Rational Religion

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Cause and Effect and New Possibilities.


As a species we are very much inclined to reciprocal thinking.   That is, our world, from all observation, seems to be firmly rooted in Cause and Effect.


Never mind that this appearance may be due to an extremely constricted viewpoint, most thinkers - from the superstitious to the scientifically objective - accept it as a "true" representation of the universe.


The great philosophical differences arise from the fact that Effects are a great deal easier to identify (and quantify) than Causes.


The Effects are our everyday world; what we deal with in our lives; and some of them are difficult to deal with, indeed.


The Causes - even some of the ones we think we can track back to most directly - are liable to be bafflingly obscure and inextricably intertwined with aeons of history.


Although we all enjoy a mystery, very few of us enjoy dealing with such confusion and obscurity covering the foundations of what we believe.


Conventional religions cut efficiently through this confusion by postulating easily-grasped and immutable Causes which they then propound as doctrine.


"This is Truth.  Believe it!"  Back to St. Augustine.


The relative peace of mind this produces for the Faithful is probably largely beneficial for the species, but it can be terribly constricting -- even crippling -- for a certain class of Thinkers who are given to thinking New Thoughts or considering New Possibilities.


To the degree that these unconventional thinkers may come up with ideas which could prove to have a beneficial effect upon the species as a whole; say a Germ Theory of Disease or a Heliocentric View of the Solar System; the subordination of their kind of mental activity to a strict adherence to religious doctrine might be maladaptive.  (Granted, there is no long-term evidence that either of my examples is certain to turn out to have been a Good Idea, but they both seem fairly positive from the viewpoint of the Human Race at this time.)


All investigation must be as free as possible of dogma, which is the body of frozen, immutable "answers" which blocks our view of the Unknown, by pretending that All (that matters) is Known.


Take, for example, as elementary and easily proven an example as the relative depravity of the human species.


In nearly all known societies and systems of thought, we miserably fail to measure up to our own standards of character and behavior. 


We have these wonderful, logical, insightful rules of intercourse -- such as the Golden Rule -- and we bend and break them wholesale. 


Even such a basically sensible precept as "Thou Shalt not Kill" (Let's agree for the moment that this applies specifically to other human beings.) is ignored by a frightening percentage of our conscience-impaired species-mates; and provided with paradoxically efficient escape clauses for the more law-abiding rest of us when we wish to punish the offenders. 


War of course means all bets are off.  We struggle, internationally, with something called the Geneva Convention, which is supposed to mandate "humane" treatment of the "enemy" when he is in our power, but who pretends that the Convention is not routinely violated when it is the interest of our "winning?"


Nope.  We are demonstrably a weedy species of aggressive mammal whose most redeeming features are sadly outweighed by our unforgivable ones. 


One way or another, our best thinkers have realized this, and agonized over it, for millennia.


The big question, and one it would pay to deal with, is why are we so rotten?


It won't do just to say, "That's the way we are!" and go on living with it, because there have become too many of us living too closely together and in possession of too many deadly toys.


"That's the way we are," can too easily become, "That's the way they were," the same way we think about the dinosaurs.


Of course it's the Way We Are.  That's the given.  But every great thinker or social philosopher who has realized this has made some attempt to change it -- or at least to map out a mechanism for our changing it, ourselves.


One of the historically more effective of these mechanisms is the doctrine of Original Sin, so elaborately codified in the lore and dogma of the Catholic Church but part and parcel of many of the major religions -- at least those with a Judeo-Christian-Muslim heritage.


Now the trouble with Original Sin as a Cause for all the despicable actions of the human race is that it comes bound up with a concept of objective Good versus objective Evil.


While it is perfectly obvious to the average citizen that there are two diametrically opposed "forces" or moral influences in the world, it is not so readily apparent where one ends and the other begins.   I mean, some people's direst "Evil" doesn't flutter the consciences of some of their neighbors one whit, if they take any notice of it at all.  And some of those neighbors' baddest Bad, our original citizens might conceivably regard as an actual virtue. 


So, while most of the Earth's population might have no trouble agreeing that Good and Bad exist, we historically have a great deal of difficulty defining them to each other's satisfaction.


What further muddies the philosophical water is the fact that most of the elements that almost everybody can agree are bad - hurricanes, earthquakes, the occasional grazing asteroid - have no demonstrable moral component whatsoever!  They are simple, impersonal manifestations of the Universe at Large, where it happens to intersect our lives, and to call them "evil" invests them with an anthropomorphic determinism which only the most superstitious souls among us could credit.   


(And regarding "good" and "bad," it now appears that the calamitous KT Body which supposedly did in the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago, most demonstrably cleared out the biosphere to make it possible for a minor, shirt-tail class of ancestral mammals to prosper and become us.)


Unfortunately these superstitious souls abound, largely schooled and supported in their beliefs by their faiths.  So we get huge multitudes of the various Faithful who can speak equally of the effects of a killer tornado and an amok, Uzi-wielding terrorist as manifestations of the same malevolent metaphysical power.


While this is patently ridiculous when one stops to think about it just a little bit, it is a natural consequence of seeing everything in the world as divided into two opposing camps  -- and necessarily belonging in one or the other.


Now, admittedly, not all the world's faiths make such a clear demarcation between Good and Evil - or the Sacred and the Profane (which is a different set of distinctions, but still very much an either/or proposition).   


The Eastern religions, as exemplified by Hinduism, tend to recognize that either/or is never written in stone.   Thus we have deities such as Siva, who is conceived of - and worshipped - in various manifestations, some of them diametrically opposed in relation to human welfare.  Siva the Destroyer and Siva the Creator are thought of as different personalities of the same god, thus recognizing that most human beings - and many non-human events - are to be regarded and evaluated differently in different settings and circumstances.


But there is still the concept of Good and Bad, albeit bound up in the same entity, and although one can never be entirely sure which aspect of the entity one is seeing at a given moment.   (I mean, a little volcanic eruption is pretty inconvenient for a while, but ultimately can enrich the soil and even provide more lebensraum.  So the Hawaiians have their goddess Pele, who like Siva is both a creator and a destroyer.)


Western religions tend to have little patience with such philosopho-theological paradoxes.  God is good; the Devil is bad...although he was an angel once.  And Original Sin is part of the legacy of living in a Universe which also includes a Devil. 


The Soul of Man is but a pawn in the eternal struggle between the two.


It makes for wonderful plays and operas, but it doesn't help much in the serious quest for what possibly might be done to move the species toward the next level of evolution -- social if not biological.


Biological evolution takes a long time, and it is a haphazard process.  You can't really map out a strategy towards a goal, even if you should attain complete physical domination and control over the process of human reproduction. 


Because there is no way to know what traits the human race will need a million years in the future.


Your careful program of selective breeding might produce a creature which is most predominately adapted to die off completely in the face of the next great change in the environment.  Better to let the process alone and, if we do anything at all, encourage as much genetic diversity as possible on the chance that some of our weirder relatives might make it through the holocaust(s).


The fact seems to be that we have already evolved, biologically, to the point where we have the present conditions in this part of the Universe pretty well taped.  Our archeo-anthropologists suggest we haven't changed very much in the last hundred thousand years or so; hardly at all in the past thirty thousand. 


The grim suspicion is that This is It!  This is Who We Are.  We're stuck with it. 


Look around you.   It ain't very pretty.


But Social Evolution is within our power.  It can occur within mere decades instead of aeons.  And it can save our ass. 


The animal is imperfect, even savage, but it is educable.   It is capable of logic, and of identifying self-interest.  It is even pre-programmed to understand and appreciate altruism (albeit on a very narrow, in-group-proscribed platform, but that's a starting point). 


If we can demonstrate to a large majority of our species-mates that the Golden Rule has more survival value than "An Eye for an Eye,” or "Do unto others before they can do unto you," or simply, "I'm right and you're wrong;  (too wrong to live, maybe)," then it might be possible to use our huge collective energy and massive focused brain power to create a human race which has some chance of survival in this vast impersonal universe which doesn't care -- which has no means to care  -- whether we make it or not.


Of course, if you insist on believing that God Will Provide, without your bending any effort to effect a change in the way we habitually treat one another, then the occasion of your line and mine disappearing for all time from the Universe will be unremarkable and unremarked.  


It won't make any difference to you, in the long run, and you will have saved yourself perhaps a good deal of hard work, anguish and ultimate frustration.   


So I will not presume to suggest that you are wrong.  Only that you may be dogging it. 


And consider this:  If you do have an Immortal Soul, do you want to spend Eternity -- even in Heaven -- contemplating the fact that you were part of an ephemeral species, ill-suited for the rare and precious gift of life, and so squandered it?


I'd rather not, thank you; and I don't even have a soul to be so tortured.