I doubt many readers would argue that we should scrap our country’s Constitution because of how it has been interpreted – yet that defines the substance of a repeated argument against religion.
Yes, religion has been used as a tool to advance human greed and lust for power. So has science … and sex, food, politics, nationalism, you name it. (Did I mention science?).
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Yes, religion has caused some deep rifts between peoples (ditto the other items I mentioned). The scriptures of my own religion, the Baha’i Faith, make a point that:
Religionists have considered the world of humanity as two trees: one divine and merciful, the other satanic; they themselves the branches, leaves and fruit of the divine tree and all others who differ from them in belief the product of the tree which is satanic. Therefore, sedition and warfare, bloodshed and strife have been continuous among them. The greatest cause of human alienation has been religion because each party has considered the belief of the other as anathema and deprived of the mercy of God.
In the Dhammapada, the Buddha maintained that “Hatred does not cease by hatred; hatred ceases by love. This is an eternal Law.”
Not only did the Buddha state this principal in the strongest terms, but there is nothing in his teachings that justifies violence against any other religious group. Quite the opposite. Yet there is violence between some Buddhists and their Hindu or Christian neighbors. There is nothing in Christ’s teachings that tells His followers to treat non-Christians as if they were satanic. Again, quite the opposite. Violence in the name of religion runs counter to the teachings of both Buddhism and Christianity. Yet, that doesn’t stop it from happening, as the Book of Mathew in the Bible testifies:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven…
The scriptures of the Baha’i Faith take this spiritual principle even further:
Should any come to blows with you, seek to be friends with him; should any stab you to the heart, be ye a healing salve unto his sores; should any taunt and mock at you, meet him with love.
A comparative study of religious texts shows the prevalence of this principle of love and kindness. If there is a “religious mindset” promoted by God’s presumptive messengers, it is the one typified by these passages of scripture. To my correspondent Steve, however, sacred texts were to be judged not by their contents, but by the interpretations and behavior of their most disobedient adherents. Ultimately, so were all religious adherents to be judged.
This brings me to an element in my discourse with anti-theists that I find particularly jaw-dropping – the idea that, for all religious people, our belief in God or in a particular messenger of God revolves around one data point. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been asked, “So, Muhammad was a nice guy — is everybody who’s nice or compassionate a prophet?” Or: “So Baha’u‘llah claimed he had a revelation — do you believe everyone who says God has spoken to them?”
The answer? A puzzled “Uh, no,” accompanied by the most astonished expression I can muster.
I think these kinds of questions arise out of the certainty that there actually is a simplistic “religious mindset” common to all people of faith. It would be as if I imagined that all atheists or anti-theists had the same “atheist mindset” that went beyond merely disbelieving in a God, or a specific type of God, and that having met one atheist, I have met them all.
I asked Steve if he would base his trust or belief in anything on a single point of data. If the theoretical particle physicist Alan Guth said, “Hey, I just discovered pink neutrinos!” would Steve automatically believe there were pink neutrinos? Wouldn’t he want to hear from other physicists and possibly read and rationally evaluate their conclusions himself? If he understood something about physics, wouldn’t he ponder the evidence before deciding if he accepted the idea of pink neutrinos?
Of course he would. But would all atheists or agnostics do so? Wouldn’t there be, among non-believers, those who would read that Guth had said this (if, indeed, they knew who he was) and say, “How about that. There are pink neutrinos.”
So, I asked Steve: “If you would not be likely to accept a proposition on a single point of data, why would you imagine I would accept that someone brought a new revelation to humanity simply because they said they did?”
Steve then asked me to explain why I believed as I did. I tried to sum it up in less than a novel-length tome in my earlier BahaiTeachings.org essay. However, I think the mathematician William S. Hatcher, who wrote copiously about science and religion, framed the general principle eloquently when he said this in his book The Science of Religion:
It would be a mistake to say that we hold such a statement to be true because of reason, or because of intuition, or because of experience. In the final analysis, we hold something as true only because of everything else which we accept as true, that is, because this something is consistent with our experience and understanding of life as a whole. No statement can be held absolutely to be true, for no statement is independent of other statements and facts which may come to our attention at some future date. Nor is it independent of the meaning of other statements, a meaning which may be altered either by subtle shifts in the way we use words or by a change in explicit conventions and definitions. A combination of such factors can result in a change in the implication relation and thus a change in the truth value of some statements. Our knowledge, then, is relative. It is relative not only to time but to the whole body of our present knowledge which forms the context in which the statement has meaning in the first place.
It has taken me decades of study, observation, experience, intuition, reasoning, and analysis to reach the point I am at today. The scriptures of my faith advise three complimentary modes of behavior:
- Independently and rationally investigating reality.
- Making sure that one’s understanding of faith accords with that reality.
- Bringing oneself to account on a daily basis.
This is the “religious mindset” promoted by the documented teachings of Baha’u’llah – but Baha’u’llah is not the first claimant to divine revelation to suggest that reason is a critically important tool in a life of faith.
Christ famously advocated the use of logic and reason in a number of his talks. Take for example, this one verse from the Sermon on the Mount in which Christ appeals to the rational faculties of His audience:
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
Failing to apply ourselves in this way is as much a breach of religious principle as it is of scientific principle.