Religion’s stumbling blocks

For a period in my life, I was very attracted to religion because it seemed to offer the answers to the important questions: why are we here; what are we suppose to be doing; and what happens after we die? I studied different religions intensely for many years and struggled to find the “right fit.”

This article is for people with similar struggles who have never pinpointed the underlying reason. There are a number of possible reasons ranging from dogma to the behavior of believers to the very nature of religion itself. The purpose of this article is to explore these reasons and help people understand their own situation, not to convert them to agnosticism or atheism.

Buddhism was one of the first religions that peaked my interest. It seemed to make intellectual sense: desire does cause a lot of suffering in life. The concept of karma (what goes around, comes around) was also appealing, and the Middle Way seemed better than either extreme.

The catch is that you must believe in reincarnation; otherwise, Buddhist doctrine doesn’t make sense. If we do not infinitely reincarnate through multiple realms depending on our prior actions, then this world is not a “prison” that we must escape from. While the concept of infinite reoccurrences make sense (ie. history repeats), it’s quite a leap for some people to believe in reincarnation. Also, later versions of Buddhism have developed a large pantheon of bodhisattvas that can be confusing and hard to keep track of.

Christianity was the next religion of interest, and it will likely continue to hold the spotlight as long as I live in the US. It has a charismatic founding figure and a powerful message: if you believe, your sins will be forgiven, and you will have eternal life. The Golden Rule (treat others as you want them to treat you) and a tradition of performing good works are also attractive. It also give you a compelling mission in life: spread the Gospel (Good Spell or the “good news”).

What’s the catch? Well first, you must believe in sin and that you have sinned. Generally speaking, sin is any disobedience of God’s will. This is a bitter pill for many people swallow, especially those that consider themselves “good” people. They would admit to making mistakes, but they hesitate to call them “sins” because of the negative connotation associated with the term. Second, Christianity is an exclusive religion, meaning once you convert, you must forsake all other beliefs. Third, you would have to believe that Jesus was the son of God or God in the flesh. You can’t say that Jesus was simply a great teacher because he claimed to be the son of God. Finally, and most importantly, you must accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Do all this, and you are in the club!

Cultural Religions – Hinduism, Judaism, Islam

I do not know enough about these religions to fairly discuss them. However, because they are closely tied to their cultures of origin, it may be more difficult to convert to them. Hinduism is an integral part of Indian culture; Judaism is tied to the Jewish culture; and Islam is central to the Middle East. It can be argued that Islam doesn’t belong in this category because there are many non-Middle Eastern Muslims (in fact, Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country), but I put it here because it does have many important ties to the Middle East. For example, as a Muslim, you pray towards Mecca several times a day, and one of your life goals is to go on the Hajj – pilgrimage to Mecca.

Stumbling blocks that may apply to any religion

1. Political entanglement
If you want to avoid getting into heated arguments, the general rule is to avoid two subjects: religion and politics. Imagine the fireworks you would get if you mixed them together!

Religion would do well to remember the wisdom of our ancestors and not become excessively entangled in politics. Lord Acton said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” America’s Founding Fathers recognized the dangers and instituted the separation of church and state. Religious leaders frequently complain about it, but it really is for the good of religion. Religion’s primarily focus is (or should be) on spiritual matters; it too easily loses sight of its mission when it become overly concerned with earthly matter. For example, the material excesses of the Catholic Church helped launch the Protestant Reformation. It’s also very difficult to be a good political leader. Good political leadership requires the masterful balancing of many different viewpoints and the use of many skills that may directly conflict with religious beliefs. Why put yourself in the position of having to compromise your belief to be a good leader or become an inflexible, inept leader?

Unfortunately, many believers just can’t stay away from politics. Aristotle was right when he said, “Man is a political animal.” The result is explosion after explosion throughout history. Politics was one of the biggest motivations behind the Protestant Reformation; European kings wanted to be free from Catholic control. The acrimonious split between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims was also at least partly for political reasons – Shi’a recognize the authority of Mohammed’s descendants while Sunni’s follow the Caliphate (see this Wikipedia article for more). And need I mention the Crusades?

A purist might argue that history or the actions of others should not be deterrents when it comes to your faith, but that’s a bit unrealistic. Man is a social animal, and most people cannot help but care on some level about what other people say and do.

2. Close-mindedness
Close-mindedness has nothing to do with intelligence; some of the people I’m talking about are extremely intelligent. It simply means that a person is not actively evaluating and incorporating new facts and experiences into his world view. Many believers are close-minded because they are comfortable with their religious world view, fervently believe the dogma, and/or fear change. To them, new information cannot “improve” their world view, so why bother letting it in?

If you consider yourself open-minded, you may find it difficult to interact with people who believe they have the answers or think you are just wasting your time.

3. Inadequate guide in a rapidly changing world
As I mentioned in the introduction, many people look to religion for answers to moral and ethical questions, but as technology moves faster and the population grows ever larger, religion will have an increasingly difficult time providing answers. The recent debate over embryonic stem cells is a good example. To retrieve them today, you must destroy an embryo. Many scientists say that the embryo is just a bunch of cells at this point, but many Christians believe that life starts at conception. Thus, to destroy an embryo is to commit murder. The stakes are high because these stem cells show promise in treating such debilitating conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. As the number of people with such diseases mounts, the stakes get ever higher. As I write this, amniotic-fluid stem cells may offer a way out of this dilemma because they show the same promise and can be extracted without destroying an embryo, but we may not be so fortunate in future dilemmas.

Many Eastern religions provide much less such guidance than Christianity because they did not grow up with science like Christianity did and because their belief in reincarnation reduces their sense of urgency in this life. Both these reasons make logical sense. A religion is unlikely to form principles that may apply to science when it has little experience with science. The logic behind the second reason is easily understood with the following analogy: if you expected to die on your 30th birthday, wouldn’t you live with a greater sense of urgency than someone who expects to live to 70?

Religious norms and principles were not formed with technology and population growth in mind; therefore, they do not adequately address many of the problems associated with it. Compounding the problem is the fact that these norms and principles are so difficult (sometimes impossible) to modify.

4. Troubling doctrinal inconsistencies
Occasionally, religion bend its doctrines to appease its followers, but this creates some troubling inconsistencies. Take Christianity for example. It started off focusing almost exclusively on the salvation of the soul and the afterlife, but when it became a world religion, it had to satisfy people’s desire for worldly satisfaction. This creates some doctrinal problems. For example, it’s common today to hear Christians say that “God is good,” “He has a plan for each of us,” and “He controls everything” to comfort people in hard times. If your parents are killed in a car jacking, would you be comforted believing this was part of God’s plan? Would a good god even plan something like this or allow evil to exist?

Maybe God does have a plan for each of us, but it likely has nothing to do with your earthly life. He cares about the salvation of your soul, not whether you live a long, prosperous earthly life. For evidence of this, just look at what happened to the earliest Christians; thousands of them died grisly deaths under Roman persecutions. Finally, God chose not to control everything because He gave us free will. Complete godly control and free will are mutually exclusive.

Obviously, most Christians don’t have a problem with logical inconsistencies when it comes to their faith, but if you are a thinker, these inconsistencies could drive you nuts.

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Religion’s grains of truth

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