I’d really love to see a poll on this topic, because I think it would be immensely revealing about religious belief. Lacking this, we’re just going to proceed with my own experience, which fits the description of “anecdotal” without conflict – we’ll get that out of the way right up front. My experience, however, has led me to believe that every religious person has their own distinctive idea about what their god is and does. In other words, it would be impossible to get any two people in perfect agreement over “god.” Yes, it’s very easy to dismiss this as one of those overreaching, blanket statements, but let’s take a look at where this comes from before judgment gets passed.
In countless discussions, it is remarkably easy to come across a statement from a religious person to the effect of, “That’s not what our god is all about” – and this can arise in virtually any aspect. In fact, it already has a label that sees a lot of use, the “No true Scotsman” fallacy. In essence, every time someone is shown to violate some tenet of their religion, class, country, or whatever other demarcation you wish to apply, someone else is often quick to claim that this violation does not come from a bona fide representative – they are “not true christians” (change as needed.) It is an exceptionally tiresome argument when it comes to religion, one that I’ve repeatedly addressed. Aside from there being no specific definition of a “christian” or “muslim” or whatever, much less requirements, anyone is free to call themselves by such a label, a label which is usually considered to carry a lot of prestige – yeah, if you’re seeing the flaw in the idea that an ill-defined and effortless appellation has value, good; you’re ahead of a hell of a lot of other people.
This is far from being the only example, though it might possibly be the most prevalent. Perhaps it would be slightly easier to provide a few examples of poll questions.
Who goes to hell?
A) All those who fail to accept jesus christ into their hearts.
B) All those who have violated the ten commandments.
C) All those who violate the teachings of muhammad.
D) All those who have sinned, as defined in any scriptural passage, including those about shellfish and trimming hair.
E) All those who have sinned and not been absolved of such.
F) Faggots and abortionists.
G) Everyone in religions other than my own.
That’s a start. Let’s try another.
Who or what is satan?
A) A fallen angel that was condemned to rule over hell.
B) A being on Earth that constantly seeks to coerce mankind into sin.
C) A metaphorical personification of evil thoughts and actions.
D) The necessary antithesis of good to permit free will.
It’s easy to see that the option of, “Other,” with a blank for essay answers, is probably necessary, as well as the ability to “choose all that apply.” And can you imagine the refinements that should be added, such as whether satan was intended by god or a product of free will? Whether it is jealous of god’s power or a dutiful servant? Whether it is manifested within the serpents of both eden and armageddon, or whether these are separate entities? The same kind of distinctions can be applied throughout every aspect of religious belief, to say nothing of all the personal permutations and interpretations that go hand-in-hand.
Recognition among the religious of the huge variety of beliefs, even just within any given sect, is practically nonexistent. By far, the majority of those that I’ve engaged with in forums and in person feel that their personalized concept of religion is the sole definition. Moreover, and this is where it always gets interesting, they not only expect you to know exactly what’s going on in their heads, but they can get quite snarky if you dare to address any other, ‘false’ concept of their devotion. “The flood wasn’t an actual event, but a metaphorical one. Why are you concentrating on such a gross misrepresentation of scripture?” Seriously, this happens, more often then you might expect. It’s kind of a Catch-22: if broader scopes and generalizations are addressed, religious folk often argue that “you’re not understanding the nuances of faith” – but while these nuances are personal and often impossible to know without a few hours of questioning, the attitude is that they are universally held and, naturally, the only proper interpretation.
Now, to a (very) small degree, I’m sympathetic. Most scripture shows the handiwork of multiple chroniclers, and is usually contradictory in detail, tone, and even overall message. It would be impossible to accurately follow every aspect of it, so in order to follow any of it, one has to be selective. Moreover, religion is not really guided by scripture, but by the authorities within the faiths, the priest and rabbis and imams and so on, which are usually as individualistic as anyone else. Sure, understood. Somehow, though, this is not understood by the faithful, who often act as if there is only one faith, or at least, one True™ one, and everyone else is supposed to know what this is.
There is also the suspicion that it is perfectly intentional, at least partially. Faced with the absurdity of the sun stopping in the sky so there was enough time to slaughter the Amorites, or the idea that a man should dutifully impregnate his brother’s widow, any faithful individual has to somehow reconcile this with a worldview that they are comfortable holding, so reinterpretations of scripture are pretty much the only option. Not only that, but many aspects of religions have already been soundly and repeatedly trounced, so dodging these arguments in some manner might be considered avoiding such flaws.
I’m not in favor of generalizations; I’m very supportive of addressing the specific details, and of maintaining an accurate representation of faith. It’s just that there isn’t any, and determining someone’s personal set of specific details takes a lot of time. I’ve made the comment before that, of all of the religions and variations thereof that have been practiced throughout the centuries, among hundreds of cultures across the world, we are supposed to believe that right here, right now, we have it exactly right? But it’s even worse than that, because these personal interpretations imply that just one solitary person is truly faithful. Should any time at all be wasted on addressing such a premise?
Moreover, getting involved in such endeavors is usually pointless, since the generalized concepts are flawed enough to make chasing the finer, personal details a lost cause. But often enough, I’ve seen religious folk attempting to define loopholes in the flaws and interpretations, as if scoring is a factor; if there are more successful dodges than failures in their personal vision of religion, then it can be considered valid. It’s an awful lot like addressing UFO reports: no matter how many different reports can be shown to be weak, flawed, explained, or outright hoaxes, the UFO proponent will simply move on to the next one, seeking vindication rather than recognizing that so many issues is indicative of a very large problem.
Also curious, and I’ve noted this before too, but these ‘correct’ interpretations are apparently not worth the effort to obtain agreement over among the faithful. The flood is just a metaphor? Then tell it to the millions of people who maintain that it was an historical event. The whole intolerant dictator vibe of the early books was countermanded by jesus? Yeah, you have the entirety of judaism and islam to convince, as well as about half of the christians, so have fun. You see, I have this standpoint myself that if I’m supposed to buy it, then one should have no problem convincing, at the very least, those in the same damn faith that they claim for themselves – it hardly seems too much to ask. But if the very thought of attempting this seems ludicrous, well, now you know where I’m coming from.
And of course, the most common response at this point is that religion is personal, and no one has to answer for their beliefs. Fine, no problem – we’re never going to hear about it again, then? It’s not ever going to be used to guide decisions, judgments, attitudes towards others, and support for legislation? Yeah, right – the discussion wouldn’t even be taking place if this were really the case. Something truly personal would be something that we never even know about unless we ask.
Yet, there’s an even more salient point to the ‘personal’ angle, and by extension to all of this. If religion is tailored to suit the individuals, what purpose is this supposed to serve? It cannot then be argued that it is unassailable authority, the One True Way™, or anything remotely of that nature. Even our colloquial government laws are not something that one alters to suit themselves, much less the physical laws – but it’s okay when it comes to the rules from the creator of everything? When discussing scriptural references, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard variations of, “That’s not what was meant,” an apparent defense of their own personal take on the word of god. Yet I always have to ask, if that’s not what was meant, how come it was what was said? If one has to be selective over the passages to follow because of outright contradictions, what does this say about the verity of scripture? If all the scribes who introduced edits into the books over the years were “guided by divine inspiration,” how did the previous stuff get in there in the first place?
I’m not an idiot, and I know this for what it is: shameless justification of personal indulgence, the creative interpretation of religion to allow people to do whatever the fuck they want and still claim that they represent divine authority and guidance. But anytime someone interrupts the song-and-dance to cut right to the heart of the matter and outright say this, they’re accused of being mean and disrespectful and shrill and strident… apparently, it’s being antisocial to call someone out on their pettiness and selfishness. Funny, I thought that was how social mores were established myself, but what do I know? I get my idea of ethics from functionality, not a sense of self-importance, but maybe that’s another example of personal interpretation…
It would be interesting to see a poll like this taken, though. I can only wonder what the impact would be on tallying just how varied the answers are, even within a single church – when everyone on a test gets different answers from each other, how much confidence does this instill in any of them being right? At the very least, you have to conclude that the teacher is grossly incompetent…