There's so much material here that I could write a book (and probably will at some point in my dotage) and in fact it keeps both clerics and laypeople entertained for hours and has done for centuries. So to reign it in a bit I'll focus on two specific aspects of it.
To believe or not to believe? This came up in a discussion elsewhere this week, and I pointed out what I always point out. Before you can begin to discuss belief, or the other word used often - faith - you have to define them, and that's much harder than it sounds.
One way of looking at it is to weigh up the benefits of religious belief. Set aside for now any societal pressure, imagine it's entirely up to you. Here's a way often cited.
Pascal's Wager about God
Incidentally, I would question one part of this:
(i) According to intellectualism, deliberately choosing which beliefs to hold is practically impossible. Intellectualism, however, appears to be not only questionable but irrelevant.
Firstly I'd say that it's not practically impossible, but fully impossible. Self-delusion is a real phenomenon, obviously, but it too is not really a choice. Secondly, the true intellectual approach to God is that of radical and fundamental agnosticism. It is impossible to know. There is no research, no study, no discipline that can decide the argument of the existence of God, therefore the only argument possible is whether intellectualism is relevant or not, and I would reword that last part accordingly.
The honest approach then, (if the intellectual approach were as stated) is to say "I believe what I believe because I believe it" and I would have far more respect for that, because there's no pretence to rationality.
OK. OK. I know. Very few you will have read that link. If the word "philosophy" doesn't put you off, the length of the article will.
Try this instead. It's the short attention span version.
(Don't ever say I'm dull and crusty).
But philosophy doesn't provide answers, it provides structures to formulate arguments.
There are those who say you cannot argue this at all, nor should you. In many ways I'm inclined to agree with them. As we noted above, this is not something that logic can really be applied to at all. So, the entire philosophy of religion becomes an interesting exercise and no more. Pagans (dictionary definition) tend not to bother with it. They are more into enlightenment, experience, epiphanies, that sort of thing.
So what is belief, really? Is it knowledge? No. Knowledge requires nothing further. The proof is there, no belief is required. This is why there is really no such thing as the much-argued "Belief in Evolution", or "Belief in Science". These are things that can be demonstrated. The only objection possible is to have an opposing belief which overrules it, or simply to not understand it. Many, many highly religious people suddenly go "AH!" when it's explained to them well, and if you are undecided, then you need to read your religious text (many don't bother, they just listen to selected comments about it) AND this book:
And this is why arguments over such things are inevitably futile. The person arguing for science is presenting evidence. The persion arguing for religion is presenting belief, and these two cannot work as opposing sides.
Terry Pratchett covered this (hasn't he covered everything?) with great humour and wisdom. Do the Witches believe in God? No, that would be silly, it would be like saying they believe in the postman.
If you are certain of something, no belief is required.
On the other hand, is belief certainty? No. Belief is equated to faith, and faith is NOT certainty.
The Babel fish is small, yellow, leechlike, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centers of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.
Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the NON-existence of God.
The argument goes like this:
`I refuse to prove that I exist,' says God, `for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.'
`But,' says Man, `The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.'
`Oh dear,' says God, `I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly disappears in a puff of logic.
`Oh, that was easy,' says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.
Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo's kidneys, but that didn't stop Oolon Colluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme of his best-selling book, "Well, That about Wraps It Up for God."
I've been told many times that faith is vital. I'm not convinced.
To me the whole free will concept is ruined by this "need" for faith, and it all seems like a trick. But we'll save that for another day. Let's just say nobody will ever convince me that belief is a choice, because, to be pedantic, by definition if you choose to believe something, you don't really believe it.
Depending on where you were born, and where you live now, this may not exactly be personal choice. There are many places where either culltural or authoritarian pressure force you to at least pay lip service to the religion you are told to follow. Your beliefs are your own, obviously, in private, but your way of life is shaped in a way determined by others.
But more to the point, if you are born into a situation where there's little or no choice, and you never know any different, you may be quite content with that.
I grew up in a rather weak theocracy, and have no real personal experience of REAL pressure to conform, so I'll skip that aspect, and assume you do indeed have full choice here.
There are plenty of religions to choose from, and of course there is always the option of none at all, but assuming you want/need a religion, and feel that it forms a structure for you, you can begin with whatever is most popular locally. This is convenient. If you wish to attend a place of religious devotion, it's not too far to travel, and chances are you can find adherants among your friends. It saves a lot of arguments socially, and frankly, this "default" option has some obvious benefits. It works best for those who aren't too deeply devout, and more likely benefit mostly from the community aspect.
Another way to approach it is to actually select a religion that fits your existing beliefs. There is even a very good quiz to achieve this. Even though it's really for entertainment purposes only, it's been around a few years, and I've yet to see anyone criticize it too harshly:
Unfortunately choosing a religion that fits your existing beliefs has its dark side. If your existing beliefs are rather dour, unsympathetic, and even cruel, it's quite possible to find a religion that leaves room for that, and then attempt to justify your nastier traits and attitudes by saying others should respect your beliefs.
I was once told by a believer that any religion worth calling itself a religion should make you a better person. That's a jolly good goal. Does it work. Well, it may do for some. Not always.
I think you are who you are. If you need religion to prevent you from being an asshole, you're still an asshole, you're just repressing it. It can sort of "pop out" again. I don't think religion necessarily fixes assholes. If it did, I'd be all for it. As you know, I believe that being an asshole IS a choice.
Indeed some assholes manage to pull the wool over the eyes of the entire world and almost reach sainthood, like Mother Teresa.
But there's another aspect here. Some critics of religion describe it as a mental illness. I don't think we can go with that, no, it's too prevalent, and some of the sanest people I've ever met were religious. But there's religious and then there's religious. And some of them are definitely nuts.
That's tragic and is obviously some sort of mental illness. Whether it was already there, or whether this specific flavour of religion caused it, we can't say, but it certainly didn't cure it.
Of course this person was already dead, so no harm was done to him. Unlike what happens in cases where families withhold medical treatment. Here's a brief list in one area:
This illustration is in memory of a few of the latest victims of "faith healing" families. Yes, victims... (At least, those reported to authorities or covered by local news.)
- 12 year-old Syble Rossiter who died February 5, 2013 as the result of ketoacidosis – after the parents withheld “necessary and adequate” medical attention for her Type 1 diabetes
- 16 year-old Austin Sprout died of an infection from a bust appendix after never receiving medical care in 2012.
- Newborn baby David Hinkman died of pneumonia, nine days after birth after his parents refused medical care in 2011.
- 9 year-old Aaron Grady died after have standard treatment for his diabetes denied by his mother Susan Grady who testified, “I felt like God would heal him.”
- 17 year-old Zachery Swezey died in 2009 after his appendix burst and his parents called church elders to pray over him with anointing oils (instead of a trip to the emergency room).
- 16 year-old Neal Beagley died of a simple urinary tract infection just a year after his older sister Raylene was charged with the death of her own 15-month old daughter, Ava Worthington (who simply needed mild antibiotics).
And don’t even get me started on Schaibles who killed TWO of their children before being stopped by the courts.
I've heard the arguments from these families. After watching a TV show where a JW child died after his mother refused a blood transfusion, I spoke to a trusted JW friend about it. She assured me that families go through agonies making these decisions (and some cave in) and that it really isn't done on the whim that the press make it out to be. But their focus is on the next life, and not this one, so their priorities are arranged accordingly.
But these are children. They are not able to make their own informed choices, and therefore no part of me is able to condone it.
I don't even condone the non-choice of brainwashing a child into a religion, and yes, I said brainwashing. Children who are not raised with religious teaching turn out "naturally" atheist or Pagan, or somewhere in between (in other topics, "naturally" is deemed the right thing by believers....) so that has to be removed and replaced. Of course, their parents genuinely believe it's better/the right thing, so they call it teaching instead, but it's the same thing. Teaching and brainwashing are frequently synonymous.
In case I seem too anti-religious and biased here, I am fully aware that many previously damaged people have found a new meaning to their lives within religion. I've met them. They changed for the better, they are happier, they are helping others, and it's all good. I can't criticize that and I'm not going to. Whatever works, works.
No, I don't know why they were unable to get it together all by themselves. I suppose it's like anything else. Some people recover from bronchitis spontaneously, some need medical help. So long as you recover, it doesn't really matter.
And if you were born and raised in religion X, you are perfectly happy with it, you are a good person, and you don't put any pressure on other people to join you, I have absolutely no problem with that either. I have many friends in that category too.
My objection, wholly, is those who:
1. Choose religions that "allows" them to do harm, in any way. Pedophile priests etc.
2. Choose to proselytize. I have zero tolerance for recruiters.
3. Choose to tell lies about other religuions, and/or persecute them.
4. Choose to get into positions of power and then use their minority religious beliefs in the political realm.
Because being bad is a choice, and religion is supposed to stop it, not enable it.