A NOTE TO THE READER: The following “Personal Statement” was written three days following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 in response to rigid religious systems of belief, assumptions of faith, the search for truth, personal and intellectual responsibility, and finally, the use of critical thinking and rational inquiry to challenge enculturated belief systems. It is not meant as an indictment, rather as a nudge to get people thinking about the belief process and perhaps to entice them to ponder why they believe the things they do, not necessarily what it is they believe.
Pax et bonum,
Craig Lee Duckett
Belief, Truth, Assumption, and Reason
Most believers, regardless of their denomination or sect, have not been given information contrary to or unsupportive of the articles of their faith—and this is understandable. Religious groups have an insulated agenda motivated both by separatism and doctrinal bias, an exact and prepossessed interpretation of scriptures that disunites them from other disciplines. Most often this bias begins arbitrarily at birth, decided by the continent, country, and culture into which the believer is born. Indoctrinated by parental partisanship, reinforced through social setting, the believer is raised to believe a certain way, embrace a certain ideology, conditioned and cocooned from unrealized alternatives and the inability to consider these alternatives as anything other than evil, human foolishness, or the demonic perversion of some supernatural 'truth'.
For the most part a person born in Riyadh becomes a Muslim, a person born in Tel-Aviv a Jew, in Salt Lake City a Mormon, in Milan a Roman Catholic, and so it goes from country to country, city to city, household to household all around the world. Statistically most people embrace the faith of their parents who in turn have embraced their parents' faith, receding further back in a long generational queue. Believers traditionally believe the way they do simply because of where and how they were raised, and most conversion experiences are nothing more than an acceptance of childhood's god and the sacred book used to extol that god. Simply put, if you were born on the other side of the world would you be as sure, confident, and defensive of your religious traditions there as you presumably are here and now?
If religious choices are as important as their advocates would have us believe, if the final residence of our eternal souls is really at stake, shouldn't our convictions be based on something more substantial than the cursory acceptance of a belief system impressed on us by the geographical happenstance of where we happened to be born? Wouldn't our religious leaders want us to avail ourselves of all possible information and to consider all the accessible facts before assuming the inerrancy of something so critical? Since it is our immortal souls in question, isn't it our duty to seek the truth wherever that journey may take us? Anything less may be contributed to abject laziness, spiritual cowardice, pathological denial, or outright ignorance.
As a truth-seeker, I for one think it is our imperative duty to question every claim which presupposes the supernatural (events and environments found nowhere in the natural world: miracles, prophecies, fiat creation, the disembodied soul, life-after-death, Heaven, Hell, etc).
The primary impetus for truth-seeking is not so much to ask whether a particular religious faith is true from a believer's point of view, but to impel believers to ask themselves why they 'think' it's true in light of other choices and evidence. Most religious people know what they believe (e.g., the tenets of their faith), but they've never been taught how to ask themselves why they believe it, what criteria they use for support, whether the position they take and the arguments they tender for proof are built on sound evidence or initiatory assumptions.
Assuming the validity of a religious document from the offset does not empower that document to be used later as proof of its validity. Quoting a source to support its own authority is plainly erroneous and throws the door open to every imaginable (even unimaginable) fatuity. No, for the sake of truth, assumptions, like beliefs, should be diligently tested, and not merely from one or two mindful overtures—they should be carefully and conscientiously explored from a thousand avenues of inquiry.
Fundamentalist believers, whatever their religious bent (Christian, Islamic, Mormon, etc.) have neglected to acknowledge this important facet of their adherence to any one particular dogma: the assumption of documental validity at the offset. In other words, fundamentalists must first assume their religious texts (the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, etc.) are true, inspired, and authoritative before ever turning back the cover. This assumption is doubly instilled when fundamentalists are pressed to argue the validity of their so-called religious texts: this they do by opening the religious text in question and quoting from it as proof of its validity. They argue that their particular religious text is true because they are able to quote passages from it that claim it is true or prove it true through chronological fulfillment (another self-referential assumption) of prophecy or 'eye-witness' accounts (despite the fact that these accounts were originally written anonymously and recounted in the third-person). This is circular logic, of course, and begging the question, best represented by an example.
If we applied this same argument to a person rather than a thing (in this instance, a “sacred” book not unlike the Bible), then we might clearly see the difficulties inherent in using quotation as sole authority.
Suppose we encounter a man on the street claiming to be the messiah. Should we believe this man's fantastic claims unquestionably simply because we are able to quote him later? Because we are capable of quoting by rote his various speeches is this all the proof we need to accept his claims as undeniable and infallible truth? If this is the case, then all we have to do when pressed by skeptics and unbelievers to “prove” the validity of the man's messianic claims is simply repeat his words to support our arguments: “ Because he said, and I quote, ‘I am telling you the truth when I say that I am Christ reborn' we can know without a doubt that he is Christ reborn. Because he said it, I believe it, and that's good enough for me.” Further questions concerning the man's claims are dutifully answered by apologists who proffer additional quotes or who compile a collection of quotes or who write instructional books interpreting the collection of quotes and on reductio ad absurdum. Only an initial assumption of validity gives credibility to using quotation as a form of argument, but it is this assumption that must be first tested if truth is to be known.
Rather then resorting always to quoting the man in some form or another (whether once, twice, even thrice removed, either from the pulpit or through apologist literature), truth would be better served by thinking critically and examining the man's history, his culture, environment, societal totems and fetishes, traditions, historical merging of traditions, psychological background, contemporaries also claiming to be the Messiah, previous Messianic claimants, material and falsifiable evidence, and so on. If the ability to quote passes for argument, the assumption of the supernatural as rational explanation, the absence of physical evidence for incontrovertible proof, then there are as many Messiahs afoot on the planet as there are mouths to honor them. Whether quoting the man on the street or quoting the Bible (or Koran, or Book of Mormon, et al ), unless we test their words rationally, soundly, explicitly, and extensively using all available evidence, data, and facts at-hand, then we have resorted to an obstinate and inflexible "blind faith" devoid of honest intellect and reason.
Fundamentalist believers must ask themselves what is more important and ultimately more honest: unexamined belief based on an ongoing assumption of validity (or an assumption of inerrancy, revelation, miraculous or supernatural entities) or a testing of belief as a means to discover the truth. In short, which carries more ingenuous weight: adhering to a supernatural belief system (potentially fraught with human error, mistranslations, superstition, wish-fulfillment, conflicting interpretations, doctrinal bias, hidden agendas, etc) or the testing of belief in light of the mechanics of the real world, the laws of physics, empirical evidence, historical documentation, relentless research, ongoing study, critical thinking, self-analysis, etc?
If a belief or tradition takes precedence despite the visible facts (viable and verifiable evidence, historical and documental support, diachronic substantiation, textual verification, scientific analysis, etc), then fundamentalist believers are really zealots, cultic and self-blinding, embracing at all costs their particular beliefs in light of contrary evidence, explanation, natural law, even common sense. If the search for truth is not held in higher regard than subjective articles of faith, then even absurdity is condoned and subject to personal interpretation. One man's faith may be another man's murder. It is by placing the tenets of one's beliefs over and above the discovery of truth that religious zealots forge their arguments and defend their actions no matter how grievous, cruel, ridiculous, or inhuman. When belief becomes more important than a relentless search for truth what results is mind-numbing ignorance, explosive annihilation, or a teetering combination of both.
How is such excecated zealousness possible? Because all over the world people in a sweeping variety of cultures have been taught what to believe but not how to believe nor have they been given the intellectual skills necessary to strategically question why they believe the very way they do. Have they embraced Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, etc, because, after rationally and deliberately weighing and testing all the evidence available to them, they've determined no other explanation makes sense, or simply because they were born into a Christian, Muslim, Mormon, etc, household? Most believers have not been taught the underlying mechanics of belief nor the thousand inherent assumptions built into the often-naïve belief process, only the blanket notion that “believing” is good and the questioning and/or testing of belief somehow inherently evil (e.g., “ Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? ” 1 Corinthians 1:20). Up until the last three hundred years, publicly questioning your beliefs in Christian societies might have found you ostracized, imprisoned, tortured, burned at the stake, or beheaded. Such a fate is still today possible in many Muslim countries. With such an incentive program it is no small wonder these religions have thrived for over two thousand years, the status quo kept earnestly intact, the “proof” of their rightness tendered by their longevity.
Because we live, supposedly, in an enlightened age (the September 11th events in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania may suggest otherwise), we are free to examine our beliefs prior to invoking the assumption of validity (where such assumption is renamed “faith” by religious traditions). What is the best way to approach this? By beginning your inquiries by not assuming at the offset that a religious text is true (or infallible, inerrant, or divinely inspired) simply because the text itself claims to be true (or infallible, inerrant, or divinely inspired), you enforce a neutrality neither predetermined nor indoctrinated by religious assumption, tradition, or cultural prejudice. An assumption of truth (or infallibility, inerrancy, divine inspiration) at the offset will twist and distort every examination and argument following to fit and prove the assumption. If you know the Bible is the Word of God only because you can quote from it to prove it the Word of God, or quote prophecies from it to prove prophecies are fulfilled, or quote supernatural events to prove the supernatural, or quote third-person witnesses from it to prove witnesses existed, everything you're quoting is based on the assumption that what you're quoting is valid and true. The Muslim can assume the same thing about the Koran, the Latter-day Saint about the Book of Mormon, the Hindu about the Upanishads, etc. The ability to quote does not automatically herald truth. What is quoted must stand up to concentrated scrutiny, to reason, the mechanics of the real world, the historical perspective and influences of the time, etc, and without supernatural assumptions going in. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. Simply quoting the source to prove the source is an assumption bordering on a distinct and perverse pathology.
Where do you start to look for truth without resorting to quoting or arguments based on traditions that evolved out of quoting? First, you begin by looking at the way the physical world works (mechanically, scientifically) and then you look at all the historical texts and documentation, myths and belief systems, available to you from around the globe.
Having determined through cautious inquiry the way the physical world operates, claims of disembodied spirits, angels, demons, miracles, virgin births, resurrected bodies, life-after-death, walking-on-water, levitation, talking animals, heavenly bodies being magically manipulated or halted altogether, a young universe, global floods, prophecies fulfilled, fiery ascensions, et al, can be measured against verifiable data and accepted either as attributes of demonstrable reality or rejected as fanciful myth, superstition, ancient philosophy, fearful or wishful thinking, cultic tales, societal epics, etc. For example, if belief in angelic messengers persists in the absence of any physical evidence of the existence of angels (and contrary to natural law simply because the story of angelic messengers is advocated in an ancient religious text), then tradition has taken precedence over the veracity of truth. The oft-offered argument that just because no one has actually encountered an angel doesn't mean angels don't exist can be applied to a dizzying array of fantastic creatures: unicorns, fairies, ogres, leprechauns, pixies, dragons, even one-eyed one-horned flying purple people eaters, all of whose existence defies logic, common sense, and the way the world works. Perhaps the reason no one has seen an angel is the same reason no one has seen unicorns, leprechauns, or fairies. Words in a book do not a supernatural entity make. Mental concept is no substitute for physical proof, nor does the ability to perceive existence infer existence (as some apologists have argued that the mental construct of god “proves” the existence of god). If it does, then Donald Duck would be a living-breathing being rather than a cartoon character simply because we can consider him intellectually, envision his attributes, argue his personality, or ask ourselves however sincerely What Would Donald Do?
If there is no physical evidence for a religious claim or if it is impossible according to the associated mechanics of natural law, then that claim should be considered a myth or superstition until which time it might, however improbable, be validated. Only through validation can something be considered true and not through the hollow assumption of faith or the tenacious advocacy of a religious belief system no matter how stirring. Tradition alone does not an angel make, nor a prophet, nor a messiah, and sincere belief is not enough. Religious doctrine must be seasoned and tested in the hot smithy of the real world and tempered by the fiery hammer-blows of available historical evidence, tales of local heroes, theological discussions and canonical examination. To deny the emergence and evolution of any particular religion separate from its cultural surroundings, environment, local and historical battles, and neighboring tribes each with unique traditions and customs, is to presume incorrectly it was born in a vacuum or sprang full and complete like Dionysus from the thigh of Zeus. All religions are derivative, extrapolated, interpolated. It is in discovering from whence they derived, their history, and the effects of contemporary customs and dissimilar religious beliefs, that the truth can be known. By refusing to acknowledge the broad recipe used to concoct a religious tradition, fundamentalist believers do a disservice to their beliefs and to the very definition of truth itself.
In short, is adhering to a rigid faith really honest and ethical or is it the exact opposite?
It is not enough to simply parrot what you believe by way of creed or articles of faith or to merely recite without comprehension the often error-prone English translation of long disused languages. Each religion is but a small piece in a very large and intricate puzzle, and the fundamentalists, in refusing to look at the other pieces, even unaware that many other pieces exist, miss out on celebrating the larger diorama that comes with hard work and diligence and industry and exploratory knowledge. And yet it is these very fundamentalists who believe they know god's will, god's plan, and god's design for mankind simply by assuming the validity of their one piece of the puzzle while refusing to acknowledge all the other pieces scattered about the table.
History, when treated purely as book learning, can be deceptive, for, unlike work in economics, mathematics, or the sciences, the existence of inherent patterns of reasoning may escape the uninitiated almost completely. Thus the mature student reads between the lines in the textbook and sees social forces in action, the complexity of causation in an episode, the strands of continuity, and the relevancy of the past to the present, while the beginner, on the contrary, merely sees facts on a printed page that must be learned. Confronted with phenomena beyond his ability to analyze because he lacks knowledge of the historical approach, the beginner will necessarily memorize capsule versions of generalizations without acquiring the mental capacities which should be a by-product of [study]. He may seek the assistance of outline series, where others have digested the materials for him, and his rote learning gives the illusion of a valid achievement… When the untrained mind must grapple with the broader historical problems, it finds its explanations in certain rudimentary concepts and gross oversimplifications based upon inadequate observation and strong subjective preferences. Among these are the Great Man theory, the single-cause explanation for a complex event, the naïve good-evil or black-white judgment of people and issues, the application of a single formula to all problems, the use of absolutes, and others.
From A Preface to History by Carl G. Gustavson
Ask a typical Christian (whether layman or church leader) to describe the derivative influences of Attis, Mithras, Tammuz, Bacchus/Dionysus, Osiris, Krishna, Orpheus, Adonis, Hercules, Pythagoras, the Book of Enoch and the writings of Philo of Alexandria on the tradition of Christ and you will get a blank stare. Have them consider the roll of the Mystery Religions on the outer- and inner- meaning of the compiled New Testament and they will shrug their shoulders. Query them regarding the influences of earlier Mesopotamian myths on the construction of the Judeo-Christian Creation and Flood accounts (e.g., the Enuma Elish, the Epic of Gilgamesh) or the theological importance of the Ugaritic texts, the Amarna tablets, the Nag Hammadi library, et al, and you might as well be speaking a foreign language. Such obvious influences are something not readily available or taught in conservative Christian seminaries and colleges, and it is no small wonder. Local heroes and "dying-and-rising" gods, all of who predate Christianity between 100 to 2,500 years, bear more than a striking resemblance to the supposedly unique and factual story of Jesus the Christ. By calling attention to such influences, the seminaries and bible colleges would risk upsetting the status quo, tipping the applecart, and planting seeds of doubt and uncertainty in the church leaders of tomorrow. For the sake of tradition Instructors keep their silence or pretend the long and inflectional histories of these sacrificial god-men do not exist. When confronted with the facts, rarely, occasionally, some fundamentalists may argue that Satan created these earlier versions of dying-resurrecting saviors as a way to confuse the people, an argument so ludicrous as to be beyond the pale of logic and common sense. Which is more probable? That a diabolical being created religious myths of false Christs hundreds of years before the birth of the ‘real' Christ knowing what the real Christ would say and do with the sole purpose of confusing rationalists and skeptics, or that the story of Jesus was supplemented and evolved from older myths and stories of emergent god-men? Which is the simpler explanation by-way-of Occam's Razor? A cosmic supernatural drama with human beings at the center of the tale, or human invention and political interference? Assenting to the argument of "diabolical mimicry" how can we ever be sure the Jesus story itself isn't false, constructed by this same Satan to confuse acceptance of the real Christ who is yet to come, perhaps the true-blue Jewish Messiah? If we can't trust the evidence of the past (and, no, compiled books of magical tales do not qualify as uncontestable evidence), then all knowledge in the present is tenuous and suspect.
But we can trust the past, if only we are courageous enough to look there. Fundamentalists who deny the full spectrum of the past are in turn painting over the colors of the present with shades black and white. Considering the history of Israel at the time of Jesus without examining the extensive history and religious customs of Assyria, Babylon, Canaan, Phrygia, Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Italy would be like writing a dissertation on the American Revolutionary War and only giving a passing reference to the French or British. It could be done, of course, but it would be so lop-sided and revisionist as to be outside the pale of honest inquiry. And yet it is with this very singularity of purpose that Christian fundamentalists use only the bible and a select few documents to reference their supernatural cause (the oft-quoted Josephus comes to mind, never mind the hotly contested interpolations in both the Testimonium Flavianum and The Jewish Antiquities).
What is most amazing about belief doctrine is that you can approach it in any one of ten thousand ways and find enough information on a single track alone to raise nagging doubts as to its legitimacy. Approach it on a second track, or a third, or a fourth, or any one of the other ten thousand angles and each of these should give reason to pause. When taken together, these ten thousand unique approaches reveal a preponderance of information and cogent evidence so overwhelming as to make the continued embrace of said doctrine impossible to the rational believer (after twenty-five years of honest inquiry, I can no more return to believing in the “legitimacy” of Christian doctrine than I could return to believing in the legitimacy of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny; to do so would be evidence of a denial so ingrained and pathological as to require years of psychological and medicinal treatment).
In light of these available paths of information, how can the believer persist in his or her acceptance of supernatural religious doctrine? It's rather simple:
Why don't most believers know about these ten thousand avenues of inquiry? Because 98% of their church leaders don't know about them, since such things are not typically part of the curriculum or openly discussed in conservative seminaries and bible colleges. Conservative colleges have explicit and unyielding agendas that do not take kindly to deviation outside the “box” (or circle ) of faith of what they consider unquestionable (even infallible ) church doctrine. As such, the plurality of parallels to Jesus in ancient world mythology and the primitive unconscious, astrological speculation, ethical and reform innovations of the time, Jewish scriptural precedent, pagan salvation cults, legendary hero-worship, popular philosophy and literature, creation myths, flood myths, all feed into compiled Christianity—not to mention the fact that alternative interpretations, authorial and textual criticisms, apocryphal and pseudepigraphical writings, revisionist apologetics, deconstructionist dissection, early church history and politics, et al, are not things conservative bible colleges and seminaries readily offer for consideration, especially since these present the very real risk of an inclusive rejection of church doctrine. No, conservative seminaries and bible colleges cannot allow future church leaders to roam the halls armed like liberal renegades with something as potentially destructive as contrary explanations. And so from generation to generation the conservative religious leaders of tomorrow are taught just enough to maintain the status quo, groomed to analyze and preach and argue only what's been safely nestled inside their “box.” In time the world of evidence outside the box is forgotten, ancient myths, primitive customs, pre-existing savior stories, until even conservative professors and deans are no longer acquainted with the sheer bulk and magnitude of what they are not teaching, of what they do not know, having themselves never been taught in a long succession of scheduled silence.
It's not that the churches and seminaries are consciously lying to their wards—it's just that they don't know enough to deliver all the facts or even imagine where and how and what those facts might be. And so it continues from generation to generation in seeming and stultifying perpetuity. The traditions are transmitted safely without second-thought or a care in the world.
What about the 2% of church leaders who have become aware of the ten thousand avenues of inquiry, who are privy to the mostly undisclosed facts (undisclosed at least in organized religious circles)? Some of these are preaching in liberal churches (e.g., Unitarian, Universalist, Free Christian), some are teaching in liberal colleges or universities, some are still ministering in fundamentalist churches and are just now having a crisis of faith, while some have left the church altogether, no longer able to reconcile what they now know with the fuzzy assumptions of supernatural validity.
Despite what some apologists might have you believe, many atheists and agnostics had their beginnings in conservative churches, but their search for truth took them outside the box, beyond the deliberate circle of faith, driven by a dedicated passion for truth that became more important than trying to preserve a system of beliefs based on faith, silence, selective information (or outright misinformation), and the miraculous rescinding of natural law (I myself attended a conservative bible college for on track to become an ordained minister until I could no longer reconcile what I had discovered through private study to what I had been taught, or not taught, in the classroom curriculum). Anyone can talk about modern-day miracles—deaf ears made to hear, blind eyes made to see, crippled limbs made strong and whole, prophecies fulfilled, the dead brought back to life, etc. Talk is cheap after all, and hearsay cheaper. But where are the benefactors of these miracles when the fundamentalists are asked for evidence? Wherein lays verifiable and/or medical proof? One claimant should be enough to silence the rationalists and skeptics. Just one. But one, it seems, may be one too many. Unless an occurrence of miraculous intercession can be verified and confirmed, naturalistic explanations must need prevail.
Occasionally an incident happens that may at first glace appear to be the result of a miracle, but closer examination, sometimes dogged inquiry, reveals the miracle's true source: fraud, psychosomatic illness, trickery, hysterical blindness, Munchausen syndrome, deception, factitious disorder, or Munchausen by proxy. Miracles do not happen within the strict confines of natural law, the naked light of physicality, but exist only in the pages of supernatural books, the fluidity of abstract language, the artifice of words. For several years the James Randi Educational Foundation ( http://www.randi.org) has been offering a million dollars to anyone who can show evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or miraculous power or event. To date no psychic (e.g., James Van Praagh, Sylvia Browne, John Edward, Derek Acorah), faith healer (e.g., Benny Hinn, W.P. Grant, Ralph DiOrio, John Arnott, Leroy Jenkins, Peter Popoff), or supernaturally “healed” fundamentalist has stepped forward to claim the prize. Despite all the comforting words, supernatural claims, stadium meetings, big budget movies, or TBN broadcasts, natural law has not yet been contravened and those million dollars remain safe.
What inspires faith, or rather what incites it, is belief in an afterlife. Never mind there's nothing in the physical world or the mechanics of natural law to support such a claim except sacrosanct promises conveyed in ancient texts (though tradition is no argument, despite what some apologists might have you believe), second-hand stories of black tunnels\white lights\shadowy figures (limbic system reaction to anesthesia or trauma or stress; psychological disorders; fraud and confidence games), or spurious claims of past life regression (via reincarnation), all in direct denial of what we can be empirically aware, might physically touch in regards to death—roadside carrion, the coppery taste of blood in your mouth, cadavers putrefying in zippered body bags, the moldering dead. But belief in an after-life is essential to a fundamentalist's faith, and its purpose is two-fold:
How ingenious of church doctrine! Promising a paradise it never has to deliver and threatening a punishment it never has to inflict (to date no one has returned from the dead to make a formal complaint, demand his or her money back, grouse about the squandered years, denounce the celestial promises, the vitriolic threats of the church, etc). According to conservative Christians, we don't need to defer to reason, proof, evidence, logic, critical thinking, or rational thought (after all those things are actually worldly and unsavory). All we have to do is believe. All we need is faith! So what if our religious belief system is ultimately incoherent, illogical, rife with contradiction, and ethically the moral equivalent of the Nazi Holocaust (not possessing a clean bloodline the Jews are carted off to the camps and ovens, and after dying carted off to the fires of Hell because they are not Christians)—what does it matter as long as we are saved? As long as we're in Heaven? As long as we don't have to suffer for all eternity? If our children don't make it, our spouses, our parents, brothers, sisters, friends: no problem! Just as long as we make it! Just as long as the God of Love doesn't inflict his eternal torture on us!
Stated bluntly, faith or belief in an after-life is the single-most cause of suffering and stupidity inflicted upon the human race, by the human race, and for several reasons:
So: are you one of these starry-eyed individuals who believe you want and deserve eternal life?
Do you think that an after-life is going to make it all better, wipe away your tears, cure your ailments and infirmities, reunite you with loved ones, reveal the secrets of the universe, repair the life we've all managed to screw up with pettiness, narrow-mindedness, ignorance, greed, and superstition?
Have you ever given the concept of eternal life any real consideration, really thought out all its implications, what the very idea of eternal life means in the spatial-temporal scheme of things?
Are you going to have eternal life with a physical body or without a body, a spiritual essence or a ghostly mist? If everything that you are is dependent upon your relationship with this material world in terms of both physicality and environment, what do you suppose will exist forever against which to measure your self if there is no physical plane with which to make comparisons? You will no longer have five physical senses to construct your self image, no eyes to regulate sight, no ears to regulate sound, no flesh and bones to regulate weight, height, and depth perception, skin color, hair color, voice, and so on?
And what about the very idea of eternal life as far as time is considered? Do you really want to live forever, accept eternity as your just reward for being clever and somehow making all the right choices compressed in this wretchedly short time-span here on earth? By clinging to the promise of eternal life, you're saying you're not content just to live an extra thousand years or million years or even a billion years; you're saying you believe you want to live 1,000100 years x 1,000100 years x 1,000100 years x 1,000100 years x 1,000100 years x 1,000100 years x 1,000100 x all these numbers of years over and over and over again x FOREVER.
That is, of course, an awful long time, being ETERNITY and all.
Have you given much thought what you're going to be doing for ETERNITY and why it was first necessary for you to live this oh-so-short New York minute you spent on earth before beginning your oh-so-loooooooong stint? Wouldn't it have been easier for all considered if we'd been created straight into ETERNITY in the first place thereby eliminating all the laws of nature and physics, skepticism and doubt, blind faith and religious dramatics? What kind of person\entity\being really believes that a miniscule micro-second of time spent on Planet Earth is really going to affect your state of consciousness in the nebulous realm of FOREVER? And who really wants to live forever, pigeon-holed as it were into singing the praises of an entity who obviously lacks self-confidence and self-respect by needing to bully those who disagree with him/her/it while rewarding those who act illogically, unreasonably, and irrationally by venerating the invisible on bended knee? As far as eternity goes, I say you can have it. I'm actually looking forward to being completely and utterly erased at death. I don't need any more than this life even though each second fills me with wonderment and awe. I don't need to live forever. And why would I want to? Living forever seems more a curse than a blessing.
Is Belief Believable?
Is believing in something, anything, a more noble venture than erring on the side of caution, remaining aloof and skeptical when confronted by fantastic claims, asking questions, seeking answers, consulting a broad variety of sources and viewpoints in order to arrive at the truth no matter the outcome?
Or why should we concern ourselves with belief at all, what other people think or adhere to, whether someone else's beliefs are far-fetched, ridiculous, superstitious, irrational, destructive, wishful, childish, or patently impossible?
Because belief is two-handed. It is capricious and two-faced. It will embrace the invisible, the improvable and extraordinary, then turn around and reject common rocks and strata, the light from distant galaxies, the motion of the earth, mountains, canyons, geodesic time and gravity's rainbow.
Belief will nimbly invoke misdirected terms like "the Will of God," "inerrancy," and “revelation” yet stumble over the hard science of "transposons" and "endogenous retroviruses."
Fussy and particular, stubborn and finicky, belief seemingly picks and chooses whatever it desires and without good reason. Like a child offered candy from a box of chocolates, it samples only what it thinks it wants while assuming what it doesn't want to be inherently disagreeable and unsavory. At first glance this may give the appearance of conscientious decision-making, but it is not. A selective predilection is imprinted upon belief's fickle buds beginning at birth.
And so, can belief be trusted? Or is there something else going on, something most people never give much consideration, yet should really, if for no other reason than belief can often time be both a killer and a thief. It can steal our liberty and kill our passion, plunder sensible thought and murder enthusiasm, rob us of precious time and end up denying us our lives. For the sake of belief people often reject (and would reject for all others) the good things in life—spontaneity, physicality, mindful honesty, and personal autonomy. Because of belief people might denounce (or renounce) sexuality, open-mindedness, and spiritual emancipation, then turn around and embrace guilt and denial, doom and gloom, fear, trembling, retribution, vengeance. Sometimes belief will slide in the other direction and assume a stance of self-righteousness and complacency devoid of any compassion, ethical understanding, or moral indignation. For example, belief allows a great many people to casually accept (even callously defend ) the horrible profanity of Eternal Damnation and the Deity who conceived it without their ever blinking an eye, taking offense, or denouncing either as immoral and reprehensible. Belief will excite others still into selling all their possessions and fleeing for the hills to await Armageddon, into crowded restaurants wearing explosives, into cockpits of passenger planes to hasten a Holy War, into the promises of millennial-old writings whose tales of magic and the miraculous violate so much more than the inviolable laws of physics. Given its role in life-altering choices, it is apparent that belief should never be taken lightly but instead rationally and critically examined across many different avenues, deliberately reviewed and tested, probed and vivisected for any and all assumptions, gaping holes, and fatal flaws. This statement is one such deliberation.
You see, belief by itself requires no proof and compels no evidence. Believing whatever you will is effortless and undemanding. You merely have to announce, " I believe in such-and-such and that's good enough for me! " and that's why belief can be so comforting and hard to deny. It alleviates your fears and gives you hope, because it's your belief after all. You allow yourself to believe in the exact thing that makes you happy or gives meaning to your life. It pampers you and allows you to deny all those scary thoughts that always seem to be encroaching, the purposeless of life, the hiddenness of god, the finality of death, nothingness, the long dark void. In the end, belief isn't about you and God, or you and Jesus, or you and Allah. Belief is about you and you, how much you're willing to admit and how much you continue to conceal. Deep down inside we all know what belief is really doing, what's really going on, but very few of us are courageous enough to dig that far. That would require lifting the pick-axe, hacking at the hard-pan, getting dirty, working up a good sweat.
Aspiring towards truth, on the other hand, is anything but effortless or undemanding. It compels hard work. It demands an investment of time and diligence most people are reluctant to give, a willingness to sacrifice in the very search for truth the solace and peace of mind afforded by simple belief, and a steadfast resolve to journey after truth even if it leads straight into the abyss. Unlike belief, truth promotes no remote victories or transcendental dividends; to the contrary, it may bestow difficulty, devastation, moral uncertainty, even mental distress. As the Hebrew Bible warns, " For as wisdom grows, vexation grows; to increase learning is to increase heartache. " (Tanakh, Ecclesiastes 1:18) yet for those who honor truth above all else, they wouldn't have it any other way.
When it comes to belief, anything goes. Anything's possible. Most people accept their own beliefs as common and natural occurrences of life, but so too are dreams. Simply dreaming something doesn't make it real or true, and the same can be said of beliefs. Beliefs alone cannot circumvent the laws of physics, defy rational scrutiny, or disregard the rules of evidence. And why is that? Because anyone can believe any darn they want, absolutely anything, without having to ground it in reality or require it adhere to the machinations of the world. If Uncle Max wants to believe that chocolate milk cures cancer, then so be it. Does his belief make it true, no matter how sincerely or earnestly he proclaims it? Absolutely not, because simply believing something true is not enough to mean it's true nor do the extents of one's convictions, personal resolve, or meaningful intentions. More is required, quite obviously, before the passion of belief might be transfigured into the universal likelihood of truth—honest inquiry, for one, and the stringent testing of beliefs using all available information, data, consideration, and evidence.
Still, when it comes to religion, ideology, or claims of the paranormal, a great many people will happily avoid making any serious inquiries or exploring critical evidence in order to entertain beliefs that are wholly unfounded, misguided, or outright impossible. They can readily tell you who and what they believe, they just can't tell you how or why, the implication being that the object of belief has become more important than the motive impelling belief, a compulsion that somehow overrides one's sincere obligation to confirm claims beyond surreptitious sidestepping or the disregard of physical reality.
While people may be loathe in admitting that their beliefs are motivated, it is only because the physiological and psychological kinetics of the belief process go unrecognized or are deliberately neglected. This is certainly understandable, given human nature. Harboring a belief is easy. It's effortless. It requires no exertion and urges no proof. Simple acknowledgment is all it takes and you're free to believe any outrageous thing you'd like. Truth seeking, as I've said before, is a different beast entirely. Seeking truth is hard work. It takes time. It takes energy. It takes a lifelong commitment. And above all else, it runs the risk of dismantling cherished beliefs while demanding a keen and piercing mindful honesty. Unless you're willing to be honest with yourself and admit your own biases and prejudices, hopes and wishes, phobias and fears, assumptions, preconceptions, ignorance and inexperience, you are not seeking truth but only ways to continue serving and preserving your own insulated belief system. To a truth-seeker this simply will not do, having conceded striving and suffering after truth a more irresistible vocation then working to perpetuate those creature comforts awarded by untested belief. For the sake of truth, the seeker is willing to sacrifice it all, even those placating promises of eternal life, and embrace the undying fires of hell. If God exists and condemns critical thinking and rational inquiry as immoral and ungodly, then the truth-seeker has no other recourse than to find a haven in hell, if not a heaven.
Understanding the nature of human belief requires much more than posturing or name-calling, an appeal to inconspicuous deities or ancient anonymously-written books, because at the heart of the matter lays an inherent sense of trust, a core set of beliefs imparted without our consent while we were small children, indoctrinated and inculcated at a time when we had no capacity to question, evaluate, test, or reject. Because we trusted our parents, our elders, other family members, the culture into which we were born, we had no reason to doubt the information instilled upon us and which continued to influence us (both consciously and unconsciously) as we grew older. As young adults we may have had the opportunity to evaluate these core beliefs as we tried on autonomy, even challenged some of them, but for the most part (and to the extent they've annealed and become an abstract condition of our reality) it is difficult for us to consider our beliefs dispassionately or objectively. We were taught how to believe before we learned how to evaluate, and so it is upon this foundation of core beliefs that our thought processes were progressively constructed, the knotty neural networks laid out. As adults when we, on those rarest of occasions, actually think about thinking or assume our thought process can approach some degree of objectivity, what we are unable to imagine (or less likely consider) is the extent by which our underlying belief system is influencing our ability to think plainly and clearly, ultimately subjectifying what we interpret to be straight-forward and matter-of-fact. Without putting our beliefs to the task, without digging backwards far enough or deeply enough, we will never approach the kind of objectivity necessary for critical thinking or to achieve any real sense of mindful honesty. We are in fact directly burdened by our childhood past, as much by a missing parent, spiteful divorce, death in the family, abuse or neglect, as by the unexamined patterns of thought sown there. And make no mistake about it—ten years, twenty years, thirty years after the fact—many of us cling to comforting beliefs and contorted arguments as an attempt to shield ourselves or neutralize sticky feelings still percolating along the painful edge of memory.
And therein lays the root of the problem. Down how many branches of the family tree must we trace to determine from how far back our core beliefs have been tapped like syrup, pressed from parent to progeny, over and again, through generations of children too young to ask why, before seeing it is our distant ancestors (wide-eyed and primitive by today's standards) from whom we've inherited our oldest beliefs, whether cherished, irrational, untested, or otherwise. From the shadows of our youth there lingers a vestige of antiquity and superstition reaching across the world, bewitching our perception of reality, encrypting it still with totems and taboos, gods and goddesses, devils, angels, miracles, magic. Like a taproot teasing drink from deep chthonic streams, we siphon belief from the aboriginal past, when the world was flat and the center of the universe and human beings the crowning centerpiece of creation.
With typical egotism and aplomb, we have made ourselves the stars of the show thereby assuring top billing, claiming headliner status around which the meaning of life revolves like attentive cherubim. Even the gods recognize our superiority and clothe themselves in flesh so they might weep real tears, wrestle with temptation, leave bloody footprints in the sand and bear the cross of human suffering. Anthropomorphism notwithstanding, we envision ourselves the center of the universe while manipulating the world from the center of our heads, like commuters steering sedans through heavy traffic. And yet we mustn't judge our egocentrism too harshly—we can only be where we are after all—and it seems we occupy a spot directly behind our eyes or between our ears or above our noses. It's a physical quirk of biology, this self-centeredness, because of the location of our brains and the adjacent portals of sight, sound, scent, and taste. We may touch with our whole bodies, but we feel inside our skulls, hear surround-sound voices, the incessant whispering of our own thoughts and emotions. On the other hand, reality is what happens outside our heads insomuch as it can be shared and confirmed by others. Reality is what exists irrespective of interior dialog, collective imagination, groupthink, or the million little assumptions we embrace to convince ourselves our view of reality is the right view, the real view, the only true and righteous view. Oh, if it were really that simple.
Too often we confuse the notion of believing with that of knowing then further mistake knowing with emotional feeling. Many a religious person will claim they know beyond any doubt their god exists simply because of the way they feel, yet they neglect to consider the organic phenomena of such feelings, the causal agencies impelling belief and behavior, the tendentiousness of knowledge, the outer processes that manipulate thought, or the inner workings of the human mind. Still others will profess belief in the Bible, Jesus, and Yahweh, or the Qurán, Mohammed, and Allah without really knowing why or how or without having scrutinized the sheltered focus of their belief 'outside the circle' whether beyond a book, church, school, township, state, country, even continent. Adherents of different faiths will proudly proclaim to know the truth without ever examining to any degree the nature of knowledge, the processes involved in inward learning, the acuity of self-awareness, or how and why they actually think the way they do. And therein lays another problem, a global lassitude seemingly woven inside the very fabric of humanity: most people around the world never take the time to reflect upon their own thinking or consider all the bad mental habits, false beliefs, and faulty reasoning they've accumulated along the way. Most people never assume to ask themselves whether they're thinking correctly or taking their thoughts for granted, but instead see them as things that just happen, and the world is worse off because of it.
When was the last time you considered the way you think, the hows and whys, wherefores and whatnots? Have you ever studied your own thinking and the dissimilar operations involved (physical, biochemical, environmental, psychological, mental, cultural, emotional, intellectual, historic)? What do you really know about the way your mind works, brain operates, psyche functions, and how would you go about analyzing and reconstructing your various thought processes? Where is the first place you'd start looking? Do you know where your thinking comes from, how it operates, what percentage of it is sound and practical and what percentage unsound and irrational? And what about that chasm looming in between? How much of your thinking is untried and untested, assumed, taken for granted, conflicted and contradictory, disconnected and confused, erroneous and imprecise, insignificant, prejudicial, illogical, off the wall? With all this going on, who's really in control of your thinking, your behavior, your will, your life itself? Or have you surrendered control instead, refused and denied it, given it away, and to whom? And for what reasons? If you've surrendered control or given it away, was it because of something somebody told you, something you read in a book, something somebody interpreted for you, convinced you of, shamed or frightened you into? Up to now, how would you describe the way you think, the precision of your thoughts, what you've learned when it comes to your cogitative ability, how everything fits together and functions, what it all means? Could you describe it? Put it into words? Explain it reasonably to another person? Would you know where to begin? Have you ever given your thoughts and beliefs any real consideration?
If you're like most people you've probably never paid much attention to your thought processes, thinking habits, or belief systems, just assumed they occur naturally and automatically like blinking or breathing. Taking the time to reflect upon thinking and study it seriously, to consider the interconnectedness that influences thought from the individual to society to the species as a whole, is an uncommon trait not shared by most people. Regarding and wrestling with one's mental habits is not something normally taught at home or in school. As children we are not typically given instruction in how we think or why we believe, but rather in what to think and what to believe. We may have even been told the hows and whys will come later, but if they come at all it's usually already too late. The neural channels have been long carved, paved, case-hardened in the flesh of the brain.
By the time we reach a certain age, belief and thought patterns have been deeply rooted along neural branches and we rely upon these patterns to complement reality by charging it with autonomic familiarity and coherence. When we deviate from these patterns by considering new or foreign ideas, our attempts to forge fresh pathways can induce very real physical reactions as the threat of the unfamiliar stimulates biochemical responses. Anxiety, shortness of breath, guilt, fear, blushing, accelerated heartbeat, ringing in the ears, nausea, confusion, a sense of panic—any of these can be symptoms of our straying, however slightly, from familiar avenues of belief, especially those instilled in us (or which we may have instilled ourselves as protective barriers or defense mechanisms) when we were small children.
From childhood to adulthood we have churned billions of thoughts, and everything we have done from then until now, everything we have ever wanted or felt or decided, has been directly influenced by our thinking. And yet, despite this preponderance of thought, in spite of being surrounded by it 24/7 (it even invades our sleep in the guise of dreams) most of us have shown very little interest in how and why we think the way we do or how our belief systems came to be constructed. In this way we are like idiot savants, childlike geniuses who can profess inspired words and articulate lofty arguments while lacking the appreciation and discernment of our speech-making in terms of meaning, motivation, and manipulation. With passion and steadfast resolve we believe and espouse, and while we can tell you in whom we believe or what we believe in, please don't ask us to explain how or why.
A small number of us, however, will eventually wander into the realm of how and why, and this alone takes a good deal of courage and determination. Simply stepping in that direction can produce errant fear and existential panic, the chiding of friends, the remonstration of family, and the rebuke of authorities, yet by asking hard questions and seeking tough answers we gradually discover things about ourselves we never before fully recognized. Some of the things we realize are:
In discovering such things about ourselves, a smaller number of us will strive harder still to ask questions and seek answers, always foreshadowed by how or why.
Before dying a martyr's death in a gas chamber at Auschwitz, Saint Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein) made the following assertion: "Whoever seeks the truth is seeking God, whether consciously or unconsciously." However reassuring this sentiment might be, any affirmation that considers the search for truth coequal to a search for a deity is doing a disservice to truth itself by assuming devotion at the offset then prejudicing its conclusion as already foregone. The search for truth must be, by necessity, sufficient unto itself and clearly evident, neither enticed by familiar presumptions and comforting expectations but a clean and simple tautology. Whoever seeks the truth is seeking truth, period. Not god, not belief, not salvation, not eternal life, not comfort, not hope, not peace of mind, but truth, even at the risk of losing everything or conceding the most disheartening conclusions. Without a willingness to risk it all, to forfeit one's most cherished beliefs and convictions, to hazard eternal hell if need be, the search for truth is compromised at the beginning by fearfulness, denial, shortsightedness, or self deceit.
Most believers are unaware of the physical aspects of belief, its biochemical nature, the way the brain functions, how neural pathways are carved and memories retrieved, nor have they considered what it means to believe, the often-prejudicial nature of the belief process or the vital differences between belief and knowledge, desire and truth, indoctrination and investigation. The double-whammy comes when people unquestionably believe in belief itself, as if belief alone is somehow veracious, self-evident, inherently trustworthy, or the very act of believing in something, anything, is all one needs to ensure fidelity, reliability, and certitude. Untested and unreasoned, belief is reduced to a series of presuppositions that falsely predicate a foreknown conclusion, an initiatory assumption of the "way things are" that pursues no verification or validation. In surrendering to this way of thinking, by believing something true is all that's required to make it true, then verification and validation become unnecessary, are pointless and redundant, thank you kindly, end of discussion. When leisurely belief takes precedence over laboring after truth, then reason, rationality, even sanity, are coldly sabotaged and offered as sacrifice upon the stony altar of blind faith.
It seems there are two types of people in the world: those who need to believe in something, anything, even if it goes against everything we know about the way the world works, and those who aspire to know the truth irregardless of the final cost or outcome, with the former (believers) out-numbering the latter (truth-seekers) by a margin of ten-to-one. Outnumbered in this way, oftentimes feeling alone in his-or-her quest, the truth-seeker is motivated not by what he-or-she hopes to gain in the future (or desires to escape), but aspires only to know the truth even if nothing is gained and everything lost because of it.
For the truth-seeker, truth is more important than the promise of heaven or the threat of hell, hence he-or-she does not shirk from seeking truth even if doing so means the most horrific kind of judgment. Come what may, the truth takes precedence over reward or punishment.
It should be clear to anyone reading this, then, that the truth-seeker is not motivated by self-interest or for any selfish reasons, despite what the apologists might have you believe. The truth-seeker does not want to be god, have his-or-her own way or play by his-or-her own rules. Being rebellious, unrighteous, or disobedient has nothing to do with what motivates the truth-seeker. The only thing the truth-seeker wants is to know the truth and do so through mindful honesty and by examining all the available evidence. Come Judgment Day (if such be more than an immoral metaphor) the truth-seeker can at least proclaim that he-or-she did not become a believer in order to earn a place in heaven, become immortal, be reunited with loved ones, be cured of infirmity, or escape hell, but aspired only to know the truth. In fact, given a choice between seeking truth and going to hell or becoming a believer and going to heaven, the truth-seeker will likely choose hell over paradise since aspiring after the truth is deemed a more imperative commission than being rewarded all the gifts heaven might offer.
On rarified occasions a believer may find him-or-herself crossing the line and becoming a truth-seeker. Sometimes this process is slow and gradual and extended across several years, while other times it is lightning fast and propelled by either epiphany or event. Usually it is predicated by the believer finally finding the courage to start asking tough questions, to see what underlies the belief process in terms of meaning and motivation, to admit or "fess up" to those niggling doubts eating away at the back of the mind. Anything can set it off: one too many contradictions between the arguments of faith and the evidence of science; one too many contradictions between passages of the sacred writing itself; one too many contradictions between the definitions of the deity and the actions of the deity; one too many contradictions between the translations of the sacred writing, the interpretation of the sacred writing, the versions of the sacred writing, the canon of the sacred writing, the doctrines of the sacred writing, the defending arguments of the sacred writing; one too many contradictions between the sacred writing and other sacred writings, non-sacred writings, myths and legends, archaeological findings, anthropological findings, mythical, biological, historical, geological, astronomical, moral, ethical, scientific findings, etc.
Regardless how the ball of inquiry is set in motion, the first step the new truth-seeker might take is to examine the belief process itself and recognize the different ways beliefs are incurred and influenced by a broad array of sources. It is from this very vantage point that I have found myself embarked on a journey along a thousand avenues of inquiry.
My only hope is that you might someday find the courage to join me.
The Meaning of Life
The Meaning of Life is "in the living."
Being alive—today—is the meaning.
Experiencing consciousness, recognizing causality (i.e., cause and effect), deliberating on one's own actions and the results of those actions in an immense universe is the greatest gift there is.
What? Do you want more?
Do you think you deserve more, that there could possibly be something better than living your life to the fullest right here and right now ?
People aren't concerned about their existence (or lack of existence) BEFORE they were born. Why are they so concerned about it AFTER they die?
Denying this life in the here-and-now for a fanciful promise no one has ever experienced is the greatest tragedy of all, and the mother of most of the world's suffering.
"For whoever wants to save his life will lose it..."
Life isn't for saving (you can't 'save it up' or 'keep it safe'); life is for living, and therein lays its real meaning.
So, what is the Meaning of Life after all? Only life itself.
A ll that exists is atoms and the Void. Everything else is just opinion.
- Democritus, 400 BCE
How much do I love, can I love, might I love?
Am I willing to risk losing my life for another person, even surrender, forfeit, or deliberately reject my eternal salvation, my just reward, my place in heaven, etc. for another person, to take his-or-her place in hell, and ask nothing in return, not even recognition that they are now safe because of me?
If I am not willing to do this, what does this say about me? If I am willing to do this, what does this say about God?
If I, a mere mortal, can give up my life to save another person without demanding recognition or demanding praise, why couldn't Jesus? If I'm willing to take another's place in hell without him-or-her ever knowing I did this for them, without acknowledgment, without a word of thanks, why is God so all-fired-up to send me to hell if I don't acknowledge him first? Isn't God's love suppose to be a higher love, a stronger love, a more perfect love than what we are capable?
If I am willing to sacrifice everything without asking anything in return, why isn't God able to do the same thing for me?
As long as there's a threat of Hell, how can we be satisfied to go to Heaven?
As long as God threatens Hell, is this the kind of God really worthy of worship?
The Purpose of Life
The Purpose of Life is to preserve humanity through the enrichment, empowerment, and improvement of each successive generation (or successions of generations, whether familial, local or global) through philosophy, discovery, or invention; to leave behind an aesthetic, utilitarian, or instructive construct that might act as a “stepping stone” in the on-going advancement (whether subtle or not-so-subtle) of successive generations. Because we all die, our purpose is to aid and bootstrap those who will outlive us, who survive us, who by their very youth must move forward and carry on in our absence, and always thus in a long succession of generation to generation. By doing anything less than this, by thinking only of ourselves, our wants and desires, would mean that we would have both lived and died in vain.
The Purpose of Life may be measured against a backdrop of behavior and belief by asking oneself the following questions:
Above all things, truth.
For better or for worse, truth.
Here the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, 11 June 1865
Seattle, Washington USA
September 14, 2001
Links Of Interest
Craig Duckett 's Religion & Interpretation