Thursday, 9 February 2012

Why you should have a religion and what mine is

Way back in my first post I promised that at some point I would attempt to describe my own personal theology here. It's a fluid incorporeal thing, but I am keen to try and nail it down. First though I thought it would be a good idea to put forward my rationalist reasoning for why I think everyone should be religious (as opposed to all my other reasons).

I've been wanting to write about my feelings in this area for a while, but it took a lot of planning to get it all organised correctly. As a result this is going to be the first of a series of four (I think) posts talking about religion and Atheism. The working titles for the others are: 'Why I think all religion is personal', 'What, as I see it, is wrong with Atheism' and 'What, as I see it, is wrong with religion'. Obviously these are areas on which a huge amount has already been written. Nevertheless, I hope that I can bring a slightly fresh point of view to the table.


So, why should you be religious? There are a few points I need to make on the way to arguing for this. I fully expect that some of those things will upset religious people and some Atheists. Still, it would be no fun if everyone just agreed with me.

The first point I need to make is that religions are, in many ways, designed to and influential in easing well being. That an awful lot of the commonalities across different belief structures are there to answer difficult questions in a way which saves the believer from worry. Questions like, “What happens after death?” and “Why is the world so awful sometimes?”. I don't think that science fails to answer these, it has answers, but it's answers are along the lines of a shrug and I don't feel that they ever will (or really should) offer tangible purchase to the human mind. When you wake up sweating with the cold realisation that you are, certainly, bound to die, science offers no easy answer, whereas religion does.

What I'm really trying to point out is that religion gives you answers to these questions and takes away those worries. Further that, as they are unanswerable, these aren't really things worth worrying about. Religion provides this comfort and that's a good thing, I think it's fairly uncontroversial to say that people who worry less lead happier and easier lives. Religious people ought then to be happier (on the whole, I think they're not, but that's an issue with religions, of the organised variety, rather than religiousness, something I'll get on to in a few weeks). In this sense, for the atheists among you, I think it's best to think of religion as a great big placebo, but one which applies generally to the mind in the same way that acupuncture applies generally to the body.

This is all well and good, but I suppose most of you are thinking that belief is pretty binary. That's the usual way of understanding it, that if I believe in god that is equivalent to believing in the table in front of me and my level of trust and knowledge is just the same. As such, belief isn't something you can choose to have a bit of, so why does all this matter?

Well I'm very much of the opinion that belief is fluid. That, rather than being a definite fixed point in our lives, it is more of a choice which we make. Furthermore, I think it can be a partial thing. It may seem an awful contradiction, but I think it's entirely possible, for instance, for a Mother to believe strongly that the Bible is true and that homosexuality is wrong, yet at the same time believe that her gay son is probably okay with God, that he's a good man really. Logically this makes no sense, if we're to analyse the thinking then clearly it conflicts itself, but humans are masters of contradiction. I think it's entirely possible to be a pure scientist who believes superstitions are irrational, but still put on that special pair of trousers that you wear on first dates... just because.

What I'm saying is that even if you believe strongly that there can be no supernatural god figure, you could still have one who you occasionally resort to and that wouldn't be an awful logical break, at least not within the strange confines of the logic in the human brain.*

So, if you were to have a strange imagined god figure in your head, but you knew he contradicted everything and that you'd just created him, surely he wouldn't have an effect, he wouldn't help you to worry less. This makes sense, since I'm arguing that this whole thing is a placebo, but you'd know for certain (since you created it) that this was a placebo. Well firstly, there is evidence that placebos have an effect even if you know they are placebos (Bam! Science! Bam! Easier-to-read-article!). Secondly, I personally believe that if you really commit to an idea then it will have even more of an effect. Like the imagined wonderfulness of a crush you've never spoken to, by committing more of your brain space to the idea you give it more importance and it will give you more relief**.

So then, why wouldn't you do this? By just occasionally asking Thor to help you, and thinking about enjoying Valhalla in the afterlife, you'll worry less and feel better about life (perhaps that's a bad example, don't go dying in battle on my behalf). It just makes sense to have a set of ideas in your head that, when the world is getting you down, you can lean on, even if in your more rational moments you realise that they don't make much sense.

My final point is, I think there's a perception that religion has to be all or nothing fundamentalism, as this is what we're always presented with in the media. There are whole tracts though, of much more reasonable religions (Quakers for instance) and religious people and, more importantly, if you agree with everything I've just said, you just can go ahead and build your own set of beliefs. That surely has to be one of the most creative and adventurous activities available, you get to decide how, for you, the entire universe is going to function. I should know, I love doing it, I probably end up building an entirely new theology every few years.

Which leads me on nicely to the reason why I started this entry in the first place, my own personal religion. This is a little difficult to describe because as I mentioned before, the ideas don't exist outside of my head very well (as I'll try to argue next week, I think that's because religions are, and ought to be, so personal), but I'm going to give it my best shot.

It is my current belief that the Universe is something much higher dimensional in the process of becoming. If you like, it is a four dimensional egg incubating a creature developing up through the dimensions until it can become a new five (maybe more) dimensional being. In that sense, as the bits of it which can know ourselves and it, we are the Universe's braincells. The Universe is unimaginably large and complex and filled with wonder I will never understand, but we/I/it are going somewhere, there is an end point to the journey. That thought fills me with comfort.

The second part of my belief is that consciousness, ours and that of other beings, is like a force radiating through the Universe, being filtered through it into rarer stuff. The ultimate effect of this is that for the 'I' which is my self, right at the heart of that 'I', is some cosmic singular personhood. Put another way the thing which is becoming is in the centre of all people and all things.

In a way that second point is meaningless, except that I think time works along two axes. There is the simple linear time which we experience, but there is also a more fluid narrative time which all things also move along. On this narrative track there is a different movement, from birth, to life, to fullness of life, to decline and then on to death. That track contains every Spring to Winter, every dawn to dusk and every birth to death and it doesn't follow the same rules as our linear time. Instead each one of those deaths, from a simple falling asleep to each final breath, happens at the same point (the same moment if you like) and that all the births equally happen together.

I like to think that, ultimately, I am the same as everyone else and that, in my final moments alive, rather than being completely alone, I will suddenly find I am with everyone and we are all the same and that will be the moment when the egg Universe cracks and opens out into some new dimension and some new set of challenges, all of us together to tackle them as a single 'I' at last.

This may not gel with you at all, in fact, I would expect that most of you found that all a bit odd. That is entirely my point, these things are mine, these ideas are what personally elevates and inspires me through my crappier moments. It was surprisingly fun to write them out, but I don't want anyone else to take them for themselves, not really. I think each one of us should have our own set of ideas, each as deeply personal as these.

*[I feel I should correctly attribute the root of this reasoning to Robert Anton Wilson, who used to spend entire weeks choosing to believe in Catholicism just to see how it effected his thinking. Some day I will write an entry on all the effects he's had on my thinking (and I'll stop just lazily linking to Wikipedia)]

**[I wanted to post here that there is evidence that more expensive placebos have more effect, but all there seems to be is articles like this one with no scientific paper that I can find, this makes me inordinately unhappy]

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