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« Outlook on life  
Do We Need Religious Belief? [1]
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Since we developed the faculty to reflect over our own existence, we have asked three fundamental questions: Where do we come from (Creation)? Why are we here (Meaning of Life)?And where do we go (Death)? Throughout history, religions have — with various success — tried to answer these questions. In the Americas and Europe, Christianity is the most widespread religion; it has influenced our society deeply and conditioned our value system and way of thinking. Particularly the image of an external, but personal, all powerful and all knowing benign, male god who watches us and interferes in human affairs is well rooted in our consciousness, whether we like it or not.

Whereas an American, when asked the question: „Do you believe in God?" will always proudly proclaim „Yes, of course!" a European will look slightly embarrassed and either say no or answer „Depends on what you mean by god."

I recall having to reject the traditional concept of God when I was about six years old and my intellect sufficiently developed to deal with spiritual matters. I remember very well one day I walked over a graveyard holding my father's hand, when I asked him: „Do you believe in God?" "No, I don't," he said and looked at me with a caring smile. "But I do," I proclaimed very proudly. "Well, that's very good," he said. The fact was, that I did not believe. Why did I lie to my dad? Probably because I felt I had to say what I thought people would expect a six-year-old kid to say. I used the terms „believe in" and „god" in a very intuitive way and only much later did I learn that these words must be defined very precisely, if you want to use them properly in discussions.

The incident with my father happened shortly after I had given up believing that Santa Claus really existed, and I felt very much the same way with the god concept. The grown ups wanted me to believe in a fairy tale they did not believe in themselves. For me it became a mystery — and it still is today — why so many people in the world hang on to a story which is so obviously easy to disguise and why so few dare to stand up and reveal the hoax. I felt like being in the fairy tale „The Emperor's New Clothes" by Hans Christian Andersen, one of my best-known countrymen. Everyone knows the truth, but nobody — apart from a little boy — dares to speak it out.

Most people use their intellect and mental faculties in everyday life, but when it comes to religion, they suddenly become gullible and seem to switch off their common sense. I am amazed every time I talk to born-again Christians who claim that the Bible should be taken literally. They are not always ignorant but very convinced of their case. However, they oversee — or rather choose to ignore — that the Bible contains many contradictions and unclear translations. The New Testament is not an accurate testimony of Jesus' historic life but a gathering of stories written by different authors in several languages, selected and put together 300 years after Jesus' death by church leaders with a very clear political goal. The Bible contains both profound insights on how we should live our lives as well as justification for murder and brutal violence. This makes it possible to derive practically any assertion from the Bible you might fancy, hence my claim: „Bring me any statement, and I will find a quotation in the Bible supporting it".

When I recently saw the film Harry Potter and read the critics about it, I found the warnings that the film could be harmful to children because of its dealing with wizardry and superstition particularly amusing because they came from Christian fundamentalist groups. At Christmas 2001, a Protestant minister in Alamogordo, New Mexico, arranged a public burning of the book. If a Church service is not wizardry, you tell me what it is! The incantation used by conjurors: „Hocus pocus" derives from the Latin mass, where the priest turns toward the altar with the wafer in his hands saying, „Hoc est corpus" (This is the body).

Self-righteous and lecturing people turn me off, but if I encounter sincere religious feelings or practices based on love and respect for others, I instinctively feel a deep reverence and compassion, even if it has a foundation I cannot agree upon. The importance of religion in public life has diminished a lot, particularly in Europe, and it is therefore very odd for Europeans to watch American politicians on television referring to god or emphasizing how much they pray. A European politician doing the same would immediately lose his credibility and lay himself open to ridicule.

I have many times returned to Christianity and sometimes discovered new aspects but never found the answers to „The three fundamental questions" plausible. That Christianity as most other religions contains many admirable ideals does not change the fact that we have to take a stand regarding the core message: God sent his son to Earth and this son died on a cross for our sins and resurrected three days later.

I suffer from an incredible curiosity towards life; I want to know why. My approach is rational: what is explained needs to be plausible in order for me to believe it. I suppose this attitude is probably formed by my technical education as an engineer, and I am well aware that not all people have the same need to comprehend logically what is explained to them. Why do I feel obliged to reject the Christian model? Because I observe the world around me, and what I see does not fit with what the model expresses. The world was not created in six days 3761 BC, as claimed, and nobody can walk on water. I do not see God rewarding the good ones and punishing the bad ones. Christianity's biggest dilemma is its explanation for God's nature. If He is almighty, omniscient and benevolent, why does He allow suffering? I am well aware of the fact that one needs not be an engineer to notice this inconsistency; in fact all devoted and reflecting Christians struggle with this dilemma at some stage in their lives.

When Bertrand Russell, who was a self-proclaimed atheist, was asked at a lecture by a student how he would react, if he after his death he would ascend to Heaven and be received by the Lord himself, he answered: "Well, I would say: 'I am awfully sorry I didn't believe in you, why didn't you give me more evidence about your existence?'" Russell hits a central point: There is just not enough evidence that supports the Christian model. Since the renaissance, religion has slowly but steadily lost ground to science and — what is even more devastating — it has been displayed as a human-made projection of our longings and imaginations, created undoubtedly with the best intentions, but with the limited knowledge available at the time of its formation. How the concept of god has developed throughout history is brilliantly described in A History of God written by Karen Armstrong, a former catholic nun who studied religion in Oxford and now teaches rabbi students at Leo Baeck's College in London. She has also written several books on Islam and is an honorary member of the Association of Muslim Social Sciences.

How come that Christianity has been so successful? How could the number of followers increase from a handful to over one billion in less than 2000 years? Through memes — opinions procreating and spreading in peoples' minds according to the same laws as genes do it in the biology world. The main driving force is also to survive and multiply. These are seven ingredients for the creation of a successful religion:

A Model: Take some existing myths and legends and create a model explaining the Three Fundamental Questions. Make sure it provides a „packet solution" with easy-to-understand and satisfying answers.

A Book: Change the stories so the copying is not so obvious and gather them in a book. Do not worry if the stories are inconsistent or incomplete; this will actually turn out as an advantage. Avoid criticism by claiming the book has divine origin.

A Problem: Find things everyone enjoys and call them bad and sinful. Find suitable justifications in the Book. Give the followers rules to follow, which clearly distinguish them in everyday life from their surroundings. The more absurd the rules and the more ridiculous the followers appear, the better.

A Solution: Promise those who believe in the model a reward, like salvation or eternal life. Make sure that whatever is promised, should not be testable.

A Fan Club: Make a fan club with a strong hierarchy and make the reward exclusive for the members. If somebody questions the model, say that it cannot be understood rationally, only through unconditioned, blind faith.

Exclusivity Rights: Protect the model by making it dogmatic: The Book cannot be discussed or doubted. In case parts of the model lose their credibility or the hoax becomes too obvious, give in a bit. Say it was a misunderstanding to understand the model literally, it is actually meant to be symbolic.

Bonus Program: Explain that is important to convince others of the correctness of the model. Give bonus points for recruiting new members. Most important of all, fight competition, if necessary with violence.

I do not think my proposed theory of religion-creation is unusual; many people in the Western world find traditional religions do not give them satisfying answers. They might turn to alternative religions such as Scientology or Shamanism or to pseudo-religions such as astrology, aura reading, or even to Communism as it was the case for many Europeans in the mid 20th century.

But which alternative does the reflecting modern person choose, who is not content with a package solution? Which god concept do other religions have? Some religions have many gods, some one, some get along without any at all. Some have a personal god, some an impersonal, some locate god outside, some inside the human mind. Various symbols and images are used.

Jews, Christians and Muslims are particularly proud of being monotheists and look down upon „primitive" polytheism. The truth is that Judaism initially practised monolatry (the recognition of many, but worshipping of only one) and only gradually developed into monotheism. The 1st Commandment of the Mosaic Laws says, „Thou shalt not have other gods before me." What is so dangerous about the „other gods" that this commandment must be put in the first place? It more looks like a contest where somebody wants to convince the audience of the superiority of his particular god over other competing gods. To believe that Yahweh will reward me for having worshipped only him by supporting me and my tribe in the struggle with neighbouring nations is a bit like making him the symbol of my football club or Britannia, the goddess of the British, Helvetia (the lady on the Swiss coins), the goddess of the Swiss, and Uncle Sam, the god of the USA. In my opinion this reflects neither a particular spiritual nor civilised attitude.


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Religion as a Comfort?

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« Outlook on life   (Published: 26-07-2003 Last change: 30-01-2011)

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Kim Ludvigsen
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