Tags: religion

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Vanquishing Dissonance and Bahá'í Cherry Pickers

Do you ever wonder why some people call themselves adherents to a particular religion, but pick-and-choose what laws they follow? Do you ever think, Why don't they just make up and follow their own religion instead of giving lip service to the religion they selectively follow? Well, there might just be good reasons.Collapse )

For these reasons, I think that a Bahá’í who wants to pick-and-choose should instead consider surrendering his membership and severing his affiliation with the religion. He will not only free himself of a lingering cognitive dissonance, but he will be happier for freeing his mind to think for himself and taking responsibility for his own imperatives. In this state, he can adopt for himself what he finds worthy of assent from the blissful writings of Bahá’u'lláh (or anyone else who he finds inspirational) while refraining from committing himself to doctrines of whose truth he cannot convince himself. And finally, he will be able to be true to the words of 'Abdu'l-Bahá:

In short, it behoves us all to be lovers of truth. Let us seek her in every season and in every country, being careful never to attach ourselves to personalities. Let us see the light wherever it shines, and may we be enabled to recognize the light of truth no matter where it may arise. Let us inhale the perfume of the rose from the midst of thorns which surround it; let us drink the running water from every pure spring.
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Gotta have faith

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, a young George Michael would rise to fame by telling us why he had faith. The inimitable Immanuel Kant also believed we needed faith in the fruition of our moral efforts. George needed faith to get over heartbreak, Kant needed it to give a foundation to ethics, and it seems like we too need at least a little faith to get on with our lives. Yes, I said it: we need faith.

Faith is useful when it is justified. But there are different ways to justify faith. Let's consider some here.

For one, we can probably agree that faith in a doctor is useful. It is useful because it allows us to heal without needing to understand every detail of the medicine or treatment we are prescribed. Of course, we should have an idea of what the medicine we take does and how the treatment is helpful, but we don't need to know every detail. That's the doctor's job.

Now, this kind of faith is justified because doctors are accredited by the state. Thus, this faith is ultimately a trust in society, which results from living under a working and relatively efficient government. Economists have noted for years how credit loans can only be given in societies that have effective enforcement of legal contracts. In such a society, creditors can trust those they lend money to, because they can trust that the state will recompense for those who don't repay the loans. People living in developing nations cannot always afford to have this faith. In their case, faith in the state sponsored health system would not be justified, for example. That is part of the reason why traditional medicines thrive in such places. That is not to say that traditional medicine works, but in such places, it works just as well! When there are no good options, all options are thereby equally good.

Faith is also justified when believing something is true will help make it true. In other words, in the case of "self-fulfilling prophecies." For example, even if you cannot move fast, merely believing that you can out-run a chasing dog might be justified if it helps you actually escape the dog.

So we must have a certain level of faith in our fellow humans, because otherwise we will live in constant paranoia and fear. We must trust that our neighbours are not scheming to kill us when we're not looking. We must trust that the government is generally concerned for the common good, and that it will preserve that good. We must trust that people will come through on their promises. This faith is not unconditional, but neither is it so easily shaken.

In the case of the chasing dog, we should never give up hope because our faith-in-ourselves will actually help us escape the dog (even if experience has taught us that we probably cannot outrun the dog). In this case, our faith is a wilful "deceiving" of ourselves that we can outrun the dog (whereas, perhaps if we considered experience alone, we might doubt that we could outrun the dog). We're not really deceiving ourselves, of course, since we don't yet know whether we can get away from the dog. Who knows? This might be the one time we outrun it! Notice, however, that the faith here is not justified on the grounds that the dog's bite will hurt (as in Pascal's Wager), but rather because having faith in yourself will actually help you escape! In other contexts, it's called "confidence."

As we seen then, there is room for belief without evidence. This is what William James calls "The Will to Believe." We must employ the will to believe when that belief will actually make it more probable that our beliefs will be true. Consider another case: suppose we suspect that someone may be secretly admiring us. Let's say I think there is a girl that likes me. If I just will to believe that she likes me (i.e., have faith), then I will be nicer and more flirty toward her. As a result, she will be more likely to actually like me than if I had believed she didn't like me or had just stayed agnostic.

But what about faith in God? Don't we need some faith in the spiritual guidance of prophets? I think not. Religious people often speak of "faith" as though it was a panacea for all kinds of dogmatic beliefs, or some kind of excuse for doing things without good reason. This is not the kind of faith I think is useful. Why not? Because this kind of faith cannot be justified, I think.

Unjustified faith is responding, "Faith!" to escape criticism of one's beliefs. Religious faith is almost always of this more lazy variety. The kind of faith I think we need is more like hope than some kind of free pass for holding unwarranted beliefs. When religious people use the word, they more often intend it as a way of avoiding having to give good reasons for their beliefs. That is not the kind of faith I have in mind.

Ultimately, we must have faith in ourselves, our fellow man and woman. That is why I think Kant and George would have been good buddies if they were alive today (George Michael is dead, right?). We need to have this kind of faith to function well and live a happy life among society. This is a secular faith that does not depend on believing anything about supernatural forces. Thus, while we do need faith in humanity, there is no need for faith in spiritual guidance from "on high," for this is not a path to anything useful.
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How does religion change us into good people?

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.