinism, one of its main tenets, dependent origination is at one with the universe unfolding and we are not separate. The Buddhist tradition is at one with the Oxford etymology of religare.
The three Abrahamic religions as commonly practiced might pay lip service to oneness is some shape form of another, but at their heart there is a separation between the sinner and their God, at least as perceived. For example in the cathedral pictured (Our Lady of Gaudalupe, Puerta Vallarta) whilst we were walking through, as gawking tourists, a lady came in, got on her knees, roughly from where the picture was taken and then crawled, from the beginning of the nave to the crossing, stopping every so often for a dramatic show of a quick prayer. The cathedral was full of tourists taking snaps. Again as these things go, the building was quite pretty. But I could not help but wonder what the lady was feeling or had done to require such a flamboyant display.
It could be argued, probably accurately, that religion does a lot of good, or at least some. For example locally, Sanctuary, a place for kids to go after school and Kate’s Kitchen where low cost meals are available to those in need are run by local religious organizations. Why are these not run by secular organizations? Three possible answers might include, there is not a sufficient secular density, they don’t have the infrastructure and there isn’t a mechanism that draws secularists together. The first is unlikely to be true, at least locally, the second is almost certainly true and seems reasonable to me. So we can surmise at the moment the secular movement has not attained critical momentum to affect charitable change. Whereas the religious community does have its beliefs to help them congregate.
So what’s the concern? Well I do wonder, is the harm done by religions worth the benefits? The question is what harm? Well, one answer, in one phrase, the concept of sin. To be fair, secularists are not immune to this concept either.
And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:Genesis 3:22 King James Version (KJV)
So mankind in the guise of Adam and Eve tasted the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The old testament counselled against this and Christianity has been fixated with sin for the last two millennia. Basically Christians have been using the Bible as a source of intuition for their morality. And yet the New Testament counsels us not to judge, and somehow Christianity as a whole still goes about its way, seemingly unaware.
On the other hand, religion can come up with some interesting concepts. Take for example Indra’s net from the Hindu/Buddhist tradition. It is a metaphor for the causal mesh that we find ourselves in.
“Indra’s Net is a metaphor for the profound cosmology and outlook that permeates Hinduism. Indra’s Net symbolizes the universe as a web of connections and inter-dependencies among all its members, wherein every member is both a manifestation of the whole and inseparable from the whole. This concept is the foundation for Vedic cosmology and it later went on to become the central principle of Buddhism, and from there spread into mainstream Western discourse across several disciplines.”Mayank Chaturvedi
The thing is, not to take all this too literally. We talk, in some sense, in metaphors; science and engineering can also be considered metaphors, though I would argue a far more useful and self correcting metaphor than traditional religions.
Below is Joseph Campbell talking about myth.
“Myth basically serves four functions. The first is the mystical function,… realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing awe before this mystery….The second is a cosmological dimension, the dimension with which science is concerned – showing you what shape the universe is, but showing it in such a way that the mystery again comes through…. The third function is the sociological one – supporting and validating a certain social order…. It is the sociological function of myth that has taken over in our world – and it is out of date…. But there is a fourth function of myth, and this is the one that I think everyone must try today to relate to – and that is the pedagogical function, of how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.”Joseph Campbell
I find this tough to digest and have sort of a shortened version for myself that goes by the acronym assp:
- awe to get a sense of wonder and mystery.
- science to understand how the universe ticks.
- society to understand how we can tend to our communities.
- psyche to understand how we might function as individuals.
Campbell also said Religion turns poetry into prose, and I think this is very true, though in some cases it is closer to turning poetry into prose and then dogma. Coming from a scientific background I can’t help but think the scientific process can help inform us regarding society and psyche; and science points to the awe that we can find at all the different scales of the universe. Campbell divided religions into three broad classes:
1) Revere: celebrate creation and accept mankind’s part in it … typical of primitive religions.
2) Reject: minimize one’s footprint … Jains are a classic example of this type of religion.
3) Repair: make this world better type of religion … the religions of the Levant are typical of these.
I can’t help but think the supposed primitive religions are the closest to my perspective, they have an accurate understanding of our connection to our immediate environment, but for me the “primitive” religions could do with a scientific update.
I suppose my objection to religions can be summed up in these points:
- Religions, especially the Abrahamic ones, focus on the separation of individuals from the universe (or perhaps God). They might say something daft like hate the sin but love the sinner, not understanding we are our actions.
- Religions, again especially the Abrahamic ones, they focus on sin. Their fixation with good and evil, their inability to recognize the inability of the universe to be other than what it is.
- Turning metaphor into dogma.