Form and Content: the truth in religion(s)
I’ve been thinking about this for awhile. I’m struggling, now, to feel tolerant towards people who believe that their belief systems contain “truth”. I’m also trying to figure out how, as an atheist, I can allow people to continue to hold their beliefs without feeling like I ought to become an evangelical atheist. After all, shouldn’t people hear the truth?
A few months back I read Yurval Noah Harari’s engaging, well-reasoned, thoroughly enjoyable book, Sapiens. In that work, Harari suggests that one of the characteristics that set Homo sapiens apart from the rest was/is our ability to tell fictions. One consequence, Harari says, of that trait is that we can invent stories that bind persons across geographical boundaries in common cause, resulting in a kind of identity.
Think about nationalities, for instance. There’s nothing set in stone regarding a country’s borders; lands have changed hands many times through the millennia. So, though people might find commonalities through language, culture, religious beliefs, none of those things are essential to the person. That is, any particular society could be other than it is/was, and a person’s identity would be in flux depending on where/when one finds oneself.
I’ve been engaged now for a while in constructing a fantasy world in which I’ve planned a series of stories. For three different continents, I’ve invented different religious traditions, explanations, and consequences. It is, really, remarkably easy to come up with stories different from the ones in the “real” world, that could, were conditions right, easily be the explanations/beliefs in our current world where, believe it or not, MANY different ideas manage to coexist.
Some, perhaps, could be inclusive (like Hellenic paganism, which pantheon could accommodate gods beyond the Greco-Roman world). Others are exclusive, and thus only one deity, for instance, could be “jealous” and insist on being foremost in a people’s worship.
But, then…who’s right?
What if they ALL are “right”, that is, they bear a kind of truth? What if what’s really important about religion is the community they foster rather than the peculiar dogma they hold?
Millions, Harari notes, have been slaughtered in the name of slight variations in interpretations of a text. Why?
Because one is right? But then where’s the call to defend a given interpretation even by taking the lives of those who disagree with you? I note, as well, that atheists have no such history to reflect on. For instance, the Inquisitors during the Spanish Inquisition were believers. In what? Well, not the sanctity of all human existence…
Much in religion smacks of wishful thinking, designed for the comfort of the sick, dying, and suffering.
“ ‘But there are signs!’” Jean-Paul Sartre writes that the Catholics will insist; “Be that as it may, it is I who chooses what those signs mean.” Go ahead; choose!
Along similar lines, in his The Last Kingdom series, Bernard Cornwell mentions how priests, when asked why miracles no longer happened then (in the 9th Century), reply weakly that times were different in the Biblical age.
Ultimately we are picking and choosing what “feels right”. But the rightness of a given feeling is subjective. When we listen to our hearts, conscience, etc., we are simply trying to be cognizant of how/what we feel. Hegel talks about something he calls “religious feeling”, something humankind holds in common. But, again, given the myriad explanations, versions, dogma and doxa, how on earth (or Hades, or heaven, what have you) does one decide one is right to the exclusion of all others?
Ah…right. By a subjective feeling.
I grew up in a Christian household. I remember, mostly, what I was told as a child. I even did a brief stint at a Bible college. Today, I deny the existence of God, or any deity that people do not admit were created by themselves. When I search my thoughts, my experience, my heart for some sign that there is such a deity that demands my worship, I find absolutely no evidence that I am in a relationship with such a being.
So what truth?
Mine, perhaps. But how many have prayed, and then were told that silence, too, is an answer? How many have prayed to be told what they wanted to hear?
Another major, MAJOR advantage to atheism is the fact that there is nothing, NOTHING in the stars, in our blood, in our hearts that necessitates hierarchical stupidity, such as women being beholden to men. There is nothing about the belief in no god that forces us to treat the members of the LGBTQ community as lesser persons, or people who are “living in sin”.
This last issue emphatically disgusts me. I keep on advocating equality though because I support, acknowledge, and love the human (and other animals). There may be a “circle of life”, but the “Great Chain of Being” is self-fulfilling nonsense.
I need to take a breather…
Those who’ve been following my disjointed, ragged thought-process here probably guessed I could’ve been a lot bloody clearer. Then again, this is a first for me trying to arrive at some approximation of the truth regarding this issue.
Ok. So, the question is: with so many religions to choose from, how do people decide that they’re in possession of truth? This is everyone’s own subjective voice. Whatever question one asks their inner self, one will, likely, hear back their desires reflected.
I’m thinking, therefore, that what is in fact true about each and every religion (let’s exclude deliberately harmful sects here, though to some degree they, too, hold people together) is the fact that it builds and fosters a community. Tensions related to the content of religion, those specific interpretations that terrify people for some reason or other, are mere bickering: nothing but subjective insecurities perhaps (?) surrounding the dissolution of a given community. But whether certain kind of religion, an espouser of particular values, makes one feel isolated or connected has nothing, really, to do with the tenets of a given mode of faith.
Therefore, the form of a religion (or cult, or sect, less flattering terms though they be) is the container of truth. The content of a religion, given that it may/does conflict with another religion only holds truth for the particular community. Thus the truth (in general) of religion lies in the form, not the content. A religion is a way to form communal bonds.
Yes. You should pay attention to your subjective inclinations. No, you shouldn’t tell people that you know the Truth.
And don’t hurt others in your search for comfort and community.