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Why we have religion
Posted: 16 March 2005 02:36 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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Thought I'd start a new topic on this, rather than add more blabber to posts already looked at.

We, as humans, are the only creatures (that we know of) who are capable of seeing that we will all die some day.  Our deaths are as certain as the rising and setting of the sun and this realization places a terrible burden upon us.  What is our purpose in this life?  How did we get here?  What happens when we die?  These are the questions that religion seeks to answer.  Imagine living thousands of years ago, when knowledge of science, physics etc. was mostly unknown.  Doesn't it make sense that primitive man, confronted with the surety of his own death, would attempt to construct a belief system that helps to comfort all about the universal questions of life?  It does, and this is why we have religion.  This is why most religious beliefs are hopelessly primitive in their construction and why they can not conform to modern science and reality.  This is what Sam Harris is trying to get across. 

Those who are capable of independent thinking realize and understand all this, those who are "bible bangers" will never change their antiquated beliefs because they are incapable of seeing outside of their own primitive view of the world. 

Much of Europe is moving in a secular direction, primarily I believe because Europeans in general have a more realistic world-view born of a culture that has existed longer than ours.  America is currently moving in a "backwards" direction by embracing more and more religious views and expecting them of its leaders.  I have to believe, because of my love of this country, that this religious inclination will be a temporary one and in time, this great country will learn from its mistakes.

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Posted: 16 March 2005 02:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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I rather like to think that Europe is moving away from religion because they wisely kicked their religious extremists out and sent them here.  The puritans didnt come here seeking religious freedom, they were asked to leave England and the Netherlands because they wanted to restrict the religious rights of others.  They would not tolerate any belief other than their own, sound familiar?

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Posted: 16 March 2005 02:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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CDarrow, you say,

We, as humans, are the only creatures (that we know of) who are capable of seeing that we will all die some day. Our deaths are as certain as the rising and setting of the sun and this realization places a terrible burden upon us. What is our purpose in this life? How did we get here? What happens when we die? These are the questions that religion seeks to answer. Imagine living thousands of years ago, when knowledge of science, physics etc. was mostly unknown. Doesn’t it make sense that primitive man, confronted with the surety of his own death, would attempt to construct a belief system that helps to comfort all about the universal questions of life?

  The first thing that popped into my mind when I read that was, “Do we have those questions figured out?”  Are we enlightened to the degree that we know humanities purpose, destiny, and meaning from origin where we don’t need religion (if that’s all religion is for.)  If that motivated primitive man to religion, why wouldn’t it also move modern man to religion?  It doesn’t seem there is a consensus in our modern world on the ‘big’ questions in life either.

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Posted: 16 March 2005 05:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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Ordinary, I think many postings here on this forum have made it clear that we (science) don’t have all the answers but we are in the process of seeking.  Questions pertaining to “the purpose of human existence” and “the meaning of human life” are generally dismissed by scientific inquiry because they just don’t fit into the scientific epistemology.  For example, the theory of evolution posits no end to the process and no ultimate purpose (except perhaps survival itself).  I think Sam makes it clear that we need a spiritual perspective, but it must be one that fits comfortably with what we know from the indisputable evidence and the facts that surround us.  That is why he turns to Eastern Mysticism and meditation as spiritual practices that could fulfill those sorts of semantic human needs.  Those kinds of lifestyles give us purpose and meaning, but the wonderful part is that they don’t conflict with our knowledge in the fields of science, history, the arts, mythology and every other area of human interest, except that is, for dogmatic religions.

We must reject, Judiaism, christianity, islam,  hinduism, etc,. because they conflict rather profoundly with what we actually know to be true.  In order to actually believe in any one of them, we must reject other truths that are not rejectable.  So we must categorize these theisitic dogmas with all the rest, Zoroastrianism, Olympianism, Ancient Egyptian pantheism, etc., within the category of myth.  Of course we can still learn from myth, but we cannot apply these supernatural dogmas literally without actually becoming irrational ourselves.  This all seems so clear to me, why is it difficult to comprehend?

Bob

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Posted: 17 March 2005 01:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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Its not at all difficult to comprehend.  I agree with you.  But I think there are some things you take for granted. a) “what we know” and b) (speaking as one who fits in the Christian camp) “how that fits teaching from Jesus”. 

I don’t want to follow the teachings of Jesus or the scriptures that contradict what we know to be true.  I don’t think the scriptures do that.  Superficial readings of the text and misapplied conclusions most certainly do contradict with what we “know” to be true, but in my opinion, not a true rendering of the scriptures.  So, Bob, I agree with you.  But I think you come to a too-easy conclusion about how the teachings of the Christian scriptures are in contradiction to what we ‘know’ to be true.

But going to my initial question from the first post: what do we now ‘know’ about the ‘big’ questions that primitive man didn’t? (obviously other than scientific processes, they don’t answer the ‘big’ questions).

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Posted: 17 March 2005 01:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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[quote author=“Ordinary”]But going to my initial question from the first post: what do we now ‘know’ about the ‘big’ questions that primitive man didn’t? (obviously other than scientific processes, they don’t answer the ‘big’ questions).

But what do religious doctrines really do for us on that count other than to provide sets of presumptions with a structure of affirmation (plausibility structure)?

That may provide comfort to some (who are uncomfortable with uncertainty, and who don’t dig too deep), but what has it to do with reality?

Byron

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Posted: 17 March 2005 02:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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I don’t know whether what I’m going to say will help with this dilemma or not. First, there’s not just “religion vs. science.” There’s also philosophy.

Second, whatever religious writings you look at, there’s always a lot of genuine WiSDOM deposited in them, mankind’s collective, hard won wisdom about living, along with all the just-so stories, history, genealogy, and lists of do’s and don’ts.

There are also a lot of unproven assumptions we drag through history with us, like the mind/body/spirit split, which we take for granted as somehow still “scientific,” and which we inherited mainly from Neoplatonism.  Science itself is based on a lot of still untested assumptions; for example, that there is (God-given) order in the universe. The scientific fact that chaos is also real and has to be dealt with got ignored until very recently.

There’s also the distressing fact that both science and poetry come from the same kinds of hard-wired brains, and the use of metaphor to describe scientific processes is unavoidable and problematic. For example, “red in tooth and claw” which kept us from recognizing the vast symbiotic relationships that exist in nature until recently. Expressions which are understood to be metaphor when they are first written tend to become accepted as scientific fact as time passes.

We also tend to ignore that fact that “science” functions in the same nasty, political, dogmatic ways as anything else we do and scientific breakthroughs tend to get ignored, their discoverers reviled and tossed out of the clan as political threats. Do some reading in the history of science to get some perspective on this.

So, what do we do? In our society one of the most pernicious myths from which we suffer is the myth of progress, the belief that we’re somehow far superior to our poor, ignorant ancestors, technologically, morally, and intellectually. Since my field has largely been the history of technology, I’m aware that this is as irrational as most of our assumptions. Otherwise we wouldn’t be consulting tribal medicine men to learn about herbal medicines to test to develop modern medicines, to give one example. We’ve thrown out far too many babies along with the bath water.

So—if someone wants to search the Bible as a repository of sections of genuine time-tested human wisdom, that’s fine with me. It’s the way the Bible has been used to develop irrational interpretations into hard DOGMA that’s the real problem.

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Posted: 17 March 2005 02:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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Ordinary, you are reasonable.

If the scriptures dont contradict science to the point of reason being threatened, then praytell why Galileo was tried by the inquisition for heresy or why creationists are arguing about evolution or why some people think the world is 6,000 years old and the dinosaur bones are put there on purpose to fool us?

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Posted: 17 March 2005 04:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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As several other posts have indicated, science will not be answering those big questions because it doesn’t even ask them.  “What is the purpose of human existence?” and “What is the meaning of life?” are not scientific inquiries - they have no place in that discipline.

All of us non-believers can only answer those questions from a personal perspective and for most of us the notion that there has to be a “universal purpose” just doesn’t need a response.  I for one, don’t think such a question has any relevance at all.  Purposes themselves are concepts held by intelligent beings and when I reject the concept that there is a universal intelligence (a creator/deity) I also must reject such a quest. I can live with “I don’t know if there is any such purpose” - to me that is an adequate response.

On the question of meaning, again the rejection of deities automatically implicates that theistic meaning is non-existent.  For myself, I believe that we make meaning.  Human beings with their elevated intellectual abilities, mostly due to our possession of linguistic competence, are the true sources of meaning.  It is a shared task of language users to make meaning out of the world and their existence in it, and we all partake in that effort.  Meaning is constructed out of reason and logic but also out of emotion and instinct - we mash all this input together and then we contruct a meaningful discourse in an atttempt to give sense to our separate and combined realities.  We certainly don’t need god, but we can accept some Jesus preachings, if they are productive in that ultimate quest.

Bob

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Posted: 17 March 2005 05:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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MJ, you say,

It’s the way the Bible has been used to develop irrational interpretations into hard DOGMA that’s the real problem.

  As a believer, I really appreciate that.  You recognize that religion/the Bible/(anything really) can be used in a certain way to gain leverage or power.  That’s not scriptures intent and I appreciate your comment on that.

Iisbliss, church leaders (for whatever reason) believed that the earth was the center of the universe (from thinking that we are the center of God’s attention).  But Galileo said ‘no’ which threatened the churches teachings.  But scriptures don’t teach the earth is the center of the universe.  It was deduced (quite poorly, I might add) from who knows what.  But that hardly can be blamed on the scriptures themselves.  As for creationists… they don’t speak for God; he speaks for himself. 

Bob, I appreciate what you say.  There are some who are just comfortable without pursuing ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ in this life.  They are born, they live for a little bit, and they die.  Let’s move on to the next question.  In my experience and research, that doesn’t fit, though, the vast majority of the population.  Most peopole are looking for an ‘ultimate’ purpose.  On this idea of humans ‘creating their own meaning’.  Again, if that’s what people believe and think, so be it.  The problem I have with the idea of creating my own meaning is whatever that is, it dies with me.  So on my death bed, I go and slip off into a place where…nothing exists.  That’s why so many are afraid to die.  Again, I think most people are looking for meaning that’s bigger then themselves.  My vocation puts me into contact with dying people and that’s been my experience.  But if(as I believe) meaning and purpose are transcendent, then we do need God.

Also, you say,

As several other posts have indicated, science will not be answering those big questions because it doesn’t even ask them. “What is the purpose of human existence?” and “What is the meaning of life?” are not scientific inquiries - they have no place in that discipline.

  I agree completely.

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Posted: 17 March 2005 04:58 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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The first thing that popped into my mind when I read that was, “Do we have those questions figured out?” Are we enlightened to the degree that we know humanities purpose, destiny, and meaning from origin where we don’t need religion.


hmm.. what if we have no purpose destiny or meaning? its really not a bad thing at all. life is. so live it.

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Posted: 17 March 2005 05:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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Ordinary, you say

“The problem I have with the idea of creating my own meaning is whatever that is, it dies with me. So on my death bed, I go and slip off into a place where…nothing exists.”

That might be one way to view this idea of ‘meaning making selves’ but the way I see it, if we make our own meanings(collectively and individually) then the potential to create a heaven on earth is truly in our very hands.  As a species it is ultimately up to us to create the sorts of meanings that best fulfill our collective selves.  The problem with having meaning mandated from the top (divinely inspired?) is that all we can do is attempt to live up to its content, but (in the case of Christianity) we each have to die to discover whether that meaning was sound or not - that’s not good enough because it prevents us from making meaning into the thing that can truly help us here and now.

You say that the meaning you might create (or help to create) will end when you die, but that’s totally wrong.  Meaning is primarily a shared thing and those with whom you have shared your meaningful life will live on and and thus that meaning (or important parts of it) will live on.  I believe that there is much more hope for humanity on such a perspective. I could bring up a universal dream shared by John Lennon, the song “Imagine” - there is some powerful meaning that can be shared with many generations even after his untimely death.  Lennon gave us a beautiful vision of what a future humanity might believe and that vision may yet come to fruition if we as a species realize the advantage of the incredible perspective of his vision.

Even this Forum is a perfect example of how we make one another’s meanings more deep and more comprehensive (except for TChamp, that is).  Just by reading all of these postings I am growing and questioning my own meanings and beliefs. Through my own participation I also hope to be having some positive effect on other readers - that’s a hope that most of us hold dearly.  We want to understand and to be understood.  Simply by participating in this forum, I find that I can respond with more clarity and a wider perspective than I had previously, and when I share my thoughts with others I can pass the meanings I have embraced from others here to others in my own life.

TO my way of thinking, if meaning and purpose are preodrained by some unknowable being with divine powers, that leaves us almost like robots attempting to follow and to act on a program already designed for our ultimate end.  That , to me, is worse than just dying and fading into nothing.

Bob

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Posted: 17 March 2005 06:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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[quote author=“Ordinary”]...church leaders (for whatever reason) believed that the earth was the center of the universe (from thinking that we are the center of God’s attention).  But Galileo said ‘no’ which threatened the churches teachings.  But scriptures don’t teach the earth is the center of the universe.  It was deduced (quite poorly, I might add) from who knows what.  But that hardly can be blamed on the scriptures themselves.  As for creationists… they don’t speak for God; he speaks for himself.

Ordinary:

The problem is that churches (virtually any Christian church at any rate) tend to proceed from a perspective of “having the answers”.  The fundamental rub is that scientists tend to question things, even things which are commonly held to be true, and religions want to segment things off as being beyond question.  Thus, when scientists question something that the church claims to be beyond question, the church feels threatened, and, quite naturally, opposes the scientific questioning as an attack.  Unfortunately, the churches have been wrong about many things.  The fact that, as some of these things have become generally accepted, the churches have changed their tune is even more damning of them.  When will the churches truly have it right?

Of course, at this point, the typical apologist will likely claim that scientists merely represent another “faith” and that they are no less guilty of opposing the question of their sacred cows.  While it is true that people tend to rally behind concepts, and fight to preserve them, even when the evidence is not favorable, one only need look at the changes in the scientific view of the world over the last 200 years and compare this with the Christian view of the world over the same time frame to see which is the more rabidly anti-change.

The issue at hand is one of policy.  How should schools teach upon the subject of evolution?  Should tax dollars be diverted to pay for research which presupposes an evolutionary world view?  Should apocalyptic prophecy be used as the basis of foreign policy?  Should people be villified for no other reason than that they engage in a lifestyle which is prohibited by one or more “holy” books?  My answer is a categorical NO!  Especially when things in these “holy” books can be proven to be incorrect!  Once one must argue for “interpretation” or “a non-literal approach” then these books are disqualified from being able to speak to such policy issues.

When people want to outlaw something, or teach something, with no better reason than that offered by their favorite holy book, I get a bit nervous.  Although I respect religious freedom, I will not allow someone to kill me just because their religion tells them to.  By extension, when people want to enact policies that increase the death and misery quotients of the world, I will oppose that, and if it means that I must disabuse people of some cherished but wrongheaded beliefs along the way, then so be it.

-Matt

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Posted: 17 March 2005 11:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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[quote author=“Ordinary”]Most peopole are looking for an ‘ultimate’ purpose. On this idea of humans ‘creating their own meaning’. Again, if that’s what people believe and think, so be it. The problem I have with the idea of creating my own meaning is whatever that is, it dies with me. So on my death bed, I go and slip off into a place where…nothing exists.


Epistemologically, what’s the difference between creating/determining your own meaning and choosing the meaning created/determined by a large number of people (almost always pretty much the entire membership of your home culture)? Do popularity or desirability bear on truthfulness or reality?

This is more than likely why we got bogged down before—the desire for a given formula (conceptual construct) can overwhelm the analytical mind’s ability to “cleanly” process certain ideas. I can understand that, because death is profoundly terrifying and everything nature has instilled in me tells me to avoid (reject) death in any way, shape or form possible.

Never-the-less, my desires, strong as they may be, have no bearing on reality. As much as I’d like to believe I’ll experience some kind of life after death, I have no valid reason upon which to base such a belief. I have to accept it as an unknown.

Byron

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Posted: 18 March 2005 12:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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Bob,

I guess I disagree with you a bit.  I understand what you say.  I do think the meaning dies.  The objects of meaning may live on, but meaning doesn’t because meaning is wrapped up in myself.  Thankyou for the communal reference.  We are people who live in community (or we should be).  But the problem doesn’t go away; we just move it to the community (ie family or whatever).  What happens when the community dies or disintegrates?  I think something transcendent is needed.

As far as humanity creating a heaven on earth, I think its a great idea, but I think history (and for me, scriptures) teaches that this is impossible.  I think even when we examine our own hearts, our propensity to try to excel at the expense of others, our immediate impulses to hurt others who bother us, don’t give me confidence that we can create heaven on earth.

I can see why you would have a problem with meaning within a theistic framework.  The problem is I think you have a terribly wrong view of what that is.

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Posted: 18 March 2005 12:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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Matt,

You make great points.  You are right concerning the response of the church in the past.  The reason for that (in my opinion) is the church held positions it should have never held.  For example, some of these scientific issues.  Instead of saying and proclaiming, ‘God is the creator of the heavens and the earth’, which I believe and affirm today, the church has always had the tendency to go beyond that say ‘this is how….’  They ought not to do that.  Scriptures don’t talk about how (in my opinion).

My roots are based in the Anabaptist tradition, which sees a strong separation in church and state.  I think there is too much meddling, both ways.  The church should be primarily concerned about keeping the govt out of the church and trying to do good through their religious community, not through the govt.

So I tend to agree with you.  Ambassadors of the faith have done a poor job in the past, there’s no doubt about that.

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