Rational Religion

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Truth vs. Reality


One of the hardest things to wrap the mind around is the concept that most of what we human beings know, as a world-wide species, isn't real.


I consciously avoided saying it isn't "true," because "true" and "real" are very different things.    Real implies that something has a physical existence which is plugged into the Universe at large and at least some essential parts of it would probably exist without our intellectual input.  True is an entirely human concept and is at least culture-specific.  That means that what is traditionally  - even demonstrably - true in one neighborhood may be untrue, or even unheard-of in another -- not all that distant.


On a much finer scale, a lot of truth is individual-specific; meaning that it applies solely to the single human intelligence which conceives of and holds it. 


At any rate it is simple to prove that most of what most people think and believe and base their lives upon is objectively nonsense.


Most of it; not all.


And how do we differentiate; in our own lives, where the distinctions may become important?


One way is to apply the God/Gravity test.


Most people would say that they believe in God at least as strongly as they believe in gravity. (Even if they live in a culture which does not have a sophisticated theory of gravity, they are certainly familiar with its effects, and take them into account in their everyday lives.)


God, in whatever culture, has certain laws and rules that human beings are supposed to abide by.  Except where those laws happen to coincide with the laws of physics (including gravity), however, there is often not much immediate consequence in violating them.  And since the rules of most gods tend to contradict the instincts and impulses of the human animal (The purpose of the rules is to control the animal!) most human animals tend to violate the rules of their gods rather massively.


Except that we may be tormented by guilt, or the disapproval of our community, most of us tend to get away with breaking God's laws, pretty consistently.


You can't fudge the Laws of Gravity like that! 


People with great strength and skill can free-climb on El Capitan in California's Yosemite Park.  It would be a grave mistake to think that these daring souls are defying gravity.  They are doing something exhilaratingly difficult and they are taking gravity into account with every slightest move.


You don't defy gravity unless you wish to be dead; within seconds. 


Likewise, you don't try to breathe underwater without a self-contained air supply and some pretty sophisticated equipment.  You don't walk into an inferno; you do not propel solid objects through your braincase, or into readily hemorrhagic areas of your body; you do not knowingly ingest chemicals which will catastrophically disrupt the chemistry of your organism.  You do not willfully drive your automobile, containing your own fragile person, into a resistant barrier at high speed. 


Because you are aware of the realities of these activities, you survive.


You can defy most of any god's laws pretty much with impunity, at least in the short term, just as you can violate most of the laws of organized society if you do it in a manner which doesn't get you caught and punished by the delegated authorities (civil or ecclesiastical). 


And the rules and breaches of both god's and man's laws which will get you in trouble are pretty arbitrary across the globe, as well as wildly inconsistent.


Thus, you can smoke marijuana to mind-befuddling excess in Amsterdam, whereas an insufficiently surreptitious single toke will get you busted in Texas; and American teenage females routinely bare enough flesh in the mall to get them imprisoned or even stoned to death in Saudi Arabia.


So, superficially, the breakdown seems pretty clear.  If violation of its laws won't kill or seriously injure you in the very near future, it possibly isn't real; though it may be true in the society in which you live.


Of course, if everything were this obvious life would be a great deal easier than it is.  


The serious, but not immediate, consequences of defying a lot of very real rules surround us and make our lives miserable.  Sometimes we confuse these consequences with the punishments of the gods, but that does nothing much but make the illusion of the gods seem more real to us.


Sex very often leads to unwanted pregnancy, or horrific disease.  Most gods have a lot of rules affecting our sexual lives so it's easy to conclude that defiance of god's rules about sex is a dangerous practice. 


This may be true, but the only real component of it is the physical reality that human reproduction is necessarily sexual and a number of other creatures have over the eons developed techniques by which to hitchhike on an ubiquitous and unavoidable process, and thereby reproduce, themselves. 


(Homosexuality, or any other non-reproductive sex, is still sex.  The anciently-evolved impulses are the same, regardless of the plumbing.  So are the hitchhikers.)


Such apparently innocuous rule violations as poor diet and exercise choices stand at least a statistical chance of killing you, over a period of time. More serious breaches, such as the use of corrosive drugs, will probably do you in over a shorter period; or at least so incapacitate you that you are no longer of any value to yourself or anyone else.


These are all real effects, and, like jumping off a tall building, under the control of physical laws.  Since their consequences are not immediate, however, and since we do not understand their rules well enough to reliably predict the consequences—except in a very general way—they may often appear to be as ephemeral as “god’s laws.”


In a paradoxical way this phenomenon strengthens the currency of “God’s laws,” and leads to a great deal of confusion between strictly metaphysical rules and physical ones.


If you can die of poor diet and exercise, apparently just doing what some authority tells you you shouldn’t do can be bad for you.


Now, although Gluttony is one of the theo-historical “Seven Deadly Sins,” and Sloth – which could be interpreted as “refusal to exercise” -- is another; still the conventional metaphysicists in the modern world tend not to place as much emphasis on these real sins as a lot of more ephemeral ones.


For instance, many of the more fundamental religionists in the United States are currently going wildly ballistic over the notion that homosexual couples might be allowed to “marry.”


I quote the word, “marry” to indicate the fact that the word, and the idea that it represents, are of historically metaphysical origin, but through centuries of custom and formal law have become at least sociologically real, or “actual.” 


The institution of “marriage” has evolved to put some rules and legitimacy into what in our more primitive relatives, and probably in many of our Paleolithic immediate ancestors, was nothing more permanent than a sexual liaison.


The institution has become actual because it protects the gene pool; by nurturing the offspring and by providing some comforting illusions of permanence and stability to the “married” persons, regardless of these persons’ metaphysical allegiance to any theological or historical tradition.


It is also actual because it has become a legal designation whose rules and implications are extremely important to the lives of the persons to whom they apply, entirely apart from metaphysical concerns.


How the concept of two persons of the same sex “marrying” --either for their personal metaphysical purposes or for access to certain legal benefits which would otherwise be denied them--in any way threatens the socio-political fabric of the nation enough to justify a Constitutional amendment frankly escapes me.


Why these hyper-religious folks are in such a swivet is somewhat less mysterious.  Although the militant ignorance of their fundamentalist belief walls them off from most of the hard-won realities of the last three or four centuries of human investigation and experimentation, they cannot avoid learning that those realities have been realized and that a good many of their fellow human beings have faith in those realities.


Although it is a simple metaphysical exercise to reject reality and pretend that it is error or illusion, it is still a troublesome exercise, involving a great deal of denial and short-circuiting of what is probably a species-specific inclination toward rationality.


It is much easier, and infinitely more comforting, to be able to fasten upon a traditional, well-provenanced idea such as “marriage,” and claim that one’s personal definition of the notion is so “right” that everybody else should be forced to accept it, forevermore.


Sorry, folks.   It ain’t gravity.