On Belief, Part One

There has been a bunch of thoughts along these lines kicking around in my head for a while now, and since Pharyngula and Weird Things both referenced a new study along similar lines, I finally started putting some of them down. This has to do entirely with religious belief and the effect it has, so those into nature photography and observations can skip this one if they like. Those, however, who don’t like the idea of religion being questioned are required to read on:

The study that both writers referenced above is one into members of the clergy who have lost their sense of belief in the very structure they promote. I suppose some fervently religious people might find this disturbing or outright horrifying, but to many atheists, this isn’t any real surprise – many atheists took that same path earlier, and such revelations are more of a “No shit” matter to them. Wow, you’re having a hard time believing that an omniscient, omnipotent being would require constant ego-support (worship), would create beings with traits that it then denigrated (most of the seven deadly sins), would set up a nonsense set of circumstances supposed to show how grateful its creation should be to itself (original sin and the savior), and would play games with its creation for no observable or revealed purpose? How could you possibly question all that?

Yeah, I would be half-crippled in my writing without sarcasm…

My own thoughts, however, are along slightly different lines. In an article in Skeptic magazine, “In Belief We Trust” [Volume 14, No. 1], the writers called into question some studies of anthropologists, or more specifically a factor within those studies that dealt with the religious beliefs of other cultures, mostly at the level of island or tribal cultures. The question was whether the people in these cultures actually believed the religious structure they related, or simply followed it as a societal norm. In other words, did they believe that Ximal (sorry, that’s a truly shameless reference that I hope you don’t get) ruled their lives, or simply chant Ximal’s name because everyone else did, and their daily thoughts had little or nothing to do with Ximal and Ximal’s proscriptions? And to me, this raises the bigger question of how many followers of any religion actually believe.

First off, let me say that the concept of “faith” actually implies being unsure, by definition – it basically means belief without evidence, or if you prefer (because then we’d have to define “belief” in a way everyone would agree with,) conviction without support. No one has faith in gravity – gravity simply exists, and we know this through everyday experience. Faith is only in something that no one actually experiences, or in some cases, experiences in a way that can be called into question, like various internal revelations or messages in grilled cheese sandwiches. Faith itself implies that the we’re not dealing with established facts, and by extension, something questionable.

But I’m not even talking about that level – I’m referring to people who, when avowing their fervent belief in some supernatural concept, demonstrate behaviors that fail to support it. How many times have you found “religious” people who seem to forget their religion’s proscriptions on subjects like lying, stealing, coveting, adultering, jealousing (as long as I’m making up new words) and so on? Pride, gluttony, wrath? No, wait, let me make it easier on you: how many times have you met people who never display any such behavior proscribed by their religion? If you shrug and say that it happens from time to time, I challenge you to pay attention. I have to say, once I started thinking about it seriously, that I have never met anyone like that. There are a few people I have heard of, that I do not know personally, that might, perhaps, make the cut. Would they fail the test if I knew them better? Or should I be nice and let the lack of proof otherwise count in their favor? Considering that I have never met anyone personally who passes, and most people I have even heard of fail too, what do you think?

No, I’m not going to put a lot of weight behind my personal experience. I imagine one argument is that I’m biased, which could be true. Part of the reason I’m an atheist is because of this observation, though, and I was raised religious – in other words, it convinced me against my culture. And if someone wants to bring up the bias argument, then that has to be applied equally to everyone, which means no fudging definitions, creating excuses, or supposing conditions not specified in the scriptures.

But let’s take a closer look at behaviors. For instance, can you tell a religious person through their actions? How about on the road? (Yes, I really enjoyed asking that question.) In the workplace? Shopping at christmastime – you know, that time of the year when everyone is on their best behavior? Is behavior a reasonable indicator of religiosity? I admit to being hard-pressed at finding a better measuring stick, and in cases where some particularly religious person is exposed in the media with some form of errant behavior, it is exactly that behavior which others of that religion use to say that the culprit obviously is not a “true christian,” whatever that may be. When asked, that definition virtually always involves, “accepting jesus into your heart,” which is hardly a testable (or even meaningful) definition. And lest you think I’m solely picking on christianity, I’ve seen this from many other faiths as well.

There’s more. In most religions, the concept of reward-&-punishment is pretty clearly laid out, isn’t it? Just desserts? The reason I ask is from seeing how many people who somehow fail to accept this. Witness the number of downright angry folk who continually rail against various sins (and let’s not forget things not even clearly defined as sins, like abortion.) Those that feel, “something must be done,” about gay rights and even maintaining, “In god we trust,” on currency. Those that foam at the mouth about cloning, death penalties, and other forms of “playing god,” (like us mere mortals could even come close.) Is it safe to ask that if they believe, why are they so worked up? I would think true belief in an omnipotent being and a distinct set of rules would mean there’s no reason for humans to bother – it’s in good hands. Even the idea of atheism should be a non-issue to anyone religious – the folly will be demonstrated very effectively soon enough.

Some standpoints, like atheism, abortion, and such, might be argued against because they lead the young and impressionable astray. This isn’t an invalid line of reasoning, but it does beg the question of how this could be done so easily? The religious message is everywhere, which makes it very amusing when some white-shirted lads come to my door and ask if I’ve received the word. No, Chuckles, I’ve been living on Mars up until the very second you knocked, tell me about this strange word, “religion.” But back to the point, why would it be that so many people think that a constant barrage of religion is necessary to keep mankind in line? Is that faith?

Let me ask this, then: What kind of behavior would you expect from someone who has no trust that the system is effective? That it needs constant support? That it, in and of itself, is merely a social construct, just like traffic laws?

In fact, there’s a nice thing to compare against. How often do you hear people rail against murder, theft, adultery, and so on? Yes, it occurs, but the religious hardly put their efforts into those, do they? Well, sure, because our culture has laws regarding them! It’s just the things that us mere mortals don’t legislate, that are instead only up to the omnipotent dude in the sky, that they get in a tizzy about. Because the deity obviously needs more help than the police force does.

That’s belief, is it?

If you weathered all that, you can head on to Part Two, because I am actually going somewhere with this, but figured we both needed a breather ;-)

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