The religious dilemma

Religious symbols from the top nine organised ...

I am an atheist, have been since my teen years. I am not a profound thinker, but I have some opinions based on my life’s experiences, education, and curiosity. I have been and will continue to be an avid reader of articles, books and blogs by both those who believe, and those who don’t.

The current debate creates a religious dilemma, don’t you think? Who is right? All kinds of what–if scenarios present themselves. There are fundamentalists, new atheists, apologists, agnostics, not to mention a myriad of religious world views and philosophies that encompass both gods and no gods, spiritual direction and scientific explanation.

Here is what I wrote to a recent post by Godless Girl:

‘ too lazy and allow themselves to be ‘spoon fed’ by an institution ‘ — passing judgement and withdrawing respect is unjustified when you don’t have all the answers; Miss Green does seem elitist and intolerant, the very thing religion is accused and is guilty of as well. I’ve always thought there is a fine line between intolerance and the vigilance to insure that religious belief/practice remains outside the public sphere. You can’t have a democracy otherwise.

‘ nothing to contribute ‘ — if you explore the history of religious practice and the good parts of its contribution to humanity, and its ongoing participation, you’ll discover a less clear-cut story. For example, many women in medieval times entered nunneries and took vows to avoid sexism, rape and exploitation. An abby represented a place of shelter, not repression.

Outside the attention and publicity surrounding fundamentalism, there is quite a different group of people involved with their churches who are not ‘lazy’, are well read and aware of alternate world views. They do not expect a sky fairy to rescue them deux ex machina, they don’t believe the bible literally, i.e. miracles, resurrections, or intelligent creationism, etc., and have no desire to impose themselves or their beliefs on others.

As far as the horror, institutions of all kinds, not exclusively religious ones, are guilty of tremendous atrocities. I believe it is fair to say that it is man’s potential to choose to do harm that frames or governs the institution, no matter religious, government, military, educational… the human capacity for depravity is a difficult concept to confront and explore, one that doesn’t go away if one rejects religion.

I have discovered that religious practice seems to have been part of social infrastructure as far back as we can look with our modern technology. For example, the very ancient city, Catal Hoyuk ( http://http://www.catalhoyuk.com/ ) in modern Turkey, paganism, or the commonality of lore such as flood stories (creationism) offer support that as Voltaire said, ‘ if god did not exist, man would invent him’.

Food for thought, perhaps religion serves more purpose than just a lazy man’s way of answering universal questions or providing codes of conduct or social infrastructure. We do that anyway, so why do we still invent religions?

I am an atheist, but I am also fascinated by what drives us to extend our lives into the imaginative as a source of direction, answers and social comfort, how it has and no doubt will continue to impact our lives, and where/how we cross the line between the fanciful and the concrete when searching for answers. I haven’t figured it out yet.

And here is a recent post which argues quite differently than Godless Girl. It’s from one of my favourite bloggers: http://rjosephhoffmann.wordpress.com/2011/11/26/atheisms-little-idea-2/

I am not convinced that it matters who is right and who is wrong. I think we all strive in our own ways to be good people, to do right by family, friends, community. I do not care what my neighbour believes or how he practices his beliefs. But I do care if he harms others, and I care (as I mentioned above) when he decides to impose his beliefs on me/others, penalizes me/others in some way for not practicing his beliefs, or uses his beliefs to undermine democracy.

Tibetan endless knot
Tibetan Endless Knot
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5 thoughts on “The religious dilemma

  1. Very interesting stuff, thanks. I’m glad I found this, because it sums up a lot of my own thoughts. I actually started my own blog because I wanted to find/create a space where it was possible to discuss interesting ideas about religion, mythology, origins and suchlike without being expected to conform to either religious or scientific norms. There’s a whole lot of middle ground which I find is liable to get shouted down by both sides of a fairly polarised debate.

    Actually, I recently posted something about my own idiosyncratic interpretation of the meaning and significance of the Christian creation myth. I hope that won’t look like a shameless blog pimp if I don’t paste a link in here – I’m really not about that – but I think it’s kind of appropriate in the context of the discussion.

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    1. Hi David,
      Thank you for your reply. Good luck with your new blog. There is so much to talk about and express opinions as you say, ‘about religion, mythology, origins and suchlike without being expected to conform to either religious or scientific norms’. In my travels across the internet I encounter a lot of anger and hatred expressed by the either/or groups (believer/atheist — Christian/Moslem, etc.); I’ve always thought we learn so much more if we share our ideas and read/listen/think about those that differ from our own.

      I have listed your site on my blog roll and now I’ll be spending some time exploring your blog.

      Best — Wen

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  2. Wendy, interesting post. I like a number of your points, especially the last paragraph. I also appreciate the mention of my post in the Related Articles. It was one of the rare ones in which I forced myself to be truly brief. I have listed your blog on my blogroll now and hope it gets you some traffic. I love how the internet and free blog sites, etc., have opened important new ways for people to examine and discuss so many things, including religion, spirituality and related topics.

    I do agree that who is right or wrong is not and should not be considered highly important, in itself. Your list of qualifications on that is important, though. And it is a great detriment to deeper knowledge that we have developed only two basic competing paradigms in Western culture: a theistic and dualistic (natural/supernatural) one that is inhabited most aggressively by biblical literalists and fundamentalists; and a reductionistic materialist one led by the oft-considered “highest” and seldom-challenged authority–“science.”

    Applying this polarization to just one area you referred to, stories of earth cataclysms (“Noah’s flood” and related accounts, plus other sudden “earth change” accounts) is pretty revealing: Only 2 major options are considered. They are guided by the religious literalists or by “science” (i.e. dominant institutions and groupings of various specialists). In this scenario, massive flood accounts are either fit into a literalist biblical scheme or are generally discounted and ignored as merely “myth.”

    There are other options. One with lots of evidence to suggest it, and which needs MUCH more study is this: perhaps there WAS not only a “biblical” flood, but also other catastrophies over tens or hundreds of millenniums. Pursing this or other alternate paradigms to understand earth history better would do a number of good things. Among them might be a lessening of the intense battles, with their often-wasted energies, between “religion” and “science” (as presently structured it is basically like a religion, functionally).

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    1. Thank you Howard for your thoughtful reply. I have added you to my blog roll, and will spend some time exploring your site. I agree, the ability to exchange ideas and extend debates on a virtual global scale is a wonderful aspect of the Internet and a way to expand our understanding of each other and our world views. The more we know of each other directly through such communication, the less fearful and angry we become.

      I used the ‘flood’ stories as a quick example — I believe there are others. As you mention, extended study, both by searching, re-interpreting and/or translating our precious ancient texts (both religious and secular), as well as scientific research will add to our understanding of ourselves, our history, and the earth’s history. I have always thought much of the ancient text and lore is memory of actual events, sometimes enhanced with the fantastical (such as many of the Celtic tales, or the Iliad/Odyssey), sometimes edited (Beowulf) sometimes lost and recovered (the Dead Sea Scrolls).

      I always try to remind myself that a modern view of the world isn’t appropriate when learning from ancient sources, that their regard for their world was much different than ours. We might, for example see our world as Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’, but an ancient would have seen the Mediterranean or the Black Sea as his. Anyone who chooses an either/or world view limits his opportunities and makes our world a sadder, poorer place.

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