What’s organized religion got to do with whether or not God is?

By Martha Woodroof Christopher Hitchens’ tussle with metastasized esophageal cancer has brought death back as a hot topic among those … Continued

By Martha Woodroof

Christopher Hitchens’ tussle with metastasized esophageal cancer has brought death back as a hot topic among those of us who are drawn to, or repelled by, organized religion.

Death is, after all, the Big Yikes, the ultimate Uncontrollable Event. We are so beyond clueless about what goes on after it happens, and we do hate being clueless. Not to mention that cluelessness scares us – particularly when it involves something as life-changing as our own death.

Reading Christopher Hitchens thoughts about dying, it occurred to me that accepting we don’t have a clue about what happens to us after death exemplifies life’s most formidable spiritual challenge: Facing reality as it actually is. And Mr. Hitchens appears, at least in public, to be doing a graceful job of doing this.

Organized religions, however, as I think Mr. Hitchens would agree, bet their considerable farms that humans are not up to the reality challenge, and so deliberately cultivate fear of death as a major recruiting tool.

It mystifies me whenever I realize that people have allowed themselves to be drawn into religions’ fold through the promise of some fantasy rescue from an imagined despair and/or torment. What makes them assume that death is something to fear in the first place? Most of us, after all, were afraid of first grade, and that worked out all right. Didn’t we learn anything from that experience about opting for curiosity over fear when facing the unknown?

Speaking of adventures, Mr. Hitchens has announced plans to die as he has lived, secure in his belief that there is no God, because organized religions have got God wrong. I agree completely with him that religions generally make a mess of God; but, to me, that’s a completely separate issue from whether God is or isn’t. If the great Whatever exists; It exists. Whether Mr. Hitchens or I believe It exists is vastly, supremely, even quite comically beside the point.

I term myself a person of faith who is not religious. I believe Mystery is; but that is the end of my intellectual understanding of the great Whatever. Just because I can’t explain this Mystery, however, doesn’t mean to me I shouldn’t avail myself of what It has to offer.

There have been things in my own life that I can only explain by accepting that I somehow hooked up with Something in me, that isn’t of me – the aforementioned Mystery – that leads me to live a much more useful and happier life. I can’t explain God, the great Whatever, to Mr. Hitchens’ (or even my own) intellectual satisfaction, but so what? The human mind can’t grasp everything, and to make explaining God a criteria for hooking up with God to my mind is shooting yourself in your spiritual foot.

If you have a problem with “God” because of the word’s heavy association with organized religions, for heaven’s sake use another identifier for the great Whatever. (Personally, I used Alice for years). Just don’t let semantics, the shortcomings and fear mongering of organized religion, and the limited reach of the intellect, rob you of the chance to live in connection with the great Whatever.

My quarrel with Mr. Hitchens is that he appears to throw out the Mystery with the myths when he claims there is no God because he finds religions’ takes on God (and on death) so intellectually offensive. What, I would very much like to ask him, does organized religion really have to do with God’s existence?

Martha note: This is round seven of Faith Unboxed, an ongoing, civil, respectful conversation about faith I invite you to participate by sharing your own ideas and experiences (either here or on the website), rather than by denigrating the ideas and experiences of others.

  • ncalbertson

    Speaking for myself and my family, I feel under-served by organized religion (i.e., organized around a specific religious doctrine) as a model of spiritual community. I don’t see any reason why there couldn’t be a spiritual community organized around the larger arc of the shared experience of living deeply and of daily spiritual practice, where specific doctrinal beliefs are important but secondary details that can vary by person. As an atheist who is nonetheless captivated by the Mystery of the universe, I have more in common with a liberal Christian than I dare say that person has in common with a fundamentalist who believes America was founded as a Christian nation and that those who do not subscribe to their dogma are going to hell. For many of us, dogma is detail, not unimportant but also not fundamental. Experiencing spiritual transformation and mystery on whatever path is authentic are the true fundamentals.I see this is as just a natural progression toward greater pluralism – the spiritual sphere catching up with the secular. My experience tells me that I am part of significant segment of society that is under-served by organized religion. It’s time for us to get organized, just not around dogma.

  • acebojangles

    I don’t know enough about Hitchens to say what his take on this article would be. As for myself, the ideas presented here don’t speak to one of my major objections to belief in whatever this mystery is: Acceptance of mystical ideas with no real proof represents an intellectual laziness that is dangerous to free and rigorous inquiry.

  • kst2

    Ms. Woodruff

  • Sajanas

    So, for starters, Hitchens does not reject God because he believes organized religions got God wrong. He rejects it because he firmly believes there is no creator, spirit, or anything, and the universe is built out of natural processes.Frankly, I find nothing sadder than people who stand around the body of someone has died and ask “I wonder where our friend has gone?”. Your friend is dead, the remaining matter is right next to you. There is no ‘departure’, no ‘next life’. If you think that its not to be feared, you should avail yourself to watch some nature videos. Dying isn’t a fun experience, but we have no reason to expect that death, is any different than the time before we were born. Nothing, but at least it is a nothing that doesn’t come with any sort of eternal choral obligations.

  • PSolus

    edbyronadams,”The problem with the word “God” or “Alice” for that matter is that it objectifies the mystic reality as something outside.”Mystic reality?”We are all manifestations of the Mystic Law.”Exactly how did you come to possess this knowledge?”Our lives are transient manifestations of the eternal like waves upon the ocean.”Again, how did you come to possess this knowledge?”Tell me how you separate those two.”Tell us how

  • Carstonio

    There have been things in my own life that I can only explain by accepting that I somehow hooked up with Something in me, that isn’t of me – the aforementioned Mystery – that leads me to live a much more useful and happier life. I respect Woodroof’s right to pursue her own happiness in ways that don’t affect others’ own pursuits. However, I still criticize the generic principle she espouses, which is using assumptions or feelings as substitutes for answers. Not only does that go against the principle of knowledge, staking one’s happiness on such assumptions can lead to that happiness collapsing if the assumptions are ever shown to be false. True uncertainty is better than potentially false certainty. And being factually correct may (repeat may) be more important than being happy.If you have a problem with “God” because of the word’s heavy association with organized religions, for heaven’s sake use another identifier for the great Whatever. (Personally, I used Alice for years). Just don’t let semantics, the shortcomings and fear mongering of organized religion, and the limited reach of the intellect, rob you of the chance to live in connection with the great Whatever.Here, Woodroof offends believers and non-believers alike when she argues that non-belief is nothing more than a reflective rejection of organized religion. Plenty of people belong to organized religions but don’t believe, and plenty of people do believe who don’t belong to such religions.I would agree that religion is much more than the organized variety. But any sort of beliefs in gods is a religious belief, even when the believer subscribes to no organized religion. A belief that gods don’t exist still qualifies as a religious belief.

  • PSolus

    Carstonio,”A belief that gods don’t exist still qualifies as a religious belief.”How about a lack of belief that one can have a belief that gods don’t exist?Does that qualify as:- A religious belief?

  • Carstonio

    How about a lack of belief that one can have a belief that gods don’t exist?I’m not sure of your question. Are you saying that there are only two positions, belief that gods exist or belief that gods don’t exist? What about not taking a position either way? I usually state the question as, “Do gods exist or not?” and the possible answers as Yes, No, I Don’t Know, Likely, and Unlikely. I’m suggesting that lack of a belief that gods exist may also be lack of a belief that gods don’t exist.

  • Carstonio

    To clarify, the question “Do gods exist?” involves an unknowable question, one that implicitly rejects even the possibility of evidence either way, so to take a position of Yes or No is to take a religious one.

  • PSolus

    Carstonio,”To clarify, the question “Do gods exist?” involves an unknowable question, one that implicitly rejects even the possibility of evidence either way, so to take a position of Yes or No is to take a religious one.”Can you please specify the answer or answers that a person can give to your question, such that, that person is Or, do you consider the person to be taking a religious position if the person gives you Also, do you consider the person to be taking a religious position if the person simply Or, perhaps, are you taking a religious position by asking the question?

  • ThomasBaum

    Carstonio You wrote, “To clarify, the question “Do gods exist?” involves an unknowable question, one that implicitly rejects even the possibility of evidence either way, so to take a position of Yes or No is to take a religious one.I would say that it would depend on what one means by “evidence”.If by “evidence” one means something that can be quantified and laid out in some kind of formula, so to speak, then I would say that there will never be any kind of “evidence” one way or the other until God “reveals” Himself and as I have said before, I use the male pronoun not because it is accurate but because it is handy to use pronouns now and then.If there were some chance of this “evidence” coming into being then there would be absolutely no reason for “faith”, would there?But if by “evidence” one means that God has some way or another revealed something about Himself to someone then there most definitely can be “evidence”, of course this “evidence” will only be known by the person that something is revealed to.God does “reward” faith with “evidence” at times and God does it in a way that the person will know that it is, so to speak, something out of the ordinary, to put it mildly.When Martha Woodroof wrote, “There have been things in my own life that I can only explain by accepting that I somehow hooked up with Something in me, that isn’t of me – the aforementioned Mystery” she alluded to this, it may not necessarily be God but it is something beyond the physical senses, including the intellectual.We can “believe” that nothing can come to us unless it be by our senses, including our intellectual sense, or we can be “open-minded” enough to “believe” that there just might be more to reality than just the superficial reality that we perceive thru our senses.Seems kind of strange to me that some who think of themself as “open-minded” are anything but.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • mwpalmer

    Psolus,I don’t think that I think that black holes don’t exist.- A thought?Would it not be easier just to say that I think black holes exist?… Which is different than saying that black holes don’t exist.Saying, “Black holes don’t exist”, seems somewhat presumptuous, as if lacking (or ignoring) positive evidence qualifies the speaker to make such a definitive declaration. Saying, “I think black holes don’t exist”, seems more honest, but by affixing a personal qualification to the root premise degrades it from an absolute to a mere belief. All kinds of trouble follows as the canvas of ones knowledge shreds from covering the universe to barely covering ones own private little world, a simple set of core beliefs. In the end, the only thing left is ones beliefs. So is life really only religion?

  • PSolus

    mwpalmer,”So is life really only religion?”I’m not sure that I can answer that question without someone believing that I am taking a religious position.Except, possibly, if I simply answer: 42

  • Carstonio

    Can you please specify the answer or answers that a person can give to your question, such that, that person is not considered, by you, to be taking a religious position?Sorry for the confusion. The person is answering Yes or No to a question about the universe where we don’t even have the possibility of evidence to support either answer. Those are “religious positions” because of the person’s misplaced certainty in his or her answer. The key is that the position is a declaration of certainty in the absence of evidence for or against the certainty, or irrespective of evidence if it exists. My argument is for testable evidence to be the determining factor for the positions we take on the universe.If there were some chance of this “evidence” coming into being then there would be absolutely no reason for “faith”, would there?For argument’s sake, why should there be a reason for “faith” in the first place? I don’t mean faith in one’s spouse or in one’s country.it may not necessarily be God but it is something beyond the physical senses, including the intellectual.From an empirical standpoint, the two present the same problem – the assumptive leap that something beyond the physical senses was involved. Which brings me to my next point…We can “believe” that nothing can come to us unless it be by our senses, including our intellectual sense, or we can be “open-minded” enough to “believe” that there just might be more to reality than just the superficial reality that we perceive thru our senses.Obviously there may (repeat, may) be more to the universe than what we can perceive with our senses. My point is that we can’t assume that there is or that there isn’t. We have no basis for a conclusion either way. All we can say is that both are possibilities but we simply don’t know. The “believe” statement you offer is an acknowledgment of possibility and not a belief – in that case, a belief would be a conclusion that there is more than we can perceive, or a conclusion that there isn’t.

  • PSolus

    Carstonio,”Sorry for the confusion.”Well, you should be sorry.”The person is answering Yes or No to a question about the universe where we don’t even have the possibility of evidence to support either answer. Those are “religious positions” because of the person’s misplaced certainty in his or her answer. The key is that the position is a declaration of certainty in the absence of evidence for or against the certainty, or irrespective of evidence if it exists. My argument is for testable evidence to be the determining factor for the positions we take on the universe.”Perhaps you could create a Web site, where you can pose questions about the universe, and people can send in their answers to the questions, and you can then determine, and inform them, whether or not they hold “religious positions”.That might well help to clear up a lot of religious confusion in this world.

  • ThomasBaum

    CarstonioYou wrote, “Obviously there may (repeat, may) be more to the universe than what we can perceive with our senses. My point is that we can’t assume that there is or that there isn’t.”Just because you can’t assume or can’t believe does not mean that others have to not assume or not believe.Then, “We have no basis for a conclusion either way. All we can say is that both are possibilities but we simply don’t know.”If one’s belief remains just a belief then that one should acknowledge that it is a belief but if one receives some sort of “revelation” than that one could and should acknowledge it as such and can say that they “know” even tho their “knowing” could very well not be “scientifically verifiable”.You then wrote, “The “believe” statement you offer is an acknowledgment of possibility and not a belief – in that case, a belief would be a conclusion that there is more than we can perceive, or a conclusion that there isn’t.”When I believed in God, I did not “know” that God Is, I came to the “conclusion” that I believed in God, I did not come to the “conclusion” that I had knowledge that God Is.As I have said before, many people seem to think or at least that is the way that they present it, that the words, believe and know, mean the same and they do not.I believe that God has made His Reality known to others but I do not know this, however, I do know that God has made His Reality known to me.As I have also said before, I used to believe in God and now I know that, not only is God a Trinity but also that God is a Being of Pure Love.Sometimes, God “rewards” a belief with knowledge, at least in my case God did.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • Carstonio

    Perhaps you could create a Web site, where you can pose questions about the universe, and people can send in their answers to the questions, and you can then determine, and inform them, whether or not they hold “religious positions”.I didn’t mean for that concept to sound arrogant. My larger point is about the difference between evidence-derived positions and non-evidence-derived positions. The positions “gods exist” and “gods do not exist” are non-evidence-derived by definition. A version of the latter that would be evidence-based would be the position that the existence of gods is unlikely.Just because you can’t assume or can’t believe does not mean that others have to not assume or not believe.I wasn’t suggesting that people should be forbidden from making assumptions or holding beliefs not supported by evidence. I used “can’t” to mean that the assumptions or beliefs are unfounded. A better term would be “we If one’s belief remains just a belief then that one should acknowledge that it is a beliefA belief position can effectively be the same as a knowledge position, when the person seems incredibly certain and committed to the position. What you describe sounds like a very lukewarm type of position, as if the person is simply saying “maybe.”but if one receives some sort of “revelation” than that one could and should acknowledge it as such and can say that they “know” even tho their “knowing” could very well not be “scientifically verifiable”.The concept of “revelation” implies that the event could only have been caused by gods. It’s an argument from incredulity that blindly rejects any other possible cause. My favorite analogy for that is completing a jigsaw puzzle by filling in the missing pieces with putty – it doesn’t really explain the mystery, but just replaces it with another mystery.

  • mwpalmer

    Psolus,Forty-two is good – at least as reasonable as most of what I read here. Now if I can just remember where I placed my towel…

  • PSolus

    Carstonio,”The positions “gods exist” and “gods do not exist” are non-evidence-derived by definition.”I’m willing to bet that most people who say “gods do not exist” are basing their position on experience, common sense, and general knowledge of the world, rather than religious fervor.

  • Carstonio

    I’m willing to bet that most people who say “gods do not exist” are basing their position on experience, common sense, and general knowledge of the world, rather than religious fervor.That’s a good bet, and I wasn’t arguing the opposite. However, those three things are bases for saying that the existence of gods is unlikely. They don’t equate to testable evidence sufficient to make a conclusion either way. While the burden of proof is on the conclusion that gods exist, either conclusion is not falsifiable.

  • ThomasBaum

    CarstonioYou wrote, “A belief position can effectively be the same as a knowledge position, when the person seems incredibly certain and committed to the position.”I am not talking about something being “as effectively the same as”, I am talking about two simple words (believe and know) and saying that they do NOT mean the same thing.One can, very fervently, believe something but it is not the same as knowing and one can be “incredibly certain and committed to the position” without “knowing”.You then wrote, “What you describe sounds like a very lukewarm type of position, as if the person is simply saying “maybe.”"I am not even close to saying what you seem to think that I am saying, some have very lukewarm beliefs and some have very fervent beliefs and there are those that have beliefs that range in between these two, but what I have so simply said, is that there is a difference between believing and knowing.You then wrote, “The concept of “revelation” implies that the event could only have been caused by gods.”To you it is a “concept”, to one that has received it, it is a reality.You then wrote, “It’s an argument from incredulity that blindly rejects any other possible cause.”It is not an “argument” at all, it is a factual statement about a factual experience of someone, just because you, apparently, have not had an experience of this nature does not in any way mean that someone else has not.You then wrote, “My favorite analogy for that is completing a jigsaw puzzle by filling in the missing pieces with putty – it doesn’t really explain the mystery, but just replaces it with another mystery.”Maybe this is because the “experience” that someone else has had, is just a “blank” to you whereas the “experience” of someone else is not a “blank” to them but a very real experience.As far as “explaining the mystery”, just what do you mean?I think, one could say believe but most definitely could not say know, that for some that do not “believe in God”, it is not so much that they don’t believe in God but that they don’t believe in other people’s conception of God or description of God.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • Carstonio

    any other assertions of fact about the universe, whatever people may believe about them. (I’m not saying that they can be analyzed or that they can’t, merely that they shouldn’t be exempted from analysis on general principle.it is a factual statement about a factual experience of someone, just because you, apparently, have not had an experience of this nature does not in any way mean that someone else has not.I’m not questioning the experiences themselves, just the claimed source of them. I’m not saying that the claim of supernatural origin for these experiences is false. Of course such an origin is possible. I’m saying that the claim is As far as “explaining the mystery”, just what do you mean?I’m referring to the very common idea that events that cannot be explained by our current scientific understanding have to be miraculous or supernatural. Such explanations are useless since we cannot determine whether they’re true or false.

  • Carstonio

    Oops, I accidentally deleted the first part of my post before posting. Here is the first part…I am not talking about something being “as effectively the same as”, I am talking about two simple words (believe and know) and saying that they do NOT mean the same thing.If someone holds a proposition as a belief but doesn’t know if the proposition is true, I don’t understand why they would have a belief about it at all.In any case, my point is about the assertions of fact “gods exist” and “gods don’t exist.” They deserve to be analyzed like any other assertions of fact about the universe, whatever people may believe about them. (I’m not saying that they can be analyzed or that they can’t, merely that they shouldn’t be exempted from analysis on general principle.

  • ThomasBaum

    Carstonio You wrote, “If someone holds a proposition as a belief but doesn’t know if the proposition is true, I don’t understand why they would have a belief about it at all.”Someone does not have to understand why someone would have a belief to know the difference between believing and knowing.You then wrote, “In any case, my point is about the assertions of fact “gods exist” and “gods don’t exist.” They deserve to be analyzed like any other assertions of fact about the universe, whatever people may believe about them. (I’m not saying that they can be analyzed or that they can’t, merely that they shouldn’t be exempted from analysis on general principle.”As far as I know, no one is telling you that you have to believe one way or the other, if in fact this is true, than what is the big deal about other people having the “right” to having a “belief”?Sounds like it is your belief that other people’s beliefs “shouldn’t be exempted from analysis on general principle”, is this proposition true or is it merely my belief that this is your belief?Maybe what you have written in your posting is confirmation of what is written in the bible, “Faith (belief in God) is a gift, that no man should boast”, seems as if some have this gift and others either do not have this gift or have not unwrapped it.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

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