Why one is Needed and How it might be Derived




НазваниеWhy one is Needed and How it might be Derived
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Summary

This is an appropriate place to review a few of the major points discussed so far in Parts One and Two.

* The brain's chief function is to receive information detected by the body's sensors and to analyze and redirect this information so that the body acts in a manner that best enables it to survive and reproduce.

* Chunks of knowledge, experiences, thoughts, past emotions, etc., are stored in the brain as memories within neural networks, much like information is stored in computers as patterns in memory chips and on hard drives. The human mind accesses these memories both consciously and subconsciously.

* The mind evolved as the "problem-solving software" of a brain that had to manage an increasingly complex body. (The body's abilities became more complex over time as survival-enhancing mutations added structures upon existing structures. See Chapters Eight and Ten for an elaboration of this phenomenon.)

* The mind survives because it helps the body to survive. It does this by searching for and recognizing relationships between memories and stimuli from body sensors, then creating an awareness of alternative courses of action.

* The universe's causality has led its inhabitants to think (to the extent that they possess this capability) and act rationally. This ability began, and will continue (evolving as it does so), because those behaving in this manner are more likely to survive and reproduce than those who ignore its importance.

* Solutions to everyday problems can only be found by consulting the environment presenting the problem situation. The criteria needed to draft and select rational solutions are always obtained from that environment. This environment can be the real universe, or it can be a social, cultural, artificial or other environment, including the private mental mind-set created by the blend of constructs each individual develops during his or her lifetime.

* A purpose, attainable in the environment presenting the problem, must be valued and sought before a solution can be rationally chosen (i.e., a decision made) and "meaningful" action taken.

* Language tremendously expedited the transfer of knowledge and understanding between generations. It has made humans the most adaptable species on this planet and it has accelerated the growth of their intelligence. However, language also allows us to expound metaphysical problems devoid of real world context. Such problems cannot be solved without first defining some appropriate metaphysical environment; furthermore, meaningful decisions cannot be made even within this environment without first defining and valuing a purpose.

* Religions declare purposes and describe accompanying environments. These conceptions exist entirely and only within the minds of believers, and differ widely throughout the world. In effect, religions provide an environment where otherwise-unanswerable metaphysical questions such as, "what is the point of living/what is the meaning of life?" may be answered. This environment contains solutions and criteria to be used by believers when making a decision or choice. The religion's goal (or purpose) is said to be attainable by anyone who chooses to live mentally within that environment. This purpose, once valued, is then used to assess options, make moral decisions or judgements, and regulate behaviour. (A similar effect is created when individuals adopt and conform to the behavioural standards defined by their social environment.)

* "Revelations" occur when the results of subconscious, second-level, stress-relieving thinking break through into conscious thought. This phenomenon is accompanied by emotions of excitement, wonder and joy, chemically generated as the stress-induced tensions are released.

* "Conversions" of any kind, religious or secular, and whether externally or self-induced (by way of a revelation), occur when one all-encompassing Construct connects or re-connects, then supersedes, numerous formerly poorly integrated neural constructs. The new Construct profoundly affects the thinking, decision making, and behaviour of the affected individual.

* The intensity of self-induced revelations, the instant relief from stress they provide and the seemingly perfect answers they offer create conditions that convince recipient individuals that this is "the truth." Such individuals often become close-minded in their way of interpreting information and firmly believe121 that their mind-set is the only correct way to think.


"Creativity," "Free Will" and "A Revelation" are postscripts to this chapter.


CHAPTER SIX: PRESENT DAY RELIGIONS


Humans have built, nurtured and developed religions of various kinds for millennia. Primitive people venerated animals, snakes, birds, plants and insects, as well as the more usual mystical gods. Forms of astrology and magic often accompanied and added complexity to their beliefs. The sun, moon and stars, human ancestors, imaginary demons and spirits, have all been thrown into the mix to flavour religious philosophies at one time or another.122

Over the past twenty five centuries or so, the number of major religions has contracted to nineteen.123 However, each one of these includes many variations (Protestantism, for example, acknowledges over seventy), and each variation can be further subcategorized many times. In addition, an incredible number of minor cults lie half-hidden in the cities, towns, villages and backwoods of many nations. Society still has Satanism, voodoo, animism, warlocks and witches, all seeking (and finding, if occasional newspaper reports are to be believed) receptive audiences to extend their influence. In total, humans probably support a million or so different religions--and the number increases each year.124

This chapter presents a brief overview of five principal religions, summarizes some of their commonalities and ends with a list of issues that, in my opinion, devalue their utility. It is necessarily a very cursory glance at only a few of their most obvious features; doubtless many readers will be able to add much that has been left out.

1. Some Major Religions

Over half of the world's population claim to be either Christian (over 2 billion), Muslim (about 1.2 billion), or Hindu (nearly 0.8 billion).125 Buddhists number over 0.3 billion. No other religion is supported by more than 200 million people, with most other doctrines claiming just a few million. Surprisingly, the founding monotheistic religion, Judaism, reports less than twenty million adherents. By way of comparison, over 0.9 billion people state that they do not follow a religion of any sort, and more than 0.2 billion call themselves atheists and deny the existence of any god.

1.1. Christianity

Christianity may be subdivided into four major divisions; Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican. Each holds the Bible to be an important fount of knowledge.

Christians, in a doctrine known as the Trinity, believe that God exists in three forms. As God the Father, He created the heavens and Earth, He judges then rewards or punishes (but is always willing to forgive any sin in those who repent). As God the Holy Spirit, His presence can be directly experienced by anyone. And as Jesus, the Son of God, He came to Earth to teach us how to behave in order to join Him in Heaven after death.

Almost all of the information we have about Jesus and his life was written by proselytizing followers several decades after his death, and the veracity of the text is considered suspect.126 Notwithstanding this dispute, the many stories about his life, the miracles he is reported to have performed, and the description of his resurrection after death are taken by the majority of Christians as proof-sufficient that he was, and is, the Son of God.

Jesus taught that humans are created in the image of God, and that they should be loved as God also should be loved. Christians emphasize the importance of private devotion and prayer, living in accordance with the will of God, participating in worship, communion and confession, baptizing adults or infants, and hoping for everlasting life. Prayer is deemed to open up a direct channel of communication with God. Christian rituals, practices, and precise beliefs vary greatly between the numerous factions, but Christmas (celebrating the birth of Christ), and Easter (commemorating His death and resurrection) are invariably important annual events.

All segments of Christianity state that one's purpose in life is to obey God's will, that sin exists, that there will be a day of judgement, and that there is life after death. God is taken to be merciful, and repentant sinners are assured that they will be forgiven.

Christianity is an evangelizing religion, with followers of some branches ever willing to relate their beliefs to others, and missionaries eager to convert any who show an interest. In this vein, some Christians see other religions (particularly extreme forms of Islam) as a danger to their well-being.

1.2. Islam

Founded in Arabia by Muhammad early in the seventh century, Islam spread rapidly following Muhammad's death in 632 CE. During the Dark Ages, Islamic scientists, philosophers and physicians formed the intellectual centre of the world. Islam's growth and dominance declined following the First Crusade (called by Pope Urban II), when a rabble of mostly Western European Christian armies took Jerusalem in 1099. (Jerusalem was regained for Islam in 1187 by the Muslim prince Saladin.)

Islam is practised today by approximately one-fifth of the world's population. Muslims state that Muhammad was the last and greatest of many thousands of prophets.127 Muslims believe that all prophets were human and all were passing Allah's words to humankind, that all prophets are therefore Muslim, and that only Islam is acceptable to Allah.128

Muslims believe that the Koran (or Qur'an) contains Allah's revelations to Muhammad and is therefore infallible. Because the sections of the Koran were memorized and written down by many followers and recorded in full shortly after Muhammad's death it has retained its integrity over the years. The Koran teaches forgiveness, but allows punishment of wrongdoers. Martyrs who die in a jihad, or holy war, are assured a place in paradise.

A second significant source of Islamic doctrine is the Hadith literature, which describes what Muhammad did or said in particular circumstances. This text is not deemed to be infallible; it teaches that individuals should live to benefit humanity, and not live to seek immediate or future pleasure.

According to Islam, Allah created and sustains the universe and all within. Nature is subservient to, and may be exploited by, mankind. Mankind is in the service of Allah, must worship Him, and must construct a social order that is ethical and free from corruption. As in Christianity, Muslims believe that there will be a Day of Judgement, when all humanity will be judged, with some going to the Garden or heaven, and others going to hell. In the meantime, "virtuous" nations are granted license to judge and punish "corrupt" nations.

Muslims are forbidden to eat the flesh of swine or to drink alcohol, and must obey five duties. They must publicly profess their faith at least once in their life. They must pray five times each day, give alms or charity, fast from dawn to sunset during the month of Ramadan, and, if physically and economically able, make at least one pilgrimage to the Kaaba at Mecca. Men should cover their midsection and are forbidden to wear silk or gold jewellery. Women should cover their whole body, except for hands, feet and face. Men may have up to four wives but each must be treated equitably and justly. Women can initiate divorce. Possessions pass equally to all children. Racial equality is stressed, and the practice of different religions is allowed.

Islam is a way of life that covers all aspects of living. Its principles govern personal, social, political and economic thought and action with no aspect neglected. Consequently Islamic law contains and defines both legal and moral obligations, and several Islamic nations do not separate church from state. This practice has fostered the growth of Islamism (whose slogan is, "Islam is religion and State"). Islamists, a minority group of avid fundamentalists, particularly oppose "Western morality," and believe that modernization has resulted in the breakdown of traditional family, societal, and religious values. They strive for a global theocracy and are not above using terrorism to achieve their ends. Moderate Muslims seem powerless to counter this activity from within Islam and any attempt to do so from without is regarded as an attack upon the Islamic faith. Perhaps for this reason outsiders often see Islam as an aggressive and ruthless religion.

1.3. Hinduism

Hinduism, existing in India for some 5,000 years, has influenced many other religions, and has itself absorbed an enormous variety of beliefs and practices. These shape and colour every aspect of its very intricate metaphysics. Today, Hindus show more uniformity in their behaviour than in their beliefs; however, very few practices are universal to all.

The principal Hindu textual authorities are the three Vedas (the Rig-veda, whose content reaches back to the birth of Hinduism, the Yajur-veda, and the Sama-veda). These books are considered to be revelations about the Supreme Being (Brahman, who is said to be the source and ultimate reality of everything) and are not to be altered in any manner. A fourth veda, the Atharva-veda, is of lesser importance. There are many other Hindu sources of information, particularly the Brahmanas (rituals and myths) and the Upanishads (mystical meditations on the universe and meaning in life), however these authorities are too erudite for most Hindus to comprehend. Practical Hinduism is found in the Smriti (which is allowed to be modified, and which includes epics), many Puranas, and textbooks on sacred law.

Hindu beliefs include the notions that the universe contains many concentric heavens and hells (with India positioned at the centre), that time is both degenerative and cyclical, and that the universe is being intermittently destroyed and reborn. Many Hindus believe the soul leaves the body after death, to be reborn as another person, animal, vegetable, or other entity, with the "level" of rebirth being determined by past actions. Only continuously striving to improve both body and soul and the renunciation of all worldly desires can merit release from this endless recycling. Few Hindus actively seek this ideal. However, the pursuit of this goal has produced two distinct metaphysical and social systems.

"Worldly" Hindus live within an intricate, hierarchical, caste system that binds society and gives each person an identity and purpose. Born into a particular caste, each person is destined to perform certain appropriate duties--to marry within their caste, to raise a son, and to eat traditional food, for instance. Thus, for worldly Hindus, the key concepts of their philosophies are relationships, harmony and detachment or peace--not religion or a concern related to their god's requirements for them. "Non-worldly" Hindus (who renounce the world) attempt to unite their individual soul with that of Brahman, the universal soul. Many of their practices (such as vegetarianism) have been incorporated into worldly Hinduism.

Each Hindu community is responsible for erecting and supporting a temple which it then manages. Most Hindus worship one of the male gods, Shiva or Vishnu, or the goddess Devil. However, they may just as readily worship any of hundreds of minor gods, some of whom can be particular to just one village or family.

Social ceremonial occasions include birth, the first time rice is eaten, first male haircut, purification after first menstruation, marriage, pregnancy blessings, cremation, sprinkling funeral ashes in a holy river, and annual ancestral offerings. Less-public daily ceremonials include chanting a hymn to the sun at dawn, and making offerings to the household shrine, or to special garden or village objects. Temples vary from small stone boxes to complex temple cities. Priests offer prayers at sunrise, attend their god, give food remnants to those worshipping, and perform sunset rituals. Processions are normally held each year to carry the god image around the temple, and goats may be sacrificed on special occasions. Numerous colourful and vibrant festivals are held annually, with some allowing all castes to mingle freely. Periodically, individuals (usually male) and, less commonly, entire families make pilgrimages to holy places, often walking hundreds of kilometres en masse to fulfil vows, to seek blessings or give thanks for those received, and to collect water for the household shrine.

Despite its multiple gods, variety in religious expression, diversity and apparent contradictions, the Hindu society flourishes and continues to attract converts, perhaps, in part, because central to its teachings is the universal desire to satisfy the human striving for Shanti, or peace of mind.

1.4. Buddhism

Buddhism is based upon the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama,129 known as Buddha, or Enlightened One. Born (circa 563 BCE) a Hindu and raised as a prince of a small kingdom in Kapilavastu in north-eastern India, Gautama abdicated at 29 to lead an ascetic life and to practice Yoga. After doing so for six years he adopted a middle path between indulgence and self-denial, meditated, and eventually attained enlightenment. He then preached in various places, and subsequently formed a community of disciples.

Buddha retained the Hindu idea of reincarnation and belief in the reality of many gods (although none are to be considered divine and all are subject to reincarnation and to Cosmic reality). However, he rejected many other Hindu beliefs, particularly the veracity of the Vedas. He welcomed all castes and taught the "Four Noble Truths": that life is suffering, caused by ignorance, to be overcome by wisdom and compassion, achievable by following the "Noble Eightfold Path." This conduct requires right views, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, right-mindedness, and contemplation. In turn, these are often grouped into three categories: wisdom, morality and concentration.

Records of Buddha's actual teachings were not written until around the first century BCE, several hundred years after his death. During the intervening years, the unity of Buddha's teachings was maintained by councils of monks who met (four times in five hundred years) to agree upon proper monastic discipline and what should be taught. Disagreements in early years led to eighteen schools of thought and caused many splits. Today two main forms survive, Theravada (which holds Buddha to be mortal), and Mahayana (which holds Buddha to exist in three forms, one immortal).

Generally speaking, Buddhists believe that individuals are composed of five, constantly changing "bundles," which are comprised of feelings, perceptions, predispositions, consciousness, and the material body. Since this constant bundle-changing precludes the possibility of a soul (atman), the causal reincarnation link is attributed to ignorance, thoughts and sensations. Buddhists also believe in karma, whereby each act has an ethical consequence that brings punishment or reward during life, and which can determine the outcome of reincarnation. Being charitable, non-materialistic and unselfishly kind, having compassion for all, supporting the monasteries, not killing or stealing, avoiding alcohol and harmful language and not sexually misbehaving are considered to be correct behaviours. Reincarnation can only be halted through attaining the enlightened state of Nirvana.

Theravada Buddhism is most widespread in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, and is returning, via the Untouchable caste, to India. Mahayana Buddhism is dominant (in a variety of forms) in the rest of the Buddhist world, principally China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Central Asia, Vietnam, and Taiwan.

Theravada claims to be perpetuating the true teachings and practices of Siddhartha Gautama, and traces its descent from the original monastic community. The Theravadin ideal is to become an arhat, i.e., in a disciplined manner, attempt to manipulate their dharmas (a complexity of transient aspects that comprise the human existence) in order to suspend karma and thereby achieve Nirvana. Only monks can attain Nirvana, but the laity may hope to be reborn as monks after many reincarnations. Women and laity enjoy only limited participation in the monastic life.

Mahayana doctrine (originating between the second century BCE and the first century CE) holds that Buddha has a triple body-form: essence, bliss and transformation. "Essence" represents the absolute, which manifests itself in heavenly form as communal "bliss," and which appears on Earth as "transformation." (Siddhartha Gautama is held to have been such a transformation.) Mahayana Buddhism teaches that the true nature of all things is emptiness, and that this concept can be used in meditation.

Mahayana Buddhists believe that any individual can attempt to reach the stage of perfect enlightenment (bodhisattva). Of those reaching this state, some then choose to delay their entry into Nirvana in order to transfer merit to others through acts of compassion and loving kindness. (Mahayanists therefore consider the bodhisattva state to be higher than that of the Theravadin's arhat--who have more care for themselves than they do for others. As a result Mahayanists can revere bodhisattvas as deities during their lifetime.)

Any sentient thing, animal, human or god, can become a Buddha, and countless Buddhas, each presiding over their own universe, are believed to exist.

1.5. Judaism

Judaism was the first ethnic and religious group to oppose the prevailing Greek and Roman beliefs in many gods and to permanently adopt monotheism. Many Jewish beliefs and values were later carried over into its two most powerful progeny, Christianity and Islam, and Judaism continues to exert an influence far beyond that which one might expect from a relatively small religion.

According to the Old Testament, in the thirteenth century BCE Moses was commanded by Jehovah to deliver the Hebrews from their Egyptian bondage.130 Aided by miracles, he eventually succeeded. On reaching the desert, Moses climbed Mount Sinai, returning after forty days with the Ten Commandments. These became fundamental Hebrew laws,131 and emphasize the importance of property, communal equality, individual rights, personal freedom and sexual morality.

Orthodox Jews believe that God gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. The written Torah is maintained on scrolls in every synagogue where each week portions are read aloud. This, and the oral Torah (recorded as the Mishnar and the Talmud by rabbis in the Middle Ages) are said to contain all of God's teachings for humankind.

The Hebrews, under Joshua, conquered Palestine, and later, under King David, established their capital in Jerusalem in 1003 BCE, unifying the tribes of Israel. There, King David's son Solomon built the first Jewish temple. Periods of prosperity as well as misfortune followed, and are recorded in the Old Testament. Assyrians, in 721 BCE, conquered northern Israel, then drove ten of the twelve Israelite tribes into exile. In 586 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon's Temple, and the Hebrews were later exiled from the southern kingdom of Judah. Eventually the Hebrew tribes were allowed to return to Jerusalem as subjects of the Persian Empire. After a brief independence, they became subjects of the Roman Empire. Jerusalem was destroyed by Roman legions in 70 CE during the Great Revolt, and again the Jews dispersed. Many centuries of persecution followed, and the Jewish people only regained a land of their own, Israel, in 1948.

Jews maintained their faith through the many intervening centuries because they demanded strict adherence (through study, prayer and observance) to Judaism and to the Jewish Law; because they utilized one common language that all are required to know; because they practised an integrated communal and spiritual life; and because they were guided by an irrepressible hope for, and faith in, the establishment of a messianic kingdom.

Jews believe that there is only one God, Yahweh, who created the universe, and who continues to govern it in an intelligible and purposeful manner. They also believe that they hold a covenant with their god, whereby they obey His laws in return for His acknowledgement that they are His chosen people, to be carefully cared for. In effect, Israel is to be the model for the human race.

The Jewish year includes five major and two minor festivals. Three of the major festivals were originally agricultural, and are thus tied to the seasons. (Passover celebrates their exodus from Egypt.) Practising Jews pray three times a day and recite benedictions (particularly before meals, which follow strict dietary laws). Male children, when eight days old, are publicly initiated into the covenant of Abraham through circumcision. Boys reach legal maturity at the age of 13, when they are considered adults and assume responsibility for observing all the Jewish commandments (bar mitzvah), and are called for the first time to read the Torah aloud in a synagogue. Girls reach maturity at 12 years of age.

Both men and women are expected to dress modestly, and are prohibited (by an extension of the requirement to separate the animal and vegetable spheres of life) from wearing any garment that combines both wool and linen. Men are required to wear a head covering called a kippah.

Orthodox Jews expect the Messiah to return, the dead to be resurrected, and there to be everlasting retribution.

1.6. Atheists and Non-Believers

Atheists (who deny the existence of any god), and non-believers (who lack any belief in a god), number about 1.2 billion. Agnostics (who state that there is insufficient evidence to prove or disprove the existence of God, and neither believe nor disbelieve that a god might exist), are likely to form part of this total. These individuals have been included in this brief survey because they constitute one-fifth of the world's population, and because their opinions are relevant to the subject matter of this book.132

Countless numbers of philosophers and writers, from Lucretius to the present, have expressed non-belief either in the existence of gods or in their power over humankind.133 However, since no census, or its equivalent, sought atheistic or agnostic affiliations in past ages, we have no estimate of the number of followers such thinkers may have had.

Atheists typically consider the Bible, Koran, Vedas, Torah and other such texts to be simply records of myths or stories, and dismiss the idea that they could be revelations from a deity. They refute the existence of any god (as creator, or as a loving, caring overseer), and reject the concepts of divine creation, a soul, or an afterlife of any kind. On the other hand, non-believers simply do not believe in such things. They do not concern themselves with denying or affirming the possibility that a god or gods exist, and leave the whole matter for others to mull over.

Atheists may provide any of several reasons for their disbelief, the most common being the lack or inadequacy of evidence. In their opinion, all of the theological proofs that a god exists (particularly the Ontological, Cosmological, Teleological, and Moral arguments134) have been clearly refuted in one manner or another. Miracles, and such concepts as the existence or presence of a satan or a god, they argue, are so contrary to the behaviour of all everyday experience and knowledge of the real world, that incontrovertible evidence is needed for them to be credible--the ubiquitous hearsay evidence being particularly weak. They counter religious believers by asking how an "all-knowing" god can also be "all-good," how an "all-good" god can permit innocent children or animals to suffer, and how such a being could allow evil to exist.135

Atheism holds no particular philosophical position,136 and preaches no particular code of behaviour in refuting all divinities, spiritual religions and their doctrines. Although atheists must therefore develop their own standards of behaviour, there is no evidence that shows them to be any more or any less moral than those who have adopted the moral codes of a religion.137

2. Common Features

Religions, in one form or another, have existed from prehistoric times and frequently include much of the old in their new formats. They share many characteristics, and some of these are listed (in no specific order) below.

* Most religions, if not all, seem to have developed from the ideas of one thoughtful person, frequently one who desired to change people's behaviour by educating them.138

* Religions and beliefs in a god or gods were once necessary to explain how the universe and life began, and why "mysterious" events such as eclipses and plagues occurred--roles now more skilfully performed by science (see chapters seven and eight of this book).

* Religions incorporate and adapt occurrences remembered from the distant past (such as the Flood), as well as myths taken from other religions (such as Creation, or the Garden of Eden), and give them some special significance.

* Religions differ from place to place,139 with the majority of any population professing allegiance to the local creed. Periodically, differences of opinion arise that cause factions to split off and establish variants of the original belief.

* People generally adopt the religion of their forefathers.140 However, individuals occasionally convert from their family religion to another, typically upon marriage to a person of another faith, or if pressing needs are not being met, if a compelling preacher attracts them, if converting brings financial or social benefits, or if practising their belief threatens their survival.

* Religious groups build or select special places (such as churches, shrines or rivers) that are held to be significant in the conduct of that religion.

* Religions develop formalized, hierarchically structured organizations that, whenever circumstances permit, grow larger, become more complex, and eventually build edifices of some magnificence.

* Religions formulate ways to communicate with their god (such as meditation, the Eucharist, or prayer).

* Religions develop rituals, life-cycle rites (such as baptisms, funerals and processions) and festivals to be conducted at particular times, on special days, or during certain seasons, when something of historical or seasonal significance is commemorated or celebrated.

* Religions frequently teach by relating stories or parables crafted to illustrate virtues or values deemed to be worthy of emulation.

* Religions prescribe how to behave (and, not infrequently, how to dress) and give reasons why this behaviour should be followed. They define procedures (such as confession, covering the head, or prostration) to be followed to achieve particular religious purposes, and they devise special behaviours (such as making the sign of a cross, undertaking pilgrimages, or genuflecting) that publicly demonstrate allegiance.

* Religions integrate with and influence the society they service,141 affecting many of their laws, customs, traditions, institutions, and moral standards.142

* Religions hold faith and belief to be more important than facts or reason.

* Religions centre upon some kind of unity,143 and state there is purpose to life. They give followers an identity and a morality, and provide solace and hope in times of trouble. Many religions hold that a heaven or paradise awaits all true believers after their death.

* Above all, religions attempt to simplify moral decision making. (Perhaps this is why portions of religious texts are often cited as sanctioning actions taken, particularly by fundamentalists seeking to justify reprehensible acts).

This summary is in no way exhaustive--for instance, while followers receive many benefits from religions, few are listed here. Being able to provide so much for so many is probably the second most important reason to support religions' continuance. (The primary function of any religion is to provide the purpose used in moral decision making.)

However, while we gain much comfort from the beliefs and practices religions foster, religions can also hinder our ability to think rationally and openly. This may never have been more evident than it is today, when we might arguably claim that religious differences are creating more discord in the world than any other single issue, yet this topic is seldom raised at international levels (such as the United Nations), presumably out of fear that the discussions would rapidly become unmanageable.

3. My Dissatisfaction with Existing Religions

Existing religions raise a number of concerns for me, and those that strike me as incongruous are listed below, not to disparage any religion but to illustrate why I think something better is needed. You may well be able to add additional aspects, both pro and con, particularly if you have a non-Christian background. Having been brought up in such a society, I find it easiest to write with its doctrines in mind, and what I have written applies to all branches of Christianity as I understand them to be. However, I suspect that many of the following issues hold aspects that apply to other religions.

* As doubtless you will have realized from the preceding chapters, I cannot even get to first base. I find that I am unable to believe in the existence of a god that intervenes in human affairs. The evidence that others seem to find sufficient just doesn't hold true for me. It is possible to think that a god was necessary to create the universe, but it is just as plausible to think that He, She, or It did so in a last, dying act. Furthermore, I do not see the point of replacing one inexplicable event (that which created the Big Bang, or the universe) with another inexplicable event (that which created God). If, as the counter argument goes, God always existed, then, just as logically, so could the universe, and one wouldn't need a god to have brought about its beginning. The Big Bang description, with its verified ability to explain subsequent events, is much preferable to me for this has a utility that is scientifically beneficial.

* I find that not one of the world's great religions is simple enough to be understood. In those most-rational of disciplines, science and mathematics, simplicity is often used as the compass that points to the truth.144

* I can't believe that Christianity's central figure, Jesus, performed miracles, nor that he was resurrected after death. Nor can I believe that the old bible's stories are anything other than embellished incidents, copied down, then repeatedly tailored, decades or centuries after whatever they purport to describe had happened,145 and subjected to all the vagaries of intervening (and likely biased) minds. I am much more inclined to accept the findings of the biblical scholars that have contributed to the Jesus Seminars.146 How can the Bible be one hundred percent factual as some believe? And, if it is not, how does the average person distinguish truth from fiction?

* How can a young man or woman, not already indoctrinated into a religion and seeking something to guide their spiritual well-being, make a choice between competing religions? Rationally is not an option (since religions are based upon faith not fact). Emotionally seems to be the only way, but is this really the best method to make such an important choice--a choice intended to provide the rationale for moral decision making in the future?

Consider a reputable representative of each religion, someone perhaps midway between a fundamentalist and a reformist, someone anyone is likely to encounter, anytime, anywhere. Each will have a certain way to pray, to dress, to behave, and, most particularly, will have an opinion about how society should be ordered and children raised to conform to their religion's teachings. Yet each representative will claim that these directions follow from the word of God or His prophet. How can such instructions differ, one from another, so radically?147 Are we to infer from their many different beliefs that there indeed are many different gods? Or, should only one be taken to be correct? If so, which? When neither parents nor culture(s) dictate, how does one choose?

* It is clear to me that direction, particularly moral direction, is relative, not absolute.148 Moral direction varies from person to person, society to society, era to era, even Pope to Pope.149 Only in an artificial system, such as in the world of mathematics, can anything be absolute, and only then because it is defined to be so as a precondition to the existence and properties of such a (closed150) system. Thus, to me, if one states that God's word is absolute, i.e., true and unchanging, then one is stating that we are discussing an artificial system, a human-defined and invented one, one that may or may not conform to the reality that exists outside of that invented system.

The reality, for me, is that direction of any kind, but moral direction in particular, is nothing more or less than what we choose to make it.151

* Most religions look to their history for guidance; thus members are continually reminded of past defeats and sufferings inflicted upon their ancestors, most often by other religions. Is this the reason so many inter-religious conflicts still occur? Surely the best way to lead, and to rise above the past, is to look forward, not backward? Furthermore, texts written to guide behaviour in past times were penned with prevailing circumstances in mind. The authors never worried about an over-populated world, for instance, when censuring birth control.

* Western religions use fear as a tool to control their followers. Punishment following judgement; the Devil and Hell awaiting; these worries are as real to many as is their belief in God.152 Is this really the mental environment we want our children to pass to our grandchildren--a state of apprehension? What does this say about the way we think of ourselves, when our belief systems use this kind of negative psychological conditioning to obtain conformity?

* Many religions only conditionally bestow inclusion and love. Apparently, gaining admission to heaven is not for everyone, only for believers within the faith. Are we to believe that love, stated to emanate from God, is actually so rationed and controlled?

* Many religions promote human selfishness; they centre upon and cater to humankind and what God can do for us. Our prayers focus largely upon our needs, requisitioning help to obtain what we want. Moreover, most religions pay very little attention to the fact that we are only one small segment of a whole living biosphere and global ecosystem. If religious people believe that all living things were created by God, why then is the average western religion silent about how we despoil the biosphere (for example, by spewing pollutants, clear-cutting forests, or over-fishing oceans), or the way we treat some of our fellow creatures (battery-raising hens, restricting-movement of calves, force-feeding ducks, and worse)?153 Is it because we hold that animals are scarcely sentient, or because scriptures tell us we are to rule creatures of the Earth?154 Ignoring the well-being of all that lives except H. sapiens has innumerable adverse consequences, a concern familiar to environmentalists everywhere, but one almost totally ignored by our religions.

* Religions ask believers to abandon rationality when it proves troublesome, to place faith above clear thinking, to deny what their senses tell them about the way things are, and to believe in things like miracles, the existence of an intervening omnipresent, omniscient god, and an afterlife. The world is as it is today precisely because religions (to the considerable extent that they have influenced the behaviour of people and societies in the past) teach such things. Surely, placing statements that cannot be substantiated above rationality is the very last thing we should do if we want to survive and grow in a universe that conducts itself entirely rationally.155

* Finally, and of crucial importance to my way of thinking, religions are no longer able to do the job we most need them to do. Developed many centuries and even millennia ago, they have nothing to say about numerous current moral and ethical problems. They offer no guidance (and may even issue conflicting instructions) as we wrestle with the moral "right"- or "wrong"-ness of, for example, controlling conception artificially, allowing therapeutic abortion or yearned-for release from terminal pain, altering the genetic makeup of unborn children, rejuvenating diseased organs by using embryonic stem cells, cloning a human, or using MRI to examine suspects knowledge of criminal events.156

Certainly, I hear religious adherents stating with conviction their understanding of God's directives about these matters, but I do not value their declarations as much as others seem to. I believe that the words they attribute to God are those of various well-intentioned, long-dead, humans; words probably altered many times over the centuries, and I discount their importance. Indeed, the arguments of many vocal adherents seem to be based upon their own personal feelings (richly coloured by the emotions they generate) rather than upon facts and logic. Instead of telling me how to act in today's world, or how to prepare for life tomorrow, I hear them proposing a return to the behaviours of the past. I do not want to return to the past. And I do not think many of us would be willing to trade our current knowledge (and the many benefits of living in today's world of scientific, technological and medical marvels) for this kind of direction, once we understood that it also requires returning to yesterday's world of superstitions, intolerances and repressive practices.

Instead of uniting and guiding us as we attempt to make necessary moral and ethical decisions (as all religions were originally developed to do) current religions and their texts seem more to divide and hinder us. Faulty religious guidance has caused some to abandon the Pope in favour of condoms, states within nations to pass laws that counter and contradict reality,157 fanatics to kill doctors who perform abortions, terrorists to destroy buildings and kill thousands, and otherwise sensible men and women around the world to assault, maim and kill others who have simply chosen to follow a different faith. Would anyone dispute the thought that certain aspects of current religions' guidance are likely to promote the same practices, again and again, in the future?

In short, I find that our multifaceted understandings of God differ, our interpretations of what He wants differ, and our ideas of right and wrong differ. I lament the way many religions use fear and conditional love as forms of control, and how they ignore the damage we inflict on other life forms. (And--until I found the replacement that is discussed in later chapters--I missed the guidance that a religion's "purpose for life" once provided me.)

There is one central reason why none of today's religions satisfy me (or, likely others): religions promote fancies and deny facts. There is no valid evidence to show that there is an overseeing, intervening or compassionate god, none that shows a heaven to exist, and none that confirms there is an afterlife to value. All experiences purported to substantiate these assertions can be explained more mundanely. Such ideas were derived from assumptions made long ago when facts were scarce. They have been kept because they were made central features of religions that provide purpose, solace and hope.158 Our mind's crucial need for a purpose has caused us to follow a series of myths.

If we continue to rely upon incorrect assumptions when making decisions that affect the whole of life's future, then we are imprudent and short-sighted. Furthermore, we will suffer the consequences, as biospheric degradations and humankind's many ugly acts are regularly demonstrating to those with the wit to recognize what they are seeing.

We must search for a better purpose to guide our moral decision making. It must be based upon facts, not fantasies. We must develop a morality that conforms to reality, thereby creating one that is less likely to lead us astray.

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