© 2017 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
According to Wikipedia, "Religion is any cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, world views, texts, sanctified places, ethics, or organizations, that relate humanity to the supernatural or transcendental. Religions relate humanity to what anthropologist Clifford Geertz has referred to as a cosmic 'order of existence.' However, there is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion."
As best as I can figure out, a belief system is one that attempts to explain how the world came into being, and after that, why things are like they are. But could a belief system simply be an attempt to rationalize what happened and what exists anyway? That is, an attempt to explain creation and good and evil? In any event, I don't consider it possible to prove that any belief system is actually true, let along its being the one true belief system!
According to what archeologists have uncovered, mankind has been fascinated for millennia about the night sky and heavenly objects (e.g., the Great Pyramids and their connection with Orion's Belt, or the Mayan observatories). The heliocentric view that the planets go around the Sun is relatively new, and until it was widely accepted, the church in Rome executed or treated harshly more than a few adherents. (Think Galileo and Copernicus.) The questions regarding the world being flat, and what causes floods, plagues, volcanic eruptions, eclipses, and so on, were all pondered by high priests of many faiths. Human sacrifices were often called for to appease the Gods.
Then along came Charles Darwin and his Theory of Evolution to challenge Creationism. (See also, Alfred Russel Wallace.) [Here in the US, this debate is still being fought vigorously in numerous school districts as to whether Biology textbooks should even mention evolution. According to them, at the very least, such textbooks should clearly state that "Evolution is only a theory!"]
Growing up Lutheran
I'm descended from German-speaking Lutherans who left their native Prussia in the 1840s to start a new life in the new state of South Australia. [Along with their religion, they brought grape vines; after all, you do need wine with your communion!]
For me, the process of becoming a Lutheran started with baptism, which took place in a cathedral-like Lutheran Church in my home town. Then came Sunday School, which involved religious instruction for pre-school and school-age kids. It mostly happened while the adults were in church. The next stage was confirmation. While some Christian faiths had a much-shortened version, we Lutherans prepared for this for about nine months. Around age 12, I and 15–20 others from my congregation attended 2½ hours of religious instruction every Saturday morning. At the end of that time, we underwent a verbal examination, in public, in front of the whole congregation! The next day was Sunday, and we walked down the church aisle in our black suits and white dresses to take our first communion of wafers and port wine. At that moment, we became full members of the church.
There was a Lutheran youth organization, but as I lived out of town, and was too young to drive, I never participated in its activities. Besides, I was "into" sports!
Throughout my five years of high school, each Friday morning there was a Religious-Instruction period, at which time, all faiths in the area could send a representative to the school to lead a group of students who were members of their faith. Although it was possible for parents to opt-out their kids from this activity, I don't recall knowing anyone who did. For many (most?) students, it simply was time away from academic classes, which was just fine with them.
I finished high school and left home when I was 16, and soon after that I discontinued any involvement with organized religion. In fact, up until that time, I'd never been a believer anyway; the whole idea behind Christianity just seemed quite unbelievable (and still does)!
In Australia, many Aboriginal tribes live on what are called missions, somewhat akin to American Indian reservations. These also exist in present-day Papua New Guinea. While some missions were overseen by government agencies, many were managed by the Lutheran Church. Two of my uncles and their families spent much of their lives at missions at Hermannsburg in Australia, and at Lae in what used to be called German New Guinea. I also have a sister who lived many years at several missions in Australia. During her time in Hermannsburg, I visited her twice, at age 15 and then again at 25. Apparently, at one time, my father had applied to work on a mission, but he never got approval. As you may know, Australian Aborigines have a very rich and complex dreamtime belief system. It is very likely that based on my visits to Hermannsburg, I started to dislike what I perceived to be religious-missionary "interference" with regards to native belief systems.
Now while there are numerous faiths within Christianity, due to schisms in established sects or new creations, some faiths split into competing camps. In Australia, we had the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Australia (ELCA) and, yes Dear Reader, the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Australia (UELCA). The two branches merged in 1966 becoming the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA). However, many people in my home town still carry on like they are separate! [Once I'd moved to the US I discovered it too had two Lutheran branches: The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.] As a young boy, for five years I attended a UELCA church in a small country town. A family that lived quite close to that church was of the ELCA persuasion, so as we arrived at our church, they drove past to go to their church in the next town. Such schisms remind me of the Judean People's Front and the People's Front of Judea in the satirical film, Monty Python's Life of Brian.
Australia had (and still has) parochial schools. In my state, except for the greater metropolitan area of the state capital, Adelaide, the only faiths typically having their own schools were the Catholics and Lutherans. My home town had (and still has) a Lutheran Day School for Grades 1–7. I attended that for a bit more than two years. In the capital, various faiths had schools catering for Grades 1–12 with many boarding students from rural areas. In the US, more than a few universities started out as, and many continue as, parochial ventures.
Why Does a Person have a Particular Religion?
It seems to me that the vast majority of people having some belief system grew up with it. That is, they were born into a family that practiced it. The generation before them practiced it, and those before that did too. It was a tradition, and each generation was indoctrinated (and inculcated) in it. (Yes, I really do mean "taught with a biased, one-sided or uncritical ideology".) And if anyone questioned it, there were ways to "convince" them to conform. And in extreme cases, they were ostracized, banished from the group, or even worse. (See apostasy below.) In fact, my father was excommunicated from his church, presumably for living with another woman "without the benefit of clergy"! Some years ago, when I discovered Quakerism, I was interested to learn they did not believe in Sunday School or child-indoctrination. One must be an adult to become a Quaker, at an age when one can make decisions for oneself.
For many, the indoctrination is so strong, that even if they have abandoned their belief system, they still turn to it in times of crisis, danger, or war. Yes, belonging to a group can have its comforts!
As I think about all the people I have known well, I can probably count on two hands the number who have taken up a first religion after having none, or who have changed from one religion to another. In contrast, I know many who have gone from their raised faith to having none at all! This raises the question of whether a particular religion can survive and thrive without child-indoctrination. [Obviously, Quakerism manages to survive, but I wouldn't say that it thrives.]
The Crime of Non-Belief or Conversion
Although I've long known about the general idea (having practiced it myself), it's only recently that I learned the term apostasy. According to Wikipedia, this "is the formal disaffiliation from, or abandonment or renunciation of a religion by a person. It can also be defined within the broader context of embracing an opinion contrary to one's previous beliefs. One who commits apostasy is known as an apostate."
One of the best-known apostates was Martin Luther. Wikipedia states, "… the founder of Lutheranism was considered both an apostate and heretic by the strict definition of apostasy according to the Catholic Church. Most Protestants would naturally disagree, calling him a liberator and revolutionary."
Under the Sharia Law practiced in certain Islamic countries, apostates can be punished by death. [Such a lack of tolerance can also be seen in countries in which it is illegal to speak negatively about the Royal Family or the head of the government.]
To learn more about religious conversion, click here; for religious intolerance, click here; for apostasy in Judaism, click here; for apostasy in Christianity, click here; and for apostasy in Islam, click here;
Some well-Known Belief Systems
There have been many such systems; here are some of the best known: Paganism, Animism, Native American, Monotheism (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Zoroastrianism, and Rastafarianism. Of course, once the Reformation occurred, over time, the resulting Protestants broke into many different faiths.
For a list of religions and spiritual traditions, click here. For details about state-sponsored religions, click here.
It is interesting how a new religion can co-opt some of the customs from its predecessors. Basically, rather than try to convert people to a whole new system, you keep some of the familiar bits of the old way. To that end, the Christian holiday of Christmas is celebrated on December 25th, a date from pagan times (see Saturnalia) and around the northern winter solstice. [Scholars generally agree that the actual date of Jesus' birth is unknown.]
Theists, Atheists, and Agnostics
According to Wikipedia, "Atheism is, in the broadest sense, the absence of belief in the existence of deities. Less broadly, atheism is the rejection of belief that any deities exist. In an even narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which, in its most general form, is the belief that at least one deity exists."
Wikipedia also states, "Agnosticism is the view that the existence of God, of the divine or the supernatural is unknown or unknowable."
Also see nontheism.
While such labels can be convenient from certain viewpoints, I doubt that every member of any religious group agrees on exactly the same things. (This is why I'm not affiliated with a particular political party.)
From a logic point of view, proving a negative has long been seen as being impossible, so I reject the notion that one can prove there are no gods.
The Great Religious Disputes
There have been, and continue to be, major—and very often bloody—disputes between religions and between sects of the same religion. The ones that immediately come to mind are: Catholics vs. Protestants in Northern Ireland; the eviction of the Islamic Moors from Spain by the Christians, and the Jews caught in-between; the Romans and the Jews; the Crusades: Christians vs. Moslems; and the Shi'a vs. Sunni Moslems.
It is interesting, and very sad, to see how much blood has been shed over these disagreements.
So, what am I?
As I have written and stated numerous times, like Spock the character from Star Trek, I am a Vulcan. That is, I "attempt to live by logic and reason with as little interference from emotion as possible."
The simple answer is, "Why do I have to be anything?" And when asked various deep philosophical or religious questions (such as "What happens after one dies?"), I often respond, "I don't know, and I don't care!"
I am deeply suspicious of the idea that the next life is way better than the one here on earth, but you are not allowed to get there early. That sounds to me very much like a man-made, clergy-dominated system that wants/needs to keep people in line. Do the things I tell you are good and you'll go to a wonderful place, Heaven. Otherwise, you'll go to a terrible place, Hell!
[Reviewer John (who has two degrees in psychology), made me aware of Sigmund Freud's book Civilization and Its Discontents. According to Wikipedia, "The second chapter delves into how religion is one coping strategy that arises out of a need for the individual to distance himself from all of the suffering in the world. … Freud, an avowed atheist, argued that religion has tamed asocial instincts and created a sense of community around a shared set of beliefs, thus helping a civilization. Yet at the same time, organized religion exacts an enormous psychological cost on the individual by making him or her perpetually subordinate to the primal father figure embodied by God."]
Heaven and Hell
Numerous religions have the notion of Heaven and Hell, and the goal of their adherents is to make it to the former; the latter being for the truly unworthy.
What exactly do believers think these "places" are like? After all, they are trying to make it to one place, but not the other! I hear claims that in Heaven there is no war, no sickness, no pain, no famine, and really nothing at all unpleasant. And that Hell is a terrible place involving eternal punishment. However, all of these things only mean something in the context of our earthly bodies, which I hear are left behind when one dies. So, if I'm in Heaven and I don't have a body, I can't see a rainbow, I can't hear a Strauss waltz, I can't taste my favorite food or wine, and I can't touch anything. So, how do I do anything, and just what exactly is there to do? And what exactly am I? Similarly, if I'm in Hell, what punishment can be inflicted on me if I have no body?
It seems to me that we mere mortals, who are constrained by our own experiences, and those we have reliably learned about, can have absolutely no idea what Heaven and Hell might actually be like. [I've long suggested that Hell may well be a telephone-support center for computer users!]
Finally, just where are Heaven and Hell located? If they exist, they must be somewhere, right? And even if they reside in some parallel universe, if our souls can get there, the scientific principles must exist for that to happen. [Think, the movie Contact.]
Odds and Ends
I highly recommend Karen Armstrong's writings, especially the autobiographical titles about her becoming a nun and then leaving the order, and the church, and then reconnecting.
Take a look at some of the more-than-200 episodes of Robert Lawrence Kuhn's Closer to Truth.
I read somewhere that under Islamic law it is forbidden to translate the Koran from Arabic for fear of getting it wrong. This in contrast with the Bible, which has been translated to/from numerous languages by many people, and over which scholars still argue that literal things like "40 days and nights", might actually mean "many days and nights". I've met people who actually believe the Bible was originally written in an earlier form of English!
I have a large, fold-out book that shows the supposed family tree starting with Adam and Eve. It also contains a floor plan of Noah's Ark. [My question regarding that story is, "Did the Ark have koala bears on-board? After all, Noah supposedly had two of each species. And if so, how did he even know koalas existed, did he have time to go all the way to Australia to get them, and where did he get the right kind of fresh eucalyptus leaves to feed them each day? To me, taking some stories literally requires an extreme stretch of the imagination. That said, I have no problem with the idea there actually was a great flood, just not one that covered the whole earth!]
James Ussher proposed that the time and date of the creation was "around 6 pm on 22 October 4004 BC according to the proleptic Julian calendar." For other information about the purported date of creation, click here.
If you'd like some light science-fiction reading, I recommend River World, a series written by Philip José Farmer. The basic premise is that when they die, all humans (and Neanderthals) who lived on Earth beyond the age of six go to a place called River World, where they live in groups mixed up over the ages. And people like Mark Twain, Sir Richard Francis Burton, King John, Alice Liddle, and Herman Goering, have interesting adventures. Some of them want to find out how the world works and who is running it.
Dan Brown's novel The Lost Symbol, set in Washington DC, mentions a machine that can measure the departure of the so-called soul on a person's death.
Another of Dan Brown's novels, Origin, provides food for thought as it deals with the origins of life on earth, and where our species might be headed. Reading this lead me to read about the Parliament of the World's Religions, the breakaway Palmarian Catholic Church, the Miller-Urey experiment, and the panspermia hypothesis.
[Reviewer John wrote, "Almost all religions ('belief systems') attempt to deal with creation and some code of conduct/morality that revolves around what is good and what is evil, and they address what is called the 'eschatology ' aspect to theology—meaning they also concern themselves with not just creation stories and the battle between what is determined to be good and evil, they speak to what death means, some kind of final judgment, and the fate of the soul (whether it is reincarnation, an eternal home in Heaven with Christ, an eternal holiday with 72 virgins, or a home in a fiery Hell or the like). One of the things Freud said was that the human need to have a view on eschatology is that there is terror in contemplating the utter, eternal loss of the self/ego or soul if you will. I think the most important part of a religious belief system may be the question, 'What is going to happen to me when I die?']
I understand the power of prayer, but I view prayer as a mechanism to get oneself to do something rather than being helped by some supernatural entity.
Although I'm not looking for a religious home, aspects of Buddhism appeal to me. And I can say for certain that each time I enter the grounds of a Buddhist temple, I feel serenity from the running water, the wind in the bamboos, the orange paint, and the chanting of monks.
I've long known the saying, "Religion is the opiate of the masses." As it happens, the actual quote is, "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people". When he wrote that, I think Karl Marx was on to something.
[John also shared with me the following: Faith is the utter belief that something is true even in the face of no supporting evidence, or (more so) in the face of evidence to the contrary.]
I'll leave you with the following thought: Just because you believe something doesn't make it true!