Delusions: good, bad and ugly?

January 30, 2010 at 5:45 pm (absolute goodness, God, is religion good or bad for you?, philosophy, science)

There is nothing else in life that can be compared to religion in terms of how deeply people get into it and also how subjective it is. People can’t change their minds about religion overnight. Belief is very robust. And different people can be equally deeply convinced about very different things. It’s very interesting.

In that sense, religion also seems to be very divisive. When you are so deeply into a religion that you are utterly convinced by it (and I think it is that way round), everyone else looks completely misguided, if not stupid. I can look at the Hindus in the village where little Lakshmi was born with a parasitic twin – giving her the appearance of 4 arms and 4 legs – who believe in all seriousness that she is a goddess… and I can easily think, how daft. But such is the power of our religious beliefs. They think the doctors who carried out the surgery to save her life were in the wrong. It’s all a matter of perspective. I am trying really hard not to conclude that the best or only real perspective is the materialistic one. But sometimes I feel like I’m losing at that.

One big factor in Ghazali’s religious angst was fear of hell. He was worried that he would face hell if he couldn’t recover his faith. This is something that has plagued me at times, too. But now, I really feel that I’ve liberated myself from it and that is probably why I don’t fear losing all faith any more. The idea of eternal torment as punishment for finite sins is completely unjust, and the idea that correct beliefs are required to avoid this means that life is a lottery – you will be saved if the influences on your life allow you to arrive at those beliefs. Either it is a lottery, or “God guides whom He wills” – i.e. God has favourites.

Even if our condition in the afterlife depends only on our actions in this life and not on our beliefs, it seems to me that we don’t all have the same propensity to sin or to do good. Either from birth or by conditioning, some people have an inclination to be psychopathic, or abuse children, while other people would never do those things. Maybe we could say God takes all these differences into account when judging people. But there is still the question of whether eternal punishment is ever just.

Maybe it’s true… maybe God isn’t just, or fair. Why should I assume that we can project human values onto God? But if that is the case then it would seem there’s nothing I can do to be sure I’ve secured my afterlife, since any notions I might naturally have about what I deserve can be thrown out the window. Given how man-made all religions seem to be, and how subjective the process of arriving at belief is, I can’t take it seriously any more. It seems like just another tale told to frighten children into obedience. And while I can’t rule out that it is true, I also can’t rule out that I am going to spontaneously combust in the next five minutes. Neither of these are at all rational to worry about.

There are alternative ideas within Christianity: the idea that punishment is temporary and redeeming; the idea that punishment is simply destruction and ceasing to exist. The former is actually the one I like the most because I like happy endings and I also like the idea of people getting what they deserve. But who knows? NO-ONE DOES.

I wrote this elsewhere and wanted to record it here too: At this point I am less certain about God than I have ever been. But life itself has shown me goodness, and that goodness is what I still call “God”. Learning to love goodness is what I call “redemption”. And uncertainty has paradoxically brought more clarity. What I see more than anything is that religion can tie me in knots, and make me lose sight of the fact that goodness pervades everything and that all I need to do is look for it.

I have no idea if I will continue to believe in a reality called God in a literal way. And I’m pretty sure believing in a mythological way is impossible (although I will read Aslan’s book before I decide, as I really don’t understand the concept yet). But my experience of goodness is something I fear will disappear if it is eventually “explained away”. I fear life could not be meaningful or truly good without belief in God. I will have to think about that.

I think it’s being able to reflect on the experience of consciousness that gives rise to all this existential angst. Asking these questions is wired into us. I don’t think it’s just over-active imagination, although that is part of it. This doesn’t mean any of our ideas about God are true… but it might mean we can’t live fulfilling lives without them. I worry that we are too intelligent for our own good; that we have the ability to see our delusions for what they are, even though that insight causes us to malfunction. I don’t know that any of that is the case, but it worries me that it might be.

It might just be that it is neither rational nor irrational to believe in a deeper reality. Any ultimate explanation of reality is probably inherently subjective because we can only see reality through the lens of our own consciousness.

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30 Comments

  1. LK said,

    Wow fascinating. Your last paragraph makes a very startling point. But incredibly truthful. Religion is completely subjective, the whole thing is. I too don’t completely understand “God guides who he wills” since i think God at least attempts to guide everyone or at least those that want to be guided. But who knows why people do bad things. Is it Satan, are they born with a malfunction, or are they just incapable of being guided by God? I know a lot of it has to do with free will but what do you do with someone who does a horrible thing due to a mental illness? Did they have the ability to not do the action, and if not why did God create them like that? Was it just the randomness of nature? No clue.

    Punishment and Justice are weird things. No one knows for sure what they mean in terms of religion. Everyone has a similar concept with some differences thrown in. Religion itself is full of base concepts with little differences. One that seems absurd to one person may be exactly what the other needs. Why? who knows but God. That is the thing though, that could be why God allows multiple religions. Perhaps different people need different things because in the end isnt that the purpose of religion? To fill needs that we have , to fill our need to be close to God? God doesn’t need religion or us for that matter. But we need Him.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Maybe it is both true that “God guides who he wills” and “God guides who wills to be guided”… i.e., free will and predestination. In some paradoxical way that we can’t understand, they could both be true? I think that’s what I’ve always thought.

      I guess if you delve into people’s lives there is always a reason for the wrong we do. Not an excuse, but an individual explanation, whether it’s inborn or caused by experiences. I find it makes me feel more sympathetic when I understand the reason why someone does something. I can only imagine God would see it the same way, only more!

      I think religion definitely does fulfil needs. Even people who aren’t religious usually seem to have some other beliefs or world view that is similar. Hopefully we all find a way to fulfil those needs in the end!

  2. susanne430 said,

    It’s really interesting following your journey. Eager to see (read) where God takes you. 🙂

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Thank you, Susanne. It means a lot that people are still following after all the crazy stuff I’ve come out with!

  3. Staying Anon said,

    “In that sense, religion also seems to be very divisive. When you are so deeply into a religion that you are utterly convinced by it (and I think it is that way round), everyone else looks completely misguided, if not stupid.”

    Yes it can be totally divisive. That’s were our self control (mentioned) in the last post comes in. We can believe that others are wrong, that they are blind to the truth, whatever…but we must exercise self control because we weren’t put here to push our truth down the throats of others. ”There is no compulsion” in religion – there really shouldn’t be. I guess I’m liberal in ways and not in others.

    I think it is true that we see reality through our own lens as you put it. But some also have the ability to look outside themselves and try to see things from anothers point of view. They may not agree with it, but it’s helpful to be able to see how you think someone elses ideas may have formed. It can bring people together rather than pushing them apart.

    I hope your belief in God only strengthens and grows.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Staying Anon – true, it doesn’t have to be so divisive if we understand that we shouldn’t compel anyone. I also liked the verses that say only God really knows who is right and who isn’t.

      Seeing from another’s point of view is really important. Taking the time to really listen and not dismiss people based on what we think they are all about. This seems to be difficult for everyone regardless of religion or lack of it. But it would help lessen the divisions.

      • Staying Anon said,

        I like that truth you mentioned too regarding God and how God is the one who really knows…or specifically God will judge – Not US!!

        Something I wonder about often: I get confused about having an opinion and making a judgement. I’m not sure whether, and how, different they are. This bothers me. I tend to think they are different and that I can have an opinion, that someone is not doing something right for example, without being judgemental. But maybe I’m wrong? If I’m wrong though then we are required to hold no opinions in order to be non-judgemental?

        On the subject of advice, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to give it to people BUT it has to be well placed, well timed and I believe given without expectation that it will be taken. Like we have both said, it’s not our place to force anyone…but in the right situation it’s ok to give advice to help someone.

        The best advice doesn’t seem to be real advice anyway…it’s just seeing and hearing how others live. Then it gets you thinking about different things. You might decide you don’t agree, or you do and you change your life accordingly.

        I don’t have a problem too much with non-Muslims, my friends I mean. I have avoided it by not getting into ”’discussions” re religion. I do talk about Islam and how it is, but we never have arguments or discussions and I think on the whole this is a wise move 😛 I just accept they are different and I don’t focus on that, or on trying to ”actively” convert them. If God wills then he will bring them to believe in him and in a God based religion. Maybe I’m wrong, but doing it in an active fashion doesn’t seem to work…not here in the West.

        • Wrestling With Religion said,

          Interesting! I agree there’s nothing wrong with having an opinion… but ideally we’d all be humble enough to know that we might be wrong and to be able to actually listen to others’ opinions, that way it’s constructive and we should all move towards the truth. I think advice is OK too if given in that spirit. Advice that is backed up with a convincing reasoning probably has more impact.

          I think you’re right that being an example is the best way to demonstrate something. A lot of people get into religion through seeing other people as examples, not through being actively proselytised to. I think most people don’t want that and feel there’s no need for it because everyone has the ability to find out about religion for themselves if they’re interested.

  4. Ayan said,

    I tried posting my first response via my iTouch but that didn’t work 😦

    I’ll try to summarize my previous long response. Delusion itself is subjective, there’s nothing certain about it.

    { The idea of eternal torment as punishment for finite sins is completely unjust, and the idea that correct beliefs are required to avoid this means that life is a lottery – you will be saved if the influences on your life allow you to arrive at those beliefs. Either it is a lottery, or “God guides whom He wills” – i.e. God has favourites … Maybe we could say God takes all these differences into account when judging people. But there is still the question of whether eternal punishment is ever just.}

    Eternal punishment is just, to our human understanding, it may sound or seem unjust, but God created this (by His infinite wisdom). As for correct belief, it can be a misleading and tricky concept. However, as a Muslim I believe that belief is believing in the oneness of God and worshipping God alone. That was the main message by all the prophet of God from Adam, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, to Jesus, to finally Muhammad (peace be upon them all). By worship, I mean pray to God alone and seek refuge in God alone. Look through old scripture on how the prophets of God use to pray and why they pray … there is just to many similarity to brush aside as coincidence. Why would God keep sending human messenger to remind humankind the purpose of our existence? Why would God send scriptures to messengers? Why create angels? Why bother to believe in the unseen (i.e. the hereafter, angels, jinns, God, etc), Why would God create life itself?

    It all seems pointless if one does not accept one aspect and accepts another. There is no point in believing in judgement/accountability in the hereafter if one does not believe in paradise and hell. Paradise and hell is our outcome after judgement not our mere belief. It is God who judges who is going to hell or paradise and even then I have no guarantee I going to paradise just because I’m a practising Muslim. Certainty only comes in the hereafter, based on our actions, belief in God, circumstance, among other things.

    { “God guides whom He wills” – i.e. God has favourites}

    God does not have favourites. Since, then you are suggesting God is unjust. When in Islam one of God’s attributes is Al-‘Adl (the Most Just), so such suggestion is negated. God would not create us damned for hell then there is no point in freewill, accountability, or belief. Instead, I believe (as a Muslim) that everyone was born in a state of openness/inclination to accepting the existence of God. But, it is our upbringing or environment that makes us disbelieve in God and worship God alone. Thus, I believe that God guide those that seek to find Him and those that seek it with sincerity and certainty. Also, those that accept the unseen (especially the existence of God and all God’s creations those that we can see and not see), and those that know that God is Al-Ghaffar (the Most Forgiving) and the Most Just and know they have nothing to lose to seek His guidance.

    I don’t want to sound rude but, it is us that needs God not the other way around. It’s our hereafter that we should worry about and think long and hard about. Because we all know that death is certain but what is not certain is our outcome of our judgement/accountability from God. This is why I agree with Ghazali in worrying about hell, but more importantly my final accountability/outcome.

    One of the main reason I choose to be a practicing Muslim is beaceuse of the justice that will be served by God in the hereafter. Look around us, we see injustice on a daily basis whether it be in our own life, locally, nationally, or internationally. God is aware of all and will serve final justice in the hereafter. Maybe, some will get justice in this life but ALL will get justice in the hereafter (since God is the Most Just). Also, another main reason I choose to be Muslim, is because I believe salvation and refuge is only through God alone. Not through Jesus, not through exclusive club to God, not by any religious leaders, etc. The key is we have freewill to believe or disbelieve in God and our accountability (and what if to come after it).

    {“When you are so deeply into a religion that you are utterly convinced by it (and I think it is that way round), everyone else looks completely misguided, if not stupid.”}

    I’m too worried of my own accountability/outcome/salvation to see or worry about others “misguidence”. That may make me seem selfish, but I have my own soul to worry about. Since, I don’t have certainty in my own outcome.

    • Cornelius said,

      “Eternal punishment is just, to our human understanding, it may sound or seem unjust, but God created this (by His infinite wisdom).”

      I that what is says in the holy book?

      “That was the main message by all the prophet of God from Adam, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, to Jesus, to finally Muhammad (peace be upon them all).”

      If Muhammad had repeated the mistake of all the other prophets by forgetting to mention that he’s the last, do you think that it’s possible that we would have come up with at least a few more religions by now?

      • Ayan said,

        {Is that what is says in the holy book?}
        Yes and no. I know God is all wise, since that is one of God’s attribute (Al-Hakim). We as human are limited in knowledge, what we know now is limited to time and space. As time goes we uncover some truth or deny others, but even then that is subjective person to person. However, God’s wisdom is not limited to time or space or any creation limitation.

        {If Muhammad had repeated the mistake of all the other prophets by forgetting to mention that he’s the last, do you think that it’s possible that we would have come up with at least a few more religions by now?}

        The main message is all the same in the old scriptures. What mistake are you talking about? The core message of acknowledging God and worshipping God alone is not a new message. What is new is the new laws that governs ones life, depending what religion they follow.

        • Cornelius said,

          “However, God’s wisdom is not limited to time or space or any creation limitation.”

          I’m thinking this is something we would believe—an all-knowing, almighty being. Perhaps we arrived at this conclusion because we feel there is no better alternative to explain what we see around us. Most of us have the tendency to do so.

          Some prominent person in my country believes that the 9/11 was staged by the American government. Among his reasons why he believes so is that he noted the buildings collapsed straight down, i.e. without leaning to the sides. Because these buildings collapsed in such a manner, he said it resembled the destruction caused by demolition bombs by the experts. There is no evidence that this was actually the case, but because to him there is no superior explanation, then the “demolition bombs” explanation must be the correct one.

          In a similar way, most of us can’t explain what we see around us. That’s why there must be an all-knowing, almighty God.

          • Wrestling With Religion said,

            Cornelius – I too think that most of us still need to invoke God to explain what we see around us.

            Of course in the past, direct action from God was used to explain a lot of things that we would now explain through natural causes – i.e, not direct action from God. God has become less of a personality and more of an abstraction. I wonder if this means God is shrinking and will eventually disappear from our understanding of the way things work?

            Obviously there are atheists, who presumably don’t need to invoke God to explain anything. I haven’t got there (yet!) and from what you’ve said maybe you are the same. I look around me and what I see seems too astonishing to have no cause. Goodness and beauty are like spiritual experiences to me. That may be irrational but it is what it is. Also, consciousness just blows my mind. I find it hard to imagine that science will one day explain how consciousness arises – how the experience of existing, of “being me” is just a bunch of biological processes. Just carbon atoms plus time. I can’t imagine it. That’s not to say that science won’t come up with an explanation that makes me go “Aha!” and blows the need for the supernatural out of the water, the same way the theory of evolution did for a lot of people. But right now I can’t imagine it. I still find “God” (in some sense) to be the best explanation, as you say, for the experience of being.

            Maybe theism can even survive a scientific explanation of consciousness, beauty and goodness, the way it survived the theory of evolution. Maybe it just gets more sophisticated or more distant. Maybe as long as we need God, we will be clever enough to slot God into the picture.

            • Cornelius said,

              WWR,

              Because this is no superior explanation for what I see around me, I’m inclined to believe that there is an almighty creator. There is no absolute proof that that is indeed the case. I think some things are created in a specific colour, specific shape and also designed to do certain things; I feel these are unlikely things arising from random occurances. But again, I may be wrong.

              However, the thing which I can’t accept is the idea of a God who demands our obedience, our devotion. Not only does He expects our unconditional love, that seems to be His highest priority too. It follows that it doesn’t really matter if I am a very good person in this life. It doesn’t really matter that I go out of my way to help others in need. For if I don’t worship God and accept Him in my heart, I won’t be entitled to enter Paradise.

              And if I’m not going to Paradise, where, then, will I end up in? Well, if it’s not heaven, then it will be hell. The thought that doing all the good deeds in this life and then still end up in hell is just too much for me to accept for the standard of a God who’s supposed to serve justice. There is no justice, so I don’t believe in a conceited God who craves to be worshipped.

              • Wrestling With Religion said,

                I share your concerns with the justice of a God like that.

                I think my concept of worship has always been about cultivating a love for goodness. I see that as something beneficial for me and the people around me. And I still think there is something peaceful about submission in terms of acceptance of our place in the universe, our lack of control, our brevity.

                But maybe you don’t see God as being goodness, if your idea of God is just to explain our existence.

                Someone said something interesting to me yesterday: that maybe God wanted us to think independently… maybe God wanted Eve to eat the fruit… to make independent choices and see what happens! Funnily enough that was also Jeffrey Lang’s comment on the creation story in the Quran. I sometimes question God over the existence of badness in the world, and yet when I think about a paradise where there is no temptation to eat that apple, doesn’t it seem kind of boring? How would we even know it was good? Maybe everything is as it should be.

    • Cornelius said,

      “One of the main reason I choose to be a practicing Muslim is beaceuse of the justice that will be served by God in the hereafter. Look around us, we see injustice on a daily basis whether it be in our own life, locally, nationally, or internationally.”

      Is that an implication that there is no justice in the Christian God?

      • ellen557 said,

        I think Cornelius that what Ayan is saying (forgive me if I’m wrong Ayan!) is that she identified with the form of justice described in the Qur’an, not that Christianity doesn’t prescribe justice.

        • Ayan said,

          Thanks Ellen, that is what I’m trying to say.

      • Ayan said,

        You’re assuming that there is a Christian God and a Muslim God. While, I believe God is one and the God of all creation. There is no seperate God for each religion, we may call or see God in a certain way but God is still the creator and sustainer of all (whether we believe in God or not).

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Ayan – sorry you lost your other comment! Frustrating when that happens.

      I have been reading about the history of religions and I don’t believe they all had exactly the same ideas – some quite different. Jesus for example believed God would dramatically intervene and transform the world in a cosmic event during his followers’ lifetimes.

      I agree there has to be an afterlife in order to believe in judgment and accountability. And justice. I would like to believe in justice. I don’t like the idea that we all cease to exist when we die, and there are no consequences for committing evil. I just can’t work out what real justice would be like and I don’t think heaven and hell sounds like it to me. I just don’t have as much trust as you do, that God is just in giving eternal punishment even though it doesn’t seem like it to us.

      Re your last paragraph, I think that is humility and I admire that. We can’t be sure of our own salvation so why should we view anyone else as being definitely doomed? Good point.

  5. Ayan said,

    What I forgot to add was that I can always hope for a good outcome by believing in God and worshipping God alone. I think we all seek for forgiveness, guidence, and hope. But, I can do is do my best in this life and hope for the best and most of all forgivness for ALL of my short coming.

    • Ayan said,

      *all I can do is do my best…

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      I also try to do my best in this life and hope for the best. I don’t know if believing in goodness qualifies as believing in God, but I think we all need that.

  6. ellen557 said,

    You said up there about God guiding whom He wills, etc. I definitely believe that but I also think that the greatest gift God has given us is freedom in our earthly life. So if someone willingly destroys a life (with full understanding of what they’ve done) then they deserve the type of punishment only God can give. I do think though that there are boundaries with that – e.g. like LK said, a disabled person. They may not fully comprehend what they’ve done, therefore any punishment would take that into consideration. But the freedom is still there, they are still able to make choices even though they might not understand those choices 100%.

    I don’t even know why I felt I wanted to comment on that considering that only like a 10th of your post was about that but lol anyway!

    You were saying about not identifying with man-made aspects of religion – me neither, really. Like in Islam for example, I believe in hijab. But that’s because I thought about it and decided that yes, it was something that I believed fit with my own concept of Islam. I think it’s important to do that (like you did) with aspects of religion that are contested because if you don’t feel comfortable with it, then the I certainly think that it’s not for you (or me, etc).
    I don’t know why but all my comments to your posts always end up so sketchy lol! Hope this one made sense :S

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Ellen – thanks for sharing your thoughts… I think I agree with you about free will, although it’s something that every time I really think about it I confuse myself more!

      I agree as well that it’s important to work out whether things fit our understanding or not, before we dive in and practice them and end up possibly resenting them.

  7. Wrestling With Religion said,

    If anyone wants to read more about the idea that there is no eternal punishment (from a Christian Biblical perspective), there is this post by Hubby and this comment on it by Black Sheep. It’s worth looking at some of the articles that are linked to. Really makes you think about it.

  8. ricklannoye said,

    Very well said!

    I would just like to add one more point–that Jesus himself could never have condoned the doctrine of Hell, much less advocated for it!

    I’ve actually written an entire book on this topic–Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There’s No Such Place As Hell, (for anyone interested, you can get a free ecopy of Did Jesus Believe in Hell?, one of the most compelling chapters in my book at http://www.thereisnohell.com), but if I may, let me share one of the many points I make in it to explain why.

    If one is willing to look, there’s substantial evidence contained in the gospels to show that Jesus opposed the idea of Hell. For example, in Luke 9:51-56, is a story about his great disappointment with his disciples when they actually suggested imploring God to rain FIRE on a village just because they had rejected him. His response: “You don’t know what spirit is inspiring this kind of talk!” Presumably, it was NOT the Holy Spirit. He went on, trying to explain how he had come to save, heal and relieve suffering, not be the CAUSE of it.

    So it only stands to reason that this same Jesus, who was appalled at the very idea of burning a few people, for a few horrific minutes until they were dead, could never, ever burn BILLIONS of people for an ETERNITY!

    True, there are a few statements that made their way into the copies of copies of copies of the gospel texts which place “Hell” on Jesus’ lips, but these adulterations came along many decades after his death, most likely due to the Church filling up with Greeks who imported their belief in Hades with them when they converted.

    Bear in mind that the historical Protestant doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures applies only to the original autographs, not the copies. But sadly, the interpolations that made their way into those copies have provided a convenient excuse for a lot of people to get around following Jesus’ real message.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      ricklannoye – thanks for your input. There seem to be quite a lot of Christians around who don’t believe in hell as eternal torment.

  9. Achelois said,

    I wanted to comment on the post you deleted 🙂

    But anyway, hmm, these days I am toying with the idea that there is no heaven or hell. Sounds awful because I want to believe in an after-life. I love certain people too much and would want to see them again. If there is no eternal hell there shouldn’t be an eternal heaven either. It’s only fair 😀

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Achelois – say something about the other post if you want. 🙂 I took it down in my frenzy of “retreating in fear from too much honesty”.

      I’m not sure there’s an afterlife either. I find it hard to wrap my head around the notion that a person just ceases to exist… and that the unfairness and injustice in the world is never made right… but that’s no reason to think it’s not the case.

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