Saturday, September 24, 2011

Rejecting religion

There is more to religion than doctrines, and much more to understanding religion than just understanding doctrines; but if the doctrines of a given religion are false, or if there is no good reason to believe they are true, then such a religion is not a live option for me.

Admittedly, some religions are less doctrinal than others, but I have found no religion which did not incorporate - as central elements - ideas which I find utterly implausible. Even Buddhism - often presented in the West as being open to a scientific understanding of the world - is committed, like other religions, to the idea of an objective moral realm, and also (at least in its Tibetan form as articulated by the Dalai Lama) to the notion of the soul as spirit, not entirely reducible to the self as understood by science.

Many people, reluctant to give up on religion entirely, admit that the doctrines they may have once believed are indeed false, but argue that there is a central core which the major religions share, a kind of essence of religious truth. When pressed to say what this core consists in, what exactly they do believe, such people reply in various ways, some more plausible than others. But I have never heard or read an account that attracts me or that I could personally endorse or adopt. For example, it's all very well to say that our minds have inbuilt limits. Of course they do, but does this fact suggest that something like what religions envisage lies beyond those limits? Often it's asserted that there is a benign force underlying reality: the evidence, I would suggest, is overwhelmingly to the contrary. Or that all is one, all is interconnected. I agree, and there is some evidence for this in physics (e.g. quantum entanglement) but how is this idea a religious one?

Religion, of course, is a very personal thing, and we all have our own deep reasons or motives for accepting or rejecting religious claims. I was a Christian until my early twenties when, one night, I suddenly realized that the burden of proof was on those who sought to affirm the claims of Christian doctrine rather than on those who sought to deny them. I say 'suddenly', but this shift in perspective happened at a time when I had been reading a lot of historical material on the Jewish background of the New Testament, and realizing that so much that seemed so special in the figure of Jesus was explicable historically. For a few weeks, I toyed with the idea of adopting the Jewish faith (as Christianity minus Jesus seemed to equal Judaism), but I found the notion of a 'chosen people' a little hard to swallow. And the notion of a personal God seemed more and more unreal. I had accepted it as part of a package of beliefs. But without those other beliefs (about God acting in history or through particular individuals or institutions), what reason was there to believe in such a being?


  1. My path was very similar, learning how to understand Jesus from a Jewish-historical perspective. Once I understood the context of how the gospels were written, and why none of them required that Jesus actually be divine, the path to non-belief was an easy one.

    My wife continues to tell me she still believes in a higher power (having basically abandoned Catholicism), but it doesn't really manifest itself differently than atheism.

  2. I am curious about the thought-processes etc. involved in belief in a (more or less benevolent) higher power. I don't scoff at the idea but nor do I see any reason to accept it.

  3. I have never believed in any religion. My family background was mixed (Presbyterian mother, Unitarian/agnostic father). Very early I read Bertrand Russell on religion, and while I disliked his scorn and mockery I found his arguments against belief compelling. For me, they still are. This is a matter of some sadness for me, since I would like nothing more than to rejoin all the people I ever loved in Heavenly bliss. Also, I fully endorse Christian moral teaching as healthy for both people individually and society as a whole. However, I cannot believe.

    From a historical perspective, it is interesting to note how Judaism itself depended on Zoroastrianism. Human beings seem to have the same needs, no matter the century in which they live.

  4. In my case I gave up the liberal protestant stance of my youth when I decided that the events of the first century were largely lost in the mists of time.

    Lately I have come to doubt whether Christian moral thought is at all coherent or helpful.

    Arguing against religion seems rather like firing a popgun at a herd of elephants. The aim may be good but the effect will be little.

  5. CONSVLTVS, religions do cater to deep psychological needs, certainly, though some people are clearly more susceptible or psychologically attuned to what religions offer than others.

  6. Interesting what you say, Alan, about Christian moral thought. My first reaction is to say that it makes a big difference whether one is thinking of New Testament ethics or of the more classical-cum-Christian/Platonic ethics of the mainstream churches.

  7. I mean that not much of ethic can be constructed out of: love your neighbour as yourself.

  8. Yes, I see that saying and others like it as extreme - at odds with human nature - and so, as you say, Alan, not particularly helpful.