For this post, I will not criticize other people's ideas. Instead, I'd like to try to describe how religion still manages to change people's lives despite the fact that it is not about truth or morality, why I think people join religion, and what religion offers the world. I think the fact that religion does not offer humanity any truth or moral guidance allows us to embrace religion without fear -- as a form of palliative and preventative therapy. But first, I think it's good to clear up some common confusions and establish my assertion that religion is really not about truth or morality.
First, searching for a religion is not a matter of finding moral guidance, as many think. It couldn't be. Socrates expressed this fact in his classic dialogue with Euthyphro
, and we all know it if we reflect carefully. Socrates realized that, if someone does not have a working moral conscience already then that person cannot properly choose a good religion to follow in the first place, since they do not even know what good is. This is very similar to the circularity that I allude to in my last journal entry
: How can a person realize
that they are following a good religion if they don't already
have an idea of what is good to begin with? Many people say that our cultural norms and so our idea of what is good was learned through many years of religion. But if our cultural conception of what is good was given to us by religion, then we already implicitly know what is good -- through our culture! Or else, the claim, "My religion is good," ultimately amounts to saying, "My religion teaches me what I already knew through my ancestor's religion," which is silly, since it makes no sense to be "taught" what one already knows. So this argument comes out circular.
But let's leave that aside. Even if we could somehow choose a good religion without already knowing what is good, there is nothing a religion can do to provide us
with the moral conscience needed for acting morally. If we do not already possess a strong moral fibre that allows us to keep ourselves in check when we are given the chance to sin, joining a religion will not magically solve that problem. No, religion cannot give us moral guidance any more than it can give us truths about the world. But what is religion for, if not for guidance or truth?
Everywhere we look, we see that individuals use religion to provide themselves with a community of like-minded people that will hold them accountable. Whether by communal discussion, group study of scripture, or other aspects of community life, the community holds the individual accountable to the common moral outlook that they share in common. And the individual holds the others accountable in return. The reason is that they all agree to consult the same body of norms regarding how they ought to behave. That is how they come to be a community.
So religion merely provides the individual with a community and a body of norms to which he or she is held accountable. Most, if not all, of these norms the individual already accepts as "good" prior to committing his or her self to the religion. When we see this, we realize that accepting a religion does not need
to provide us with either guidance or truth.
I think it is the failure to recognize this fact that causes people to think that religion is about "educating" the individual, or that we can "teach" our religion to others, or that "accepting the truth" is the motive force behind what changes the individual's character, or that there are religions that "more truly" describe God's will. But these are mistaken conceptions neglect what we really use religion for, which is accountability.
Many people mention that their particular religious experiences cause them to change their lives. And it is true, stories and experiences often inspire us to change our lives; however, it is not the life change
that motivates us to choose the religion, but the religion
that motivates us to change our lives, and that change in turn commits us more seriously to the religion. So huge life changes do not explain why a person joins
a religion. Religion is only able to change our lives by holding us accountable to the ethical norms that we come to the religion already possessing. It forces us to answer the questions, "Why did you do that?" and, "How will you choose what to do?" as opposed to giving us the answer to the question, "What is right?"
The mistake that religion, in particular, commits us to is in thinking that one's community has a complete understanding of what is right, or good. This is closely related to the fallacy of infallibility. When people say, "If you believe in Bahá'u'lláh, then you must accept that homosexuality is wrong,"
for example, what they are saying is an instance of the more general, "If you belong to our community, then you must accept the norms of our community."
But when one realizes that any
community can uphold the set of norms that he or she calls "good," and that there is nothing unique about the community that he or she belongs to (except accidental geographic or familial factors), then one realizes that there is no right religion and that religion is actually quite unnecessary. Religion is not necessary to hold the individual accountable to a set of norms. Group therapy, for example, is a great way to achieve this same end and there are many other ways that do not include religion.
People often think that the personal experiences they have from joining a religion somehow validate their religious beliefs, but these people forget that any
religion could have provided them with such experiences if they would only they had committed themselves to another religion instead of the one they happened to choose. But this commitment and where it is place is not arbitrary. It is brought about through the community with whom the individual identifies.
This is not to say that religion is unimportant, or that the services that it provides the individual in a religious community are not indispensable. On the contrary, I think that we need to hold one another accountable for any of us to act morally. The only conclusion I draw from this outlook is that religion is not the only way
to hold people accountable. In that sense, religion is not necessary. Though it may be very effective at achieving its goal, it does so at the expense of committing us to many unnecessary dogmas about our souls, humanity's salvation, and God. These dogmas inevitably bring us into conflict with those who do not accept them, but who are equally committed to their own religion and its respective community. Thus, we descend into violence, since none of us have any evidence to corroborate our dogmas or any method to decide whose dogmas are more accurate.