On Belief, Part Three

Yeah, yeah, I’ll be back to nature photography or something really cool in the woods or water shortly – I’m just hashing some thoughts out. You won’t be failed for skipping this assignment. And while it can stand alone, it’s an extension of Parts One and Two.

One of the foremost arguments from a great many people, both religious and non (believe it or not,) is the social benefits that come from religion. Yes, faith may be a really poor way of viewing the world, but it provides a few positive aspects as well. Except that, I’m not really so sure about that. I may be biased, but before you jump to that conclusion, hear me out.

Some of the most outspoken atheists around today allow for some of the good things about religion, such as community, generosity, and comfort in tough times. And I’m all for viewing things with as open a mind as possible – if you haven’t caught the Welcome page, I’m much more about critical thinking, and that includes being critical of my own standpoint. Atheism comes along for the ride, but that’s only because, after many years, I found it fits our history and lives much better than anything else. If you want to take this as proselytizing, bear in mind that I only do it for the same reasons as most religious people do: because I think it may work as well for others as it does for me. If you disagree, fine, and I can’t threaten you with eternal torment, so you’re ahead of the game ;-)

However, so many of the supposed traits of religion, as outlined in Part Two, are more traits of humans as a species, to all appearances. According to most religious theories, I should have no morals at all, but anyone that knows me would have a hard time believing that. And in fact, many atheists (I’m speaking generally here, not trying to ride along on this one) are considered to have stronger morals, because they’ve arrived at them from careful consideration rather than from arbitrary acceptance of scripture. And yes, I said arbitrary – I’ve said before that many religious people ignore certain parts of scripture because they’re quite appalling to contemplate. Ignore the word of the supreme being? Are you mad? But it happens very often, and it happens because we, as humans, have an innate sense of right and wrong. It doesn’t come from the holy word, it actually exists outside, and in some cases despite it.

But how about things like community? Churches provide a gathering and communication place, and in most circumstances also provide activities for families. Some provide daycare services, and we can’t forget the amish barn-raising images. And this is true enough, and I have nothing whatsoever against this – I’m very much in favor of it, because we’ve found ourselves much more distant from our neighbors than we used to be. Is it safe to say that religion is responsible for this, though? I suspect it’s only a very minor factor within the community concept, from people who get the subconscious feeling that, while in or associated with the church, they are more obligated to be on better behavior. That sounds more snarky than intended – I’m not denigrating it, and we change our behavior for the circumstances all the time. I think church encourages this effect in a positive way, but probably should not be considered the prime cause. There are more than enough churches that do not have activities, and more than enough parishioners who really dislike their neighbors, to assign this trait to religion. We are a gregarious species, and don’t do well alone – churches seem to take advantage of this, more than foster it.

Generosity? Again, it’s not simply a facet of religious people, and can only tangentially be considered related. Many people give to their church to fulfill their desires to help others less fortunate, but others may do so because it meets a criteria for piety – in other words, buying their way into heaven. That’s putting it bluntly, but let’s face it, it does indeed exist – moreover, there’s no shortage of churches and televangelists who directly and flagrantly promote this viewpoint. Those may be considered the exception, but is it safe to draw a distinct line, or does the practice exist in grey areas throughout the spectrum of soliciting funds? Hey, I work for a non-profit, and soliciting operational expenses is a necessary aspect of the field. I would certainly like to work in a place as well-equipped and maintained as nearly every church I see, though, and I’m in the southeastern United States – I see a godawful lot! The non-profit I work for serves a multi-county area, and not “one every mile” (that’s not an exaggeration), but we’re not pulling in that kind of dough. So how do they? Is it safe to say that promoting religion is that much more important in people’s eyes than virtually every other cause? Or is something more at work there?

So now we come to one of the most interesting beneficial aspects of religion, that of comfort. This is something that’s very difficult to quantify, for a number of reasons. We’ll start with, how do you quantify actual, physical pain? For instance, I’ve known for a while that I feel it less strongly, basing on my reactions, than many around me, but how to measure it? And then, how to measure something like emotional distress or torment? This is a very tricky thing, and will likely remain entirely subjective – in other words, I’ll take your word for it. Religion is one of those things that comforts us in hardship and loss, and even if it is entirely fabricated, this is a benefit that has a distinct value.

Now, from my own standpoint, it does not, and virtually never did. Religion was far too confusing to me as a young child, and never free from the taint of punishment, even though I attended some pretty laid back churches. Later on, encouraged by a friend, I attended services at his church, which bordered on child-abuse – the emotional baggage that they promoted was overbearing, calculated, and outright manipulative, and had no business being used on children. I will be generous, far more than is warranted, and consider them an exception, but their practices were quite similar to many others I’ve seen to a lesser degree. Again, can you draw a line, and say that on this side of the line, there is no anxiety induced by religion?

Of course, there are the special times, like the death of a family member. One of the key promises of many religions is the assurance that some form of afterlife awaits – there is no permanent loss. It’s hard to argue with the potency of this. My brother died unexpectedly when he was twenty-three, I fifteen, and though it’s been a while since the last, I’ve had several dreams where he was simply hiding, still alive but for particular reasons, unable to reveal himself. It’s a potent feeling to suddenly regain a loved one, even in a dream (perhaps especially so.) And let me tell you from seeing it on the outside, being a parent that outlives one of their children is a devastating thing – tempering that with anything at all is a hard thing to argue against. Losing someone to something meaningless or gruesome (we did not, thankfully) would be even harder to handle.

At that point in time, I was already largely agnostic. I was unwilling to accept a particular answer like heaven just because it was convenient and comforting, and I honestly can’t speak for anyone else who might find their faith to be less than absolute – I imagine there’s more than a few people like that. Is it better to accept an answer that you like even when you question it, or does the possibility of lying to yourself induce further issues?

We have a hard time examining our feelings on subjects along these lines, because nearly all of our culture has the idea of an afterlife ingrained throughout it, so it’s even hard to find someone who has been raised completely without the influence. I can now accept that, like it or not, death is simply the cessation of everything I identify with someone – gone forever (except for memories, which are actually very valuable). This is not really any different from anyone else, save the belief by the devout that, some day, they’ll be reunited with their loved ones. Provided, of course, that they’re confident eternal torment isn’t involved, for them or their loved ones. Yes, this has to be addressed too, because it’s a fundamental part of so many religions. I asked this two posts ago, but do you know any non-sinners? Is it, perhaps, better to try and pretend that scripture isn’t really that distinct about punishment, or that the nastier parts are ruled out by the more forgiving? Are you sure? How many people do you think are sure, themselves? Are we comforted yet?

Are we comforted by the idea that, in an emotional outburst, we just relegated ourselves to hell? Are we cool with the idea that masturbation is being watched and ruled upon? Are we okay with seeing a friendly coworker in light of their eventual fate? How about our children?

Are you adding this up, in whatever way you want to count it? How’s it going against the family hardships you’ve seen? How many hardships can be, or are, actually made tougher because of religion? I’m not actually judging – I said this was subjective. You have to find that answer yourself. I’m just encouraging honesty in making the measurements. If you want to count the benefits, you have to ensure that you know what they are, and don’t stop counting when it’s convenient. That’s simply lying, to yourself and others.

Now, another thing to bear in mind: whether we like something or not does not have any bearing on reality.

Sound discouraging? Maybe, maybe not – religion really doesn’t make any sense, and there’s no point to most religious proscriptions. Your path is your own, but I know mine became easier when I realized religion was useless baggage and fit in no way in the universe that we inhabit. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Finally, on the benefits. Community is more a state of mind, and the actions that you take to promote it – if you value it, encourage it. Generosity hardly needs any promotion behind it, if you value that too – opportunities abound, and many, many people out there are less fortunate than you or I. Comfort you need to find on your own, but I can say this: doing good things make you feel good, because we, as a species, work better together. If it comes without being induced or outright forced by any influence, religious or otherwise, it is probably a lot more honest. Hopefully, you can take comfort in that.