Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Religion, Faith, and Other Sensitive Concepts

Although ostensibly raised in a traditional "Anglican" home, I was never inculcated with any particular faith as a child. God was a non-subject as I grew up, at least in my home. I essentially viewed it as one more subject of study, which I did, taking a survey course on religion and ethics offered by the Department of Religion at Queen's University while I was an undergraduate.

During my early twenties I developed an abiding interest in Buddhism, and have written about it previously. I cultivated a fond appreciation of its non-theistic approach to explaining reality. It spoke to my search for a sense of moral compass without insisting that I accept any particular dogmatic preaching. I realized that I could be "moral" without the requirement of "faith".

Just a couple of weeks ago I picked up an interesting textbook during one of my regular prowls through my neighbourhood Sally Ann. Titled simply "World Religions - Western Traditions", it is edited by Willard G. Oxtoby and first published in 2002. Some of it I find tedious, as I can't always follow the various names and tribes that are mentioned. (Will I ever understand the diference between the Kenites, the Kenizzites and the Kadmonites?) However, much of it is quite enlightening, as history.

I was reading this book this past weekend as I traveled by bus back from Toronto. A young man sat next to me, and we soon struck up a conversation. He was immediately curious about my reading material, particularly fascinated in that it covered his own religion, Islam. I conveyed how I was learning more about how Jews, Christians and Muslims all prayed to the same God, that they were all "of the book".

The conversation then turned to the question of my own "faith". A peaceful smile came over his face as he told me how important it was for Jews, Christians and Muslims to appreciate how their faiths are inextricably linked through God. Apparently, he had assumed I was Christian. I mentioned my interest in Buddhist philosophy, but decided I didn't want to delve more deeply into the issue. At this point I reminded myself of another chat I had had with a Muslim acquaintance, who was quite shocked and distraught when he heard that I didn't actually believe in a supreme being. "You must believe in God!" he exclaimed, incredulously. The term "non-theistic" had no place in his reality. It was only the intervention of our mutual friend that directed the discussion to safer ground.

I tell this story because for me it relates to how sensitive many of us are about the issue of faith and religion. It clearly touches deeply within the core of many. I mean no disrespect to others when I reject the concept of religious or spiritual "faith" in a "higher power" or "supreme being". I simply don't have it.

For some, it seems that being without "faith" is equivalent to being without morals or direction. If I don't believe in God, I must be misguided and lost. From the perspective of many, I need to be saved. Well, I don't feel lost at all, thank you very much. I may have more questions than answers, but I actually think that is a very healthy way to engage in the world. I view questions of ethics and morality as fundamental to every step I take on this planet. I may not always make the correct choices, but I question my behaviour every day on issues that matter.

I usually find myself shying away from discussing this topic, particularly with my friends who "believe", largely out of fear of being disrespectful of their "faith". I do not wish to be shy about this any longer. I find it so curious how over countless centuries humanity has developed its entire belief structure on a collection of stories handed down, re-interpreted and re-transcribed over time based on dreams and visions described by a handful of influential and perhaps unusual individuals 2-3,000 or more years ago. We argue incessantly over the correct interpretation of our daily news, yet Christians, Jews and Muslims accept on "faith" what has been passed on in their various holy books over a millennia or more. We then proceed to kill each other over conflicts between these various interpretations of who "God" gave or did not give some land to, or who he holds in highest esteem. Incredible. And to think we call ourselves civilized.

When I read, for example, the story of Abram's conversation with God in Genesis 17 it is just that; A Story. It, and the rest of the Book of Genesis tells a fascinating tale, but I don't believe for a minute that it in anyway relates to real conversations that someone had with "God" or with the beginnings of the universe. God didn't create the universe in seven days a few thousand years ago. People were not visited by "Angels" nor have conversations with "God". They had dreams, quite powerful and perhaps really scary dreams, but dreams nonetheless. Being good story tellers, and quite likely influential members of their respective communities, they were able to weave such experiences into a developing belief structure as to the nature of the universe. They sought a way to explain the unexplainable. Bertrand Russell describes it well in Proposed Roads to Freedom:

What a man believes upon grossly insufficient evidence is an index into his desires — desires of which he himself is often unconscious. If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.
I have dreams every night. I always feel that I have a much more refreshing sleep when I know that I have been dreaming. It is an important means by which I work out the trials and tribulations of my day. Through my lifetime, I have experienced a handful of powerful, emotion laden dreams, some of which I have retained as a conscious memory. At no time, however, did it occur to me that I was in conversation with God or any other ephemeral being.

In Biblical times though, that was the standard interpretation given. Dreams were seen as messages coming from beyond the mortal world. God, angels or the devil were speaking to us. What other explanation could there be?

Emotional experiences really do have the feeling of touching us in our "core". We physically feel it. Who hasn't woken up from a powerful dream, shaking or sweating? When afraid, we may often feel the hair stand up on the back of our neck. Others around us may view it happening. We feel the "knot" in our stomach and physical observation can readily detect these subtle yet very real changes in our body chemistry. Powerful? Most certainly. God tapping on our shoulder or the Devil whispering in our ear? I think not.

The explanations offered for these very real and powerful experiences three thousand years ago made sense in the context of the time. They do not make the same kind of sense today.

I am attracted to and interested in all religions for the moral teachings they have to offer. Being without religious faith should not be seen as justification for immoral behaviour. be continued.

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