Interactive Gospel
- Consider the Major Religions -
by Paul Hazelden


1.   Summary

We believe it is reasonable to consider what the major religions have to say on the subject of the basic religious issues we have to face.

It would be arrogant in the extreme to suggest that we can simply ignore what the greatest teachers and thinkers have said over the centuries. The basic questions which face us today are no different from the ones people wrestled with two and a half thousand years ago in Greece, and probably for many millennia before that.

Through science, we know many more facts about the world we live in; through technology, we can do many more things - travel at greater speeds, fly through the air, and so on. But we have made remarkably little progress in learning how to get along with one another, or in finding an antidote to selfishness.

  1. I'll go along with that
  2. Please explain further
  3. I object to what you've said
  4. What are the alternatives?

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2.   Further Details

We believe that the most important questions people face are religious in nature.

Life is full of practical issues - which crop should I plant next? Is this water safe to drink? Will this stranger help me or hurt me? And so on. People have always found answers to these questions - answers that are not perfect, but are good enough. And answers that can be improved upon.

But once you have enough food for yourself and your family, once you have a secure supply of drinking water and a home which provides protection, once you are confident of these things for the forseeable future - what then?

The questions which then remain - the upper past of Maslow's hierarchy, if you are familiar with it - are essentially religious in nature. If you want to live with other people, you need a code of ethics. If you want to seek self-actualisation, you need a purpose. Science and psychology do not deal with ethics or purpose: for these aspects of life, you have to consider religion.

And if you start to consider religion, it makes sense to consider, at least at the outset, the major religions of the world. There are thousands of small religions which are restricted to small groups of tribes, or to small groups of obscure academics. You cannot look at each one in detail. But you can look at each of the major religions, and each of the major types of religion and ask if the answers they give are ones you could live with - and ask if the basis of these answers is one that satisfies you.

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3.   Objections

The great religious leaders of the past are not worth following. We know they were mistaken in many things they said, and they often taught and did things which are simply barbaric by todays standards.

  1. Mistaken
  2. Barbaric

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3a.   Mistaken

"People in the past were fundamentally mistaken about all kinds of things: they thought the Earth was flat, that dancing round in circles brings rain or enables you to catch animals in the hunt. They thought that the moon was just a little higher than the treetops, that Heaven was a little higher still, and that Hell was literally under their feet. How can we possibly learn from such people?"

While some people in the past certainly believed such things, it is very misguided to think that everyone in our non-scientific past believed all or even any of this.

For example, the ancient Greeks knew that the Earth is round, and had calculated its diameter to an incredible degree of accuracy. The ritual dances we know about are much more subtle in their purpose and message than most people suppose. And even several thousand years ago, people operated with a sophisticated use of language: talking about Heaven as 'above' does not mean they believed it was literally a place over their heads - any more than we think today that electronic mail is really a letter inside an envelope, both of which exist in a parallel electronic universe.

But, granted that some of the great thinkers and religious leaders of the past had some pretty wierd ideas (okay then - most of them!) - so what? If someone is going to operate on me, I really want them to be a superb surgeon. I don't care which political party they vote for or which religion they follow.

In a similar way, I don't care very much that a religious leader has a mistaken understanding of astrophysics, or fails to understand quantum mechanics. I am much more interested in whether they demonstrated love and forgiveness, understanding of people and gentleness. I am concerned about whether their lives reflected their teaching, whether they celebrated life or ran from it.

In general, I do not read people and expect them to be perfect - I read, hoping that I will be able to receive some piece of light, some aspect of truth. If I can learn something, or see an old truth from a new angle or in an unfamiliar setting, then it has generally been worthwhile.

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3b.   Barbaric

"Who today in the West would like to return to the old law of Moses? Would we really be happy for people to suffer the punishment of 'an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth'? Or, to take a different example, would we be prepared to close all hospitals, in a return to authentic Buddist teaching?"

But this is, in essence, a variant of the previous problem: we generally believe that even great religious teachers have sometimes been mistaken in things they taught. Or, to put it more generously, we believe that they truth they understood and taught was only partial.

Even partial truth can be helpful. We now know that Newton was mistaken in his understanding of the way the universe operates - but we continue to use his equations. For all normal purposes, he may not be precisely right, but he is close enough to be useful.

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4.   Alternatives

The main alternatives to this view seem to be centred around the themes of science and psychology.

  1. Science
  2. Psychology

In brief, science has nothing to say on the religious questions we face, and psychology, when it addresses these questions, is functioning as a modern religion.

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4a.   Science

"Science completely describes the universe and all that is in it: we have no need for theories like the ones offered by religions when we have the facts."

This view contains a fundamental misunderstanding of science. Science does not consist of proven facts, but working hypotheses. Look at the history of science and recognise how mistaken the scientists were. Do we have any reason to suppose that the theories of today are absolutely true?

And even if science did accurately describe the universe, it can only describe the external, measurable universe. It cannot answer questions of purpose, meaning or value. It cannot offer us a morality to live by, or a reason to live morally.

The Logical Positivists used to believe - or say they believed - that scientific statements were all we needed. Both science and philosophy has moved on a great deal since these ideas were popular - we now recognise the inherent emptiness of such an approach. You can go down this route and end up certain of everything you say, but unable to say anything worth saying.

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4b.   Psychology

"Modern psychology enables us to understand people, and helps people solve or come to terms with their problems."

This is a claim made mainly by people who do not understand psychology. Very few psychologists now believe that the 'id' and the 'ego' of Freud are real in the same way that the pancreas and the gall bladder are real - they are useful concepts (or, potentially useful, at least!) which can be used to help us understand people. But they take us no further in our understanding of human nature than the plays of Shakespeare or Euripides demonstrate.

And there is a strong case which can be made for the belief that psychology mainly helps people avoid solving or coming to terms with their problems. If my behavour is antisocial because of the way my parents treated me, well isn't that sad? But if I am responsible for the way I live, I can choose to exercise that responsibility in a more helpful way. I can learn a better way to live; I can develop and grow as a human being.

So, much of the time, psychology does not help with the big questions we have. And, when it does offer help with issues such as purpose, direction and values, it is functioning as a religion, but a religion with innumerable divisions and splits, and with very little to back up its claims. It sometimes speaks with authority, but that authority comes only from the ideas and convictions of the people who get involved.

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Copyright © 2000 Paul Hazelden
 
http://hazelden.org.uk/ig/ig_consider_religion.htm was last updated 4 May 2008
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