Natural Religion

What should Religion be?

What is religion? I would make a rather broad definition – it’s principally about morality. It’s about how we behave towards each other, a structure for behaving better for mutual benefit, and a framework for achieving inner peace – or in more pragmatic terms, mental health.

What do I mean by Natural Religion ?

Firstly I mean religion that rejects the supernatural. That is, the idea that the normal laws of science might sometimes not apply. The reason I reject the supernatural is simply that I’m unable to believe in it, having received a scientific education. Everywhere I see evidence that the world operates in a very consistent fashion, and I am incapable of believing in supernatural events.

Secondly, I believe it may be useful to step back and understand religion in a scientific fashion. That does not mean rejecting religion, it means analysing religion carefully in a scientific fashion to understand it’s advantages and disadvantages, the benefits and what can go wrong.

Labels

We often try to attach labels to people. Some people, and I would include myself, are not entirely happy with having labels attached to them. Sometimes I like to use the label “Christian Atheist” partly because it hints that I’m not happy about labels. One danger of labels is that they can be used to wrongly attribute beliefs to people. If I call myself an Atheist, that may imply I am strongly against people practising traditional religions, in particular Christianity. However this is far from the truth, I see a great deal of value in Christianity, and I would go so far as to call myself a Christian. However, I do have some problems with Christian doctrine, which I will explain later.

Christianity

I believe that Christianity has some powerful and valuable ideas, based on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Such as:

(i) Humility.
(ii) Respecting / loving nature.
(iii) Respecting / loving other people ( including our “enemies” ).
(iv) Not judging other people ( except when this is necessary for legal purposes ).
(v) Admitting that we are fallible, and repenting when (as is always the case) we fall short of ideal behaviour.

I do not pretend that this is a complete account of Christianity, but I think it is an approximation to the essence. Some of these principles are actually the core of the scientific method which has proven so valuable to better understanding the world we live in. I believe that Christianity should be understood as being harmonious with science and the scientific method.

I intend to expand on these teachings and my understanding of them, with examples and practical applications.

God

Trying to explain God is very difficult. It means different things to different people, and I certainly don’t want to imply I’m right about the nature of God and someone else is wrong. I’m just stating some of my personal beliefs about God.

(1) I’d like to explain by analogy. I think most people feel quite strongly that they have “free will”. That is, we feel that in our daily lives, we make decisions the whole time, and we act freely. From a reductionist perspective, it’s hard to be sure we really do have free will. Perhaps our decisions are actually an inevitable result of a “clockwork” universe evolving according to physical laws. This can be quite a disturbing thought, you could call it “fatalism”. But, regardless, I choose (!) to discard “fatalism” and embrace the concept of “free will”. This is not difficult – it’s actually more difficult to believe for more than a few moments that you don’t have free will. It seems to be hard wired into our nature.

I believe that “God” is somewhat similar to “free will”. It’s the feeling that the universe, humanity, everything (even mathematics) is wonderful, existence is wonderful. I don’t think it’s nearly such a strong feeling as “free will”, it’s much more elusive.

(2) Perhaps it’s easier to understand God in terms of the way we use the word. For example, when Jesus says
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.”
to me this means that I must love the world, humanity, justice, the universe. It’s a passion for everything.

(3) I think great music is a way to stimulate our feelings for God. When you hear a wonderful piece of music, that feeling is a feeling of God.

(4) When we feel passionately that something is important, what’s the final justification for that? I don’t think there is any logical justification, but we feel it nevertheless. We can say something is “God -given”. What does that mean? It means something that we feel exists, but there is no logical justification for it.

(5) God has many facets, God is mysterious, and perhaps we cannot ever hope to understand every aspect at one moment. We only perceive something very dimly, but we can strive to appreciate this elusive concept.

Well, that’s my first attempt at a very difficult subject. I don’t think it’s remotely adequate, but it’s the best I can do for the moment.

Humility

Jesus taught that humility was important, with sayings such as “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”.

My interpretation of this is that I should always keep an open mind and not be too sure of myself. I don’t think it means we shouldn’t have opinions, and we should be prepared to state those opinions, giving reasons for our beliefs. But we should always be prepared to change our minds. This is related to the scientific method, where we propose a hypothesis and then attempt to disprove it.

It also has consequences for the way we behave towards others. I aim to never say “you are wrong”. Instead I try to give reasons that explain my position in a rational way ( or in some cases, say nothing at all ). Gentle persuasion by reason instead of shouting someone down. It also means listening carefully to people I disagree with to understand their point of view, considering whether they may be right and I am mistaken.

I think there are good rational reasons for having humility. When I look around the globe and see terrible human conflicts, it seems to me that more humility, and more understanding of other people’s point of view would reduce the amount of conflict.

I also apply this to religious conflicts. When people insist that one specific interpretation of the bible is correct, I think they show a lack of humility. We need to continually search for spiritual truth as well as scientific truth in a spirit of humility, always considering that we may be wrong, and respecting the views of others.

And then again, I try to apply it to other conflicts, such as discussion of legal cases. Sometimes I fail, usually when I’m a bit tired at the end of the day.

1 Corinthians 13. Love.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me a channel of thy peace.
That where there is hatred I may bring love,
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness,
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony,
That where there is error I may bring truth,
That where there is doubt I may bring faith,
That where there is despair I may bring hope,
That where there are shadows I may bring light,
That where there is sadness I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted,
To understand than to be understood,
To love than to be loved.
For it is by forgetting self that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven,
It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.

Links

http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2008/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20080912_parigi-cultura_en.html
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/opera/9206775/Can-non-Christians-appreciate-Bachs-St-Matthew-Passion.html

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