Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Believe It Or Not

It becomes clear that a great schism wracks human society with spasms of outlandish idiocy, foments titanic battles between groups of otherwise normal people, and leaves the foul stench of hypocrisy lingering on the breeze, like the wisps of Winter wood smoke. On one side, the fervent religious believers, who take their scripture to heart, using the very words to conjure up visions of how secular society will doom humanity to an ignominious fate. On the other, the rationalists, believers in unbelief, clad in the armor of science and pointedly against anything that even hints of human invention, determined to expose the machinations of religious zealotry in committing us all to a hideous fate.

I tire of them both. As usual, the answer to it all lies in between.

It is clear that fundamentalists in many of the worlds religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, to name the most prevalent offenders), use their "superior" knowledge of God's will and word to shake the air with exclamations of how blasphemous modern society is, for straying so far from them. The Ultra-Orthodox Jew spits upon a woman for daring to sit anywhere she likes on the bus, in contravention of "law." The Islamic fundamentalist has no trouble rallying followers to strap explosives upon their person and detonate them in the marketplace to punish those who do not abide their strict interpretation of the Qur'an. The Christian zealot has no trouble with the murder of an abortion doctor in the name of "saving lives." The number of examples are seemingly endless.

However, we must, as with all things, do our best to refrain from applying too broad a brush to converts and believers. No color, creed, gender, or orientation is so completely shot through with one type of trait as to make the whole irredeemable, much as we would like to believe it. Adherents of the word of Jesus Christ cannot be universally reviled, for many of us who believe in his words and deeds see them for what they are: examples of how to live a better life. Even the Dalai Lama, scion of Tibetan Buddhism, admonishes us to not run so quickly to one religion from another where we have not considered fully the lessons within the first.

Belief is a very touchy subject now, given how the advance of science over the centuries has peeled back the curtains to give us a glimpse of the mechanisms behind the universe we inhabit. Science has erased superstition and storytelling as viable explanations of everyday events. No longer are lightning bolts the weapons of Zeus, nor the whipping waves Poseidon's wrath. We now look warily at any story that seeks to explain a phenomenon, where there appears no rationality or logic behind it. The "old ways" no longer seem to have the same grip they did when humanity was younger and more ignorant of the magic just beyond our fingertips, below the surface of perception.

And still, we have not abandoned wholesale those old -- and sometimes primitive -- belief systems, not because we are incapable, but more because, like a well-worn sweater or family heirloom, we find some comfort in them. Science may be able to tell us the composition of the atom, or how the Sun converts hydrogen into the warm fingers of energy that tickle our skin, but it cannot answer the deeper questions of our lives: why are we here, what is purpose? Religion still purports to fill that role, and while sociology and psychology might tell us the whys and wherefores of human behavior, neither can put to rest the subtle and nagging questions that lie at the back of the human mind.

Some have, in this modern world, managed to divorce themselves from the need to have a ready-made system to help them cope with life and all its sundry disappointments and triumphs. For them, it is enough that they are, that they live, and that their choice to go without a stock belief system should be respected. Among them, as well, do we find zealotry, for it is not enough for some to have reached this state, without using such "enlightenment" as a sword with which to try and cut down those who still stand on the rock of their religious beliefs.

No matter which camp you call yours, the end result of this need to purvey the beliefs you hold, and to do so in contravention of the inherent right of the individual to hold onto whatever beliefs they choose, creates unnecessary friction at a time when peace is a precious commodity and the endless cycle of conflict on our planet seems like it will never cease.

There is a reason the Founding Fathers found it necessary to place both freedom of speech and of worship so prominently in the Bill of Rights; the First Amendment, which is held up often as the greatest expression of American freedom, set the tone for the nation. Their religious upbringing and beliefs being very different, being exposed to the ideas of the Enlightenment, and realizing the necessity for the rights of the individual to be guarded stringently, the Founders set forth in the First Amendment those things which would matter most to the growing country: the right to worship freely, speak forthrightly, and to do so without government interference.

So where we are given these freedoms, we must be reminded of the import of the statements in the amendment, for it is not enough that we be allowed the right to worship (or not) freely and of our volition, and to speak our minds on this and other subjects, but it must be recognized that such freedom is not a guarantee that our beliefs or our speech are in the best interests of all Americans. We must accept, if we are to have these freedoms, that a certain amount of hatred, bigotry, and intolerance will be shielded by them. We must also accept, for it is the core of individual liberty, that religious belief or non-belief is inherently an individual choice, irrespective of whether that belief is part of an organized structure or not.

It is not a case of Us vs. Them, for Us plus Them equals We, The People. If we must fight something, let it be the gross fundamentalism of so many, who, "knowing what is best for us," would seek to impose their belief structures on us unconditionally, in contravention of our individual liberty and freedom. Let us not turn this fight into an organized war on belief, itself; down that way leads to tyranny. The universe is vast, mysterious, complex, and foreboding. We understand it in only the grossest detail. Until our understanding reaches a deeper and more expansive level, there is still room for unsupported belief, where it is a candle in the darkness, awaiting the illumination that comes with the rise of knowledge.

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