Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Personal Character of Religious Belief

In discussions with believers, I've come to the conclusion that although most believers claim affiliation with a particular version of religious belief (and there are tens of thousands of diverse versions of religious belief), those who are not "fundamentalists" (i.e., who accept the literal truth of all the words of their chosen deity as documented in scriptures) have a tendency to have their own more or less unique, personal set of beliefs.  Why is this the case?

The primary reason is the nature of the "holy" scriptures upon which most believers assume these religions are based.  If one actually reads these documents, they're full of contradictions, nebulous parables, outright historical and scientific errors. etc.  To me, the most logical explanation for these problems is that the scriptures are essentially mythical (fictional) accounts written by multiple authors, transcribed into new languages over the time they've endured since they first were written - on the order of 2,000+ years ago.

If one assume that a reasonable position is not to accept the literal truth of all the scriptures, thereby neatly avoiding all the contradictions and errors, then one is left with an inescapable conclusion:  any meaning we assign to the scriptures is necessarily the result of fallible human interpretations.  Since sane people presently seem unable to consult the putative deity who wrote (or inspired the writing of) the scriptures for guidance regarding his intended meanings within the challenging biblical narratives, we have no way to be absolutely sure of the deity's intended meanings.  What we have is our personal interpretation, and the interpretations of others - unavoidably human.  If we decline to accept a fundamentalist's literal acceptance of scriptural words, we must conclude that our personal interpretation of the words upon which our faith rests is not divine, but very much a human (even individual) perspective.

Curiously, even fundamentalist sects disagree about their seemingly literal interpretations of the scriptures!  But fundamentalists must somehow accommodate logical contradictions within the scriptures they claim to be word-for-word truth, so they seem to have no problem with one more logical contradiction!

The clergy generally claim to possess the correct interpretation of scriptures, of course.  Their sole qualification for such a claim is their ordination as clergy, a rite of dubious divinity that depends on their having been indoctrinated with the dogma of their particular brand of belief, typically via religious schooling.  From where does their docrine come?  Presumably, such dogma has been passed down from the human founders of that sect, with the possibility of changes having occurred in that doctrine over the centuries.  The catholics no longer feel upset with Galileo and Copernicus, for instance.  Hence, it seems that religious doctrine is not unchangeable and absolutely valid for all time, after all.  If it came directly from an eternal, all-everything deity, why would it ever have to change?  Inescapably, this means sectarian doctrine is undeniably a human invention (for all but fundamentalists).  The human founders of the sect had some set of doctrinal beliefs they agreed upon and passed on, but those have evolved with time, as generations of sectarian clergy have been forced to put new interpretations into that doctrine by the changing world around them.  Would not an all-everything deity have been able to shape an unchangeable doctrine?  But I digress ...

Consider the interpretation of indisputably human writings, as opposed to writings attributed to a deity.  For many human writings, the intended meaning of the author is pretty easy to deduce.  Manuals and textbooks certainly have such tightly constrained meanings, that it's nigh unto impossible to misinterpret them.  They may be poorly written or so challenging to understand that we need help from someone to make out what they're saying, but we can test our interpretations of their contents.  If we use the instruction manual for our computers, the test is to see if we can make it work properly.  If we try to solve problems using the principles written in a textbook, the test is to see if we obtain the correct solution.  We don't need to talk to the author to know for sure we got it right.  Confirming religious document interpretations is much more problematic, unless you're willing to accept the logically unacceptable circular argument of using scripture to confirm your interpretation of the scriptures.

Other human writings can be much more challenging to interpret than textbooks or manuals, of course, especially fiction.  Most all of us have read Moby Dick at some point in our academic lives, and it's fairly obvious that the characters and actions in that book are allegorical.  It's not just a pointless story about some guys and a whale - its people and events in their lives symbolize other things.  This book may have been the first time we, as students, began to understand metaphor and its uses in literature.  Can we be absolutely certain we understand what Herman Melville intended when we finish the book?  Most of us probably received some guidance about that from our teachers, who in turn got it from their teachers, and so on.  Perhaps the first teacher who used Moby Dick in a class could have asked Melville in person, but now that time has passed.  We either have to trust the interpretations suggested to us by our teachers, or we have to derive our own interpretation.  In either case, the meanings assigned to the characters and events in the story might be different from Melville actually intended!  If you think what was taught to you about Moby Dick is a load of crap, you're free to invent your own interpretation, up to and including the conclusion it's just a made-up pointless yarn about some guys and a whale!

When I read the non-fiction book PairyErth by William Least Heat-Moon, I speculated on why he chose to present the people and events of Chase County, Kansas (a place to which my storm chasing causes me to return occasionally).  A few years ago, I was listening to an interview with him on National Public Radio, and he said he picked Chase County, Kansas, because he though it might superficially be considered the most boring and uninteresting county in the US!  The book proceeds to show precisely the opposite, of course.  That was the point of the book, and I had suspected that to be the case, but it was good to have my interpretation confirmed!  It was the fact that he was still alive and able to answer that question that allowed me to confirm my reading of the book.

When a book is claimed to have divine origins (or at least inspiration), then believers can use it to justify genocide, racism, misogyny, murder, etc.  Establishing the intended meaning of the author(s) seems to be fairly important in this regard.  Obviously, not everyone puts such an interpretation on scriptures - what many non-fundamentalist believers say is that those who commit such terrible injustices in the name of their deity are not "true" believers.  Such a response is, of course, clearly associated with a high degree of confidence that the responder is a true believer.

Such confidence may not logically be warranted, given the tens of thousands of different belief systems out there.  Just how can one be absolutely certain that your doctrine is the right one among the many?  The inevitable answer is ... faith (belief without evidence), of course.  In my viewpoint, faith is a shaky foundation on which to build a belief in a supernatural deity who is supposed to rule our lives.  Can we put our complete trust in the clergy, or even in our own personal ability to interpret what supposedly sacred scripture tells us?  At present, in the USA, you can make your own choices, of course.  Thanks to faith, in many places around the world, you don't have that freedom!!


Liz Heywood said...

Excellent, Chuck. Underneath we're all humanists. I hate when someone asks me where an atheist gets her values. From her humanity, of course!

Great post.

John G Thomas said...

Some excellent points. Many people with religious faith acknowledge that their particular denomination has made errors in the past and retains faults today, but their strong emotional attachment remains. Journalist Geraldine Doogue, a Catholic, illustrates this in 'Why I'm Still a Catholic' . She finds 'consolation' in her faith and recognizes that her own 'personal identity' is bound up with it. Her inspirations aren't rational arguments or rebuttals of religious critiques. They are simply emotional calls to arms by various religious figures.