4) Why do people believe? and other questions about Faith

 

"If God didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent him." - Voltaire

Why do most societies and cultures, at least those that haven't advanced to a certain level of sophistication, have a form of religion? Religion fulfills a certain visceral need in all of us. Our mystical, spiritual side; the side that just wants to surrender and release all our burdens to a greater being; the side that believes, and wants to believe, in superstitions. There is something seductive and comforting about the idea of not being alone in this world, of Life and Creation having some mysterious significance. In the infinite cosmos, the search for the meaning of life also leads people to seek out religion.

Theists often tout the benefits of a religion - peace, calm, moral rectitude and the like, but the main reason why people hold a certain religion is because they believe it to be true - they believe that there is a God, that he is interested in what we do, and that he wants us to do certain things.

There are other benefits too - besides filling unsaid needs, religions usually promise a host of other benefits. Ultimately, most people practice a religion because of the benefits that will accrue to them - eternal life, worldly success, salvation from the fires of hell and the like, though the appeal may be unconscious. Doing good isn't recommended only for its own sake - to sweeten the pot, boons are promised to those who follow certain rules and laws; people are urged to engage in ritual deprivation so that they will be rewarded many times over in the afterlife (a kind of hypocrisy, really). See: 2 Corinthians 9, verse 6: "But this I say, He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully" Without such inducements, the number of adherents would probably be substantially lower.

So, do people do good things and believe in God because they truly do, or only because if they don’t they will burn in Hell forever? And do those who believe because they were brought up to, and never did question or truly understand their faith still get the perks and fringe benefits of believing in the Right God?

 

Lastly, for a society, religion performs a more sinister role. Those in power have, since the dawn of time, been using religion as a tool to control the masses. Religion gives people hope for the next world and teaches them that suffering in this life is amply rewarded, such that they will not question their place. In Animal Farm, Moses the Raven distracts the animals from the oppresive rule of the humans, then the pigs, by telling of Sugarcandy Mountain (Read: heaven), where obedient animals can strive to go to after death.


The correct religion?

Everyone wants to find the true religion, and most sincerely believe that the one they currently are in is THE true one. The trouble is that most people are born into a religion. As they grew up, they were subjected to instruction and indoctrination, and thus acquired a belief in a certain religion. Consequently, we have a case where millions of people throughout the world all practice their own religion, each confident in the belief that they, and only they are correct, and that the rest - at least 60% of the world's population - are all wrong and doomed to burn in hell. Most of them claim vindication of faith, of feeling the divine presence and touch, but if that is the case, why don't they all practise the same religion? Obviously, all of those religions but one must be wrong. The question is: which one? Alternatively, all of the religions might be wrong.

How do we find the "true" God, then? (If any, indeed, exist). Since man made "proof" is so easily fabricated, and none of it is very conclusive in the first place, it follows that this God must come through personal revelation and experience. However, if none is experienced, the searcher is told to "seek God"

This topic on searching for God is continued, from a Christian perspective, here.

 

On False Gods

Most religions preach that there is only one path to God - their own, and all who don't follow it are screwed. However, there are literally thousands of denominations and religions out there. How are we supposed to know which one to believe in? Do we choose the one which promises the most benefits in the afterlife, or the one which dictates the most self-flagellation, reasoning to ourselves that the more we suffer now, the more we enjoy ourselves later? Can it be that all of them are wrong but one? More likely that more than one are correct, or all are correct, or even, dare I say, that none are correct.

A roommate claimed that if you believed in a false God, you’d know. So why do so many people believe in so many different Gods? Can they all be correct, if most proclaim the rest to be wrong? And how about atheists (I presume if you don’t believe in a real God, you’d know too)? This leads me to the same conclusion as above.

Tim’s father offered another view - you must look at the fruits the religion brings. A true, good God would bring good fruits. So looking at it that way, Buddhism must be the true religion, for it advocates peace and I don’t think anyone has ever killed anyone else in Buddhism’s name. Many atheists lead perfectly virtuous and happy lives, so is not atheism also a true religion (or lack of, rather)? The same could be said of the much-reviled Wiccans, even. Christianity, on the other hand, has resulted in wars, murder, and hate, the Spanish Inquisition and assorted other iniquities.

 

Vindication of Faith

"Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence." - Richard Dawkins

Adherents of religions are frequently told to have faith. With faith, nothing is impossible. There is a problem with this argument, however. Faith means belief and trust in something. However, one can have faith in many things. I can have faith that the Moon is made of Green Cheese, that NASA didn't really visit the Moon, or that Jews are evil and were behind the September 11th attacks, or even that God is a rabbit. What makes religious faith so different from other types of faith, apart from the traditional air of sanctity given to it?

"The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason." - Benjamin Franklin

What is needed is vindication of faith. If that is not present, how do we know what we have faith in is true? I could come up with my own religion, and exhort adherents to have faith, and they would be worshipping a false god all the way.

What we need, then, is a divine spark. A Godly touch, a vindication of faith. Evidence. Some people believe that they have felt this, but many more do not. Of course, theists argue that God may not want to give this always, and either say that this is because God wants us to have faith, that he has touched us in another way, or admit that they don't know why he chooses to do this, and chant the mantra, "God moves in mysterious ways". Does God then want us to have faith in Mormonism? In Islam? How about various other Doomsday cults, like the Branch Davidians or the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in Uganda, all of which need faith? Why does he 'touch' us in ways that no one but those looking desperately, and which others would attribute rightly to nature or coincidence, can see? Does he not want us to have faith, then? And finally, if God is so mysterious, inscrutable and invisible, can it be that he does not really exist, and that people are merely struggling - and failing - to justify their belief?

 

Validity of Vindication

However, even if we have vindication of our faith, that is not enough.

To understand why, just consider that 4 million Americans believe that - *know* that - they have been abducted by aliens. And what about the hordes who claim that they saw Elvis walking into their local pub just the other week? If everyone *knows* that their god exists, and is the only god, who is right? Of course, the faithful will dismiss the others' experiences, just as theirs are in turn dismissed by the rest.

"I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." - Stephen Roberts

Thus Saith The Lord...

"I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires." - Susan B. Anthony

People who believe that they have experienced divine grace or power often rush to follow what they believe is the will of this divine being. The danger with this is that everyone has a different idea of what their God wants them to do. If one person believes his God says that he should build a temple over a certain site, and another believes his wants him to build a shrine instead, they will be sure to come to blows, without any theological way of resolving the argument. Or what if someone believes God had told them to kill someone?

Therefore, religion has no business interfering with secular matters, or those concerning people other than the adherent - one should render unto Caesar what is Caesar's - one can flagellate himself with birch sticks if he wants, but one *cannot* invade Iraq if one believes it is the right thing to do, and God orders it [Ed: Heh]. "Moral Clarity" can be read as "God told me to do it".

"Thou shalt not kill unless a voice in your head claiming to be God tells you to" - Anon

 

 

Blaise Pascal's Wager

A proposition sometimes offered to atheists and agnostics, it goes:


(1) If you believe in God and God exists, you have a chance to gain everlasting life and happiness after death.
(2) If you believe in God and there is no God, you have lost nothing.
(3) If you don't believe in God and God does exist, you have lost everything and you will suffer infinite torture in Hell after death.
(4) If you do not believe in God, and there is no God, you have gained nothing. Therefore, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by believing in God and everything to lose by not believing.

And so this is often quoted as a compelling argument for believing in a God. However, there are several flaws here:

- Which God do we choose? If we choose the wrong God, we will "have lost everything and suffer infinite torture in Hell after death" Since there are so many Gods, choosing no God is almost as good as choosing a God at random
- If you believe it is safer to believe in a God and do so solely because of that, do you really think you'll get all the benefits? Further, how much belief and adherence to his precepts is necessarily?
- You lose a lot if you believe in a God and there is none. Consider the amount of energy people fritter away on religion. How about those who orientate their whole lives towards "God"? Then they have lost their whole life
- If God is benevolent, as most religions say he is, then why are non-believers condemned to eternal misery?

Also, Pascal's Wager is flawed in essence. If it holds, one can devise any manner of deceptive arguments, just by defining one outcome of the argument to have infinite rewards.

 

A much more plausible alternative, postulated by a Darwin Bedford:

1. If you don't believe in God and you are wrong, after you die, so long as you have lead a moral life you should have nothing to fear. A compassionate god would not punish you for guessing which religion had an exclusive handle on the truth.

2. If you believe in God and you are wrong, you will have done foolish things such as wasting time praying when you should have taken effective action. You will have lived your life as if it did not matter because you erroneously thought it was merely a trial, preparatory to your real life after death. You would have lived an overly safe conventional life, keeping your nose clean and avoiding all adventure. You would have let evil thrive, because you felt dealing with that was God's responsibility, not yours. You would have done irrational things just because some hoary old book tricked you into it, like mistreating blacks or gays. You would have wasted much of your life in fear of the imaginary divine meat axe.

3. If you don't believe in God and you are right, you live a zestful life. Every second counts. It is all you have got. You don't fritter your time in ritualistic activities. You take responsibility for the planet. You make a difference. You made your decisions rationally, not based on fear of some lunatic bogeyman in the sky. You behave well not because you fear punishment, but because you know that such behaviour is globally and locally optimal, good for everyone and also for you. You are a blessing to the planet.

4. If you believe in God and you are right, you are more likely than not to be an insufferably smug hypocrite, looking down your nose at others and judging incessantly just as Jesus told you not to do. God judges your actions, not your beliefs. In Luke 13:25, Jesus warned you that mere praying would not get you into heaven; only good deeds would. You get punished doubly since you ought to have known better.

 

"Religion is the opiate of the masses." - Karl Marx

I was outfield one day when I suddenly realised how Marx really hit the nail on the head. Religion is addictive, it may lead you to dumb things, it creates a vicious circle of dependence, the more you consume of it the harder it is to wean yourself it, the more you use it the more you need it to function, and the consumer’s happiness is dependent on an external good (as in product, not beneficial agency). It is soothing, but it controls you even if deep down inside you know that it is bad for you.

So why are drugs illegal in most places, but not religion?

"The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error if error seduces them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master.; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim." - Gustave Le Bon

 

5) Metaphysical Questions

"The simplest truths often meet the sternest resistance." - Frederick Douglass

 

Some people justify the existence of a God with meta-physical arguments. Let us look at some of these arguments and issues

 

Prove that God doesn't exist!

"The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike." - Delos B. McKown

Atheists are often asked to prove that there is no God, and since it is hard to do so (and the proofs are contentious), theists claim that this God does exist. However, If I were to claim that malign silicon based lifeforms lay under the surface of Pluto, and that since no one could disprove me, I was correct, I would be laughed out of the room, since though my assertion would be impossible to prove, there would be no evidence backing me up. Similarly, the burden of proof should be on the theists, for the default state is that there is no God, so the prosecution has to prove its case instead of the defence; what theists currently do is akin to judging people guilty until proven innocent.

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs" - Carl Sagan. Why, then, do people drop the standards of proof for religion? Is it because they are misty eyed for the rewards of the afterlife, and drop any prudent objections that might be made? Why is the instinct to question suddenly muffled when the issue of religion comes up? Perhaps people do not *dare* to venture there, for it is where even Angels fear to tread. Maybe I should start my own cult, with me as the God. I can do as much (the power of hypnotherapy and demagoguery), and at least I don't require adherence to an outdated moral code.

We will probably never know for certain if God exists, as he, for one reason or another, does not seem to want to vindicate the faiths of those who believe in him, and show those who don't that he does exist. Suffice to day that, if one were to assert that a God did exist, one would have to offer a degree of proof, for just as, in a trial, people are presumed innocent until found guilty, and the burden of proof is on the prosecution, so do we never assume that something is the case if we do not have any good reason to believe so - in other words, if there is no proof for God's existence, then we can assume that he does not exist. The burden of proof is on the theists. [NB: Oftentimes, they resort to claiming that "faith" is needed, and that with faith all will be made clear and accepted, but this is a circular argument, as having faith presupposes the existence of God, and you cannot prove something by assuming its existence. As we shall see, whenever theists come up short, their last resort will be to invoke the power of faith - a mystic quality so powerful that it can lead people to do the most daft things (see: Heaven's Gate).]

"I've begun worshipping the sun for a number of reasons. First of all, unlike some other gods I could mention, I can see the sun. It's there for me every day, and the things it brings me are quite apparent all the time: heat, light, food, a lovely day. There's no mystery, no one asks for money, I don't have to dress up, and there's no boring pageantry. And interestingly enough, I have found that the prayers I offer to the sun and the prayers I formerly offered to 'God' are all answered at about the same 50-percent rate." - George Carlin

 

If there were no God, who created the Universe?

Meta-physics is really not my area of interest or expertise, but to those who say that nothing can come from nothing - where did this God come from then? You cannot apply the "nothing can come from nothing" rule but conveniently not hold your God to this same criterion, that would be disingenuous. If God can be eternal, why can the Universe not be so?

 

It is so improbable that we came to be. Surely there must be a God!

One argument is that if this God hadn't set the scientific constants of the Universe to the value that they are, and hadn't created the conditions on this earth for us to arise, we never would have existed, and so we know he exists. This reasonable sounding proposition actually has it the wrong way around. Consider what happens if there is no God and the scientific constants and conditions are wrong - life as we know it would not have evolved. The very fact that we are around to ponder the existence of God shows that, somehow, all the conditions were right for us to arise.

Alternatively, our existence could have been a matter of chance. Most people would say it is impossible for a fair coin flipped 100 times to come up heads each time, but this truly is possible according to the laws of probability. Just because something is improbable does not mean that it is impossible. Just consider how many planets there are in the Universe - 100 billion galaxies alone are visible to modern telescopes, and the true total is likely much higher. In each galaxy, there are hundreds of billions of stars. Even assuming a one in a million chance of a star system having a planet, and each star system having one and only one planet, one can calculate that there are at least 10,000,000,000,000,000 (Ten million, billion) planets in the universe. It would be sheer arrogance to proclaim that life could not have evolved on other planets - and our conception of "life" is of carbon-based, water consuming life. Who's to say that other forms of life - crystalline or sillicoid, say, could not have evolved? The same logic can apply for multiple or parallel Universes.

 

If there is no God, what about morality?

Some theists assert that all morality comes from God, and without one, we wouldn't know right from wrong. Ergo, there must be a God. The obvious diversity of moral systems and values in this world puts paid to this lie. Further, many societies without gods manage to stay perfectly "moral" by most standards: Chretien Le Clerq, a Missionary Priest wrote that the Indians of the Gaspe peninsula had never formed a conception of any divinity but were "charitable beyond anything in Europe", while the Jesuit Le Jeune found the natives of Cap Breton "exceptionally clever, honest and decent, very generous with a cheerful disposition", but also godless.

Further, what is wrong, then, with humans that they are not capable of coming up with a system of morality for themselves?

 

The danger of making God a moral benchmark can also be seen when one considers what happens if this God were to do things we would consider immoral. See "God is Good"

 

You can't understand God by definition! Just accept him!

For those who claim that God is, by definition, beyond such limitations and parameters, and who are we to question something which we do not - cannot - understand, I reply that - if we cannot comprehend him, how do we know he exists? If God is so incomprehensible, just what the hell are we supposed to be worshipping then?" Are we supposed to be worshipping something so morally and logically irrelevant to human perception and human understanding? What's the point of sending Christ down as a man then, if He's still so out of touch?

Besides which, there still isn't any reason why any one God should be accepted instead of another, since if all of them were similarly inscrutable and impossible to understand, there would be no way of knowing which, if any of them, were be true.

 

Obey God!

"Common sense is no match for the voice of God" - Jon Krakauer

Even if we assume that a god exists, why are we so sure that we are to worship him? Why does this God desire to be worshipped so much, that he'll send you to hell if you do not acknowledge him? Could it be that he is an egomaniac, invested with the cardinal sin of Pride?

Perhaps we are told that God likes worship, because since we like to be acknowledged, praised and feted, we assume that the Divine Being has similar tastes. However, what if it is the case that this God, after creating the Universe and all, does not like to be bothered? In this scenario, those who worship or otherwise try to communicate with him would be at best ignored, and at worst obliterated by his divine power, kind of how the Lady of Pain in Planescape's Sigil treats her worshippers.

All religions have rules, varying in the degree of change that is required in people's lives. The question comes to mind: Why does this putative divine being even care about what we are doing? No clear explanation is offered, and people go about trying their best to be obedient without even asking *why* this God even bothers.

Just why are we supposed to follow all the rules that this God has supposedly laid out? Do we have any obligation to do so in the first place? A common argument cited is that our compliance is a matter of free will, but then this isn't strictly true, because the price of disobedience is eternal torment, so it is not a choice made out of free will, but under duress. However, this does not address the issue of *why* this God wants us to do certain things. Does he want to control us, to order our lives? Is his instinct to control so strong that he condemns all those who refuse to be slaves to him to eternal torment? Children who disobey their parents may not get a new Playstation 2 (or X-box, if you prefer), but their parents certainly don't cut off their food supply or throw them onto the streets.

 

Contents:

1) Introduction and disclaimer

2) Me and Religion

3) The Value of Scepticism and Science and Religion

4) Why do people believe? and other questions about Faith

5) Metaphysical questions

6) Basic tenets of Christianity

7) Bible literalism and knowing what to believe

8) Catholic Doctrine

9) Six Nights in Sabah

10) Miscellaneous thoughts on religion

11) So what happens now?

12) Further reading