This page contains some of what I regard as objective truths about religions and some of my own beliefs.
The first question is, "What is religion anyway?". This is a quote from the Shorter Oxford Dictionary.
Religion - Belief in or sensing of some superhuman controlling power or powers, entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship, or in a system defining a code of living, esp. as a means to achieve spiritual or material improvement.
That sounds good to me. (However I find it strange that they include material improvement). I think I would give a shorter definition of religion:
Religion - Codes of ethics taking into account supernatural beliefs.
Religion has a certain amount of tribalism built into it and establishes social groups, distinguishing them from others.
Well I was brought up as a Christian, whether I liked it or not, but not with any real compulsion. Even those advocating Christianity, i.e. parents and school, were not particularly enthusiastic. I soon started to question everything. The existence of God. The story of Jesus. I was a tentative atheist by the age of about 14. In any case as a schoolboy there were no big ethical decisions to make.
It was probably after university when I started doing sales work that I started to notice things happening which could not be easily explained by plain materialistic thought, i.e. a kind of supernatural element at work in my life. This was partly to do with the factors which determined the extent of my success in the sales work, and partly the effect that this work was having on other aspects of my life.
I came to recognise that different actions give rise to different outcomes, not only in the obvious way of tangible material things, but also in changes to oneself, and the subsequent effect on future events in ways which cannot easily be predicted, and through mechanisms which are not clear.
The main thing is that Ethics are more important than Beliefs. It is actions that lead to consequences, even those which may occur after death. It is not what you believe which determines your fate, except in so far as it can act as motivation for a code of ethics.
After years of only ever hearing other people's interpretations of Chrisitanity I have recently had a look at some parts of the bible to see for myself what it actually says, and so try to understand the roots of Christian thinking.
I believe that the bible is a reasonably faithful document of what was written many centuries ago. It was written by men. Ordinary mortals. In those days writing was not easy, and things would not be written unless they were regarded as being important. Similarly the fact that they were preserved so carefully for centuries also shows they were regarded as important.
Much of the bible is an expression of sincerely held beliefs by the writers at the time. However, it is a mixture of different types of writing from various sources, including poetry, and I believe, fictional stories, and much of it is irrelevant to us. For example many of the laws of Moses which were clearly intended only for those people at that time.
I fully accept conventional scientific wisdom that life evolved over millions of years, and man is an animal and a product of that evolutionary process and nothing else. Many other animals, especially mammals have similar perceptions to our own. There is no qualitative difference.
Our modern knowledge of the universe and the origins of life is vastly superior to that of these ancient peoples of around 2000 BC onwards. They would have had questions about what was the origin of the earth, and life, just as we do. Evidently they sought to include their views in their writings, thus we have the account of the beginning of the universe and life in Genesis at the very beginning of the Bible. Most theologians now accept that the seven days of creation were not literal days. Nevertheless, even allowing for this the Genesis account is still inaccurate. It could have been deduced. It may have been the result of long debate and discussion among many learned people.
In deciding on the origins of the universe and life why should we, with our vast knowledge, choose to accept views of ancient civilisations in preference to our own?
Man is an animal and evolved over hundreds of thousands of years from recent ape-like ancestors. All life on earth evolved over millions of years.
In any case I don't think that questions about the the creation of the universe are the proper subject for religion to deal with. Similarly, the extent of the universe as it is now is irrelevant. Religion is, or should be, primarily about ethics, about the here and now and how we relate to people and things which we come into contact with.
In religion and all mysticism the universe should (and sometimes does) mean "the subjective universe" that is where the importance of things is not determined by their physical size, but their impact on our lives. The person standing next to you is very much more important than one of the stars in the sky.
More about creation and Genesis below
I believe that someone called Jesus lived and said and did at least some of the things attributed to him. The Jewish historian Josephus mentioned him briefly. However I do not believe in the virgin birth or the resurrection. I also have big doubts about the miracles of Jesus. I do believe that his teachings have considerable validity and value, but do not agree with everything he advocated.
Incidentally, I prefer to use the name Jesus rather than Christ. In those days people did not have surnames. Jesus was his name. Christ was his job description. Calling him "Christ" seems to be reminiscent of school life where people were called by only their surname, but in this case it isn't his surname anyway.
There is no record of any writing of Jesus himself and he was probably, in common with most people of his background, illiterate. I do not regard that as pejorative but it helps expain why the records of his work and life are so vague and questionable.
The best account of what Jesus preached is probably the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew Ch 5 onwards, though this is probably a collection of various teachings of Jesus portrayed as a single event. There is another important section on the teaching of Jesus around Matthew ch 19-22. He seems to play down the importance of the laws of Moses and I even suspect he is hiding some of his disagreement so as not to offend. Many of these things in the Sermon on the Mount are those which I most associate with Christian ethics, and which I have been conscious of many years. For example the ideas of doing good things without seeking reward or advertising the fact in order to get a reward in heaven. This has a lot in common with eastern religions too.
While I can recognize much validity of Jesus' teaching I do not think it is practical in the modern world. There are numerous occasions where he advocates poverty in the assurance that God will take care of us. The exhortation "Love thy neighbour as thyself" taken to its logical conclusion is tantamount to communism, sharing all material things. These things might be good in a prosperous world where population is not excessive, but are not appropriate when there are millions of people in extreme poverty. Jesus was then only a young man, and I believe an ordinary mortal man at that, and fallible. His teaching seems to be aimed at the minority of people seeking spiritual attainment, but not for everyone.
Indeed, few people who claim to be Christians really follow Jesus' teaching. Examples are: Not seeking revenge, and Keeping quiet about one's good deeds. It is only necessary to look at victims of crime to see that they earnestly wish the criminal to be convicted, even though it might not make any practical difference to their own life. As for keeping quiet about good deeds, to take this to its logical conclusion it would mean not defending oneself against false accusations.
Jesus and God
Was Jesus a materialization of God? Well the Christian church mostly believes he was. In fact there is only one small entry in the bible which seems to be responsible for this belief. At the beginning of John's gospel it says, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God". (In this "the Word" is generally accepted to mean Jesus). It isn't much to form such a major belief upon. Only a few lines further on in verse 18 it says, "No-one has ever seen God", though by now plenty of people had seen Jesus. Jesus himself did not say he was God, and indeed spoke about God, and to God, as a clearly separate being from himself.
Paul was by far the biggest contributor to the New Testament. I estimate that he is responsible for about a quarter of it and far more than any other single author. His life overlapped with that of Jesus but they probably never met. Famously Paul was a strict Jew and initially opposed Christianity, but later came to accept it "on the road to Damascus". He was educated and literate and we can be sure that his writings are authentic. It is probably the most reliably authentic material in the whole bible.
Perhaps less well known is that Paul was a "Roman Citizen", an honour bestowed by the Romans. There are theories that he influenced the writing of the gospels, and may have added a 'spin' of his own to them. One such theory is that he influenced the gospels to lessen condemnation of the Roman occupation and in particular to play down the role of the Romans in the crucifixion of Jesus, instead passing greater blame to the Jews. Crucifixion was a common Roman punishment and not a Jewish one.
His own writing seems to depart somewhat from what Jesus said. He seems to have re-introduced some of the old Judaism back into the religion and goes beyond what Jesus said. He strongly emphasises morality e.g. in Romans and Galatians. There is a particularly concise list of his views of right and wrong in Galatians 5:19-23. Much of Paul's material is presented in the spirit of enlightened self interest by becoming a better person. Some of his exhortations seem to add something new of his own to the Christian religion, for example avoiding drunkenness, and much of his material has been the basis of subsequent Church teaching.
In the first of the Ten Commandments we have God saying to the people "You shall have no other god but me". Even this fundamental of monotheism is not saying that there are no such other gods, but saying you must not worship them. Indeed it seems to imply that such gods do exist in the same sense that Jehovah, the creator exists. For me, this confirms the essentially arbitrary nature of God, that mankind constructs God by deciding what his qualities are.
Michel De Montaigne said "Man is quite insane. He wouldn't know how to create a maggot, yet he creates gods by the dozen."
Some things can be brought into existence simply by choosing to recognise them. This happens all the time in mathematics.
"God created the integers, all else is the work of man." Leopold Kronecker. 1823-1891.
This is saying that while integers (whole numbers) are there already in the natural world, all other mathematical entities are man made, even including such things as fractions, but more evident still with complex numbers and vectors. Provided our concept does not give rise to any contradictions we can choose to accept its existence or not as we wish. I believe this is what God is.
I can accept some concept of God, but only as a metaphor to group together various supernatural phenomena. God is said to have three qualities, omniscient (all knowing), omnipresence (everywhere), and omnipotence (all-powerful). I can accept the first two as qualities of a God metaphor, but would dispute the third, i.e. omnipotence. There seems to be an error of logic here. What they should be saying is that there are things which we cannot control (and so are under the complete power of God). That is not the same as omnipotence, because there are also some things which we are in complete control of ourselves and are not in the power of God. It is a similar error of logic of the same kind as thinking that "I mean what I say" is the same thing as "I say what I mean". [Lewis Carroll]
The acts of God are really the laws of cause and effect at work. If God must always do the right thing, or behave in a predictable way, then it does not allow for variation in his actions, and hence means he cannot be taking decisions. I do not believe in a decision-making god.
Agnosticism is the belief that mankind has no way of proving or disproving the existence of God. Notably it does not simply mean being uncertain or undecided about God's existence. That is not my position. I think that God is so abstract that asking whether God exists is simply a meaningless question.
I use that archaic term because I am talking about the concept of some sort of consciousness persisting after death, and not exclusively "life after death" because any such persistent consciousness might not be life "as we know it". Surprisingly the bible has very little to say about going to heaven or hell after death. This all seems to have been a later interpretation by the Church and later Christian writers. (Dante?). Jesus talks a lot about heaven, and accumulating treasures in heaven, but as far as I can see doesn't necessarily mean that heaven occurs after death. I would prefer to interpret it to mean some sort of spiritual assets which can exist in life. It is really just an extended form of psychological well-being. There is also quite a lot about "eternal life" in the gospels.
My view is that the actions we take are all-important. Beliefs are irrelevant except in so far as they affect our actions. (I also include thoughts as actions).
All those questions about whether god created the universe, and man, are irrelevant. What matters is how we live, not what we believe.
There are some claims in Christianity that it is sufficient to believe in God or in Jesus in order to be "saved" and get "everlasting life". Jesus himself is reported to have made this claim. It occurs three times in John 3:15-18. More stark still is Mark 16:16, "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned". Such a view seems to render much of his Jesus' other preaching superfluous because if belief alone is sufficient why bother with the rest? As far as I know there is no such claim in Matthew.
I am willing to be tolerant and forgiving and overlook the occasional anomaly in the bible. Perhaps these claims were not intended to mean that belief alone is sufficent, but to imply that the consequent ethics arising from that belief are also required. The main problem is that this idea that "Belief alone is sufficient" has come to be accepted in Christian doctrine.
This is not the only case where a tiny fragment in the vast text of the bible has been accepted with a significance out of all proportion. It is interesting that while some fragments of the bible are taken as indispensible in this way, other things in the bible are casually dismissed by many Christians where they are inconvenient to them, notably the great importance Jesus places on poverty.
For me, belief is sacred, that is, if I believe something, then I truly believe it, not just accept it because I think I should, or because it is convenient or will be of advantage to me. Sometimes it seems that people are being asked to give up their better judgement in order that some advantage will come to them, and furthermore, it sometimes seems that recklessly having faith in something which is false may indeed bring advantage to a person.
Ethics is the only thing that matters. By ethics I mean the major questions of moral principles, and not the lesser sense which sometimes means little more than etiquette. Just exactly what those ethics should be is a much more difficult question. There are a number of big places in the bible which discuss ethics. In the old testament one such place is the early part of the bible where Moses declares the laws for his people, including the ten commandments. Another is the book of Proverbs. In the new testament we have the reported teaching of Jesus, notably the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Then there is much more material in the letters of Paul.
The laws of Moses were very much for those people in that time and place. They are primarily practical rather than spiritual and are aimed at survival of the tribe in adversity. Few Christians follow them in their entirety, and most would not know what they say. Not eating pork is one law. There is also material on stoning people to death, on the correct way to wage war, how to treat one's slaves. See material around Deuteronomy Ch 20.
There is a huge difference between the laws of Moses and the teaching of Jesus. They are not really the same religion. If we are to ask "which of these is Christianity?" it has to be the teaching of Jesus by definition. The laws of Moses are common to Judaism and Islam.
Man is a spiritual being. There are unseen forces at work in our lives. Just as sometimes we can see (and foresee) the immediate consequences of our actions perfectly clearly, there are other things which can arise as a consequence of our actions where it is not so easy to see the mechanisms at work. That does not mean there is no causal link. There seems to be a continuum from the obvious and practical consequences of our actions, through those which are less obvious, and further to those which are positively mysterious.
We need certain basic requirements of food and shelter in order to physically survive, but our material well-being is not the only thing that matters. Issues such as friendships, love and health are just some examples. Happiness itself probably depends only partially on prosperity, and even then it is mainly increases in prosperity which bring happiness rather than some steady state of prosperity to which we have become accustomed.
Modern theology would be better employed by investigating these phenomena of cause and effect and treating it as a science. The eastern religions address the questions about which actions will give rise to which consequences, and in particular the I Ching is very much concerned with this sort of thing.
For the whole history of Christianity the church has been trying to defend the indefensible. It has tried to uphold all kinds of falsehoods such as the earth being at the centre of the universe. It has gradually back-tracked bit by bit. Even now it continues to try to uphold things which an intelligent scientist simply cannot accept.
The important messages of Christianity such as ethics and virtue are portrayed as resting on an impossible foundations and so are lost to many thinking intelligent people.
This section looks at three big controversial stories in Genesis, that is Creation, Adam and Eve, and Noah's Flood.
The story of Creation in Genesis is regarded by many Christians as being of crucial importance to the whole system of their beliefs. For one thing, it is at the very beginning of the bible and many consider that the whole credibility of the bible depends on it. As a result they will go to enormous lengths to try to prove its authenticity. Most theologians now accept that the seven days of creation were not literally days, but were 'ages', i.e. very long periods of time, millions of years each. Well that helps the credibility of the account, but serious doubts remain.
One reason that this account is so important is that some believe it proves the bible is the word of God. The argument goes like this. The story of the creation is so exact and accurate that it could not possibly have been to known by the writer of Genesis unless it was communicated to him by God, the only being to be present at the creation. In turn that proves that the bible itself was the true word of God.
There are problems with this argument. Firstly the Genesis account is not entirely accurate. Perhaps the most important discrepancy is that Genesis says there were two expanses of water, one above the sky and one below. This is exactly the sort of thing which might have been deduced from the observation of rainfall, but we now know it is totally incorrect. Here is another discrepancy. We already had light, day and night, created on the first day. It then talks about the luminaries (the sun and moon) being created after the earth on the same 'day' as each other. Verse 16 says "God made two great lights". This was the fourth day.
There are attempts to explain some of these things. The question of the great expanse of water above the sky is the most difficult to explain by claiming translation problems. Incredibly the answer given for this anomaly is that this was once how things were, and later it all changed. Well that is not very good physics for a start. Isn't this typical of the false logic which characterises propaganda. On one hand the fact that the description is accurate is used as proof of its authenticity, on the other hand where it departs from what we now know, this is taken to be some great change which has occurred in the history of the world, which only the bible tells us about, and is otherwise unknown to science. Well you can't have it both ways.
People of around 2000 B.C would have had questions about what was the origin of the earth, and life, just as we do. Evidently they sought to include their views in their writings, thus we have the account of the beginning of the universe and life in Genesis at the very beginning of the Bible. Science tells us that Man as a species was identical then to what we are now. In particular they were intelligent people capable of sophisticated thinking. As such it is quite reasonable that this account of how the universe and life came about could have been deduced. It may have been the result of long debate and discussion among many learned people. Indeed perhaps an accumulation of wisdom collected and passed down over centuries.
You can consider this to be part of the Creation story, but is also a story in its own right. It follows on from the Creation story and expands the detail about the creation of mankind. First Adam is created alone. Then Eve is created to be his companion from his 'rib' (or 'part' of his body). God forbids them to eat a particular fruit, but they do, and so become imperfect (or perhaps this reveals their inherent imperfection). This is later taken as 'original sin' and a fundamental flaw in Man.
Genesis gives much detail about Adam's descendants. These can be traced right down to relatively modern times and using this information some believe that Adam lived as recently as 4000BC. Genesis also claims that most of these early people lived for hundreds of years.
It seems to me that the descendants of Adam are described in such detail that there may indeed have been such a person. However he was not the first man. It is mixing up two different things. The great ages, if taken to be lunar months instead of years, give very credible lifetimes of about 70 years or so. This would also explain why some had their first children when aged over 100 of these 'years'. We know that early man found the measurement of time to be a challenge, and this may have been even more so in the regions nearer the equator where seasons are less obvious. Lunar months would have been easy to identify.
It is interesting to note however that even in the theory of evolution, mankind may have all been descended from a single ancestor, indeed that is exactly how evolution works. A single chance mutation in an individual is passed into all its descendants and prevails over those of the species who do not have that mutation. Acts Ch 17 v 26 says "From one man he made every nation of men." That's OK by me!
The story claims that the entire earth was flooded. Taken literally that would mean enough water to submerge mount Everest. Well there simply isn't enough water to do that, and even if there was, where did it all go? Archaeology has found evidence of lesser floods which were nevertheless quite major in scale.
In 1955 a cuneiform tablet was found with a story of Gilgamesh and included an unmistakable version of the Flood story which pre-dates the one in Genesis. Historians are now in no doubt that Genesis borrowed the story from an earlier source.
In his book BC The Archaeology of the Bible Lands, Magnus Magnusson says, "The Flood story of the Bible is obviously a legend, and a borrowed and garbled one at that." He says that the story in Genesis seems to be a conflation of two Flood stories.
However, he also goes on to say that these facts show that the Bible was not written in isolation. The Hebrew writers fully participated in the culture of their day, including the prevailing ideas about the origins of the world and mankind.
What evidence have we got for Genesis? All we know for sure is that somebody wrote it. Historians have established an approximate time that Genesis was written. Nobody is arguing about that. There is little other information except the content of the text itself. If it does not have within it any proof of authenticity, then all we can say is that, yes, it really was written. It is something somebody wrote a few thousand years ago.
Modern man has studied the formation of the universe, the earth, life, and man in great depth using every resource that the modern world can produce. In deciding on the origins of the universe and life why should we, with our vast knowledge, choose to accept views of ancient civilisations in preference to our own?
It seems to me that all these questions about whether god created the universe, and man, are irrelevant. What matters is how we live, not what we believe.
www.philosopy.org.uk - My own site on Philosophy
www.sacred-texts.com - A wonderful site containing a vast amount of downloadable texts of world religions and the mysteries.