I receive a comment today from John O’Brien. It is attached to an old entry Unsaved that I made back in 2003. His questions deserve a fuller answer. I will not answer all his questions here, because I have put my thoughts in other blog entries where I touched on religion and faith. Readers are welcome to check out these entries:
- Contemplating Purgatory (1/5/2003)
- Sincerely Unitarian (3/24/2003)
- The Lure of Mommy Church (10/30/2003)
- The Mystery of the Gospels Revealed at Last! (3/1/2004)
- Why do proselytizers think I am a moron? (9/1/2004)
- The root of human conflict: Emotion vs. Reason (10/24/2004)
- What spirituality means to me (11/16/2004)
- Religion a la carte (2/27/2005)
- Just another Secular Sunday (4/2/2006)
I would like to preface my remarks by saying that I do not claim to have all “the answers to life’s persistent questions”, as the radio detective Guy Noir puts it. I simply have my thoughts, informed by my unique experience and through learning. I respect everyone’s religious beliefs or lack thereof. In some cases, I may profoundly disagree with your beliefs themselves, but I do respect your right to believe in anything you wish.
Conversations on matters of faith are always iffy. Often there is a subtext to such discussions. It is, “I want to keep discussing things with you until you come around to my point of view”. This more often translates into “I want you to become a Christian/Muslim/Jew/Atheist/Moonie/Mormon just like me.” There are many people out there who want to save my soul. While I respect your wish to save my soul, I do not want you to save my soul. I do not open my door to proselytizers. I avoid public discussions of faith altogether. One thing I have learned painfully about the devoutly religious (and it probably applies to me as well): if you have your mind made up about the correctness of your faith, argument cannot change it. Only those without a faith can have an honest discussion on the merits of faith. Otherwise, you come into the discussion with a profound bias.
John wonders if there are parts of the Bible that I consider trustworthy. Yes, there are parts of the Bible: matters of historical record that have been proven as a result of archeology. I am very skeptical about certain alleged events like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but others like the Sermon on the Mount seem quite plausible, although I suspect Jesus was paraphrased. I doubt someone was standing in the crowd taking notes.
His question on what authority can be accepted in one’s life implies an absolute and external standard of reference. Clearly if you believe in God, it is easy to posit an absolute standard of reference. Clearly, the Bible is one of many out there. For myself, I do not place faith in any absolute authority, which is why I am logically agnostic. Bertrand Russell has an answer that works fairly well for me:
I am constantly asked: What can you, with your cold rationalism, offer to the seeker after salvation that is comparable to the cozy homelike comfort of a fenced dogmatic creed? To this the answer is many-sided. In the first place, I do not say that I can offer as much happiness as is to be obtained by the abdication of reason. I do not say that I can offer as much happiness as is to be obtained from drink or drugs or amassing great wealth by swindling widows and orphans. It is not the happiness of the individual convert that concerns me; it is the happiness of mankind.
John asks if I believe there an acceptable authority, either internal or external. I think we must each answer that question ourselves. As creatures of free will, we can choose to submit to someone else’s will, or we can choose to think for ourselves. I choose the latter, but I have no problem with those who prefer the former. They seem to make up the overwhelming majority.
Is there any absolute standard of life to which I can relate? I am not very sure what John means here. For myself, I notice that our universe is ordered relatively, not absolutely. Einstein’s Theories of Relativity, for example suggest that everything made of mass or energy influences everything else. As you watch a train go by and you hear the pitch of the train’s whistle change as it passes, does the pitch actually change? It depends on the perspective of who is doing the listening. To the train’s engineer the pitch does not change. To someone watching it pass, it does change. Both are true at the same time. Einstein’s general and specific theories expand this idea to all the energy and matter in the universe. If I have a small article of faith, it is that I do not think I am really separate from anything else. I think our separateness is an illusion and we are both united and separate at the same time. For me, this renders the idea of absolutism absurd. I think the universe is an organism and we are part of it. For some this suggests that each of us is part of the mind of God. For more thoughts on this, check out my entry Our Wild, Wild Universe.
I hope this answers John’s questions though. I suspect though that it will more likely leave him confused.