“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But, after observation and analysis, when you find anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” – The Buddha, around 500 BC
In ancient times, men assumed that things happened according to the arbitrary will of God or gods. They sought to sway that will with prayer, sacrifices, and rituals. It was a somewhat natural assumption, based on their confusion about how things moved in the “heavens,” why fire erupted out of the earth, and the miracle of life and the sad, scary and unknown nature of death.
To make themselves feel better, they pretended that things in the sky were gods. To feel in control, they made up religions and religious practices. Those societies that survived were assumed to have found the right rituals and beliefs; those that failed must have gotten them wrong.
We are now in modern times, signified by the advent of science. Science doesn’t rule out God, but it does present a different view of God. Much of what was mysterious and attributed to God or gods is now empirically explained by simple scientific laws. Of course, who created it all and why these laws work is still unexplained and generally unexplainable. Nevertheless the everyday world does not experience physical miracles. Movement follows strict mathematical rules. Many things ancient men attributed to God or gods are now predictable, such as eclipses, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, thunderstorms and chemical and nuclear reactions. We even have a good idea why the Sun shines.
Science has not explained everything, however. For instance, prayer seems to work … even when the object of the blessing is unaware of it. We are discovering a spiritual component to life which seems to operate independently from scientific reality; to have spiritual extensions which operate outside of our physical boundaries. Science predicts the physical but cannot explain these other phenomena.
Many people actually believe God is loving and charitable, tolerant and forgiving even when they have a religious book which tells them He is not. Many people are moved by the Parable of the Good Samaritan even though The Old Testament has God sponsoring wars and urging certain people to take what wasn’t previously theirs. Many people believe in freedom and in racial and gender equality even when the God of their Torahs, Bibles and Korans is said to be against those values.
Moreover, every religion claims to have gotten it right while every other religion has somehow gotten it wrong. If God exists, He is the God of everyone and everything, whether groups of men and women describe Him accurately or not. Whether He (or She) made us by design or by happenstance, God created all of us: all races, all religions, all genders, all sexual preferences, all behaviors, all beliefs, and all attitudes. For Him to have erred in such a vast and long-lasting undertaking seems unlikely. To have created a universe of immense size and age, God needs to have been wiser than the foolish depictions of Him we humans created in our fearful ignorance.
Furthermore, the Creation includes the laws of science which are the rules by which the universe actually operates. They are the same for everyone and appear to operate – at least in recent times – consistently and universally. It seems highly unlikely that a God who created a rational, predictable and understandable universe would then create divisive, irrational, paradoxical rules by which He or She expected men to operate. It seems odd that God would allow the most curious being ever to inhabit the Earth to emerge and then punish her for being curious.
It seems to me much more likely that in their desperation to get people to cooperate, well-meaning men did what they had to do to get their family or their tribe or their nation working together and acting in the best interests of the group.
For instance, Moses was raised by people who pretended to be Gods or allied with gods. Of course, being brought up in the family of the Pharaoh, Moses had inside knowledge of what was really happening. He saw first hand how the system worked. Because his foster father spoke for the gods, everyone listened to him and his authority was undisputed. This created the framework for the orderly society which prospered in the Nile Valley.
After leading the Jewish people out of Egypt, Moses saw them frightened and resorting to pagan rites and rituals. They weren’t prospering. Things were getting desperate. I think Moses created the tablets of stone and claimed they came from God.
Because he was most concerned about re-uniting his people in a single religion, the first four commandments told them how to be properly Jewish; when and how to worship. Then he set out six other commandments. I think he totally missed, “Thou shalt not rape” and “Thou shalt not have slaves” and was somewhat impractical with “Thou shalt not covet …,” but he did his best.
Once you get a group which says they believe the same things, you then have something you can call a religion. Beliefs are often formalized in a creed which is recited like the Pledge of Allegiance whenever there is a formal service or a baptism. However, new understandings evolve. Nothing stays completely static, particularly when new information is uncovered. Beliefs change. Formal religions must also change; but this change has to happen through a consensus of the membership. Controversy and discord are inevitable. Individuals will change their opinions at different times and in differing ways. In today’s fast-paced world, it is amazing that any religions have survived.
Those people who go to church often have views at odds in one aspect or another with the creed they profess, but would rather belong than be cast adrift because of a technicality.
There is a significant difference between freedom of belief and freedom of religion. Freedom of religion where a town has one or two churches isn’t really much freedom of belief. People only have three choices: accepting one of two church doctrines or rejecting any religious membership.
If our Bill of Rights had said freedom of belief rather than freedom of religion, I’m not sure whether formal churches would even be legal. They do, one must admit, limit their membership to their own doctrine; and thus stifle any and all dissenting beliefs within their membership.
In any case, it might be time to question whether man can accurately describe God, whether God singles out specific groups for special treatment, whether confession, absolution or ritual sacrifice are effective deterrents to ineffective behavior, whether our own imaginings of God should be constrained to those of our distant ancestors, and whether violence is necessary, inevitable, or even useful.
In the past, religious beliefs led to wars of conquest, to subjugating or killing other people with the supposition that it was God’s will. The earliest of these that I found was Judaism and its claim to be the favored people of the One True God. Despite the injunction against stealing in the Ten Commandments, Jewish leaders following Moses made “covenants” with God which they considered legal documents constraining God to help the Jewish people attain large tracts of land already occupied by other groups. There are a lot of these type of holy wars with angels and trumpets and miracles proclaiming God’s unbridled prejudice. I don’t believe God was responsible for any of this. But many people did and still do.
Islamic Crusades and the religion of Islam followed the same pattern, adopted similar creeds and similar practices, but they were less concerned with racial heritage and more concerned with “correct” religious practices and beliefs and the spread of their religion.
A few centuries later, when a political dispute broke out in the Middle East, Pope Urban II authorized a crusade whereby anyone participating was absolved of any sins in undertaking a “holy war.” An unruly, ill-equipped and poorly-organized band of brigands looted their way to Constantinople where they discovered that they were not only unwanted but unneeded as the provocation for this Crusade had already been resolved. Such is generally the nature of holy wars. A thin pretense of good will hides the ancient lust for more than one’s fair share of things.
The creation of Israel during the last century was another example of religious belief causing conflict, strife and hardship for everyone. Rather than welcoming Jews into our communities, we sent them to a land where they quickly became a source of conflict; unwanted and in peril. Before colonizing Palestine as a Zionist haven and Jewish dumping ground, Jews were integrated into the Middle East. This discrimination followed the pattern established in Europe during the Dark and Middle Ages.
I have hope that religion will lessen its grip on us and in its place we will find respect for all beliefs, whether or not “sanctified” by an “official” body. Even if someone has beliefs we find repugnant, respecting and trying to understand those beliefs may lead to a better, kinder world.
It is also my firm and fervent hope that allowing ourselves to consider possibilities outside the box constructed by our formal religions will make us better, kinder individuals. A more tolerant outlook may help restrain us from imagining that we know that others with differing faiths and traditions are wrong and should be punished or corrected.
©David N. Dodson, 2014, 2015, Phoenix, AZ