Can We Honor All Religions?
by Joel, Center Voice: Summer-Fall 2002, Center for Sacred Sciences
Thanks for drawing my attention to this.
There are so many “problems” with this piece from my perspective.
And when I say “my perspective” I am not making any claim to “Truth”.
It seems clear to me, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that the very notion of “Truth” is an illusion, one of those simple distinctions that children must make, on their way to a deeper understanding of the nature of knowledge and uncertainty. And I am also clear, from practical experience, that it is possible to take anyone past that notion in a relatively short time (hours for children, days for adults), and without a change of context, most will revert back again.
It seems clear to me that most religions, for most of their adherents (and Buddhism is a notable exception) encourage members to stay at that simple level of distinction, and maintain and reinforce the illusion of absolute certainty that is its prime attribute. The reasons for that seem to be complex, and have three major aspects.
1/ Is that most minds find such certainty comfortable. In the jargon of complexity theory, it is a strong local attractor, derived from many levels of the operation of brain. Such beliefs allow the believer to make rapid decisions in complex situations, which has a certain survival utility both at the level of the individual and the population of individuals containing such beliefs. So in this sense, it seems clear that evolution has selected for traits that support such notions (make them feel “good” by whatever biochemical and electrical mechanisms are available to evolution in its random walk through such possibility spaces that have delivered “human nature”).
2/ Is that maintaining such a state of “belief” serves the survival needs of the priestly class in such societies (whatever their particular names happen to be).
3/ Is that at higher political levels control of such groups is far easier in most contexts, particularly contexts of high stress (like war or famine), than if one encourages genuine independent thought, questioning and action amongst the population generally.
And for me, as stated, I make no claim to truth.
My only claim is that for me, right now, at my current stage of development, and given the experience set that I have, the sets of understandings, concepts, and values that I have seem to work for me, and seem likely to have a coherence and a set of utilities that works in my own interests and the interests of life more generally – most particularly in the interests of sapient life and the liberty of all sapient individuals to do whatever they responsibly choose (which notion of responsibility includes a deep respect for all sapient life, and the liberty of all such individuals, and the systems that support them and a requirement to take such reasonable actions to support such life and liberty, without unreasonably impinging on my own survival or freedom). So in this sense, the claim that Joel makes later the article about morals and moral relativism – “this does not mean that mystics like Ibn `Arabi hold they are completely relative, as secularists do”. Which I, as a secularist, claim is a total “straw man”.
I am clear (beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt), that all knowledge is at some level heuristic – a useful approximation to something within a certain context, without necessarily having any universal applicability. Such must of logical necessity be the case, because no individual (mortal or otherwise) has ever (nor will they ever) be able to explore all of infinity (infinity is, by definition, too big – no matter how big you are, even if you fill the entire universe, infinity will still be infinitely larger than that, and still contain far more unknowns than may be known – that is simply what infinity is, and it is a tricky notion to get some sort of a grip on).
The other thing that I am clear about (again beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, and always acknowledging that all knowledge contains uncertainty, and is context sensitive) is that all human values, all morals, are in the ultimate analysis derived from some evolved set of survival functions at some set of levels. And that is a really complex idea, involving not just individual survival, but also survival of groups of atoms, groups of molecules, cells, individuals, families, tribes, district groups, ecologies, and many other stable and semi stable groups.
Another of the really tricky notions to get hold of, when thinking in terms of complexity theory or evolutionary theory, is the notion of boundaries, and the notion that boundaries need not be fixed in either time or space or in any of their attributes (like permeability to various classes of entities). Boundaries need only be present with sufficient frequency and intensity that they act in some practical fashion on the differential survival of the entities interacting with them. In this sense, individual ideas, that alter the probability of other ideas being able to establish or not in individuals’ minds can be thought of as boundaries. And it seems that one can abstract that notion indefinitely (like many such ideas it seems to be open to infinite recursion – folding back on itself at new levels of abstraction …..).
At another level is the complexity of being human.
I have given these analogies many times, and they are worth repeating.
Just to see all the cells in our bodies, at 3 per second, would take about a million years.
To see all the molecules in any one cell at the same 3 per second would take about 5 million years.
To slow down the action of the activity at the molecular level to a rate we could see what was happening on the magnified surface of an enzyme would take us about 30,000 years to watch a second’s worth of “fast” action (but at least slow enough that we could see average individual atoms moving, even then some would be blurred by “speed” too fast for us to see clearly or perhaps even notice at all) (the average speed of water molecules is about 600m/s – requiring a frame rate of about 10^14 to clearly see an average water molecule moving while others would be simply blurs of speed).
From another perspective, if we could somehow take a single picture of all the atoms in our bodies, and blow it up to a size we could see each atom, and if we had started looking at that picture when the universe began some 14 billion years ago, looking at 100 atoms per second, we would be about 1% of the way through looking at that one snapshot of what we were in one instant.
We are really, really complex.
In that sense, I really align with the mystics, when they say we are mystery.
We must be!
The science is clear on that!
That much is clear, for anyone willing to go where science (the asking of questions, and the examination of hypotheses available to organise the evidence relating to such questions) takes us.
Religions are all based in notions that were common a long time ago.
We have so many notions that are so much more interesting and powerful that have only been discovered in the last few years. And that is likely to continue to be true for the rest of eternity, should we manage to live so long.
In so far as those notions contain aspects of eternal mystery – I can align with them.
In so far as those notions make any claim to either “Truth” or “truth” then they are most probably mistaken.
In that sense, I have no respect for religions, though I can have great respect for individuals who currently have religious beliefs.
And that distinction is something that many people have great difficulty with.
The age of religions is passing, as is the age of money and markets.
If freedom is to have any real meaning, then it must be able to embody infinite diversity, and such diversity demands a tolerance that is antithetical to most religions.
For me, there is no shadow of reasonable doubt, that it is the secular respect for life and liberty that has far greater moral authority than any religious doctrine, and it is not an authority of “Truth” but rather an authority of practical actions and practical consequences.
And I could write for many hours on the many other fallacies embodied in that work, and this will do for now.
And, for completeness, to remove any doubt, I am clear that all such teachings contain elements that have great heuristic value – in a very real sense, they work, in particular contexts.
I am not at all saying that it is all wrong, or is without value.
I am making the clear claim that it is not, as stated, a powerful context for our common future. Something much more is required.