I'm doing an edit to this given a change in perspective. It's not a big change and I think it's just as un-PC as it was before. It's just that a few things needed to be cleaned up. Actually, given the enormity of the subject, I might do frequent changes to this post given that I don't think doing individual posts for individual concerns would serve this post well.
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I'm finally doing it! A post on religion.
Why now? I've been thinking about doing this post for a long time. I think this is an integral part of our lives and bears some discussion.
When I look at religions I tend to see trends. The fact that they all seem to try and offer some explanation as to what happens to you when you face the scary topic of mortality for example.
I group this in with the question "Does God exist?". They're questions, but questions that I don't actually need answers to. I'd like to know. I can live without an answer. So God may exist, he/she/it may not. [edit: 28/3/2011] This is pretty much the definition of being agnostic.
In terms of death, I like the concept of reincarnation. I loathe the carrot and stick that is heaven and hell. I'd be happy to know I was going to be buried in a biodegradable casket under a tree where I would essentially be fertiliser but my memory would be marked by something alive in which case, if that's it, I cease to exist, I'm comfortable with that too.
I got told "You'll be rewarded in the afterlife".
I was greatly offended by this. This is a bit like talking computer terminology around people not in the know. If, for example, talking about the master/slave relationship between hard drives, someone may take offense. It's not meant in that way.
So I consider that statement to be rude. Talking about someone's mortality comes across as incredibly uncouth. Attaching a religious tone to that, the afterlife, assumes a shared set of beliefs, or, in the "master/slave" example above, jargon. I realise that this is meant to come across as comforting but to me it sounded as if someone was absolving themselves of a burden of respect by saying that "god" will look after it.
I have to be honest - I was hopping mad about this statement. More dramatic thoughts had come to me. It's the sort of thing you might say to a terrorist before he straps on a bomb on for example.
This is an example of how religion can drive people apart I think. The same holds for some holidays as well. Easter, for example is a taken over holiday. You can still incredibly obvious indications of this. The word "Easter", derived from the word "Eastre" meaning spring, and the Goddess "Eastur" - the Mother or goddess of fertility. However, we celebrate it in New Zealand as a Christian holiday - one of the few days you can't buy alcohol in this country.
Every year we have news about shop keepers breaking laws around opening on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. They don't feel inclined to obey these laws given that they don't celebrate that particular religion. I would hazard a guess and say that a great deal of shop keepers don't open only because of the laws and not because of their faith.
I try to show respect in regards to religion. They're not my beliefs, but they're beliefs none the same. My main problem with organised/institutionalised religion though, is that they try to dictate how you should live when all of this is intrinsic.
And the reason I think it's intrinsic? By a weird twist of fate, we have a term which sums up this reasoning: karma. I know it tends to be used in a very airy fairy sort of a way, but the way I see it, it's very material.
If I punch someone, treat them with disrespect, I lose something. I lose their respect. Hell - I lose my respect. I can be moral, and have fought for my own moral code without someone dictating what that code should be.
And the bigger prize at the end of the rainbow? When I'm old and graying sitting on my front porch on a rocking chair playing chess with another old and wizened friend or whittling away at a piece of wood, I can sit back and think to myself "I did the best I could". Being content with how I lived my life is a much better carrot for me than anything that might happen when I die.
I have respect for those who are moral, not because a religion has told them that's how to behave or they're being promised a better after life if they do so, but because they know what being moral means. It's not following a bunch of rules but rather, arriving to a set of standards in behaviour and conduct that you feel is right.
And there's something there - something really honest that can be taken from that. We are, by our very natures, selfish. We do things for respect, the feeling we get, money etc. Any sort of value. Ironically, the less it seems about ourselves, the more virtuous it seems - to me at least. However, I know my actions are about me. Thus, what can I offer? How much help is it? How do I feel about what I'm doing?
Thinking from a perspective from one's self is not necessarily a bad thing. Humans have been doing this for centuries. I love being involved with the One Laptop Per Child Project because I meet up and work with like minded people. I show concern because I'm curious. It's all about me, just as you're the star of your own movie.
I know this has been touched upon in religious contexts before. I think we should be acknowledging it more. For example, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". You would have them do unto you. It's very much from a place where you are the center again.
Religion though is quite often seen from the perspective of the practiser. This is interesting in Christianity as particular gospels, in particular John's, take a very evangelical line. Why would his be evangelical while the others take a much more passive line? I personally believe it to be a case of agendas.
A friend called up someone he liked in high school only to find she'd become quite religious. When asked what he was doing for new years, he'd said he was having a few drinks. She replied with something about alcohol destroying the soul. To this day (around 10 years later) we still toast to a good solid renovation of our souls (while laughing about water having been turned into wine. By this logic, Jesus was a nasty character out to destroy a bunch of souls). Her own experiences with alcohol or those who drink (to excess given her view on it) had lead her to back up her beliefs with the "soul".
I'm sure religions came from good places. Do you ever imagine Mohammed would have conceived of anything even close to suicide bombers? Jesus or Moses had even remotely conceived of child molesting priests?
But then - the religions are often pale reflections of what they should be. I asked 5 people from my family how the universe came into being according to Hinduism. Only one had a very vague idea. Most Hindu's know a bit of the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita but have seldom even heard of the Vedas or Puranas.
How many Christians or Muslims refer to the Old Testament?
I can't really reconcile being a good "insert religious denomination here" with not knowing an awful lot about the religion and instead following the procedures/rituals etc. of that religion.
I would argue that the intent is far more important than.... practising lent, yom kippur, the month of Ramadan or a puja. But often, people don't know or care about the intent of their chosen religion.
So my problem with religion is very seldom about the religion itself, but rather with the people who practise it and how they interpret the intent (or don't as in many cases).