If you've followed my journal for any length of time, you would have noticed that I have a rather strong interest in theology. Back when I started this journal, it was due to a very sincerely held Christian faith. From that grounding, it developed into an intellectual pursuit as I delved deeper into theological concepts and tried to make sense of competing claims at "truth". As has perhaps been evident in my posts over the last few months, I have now entered into a process of moving away from this Christian foundation towards one more rooted in secular theory, history, and to a degree, sociology. I recently had a conversation with someone who said they felt my religious beliefs no longer contained any emotion; they consist of theories and ideas to which I have granted intellectual consent. This of course got me thinking about religion itself.
I have now started to wonder what exactly the purpose of religion is. I have posed to myself the question "why should an individual believe?" not in the sense of whether there is a deity, but in the sense of what purpose a religious belief serves and whether this is a sufficient reason for a person to adopt the belief. I keep repeatedly coming to the same conclusion.
One of the reasons for belief that I hear exceedingly frequently is that to be moral, one must be religious (the speaker often proceeds to imply that Christianity is the only moral religion). I think this argument is blatantly and obviously wrong. It is based on the fear of an unknown "other" that often develops in monocultures - which might explain why I typically see it coming from people who live in areas where more than 4 in 5 people are Christian. It is based on a failure to recognise that religion is by no means the only source of moral codes, or that the prominent moral views espoused by religion, such as "do to others as you would have done to yourself", do not require any supernatural elements to be fully justified. You do not need to be a Christian to believe that actions that harm a society and its members are immoral. So the argument for belief of "morality is dependent on religion" can be swiftly discarded.
Another commonly heard reason is that God exists, loves us, and offers eternal life. This would be all well and good if God would demonstrate this. If indeed he does exist, then he is much like an absent father, the kind who leaves before the child is even born, watches the kid from afar, and is shocked when the kid doesn't recognise him and holds resentment towards him. There is just so much wrong with the current human <--> deity interaction that some people claim exists that I cannot accept it. To have a relationship, both parties must act. However, God offers no tangible means to know he has acted whatsoever, much less that he has any fondness for any individual or that he will fulfill his promise of eternal life (which, incidentally, is a promise made by scribes who claim to act on his behalf). I have often seen people ask why God does not answer prayer, and a typical cliche response is that God answers every prayer, but not always with yes. Sometimes he answers no, sometimes he says not yet. The problem with this argument is that it is actually more effective as an argument against God's existence. I could pray to absolutely anything and receive the same outcome. Let's say I pray to my iPod that I find $20 in the street. If I find $20 the next time I cross the road, then clearly the iPod answered yes. If I never find the $20, then clearly the iPod answered no. And if I find that $20 in two months, then clearly the iPod answered not yet. The claim is inherently non-falsifiable and works just as well for absolutely any object of prayer. So should an individual believe because God exists, loves them, and offers eternal life? Not until God actually demonstrates than he does. I can say that a blue leopard on Pluto exists, loves us, and offers eternal life, but the claim is meaningless until it's proven, and until it's proven, there is no valid reason to place belief in the blue leopard.
I could keep going all night. I could point out the intellectual dishonesty in using God to explain current gaps in our knowledge and how such a belief leads to an ever-shrinking deity. I could raise the problem of evil. I also very much wish to point out that even if God does exist, his sheer existence does not mean that worship should follow. For all I know, God could exist right now. But given how fucked up the world is and how God saw fit to let the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, Stalin's gulags, and the entire Dark Ages amongst other things occur without any intervention, God's got a whole lot of explaining to do before my moral qualms towards worship are resolved.
Perhaps I should get to my conclusion, though I suspect I've drawn this out too much already. I'm rambling, I know, and I've lost my focus. It's late. I just need to get these thoughts down while I'm in a writing mood, even if it's only a rough outline. It's a good reference for later when I wish to sort my thoughts, and a journal is a handy place to jot things down as the thinking process sorts itself out. So just what is my conclusion? Religion and God are attempts to understand and explain the human experience. They are a way to make sense of existence, a means of making the universe less intimidating and more friendly, a form of social unification and belonging, and frequently, a tool of the elite to control society and advance a political agenda. The Old Testament in many places reads like an attempt to sanctify the behaviour of the Israelites. Campaigns against heretics are more an expression of a fear that the individual heretic's divergence from society is a threat to "us". Religion is a multi-functional tool of its society; religion reflects rather than defines the values of its society. Why should an individual believe? Because it makes life easier.
I would like to be wrong. I know I have not covered every reason to believe. I would like one to actually stand up to scrutiny. I just don't know if any do. I feel more and more agnostic with every passing day. I miss the very immediate and real faith that I had a few years ago. I have no idea where it went. But the last time I headed down the path I'm on the verge of heading down, it was not very emotionally pretty, so I'll sign off for now.