Sunday, July 06, 2008

What do people actually believe?

Last week I heard some news about a new report that came out this year about religious belief in the United States. This was the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s report on the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. The news I heard emphasized the fact that most Americans now believe that there are many paths to eternal life. Also, most Americans believe there is more than one true way to interpret their religion. Evidently 92% of Americans believe in God, but only 60% of Americans believe in God and say that God is a Personal God (God is an entity who can have a personal relationship with us). Also, only 71% of Americans believe in God and feel absolutely certain about that belief. The main results of the survey are reported over at the Pew Forums, and from there you can get links to the full report (pdf).

That news item inspired in me some thoughts about what I believe, and what people around me seem to believe. I know that as a child I thought it strange that any one religion would teach that it is the only religion, and so the entire sin-redemption model of Christianity seemed a bit difficult for me. At least, I could never really believe in it as a literal fact that we were cursed by "Adam's sin" and had to be rescued by the blood sacrifice of a Manifestation of God. I've always understood this more metaphorically. Sure, people have "fallen from grace" and we fall from grace all the time, and we are in need of redemption. These ideas make sense. Adam's sin could be understood as humans developing unsustainable civilizations that ruin and despoil the earth, or the rise of hubris that comes along with our growing intellect, or the general problem of being too materialistic, too selfish, and generally disobedient to God, or failing to heed our highest true nature and instead being ensnared by our most short-sighted selfish goals. I don't know what exactly it means, but the sin-redemption model seems connected to these sorts of interpretations to me, and it pretty much always has since I was seven or eight years old.

When I learned about the Baha'i Faith, I immediately became interested. Here was a religion that said all the religions were essentially true, and it wasn't important to worry about going into details about what religions got right and got wrong; the essential thing was to use religious impulses to bring peace, increase love, and help people be virtuous and kind, adhere to high standards of justice and fairness, and so forth. Also, the Manifestations who started the Baha'i Faith were recent historical figures, so I could investigate what they actually wrote. I'm very skeptical about the veracity of the Gospels. It seems the most accurate one might be the Book of Mark, which some early 2nd century Christian in Egypt said was the recollections of a person who had been following Peter (Simon called Peter) around and listening to Peter's recollections of what Jesus did and said. That's about as good as a hadith in Islam, and I'm not very impressed with the likely veracity of many of the hadiths, either. So, a key attraction of the Baha'i Faith was this idea that there were many paths to truth, and all religions offer people a way to approach God and follow God's instructions (well, many of them, Baha'u'llah never made a list of the true religions or ranked the religions according to how good they were).

I grew up in the Methodist Church, which has a fairly liberal theology, and accepts the truth of various other Christian denominations, and also shows respect for Islam and Judaism. I also grew up with some Hindu influences in my family life, and studied Hinduism the way a middle-school or high school student might. So, in my adolescence I explored ideas from Marxim and atheism, Hinduism, liberal Christian theologies, and the Baha'i Faith. There were times I was atheistic, agnostic, or deeply religious, but I didn't really settle down until I was about 17, and from that time until now I've been certain in my belief in God, and pretty comfortable with a religious identity as a Baha'i, although I've been disheartened by many aspects of the Baha'i religion as a human institution, I can't escape my belief in it as a Revelation, so I'm stuck with it they way I'm stuck with my identity as an American, a male, etc., and so I embrace it and make the best of it.

But what do I believe? What do people really believe? I've been thinking about this. It seems that some of the theological ideas that attracted me into the Baha'i Faith are now thoroughly mainstream American beliefs, embraced by a majority of believers in almost all American religious traditions. I wonder, does this make these Americans who believe in progressive revelation and the essential unity of religions functionally Baha'is in some broader general sense?

Belief in God isn't a dichotomous thing where people are either true believers or committed atheists. You could rank people in an ordinal scale according to their beliefs. Here's a scale I would use:
-2 = Confirmed atheists. There is no God, and I'm willing to say so.
-1 = Agnostic doubters. I don't see how there could be a God. I won't say there isn't one, but I see no evidence and feel no reason to believe.
0 = I'm not sure if there is a God or isn't a God. Or, I don't care, and I don't think about whether there is a God. The issue isn't important to me.
1 = I believe in God, but I don't have certainty. I doubt.
2 = I believe in God with a great deal of confidence, but not absolute certainty.
3 = I believe in God with certainty, and I've never questioned this or thought about it. I just accept it as true the way I accept my own existence as real. Of course there is a God.
4 = I believe in God with certainty, and I've examined this belief and challenged it, and yet I remain absolutely assured in my belief.

It's hard to rank category 3 (unexamined certainty) below or above category 4 (examined and tested certainty).

One thing that I find inspiring are the stories of the scientifically-minded and intellectually-inclined modern people who have given their lives for their belief in God. Some of the Baha'i Martyrs murdered by the Iranian Government (executed) in the early 1980s were like this. Some were professors, intellectuals, and worldly technical experts or businessmen who were sophisticated and modern in their outlooks. Yet, when offered the chance to tell the crazy Iranian government that they no longer believed in Baha'u'llah, and thus save their lives and get out of Iran so they could return to their Faith, they instead decided to defy the Iranian so-called "Islamic" authorities and testify to their belief in the Baha'i Faith, and they died for this. I wonder if some of the martyrs were people in category 1 of my ordinal scale of belief in God, and the opportunity to choose martyrdom helped them solve a personal crisis of Faith and move up to category 4.

There are other statements about God I think would be interesting to discuss. In some of these I make a distinction between whether we conceive of religions as mainly driven by humans trying to reach toward God ("artificial or man-made, yet responding to Divine Truth") or mainly Revealed ("given to humanity by God's Messengers"). Which of these comes closest to your view of God and God's relationship to religions?

1) God has never revealed though religion (choose this option if you're agnostic or an atheist).

2) God has revealed through one true religion. Other religious are either false or heresies.

3) Humans have approached God through various human religions with varying degrees of success.

4) God has responded to human religions with varying degrees of guidance and Revelation or Providence to favor some (presumably the more accurate ones) while allowing others to fade away.

5) God has inspired all religions.

6) God has inspired some religions, while other religions are purely the result of human speculation and imagination.

7) God has inspired most religions (God is behind the nearly universal human impulse toward religious thinking), and God has also given various degrees of Revelation (sent Messengers such as Jesus). Humans have responded to Divinely-inspired and revealed religion with varying degrees of accuracy, spirituality, and the use of true Revelation in their human-formed religions.

8) Religions can be rank-ordered on how close to Divinely-inspired Revelation and God's Truth they approach. Some are pretty far from the mark (one thinks of the Aztec religion where children were tortured to death so priests could harvest tears for the rain god), while others are closer to Truth.

9) Religions are human institutions with hundreds of aspects and qualities. Some of these may be more Divinely-inspired in one religion and more human-created in another. So every religion has its strengths and weaknesses.

10) God acts through humans and human-created religions, and also through Revelation, Providence, and Divine-inspiration. The distinction between "true Godly religion" and "human accretions inflicted on religion" is not a pure distinction. Beliefs, teachings, behaviors, and practices may have various mixes of "man-made" and "truth-from-God" within, but at a deeper level both of these sources are rooted in God's Providence and Truth.

11) Most humans have the ability to be receptive to Divine promptings and inspiration.

12) God sometimes (or perhaps, always?) uses humans as instruments of God's Will.

13) Even religions wholly invented by human imagination may contain spiritual truths whether through coincidence, Providence, or influences of true religions on the imagination of the person who invented the "false" religion.

14) The world would be a better place if more people left their religions or their lack of any religion and came into the religion to which I belong.

15) For most people, the religion to which I belong would be the best religion, although many other religions may also be good for them, and some people are better off in other religions instead of my religion.

16) My religion is best for me, and your religion is good (or best) for you.

17) While God loves many (perhaps all?) of the religions, at particular times or places it is God's Will that more people join a particular religion or at least adopt the basic tenants of that favored religion.

18) All religions are equal, so it doesn't matter which religion we believe.

19) Most religions are pretty much the same—or at least it's difficult to rank them in terms of their perfections and flaws so that one can be shown to be better than another—so it doesn't make a great difference to which religion we belong. Some might be marginally better (or worse) than others for some of us, but it's not easy to be certain about exactly which are best or worst for any specific individual or society.

20) All religions have strengths and weaknesses, truths divinely-inspired and human accretions inflicted on the Pure Truth. Most are good or helpful, but all things considered, some are more likely to help individuals and societies conform to Divine Revelation. Other religions are less likely to lead individuals or societies toward the envisioned society recommended in Divine Revelation.

21) The religion to which I belong is one of the better, and probably one of the best religion, although it may not be better or best for everyone.

22) God is an impersonal force without anything like consciousness, self-awareness, or a will.

23) God is a personal God with a personal relationship to each person, a "respecter of persons" who knows each of us much as we know each other or know ourselves, only with all-knowing insight not obscured by the limitations of physical reality.

24) Just as light may be a particle and a wave, neither, or both, so may God be an impersonal force or a personal God.

25) The Universe and reality is "God" and Life is the Universe becoming awake, and the intellectual and spiritual abilities of humanity (and whatever alien species may be more advanced than us) is God/The Universe becoming self-aware and incarnating Universal Mind.

26) The common ground that we appreciate and admire in all religions (such as the Golden Rule, emphasis on love and kindness rather than violence and revenge, idealism of justice and honesty, value of truth, advocacy for peace and obedience to laws and social contracts that keep societies stable, etc.) is the Truth and real object worthy of our adoration.

27) The Truth and real object of our devotion (described in statement 27, above) can be approached directly without going through the filters of religions with superstitious belief systems, so we ought to just abandon the religions with their fantasy beliefs and divisive prejudices, and go straight for the good stuff that emerges in all religions.

I think those make some pretty good discussion statements. I could build a survey to have people rate how strongly they agree or disagree with each statement, and then do some psychometric analysis to see what emerges. I think we could get more insight into liberality in religion by combining a scale like this with some more standard measures of religiosity.

Statements #26 and #27 come pretty much from Richard Dawkins, one of the best atheists for crafting good arguments against belief in God or religion. It's interesting to me that 'Abdu'l-Baha said something not too much different from these statements by saying that it is better to have no religion than to have a religion that causes division and animosity.

One of the issues I'm thinking about regards interfaith dialog. Some say that to have good interfaith dialog you must come from a position that strongly agrees with the statements #16, #18, and #19. It seems to me that most people, even those who are sympathetic to other religions and enjoy interfaith dialog, are more likely to have stronger endorsements of sentiments expressed in statements #14, #15, #17, #20, and #21. If people bother to identify with a particular religion and work in that religion, they probably tend to think that religion is at least marginally superior in its belief systems, teachings, or organization to some other religions. And I think almost anyone who looks at the fruits of a religion can say that whatever religions inspired the Spanish Inquisition, the Aztec mass human sacrifices, the suicide bombers of modern-day terrorism, or the witch burnings, these belief systems are dramatically inferior to whatever religious impulses and organized religions guided people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Mohandas Gandhi, and so forth.

I've made extreme comparisons. It's more difficult to say whether mainstream traditional Unitarians, Quakers, Baha'is, Catholics, United Methodists, Jains, Zoroastrians, and so forth are following better faiths or religions. But you can take extremes (the worst religions, like the cults such as the People's Temple, Branch Davidians, Aum Shinrikyo, etc.) and compare those to the the rest of the world, and it's pretty clear that some religions are really worse than others. Incidentally, I'd consider the religion of Stalinism-Leninism mixed with Russian Nationalism to be a particularly bad religion. So was the Maoism of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the leader-worship of the neo-pagan racialist National Socialism in Germany of the 1930s-1940s, the Militaristic emperor worship of Japan before it was defeated in World War II, and so forth. I'd put the so-called "Islam" of the Taliban in a category with these secular faiths, and probably the sort of Islamic chauvinism of the current Supreme Leader in Iran (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei). American nationalism can be a pretty bad religion as well. With so many bad religions and belief systems available, I just find it difficult to endorse the attitude that all religions are equal or it doesn't matter what religion a person belongs to.

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