At a time like Easter it is common to ponder on one’s faith. Whether one is religious or considers religion to be a delusion and waste of time and effort, one almost certainly aware of the origins of Easter, if one lives in an even nominally Christian country.
One may feel disgust that a religious occasion has been hijacked by commercialism, even if one is not religious, but one may still tuck in to Hot Cross Buns and chocolate Easter Eggs, and even partake of a slice of Simnal Cake.
Some people pride themselves on having no faith, maybe even declaring themselves to be atheists. I feel though, that deep down everyone has some foundation philosophy or beliefs that seem to them to be unquestionable and obvious, that are in fact part of their make up.
Some people think that religion is silly and obviously wrong. They forget that religion as a world view has a long and successful heritage that has enabled people, in the main, to get along, and survive, and cooperate with other people.
It has, it is true, been blamed for a long list of atrocities as well (and still is, of course), but much of that is as a result of people’s’ usage of religion and not the idea of religion itself.
What is religion? It is the belief that the world is controlled and run by some supernatural being or beings, and that everything happens as a result of the aims and intervention of these supernatural being or beings.
Before the invention of science, this would have seemed to be a reasonable theory. Of course, since we are only physical beings, we can only imagine why the supposed divine being causes things to happen that happen to us and to others.
And that’s what people do. In the absence of any other information, they imagine aims and objectives of the divine being or beings. The people who do the imagining are often called prophets or shamans or priests.
Of course the shaman’s own people should be the ones favoured by deity, and of course they would be justified in all sorts underhand actions. All the people who did not belong to the shaman’s own people were obviously wrong or deluded and needed to be shown the error of their waves.
One might reasonably ask of the shaman, how does he know the wishes of the deity when the deity doesn’t converse with human beings. The shaman will have all sorts of esoteric methods for determining the wishes of the deity. Tossing bones, disemboweling chickens and taking various mind altering substances to enter trances.
In many cases the shaman may believe that he is receiving instructions from the deity, though in some the shaman is possibly at least partly a pragmatic politician – it would career and life threatening to tell the tribal chieftain that he is going to lose the next challenge to his supremacy, or that the big tribe next door were going to conquer them.
Of course someone decided to write all the information about the tribe into a big book. Mostly the stuff written down was the history of the tribe and tall tales were OK, as it “proved” that the tribe was big and powerful and supported by the supreme being.
Of course such and such a hero defeated 1,000 opponents single handed. How could he do otherwise with the deity on his side? The trouble with writing it down is that fixes the story. There is no scope for the shaman to, shall we say, ad lib.
Also included in the written down texts, handed down from the aural tradition were the rules that the people had to adhere to, and the punishments handed out. Or supposedly handed out. As a punishment for a transgression some ancient person was put to death, but to deter others the punishment was supposedly horrific. And this punishment was enshrined in the holy text, so it became the official punishment.
As religion got institutionalised, it was used to justify wars and genocides and other atrocities, and still is to this day. One of the issues with religions and religious books is that things happened in the past and stuff got written to the books, and only a tenuous link between the two. There probably was a king called David, and he probably did some of the things attributed to him, but it is unlikely that the Bible gives an accurate description of his reign.
There is a philosophical problem with the idea of supernatural beings anyway. The only way that we can conceive of such entities is by giving them physical and human attributes – the supreme being is usually male for example. Generally the supernatural being is paternal and judgemental, and favours one particular set of people over others.
To influence matters in the physical universe a supernatural being would need to manifest itself in physical ways. The problem is that a supernatural being is, by definition, non-physical and therefore cannot affect the physical world.
Some people have considered this issue and suggested that the supernatural being merely set up the universe and its laws in the beginning and has had no input since. While that removes the initial problem of the physical/supernatural interaction, it doesn’t address the physical question of how the universe was set up in the first place. It merely pushes the issue back beyond the Big Bang.
Besides, many religions would be uncomfortable with a deity who merely set things up and then stepped away. Where would they get their laws and stories from? They’d have to make them up!
That’s the problem. Even if somehow the supernatural being’s wishes came to be embedded in a book (or even an aural tradition) someone has to read the book and interpret the words (as originally, the man in the street would not have been able to read) and for any number of reasons, the reader might, probably unconsciously, interpret the words in a way favourable to his biasses.
And that might be the start of a crusade, and it’s difficult to conceive of a supernatural being who would favour people killing one another in its name. But the get out clause is that we can never understand the aims of such a being, should there be one, and this may be what the supernatural being needs to happen.