Last week, I laid out the first of six arguments about religion — arguments that I have found interesting and worth exploring in depth. The first argument was that if you chose the wrong religion, you’d waste years of your life. The second argument is that religious beliefs are frequently inconsistent.
Christianity, for example, has a huge body of scripture written over the course of 3,000 years, and things don’t always square up. The Old Testament says “An eye for an eye,” and the New Testament says “turn the other cheek”; Jesus says “blessed are the peacemakers” and “I bring not peace but a sword” (is the Son of God himself not blessed? Or can some warmakers be blessed too? Or did Jesus mean something else entirely?); etc. There are various ways in which these conflicts can be resolved, but sometimes the logic gets quite pretzeled.
One of the nastiest puzzles of this sort in Christianity is the problem of evil. How can evil exist when God is omnipotent and good? Why doesn’t God just wipe out the evil? A few years ago, when I was teetering on the edge of atheism and agnosticism, I dove deep into the Catholic Encyclopedia online to figure out the answer to this one. Here was the answer, as far as I could make out:
- God gave people free will, so clearly they can choose to do evil.
- Yet God himself has made us the way we are, and — according to Catholic doctrine — has even planted within us the impetus to be good. Without that impetus — that Grace — which comes only from God, we cannot be saved. We can strive towards Grace, but even that desire, that striving, comes from God.
- But not everyone gets saved.
- So God basically decides ahead of time who gets Grace — the badge that lets them into the City of God — and who doesn’t.
- Who knows why God chooses some people for Grace and not others? It’s a Mystery.
I took that to mean that, according to Catholic doctrine, (6) God created beings that he intentionally planned on sending to hell for eternity. So (7) Catholics believe that God is Evil. Unfair of me, perhaps, but I mean — really! Go look it up and tell me if I’ve read it wrong.
So religious beliefs are frequently inconsistent, at least at first blush. Most folks throw up their hands, assume that God knows what he’s doing, and try their best to do what he says.
But this, it is argued, isn’t healthy. The effect is that only religious experts — the clergy — have the answers, which puts the rest of the population into an attitude of subservience. They assume they are ignorant; they think it is safe to ignore the issues, that God or the clergy will take care of it, or that it’s all just unknowable, and stop trying. This attitude is equivalent to building a big wall across your spiritual life, and traps you in a sort of self-imposed childhood. Or perhaps you do explore the deep contradictions, you think about them and sit with them, and contemplate the Mysteries, and end up thinking you are being all spiritual and at Peace with the Ineffable, when in fact you’re just being hypocritical.
Now, I am sympathetic to this argument. I definitely do agree that it’s not safe to leave your spiritual life in the hands of the clergy. You can’t hire someone else to take care of your soul. Guides, yes, advisors, certainly, but no one can steer the ship of your soul but you. Given that, you owe it to yourself to explore the mysteries and arrive at your own answers. Because there are answers — and good ones. For example, I think there is a critical flaw in step 3 of the Catholic argument above. (How would Catholicism be different if they dropped that assumption? Funny how a simple logical step can affect the lives of billions.)
However, I am not against hypocrisy — the simultaneous belief in contradictory statements — in principle. I used to have a personal aversion to it, but over the last few years I’ve gotten more relaxed about the whole thing. Let me explain a bit further.
Yes, an unexamined contradiction is extremely dangerous. For example, if you believe all men are created equal, yet you think it’s fine to enslave black people, this is a contradiction, and it’s not ok to dismiss it or try not to think about it. Similarly, if Jesus says “blessed are the peacemakers,” but you think it’s ok for the “Christian” United States to attack other nations, or even to act militarily in self-defense, this is a contradiction, and you’d damn well better think about it carefully. Believe me, the state of your soul depends on how you resolve it.
However, an examined contradiction is fertile ground for thought and growth. Holding two contradictory beliefs in the mind, weighing them, considering them, and balancing them, forces your mind into new paths and opens up new vistas of possibility. Even if the contradiction is never resolved, the effort is worthwhile. In Zen Buddhism, sitting with near-unresolvable contradictions (koans) is an essential practice. For example, given a bottle with a goose inside it, how can you get the goose out of the bottle, without breaking the bottle? There are any number of different ways to resolve the question, and each one is True in its own way. My personal favorite is to feed the goose until the goose breaks the bottle. Or take the particle / wave contradiction in quantum mechanics. Sometimes it’s useful to think of the universe as made of particles, sometimes as waves. Neither is false, neither is true, and either way the math still works.
So I do not think contradiction per se is a problem with religion. It’s inherent to any complete belief system, if you push it far enough (see Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems). But I do agree that it needs to be handled very carefully.
Next week: Think For Yourself!