Religion or Philosophy?

Now, here’s a thing.

It is rather a fashion nowadays to declare that religions are all wrong and should be banned, because science and reason have somehow proved that there is no god (they haven’t).

But I would like to consider every religion in the world as a school of philosophy, and consider what I might take from each that would be useful to my life and my development.

Whether there might actually be a god or not then becomes unimportant.

Most Buddhists, for example, would seem a little unsure of whether there is a god or not, but if asked, the majority of them would reply that it does not matter. The argument being that it is impossible to prove either way, and therefore it is impossible to know either way. So why not just live your life as well as you can?

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Traditionally, religions have provided society with a set of moral rules. It may be that these rules were the first imperatives that human beings treat other with decency. Since none of us were around in the long years when our race was evolving speech and higher thought, and learning how to co-operate with fellow members of the tribe and – who knows – perhaps their neighbours, this must of necessity be pure speculation. Yet I find it highly likely these moral codes were the first suggestions that human beings might treat an enemy, for example, with mercy, rather than simply killing them, which might otherwise be the obvious course of action. Morality over expediency, if you like.

Some examples:

Islam forbids charging interest on loans. How many who have fallen victim to the money-grubbing lowlife that run these ‘payday’ loan companies charging astronomical rates of interest might have sympathy with this view? It teaches also that it is a moral duty to give alms; to help those in need.

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Christianity is big on love and mercy; at least in the New Testament. It teaches tolerance and forgiveness.

Buddhism teaches that to want things is to become enslaved to those desires that can never be satisfied. How much better to live simply and to be content with what we have? It teaches also compassion for all living beings.

Hinduism teaches that all life is sacred, and that we should all refrain from injuring others.

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These are only the main four faiths in the world today, but every other religion that I have read about also teaches a code of moral imperatives.

And in a world run by huge multi-national companies with no moral compass whatsoever and politicians who only look after their own, where we are continually and aggressively informed that we must worship money and consume more and more pointless trash, and that it does not matter if we destroy the environment just as long as companies make bigger profits, anything that can make us pause to consider what is actually important in life should be encouraged rather than denigrated.

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It would therefore be ridiculous to simply dismiss out of hand entire canons of work, solely on the grounds that the writers of these philosophies believed in a god whom the reader might not (or does not want to) believe in. Everybody has a spiritual side, whether or not they believe in some sort of god. The spiritual side of a person champions beauty over money, generosity over selfishness, kindness over cruelty. These are values that most of us still claim to value today.

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78 thoughts on “Religion or Philosophy?

  1. Religion is a mare’s nest of contradictions, Mick. Buddha taught that all is illusion and it’s folly to get ensnared by worldly things. Yet we keep reading about Buddhist monks who burn themselves to death or stage political riots to advance some transient illusion. Are they Buddhists? Obviously, not. Ditto, those zealots whose creeds teach tolerance – don’t all major religions? – yet will cheerfully kill anyone, even of their own creed, whose shades of bigotry are one iota different from their own.

    Voltaire got it right. ‘We must cultivate our gardens.’ It sounds cynical, a manifesto for indifference to the troubles of the world. But, when the world is mad, the only sane response is to exile oneself from it. There’s great comfort in a turnip, I find.

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    1. There are times that I’d love to keep the world out, but unfortunately it has a habit of barging in uninvited. Of course, it’s not just the religious zealots, either. Mao, Hitler and Stalin managed a tremendous amount of blind, bigoted hatred and destruction without invoking religion. And the Buddhist monks that you mentioned, have interpreted their teachings in what most other Buddhists would regard as an erroneous way.

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      1. Buddhism was, of course, never intended to be a religion, but a way of life, a way of heeding the spiritual imperative without recourse to a god. Again, those who sought power overtook the doctrine, turned it into dogma and used it to justify violence against any who dared disagree.
        As for Mao, Hitler, Stalin, et al. They were megalomaniacs and, as such, considered themselves gods and their followers their disciples. Religions in a different guise, that’s all.

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        1. I think that Buddhism has been more free of those problems than most, Stuart, but inevitably when you get millions of people involved in any sort of movement, there are going to be at least a few who manage to exert a malign influence.

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    2. Unfortunately, John, the Abrahamic religions also teach hate and intolerance. The problem is that their ‘sacred’ texts, supposedly the words of their gods, are open to interpretation and, therefore, misinterpretation. But, sadly, all these religions have hatred of non believers at their heart, too.

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  2. Interesting to see a positive slant on this question, Mick. I’ll declare up front that I’m agnostic (that is, I believe it’s impossible to know whether or not any god exists, since such a power must, by definition, be way beyond our comprehension).
    It’s possible that religions did originally provide humanity with moral codes, though there are societies in which religion as we understand it does not exist but whose members nevertheless manage to get along without murdering one another.The problem with religions, however, is that without exception their ‘sacred’ texts are open to interpretation, which allows the evil and misguided to usurp their message and use it to extend their mistaken beliefs and/or their wickedness. Religious organisations, almost without exception, are control mechanisms designed by a toxic mix of commerce and politics to fool the gullible, anxious and unthinking into following sets of rules that generally make no real sense. They are responsible for encouraging people to accept beliefs for which there is no evidence, the consequences of which are devastating to society. Oddly, we are expected, for example, to look kindly on the belief that a virgin gave birth to a child of a god who then, as that child, sacrificed himself totally pointlessly and in agony, in some utterly useless gesture supposedly aimed at inexplicably removing all past sins from the world. And the same set of beliefs preach that the world is impossibly young and that evolution is an impossibility; both lies that are easily overturned by evidence.
    None of the dogmas of these organisations stand up to analysis and all spawn innumerable sects that then are so convinced their ‘way’ is the only right one and are prepared to kill or die in that cause.
    Yes, there are good things in the philosophies of most religions, but they have been irrevocably distorted and irreparably damaged by those who seek to use them for the furtherance of their own power.
    Alternatively, most atheists and agnostics are happy to live by the simple rule of life, the universal ‘golden rule’; to do nothing that you would not be prepared to have done to you. It’s a simple enough rule and one that covers all law for the good of society and relies on no religious dogma for its veracity.
    Thanks for the opportunity to discuss this important issue, Mick.

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    1. Wow, I think this requires quite a long answer, Stuart, but I’ll try to keep it brief.
      I largely agree with you, for starters. I think that there is something, but I’ve no idea what it is, so I’m sort of Agnostic myself. And it is, as has been pointed out, the interpretations that are the problem. The Devil, most certainly, is in the detail. The real problem with dispensing with all religious writ, even if it were somehow possible, is that something else would then fill the vacuum. And human beings being human beings, it would take the form of religious writ, only a new one. The madness of the Chinese Communist revolution under Mao, for example, was a sensible, well-meaning but non-religious writ interpreted by fanatics – with the same results as a religious crusade.

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    2. In his famous credo, Tertullian expressed the essential fallacy of all religious faith: ‘Credo quia absurdum est.’ ‘I believe because it is absurd.’ In other words, where reason breaks down, religion begins. (Or Donald Trump.) And that way madness lies…

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  3. Well written. ..Mick!
    What you have written is quite true. When compared with modern multi billion corporations all religions irrespective of analogies are far better despite their shortcomings. I also believe that religions started with good intentions but later those in positions to influence gave a twist for personal gains. This brought wrong element into religion. like in Hinduism priests were in dominant position and introduced practices that were not in line with original concept.
    In the end all that matters is your own religion and conscious! 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Arv. Yes, humans always bring in their own self-interests and their own prejudices, so inevitably the practices alter over time. And you are right that from a personal point of view, it is your own conscience (?) that is important.

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      1. Mick, even though every religion talks of treating humans in a good way and about compassion, in reality it’s hard to find. one religion I would like to mention which has actually been able to carry this a little further is -Sikh. I hope you would have heard about it. yes your personal religion… Religion that your soul follows -which cannot be classified into the so called religions of the world, is important.

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        1. I have indeed, Arv. I understand it began as a way to bridge the divide between Hindu and Moslem in the C16th (?), but, of course, that inevitably meant that it would clash with both over the years. And your other point; religion that your soul follows, I understand that entirely. Something just seems to make sense.

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          1. Mick! I have studied history and about Sikhism too but it’s been long and I can’t vouch if it was meant to bridge the divide part. as of today, it hardly bears any resemblance to Islam except that many of sardars -Sikh bear the burnt of Muslim backlash in USA because of their turban and beard. Although I’m not a Sikh, but I will suggest you to visit golden temple in amritsar, Punjab if at all it’s possible for you.

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              1. ,I guess we all suffer from same problem -too many places to see but too little time. one life is too less to cover planet earth! That brings me to my problem of not being able to explore my city and blog on places I have covered till now! Problems…. Problems.. too many of them
                😉

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  4. Thanks for coming up with very meaningful post. We may believe in God or not, we may perceive God in different forms, however none can deny that there is a creative force that makes life and all other creation possible. There are so many things that we cannot comprehend with our senses, and God could easily be one of them.

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  5. Well said, Mick. The key message from most belief systems is pretty much the same: live as good a life as you can and give attention to your own imperfections, rather than those of others. That too many people take it upon themselves to concentrate on their own good (at the expense of others’), and/or what they perceive to be the faults of others, is hardly the fault of the message.

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  6. Thanks for the insightful post, Mick! Personally, I think it’s rather silly to think that we will abolish all the world’s problems by abolishing all religions. (I had a friend who once stated that religion was the cause of all wars…not sure what religion she thought started the Viet Nam war, but I kept my mouth shut) There is much good philosophy to be found in all the major religions, but people tend tend to use religion as an excuse to act on their personal prejudices and fears. To my mind, the problem isn’t so much religion, it’s human nature. And that doesn’t really change.

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  7. A thought-provoking post, Mike. I’ve never been religious though I value the moral championing of beauty over money, generosity over selfishness, kindness over cruelty (as you so elegantly put). My challenge has always been the inevitable influence of mankind on religious thought, the bending of religion to serve power, wealth, division, fear, and cruelty. When I meet someone who lives by the core values, I’m always pleasantly surprised and it gives me hope.

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    1. It has been responsible for some horrible things, indeed. Mankind’s influence on religion, and then religion’s influence on mankind, makes a particularly nasty vicious circle. I don’t have any faith in the alternatives, mind you.

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  8. I guess I’m simple. A core set of moral values that we live by is a personal thing. Why have a religion, a text from years ago to tell you that? Most Bills of Human rights, written in the last 50 years contain core principles we can adopt both as individuals and groups such as societies. There will inevitably be differences around the edges. I see no reason to stick with something penned 1000, 2000 or however many years ago. Today is when the moral code needs to apply not distorted through any prism be it history or some group’s interpretation. Happy for people to embrace religion as long as the let other people do their own thing.

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    1. No, that’s a good point, Geoff. If we can come up with something that suits us today, best to use that. I don’t think this government is very keen on the idea, though, and maybe that brings us back to my point about companies and politicians.

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  9. I do disagree with religion being a force for good. The god of the Old Testament is a pretty violent, xenophobic, misogynistic fellow. That of the New Testament is only a few shades better. The god of the Quran has no problem with mass murder or making slaves out of non-believers. The Hindu gods say nothing about rules, they are busy with their own problems. What is said about proper conduct also includes extreme xenophobia and racial discrimination, apart from misogyny. Buddhists are supposed to be agnostics at best but have ended up making a god of Siddhartha himself, poor fellow! We can cherry-pick a few lines here and there and say what a miracle religion has been but historically, more people have died in the name of religion than any other cause. Ok, enough ranting, Ill go shut my yawp! 🙂

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    1. No, you’re quite right, Himanshu. I’m certainly suggesting that we do cherry-pick, because I would also take issue with the bits that you do. I’m only interested in the parts that are a force for good.

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        1. Definitely. Have you come across the ‘Tao of Pooh’? It’s a book taking a (slightly light-hearted) look at the Winnie the Pooh books through the eyes of a Taoist. I read it thinking that it wouldn’t be much good, but it is actually a great little book full of good things.

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  10. Hi Mick. While I agree with almost everything you have to say, I do wonder about your initial premise – I haven’t really noticed any popular movement to have religions banned. Maybe that sort of thing is more pronounced in the UK. In the US there does seem to be a trend away from traditional religion and towards “spiritual but not religious”, but not to the point of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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      1. Yeah I’ve heard of Dawkins. I guess if we have a fringe that says if you don’t believe my flavor of religion you’re immoral and are going straight to hell, it’s only fair to have a fringe on the other extreme.

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  11. Hi mick. Religion may be good per se but as humans, we have failed to better our lives with it. It has led to divisions within societies and violence that arise out of such divisions. Few have learnt to keep their religions private…one of the most fundamental flaws of religion is that it drags God into it to force its followers to obey its rules without questioning them. I know a God exists but I refuse to see how he could be related to any of these religions… They deify human beings who were exceptional, god-like to us, not God itself. The God that created the world — be it an atom or a star on fire — doesnt seem to be so into us 😄 It creates, erases, creates again regardless of which species it is… Life goes on as the earth moves on… There are things we dont understand… Thats all.

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    1. Sadly, that is so true. I cannot imagine a god who is mirrored in these writings; they are all so, well, human. And it is odd, is it not, how they seem in so many ways to echo the prejudices of the societies in which they were written? Women are subservient, the race or society with this scrip just happens to be God’s chosen ones…there are good things here and there, and that is what it is important to focus on.

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      1. Yes… But we could focus on those even otherwise, right? Religion makes me wonder what my natural inclination is — to be giving or selfish, forgiving or avenging? If u need the fear of God to be good, are you essentially bad? Isnt there any other way to instil good values?

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        1. A difficult one to answer. Traditionally, most societies taught children to behave that way, but that didn’t mean the children were bad. Certainly, there will be some people who are just, well, bad, and I suppose that it might help to keep their behaviour acceptable. In an ideal world, we would never need the threat of retribution to make us into decent citizens. Unfortunately, this isn’t an ideal world, I suppose. And I have no idea what sort of person I would be if I had a different upbringing. It’s one of those questions that is impossible to answer.

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          1. If religions were the solution, India would have been a superpower by now… We accomodate a million Gods and yet, have not been able to stop people from rioting, raping and looting. There are sane people there but then… I think they are the ones who have understood the true message of all religions — Non-violence, zero discrimination and justice for all.

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            1. This is very true. If we are, indeed, moving towards a more secular world, I wonder whether the hatred and fanaticism will cease, or simply be transferred to something else? Rivalry between countries always seems a good bet for a war, which seems usually to be grounded in the desire for power and/or fear of another’s power. Yet perhaps this is also present in the animosity between different religions?

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              1. If we merge all religions and derive some common goodness out of it or a common god or gods, we might be able to create guidelines that work for all… However, i guess i am daydreaming… Humans will always find something to fight about…power, fear, greed… The list is endless… At least we could stop fighting in the name of God.

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  12. Umm…okay, that’s fine and all, but a lot of the point of religion is missed by looking at it from the outside in. Most religions that endure have love at their heart.

    When you speak of abolishing or merging, what you’re also talking about is making the faith of millions illegal. Taking the very anchor of their lives and twisting it into something else because you believe it will result in a better society.

    In defense of people of faith, I would say that you need to look at the positive side as well. Secular societies have their own faults, ones that I believe to be as grave as those of religious societies. Faith has raised some extraordinary individuals to prominence, as well as ordinary ones who live better lives because of it.

    Please don’t be so certain you can better the world by altering faith, and this comment isn’t directed toward you so much, Mick, as others who have spoken here. My faith is all that has enabled me to live my life. It has certainly made me a better person. And I’m not alone.

    Nor do I think it’s a requirement to stay silent. Those who are opposed to faith are certainly outspoken. It’s hardly fair to tell us to shut up and sit in the corner and have no effect on the world in which we live.

    Kudos, btw, for tackling such a volatile topic. I hope I haven’t derailed your post.

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    1. Those are all very good points, Cathleen, some of which have been touched on a bit in the comments thread. Most religions do seem to have love at their heart, and their best adherents are those that recognise that and try to live that way.
      I certainly wouldn’t suggest banning any religion. Even if for no other reason than that religions give their followers comfort and hope in difficult times. Who would want to round on someone who was grieving for a lost one to say that any hope of an afterlife is an illusion? I cannot think of anything more cruel. The only instances I can immediately call to mind of religion being banned, are by communist China and by the Soviet Union (I’m sure there must be others). In the case of the Soviet Union, once communism fell Christianity immediately strongly reasserted itself, as people had kept it alive underground – basically because their faith was strong. And in the case of China, there are many who still follow Buddhism and Christianity (amongst others). In other words, it wouldn’t work. Human beings need to believe in something!
      I do think that there are many things in most religions that are unnacceptable today – some of these have been mentioned already in the comment string – but clearly there are also good things, which was the initial thrust of my argument. To return to your first point, most have love and compassion at their heart, which I would take as my own personal baseline for a religion. Cards on the table; if I am anything, I am a Buddhist – for me the idea of the existence of a god is something that cannot be proved either way, and I believe that the only way for me to live my life is with kindness and compassion towards all, which would obviously include respecting the religions of others.
      As for the extraordinary characters you mention, all of the people that fit that description that come to my mind in recent history were people of faith, Such as Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King…
      And no, you certainly haven’t derailed my post! The idea was to stimulate discussion, and it seems to have worked!

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  14. I’m not particularly religious myself and there are specific claims and doctrines of particular faiths that I have problems with, I also know that many wise and beautiful words have been inspired by religious belief. These must surely be considered treasures of our shared human culture, no matter which faith (if any) we happen to follow.

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  15. hobbyie

    The problem comes with organizations that run the religion. After all they have been the major wing of the ruling system to help organize the masses and control the resources and power.

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  16. I feel like you’re asking: “Insanity or Reason?” Though I thoroughly recognize your point – religions are philosophies. Collections of ideas that guide action, without the concrete studies that accompany the scientific method.

    Difference being their perspectives on “faith”/”assumption”. Religions take “faith” as something to be welcomed, while philosophy takes “assumption” as an unpleasant necessity. Philosophers want nothing more than proof of their ideas, even if completely disproven – their commitment to actionable truth, over pleasant delusion, allows them to adapt.

    Whereas religions often revolve around an inalterable faith of some deity’s existence. It’s this refusal to adapt that splits the two. Hey, maybe one of the many, many religions is right, and their deities are the right one. Then, good for them for digging in their heels.

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    1. Thanks for visiting and commenting, Louis. Likewise, I recognise your point, but would question some of it. Most religions, I would conjecture, originally arose through observation and reason – the only scientific approach open to peoples in those days. For example, the sun rises each day and provides light and warmth, which we all need, and so something must cause it to do so, and would appear to be well disposed towards mankind. And much more powerful. Ergo, we respect it and are grateful, which is but a small step to worship. Both philosophy and religion are close together at first.
      Later, theories diverge, as they always do, as thinkers come up with different theories, some claim ‘revelation’, either through error of perception, hallucination or opportunism, and the rest is history.

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  17. Aye, they have the same birthplace. But one evolved, the other devolved. Philosophy acknowledges it’s assumptions as a necessity – that we have to start from somewhere, and nevertheless seeks actionable truth at the risk of disproving those assumption.

    Religions, on the other hand, most often have tenets that demand unquestioning “faith” in the core belief of some deity or cosmic forcing controlling everything. This creates a pattern of thought that is tantamount to suicide.

    To treat any assumption as fact, you have to invent more assumptions to support the original assumption – also treating them as fact. Like covering a lie by inventing more lies. In both examples, the pattern keeps growing unless the original assumption is acknowledge to be only that.

    With the assumption, the pattern eventually goes beyond merely inventing more assumptions – it mutates into a repression of conscious thought. This, because, any rational self-assessment will constantly reveal those assumptions as false.

    So, the choice comes. Do I continue treating this comforting assumption as fact, or do I face the painful truth? Of course, by then, so much of their paradigm is already so chaotic and hazy that they’re in no condition to make the choice.

    While religion is not inherently a crime against humanity, this pattern of thought, common to it, is. Philosophy can also cause this pattern to occur, however. As in the example of.. I believe “existentialism”?

    The one that says everything is meaningless, there is no universal law, so do whatever you want. If there were no universal law, that itself would be a universal law. It’s just an excuse to do whatever you want.

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    1. I take your point. I would suggest, though, that with religions, certainly a number of them, rather than invent new assumptions, there is a tendency to keep the original set of assumptions and just shout them louder and louder. The very act of inventing new assumptions feels to me almost an acknowledgement that the original ones don’t quite cut it now, and that there is a necessity to adapt to changing times – or do I misunderstand your point?

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  18. With the religious body as a whole, sure – they have to all have a somewhat unified tenet that they can all gather around. That goes into sociology though, rather than psychology.

    For the individual, maintaining the core assumption of as cosmic force protecting them, requires inventing their personal assumptions that support it. If you ever talk to a religious person long enough, getting them to explain why they maintain their “faith”, it’s always a laundry lists of minor coincidences that support the central assumption.

    So, these are their personal assumptions. Funny thing is, because everyone is to some degree rational, they always say the same thing when explaining their “faith”: “Well, -my- god is different.” Every single time. Asif to acknowledge that their religion is ridiculous, but their interpretation of it is somehow reasonable.

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    1. Yes, each individual interpretation tends to differ from most of the others, if only in the small print. I wonder whether that means that each one is saying that the others are not true believers; that they are heretics, or somehow unorthodox? And then of course, we have the schisms and offshoots of each religion, so that within Islam, for example, we find both Sunnis and Shias who, if my understanding is correct, differ in that the Sunnis believes that Abu Bakr was Muhammed’s true heir, whilst the Shias believes it was Muhammed’s son in law, Ali. Although their traditions and practices have sundered, their core beliefs are the same. Finally the Sufis, who are somewhat more mystical and are regarded as deeply heretical by many of the others.

      And I actually quite like the ones that say ‘oh, my god is different’, because at least it show that they have put some thought into their interpretation, and usually have a set of beliefs with kindness at their heart.

      The ones that thunder out that every word in their sacred book is true and must be taken at face value are the ones that I feel I need to run and hide from, before something unpleasant happens.

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  19. Aye, often being measurably insentient, they have the social impulses accompanying such immaturity – gotta be the top dog. I went to a church for 6 months once, as well as volunteering for two religious organizations over a year and a half – that petty shit was how they interacted. Batshit.

    And yes, the quoters have consistently proven dangerously insane.

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    1. Not as such, he says, whilst pressing *like*! I read them as an appreciation of the post or comment they are attached to – not even that you necessarily completely agree with what is written.

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