Over the last few days, during trips of nostalgia, I have noticed a pattern of increasingly infrequent theologically themed entries on my LJ. Back in the days when my journal had a decent readership, I wrote such entries regularly, but now? I haven't written such an entry in months. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact I now believe in nothing. Nonetheless, I do not believe I have adequately explained why I believe in nothing, and I still have a strong interest in religion - just as an outsider rather than an insider. I do hope old friends such as augustine and tinandcopper are still reading, as I would like to dedicate this entry to them and the very intellectually fulfilling discussions we have had over the years. I hope that, in the vein of those discussions, this entry is mercilessly critiqued. (Especially as the second half, which I've written in a bit of a distracted rush, is rather shaky.)
This will, inevitably, be an inadequate examination of why I believe nothing. I have a tendency to water down my LJ entries to a readable and accessible length, or to write a "part one" and never actually get to part two. Nonetheless, I hope it provides an insight, and perhaps a springboard to further discussion.
I firstly wish to establish some sort of discursive framework for this entry. I have never accepted that "spirituality" is a separate entity from "religion". Rather, I see religion as the institutional framework that socialises spirituality, and formalises spirituality both internally and externally. Thus, I find claims such as "I am spiritual but not religious" to be specious. Any manner of formalised belief - i.e. a belief that is affirmed, articulated, and practiced - is both spirituality and religion. Any rejection of religion is, by extension, a rejection of the underlying spirituality to which said religion granted functionability. (I should perhaps add here that I just pulled this discursive framework out of my arse and I expect it to be contested.) I establish this framework now as I am going to focus on the rejection of the religious institution, hence I wish to make it clear that by rejecting the institution, I am rejecting its underlying spirituality rather than just its temporal manifestation. I am not, I must emphasise, rejecting religion because of its practitioners.
I view religion as a social construct and an institute of power. It is inherently a method of control, both mentally and behaviourally. Religion is fundamentally a truth claim that admits no other narrative. By default, it must be an exclusive truth claim; it cannot be a narrative based upon reliability and verifiability, for its claims exist within the supernatural realm of faith beyond the temporal realm within which reliability and verifiability function. Accordingly, religion is not one complementary narrative of many, in the way any historical narrative is. A religious narrative is a claim to truth above all others; competing narratives (note the change of narrative interaction from complementary to competitive) may offer some edifying information but are fundamentally wrong on their core claims. This is true even of the most liberal religious perspectives.
Accordingly, religion creates a binary distinction between true/false, right/wrong, etc. This grants it power and control (see this entry where I discuss the importance of power to the viability of religion). I recently came across a quote from Keith Jenkins in Re-thinking History, and although it is written about historiography, I believe it is equally applicable to religion: "... truth and similar expressions are devices to open, regulate and shut down interpretations. Truth acts as a censor - it draws the line." Like political constructs, religion is a way of regulating society, of creating groups with insiders and outsiders. It defines what thoughts are allowed (see the notion of heresy) and what behaviours are allowed (see the notion of sin). Religion thus expresses a particular form of society and marks its boundaries.
"But Ax, what does this have to do with your lack of belief?" tinandcopper has astutely noted in a past comment to me (which I unfortunately cannot find right now) that religion being a social construct does not render religion false. However, I think it does, or at the least is very damaging. It reveals the inherent humanity (as opposed to supernaturality) of the phenomenon of religious belief. The origin of the religious institution can be found within society rather than in the divine. In other words, I find religion to be wholly human, containing nothing of the supernatural. Religions are inevitably celebrations of a localised culture - note the glorification of the Israelites in the Old Testament or the Arabic language in the Quran. Thus, the study of religion is socio-historically significant, as it tells us a lot about its membership and the culture with which it is associated. It tells us how that culture conceptualised a supernatural realm. It does not, however, tell us anything about the supernatural itself.
Religion does not access or make known the divine. It makes known a cultural construct invoked to legitimise truth claims, control thought and behaviour, and define and differentiate a given society. Whether or not anything actually exists that resembles that cultural construct is in fact irrelevant to the construct. As long as people behave as if it exists, religion has viability. If they don't, religion collapses and loses all of its power; note the complete lack of persuasion religious arguments hold over the non-religious. Therefore, the knowability of the existence of any supernatural entity is shattered; it does not have power independent of religion to make itself known as religion is the vehicle of spiritual understanding, and religion itself is a construct that makes known human culture rather than anything divine. If a deity exists but people do not behave as if it does, it is irrelevant. If knowledge of a deity is unknowable, it is irrelevant. Hence agnosticism. And it is simply one further step to say "well, if we know absolutely nothing, if we cannot know anything since nothing makes the supernatural accessible, if there is no evidence that indicates it exists, then it simply doesn't exist". Bit of a use of Occam's Razor, I suppose. Instead of the supernatural being unknowable, there is no supernatural.
For the record, I do not believe I am offering a truth claim or exclusive narrative of my own. I am happy to accept any narrative of understanding the human experience as complementary, providing a perspective other than my own. I base my case not on truth claims, but on verifiability and reliability. In the absence of verifiability, I am willing to reach the above conclusions on the supernatural's non-existence.