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An essay donated by Goliath Lau

My stance on religion

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Introduction:

I have been thinking about the meaning of religion for a number of years. The debate of the existence of God is a fascinating topic to me. With more time to pursue relevant readings these couple of years, I have gathered and filtered some thoughts myself. I was reluctant to put them down in writing and show it in my blog. Partly because I am lazy and partly I do not want to offend my friends with religious background. But I am now more open to express my views. Moreover, as a forgetful person, I feel the urge to pen down my thoughts so that I can reexamine them at a later stage of my life.

But first, a few words to my friends: If you feel that I have thought too much, don?t worry, I am not going mad. But for those who think my thought process is flawed and my reasoning wrong, I really appreciate any comment and further discussion.

This article is about religion in general and the existence of God. Although being brought up in Catholic schools, I am not just referring to Christianity here. I have acquired a less superficial understanding of Buddhism these years and I fully realize the diversity of religions. In fact, pluralism itself is an obvious issue in religious studies which I shall discuss later.

Science:

Most religions have argued for a creator of the world ? God. Buddhism and some other religions are an exception. The advancement of science, particularly in astronomy, physics and biology over the years, have forced the world creation process and the creation of human as described in the holy scripts of respective religions from being the facts to merely symbolic myths. For instance, after the theory of evolution was introduced, Christians nowadays seldom think of God made human out of soil any more. But they believe that humans are the ?son? of God. We now know that the universe has been around for 13.7 billion years whereas modern human, the only organism who have the brain power to apprehend the concept of God, barely have a history of 100,000 to 200,000 years. We also know that our planet represents only a dust compared to the vastness of the universe. It is inconceivable that God has created such space and for such a long time before human appeared and learned to worship him. Theists can insist that we cannot understand or imagine God but can only have an idea of him instead. But if we are given the ability to reason by God and we thrive on this ability to become where we are today, it seems odd that we can use reasoning to ponder everything except the action and motive of God.

The couple of dozens of what are known as physical constants, which govern the laws of physics, have been an argument for a grand designer of the universe. For instance, at the early stage of our universe, an extremely tiny change in the strength of the nuclear force between elementary particles or a change in the fixed speed of light will cause the whole universe to either collapse into a black hole or expand so quickly that matter and thus stars and thus planets and thus simple life forms and thus ourselves will never come into existence. Because all these constants are so intricately tuned to have us human eventually emerge to appreciate them, there must be a creator of the universe. And it is said that it can only be God who is capable of achieving this.

In recent years, theoretical physicists have suggested the multiverse hypothesis. It is the idea that our universe is only one of a numerous number of universes in existence. The other universes exist in other dimensions (other than our three dimensions of space and one dimension of time) that we cannot see or touch. Each universe has different values for its physical constants. Hence, the majority of the other universes are either too violent or completely cold and dead for life to evolve. Our universe is therefore the extreme minute probability. But out of the billions of trillions of universes, there bound to be a few which can support high intelligent life forms.

Some argue that if this hypothesis is true, it further rules out the notion of a world creator. The multiverse hypothesis does not originate from some science-fiction writers but from the theoretical physicists who undoubtedly are the top brains of human mankind. The theory is beyond my complete comprehension. Furthermore, there is still no scientific evidence of a hidden dimension nor is there any detection of other universes. Even if this is ultimately proved true, there is still the question: Who designed this system of random multiverse? It really becomes a philosophical argument based on the belief that there is always a cause of something. Theists will always put God at the beginning of the causal chain. But atheists can ask: Who created God? We probably will never get an answer. Or can the concept of mutual interdependence in Buddhism offers an alternative answer? It states that phenomena arise together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect rather than a linear casual relationship. I need to better my understanding of the idea and it is interesting that some people relate it to the multiverse theory.

Hence, no definite answer is available. But assuming that there is a creator, we should contemplate whether this is what the different religions refer to as God.

Concepts of God:

Each religion has its concept of God (or Gods) which differs from other religions. A generalization may be a supernatural limitless all-powerful creator of everything with attributes like loving, judging and punishing. But in Buddhism and some forms of Hinduism, it is viewed as an ultimate reality rather than as a personal god. There are the theists and the atheists. But also the agnostics -- persons who are unsure whether god exists or not -- and the Deists. Deists are those who believe God exists and created the world, but who then left it to run on its own. Hence he does not intervene in this world and does not listen to our prayers (or he does but never responds). I myself constantly swing between agnosticism and deism.

Evil:

The problem of evil is a standard textbook topic in the study of religion. An all-powerful and all-loving God contradicts with natural disasters (natural evil) and crimes by human (moral evil) throughout history. The issue has been seriously countered by philosophers and theologians. But none of their arguments are persuasive enough to move me from being an agnostic and/or a deist. That is true for plenty of other philosophers as well.

Free will has been used as an argument by the theists. God, according to them, gives us free will rather than treating us as puppets. It is we who choose to sin. But if God is omniscient, he should have expected our abuse of free will which has caused so much atrocity towards each other. He should have known that we are weak under temptations. A difficult question: could God have made us free and unable to sin? A less demanding one may be: Could he have intervened in world affairs so that we could avoid moral evil or at least reduce the level of harm done? Hitler has utilized his free will to kill millions of people. Could God have done something to reduce the casualty or indirectly influence him to opt for a different path in his life?

There is also the evil as therapy argument. It says God wants to nurture us, bringing us to spiritual maturity. This may be an excuse of natural evil but I find the reasoning very weak. I specifically mourn those infants who died early and innocently. Not much chance in their short lives to commit wrong-doing with free will and surely no future chance to nurture a spiritual self.

Why pray? So God can intervene into the sequence of events and change the outcome? There are anecdotal reports of prayers being responded to and miracles happened. But there must be outnumbering incidences of prayers being in vain. How does God make his decision? Are those who think miracles have happened to them better people than those with their prayers unattended to?

Reincarnation or eternal life:

Most religions have the concept of reincarnation (e.g. Buddhism) or an eternal life (e.g. Christianity). It can account for the problem of evils and justify human morality. Many share the view of a binary scenario of eternal life in heaven or in hell. But what kind of sin will justify permanent punishment in hell? It seems most of us will end up in heaven in this binary situation. In fact, some support the concept of universal salvation (that everyone will eventually be forgiven and enter heaven). One the other hand, the view that those who do not believe in God will go to hell is both against the concept of a loving God and free will. The idea of eternal heaven and hell seems more a symbolic myth nowadays.

Let us turn to reincarnation, a concept adopted by Buddhism and some other religions, particularly in the East. Although there are a number of astonishing cases reported where people ?remember? their previous lives, the number is too small to apply to the general public and the truthfulness of these cases are still not confirmed. I remain a non-believer of memories from previous lives (In fact I do not believe in previous lives). The concept of reincarnation is taught so that followers can withstand the problem of evils as there will be more lives ahead. My argument is that the problem of evils prevails throughout history. Assuming that I have reincarnated one hundred times, I guess (though I do not remember) I must have encountered the same problem of evils in every of my previous life. No matter how many lives I might have, the problem of evils will persist.
There is another thought that we should not sin so as to avoid being punished in the next life or falling to a temporary torturing hell in between the reincarnations (Buddhism). But if I do not remember my sin in the previous life or the resulting torture during the intermediary period, how can I learn the lesson and do better in the present life? Being reincarnated into animals as a punishment begs the same question. Animals feel pain but have no ability to be religious or to believe in God. So it is pure punishment with no consciousness for reflection. It does not help on the next possible life. This kind of penalty is worthless.

If there are an endless number of lives, why do moral good in this life? I will not remember in my next life anyway or I can always compensate to do better in the next life. Indeed, say I sinned in my previous life and I got tortured before this present life, I will not remember the punishment now. Conversely, if there is only one and the present life, why do moral good if there will not be any penalty afterwards? Note that I am not saying we do not have moral responsibility. But whether reincarnation exists should not be the reason.

Finally, if a person has no memory of the previous life (assuming there is a previous life) and has a new body and a new brain in this life, he/she cannot possibly be the same person from the previous life. I find the concept of reincarnation illogical and full of flaws.

Religious diversity:

There are thousands of Gods worshiped in different eras and locations in our history, let alone the undocumented ones in ancient time. Religion is heavily pre-supposed and influenced by nationality, cultures and family. It would be very unlikely for a child, locally born and raised in a Muslim family, to be able to choose Christianity. So if Christianity is the only true religion, why is the child deprived of the chance to be a Christian? Or how can an Australian Aboriginal switch to Muslim assuming it is the true religion with a true existing god? For all the ?minor? religions which were being suppressed by the ?major? ones under cruelty in history, is it because they were not true and their gods were faked?

Each religion has its own god (or gods) and the teachings are not identical. Although most teachings are to induce people to do good, I can invent a religion with a fictitious god and copy the teachings from other religions. It certainly does not imply that my god is true. Most of them must be wrong. John Hick, an international renowned philosopher of religion, supports the separation between:

bulletReligion as human institutions, which have done as much harm as good in the world (invasions, killings and exploitations in the name of religion), and
bulletReligion as the inner spiritual response to the Transcendent.

He suggests that it is the second path of religion that we should pursue. It may be a way out of the problem of religious diversity. But I feel that he is just pushing it to an even more abstract level. The concepts of salvation, of becoming a Buddha or other ultimate goals of other religions are already difficult to grasp. The notion of the Transcendent becoming a highly personal experience just makes it virtually impossible to prove or, more importantly to the theists, to disprove.

Meditation and Prayer:

There is scientific evidence that during Buddhist meditation, certain areas of the brain associated with happiness and emotional calmness become activated. Similar researches have been carried out on prayers under other religions. There is even a documentary on a number of Tibetan Lamas who raised their body temperature through meditation so as to survive the extreme coldness in a Tibet mountain amid lack of clothing. It is used as an argument that the non-physical mind can affect the physical brain and thus there is free will. It is also said that some people experience the Transcendent through mediation or prayers.

I do not disagree that mediation or prayers can help calm people down and some people do feel a sense of happiness. But people practicing yoga also achieve similar effects (I experienced it before but I do not know if that was just illusion). Again the concept of the Transcendent is too vague and it has different meanings in different religions. However, the fact that lots of people feel (or claim to feel) the difference during their mediation or prayers at least proves that it is not one single god of a particular religion responding to them. So it becomes the same old question: Are all the gods true or is it just self-illusion?

I do not oppose to mediation or prayers if at least it can induce happiness and tranquility. But as discussed before, do not expect making wishes during a prayer will be attended to.

Final words:

Above are my opinions of the concept of God. The marching development of science may not be able to invalidate the existence of God. But it has certainly revealed that since the universe has begun, everything (may be except consciousness and free will) is determined by defined laws of nature. The role of a possible god is thus tremendously reduced compared to what human believed a few centuries ago.

The problem of evil ever since human have existed is one of my strongest opposition to an all-loving god. If God is so powerful that he even has created the world, he must be able to clearly and convincingly teach us how to avoid evil -- not mythically through the corrupted human institutions but directly communicate to all of us as God.

I am especially against those human institutions that control different religions. The extent of moral evils under the name of religion throughout history has been tragic. The concept of the Transcendent is suggested instead. But it is so vague that its validation or invalidation is made impossible. I think that even if we equate the Transcendent to a true, one and only God, there should be no need to go through any particular religion (especially as a human institution) and subject to its teachings in order to achieve it. Finally, Lots of teachings from different religions do help people better themselves. But it is not the reason why their god or gods are true.

If there are other highly intelligent organisms somewhere in this universe, will they have the concept of religion or God? I muse.

Originally posted: 2009-AUG-18
Latest update: 2009-AUG-18
Author: Goliath Lau

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