Sunday, 28 October 2012

Belief, Faith and Religions

Last week I read a sentence that made  me think. I am still pondering what it means

"Believing is a human act, conscious and free, corresponding to the dignity of the human person"

There are three words, which many people wrongly interchange. These are belief, faith and religion. I suspect that most of us have belief. This could be belief in Athiesm, Socialism, Conservatism, Christianity, Islam or Manchester City FC. As the statement above clarifies, we can only really give this if we are free to give it. If you sign up to something in which you have no belief, then that demeans your human dignity. If you sign up to something because you have been forced to sign up to it, then that demeans us all. That is why we should all fight for an individuals right to freedom of expression and belief.

Then there is faith. Less of us have faith than belief. Faith is what sees us through difficult times. Again we can have faith in many things. I have faith in the people I love to support me through hard times. Some of us have faith in God. Some of us have faith that there is no God. Faith is good when it supports us, but we must also be open to the fact that sometimes our faith may have misguided us. Scientists have worked for centuries towards a cure for cancer. Many of these scientists have progressed down dead ends long after it was clear that science didn't support that particular line of enquiry, because they had faith in their theories. Sadly today many adherents of all manner of disproven ideas and outdated concepts are still bound to them by faith in both the secular and religious world. This takes us on to religion.

Religion is in effect a prescription of faith and belief. There are in the main three reasons why people belong to a religion. Because they are compelled to, because they receive benefit from belonging and because they believe and have faith in the teachings of that religion. Some religions prescribe terrible punishments for people who lose their faith and become "apostate". Once you lose the faith and belief, you are then living a lie and your personal religious commitment has no validity.

There is another factor which we need to throw into the mix. This is in some ways the most important element. This element is reason. The world has moved on and developed as humans have developed reason to analyse the world we live in. Many see reason as an enemy of belief, faith and religion. I do not. I see reason as a tool to make our own belief, faith and religion (if we have one) better. Reason means listening to other viewpoints, analysing evidence and improving our understanding of our existence. I do not belief that truth can ever be contradicted by truth. I do not believe that reason can contradict honesty. If honesty, truth and reason contradict the tenents of our beliefs, faiths and religions, then we have to adapt these to reflect the truth. If we believe in a God, then we cannot possibly believe that God contradicts Gods rules. If we do not believe in a God, we have only reason to validate our own beliefs and faith. We see the world through our own eyes and experience it through our own senses. These can mislead us, so we need to validate what we see.

Let me give you an example. I had a friend who believed that when he took LSD he became a visionary and he understood everything in the whole cosmosphere. He came up with a cunning plan for himself and a group of friends to have an evening where they took LSD and tape recorded all of the conversations. One person, who did not wish to partake, agreed to sit there and work the tape recorder. The LSD team had an amazing night. They managed to solve all of the problems of the world. They had a three hour debate on the subject and at the end decided that they could distill all of this into one sentence. A week later, they reconvened to listen to the tapes, convinced that they had achieved a world changing breakthrough. They were shocked to hear three hours of incredibly dull psychobabble. After three hours, they came up with the solution to all the worlds problems in one sentence "We should all be nicer to each other". This was followed by an hour of everyone saying "man, it is so simple, why has no one ever figured this out before?".

What the tape had done, rather brutally, was show them that their own perceptions of what happened had been wrong. Of course it would be lovely if we were all nicer to each other, but sadly it is more difficult than that. The mistake we often make is that when our beliefs are shattered, or we lose faith in an ideal or we lose our religion, we lose much of the good things that these things brought us. This may be companionship or it may be security. I spoke to someone who had been a committed athiest, who changed their mind about God following a near death experience. She told me that she'd fallen out with most of her friends who were athiest, who couldn't accept her new view of the world. I know many former members of churches who have had the same experience. Often it is not a choice on the part of the person who has developed their beliefs, faith or religion, but a decision on the part of the former friends to ostracise the person.

I happen to think that this is done as a defence mechanism to resist change. Anyway, what is the point of all of this, you may ask? Well I happen to believe we are all on a personal journey and each one of us will take a different route. None of us will have the same experiences and share the same views about everything. Seeking to impose our views on others is against reason and to me it lacks respect. Sometimes we do this for the highest of intentions. I happen to believe that religious groups who deny members urgent medical treatments to preserve life are evil. I would urge anyone in such a position to reconsider whether a religion which damaged their health and wellbeing could really be a force for good. I happen to believe (note the use of the word) that if God hadn't intended medicines to be used, God wouldn't make them effective. Now I have no right to impose my view on that person. They can reject my view.  Where I believe society has a right to intervene is when that group seek to impose their views on third parties, who are in no position to decide for themselves. I believe in religious freedom for the person, but where that person practising their religion causes suffering to another person, we have to say "sorry, you are now abusing the concept of religous freedom and you must desist".

Of course there are some arguments which will never be satisfactorily resolved for everyone, but as a democracy, we have to choose to allow the majority to set the rules. For those who disagree, if they want to change the course of the debate, they must use reason. Ultimately if they have the best argument, they should have the faith to see this through. If they haven't they must accept this and either reexamine their beliefs or try and refine their arguments.

I don't really expect that too many people will agree with all I have said. Actually, I suspect that many will disagree with most of it. That doesn't matter, what matters is that we as a society have to learn to address belief, faith and religion in their proper context. A Rabbi, Imam or a Priest may have a large following. They do however only have one vote. It is the responsibility of the members of their society to ensure that these people represent the views of the community and don't use their platform to represent something entirely different. I believe that all of these must put the fight for social justice at the forefront of their work. There are many problems in the world, but while we have inequality and injsutice, I cannot believe any of them will ever be resolved. Any religious leader who is not prepared to stand up and be counted in the fight to ensure that in the eyes of the law and the state, all men are equal and we are all treated equally in matters of justice and law, to me has forfeited the right to be a community leader.

I was asked to publicise a meeting on the 7th November at 8pm at St Michaels Church in Mill Hill run by a Justice and Peace group. Paddy Lyons is giving a talk about night shelters for Homeless people run by local churches and a synagogue in Finchley.  The organisers have asked that as many local people as possible, who care about Justice and Peace attend to hear about this important work. It can only be positive for society when diverse groups come together for the common good.

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