THE RELIGIOUS ARGUMENT
By Roland Watson
I concluded the last article by saying that god may be a human fantasy. But, is this really the case? What about god's creation, the universe?
Rational discourse on god
Unfortunately, there is little that can be said, using reason, about god. As to the universe, god - or whatever - is responsible for it. Of course, this is also viewed as self-evident. The universe is the subject, and god the predicate. This is the idea that in some way they cannot exist without each other.
For example, the universe could be god itself, god manifested into material reality, which is known as pantheism.
Or, god could exist separately from the universe, in some unexplainable way, which is the view of Western religions.
Or finally, god, through the creation of the universe, may have ceased to exist, which is similar to, but perhaps not necessarily the same thing as, the first option.
Regarding the power of god, given the scale of the universe it truly, from our relative perspective, is great. However, as the author Graham Greene has pointed out, it cannot be said to be unlimited, or omnipotent, unless it is able to alter our future. And, if god does not have this power, it is arguable that it - the being god - is of no consequence. As to the question of the existence of this power, though, it is completely unknowable. There is no way to know if it exists or not.
The major inconsistencies of different religions reflect the ways in which they attempt to confront this difficulty. God will not reveal itself, hence the need for faith, but, surprise, surprise, there are exceptions:
- God has communicated directly with the prophets - and the enlightened, in other words, with the chosen few. Indeed, He has even sent His son.
- God periodically provides visions and miracles.
- And, god can be appealed to through prayer, and may even bend the rules of the universe a bit and grant one.
When one's faith is weakening, these are the artifices that the purveyors of religious form have constructed to shore it up.
Also, viewed philosophically, from the perspective of what constitutes knowledge, these techniques are extremely clever. We have seen a number of times that complete knowledge of a system requires both the inside and the outside views. Unfortunately, we have no access to the outside view, and hence the total view.
But, wait a second, these events: the existence of Moses, Jesus and Mohammed; the Resurrection; hearing the voice of god; the "revelation" of faith; visions and miracles; and answered prayers, are messages from the outside. Thanks to the benevolence of god, we have been given the total view after all.
As all of this shows, the form of religion is highly complex. To the believer, it is the need for and the path to salvation, and insofar as the path prescribed, the ethical guidelines, are reasonable, this specific part of the form is not necessarily bad.
However, the demand that these guidelines be followed, on the threat of punishment, perhaps even eternal punishment, and with the most severe kinds of torture imaginable, is truly despicable.
Of course, when we consider this there are a number of additional points that need to be made. The first of these is to take a look at what we have specifically been told about heaven and hell. Indeed, it turns out that we know a lot about hell, but very little has actually been said about heaven.
As an aside, this is why I said that the form that drives ethical behavior in the Western religious tradition is largely negative. It is based on negative reinforcement, or punishment, of sin. Also, it is worth noting that the Ten Commandments is a list of things that you should not do.
For heaven, we know it is a great place, a utopia in fact, but not, precisely, why. What is it that makes it so special, other than through being the abode of god, the angels, and the just? In other words, what is it really like?
One view of such a heaven, ironically, comes from the East. I quote H. L. Basham here again:
"In the early days of the cosmic cycle mankind lived on an immaterial plane, dancing on air in a sort of fairyland, where there was no need for food or clothing, and no private property, family, government or laws. Then gradually the process of cosmic decay began its work, and mankind became earthbound, and felt the need of food and shelter. As men lost their primal glory distinctions of class arose, and they entered into agreements with one another, accepting the institutions of private property and the family.
With this theft, murder, adultery and other crime began."
This sounds idyllic, at least at the start, but what about other forms of life? At least the Garden of Eden accounts for nature, although we now understand that its diversity requires evolution, and death. But, since there is no death in heaven, we are left with a seemingly unresolvable contradiction.
Hell, on the other hand, is very well thought out. This is because it plays on our fears and anger. All you have to do is consider the worst, which any sense can experience and any thought can imagine, and that's hell.
Also, we are told that the reason hell is so bad is because God hates sin. But, what this means is that our ethical system is not only negative, it is based on hate! God wants his revenge, and the colder the better. But, even with all of this, god is still viewed as just, and his relationship with us is seen as one of "love."
The fact that god has the power simply requires that he use it. To quote again, this time from James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "God would not be God if he did not punish the transgressor."
In this way, we can see that God is like any other self-absorbed leader, in love with his power.
Why were Adam and Eve tested? "Because I'm God, and I'm the boss. You must accept my authority, or suffer the consequences."
Indeed, the point has been made - by Douglas Adams - that a being which would set such a trap - the forbidden apple - would not be satisfied until it had been sprung. In other words, "You 'will' know I am God, through suffering 'my' consequences."
Through the concept of original sin we are all born guilty. But, this guilt is derivative. It is inherited from our first parents.
This is a very primitive idea: that we could be held responsible for the actions of others over whom we have had no influence. Indeed, it even holds for unbaptized infants.
The human projection
Through all of this, we can see that such a depiction of god is not "real." Rather, it is a reflection of us. "God" is in fact the ultimate "projection" of humanity.
In addition, hell is replete with its own contradictions as well.
First, there is no discrimination on the basis of sin. Both petty thieves and murderers - and even the sayer of an unkind word or the thinker of a sinful thought - receive the same punishment.
As an aside, this same phenomenon also occurs in heaven, where there is no distinction between being "good" and being a "saint," although such an issue is addressed in the Eastern tradition of reincarnation. In the East, your fate in the next life, bad or good, is relative to your behavior in this one. Also, if heaven is inherited by the meek, what does that say about those who are not meek? What does it say to people who are strong, and people who desire to be strong, and not only through physical strength but through all manner of personal development, including ethical development?
You can be the worst of sinners for your entire life, but a heartfelt apology at death's door will earn you a full pardon. (Now that's forgiveness!)
The good also suffer from the existence of hell, from the pain of separation, as they see their sinful friends and family members banished forever.
The torments of hell require senses to appreciate, but these died with the body.
And finally, hell is meant to be infinite - the agony will never cease. This raises the question, by what measure of time? What relativistic Einsteinian clock is ticking away in hell?
Under this religious system, our purpose is to save our souls from eternal damnation. But, as the structure of hell is not very persuasive, logically, it does clearly demonstrate one thing, which is the power of a threat. God is presented to us as a bully.
In the next article, I will explore the consequences of religious form in greater depth.
© Roland Watson 2014