Monday, June 19, 2006

How do people pick a religion?

It is interesting that the discussion in the comments section of the last post quickly turned to the question of proving or disproving God's existence. But how often do people decide to be religious or abandon religion because of a formal proof or argument? Or for that matter, how many people decide on a religion because it provides the best explanation of the creation of the universe? Historically, both Christianity and Islam found Greek philosophy objectionable because of cosmological issues: for example, that Aristotle rejected the notion that the universe was created. With some mental contortions, theologians tried to reconcile religion and philosophy. Reading some of these arguments can be mind numbing.

In the end, individuals decide mostly by their need for ethical guidance and spiritual renewal. The Catholic Church may have objected to Galileo’s argument that the sun is the center of the universe but the Protestant Reformation had already occurred. The imagined threats to the Church's authority and infallibility posed by science are minor compared to the ethical, political and spiritual needs of human life which are ultimately the drivers of religious practice in a culture.

How, then, does a religious-seeking person decide on a religion and/or denomination? How do you decide Jesus is right and not Mohammad? If you are going to reject Mohammad as a violent oppressive tyrant, do you not already know that such a model is an abomination? Thus, you have to know right from wrong before you decide which religion is just and respectable. This suggests that ethics can be known without religion and indeed it must if you are going to be able to avoid being trapped into a nefarious religion or cultish denomination. You don’t just follow Jim Jones to Guyana … you use your own mind and decide this guy is pure evil. You don’t just join the jihad … you use your own mind and decide this path is barbaric. But that means you need a standard to judge—an ethical standard. Ethical knowledge must come first.

I wonder if this is why some conservatives can’t be critical of Islam. They seem to believe that a long-standing widely-shared religion must have some truth as its basis and the only real question is God or atheism. This posture, establish during the Cold War, didn't anticipate the threat of Islam. However, not all conceptions of God are equally appealing. How, then, does a Christian argue that one should avoid Islam and take the path of Jesus? If one’s argument is purely based on faith you are at the mercy of chance as to whether you accept Christianity, Islam, or reject religion altogether. That’s a disturbing notion is it not?

Founding Fathers didn’t argue about religion given the vast numbers of religious beliefs from deists to Quakers. They argued about ethics and politics but they generally did so by using empirically-based reasoning. Even if they weren’t deists, they assumed if you understand the laws of nature by examining nature, you understand the laws of "nature’s creator." Settling differences by reference to reality and right reason avoids direct questions about theology. There was no doubt in their minds that if one discovered an ethical principle, just as if one discovered a law of chemistry, that one was learning about the laws created by "nature's creator." However, it was reality that settled the dispute, not textual analysis. The latter is pursued privately with one’s fellow religionists.

Essentially, the Founders embodied a tradition of ethical naturalism. It’s a tradition worth maintaining.

19 Comments:

Blogger Weingarten said...

With regard to religion, Jason writes “In the end, individuals decide mostly by their need for ethical guidance and spiritual renewal…[and] that ethics can be known without religion…”

Now I agree that ethics and politics is important, as is empirically-based reasoning, so that one should deal with reality and employ right reason. (I doubt that this is the ultimate desideratum, and have written why, but that is another matter.) It raises the issue as to how best to conduct dialog between religionists & atheists in general, and Christians & Objectivists in particular.

I submit that they duke it out, by competing with regard to what is most ethical (as well as spiritual and inspiring). Thus the competitors should try to be most sincere, admitting their shortcomings, and being open to being corrected. One element for doing so is to not seek to prove the opponent wrong so much as finding the mote in one’s own eye. Another is to interpret the position of the opponent by putting it in the best possible light. Thus it could be a debate between sinners & sinners, or saints & saints, but not between saints and sinners.

In political and social discourse, people have agendas, whereby they care about winning. What I submit instead is seeking the truth, and employing the standard of sincerity and openness. Here, as in social relations between intimates, the best way to change the other is by changing oneself.

6/19/06, 7:02 PM  
Blogger Jason_Pappas said...

I like the spirit of respect in that summary. Often I don't think in terms of changing others or oneself but just further understanding and often respect. Many of these issues one will want to reflect on over a long period. They are seldon simple arguments of fact but usually comprise a worldview.

6/19/06, 7:54 PM  
Blogger Weingarten said...

I concur with Jason, that furthering understanding for long term edification, is a purer aim than attempting to change others or oneself.

6/20/06, 9:12 AM  
Blogger Always On Watch said...

Jason,
I'm not so sure that Muslims choose Islam. I once heard Dr. Anis Shorrosh say that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world by dint of demographics (childbirth rates). Certainly, Islamic societies don't offer freedom of choice when it comes to religion.

I believe that Cubed has addressed some of the imprint concerns, from the neurological standpoint. I assume you've read the material Cubed has posted at Sixth Column.

Of course, we've all read about some converts to Islam. But when I examine those individual cases (of necessity, a limited number of cases, based on my time and my resources), what I typically find is a dysfunctional family in the first place. Thus, IMO, a vacuum is already there, and an individual chooses Islam as a means of empowerment, both spiritual and physical (that last--jihadists).

Now, I know that you're an atheist, and I respect your right to have made that decision. In my own mind, I wonder how you arrived at that conclusion. A process? An epiphany? Disillusionment with religion in general? Education? Perhaps you feel that we Christians are stupid. Please don't take that last question the wrong way! I'm secure enough in my faith not to worry about that, yet I'm not arrogant enough to think that you are stupid for being an atheist. [I hope that I'm making sense!]

Of course, you don't have to explain your own choice to be an atheist. It might be too personal.

On to another aspect now...

I wonder if this is why some conservatives can’t be critical of Islam. They seem to believe that a long-standing widely-shared religion must have some truth as its basis and the only real question is God or atheism.

IMO, those types are mighty insecure Christians. But maybe you're right. Mark Alexander occasionally writes about that topic, indirectly and directly.

PS: Thank you for the anniversary wishes. I appreciate your words, as always.

6/20/06, 5:57 PM  
Blogger Jason_Pappas said...

Thanks, for sharing your thoughts.

I tend to find that most people become religious if it suits their spiritual needs or provides the ethical guidance they require. Others find that religious isn’t necessary. But in all cases, you still have to make choices about right and wrong. Even if you’re religious you have to decide which denomination has it right, which religion makes sense. In my experience many if not most people who are religious have changed denomination at least once in their life. Do you find that so?

Of my 20 cousins, only 1 practices the religion of our grandparents (Greek Orthodox.) Some are very religious but they’ve change denominations—mostly Protestant. In this country we have some 300 denominations of Christianity. We have mega-churches that didn’t exist before. And within many denominations, there is great variation—take the Anglicans. Do you find that people change their denominations or church much?

That’s why I think people have a good sense of right and wrong before they seek spiritual guidance. And think hard about whether their pastor or church is doing the right thing. I think Americans are very independent minded. Is this a fair picture from your experience?

6/20/06, 7:31 PM  
Blogger Jason_Pappas said...

Oh, by the way, I don’t think religious people are stupid like the fellow in the previous comments section.

And I think most that aren’t religious, like myself, just found it isn't necessary.

6/20/06, 7:35 PM  
Blogger Always On Watch said...

Jason,
Thank you for your response.

I'm the type of Christian who doesn't put much stock in religious leaders. I am ever aware of the symptoms of cult or of cultlike leadership.Therefore, I read the Bible for myself and pray over decisions.

Do you find that people change their denominations or church much?

I see more and more Christians moving to nondenominational churches which emphasize Bible study. I am more of a traditionalist, especially when it comes to music, so I tend to go with mainstream denominations. Caveat: anti-Semitism is penetrating many of the Protestant churches. I can hardly believe it!

I also see a lot of Christians leaving the church altogether--at least, for a time. In this area, churches which tend to be more into the social gospel are not doing well. Of course, some feel that interfaith is the way and have abandoned doctrine in favor of you're-okay-I'm-okay.

I do move around a bit as I don't think that any one denomination provides the spiritual feeding I need at particular times in my life. Also, life circumstances push me into different types of services.

I think people have a good sense of right and wrong before they seek spiritual guidance.

For me, it was the other way around--spiritual guidance first. My religious training started when I was a toddler, but my parents changed denominations three times, primarily because the churches became too politically involved.

I think Americans are very independent minded. Is this a fair picture from your experience?

Absolutely.

I don’t think religious people are stupid...

Thanks for saying that!

6/20/06, 9:32 PM  
Blogger leelion said...

Jason, you have to make a stand and draw the line somewhere even if you may offend some others.

In my neck of the woods there is an investigative journalist, magazine publisher and radio talkshow personality. Highly intelligent and knowledgable man.

Yet this man states uncatagorically that Adam was the first man, that the earth is 6000 years old and that evolutionary theory is anti-Christian and evil.

Now I know many Christians and other religious folk are not fundamentalists like this guy and are perfectly reasonable in their approach. Many of my family and friends fall into this group. And the above mentioned man has the right to believe whatever he wants, but I have no problem in saying that many of his beliefs are stupid.

6/21/06, 2:07 AM  
Blogger Weingarten said...

Leelion writes about a journalist who avers "that Adam was the first man, that the earth is 6000 years old and that evolutionary theory is anti-Christian and evil."

I concur that such positions are untenable, and that their defense is preposterous and insincere. Leelion does not claim however that this pertains to Jason's remark ("I don’t think religious people are stupid...") Instead, he writes "many Christians and other religious folk are not fundamentalists like this guy and are perfectly reasonable..."

Consequently, he agrees with Jason and myself. So Leelion doesn't hold that the journalist is stupid, but that "many of his beliefs are stupid." Yet *a belief (or statement or article) cannot be stupid*, for that designation can only refer to a person. Perhaps he meant to say that those beliefs run counter to the evidence, are illogical, and indefensible.

6/21/06, 8:02 AM  
Blogger Jason_Pappas said...

Thanks, AOW; that was a detailed picture giving me an idea of how people think in another part of the country. One of the great things about the internet is that you get to talk to people everywhere. Those who think people in Red States are monolithic should start talking to some of their fellow countrymen.

The revival of anti-Semitism is obviously worrisome news. Dymphna, over at “Gate of Vienna” is addressing the issue. The left here and in Europe is also becoming anti-Semitic. I expected this on the left with the rise of Identity Politics--a viewpoint that essentially sees only groups and not individuals. And the left’s traditional hatred of anyone who does well for themselves draws them to anti-Semitism, anti-American, and pro-Islamic viewpoints. But I didn’t know about such a revival in rural Christian religious groups.

6/21/06, 8:21 AM  
Blogger Mr. Beamish the Instablepundit said...

There was a time in my past when my currently foul-mouthed sarcastic self wanted to be a preacher. The pastor of the Southern Baptist church in Alabama I grew up in was Billy Graham's (yes, that Billy Graham) roommate in seminary school.

Since those childhood times, and through a good two decades of hellraisin' "fun," I've studied Eastern philosophies, the occult, neo-paganism, ancient mythologies, and some New Age sewage. I've been Christian, agnostic, atheist, agnostic, Christian (in that order) with bouts of Buddhism and Taoism intermingled.

If I could observe myself objectively (sorry for the pun) I might be able to tell you what drew me along my meandering path back to almost where I started.

I haven't set foot in a church worship service in well over 15 years.

But, having sampled the salad bar, I'd go back for the real meat - Christianity.

6/21/06, 9:43 AM  
Blogger Weingarten said...

Jason writes “I don’t think religious people are stupid…And I think most that aren’t religious, like myself, just found it isn't necessary.”

Let us consider what it is that is necessary with regard to religion. To do so, I now propose an orientation. I submit there are things we know: with the body, which derive from the senses; with the mind, which are self-evident (whose denial is contradictory); with the spirit, where we know what is most important.

I refer to the latter as the ‘moral a-priori’, where we also know there are things we must or must not do, that there is truth & justice, and that we are corrigible. I grant that this is not shared by all, and that it derives from acculturation. (As an aside, this does not pertain to Islam, which I do not view as a culture or a civilization, but as its very antithesis.)

Now I welcome disagreements on the above, but shall go on to the next step.

Given that man (whether religionist or atheist) accepts the primacy of the aforementioned spiritual requirements, what follows? I aver that *man seeks comprehensiveness*, namely a view that relates to all areas of existence, without contradiction. I do not deny that many people are guided by their passions, while others are content to hold contradictory positions. However, I am referring to ‘man’ as an ideal, as seen in the best of us. It is true that one is rare if he holds to or seeks a Weltanschauung. Yet that is a sign of virtue. Next *man seeks a moral pinnacle*, namely something that is of ultimate value to which all else is subordinate. Finally, *man seeks something more important than life itself*, for he is willing to sacrifice virtually everything.

This aiming at an ultimate does not confine itself to religionists, for it is found in an Ayn Rand, a Ludwig von Mises, and anyone else whose heart yearns to correct injustice. Generally, it is best expressed in poetry, as “A Robin Redbreast in a cage, puts all of heaven in a rage” or “Truth forever, on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown, Standeth G-d within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”

Now if religionists and atheists seek a comprehensive moral pinnacle, of ultimate import, where do they part company? It would appear to come down to whether reality includes a transcendent, or is completely immanent. Yet even here, the disparity is not as clear as it seems. Scientists and atheists are able to work with etiological constructs, such as string theory and Platonic Realism, while believers and religionists are able to see the hand of God in everyday happenings. I further submit that it is less important what one professes to believe, than what he does with his belief.

In sum, religionists and atheists are not necessarily as far apart as they seem, while both who seek purity are in a different ontological state than those who attempt to justify their doctrine. Thus a religionist could view an Objectivist as carrying out the will of God, while an atheist could compliment a religionist for striving to further the glory of man. Moreover, both, when they are at their best, would decry a world that places truth on the scaffold and wrong on the throne.

6/21/06, 12:06 PM  
Blogger Always On Watch said...

Jason,
Well, I'm not exactly in a rural location any more--though this area used to be.

Many rural Christians are into the feel-good Gospel (outgrowth of the 60s?), which allows for the leftism, multi-culti, etc. Also, remember that many in rural locations attended college in metropolitan areas; and we all know what's happening in the major universities. Furthermore, many mainstrea seminaries now provide a different kind of training--training which contradicts the Bible and flies in the face of Christian tradition, IMO.

6/21/06, 3:46 PM  
Blogger Always On Watch said...

Weingarten,
I further submit that it is less important what one professes to believe, than what he does with his belief....

Moreover, both, when they are at their best, would decry a world that places truth on the scaffold and wrong on the throne.


I agree with both the above points. However, I know some fundamentalist Christians who seem to want to ostracize any who do not agree with the doctrines laid out. I have never had any patient with that "I'm-so-special-and-know-it-all" attitude.

6/21/06, 3:47 PM  
Blogger Weingarten said...

AOW writes "I know some fundamentalist Christians who seem to want to ostracize any who do not agree with the doctrines laid out. I have never had any patien[ce] with that "I'm-so-special-and-know-it-all" attitude."

Yes, it is sad to say that there are Christians who behave nastily, superior and doctrinaire. Often, it does not pay to speak to them, for I recall:

"Give not that which is holy unto the dogs.
Neither cast ye your pearls before swine.
Lest they trample them under their feet
and turn again and rend you."

On the other hand, when it does make sense to converse with them, it might be helpful to provide some of the many Christian guides that preach against being nasty, superior, and doctrinaire. For example, one could ask 'Do you not love me?'

6/21/06, 5:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an Objectivist's site that is dedicated to destroying arguments for the God belief and Christianity. You can not read the material on this site (and it is voluminous) and still honestly cling to belief. All you can do is engage in massive evasion which is what all religous people do anyway to some extent.

http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Sparta/1019/Thorn2.html

The God concept is a totally contradictory term. It can't even be properly defined. That people can actually believe in such nonsense never fails to amaze me. It is truly primitive.

D. Eastbrook

6/22/06, 12:17 AM  
Blogger Mr. Beamish the Instablepundit said...

The God concept is a totally contradictory term. It can't even be properly defined.

I smell a challenge. Care to elaborate?

6/22/06, 1:35 AM  
Blogger Weingarten said...

Mr. Easterbrook writes "The God concept is a totally contradictory term. It can't even be properly defined. That people can actually believe in such nonsense never fails to amaze me. It is truly primitive."

Some define the 'concept' of 'God' as the summa bonum, or greatest good. Here, it is that which unifies and brings out the best in man. One can deny that there is anything supernatural or transcendent. However, the guide of a summa bonum does not appear to be irrational, even if one denies that any such ultimate exists.

However, religionists do not view God as a concept, but as something undefinable, that can only be sensed, such as what can best be described allusively or poetically.

I suspect that the challenge to Mr. Easterbrook is to explain how it is that such inspirational guides have been effective. That is, scienctific breakthroughs have not only resulted from atheism, but also from religious inspiration. Similarly, the view that inalienable rights come from a "Creator" has been helpful. So even if 'God' doesn't exist, an explanation is needed for how there are virtues that have stemmed from such an imaginary.

One might say that he doesn't care if there are no castles in the sky, as long as he can collect rent from them.

6/22/06, 7:11 AM  
Blogger Mr. Beamish the Instablepundit said...

I'm still curious how someone who hold the beliefs that the "God term" can be simultaneously "totally contradictory" and "not properly defined."

I'm sensing that there's a misapplication of logic there, cleverly disguised as pretentious bullshit.

6/22/06, 3:32 PM  

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