The ineffable

March 5, 2010 at 12:17 pm (God, philosophy, religious experiences, science)

I said

…my experience of goodness is something I fear will disappear if it is eventually “explained away”

But really – learning to read music, learning the technicalities of intervals and harmonies, learning the mathematics of music, does not take away the magic of the musical experience. If anything, it only enhances it.

There will always be the ineffable. And no amount of science is ever going to make it anything other than ineffable. We do experience reality through the lens of our own consciousness, and science does not change that. Art and the ineffable have their own language, and it is not the language of knowledge or fact, but the language of experience.

If I abandon irrational certainty for the glorious state of knowing that I do not know… then I believe I will only be better off.

My values will drive my world view, and my world view will support and shape my values. And above all, I believe honesty with myself will pave the way to reason and empathy.


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God and morality

February 24, 2010 at 2:50 pm (absolute goodness, Christianity, God, is religion good or bad for you?, morality, philosophy, suffering)

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you will want to know what that way is, and so you will sooner or later construct a moral code out of a set of dubious historical documents supposedly having something to do with God… and follow it to the letter.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.

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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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Suffering – a question

October 2, 2009 at 9:06 am (God, morality, philosophy, suffering)

Here’s a question for you all, since I don’t have time to think for myself at the moment (major work challenge going on)…

How do you understand suffering? Is the function of morality that it helps to avert harm and suffering, do you think? If that is the case, why did God put us in a world with natural disasters and other things that cause suffering? Why do we have to get ill and die?

Is suffering redemptive? Does it build character? Does it test us? If so, then why does morality seem to demand that we try to limit the suffering in the world? If not, then why did God put it into the world?

Would an ideal world be a world without suffering? Or not?

OK, that was more than one question 😛

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Some thoughts on religious knowledge

August 8, 2009 at 1:08 pm (Islam, philosophy)

Islam places great emphasis on knowledge, which I’ve always found comforting and satisfying in comparison with Christianity’s emphasis on the more subjective “voice” of God. Islamic theology is simple and holds up well in an argument, which is probably why Christians revert to the subjective to verify their theology every time.

In most religions, a degree of knowledge at least is necessary. You can’t believe in a religion if you don’t know about it. But how do we authenticate our knowledge?

I was thinking last night about how completely different religious knowledge is from scientific knowledge, because there is no broad consensus. In science, there is enormous consensus on matters that are well established, because enough observations have been made to prove them beyond reasonable doubt. Religion is not like that. Religious claims cannot be verified by running more experiments or gathering more data.

In the absence of a living prophet, the source of knowledge about a religion is always in historical texts. (In fact for most of us, our knowledge is second-hand because we are not able to go directly to the historical texts.) And so the gathering of knowledge in religion – did this really happen, was this really said – is more akin to the discipline of history than that of science.

(Of course there is more to deciding about the truth of religion than just establishing what is historically authentic. A decision about truth in terms of divine inspiration goes beyond knowledge. But knowledge is what I am concentrating on here.)

The religious texts are so old that historical research methodologies are naturally going to struggle to bring about consensus. For example, Christians believe that the gospel documents authentically demonstrate that Jesus fulfilled Jewish messianic prophecies. But if that were proveable beyond reasonable doubt, there would be no Jews today who reject Jesus as messiah. How can a lay person possibly decide?

And this is where I start to wonder… if God wanted the world to know things, why is it so difficult? Why would God tie necessary knowledge to history, whereby the fallible human processes of transmission and replication make it impossible to be sure of it, and whereby lay people are rendered utterly dependent on fallible scholars to extract the truth? What of people like my mother-in-law who is illiterate – where is she to get knowledge from? What of people living in remote parts of the world with no connection to any prophetic tradition? Are we meant to ensure that everyone gets access to truth by equipping everyone to read and analyse the sources of knowledge? Even if that were achieved… does truth stand out clearly from error?

Maybe there is another type of knowledge that is written in our hearts… an understanding of right and wrong… a natural cause-and-effect where that which is bad leads us to ruin, and that which is good brings us contentment and peace.

In that case, did God really need to send prophets and messengers? If God did, is the message detailed and specific, or is it simple and general? I feel that I have to go with simple and general, complementary to our natural knowledge. The details, which differ from one religious tradition to another, are difficult to choose between in a rational way. Perhaps they just existed to make people feel secure. Perhaps they were never meant to be universal.

I find it hard to believe that my mother-in-law’s prayer would be greatly enhanced by a detailed knowledge of the fiqh of prayer.

Where does that leave me… I guess, looking for inspiration in scriptures. Looking for truth beyond knowledge.

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Diversity of belief and finding out the truth

January 31, 2009 at 7:42 pm (philosophy, science)

I have recently become aware of just how vast the breadth of human spiritual beliefs are. There is a fascinating series on BBC 2 at the moment called “Around the World in 80 Faiths” with Peter Owen-Jones, an unconventional (and I think slightly eccentric in a nice way) Anglican minister. This and loads of reading on the internet have combined with my new emphasis on objectivity to give me insight I never had before. One usually thinks of major world religions versus local or pagan traditions, but it’s not as simple as that. Even the history of Judaism may not be as monolithic or even monotheistic as we are accustomed to think. Perhaps the distribution of religious group sizes is scale-free, just as many things in the natural world are (including earthquakes)… and the major world religions are the rare extreme events – like the earthquakes that span a large fault. But it puzzles me how a religion can develop into a major one. Is it just chance? Or do the ones that last do so because they are especially equipped to last?

So many people have claimed to hear from God – from the famous prophets, to ordinary individuals, to cult leaders who conveniently hear things that allow them to commit atrocities. They cannot all be completely right. Unless, of course, in some strange way there are many truths. But are any of them real? How do we judge, other than by (1) assuming our inner sense of morality is God-given and (2) engaging it in the evaluation – or, by hearing from God ourselves.

Miracles are often used as evidence of truth. I’m not particularly impressed by miracles per se*. I’m more intrigued by the idea that these phenomena occur in such a way as to communicate something, or that they offer insight into a divine personality. Or things like prophecies that are later fulfilled, or pre-scientific explanations for things that are later proved to be scientifically correct. I don’t know how you would evaluate the significance of these, but they are at least superficially quite compelling.

But if you do become convinced that, say, a scripture reflects a divine interaction with a person, does that mean you have to accept the whole scripture as truth? Shouldn’t we remain critical; doesn’t the diversity of religious belief in the world indicate how easy it is for a person to be wrong? Why should anyone be completely right? Muslims generally maintain Muhammad was without error, yet I find this an impossible position to take, not just based on the above argument, but because there are verses in the Qur’an that actually admonish him for things he did. There are also, of course, sources of error in preservation and interpretation of scripture that many refuse to acknowledge. Why is it that people are so uncomfortable with shades of grey and insist on the black or white, the all or nothing, the heaven or hell view?

It frightens me, if I’m honest. Religions tend to insist on unfaltering belief as a condition for salvation, and I cannot find a way to justify that right now. It’s not that I don’t want to believe in anything and am looking for excuses. It’s more like the other way round. My ruminating over this issue has almost reached OCD levels. (Classic me…)

What makes me curious is that I do see some broad similarity across even very different and culturally separated traditions. What I think is common is a sense that humanity is less than it could be (we take “no-one’s perfect” for granted) and a multitude of solutions are proposed.

* I’ve always maintained that the God who wrote and sustains the laws of physics, shouldn’t need to break those laws to be believed in. Besides, science is just a description of those laws, which is updated as new discoveries are made, and when surprising phenomena are observed, it adapts to encompass these. Science is man-made and approximate and discrepancies between it and reality certainly aren’t proof of direct divine intervention. I am of the view that science describes the physical universe, while the question of why things are the way they are is outside its remit. I like the idea of spiritual meaning within what is natural, not necessarily outside it.

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