Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Nature of Belief

The last few days I've been engaged in more than a couple of conversations about the nature of belief and the relative worth of belief, lack thereof, or simple agnosticism.

The first was sparked by an article on Alter-Net on whether belief in God was hurting America.  Gregory S. Paul did a paper in the online journal Evolutionary Psychology that found a strong correlation between socio-economic well being and secularism. Prosperity tended to follow in the least religious of societies according to his paper.

The discussion that has lasted a few days has bookended with Robert Lanza's article in the Huffington Post on the Resurrection of God in the wake of the possibility of reconciling religious belief with an evolving society, and evolving our concept of deity.

Mind you, as a Buddhist, the discussion about religion is always interesting. In the debate about "religion" in this country, it often falls to a discussion of the effect of the faiths of The People of the Book as being representative of religion. And with it, a great many atheists step in to proclaim their disgust with religion in the same manner of Old Skoolio Satanists who were less about embracing a belief or knowledge system as rejecting the organized faith. It is a familiar position. Burned by their faith, some fall into the camp of atheism not because of their knowledge or experience, but in a rejection of a faith that has burned them, badly. Seeing hypocrisy, the fall back position is a brand of atheism that attacks religion as an enemy, and often with the verve and the tenacity of a jilted lover. And it is the same drive that brought many to the Aleister Crowley.

There has been a lot of hay made by those who take on atheism as a "belief" structure as dependent upon belief as any theistic religion, and that "Atheism" is and of itself is a form of religiosity.  And in talking with a fair number of atheists over the years, that is not an entirely unfounded charge, for some.

Dawkins and others have influenced many, and their charges against organized religion attack symptoms of societal problems are less about theism and belief, as much as using the language of faith to justify political and societal action that tends to roll roughshod, and often in direct opposition to the tenets of that the faith espouses. And in calling that drive out, they are entirely correct. Using the Prince of Peace to justify throwing bombs and hurting folks is fairly asinine and should be addressed.

But this oddly enough fits again with another discussion about the use of Matthew 6:5-6. Mind you, I'm not a fan of quoting out of context so here's the entirety of the passage:

1 "Take care! Don't do your good deeds publicly, to be admired, because then you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven.

2 When you give a gift to someone in need, don't shout about it as the hypocrites do--blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I assure you, they have received all the reward they will ever get.

3 But when you give to someone, don't tell your left hand what your right hand is doing.

4 Give your gifts in secret, and your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you.

5 "And now about prayer. When you pray, don't be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I assure you, that is all the reward they will ever get.

6 But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father secretly. Then your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you.

7 "When you pray, don't babble on and on as people of other religions do. They think their prayers are answered only by repeating their words again and again.

8 Don't be like them, because your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!

9 Pray like this: Our Father in heaven, may your name be honored.

10 May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done here on earth, just as it is in heaven.

11 Give us our food for today,

12 and forgive us our sins, just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us.

13 And don't let us yield to temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

14 "If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you.

15 But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.

16 "And when you fast, don't make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, who try to look pale and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I assure you, that is the only reward they will ever get.

17 But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face.

18 Then no one will suspect you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in secret. And your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you.

19 "Don't store up treasures here on earth, where they can be eaten by moths and get rusty, and where thieves break in and steal.

20 Store your treasures in heaven, where they will never become moth-eaten or rusty and where they will be safe from thieves.

21 Wherever your treasure is, there your heart and thoughts will also be.

22 "Your eye is a lamp for your body. A pure eye lets sunshine into your soul.

23 But an evil eye shuts out the light and plunges you into darkness. If the light you think you have is really darkness, how deep that darkness will be!

24 "No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

25 "So I tell you, don't worry about everyday life--whether you have enough food, drink, and clothes. Doesn't life consist of more than food and clothing?

26 Look at the birds. They don't need to plant or harvest or put food in barns because your heavenly Father feeds them. And you are far more valuable to him than they are.

27 Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? Of course not.

28 "And why worry about your clothes? Look at the lilies and how they grow. They don't work or make their clothing,

29 yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are.

30 And if God cares so wonderfully for flowers that are here today and gone tomorrow, won't he more surely care for you? You have so little faith!

31 "So don't worry about having enough food or drink or clothing.

32 Why be like the pagans who are so deeply concerned about these things? Your heavenly Father already knows all your needs,

33 and he will give you all you need from day to day if you live for him and make the Kingdom of God your primary concern.

I especially noted the passages that are often glossed over. Because it illustrates part of the problem in this country, and others. That the nature of the difficulties we often have with those who use religion to justify their agendas fail to understand, and their followers tend to pick and choose the portions of their canon to follow.

I especially dislike the quoting of verse. With the Bible and with Sutras. Because the strength of faiths isn't in the ability to rattle of a quick passage, but understanding the texts in relation, and learning their lessons and meaning.

I have to strongly disagree that it is belief in Gods that causes problems in societies, but rather the touting of said religiosity over actually living those lessons.

When folks are fixated on the external trappings and ceremony, and more the pomp of very public calls to religiosity, we see problems. When we demand that others bow their heads in public displays, and that everyone submits to the forms, canon, and public displays of dogma, we run into trouble. Be that in Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam. Much like the Confucian drive for public piety that hid behind it corruption and abuse of power behind unassailable walls of filial devotion.

In this context, even atheism--when used as a belief structure to counter faith, ministries, and church as political entities--can perform terrible acts that are justified by some warped readings of Dame Logic. And we have seen the effect of atheism when used as a justification for terrible deeds in a rejection of the political power of church and ministry, as opposed to an examination of knowledge.

Religion is a tool to teach and to inspire.  The problem is that any tool can be used as a weapon if you hold it right. And right now, we see folks who see themselves embattled, and use their faith and their ministries and temples to draw a line in the sand against what they feel are assaults on their faith, and often on their control over their neighbors and the coming generations. Rather than a way to inspire charity and generosity, it is wielded to protect against the "dangers" of advancement, of invaders, of competing philosophies and populations, and mined to justify things that are far from the original teachings in context, by taking things out that context, and teaching bits and pieces and emphasizing the passages that were meant to protect homogeneous culture and tradition.

The Alter-Net article, I think, misses the larger point. Not that religion is bad and that secularism is far more progressive, but how religion is used. That there are progressive elements in many faiths and churches isn't aberration, but rather churches coming to a realization that they have to evolve themselves as well. That in order to be useful, the faiths themselves must advance as well as the science and society.

Which brings us to Lanza's article.  Science advances, and we are closer and closer to the miracles of many faiths. We can see that as a usurpation of the divine, or we can see it as an advance in our science, and use our beliefs to continue to teach and inspire, and take into account our advancement independent of beliefs. As quantum physics advances, we realize more and more that our subjective experience is more and more of a factor, and the metaphor of religion can again inspire and teach responsibility.

Ultimately, a rigid adherence to dogma as a means of political control is where we run afoul of one another. Because our societies are closer and closer, and beliefs tend to encounter one another more and more. That includes the atheist reactionaries.  And tolerance of our brethren and sistren of different faiths, or lack of faiths, is going to be key. That the lessons that faiths teach can be important, but we cannot use them as excuses to run roughshod over one another.

Knowledge is not the enemy of religion. It is not the enemy of faith. The Gnostics very much understood that knowledge was the key to faith. Even our agnostics realize that without certain knowledge of deities, that they likewise have no knowledge against their existence either--and without experiments to test the hypothesis either way is difficult to proclaim existence or lack thereof. While there are the reactionary atheists who reject the church out of hurt and pain of betrayal or loss, or evidence of hypocrisy, there are likewise atheist brothers and sisters who know that theirs is the right course without evidence of a deity. And there are likewise those who have knowledge of their deity or Universal demi-urge, but call it belief in polite company to keep folks from feeling as if they were slow children for not getting on board.

The question is, can we exist with these subjective views on reality together?

I posit that we can, but only if we can divest ourselves of the need to use religion as a political tool.  To divest ourselves of the need to bludgeon others with our own piety and actually live the lessons that we keep being taught, by faith after faith, after philosophy after philosophy, and stop trying to insist that WE'RE RIGHT and THEY'RE WRONG. It will mean evolving our ideas on faith, and reconcile ourselves that knowledge is at the heart of all these visions of theism, agnosticism, and atheism. And learn to celebrate that knowledge, and the satisfaction that each has in that knowledge.

Originally posted on Thu Dec 17, 2009 at 02:33:16 AM EST at The Motley Moose

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