A slightly different take on the question of gods and religions

Here’s a slightly different take on the question of gods and religions. Mostly the debate is a little shrill. Atheists smugly pointing out the logical contradictions in faith, the faithful closing ranks and gloating about how they will be in heaven and those damned atheists will be a far worse place. Personally, I’d like to see a new civilisation, based entirely on reason with a morality based on secular humanism, but I know this isn’t going to happen. Unfortunately, humans being weak creatures (as the Bible is fond of reminding us) many will always need the support of a faith structure of some kind. Even atheists in fact, rejecting the structures provided by religions, put in place their own structure, based on secular humanism. Hitherto it has been supposed that reason, the modus operandi of atheists, could have no discourse with faith. But I question that. I am convinced that all believers, even suicide bombers, have some repressed ability to reason, and I believe it should be possible for believers to interpret their faith in the light of reason. So let’s look at faith, not with the objective of debunking it, but to see how faith might be combined with reason to produce a new kind of religious practice where the welfare of humans is as important as the believer’s place in heaven. Looking at all religions is beyond the scope of a 1000 word essay, so let’s stick with the one we know best, Christianity. I believe most of the points I am about to make will apply equally to all religions.

The problem for believers, or should be, is how to know what God really wants. The Bible itself is full of factual errors and contradictions. You can use it to justify stoning adulterers to death, or keeping slaves, or you can look at the condensed version of Moses’ tablets and recognise in the Ten Commandments a workable, indeed, an inspired moral guide. The problem is God doesn’t speak directly to anyone anymore. Some of the faithful claim that they get guidance from something they call “the Holy Spirit”, which might be nothing more than a whisper of assent or dissent from the believer’s own unconscious mind, in other words, the person’s own conscience, or his own prejudices telling him the answer he wanted to hear all along. The reason I believe the “Holy Spirit” is not an actual external force is that different believers often claim contradictory epiphanies from the same source.

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So we’ are back to the only supposed documentary record of God’s will, for Christians, the old and new testaments, for Muslims, the Koran, for Jews, the Torah and so on. Scholars spend lifetimes studying these often abstruse, sometimes, cryptic texts, and doing their best to interpret them. What’s an ordinary man like you or me to do? Well, if you’re like those men who flew the planes into the World Trade Towers, you accept the interpretation of your own ministers and you act without thought or hesitation. Allah Akbar! Or if you have an existing prejudice, like a visceral dislike of homosexuals, you seize on those parts of the Old Testament that call for those men to be burned and stoned to death, and you ignore those parts of the same holy texts that contradict the bits you like.

“Truth” is not really definable, and “good” and “evil” are very slippery concepts. For me, given the contradictions of various religions, and the horrors inflicted on humanity in the name of one god or another, I prefer a humanistic approach that measures the worth of human actions by their effect on others. Does this action help another human being in some way? To that extent, it is good. Does it harm others? To that extent, it is evil. I realise this is simplistic, but I believe it points us in the right direction.

Now surely we can all agree on this as a bedrock principle, for non-believers, in determining how we should act, for believers, in determining what God really wants them to do. After all, the scriptures are fallible, written, as they were, by men. I anticipate some objections to this. One article of faith is that God dictated every word of the Old and New Testaments. But reason tells us this can’t be true. God, being omniscient, is incapable of error, yet the moral precepts of the bible change over time. Is it possible that God was wrong in the time of Moses but right now? It’s far more likely that those old monks did their best to interpret the will of God. Some of them no doubt were in a kind of transcendental state of inspiration, a condition not unknown to poets and artists, and this might have felt like the hand of God on their shoulder. But we can’t know, even if we do believe in God, we can’t know when the words were from God and when they came from the clever mind of an inspired monk. If you are a believer, you must see that reason is the highest gift your god gave you. Why would He give you this if not to use it?

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So I close this little essay with a plea to all men and women of faith: keep your God, keep your salvation, but please, for the sake of humanity, don’t abandon your reason. You can, you really can, have both.

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