Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Who Is This God Person, Anyway?*

*My sincere thanks to Douglas Adams for the title of this post.

Today I want to go completely non-partisan1 and talk about religion. Specifically, the concept of religion vs. faith, and the similarities and differences between the two. I am not going to be presenting evidence for or against the existence of any particular god; that is a different topic altogether. What I want to touch on is how faith gets distorted by religion. I will also be focusing on Christianity simply because it is the religion with which I have the greatest amount of direct experience. I am not comparing it against any other religion.

I would like to set something straight: I am an atheist. This does not mean I think that people of faith are feeble-minded, or that I look upon them with any contempt or pity. People of faith are the same as atheists in the sense that they are simply trying to muddle through life as best they know how, and faith is just one of the tools in their toolbox.

I myself went through a crisis of faith of sorts about twenty years ago. I had had things happen in my life that were chipping away at my atheism, causing me to wonder if maybe I had been wrong about everything. I went to a local Catholic church (I had been baptized Catholic2, and had attended services with my parents until around age 6) and sat down with then priest and explained my dilemma.

He was honestly taken aback, as nobody had come to him with the problem before. Yet his advice was to simply go into the chapel and wait.

"Wait for what?" I asked.

"Wait for God to speak to you."

"What if he doesn't?"

"Then that means you are not ready to hear him. It could take time. It could never happen. God doesn't speak to everyone."

I was surprised. I half expected a sales pitch, but instead I was essentially told it was up to me. There was no proselytizing, no big, dramatic exposition about the fate that awaited me. There was nothing more than a compassionate response. It was then that I began to realize that faith and religion were two separate concepts.

As it turned out, God never spoke to me. Not in the literal sense; I never expected that. But the whole time I sat in that chapel -- a good hour, at least -- I did not have any sense of religious conviction, or that there was a higher power, or even a sense of calm and peace. Instead, I was looking at the giant crucifix hanging behind the altar and thinking things like "did they use lag bolts to hold that thing up?" and "I wonder if the wooden beams in the ceiling are truly structural."

It also got me to wondering about the various horrors throughout history perpetrated in the name of religion, and how these could be associated with this compassion. It was a disturbing disconnect, until I actually started to parse it through.

Moving right along ...

One of the common threads I have seen in various atheism-related Facebook groups is an absolute conviction that everything that is wrong with the world can be traced back to religion, and as a result people of faith are routinely castigated for this. However, what is usually overlooked in these -- for lack of a better term, "discussions," given the level of vitriol often displayed -- is an understanding of the difference between the two concepts.

"Faith," in this context, is very personal. It is one's belief in some sort of higher power and greater purpose. It could be God, or Allah, or Buddha, or the superior musicianship exhibited by Rush on "Permanent Waves" and "Moving Pictures.3" Faith is an internal dialogue between an individual and the universe, with the universe being personified by a higher being.

"Religion," on the other hand, is institutional. It is the formalization of faith, with rituals, rules, proscriptions, external reward and punishment, and so on. Religion can be very closely tied to faith (as it is with the Amish, the Mennonites, etc.), or it can have, at best, a nodding acquaintance with faith (a la Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and other charlatans).

The problem is that the general public uses these terms interchangeably, muddying the waters. There are historical acts -- witch trials, the Spanish Inquisition, the persecution of Galileo, and so on -- that were committed in the name of religion, not faith. Religion, the institution, was the one making the rules, deciding who was breaking them, and meting out (often cruel) punishment. In each case there were people of faith who found these acts to be antithetical to their faith but -- due to the power of the church to punish more or less with impunity, for any reason at all -- almost all of them were forced by circumstance to remain silent.

It is important to remember, though, that when looking through history at the various atrocities perpetrated by Christians against large populations -- from the Crusades all the way up to Northern Ireland in the late 1990s -- had, at their core, a religious component which manifested itself as the dehumanization of an "other." In the case of Christianity, it didn't matter if they were Muslims, or Jews, or even a different branch of Christianity (the IRA, remember, was a Catholic organization fighting against Protestants), all that mattered is that the opposite side were portrayed as being evil in some fashion.

This in itself is not unique to religious conflict, it is a common practice to dehumanize and belittle the enemy (caricatures of the Japanese during World War II as sneaky, goofy assassins who all wore glasses and had buck teeth, images of Muslims as all being sword-waving, spittle-emitting, shrieking maniacs, etc.). The difference here is that, with the weight of religion behind these caricatures, they became normalized into society and accepted as (pardon the pun) gospel truth.

The upshot of all this is that religion made torture, imprisonment without real cause, discrimination, dismissive self-righteousness, and many other terrible things seem normal and sanctioned. In the United States during the early 20th century, there were signs posted at the outskirts of small towns saying things like "This is a Christian community. Niggers, kikes, papists keep moving." John F. Kennedy faced enormous backlash from conservatives simply because he was a Catholic4. Today any Presidential candidate that does not kowtow to evangelicals is not going to get elected, regardless of his or her personal beliefs.

Now, let's look at faith, defined here as "a belief in a higher power or order, over which humans have no control, and which provides a moral framework for each individual." People of faith exist in all religions, and in many cases their personal beliefs clash with institutionally sanctioned beliefs on at least a couple of areas. Pro-choice Catholics5, for example, even though the official position of the church is that no abortion is acceptable. Or Southern Baptists who do not personally decry homosexuality as a sin.

In these cases, the individual is placing their personal belief system based on religious teachings, rather than simply adopting religious dogma as their own. Catholicism, Lutheranism, etc. are all templates on which their moral structure is based, but they have each felt free to adapt the ideology to their own lives, rather than the opposite.

It's kinda like a California rolling stop. You know, you come up to a stop sign and you don't come to a complete stop but you are going slow enough so that you can stop virtually instantly if needed. You are following the spirit of the law, rather than the letter.

As an atheist (hell, as a human being with empathy), I cannot support the atrocities perpetrated in the name of religion. It doesn't matter whether it's the genocide in former Yugoslavia or a same-sex couple not being able to get a wedding cake because a baker opposes same-sex marriage.
There are a number of examples within the bible of what "faith" actually is:
Mark 12:31: "‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater ...”
Leviticus 19:33-34: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

James 2:8-9: "If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors."

Matthew 25:40: "And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
I don't think I have to point out where modern Christian religious institutions fall down on these points, do I?

The point of all this bloviating is to try to foster a deeper understanding of the difference between faith and religion. Faith, in and of itself, is not at all inimical to any aspect of modern society, as it is purely internal. Religion, on the other hand, can be very dangerous (hence the proscription against the intermingling of religion and government in the First Amendment, for example), which is why we need to constantly be asking ourselves, when faced with any religious act: is this an act of faith, or is it an act of religion?

I gotta lie down.

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1It's not very likely that I will be able to maintain this, though. Fair warning.
2But I'm feeling much better now (rimshot).
3Ya gotta give 'em that, even if you aren't a fan. I mean, "YYZ?" Come on.
4Then, as now, progressives in the general population outnumbered conservatives. It's just kinda the way society goes.
5Yes, Virginia, there are pro-choice Catholics, just as there are anti-choice atheists.

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