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Authors: Daniele Bolelli

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BOOK: Create Your Own Religion
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Because of this wonderfully concrete aspect of martial arts, Lee's inflammatory ideas were eventually tested and vindicated in the early 1990s through the development of the new sport of mixed martial arts. Competitions such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship, in fact, invited fighters to test their skills in contests with as few rules as possible. Traditional martial artists from every corner of the globe stepped up to defend the honor of their systems. This, after all, was their chance to prove in a public forum the superiority of their style. Much buzz was in the air: maybe the debates among martial artists about which art was the best would be finally settled. What resulted shocked everybody. No single art turned out to be “the best.” Just as Bruce Lee had predicted, traditional martial artists became easy prey for those fighters who followed Lee's insight by picking the best techniques from several different sources and mixing them together. This was the most indubitable proof that, in the right hands, an eclectic syncretism is far superior to rigidly following a single path.

In case you are wondering, I am not proposing an Ultimate Fighting competition for religions. While I have to admit that the prospect of having a beer in front of pay-per-view matches between Shinto and Judaism, or Islam and Buddhism, seems like lots of fun, I am afraid it wouldn't work. The effectiveness of a religion cannot be measured through objective, physical standards. No concrete testing ground exists to prove beyond a shadow of doubt the superiority of one religion over another.

We can't test objectively the existence of God, or of heaven and hell, but this doesn't mean that we can't test religious theories at all. What we can do is look at the effects that certain religious ideas have had throughout history and continue to have today. It is a much nerdier approach than a knock out, and it certainly doesn't possess its discussion-ending clarity, but it's the next best thing. We can observe the historical consequences of certain beliefs, and decide which ones have had more desirable effects on our lives. Clearly, a subjective element enters the game here. Different people are going to judge the same consequence positively and negatively. But we don't need to fall in a relativistic trap. We are not going to accept some cop-out excuse about how it's all just a matter of opinion. Beliefs that cause people to behave decently toward each other are not just
different
from beliefs leading to widespread warfare, bloodbaths, and misery. Positive beliefs are qualitatively superior much in the same way that health is preferable to sickness. In creating our own religions, we should carefully separate those ideas that have contributed to the amount of violence, conflict, and suffering in the world from those that have helped alleviate or diminish those things.

Our task is going to be complicated by the fact that beliefs have different effects on different people. The same belief can often result in both pleasant and horrific consequences for different people. What we need to figure out is what seems to be the exception and what is the rule. For example, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that so-called family values among fundamentalist Christians may have helped thousands of people to lead better lives. However, objective statistics point to much greater rates of social dysfunctions (from divorce to murder) in states where fundamentalism is powerful, compared to states where liberal Christianity and secularism are more popular. This suggests one of two things: in the
best case, these “family values” are not very effective at fixing the problems they try to address; worse, they actually may contribute to them. In either case, the evidence tells us that fundamentalist family values could use some serious adjustment.
24

In choosing the values we want to use to create our own religions, let's always keep an eye on the evidence. Effectiveness is not measured by the complexity of a theological argument, or by how loudly its supporters scream. It is measured in action. Values are only as good as the results they produce.

CHAPTER 3
THE INTANGIBLES: GOD

I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content
.

—Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague De Camp,
and Lin Carter.
Conan of Cimmeria

May I have a drum roll, please? Are the cheerleaders ready? Good, because this is it. It's showdown time. The big game is on. While the topics of several other chapters may be more stimulating to me
on a personal level, no religious issues are as important and hotly contested as God and the afterlife. They are the two forces at the very core of the religious life of billions of individuals around the world. In addition to the central role they occupy, the Big Two have something else in common. They are completely beyond the realm of tangible, day-to-day experience. We crave knowledge about them but possess not a shred of physical evidence to guarantee us the existence of either. However, the lack of logical or physical proof doesn't diminish our desire to know.

It is precisely for this reason that, while the Big Two steal the spotlight in many religious traditions, they find little or no sympathy in others. Some branches of Taoism, Buddhism, Shinto, Confucianism, and Animism discount to varying degrees the importance of the Big Two in favor of more pragmatic concerns. Buddha, for example, snubbed his disciples' requests to discuss the existence of the gods and the nature of the afterlife; he argued that such things had nothing to do with his central goal—the improvement of the quality of our present lives.

In the minds of most people, God and the afterlife are what religion is all about. I don't agree with this view, but that doesn't mean I believe these issues should be ignored. Everyone on earth will have to take the Big Two's challenge head-on. Whether you end up agreeing with my answers or not, it is crucial to clarify where we stand on these issues. Much depends on the conclusions we reach.

What Are We Talking About? From Santa to the Tao

God! God! Oh God! Yes! Oh God!
The voice of my screaming neighbor makes me painfully aware of several things at once:
(a)
she is either
great at faking it or she is having some seriously mind-blowing sex;
(b)
whoever built this house should be shot for making the walls way too thin; and
(c)
I am always uncomfortable when people toss out the word “God” like they know exactly what they are talking about. Most of the time it sounds like they are referring to something that's part of their ordinary experience—something visible, concrete, obvious to anyone—as if God were the guy they hung out with last Saturday, eating ice cream and catching a movie together. Every time I hear the word I can't help but wonder how they know with such seeming certainty what “God” is.

When I dare to ask for more information about their invisible friend, typically I receive answers that leave me even more confused, because they seem to be describing Santa Claus. Being told in all seriousness about a perfect and wise being in the sky who knows everything that happens on earth, keeps tally of who has done good and who has committed evil, then rewards the former and punishes the latter never fails to crack me up. Just add the flying reindeer and the picture is complete.

Now, I enjoy a good fairy tale as much as anyone else, but the most prevalent image of God that is pushed in some religions is too ridiculously anthropomorphic to be taken seriously. Turning the divine mystery into a character from a Disney movie strikes me as not only childish, but as downright disrespectful to the very idea of what God may be. It seems like something you would tell a kid—and not a particularly smart one—to keep him quiet and ease him to sleep. We have taken something that is far beyond our powers of imagination and understanding, that is supposed to exist beyond time and space, that is supposed to be at the very roots of reality, and we have turned it into a reassuring father figure for people with unresolved daddy issues.

Worse yet, so many religious tales depict God as a terribly flawed character in a gory story written by sadists: he is an insecure tribal chieftain with a mean streak; a jealous God who whines about not receiving enough attention by his creatures; a murderous God who guides his chosen people toward genocide; a tyrannical God who punishes horribly anyone who disobeys. Who decided to cast Joseph Stalin as God? These are the qualities of a totalitarian, raging dictator—hopefully that is not what is at the foundation of our universe. In my mind, anyone who accepts this view of God does more damage to religion than the most belligerent atheist.

Despite arguing endlessly about the specific characteristics attributed to God, some religions (for example Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) view God as a personified, conscious being who is responsible for the creation of the world, is active in human affairs, and is able to reveal his will to people.

Others (for example, Hinduism, Shintoism, some branches of Taoism and Buddhism, most tribal religions, ancient Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman religions, and a myriad of other traditions) believe in many divine beings, each one with its own peculiar characteristics. Some of these polytheistic traditions include a supreme creator figure who stands above all, while others do not.

And still other religions (particularly Buddhism, along with the more philosophical schools of Taoism) acknowledge the existence of powerful spirits all around us, but don't attribute much importance to them. According to these traditions, ultimate reality can't be found in any anthropomorphic ideas about God or gods, but rather in an impersonal force that is greater than any particular being.

Do you understand now why I am disturbed when people use the word “God” as if there were a single, crystal-clear meaning for it?

How Do We Know God?

Let's backtrack for a second. In order to avoid getting lost in this jungle of different definitions and ideas attributed to God, we need to start from the beginning. How do these contrasting images of God originate in the first place? How are we to decide which one, if any, is correct? How does anybody know anything about God?

Where Not to Look: Revelation

The most typical way people form their ideas about God is through second-hand revelation. Somebody, preferably in the very distant past, heard the voice of God and went around preaching this message. Later, his followers eventually collected these revelations in the form of a sacred text. This is how the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and a few other religions were created. Everyone else living after this time period is supposed to turn to these books to learn the truth about God. And why should we believe that a certain book truly contains the word of God? Because it says so. Anyone with a double-digit IQ can plainly see that the logic behind this argument is laughable, and yet many individuals who are far from stupid in other areas of their lives surrender their intelligence in order to embrace second-hand revelations.

Sacred books make very poor candidates as possible places for hearing God's voice. First, God's voice has to pass through the very human filters of the people who receive these revelations and the people who later commit them to writing. Even if we assume that a revelation is based on authentic experience, it is unclear how much of a divine message can survive after being processed by human perceptions, memory, and language. Further complicating the puzzle
is the problem of translation from the original language in which a sacred text was written into all other languages. Then factor in human error of people copying these manuscripts over the centuries and the intentional alterations sometimes made by theologians and politicians who felt the need to amend the divine messages to their liking.
25
When we stop to consider everything that goes into the making of any religious scripture, it would truly be a miracle if the final product contained anything more than a glimmer of the divine. Any message that has been retouched by so many human hands is hardly credible as “the word of God.”

Revelations also pose another problem. How can we trust that someone claiming to be God's spokesperson is not just a skillful manipulator? As Susan B. Anthony wrote, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”
26
What better way to silence the potential critics of one's message than to attribute the message to God? It doesn't take a Machiavellian genius to figure out that enlisting God to one's cause is a great technique to gain power. Revelation is a handy vehicle for making God say whatever we want him to say. A classic example of this is when the Mormon Church realized that previous revelations about the inferiority of black people lost popularity in the post-Civil Rights era, they conveniently received a new, more politically correct revelation that overruled the older doctrines.
27
In other words, before the 1960s God was a racist, but afterward he changed his mind. Similarly, in many occasions when Muhammad was criticized, God would come to the rescue and deliver a revelation that sanctioned the prophet's behavior.
28

Even if God's mouthpieces had nothing but the most honorable intentions, how do we know they weren't lunatics? Moses, Abraham,
and Muhammad—some of the most influential prophets in Western history—all claimed to have heard voices that either ordered them to kill people or praised them for doing so. Adding blasphemy to injury, they all claimed that the murderous advice came straight from God. If anyone today stated to have received such a message, we would quickly find them a comfy straightjacket, lock them up, and throw away the key. I have no reason to find the revelations of the New Testament any more credible than those of the Old Testament or of the Koran, but at least Jesus had the decency to never claim divine sanction for massacring people.

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