I just watched “The Mormons“, a long and informative documentary which I found through Staring at the View. It was really quite interesting both to learn about a faith that I knew very little about, and also because of how well it illustrated the various different sides of religious belief in general. I found myself facepalming an awful lot, but also occasionally feeling happy for the comfort beliefs can give people. That is the paradox of religion.
The last couple of minutes of this clip was particularly interesting. Here are two quotes from 9:08 onwards that talk of the collision between faith and reason due to the historical claims of religion:
“History as theology is perilous. If it turns out that the whole story of Christ’s resurrection was a fabrication, then Christianity collapses. That’s the price we pay for believing in a God who intervenes in human history, who has real interactions with real human beings in real space and time. That makes it historical, and that’s a reality that we just can’t flee away from.”
“All religion, western and eastern, is founded upon miracle. It makes little sense to present arguments against Joseph Smith and early Mormonism that would extend equally well to what we are told about the origins of what would eventually be Judaism; the origins of Christianity; the origins of Islam. All religion depends upon revelation, all revelation is supernatural; if you wish to be a hard-rock empiricist, then you should not entertain any religious doctrine whatsoever.”
It really is much easier to dispute religious claims when you are not in the religion, and when the religion is comparatively new. Somehow we seem to think that because something happened a long time ago, it has more veracity – maybe because religions become such stable systems that are much bigger and more “complete” than they started out. But as these people are saying, the historical origins of all religions involve highly improbable things, things that you would never believe if you didn’t have some other emotional kind of motivation for believing. The critical comments on the Book of Mormon – its textual style and the lack of any evidence to support its content – certainly felt familiar from my own critical responses to religious texts. I really think faith in religion requires a determinedly uncritical approach.
Joseph Smith came off to me like an eccentric cult leader that somehow created a movement that went big. He reminded me of other cults where the leader has absolute power and can even get away with sleeping with other men’s wives. He also reminded me of Muhammad (who had more than his fair share of women too) with a very similar mode of revelation, bringing a new holy text, creating a theocracy, aggravating the existing communities where they settled and even engaging in military conflict, and making a “hijrah” of sorts.
The reports of a pentecost-like period when the first temple was constructed were so fascinating. Many people reported seeing angels going through its windows and all sorts of things like that. This stuff really fascinates me. The fact that it happens in different and mutually exclusive religions would have to mean that at least some of the time it is just people’s collective imagination, which is easy for me to accept but I wonder how Christians for example feel about these reports from the Mormons. I think when I was into Christianity, miracle claims from other faiths really worried me because what if those miracles are real, and even if they’re not, how do I know the miracles reported in my own faith were real?
Just like Islam, Mormonism has evolved past its origins and become mainstream, and has had to wrestle with some of its darker sides such as the polygamy and the exclusion of black people. I found it very interesting how the leaders described feeling led by God to revise doctrines such as the latter. Of course I don’t think it was divine guidance, I think it was that they allowed themselves to follow their conscience, and then ascribed it to God. But it gives me hope that if only people allow themselves to break with the rigid tenets of tradition and follow their conscience, things do get better.
A gay couple in Malawi were arrested after holding an engagement ceremony, and now sentenced to 14 years in prison. It strikes me that the couple must have known this could happen to them, and it is very brave to live out your values in this way without fearing what people will do. Reminds me of the Sudanese lady who insisted on wearing trousers not fearing the punishment. I have a lot of admiration for that.
Handing down sentence in the commercial capital, Blantyre, Judge Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa told the pair: “I will give you a scaring sentence so that the public be protected from people like you, so that we are not tempted to emulate this horrendous example.”
Interesting to note that “the laws under which the pair were convicted were introduced during British colonial rule.”
Obviously Britain has come a long way in tolerance since then, but it is not only modern, developed, western countries that are open-minded and rational about these things – I read this beautiful post this week, mentioning a remote and traditional part of Mexico that is very accepting of transsexuals. According to the article linked to in the post, “Anthropologists trace the acceptance of people of mixed gender to pre-Colombian Mexico, pointing to accounts of cross-dressing Aztec priests and Mayan gods who were male and female at the same time. Spanish colonizers wiped out most of those attitudes in the 1500s by forcing conversion to Catholicism. But mixed-gender identities managed to survive in the area around Juchitán, a place so traditional that many people speak ancient Zapotec instead of Spanish.”
Is it just me or is there a correlation between Abrahamic religions and intolerance?
I always find it interesting to look back over my shoulder every now and then. If we don’t understand or remember how we got to where we are, how can we learn anything?
A few years back I was not really very happy. I hadn’t yet come to terms with the fact that me and work are never going to get along like a house on fire and I am never going to afford a good standard of living (relative to my society’s norms). I felt like a victim and I thought faith was the answer.
I had crashed out of my religious idealism some years before with angry disappointment, and felt unable to surrender to God. The guilt kept me frozen in all this negativity, unable to progress.
It seems I still viewed faith and surrender as a state I needed to get back to. I saw that as still being the ideal. Similarly I saw a career and material success as something that I needed. I was far away from both, but I couldn’t really question either of them. Pressure!
Where did Islam come in? I do remember as early as 2005 I was defending Islam on message boards. So clearly I had warmed up to it a lot even then. It was only a flirtation though – I wasn’t really prepared to let myself question my prior beliefs just yet.
I think it was through blogs that I started to learn more about Islam, and I must have been a lot closer to it by 2008. I went to the mosque exhibition, and a photo of a young woman bundled up in a white garment praying with her husband really touched me. It seemed to portray the wholesome, positive, spiritual life I wanted. I tried fasting Ramadan that year and made it through not even one day, and to make matters worse, watched “Dispatches: Undercover Mosque” that evening and was so horrified I didn’t want to fast any more. I continued learning through blogs, though, and we went to my husband’s home country over Christmas-New Year, during which I was more bothered by seeing certain aspects of Islam than I had ever been before. I guess that shows that I was wanting to convert but finding it hard to deal with certain things.
By a year ago, I had already learnt enough to be very discouraged. I had forgotten that. It’s funny to realise how my journey into Islam was more like going round in circles. Obviously I wasn’t going to let it go without investigating it more fully, and that last lap round the track was done through this blog over 2009.
So what was it that was drawing me in? I guess it was just that I saw faith as a state I needed to get back to. More particularly, the rules in Islam attracted me because I was a wounded soul looking for a system that would protect me. It seemed it would give me the dignity I had not had before when self-sacrifice was my ideal. Also, the cleaner theology appealed to me.
I started this blog with the intention of making a concerted effort to sort out my spiritual life and work out the truth as best I could. The beauty of it is, I have worked through a lot of the stuff I was stuck on for years. I have come to terms with my loss of certainty. I have stopped burying my head in the sand and started being honest with myself. I have opened the curtain and let the light of day shine into my life, banishing all those fears that thrive in darkness. For that alone, this process has been immensely worthwhile.
And so if you ever wonder why I am intent on questioning religion to the point that I risk destroying it, know this: religion has wreaked a lot of havoc in my life. I am much better off where I am today. The truth really has set me free. In the past, when I wrote questioning posts, I got comments that said things like “I hope you find what you need in your life”. The irony is that questioning and doubting were exactly what I needed. Some people may still look at me as needing enlightenment… and I may look right back at them the same way.
Faith did not cure my victim mentality in the end; time did. Humans are naturally resilient and if you are prepared to ask searching questions, a lot of ills do sort themselves out.
The need for faith as well as the need for material success – the two things I thought I needed before I started out on this journey – are now up for question. Am I doing myself a disservice by thinking that I need to believe in God, or that the world is good, or that there is a purpose to life? Am I just clinging to faith like a mother’s apron-strings? What am I still looking for?
I think my searching and reading is now motivated purely by interest. I certainly haven’t arrived at any particular belief, so there is plenty I could think about. I am startled, though, by how frantic it is. I want to learn more and more, I want to read the holy books of all religions, I want to immerse myself in their wisdom… it’s like the whole world has opened up and I can’t wait to see all of it!
I think, as well, that a year of intense learning and trying to come to a belief has formed a habit. I think I will try to ease off the pace a little bit. 😉
I guess what I’m thinking is that God doesn’t dictate morality. God may have created us with morality, but certainly did not write the moral code on the back of our hands so we’d know what to do. He wrote it in our hearts perhaps. In other words… gave us the ability to work out how best to live, and it’s up to us whether we do that.
As for what God thinks of our behaviour, or what God wants of us, I’m going with “I don’t know”. 😀 I don’t feel good about thinking that God wants to reward or punish our behaviour like some sort of cosmic adjudicator. The effects of that belief can be so ugly. I’d rather be motivated to do good based on understanding why it’s good and wise and beneficial. And we all say God wants us to question and to understand and not just follow things blindly… so why should I assume God wants any particular behaviour?
If you think that God wants you to behave a certain way, then you will want to know what that way is, and so you will sooner or later construct a moral code out of a set of dubious historical documents supposedly having something to do with God… and follow it to the letter. Even though that makes no sense. Because the fear of hell does that to people.
The thing about grace and mercy is, it takes away the need to please God. I think this is why Christians have a much less elaborate set of rules than some other religions.
And yet, there is still the belief in Christianity that God hates sin and loves righteousness, so sin is still bad, and there is the expectation that a believer will bear good fruit, and there is still the need to struggle against sin – not to earn salvation but presumably to please God… even though this is not supposed to be necessary. Which can lead to some of those ugly effects again: guilt, shame, hiding, denial, dishonesty, keeping up appearances, shallow moral thinking…
What would it be like if we didn’t believe that God was displeased by our wrongdoing? Taking grace even further so that not only is sin forgiven (and/or atoned for), but it’s not even offensive to God any more?
People who are very into judgment-based religions would say, all hell would break loose. But there are plenty of atheists with good morals… do we really need to believe that doing bad displeases God? Or can we be good without that motivation? (Does that motivation even help at all? I think we’ve all met immoral religious people…)
Honestly, I don’t know. I think the way I am going to answer that is by studying the really great people of the world and working out what motivated them. I suspect spiritual beliefs have led us to make great insights, but whether it was all motivated by pleasing God I don’t know.
Sin is behaviour which hurts somebody. If God hates sin, why did God create and put us in a world that hurts us (disasters, disease, etc)? And why is it that sometimes things that hurt us seem to do us good? Why is it that the same natural processes give rise to life and take life away? This does not seem like a fallen world. It seems like a world full of paradox. I have a horrible feeling there is no meaning behind it. I want to believe that to God, it is all good, in some way that we can only glimpse at occasionally.
Sometimes I think the world is so amazingly good, and especially humanity. But sometimes it all looks a terrible mess that we’ll never be able to fix. The world is not heaven and it is not hell, but it is both all mixed up together.
This week there was a TV programme about young British Muslims being radicalised… and a programme about a young white guy being radicalised into the BNP (an extreme, racist political party). The similarity between the two was striking. The pattern seems to be that they are looking for a place to belong, and people welcome them into that radical club and make them feel that sense of validation and belonging that they need.
I think I can understand radicalisation; after all, it is sort of what happened to me as an undergrad. I was seduced by an all-encompassing world view, a belief system that really gave me something to live for. For whatever reason, a lot of the younger generation need that in a way that their parents didn’t.
What I understood from the programme about radical Islam is that a lot of the parents of these young guys, who immigrated to Britain and brought a moderate Islam with them, don’t recognise that their offspring are believing quite differently from themselves. They are shocked when someone in their community is charged with supporting terrorism, and when it’s proved that he didn’t do anything, they are all “we knew you weren’t a terrorist, you were always a good lad, you have been badly treated by the police” – not realising that he supports terrorism even if he was never going to do anything. They seem to have their heads in the sand about it. This is worrying.
Militant Islam and the BNP are both finding support because of grievances that people have. People are finding meaning in these ideologies that is drawing them in. The BNP ideology is not based on any religious world view, so we can safely say that it is not religion that is the underlying cause in either case.
But being religious doesn’t help. The notion of the ummah encourages people to get worked up about Muslims suffering elsewhere in the world and to demonise the non-Muslims that are perceived to be to blame. It creates “The Other”. And when that Other is your neighbour, who might be politically liberal and strongly supporting your right to practice your religion in this country, and yet you have no loyalty to that neighbour because they are not part of your ummah… I find that very offensive. It’s the epitome of tribalism and it stinks.
When you can’t even wish your Christian neighbours a Merry Christmas, because it amounts to congratulating the kuffar on their festivals of shirk, then I don’t think you deserve the automatic right to build minarets in the country, or the automatic right to wear your niqab in the street. Pluralism is a game we all have to play with the same commitment to goodwill.
In such a globalised world, I feel we need to move beyond tribalistic or racialistic notions of loyalty. We need to begin to see everyone as our neighbour, our brother, our sister. It may sound overly simplistic, but it’s going down otherwise, isn’t it? I think we need to criticise when wrong is being done. We need to stand up against bullies in the world who are oppressing people. Respect doesn’t mean infinite tolerance. But we need to stop demonising each other and start to try and understand – see beyond our superficial prejudices which are only reinforced and deepened by our radical ideologies. We need to sympathise with the pain inside the radical Muslim and the BNP supporter.
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.
This blog – which is almost a year old, if you include the few posts I imported at the start – has done exactly what it said on the tin: wrestled with religion. I can say it has been a very angst-ridden year. But I really, truly feel that that is behind me now.
I feel the most at peace that I ever have, since… since I started going to church in 1998. More than 10 years of wrestling, although most of it was spent with the worries pushed to the back of my mind. Until this year.
I think it’s partly that I’d never gotten over the guilt of having slipped away from church. I still viewed being committedly religious as my default state that I should try to return to. I didn’t – and don’t – want that brand of religion again, though. I was drawn to Islam as potentially a way of getting back to that religious state, but with less of the ungrounded hype and zeal, and with more support structures in terms of rules that would prevent me hurting myself. I gave it a try, I thoroughly explored it and I’m glad I did. It’s been worthwhile.
My anxiety only grew bigger the further I got into Islam, and it seems to me now that I was putting a lot of pressure on myself. I guess I didn’t want to come so far and then turn away. There were personal incentives for me to convert but I don’t think that was what was driving me. Less than a year ago I set out with a very open mind. I’d been married 5 years without a thought of conversion.
I think I was just every bit as infatuated with religion and the religious lifestyle as I had been at 18. I wanted to justify having that for myself. And I wanted to belong; I wanted to be able to say “this is what I am”.
Even very recently I have looked at more faiths and denominations and briefly wondered if perhaps they could be the way for me – and I feel those butterflies in my stomach, that excitement, anticipating finding my way and calling myself a [insert label here].
Maybe there will always be this tension in me between wanting submission and needing intellectual/moral integrity. Or maybe I will find a path that satisfies both.
Either way, I am far less driven right now. In the process of wrestling with Islam, I have somehow extricated myself from guilt over my journey. I have confronted difficult questions that have sent my anxiety through the roof but which have ultimately been liberating. I finally have the courage to accept that I just don’t know anything much about God, and that religion is largely a human thing. And that that’s okay.
I feel like I should feel foolish for this year’s events, but I really don’t. This is my journey, this is who I am and this is what I had to go through to be where I am now. People may not agree with my approach or my outcome, but frankly I don’t care. 😀
What’s next? Renaming the blog? Maybe. I don’t see being conventionally religious as my default state any more, and it’s strange that I ever did considering I was only highly religious for like 1/10 of my life. But I have always had religious tendencies, and I don’t think I will ever stop seeking the deeper meaning of life. I have no idea what I will become but I know I will not stay the same for long. 😉