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How to Choose a Religion III: Why Be Religious?

Why choose a religion?

dealingwithdifficultiesThis post is addressed to agnostics — those who haven’t decided what they believe, or who have decided not to decide. If you believe strongly that there is no God, or that science is the ultimate answer, then I count that as a religion too (see this post for why). But if you base your worldview on the scientific method (which requires a stance of permanent doubt), then you’re agnostic, and this post is for you.

Agnosticism is like riding a bicycle.

I think it was Douglas Adams who said that bicyclists inhabit an exclusive moral high ground. Your average bicyclist feels morally superior to everyone else on the road, with good reason. After all, the bicyclist is not polluting the air and taking up obscene amounts of road space, like those idiots in the cars (plus the bicyclist is also getting exercise); and the bicyclist is traveling much more quickly and efficiently than those pathetic pedestrians, who are always getting in the way.

Similarly, the agnostic can feel superior to both the atheist and the evangelist. The true agnostic refuses to take any position without proof, so no matter who is in the argument — monotheistic, polytheist, atheist — the agnostics win, because they can systematically dismantle the positions of their opponents without having to defend any of their own.

Does that mean that agnosticism is the only rational choice? Certainly not. In fact, there are plenty of good reasons to choose a religion.

  • Community. A healthy religion creates an intimate community of like-minded people. The community is intimate because the honest practice of religion requires allowing oneself the vulnerable, which in turn leads to intimacy. There are few better ways to create a lifetime’s worth of great friends.
  • Personal growth. A healthy religion will always challenge you to grow — especially spiritually, but also mentally and emotionally. The definition of “spiritual growth” is arguable (it may mean different things in different religions) but it’s trivially the case that you will not grow spiritually if you’re agnostic. Of course, you can grow emotionally and mentally if you’re agnostic; but a good religion will offer tools and techniques to help you along.
  • Purpose. This pearl of great price is offered by many religions. If you are Christian, for example, your purpose is to become one with God. If you are Buddhist, your purpose is to break free of the wheel of reincarnation. Pagan, polytheist, and shamanistic religions offer a variety of purposes, depending on the gods you focus on. Science does a particularly shoddy job of offering purposes; the best purpose that it’s come up with so far is “reproduce”, which is fine as far as it goes, but not very inspiring. If you’re agnostic, you have to come up with one by yourself. For many, this is not a problem; but for others, the purposelessness of life is a major source of depression and apathy.
  • Miracles. Naturally, you can’t have miracles without religion. And believe me, miracles can come in pretty handy.

…You don’t believe in miracles?

Maybe I’ll convince you otherwise by the end of this series. But we have to lay some more groundwork first. In the next post, I’ll describe some common pitfalls to avoid when choosing a religion.

Links to other Posts in this series: How to Choose a Religion I: Intro

Comments

  1. Jeff – What a cool post. I’m really enjoying reading your articles. Just last night I was having a conversation with my boyfriend’s family, most of whom are Catholics (I was raised Jewish but now identify as spirtitual rather than relgious). We were talking about how similiar all religions and spiritual practices are, once you strip away the specifics of ritual and god-names. One person was talking about a scientest friend of theirs who has identified as strictly agnostic because he cannot find proof of a soul in a human body. This actually struck me as sad, to be so identified with the logic side of your brain that you end up denying the emotional/spiritual side. I suppose it’s the old “to a hammer everything is a nail” problem. People fascinate me endlessly.

  2. Jeff Lilly says:

    Hi Jerry, glad you’re enjoying the ride! And thanks for the feedback. I hope you went by Slade’s site to read the overview of the whole “How to Choose a Religion” series, which will put some of what I’m saying into larger perspective.

    I think there’s an interesting psychological dynamic going on here with people who profess agnosticism or atheism. If you think about it, most religions that people know about today are not their own. For example, suppose you’re Christian. Then you know about Islam, Buddhism, shamanism, etc., etc., and you assume they’re all false. And if you’re Muslim, then you know about Christianity, and Buddhism, and shamanism, etc., and you assume they’re all false. But if all those religions are false, then you can’t help but wonder, deep down — maybe my religion is false too?

    In other words, knowledge of other religions leads to doubt about your own. There’s no way around that, if you’re at all a thoughtful person! And then you are stuck; there’s no obvious way to solve the issue. No religion is demonstrably false, and no religion is demonstrably true. And people are afraid of making the wrong choice; so they make no choice at all — either they say “all of them are false” or they refuse to take a stand. But there IS another way out, which is what you hint at: all the religions are true. More people should explore that option…

  3. Hi jeff,
    I was jus brwsing through the “GOD” tag posst on WP and came across yours. I have been reading the series and find your arguments to be good. Though I agree on the need to have a religion(in general for the masses), I am strongly of the opinion that religion is something I can do away with atleast in my personal level. I call my self an atheist because I believe that there cannot be any GOD.

  4. AK, thanks for dropping by.

    Something I maybe should have made clearer in this article is that I’m lumping atheism in with religions here. In other words, atheism offers many of the advantages that religion itself does. For example, in the realm of personal growth, atheism requires a measure of self-reliance that is uncommon in other belief systems; and it certainly can be healthy to develop that. I think it’s rather lacking in the “purpose” and “miracles” departments, though.

    As you know if you’ve read my articles, I’m not atheist; I’m polytheist. When you say “I believe that there cannot be any GOD”, do you mean there can’t be any God (i.e. of the monotheistic type, a single perfect God overseeing everything) or there can’t be any gods (i.e. of the polytheistic type)?

    By the way, why do you place “god” in all capital letters?

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