Friday, January 09, 2009

Religions or belief systems?

It would be a strange world indeed if ideas of religion did not occasionally tease even the most cynical mind. I was prompted here by a couple of things; first a recent blog Perhaps I’ll Give Buddhism a Try , second was a book passed on to me, because I am a prodigious reader, What the Great Religions Believe – Joseph Gaer; which I find out is now a rare book.

On reading the volume I’m impressed with Gaer’s integrity – rarely is he able to tell readers what the great religions think, but the book remains a fascinating source of discovery and reminder. The reality is that acceptance of a religious system requires a massive suspension of disbelief; but equally most systems contain an essence of desirable instruction.

For me the major reminder was a vague interest in Zoroastorism, arguably the oldest written religious code and forerunner to much of the Judaic/Christian/Islamic teachings. Pre-dating Zarathustra were the Magi, but Zoroastorism is considered the oldest written religious code.

I’ve read arguments that Zarathustra was opposed to locking his code into written text, but obviously I’ve never found the source of such claims as these texts were not recorded for several centuries after his death. Like Christian texts these refer retrospectively to events for religio/political reasons, without support.

Nothing new under the sun

Zarathustra posited a dual, as opposed to one god concept. In fact those religions following accepted the same good (Ahura Mazda) Vs evil (Angra Manyu) godheads, downplaying the evil, though not as dual gods. I guess that is simply a matter of degrees; personally I take a Jungian view of god, but would essentially credit the converse with an equal authority.

Again personally, I’m inclined to the idea that a personification of god or gods is a nonsense. It is not the personification, but the moral code that is central to societies well being. In this the Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta of Zoroastorism seems to ring true as a basic code of conduct through the various regions, albeit conduct rarely met: Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.

The whole religion argument distracts, or worse fortifies, a tendency to justify unacceptable behaviour. I’m not religious, but only because I reject the distractions and negatives of structured religions.

Stripped of excuses we should only be weighing up the real value of our actions. If we choose as individuals to adopt the negative then so be it, and must also choose to accept the personal consequences of our actions. Negativism strips what might be called our souls, it strips our lives regardless.

All of the major religions embody elements of essential goodness, even when the practice drifts away from core beliefs. The trouble is structures assume an element of power, regardless of basic belief; the human element if you like.

I failed within the church because I could not condone the negative and destructive aspects, like the power motive. There is something about the ancient Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta of Zarathustra that still speaks volumes. Perhaps it s time to return to those basics.


abi said...

Interesting post, Cart. I agree that it's the core moral code that's important. But if we could instill that via rationality instead of mythology, the human race would be a lot better off today.

lindsaylobe said...

Presumably you are aware of the book “ Thus Spoke Zarathustra” which featured a fictionalized Zarathustra by the existential philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and deals with concepts such as ‘ eternal recurrence ‘ , the parable on the death of God and the concept of the Overman which opposed traditional ideas of Christian and Jewish morality.

Nietzsche philosophy was based upon the acceptance of the here and now, accepting life as it is right now, which he contended did not require an absence of evil, sadness or fear.

Nietzsche argued that once you overcame all of the old symbols bound up with abstract values you were able to go beyond good and evil, to the passions and changing values of noble egoism.

Nietzsche’s idea of eternal occurrence was either Buddhist in flavor or has an appeal within Buddhism.

Turning to the philosophy of christen religion, mystical consciousness makes the claim that it represents the foundation of love and of all subsequent moral authority from which all values ultimately flow.

E.g. Such as the idea my brother and I are one, his sufferings are mine and his happiness is mine and so forth. The idea here is one of “bringing together ’of human consciousness – to raise ones consciousness to a common metaphysical state wherein the I and you disappear.

In relation to human consciousness I like to think of the idea of ones intention to set out on say a holiday, you influence subsequent events because of your intention but along the way you will encounter any number of different decisions on the exact route. Although it may be considered predetermined your free choice always allows any number of different decisions and causality within this predestined occurrence.

Hence whilst some of our moralty may be considered innate it also changes with our underlying societal values.

Once it was considered ok for slavery to exist, to day no one thinks it is acceptable. There is more to it than just that, but I use that example just to explain my point.
Best wishes

Cart said...

Lindsay, “ Thus Spoke Zarathustra” many years ago and the essays Twilight of the Idols and The Anti Christ more recently. Still, I’m no Nietzsche fan, and tend to suspect the motives behind his demolition of various structures.
What did interest me, with those three rules of the Zoastrians, I saw what must be the first (at least written) code underlying a number of the ‘great religions’ which followed. That code also underlies the thinking and behaviour of those people I would judge as worthy, independent of religious beliefs.
I have strong personal reasons for rejecting established religious structures, though I see no need a judge those who remain comfortable in those structures. What has jolted me in the past is the marked lack of morality and for that matter essential Christianity in many of church structure. Of course the same can be said of sectors of the other religions.
I can also say I’ve met many fine Christians, though a good many more fine people who are social Christians, hardly touched by the religious teachings.
What I cannot do is argue any unqualified rejection or acceptance of religious adherence; though a moral code, which tends to transcend religion, is socially desirable and essential. It seems to me that code is, and has been, out there for eons. Inate? Perhaps, but that has the effect of trivializing something powerfully enduring.
Certainly slavery occurred, and was encouraged by mainstream religions. You recall it was largely the fringes of religion, like the Quackers as early as the 1600, arguing against slavery.

Abi, I don’t reject the mythology as a valid component, as long as it is recognised as such. Seems like the vast majority are sufficiently disinterested, often any old story will do. The whole argument is probably far too arcane for the majority.

lindsaylobe said...

Moral codes and moral theory is an evolving feast.

The moral philosopher Anscombe distinguishes between our desires or intention and their outcomes which is to say any different outcome does not make an intention either inaccurate or invalid just because it may differ to its original intention.

She uses the shopping list example to illustrate that a desired or intended list of purchases is not incorrect, untrue or invalidated just because what was subsequently bought differs markedly or marginally from the original intended list.

The difference about our knowledge in general (e.g. represented by empirical data; ) and our knowledge about morals is that the former arises from what we know whist the latter represents practical understanding. In that respect we always have a choice; there is no moral dilemma however complex the issue. Hence she objects to moral philosophy based solely upon consequentialism, (even though an inquiry into consequences may enable you to be better informed) in determining what is right or wrong. In that sense I have some affinity with Anscombe since I think morality is all about an understanding and responding to what is true from ones understanding. It may be that the consequences are worth arguing about and investigating before determining an appropriate response, but the initial desire or intention is one generated out of concern over the matter arising. It is therefore I think essentially a practical matter according to ones understanding. That understanding changes over time. 'Free will', itself is somewhat of a vexed question since it is debatable how free one can act as we are products of the world around us. What we can do from a moral stance is to determine to the very best of our knowledge and with our 'upbringing' , with love, with religiosity, what is the best way is to deal with all of life’s contingencies, which will force us to re-make decisions in whatever field we deal.

Best wishes

Cart said...

Lindsay, I have no real argument with the philosophical aspects here, though obviously I tend to consequentialism – for better or worse. I do have problems with an unqualified religiosity however, no doubt a consequence of observation and experience.
Religion can be used as easily to mask wrong behaviour with a cloak of goodness as it can to spread goodness. When you suggest perceptions of right and wrong shift with the times I can agree in a general sense, but would assert that there is also generally a small but constant body who will continue to be a thorn in the sides of those who drift into wrong thinking.
I was tempted to throw up a number of real examples where the established church continues morally dubious activities in the name of profit. But that is of course consequentialism and I’m sure we both reject the corporatisation of the church equally.
Though I don’t call myself a Christian I do adhere to the central teachings of Christ, those identified through the process of exegesis. Empirical is problematic in the area, but critical scholarship has been revealing.
On moral issues I believe most religions continue ‘the original sin’ which I interpret as the perception of the body and its functions as somehow evil – where I would perceive much of those ‘God given wonders’ as simply not terrible aesthetic.
In my experience only a small minority give any real thought to the underpinnings of their belief, excusing that exercise with the practical realities of life. A harsh judgment perhaps, but again one from experience.
My argument in the end is that by arguing the need to accept a God, or alternatively arguing against that while adopting the moral practices ordained by such a God is a distracting splitting of hairs. I could not attack either notion, rather I would see them as different manifestations of the same.

D.K. Raed said...

To me it's all myths & legends, but that's not a derogatory comment. myths & legends can be very useful tools for instilling social principles and codes of conduct in an easy to grasp format.

Religions I've encountered are too theoretical and layered upon whatever preceded it, but without acknowledgement or credit given to those previous trailblazers. When studied back far enough, it usually ends up with nature worship, which is finally something I can understand.

I tend not to argue with people over their religous ideas, but do hit a very rough patch with those who are adamant that everything will be rectified in the afterlife. To me that attitude abrogates any responsiblity for current actions, which is the opposite of what I would call a good life well lived.

Hah, Linday, I thought "thus sprach zarathustra" was just a musical piece from 2001. Guess I am way behind the philosophical curve! The only philosophy I've ever read that resonated was 1) roman or greek stoicism and 2) Darwin through Dawkins. Yup, just an unrepentent pagan, that's me...

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Cart & DK

Its interesting to hear your thoughts and I don’t disagree with your final conclusion Cart which I gather is more or less saying that belief in itself does not necessarily lead to a moral stance, but rather what is more important is our existential state and how we live our life that really counts.

The institutionalized church is similarly compromised when it fails to uphold principles of social justice and chooses instead to try and protect and minimize the fallout from any wrongdoing due to commercialization considerations or because of the fear of scandal.

Hence in such circumstances its shepherding values are severely compromised as it fails to show compassion and healing.

In the end a belief system is just that and will collapse inwards with nowhere to go except to rely upon abstracted vague ideas about a future heaven, rather than a faith which supports a reverence for life (all life and not just human life) which will in turn create its own values including love and compassion.

The danger of abstracted values can be seen in the actions of leading Evangelists cozying up to Presidents to express vindication for War based upon a morality that sees conflict as a holy struggle of Christendom combatting evil.

Bear in mind both under the enlightenment movement from within Christianity, and from a purely rational viewpoint, men were assumed could take the place of God through a belief system that believed erroneously all evil could be eradicated.

It was Augustine that came up with the idea of Original Sin, (whose concept is not directly referred to in any biblical text except by way of reference to a first born Adam) who became the first philosopher to bridge the gap between Greek Rationalism which created such abstract ideas and Judeo/Christian individualism which accepted the idea of both good and evil.

Myth and metaphor also played an important role in the Old Testament bible stories in representing the author’s ideas of a transcendent god. Those writers never intended that the stories be taken literally.

Evil is therefore not an abstraction to eradicate as if it some sort of force because without evil, there is no room for God and for alternative goodness we seek by living our lives to the fullest according to good consciousness and with good intentions.

Notwithstanding those good intentions we all fall short to some degree.

Best wishes

D.K. Raed said...

Lindsay and Cart! this is a wonderful discussion with much room for thought, even for someone like myself who has pretty much abandoned all faith. Where I lose it is with people assuming that without faith, I am missing something, that somehow I need the threat of hell in order live a good life. I don't. I accord people of faith the rights of their beliefs as long as it's kept out of the public sector and I'm not mandated to join in, or considered inferior because I choose not to, or worse, become their pet project for deity enlightenment.

and oh, so we have Augustine to thank for original sin? the things I've read about that man's life (I don't believe in saints, hence he is plain old Auggie to me) indicate he would definitely know all about sin! the local mormons here have an Article of Faith (always capitalized like that) that says something like, we do not believe in original sin or Adam's Transgression, but that mankind will be punished for their own sins. I note with some humor that punishment seems to be a given.

Lindsay brought up the concept of evil. Hmmmmm, very useful concept, very important to religion. Fascinating, therefore, that while I have no belief in God, I do believe in Evil. Oh yes, I do! But I guess since I see evil emanating only from humans, I am once again spared the necessity of a deity.

Cart said...

DK, I really do maintain that curiosity is the foundation of intelligence – not what we know but how open we are to explore at least why we accept our beliefs. Equally a willingness to shift our thinking, though religious belief does require a certain suspension of disbelief or perhaps the acceptance on faith.
I confess I tread a stony path, accepting the probability of a God, as an article of faith I expect, without being able adopt any of the religious portrayals. On the other hand, good and evil are in evidence around us, and hardly mitigated by religiosity. I admire people, religious or otherwise, who show good by their example, and often find they are the ones most willing to openly discuss the mysteries.

I’m not sure Kubrick did the world a favour using the Richard Stauss tone poem. I guess it was suitably dramatic…