All About Religion
Hi, campers. Today we're going to talk about Religion. You know what "religion" is, don't you: it's where you get dressed up every Sunday and dragged off to sit on hard wooden benches while some guy in a funny shirt tells you all about Sin and Salvation, and afterwards they pass around this big plate that they want you to put money in. Right?
Well ... no.
That is, yes that's one little tiny bit of religion; but it's so far from being the whole story that we might as well not even worry about it.
Before we go any farther, you should probably read what a dictionary has to say on the subject. Then I'm going to say some bizarre things about those definitions. Because, you see ...
Fundamentally, everything is religion. Belief in one or more gods is a religion, but so is belief in NO gods. So is belief in the Big Bang, democracy, Communism, mathematics, physics, or Frosty the Snowman. You can't prove any of those things, nor can you disprove them. At its base, every system of thought has some core set of assumptions, things that we must simply accept as right or else the system doesn't work. Those assumptions, the givens, must be taken on faith. Simply claiming that "2 + 2 = 4" is a statement based on religious beliefs. (Seriously. 2 + 2 = 11, and I can prove it.)
Some religions are much better than others at predicting how the world will respond when we poke at it. Physics and astronomy, for instance, have pretty reliable ways of predicting things that we subsequently find, whereas astrology doesn't. Prediction is, in fact, one of the measures scientists use to separate probably-correct theories from probably-not-correct ones: they let the theory predict something they haven't seen yet, then go look for it. But do note that one branch of philosophy, solipsism, claims that we can't prove we found those things because we can't prove that anything exists beyond ourselves. And if that's true, then we can't even prove that we exist — maybe we're all only a figment of something else's imagination. (So says nihilism, another branch of philosophy.)
But even if we accept (ahem: take it on faith) that we do exist and that physics does describe the world accurately, that's still not a final answer. Sir Isaac Newton's physics worked perfectly well until about a hundred years ago, when we began investigating things that moved really really fast or which were vanishingly small. Then we needed Einstein (relativity) and Planck (quantum mechanics) to explain the universe. And as we look farther and faster and smaller, even their explanations are turning out to be incomplete.
Furthermore, no system based on interpreting observed results — that is, no science — will say anything about how the universe started. There are branches of mathematics that can make statements about how the universe came to be, and even some things about what existed before it, but because of its nature we can't know. So lots of people make wildly varying claims, and we have lots of competing theories.
Who's right? Nobody knows. You find the evidence you're most willing to accept, figure out which theory best explains that evidence, and make that your religion.
Curiously, too, having done that, many scientists then become unwilling to consider other evidence that disproves their beliefs. They truly have adopted their theory as their religion, and will persecute, scorn, and ridicule those who question them, just as surely as ever the Church persecuted Galileo.
Questions, questions, questions
Okay, so we have to take everything on faith. What does that do to our moral sense?
Nothing, unless you're ready to die right here and now. Before we can take anything on faith, we have to have faith. Some of those faiths are going to be about what the "right" and "wrong" ways to behave are. Those faiths are our moral sense.
On the other hand, if we don't dust off our faiths every now and again and have a good look at them, we can lose track of what it is we believe. If we don't think about every new idea that comes along, we will occasionally be fooled into believing something we don't really think — a faith that won't stand up to questioning.
As a starter set, I'm going to present a few articles of faith that lots of people believe in. I'm not going to say whether they're right or wrong; I'm just going to say what the belief is and offer a counterargument. You make up your own mind.
Government of, by, and for the people is Good. So good, in fact, that some countries are willing to start wars in order to bring it to other countries that don't have it yet. It's the way the modern world is going, the best form of government so far seen on the earth.
Is it? Libertarians characterize democracy as "two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner." In a democracy, your freedom is limited to what the majority of your neighbors think it should be. Who you marry, how you spend your money, what you smoke or drink (or whether), what clothes you wear or music you listen to or books you read, are all decided by committee. You get — maybe — to be on that committee, but yours is not the determining vote. Is that really the best way to live your life, letting your neighbors decide where you may go and what you may do when you get there?
Eating animals is Bad. Buddhism tells us this, as do several other sources. Taoism says that back somewhere in prehistory, Man lost the Way, the "Tao", and fell out of harmony with his brother animals. One symptom of this fall from harmony is that we began eating flesh; and in order to regain that perfected state we must stop doing that. If so — if not eating animal flesh is necessary to regain harmony with nature — I wonder why we don't see more vegan lions and tigers and bears, oh my. Why is eating animals okay for other animals, but not for humans?
Someone owns the house you live in. Maybe it's you, maybe it's a landlord, but someone holds a deed claiming they have the right to do as they like with that property because they bought it from someone else. That claim to ownership is fundamental in devloped countries. So, where do those deeds originate? I live in California, which became a republic in 1846 after a war between the USA and Mexico, and a state in 1850. Mexico inherited the land as a protectorate from Spain, which got it because someone stood on it and claimed his king owned it. The native California Indians were apparently not consulted. (The Spanish even referred to them as las Pulgas, the Fleas.)
Any deeds in my home state thus derive from some unilateral taking — theft, in other words: USA from Mexico, or Spain from the Indians. Where is the moral or legal foundation for that ownership? If I buy land from the aggressor who captured it, do I "own" it? Even if it is legal, according to whoever defines "legal", is it moral? When I do that with a television, it's called "receiving stolen property". When I do it with a homestead, it's called "real estate".
I took this text from The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, © 1966 by Random House, Inc. There, it says:
religion, n. 1. concern over what exists beyond the visible world, differentiated from philosophy in that it operates through faith or intuition rather than reason, and generally including the idea of the existence of a single being, a group of beings, an eternal principle, or a transcendent spiritual entity that has created the world, that governs it, that controls its destinies, or that intervenes occasionally in the natural course of its history, as well as the idea that ritual, prayer, spiritual exercises, certain principles of everyday conduct, etc., are expedient, due, or spiritually rewarding, or arise naturally out of an inner need as a human response to the belief in such a being, principle, etc. [Wow, talk about long-winded!]
2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.
[And it goes on from there for many more definitions. This will do for a start.]
In any logical or mathematical system, there are some things that are true simply because they are declared to be true. We claim they are
self-evidently true. What that really means is, it's pointless to argue about them because those items form the basis from which you're arguing. Those items are
givens, and can be used as facts when solving problems.
In Science, they're
givens, and are the foundation from which everything else proceeds. In Religion, on the other hand, they're
dogma, and are what proves that religion is nonsense. Remember that. There will be a quiz.
There's a good book on the subject of how control of California passed from Spain to the USA: Bear Flag Rising, by Dale L. Walker, ISBN 0312866852, published July 1999 by Forge. Good writers make history come alive, and Mr. Walker is one of the best. If you like, you can order it through Amazon.