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An article donated by Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys:

"Trying to Understand Religion"

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Pew Research published the results of their 2019 religious literacy poll titled: "What Americans Know About Religion." 1 This poll tests basic knowledge about world religions. Before you read the results they suggest that you take a short 15 question quiz to test your own religious literacy. I did and I got all 15 questions right!

David Silverman in his book "Fighting God, An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World" stated:

"... all religions are lies, and all believers are victims." 2

I wrote a review of this book in an earlier essay. My impression is that Mr. Silverman doesn’t understand religion. To be fair, there are many Atheists and religious folk that I have encountered that also seem to not understand religion. The results of the Pew Research poll shows that there is great ignorance about even the most fundamental aspects of World Religions.  There is however, more to "understanding" something than basic knowledge -- facts, figures, names, dates, and places.

There are several ways that we come to an "understanding" about things. 

  1. We gather the basic knowledge, we investigate the history of something. There have been many books written about the histories of the world religions. With the Internet, a person can find many different articles about the histories of world religions as well as about specific Doctrines or Dogmas and the different Christian denominations, and the lives of the theologians involved in developing those Doctrines and Dogmas. This website has many different articles about all of these things. And as we learn about Science, Psychology, Sociology, Politics, we can understand how the world/universe works and how people individually and in groups work. The problem here is that factual information can only take us a short distance toward "understanding" religion or other things (science, history, current events). Facts don’t address the most fundamental question that underlies everything, a question young children annoyingly ask over and over….Why? What was the motivation behind the development of religion? Why do some people tie themselves into knots trying to defend what is indefensible?

  2. We come to an "understanding" of something through first hand experience. In  the case of religion some folk will attend a variety of churches searching for the one that suits their particular needs or in an attempt to experience first hand what religious folk experience.

  3. We come to an "understanding" of something by talking to folks that have experienced something. In the case of the early theologians of the Christian Church we can’t talk to them since they are long dead.

  4. So we try a fourth way of coming to an "understanding" of something -- we THINK or contemplate or meditate about something. We try to integrate all that we have learned from books and the Internet, from first hand experience and from talking to other folk into a narrative that makes sense to us, and hopefully to others.

To fill in the gaps, or the holes in the narrative we try to imagine what the early theologians were thinking, what problems they were grappling with in order to come to an "understanding" of why they created religion/s and the Doctrines and Dogmas that define it.

This is what I have been doing since 2009 when I wrote my first essay for this website -- trying to come to an "understanding" of religion/s and the reasoning behind the Doctrines and Dogmas that have shaped world events (for better and worse) and are shaping or impacting current events (also for better and worse). I have been trying to answer the "Why" questions and figure out how we got to where we are today.

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In regards to Christianity, I imagine the earliest Disciples were concerned with many things. 

1. First the leaders of the early Church were concerned with the development and survival of their group. We learn from history that they faced persecution for their beliefs. I can imagine for this the leaders needed to establish their authority, their credentials.  Some of the writings Biblical Scholars tell us weren't actually written by the disciples they are named for. Claiming that something was written by, or with the approval of an actual Disciple or that it comes directly from God is an attempt to give the writing extra credibility. 

From history we know that there were many different Gods worshipped in the area where Christianity developed. I can imagine that they needed to show their God was better than all the other Gods, that He had powers and abilities greater than all the other contenders, and that He could offer people somethings that all the other contenders couldn’t offer. Since they were God’s chosen leaders, it was important for followers to believe what they had to say and to do what they were told to do -- without hesitation, questions or doubts.

2. At first, the leaders of the Christian Church didn’t need to prove that God existed because all -- or at least most -- people of that time era had no trouble believing that Gods existed. Later on however, as people became literate and better educated, proving the very existence of God -- not just that their God was the one and only God -- became of paramount importance. In their attempts to do this, they must have realized that they needed to define God's characteristics/abilities. You cannot convince someone that God exists if you can’t tell them anything about the nature or characteristics of this entity. This is where I think we get the claims that the Christian God is perfectly good, omniscient, and omnipotent.

3. But this claim created a problem with an age old problem they hadn't’t adequately considered or addressed -- the problem that came to be called "Theodicy." Most simply put, Theodicy is concerned with the problem of Evil. Why bad things happen to good people? Where does Evil come from? And how this perfectly good God, who created everything in existence and created human beings in His own image and likeness could create anything that wasn’t also perfectly good?

The early Greeks had grappled with this problem and came up with the solution that the Gods all had the same human shortcomings -- judgmental, hypocritical, greedy, lustful, vengeful, quick to anger. In other words, the Gods weren’t perfect and especially not perfectly good. And they created the idea of Pandora's Box to explain where nasty mosquitoes, ticks, disease, and other nasty things came from.

Hindus developed the idea of Karma -- that we reap what we have sown both from what we have done in this life and from what we did in our previous lives/incarnations.

Zoroastrians were dualists and developed the idea that there were two Gods. One was good; the other was bad. They were constantly at war with each other.

Early Christians developed the idea of Original Sin and the sacrament of Baptism. 3 The doctrine basically claims that humans fell into a state of sin when Adam took that first bite of that apple and that Adam's sin is passed to his descendents. Baptism was created to erase a person’s sins so they could have a fresh start. I wrote an essay about "Original Sin: The Most Destructive of Doctrines."

Another explanations is possession by a Demon or the Devil. Christianity has never quite shaken off or fully separated its self from the idea of dualism. This explanation was needed when it was realized that baptism (as well as other sacraments such as the taking of holy orders) didn’t take away human "concupiscence" or our lustful nature -- the tendency or desire to do certain things, in this case to behave badly.

This idea ignored the issue of why we have poison ivy and thorny, prickly plants, mosquitoes, ticks, and flesh eating bacteria. Later they seem to have developed the idea that God works in mysterious ways, and we mere humans can’t possibly comprehend his reasoning for doing what He did but rest assured He had a good reason for what He does and has done. That doesn’t answer the question it simply sidesteps the question. There really is no possibly good reason for why we have poison ivy, in my opinion, or flesh eating bacteria.

Trying to understand the reasoning behind the development of the Doctrine of Original Sin can help you understand the development of Christianity. I imagine that the Doctrine on Original Sin served two purposes.

1. To explain why there is a good and a not so good side to human nature and why bad things happen in a world created by a good or perfect God -- the problem of Theodicy. 

2. Job security for the priests and leaders of the Church, and the preservation and growth of the institution of the Church.

I can imagine that the thinking and reasoning went something like this. As to issue #1: IF humans are created in God’s image and likeness according to Genesis 26.The fact that two words were used in the passage shows that more than physical appearance was meant (image). Likeness refers to nature, attributes, character, abilities, inclinations. 

IF God is 100% perfectly good.  People should be good and not have a contrary or bad bone in their body -- after all how could a perfectly good God create something that wasn’t also perfectly good? But since we know all humans do have a not so good side to their nature -- none of us are perfect -- then there must be some explanation for the "dark side of our soul", the not so good side to our very nature.

IF you throw in the idea/concept/Doctrine that Jesus died to "take away our sins", or as some put it to "free us from sin," you realize the theologians have talked/reasoned/argued themselves into a corner with no way out. They weren’t thinking straight!

There have been some arguments over the centuries as to whether Jesus died for all people. However, this is stated in multiple places in the Bible:

  • 1 Peter 3:18: "For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.

  • Romans 6:10: "The death he died, he died to sin, once for all."

  • Colossians 1:22 "he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him."

This seems to me that Jesus would have to have removed the stain of Original Sin  ("he removed sins once for all") from all of those that were alive and were born after his death.

The Church should have accepted Pelagianism, (which was a more honest explanation of the reality of human nature) rather than destroy it. Pelagianism "insisted that humans have of themselves, without the necessary help of God’s grace, the ability to lead a morally good life. This denied both the importance of baptism and the teaching that God is the giver of all that is good. Pelagius claimed that the influence of Adam on other humans was merely that of bad example." 2

Pelagianism also had the advantage of not demonizing the "other" (all of those that are different from you and don’t accept your beliefs) -- there could be good people in other faith traditions. We might have avoided some of the worst of religious atrocities (the Inquisition, Crusades, witch hunts, genocides) and maybe some of the fear and hate of the "other" that has and is currently tearing our world apart.

But then, Pelagianism would have created problems for the theologians' job security and the development and survival of the early Church. If Jesus removed the stain of Original Sin, if there was no need for Baptism, and if a person could be good without God, then there was no need for God. There would also be no need for the Church leaders or the Church itself.  

To sum this up: For the early and later Christian Theologians, the development and preservation of the institution (the Church) was as important (if not more important) as finding answers to difficult problems/questions that plagued human beings. This helped shape the Doctrines and Dogmas that we see and hear about today. It also led to many of the problems with:

  • The cover up of sexual abuse,
  • The financial abuses,
  • The insistence that the Bible must be read literally,
  • The belief that the Bible is the inerrant word of God (not the work of men),
  • The refusal to accept scientific or historic discoveries, and
  • The refusal to admit errors or conflicts in the theology of Catholic and Protestant churches.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Becka A. Alper, "6 facts about what Americans know about religion," Pew Research Center, 2019-JUL-23, at:  https://www.pewresearch.org/
  2. book cover David Silverman"Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World." Available in Kindle, Audiobook, Hardcover and Paperback formats. St. Martin's Griffin; Reprint edition (2017) Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  3. "Original Sin," Wikipedia, as on 2019-JUL-17, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/

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Original posting: 2019-AUG-02
Author: Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys
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