Belief in God – Rooted in the Past or Evolving into the future?
(or The Great Impertinence”)
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Belief in God – Rooted in the Past or Evolving into the Future?
There is a very common perception in western society that religious belief is becoming less and less relevant in our modern world. Indeed, the facts would seem to support this perception with, for example, rapidly falling Christian church attendances, the relentless rise of materialism and the growing erosion of personal time to contemplate life. People, it seems are voting with their feet away from such observances.
Nearly all the biblical scriptures, gospels and koranic references that form the basis of the major monotheistic religions are some one thousand or more years old. For example, the Christian Nicene Creed, first formulated at the behest of the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine in AD325, was an agreed statement of the Christian faith and a glorious compromise to resolve division and confusion in the young and divided Christian World. The Nicene Creed, based on the mores of the 1st Millennium, is still recited (or sung) throughout the Christian World to this day at nearly every weekly service.
Whilst devout believers find great strength in the certainties of such constant and long lasting beliefs, it would seem to be a losing battle for the less committed in our western society who are losing touch with these beliefs. Further, the education system is becoming more secular with every passing decade to the point that most people from Christian stock might still call themselves Christian in answer to the question: What religion are you?”, they actually know little about it and spend even less time thinking about it.
Science has displaced belief in God?
It doesn’t help that many men of science are publicly declaring that the Age of Science is with us and all things in the Universe can (or will be in time) explained through mathematical logic, and played out in evolutionary terms solely under the influence of statistical blind chance. Indeed, the latest thinking is that our seemingly infinite Universe is just one of many and different universes being constantly created and co-existing in many dimensions (rather than just the four dimensions - 3-D and Time) that we experience). One only has to look through a medium-power telescope on a clear night to see many wonders in our local region of the Universe. The picture of the Great Horseshoe Nebula picture above is just one visual marvel.
Similarly at the more human level, we can see great marvels of biological interaction with wonderful adaptions to the environment with flora and fauna perfectly occupying each available niche in this World of ours. The more one looks through the microscope and travels in the field, the more wonders can be found. Charles Darwin postulated the theory of evolution based on a rigorous set of observations over many years in Victorian times. There is now ample proof that this evolutionary mechanism is alive and very much still happening. The sheer diversity and tenacity of life is just mind-blowing. It has long been postulated since Darwin first published his theory, that life started by a chance event somewhere in the cosmos by an assembly of more complex atoms and molecules in cometary material from a cooling star and such a comet came to Earth early in its development. A simple instance of say a lightning bolt striking a “brew” of these simple molecules (like amino acids) was possibly the catalyst for the first biological “spark” of life appearing. The development of life forms culminating in sentient life forms was effected by a long series of chance events over the eons.
The Language of Religion is cramping our beliefs?
Between four and two millennia ago, humankind was living in a very different world than today with superstitions abounding and little was known about the World we were living on, let alone what was going on off this world (in the sky). At that time, recorded history was relatively new but philosophers already had been recording their theories and thoughts to share with others for posterity. With the attendant increase in world population with society elites drawing together in towns and cities, it is perhaps not surprising that nearly all the major organised monotheistic religions had their origins at about this time. The control of population through religion theory goes along on the lines that organised religion tends to align human thought and thence the elite can control the population at large.
At that time, what wasn’t known as observable facts, were subject to all sorts of fanciful extrapolations of existing knowledge, hearsay and imaginings represented as facts - In a word: Superstition!. It was only at the dawn of the scientific age in the 15th Century that such imaginings started to reduce to the point today with a complete reversal with the ever increasing urge to arrive at hypotheses and facts through logical thought, observation and experimentation.
It seems that a good proportion of these men of science and many philosophers are saying that there is no need to believe in God to explain all that has happened since the “Big Bang.” Indeed, a significant number of them postulate privately or publicly that there is no God. Belief in God is, to them, thus relegated to a residual superstition and with no relevance to the “modern world.” There is even line of thought that goes on the lines that humans from their primitive beginnings five million years ago, have evolved with an innate need to believe in an afterlife, a controlling deity and the supernatural as a necessary means to explain the unexplainable. It is postulated that these sets of beliefs provide the motivation for the humans to better themselves during life with the reward of their consciousness continuing after death.
The Jewish and Christian bible and latterly, the Gospels and the Koran all originated in the period between the second millennium BC and the first millennium AD and naturally, they were written down in many cases long after the many generations of a verbal tradition. They were expressed in the language and in terms of limits of imagination of the population at that period. These sacred writings had to be written in the language that the population could understand and relate to. Even in those days, the life and teachings of the prophets for example, must have seen to be in the distant past.
Fast-forwarding to the present day, the body of human knowledge is immeasurably greater than the first millennium AD and our understanding of the Universe is similarly expanded. The level of education has also been extended to encompass well over half the seven billion souls on this planet. We can only speculate what a human being from the 1st millennium, transported to the present, would make of this modern world. It is a safe bet that they would regard this modern world as a magical heaven (or even a hell depending on where they are) with no language to express what they see and experience with any accuracy. Philosophically too, religions have developed tremendously since those early times with blind observance and mandatory belief no longer generally acceptable. These days, there is far more freedom within most religions to choose what one believes and what observances to follow. Compulsion with respect to religious observances is now almost absent (with some notable exceptions in regions torn-apart by religious wars with the inevitable attendant bigotry and savagery).
So what is the relevance of Religion now?
So projecting forward, there will always be change and increasing collective knowledge whilst humankind still exists. So what is the relevance of these historically based religions; in my case Christianity, in this modern world? The answer is not simple but it is most likely to be based on the messages contained in those historical scriptures, gospels and other sacred works and they will be framed in the context of the description of far distant events. What is quite clear, is that all the major religions strive at the very basic level to improve the human race through better ways to get on with one’s neighbour by a common adoption of cooperative support. At a higher level of human thought, religions are seeking ways for everybody to improve themselves through the exercise of good (positive) options.
Bad things Happen
It is a pity that human nature not only contains the free will for good, but also for chaos (or evil in religious terminology). However, that perverse streak in our human nature is born out of curiosity but not just the basic need to survive. One only has to read St Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians, Chapter 10 to get a glimpse of how bloodthirsty, the events portrayed in the ancient Jewish scriptures of the time were with stories, for example of huge massacres reportedly in God’s name, avenging angels and so on. Then as now, the faithful were questioning Jesus on why such awful things happened in God’s name. Jesus’s response was quite simple and went on the lines of: “What have you done to save your soul?” Basically, Jesus was saying that bad or awful things happen but it is entirely down to each individual to improve themselves in the face of life’s challenges. Basically, one should not believe in pre-destination as it is wholly stultifying in human nature terms. Pre-destination (kismet or fate) can be, at it’s worst, be a reason for not believing in God as it removes one’s reasons for making choices for good or evil. Free will, on the other hand is rather the mechanism to enable one to improve one’s life (or mess it up). At the highest level, it is a case of seeking the ultimate truths first in your World, then the Universe and finally within oneself.
The Modern Message of Belief
When one looks at any descriptions of events and particularly human interactions in scriptures, gospels and other religious writings from the past with many cultural overlays, it is easy to get distracted by the less important cultural mores at the time of the writing such as “Don’t eat pork as it is a dirty meat” or “Women must obey and be subservient to their husbands..” Such strictures were definitely born out of cultural practicalities of the time. In the Middle East, pork meat was difficult to store in a warm climate and the pathogens so generated tended to have dramatic effects on humans (This is perhaps unsurprising, since pigs have been proved in modern times to be genetically quite similar to humans with a high risk of trans-species infections). Similarly, all societies were totally male-orientated in those times (unlike today) and it is unsurprising perhaps that such a stricture on women was formulated. However, such strictures are hardly fundamental to belief in God but rather formed part of a set of practical rules for controlling an orderly society of the time.
I am struck by the ‘modern’ community situations and human found in St Paul’s gospels – Plus ça change it would seem. I suggest that nothing is new in this World, it is rather the way we express it with the language to hand at any time. We still have to find ways to live together on this ever more crowded planet. Therefore we should look at the fundamental meanings in historic religious messages and teachings and not the language and the situations in which these were expressed. They are just as relevant today as in the past.
The Great Impertinence
I have already touched on the growing trend of some men of science explaining everything in the Universe in terms of blind chance operating in unbelievably long periods of time and the consequent debasement of the need to believe in a controlling deity. This is further complicated by the concept of free-will in humans, the dominant life-form on our little planet Earth. As I have argued, free will is definitely God’s way just as evolution and the “Big Bang” at the start of our Universe some 13 billion years ago would be God’s way. The unbelievably complex wonders of our Universe are still out there to be discovered just as there is still so much to learn within the microcosm of our Planet. To believe in blind chance without an influence of a controlling deity for all these wonders to have appeared seems to me to a great impertinence and born of small minds. How can we hope to comprehend God’s ultimate purpose of creating such a wonderful, vast and complex set of Universes at our stage of human development?
The Victorian scientific community started this impertinence in the late 19th Century by thinking that man was close to having discovered everything in the World and beyond. How wrong they were and how wrong current thinkers and scientists are if they think that we are close to the ultimate truths! The Ultimate Being (God) will have an ultimate strategy which mankind may never advance enough to appreciate. We are thus left to pick up His messages and guidance that are littered through history and delivered through prophets and the Messiah. No doubt, such guidance will continue into the future as long as mankind remains in existence. Who knows how long that will be – Eons or just a few thousand years.
I firmly believe that the belief in God as a controlling deity is totally compatible with scientific thought. I can do no better than offer in support of my beliefs, two quotes by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Victorian philosopher, sometime cleric and great friends with thinkers of the day. “All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.” He is also recorded as saying in answer to a question posed by a seminarian teacher: “Do you believe in God?” He answered: “It is really beyond my comprehension.”
Religious Belief in Transition to the Future
In St John’s Gospel Chapter 14.2, Jesus said: “In my Father’s House, there are many mansions.” This saying has exercised religious minds for centuries and many interpretations have been put on it; some of which depends on which language it was translated into. Spoken in Aramaic, it has been originally translated into Greek and Latin in the early days following Jesus’s death on the Cross. Traditionally, many have used it to express the belief that there are many ways to reach God and not necessarily via one religious avenue. Others have taken a much more literal (and perhaps more narrow minded) meaning that Heaven is a big place but there is only one way (religion) to reach Heaven.
Following on from the theme of the “great impertinence,” it is plainly becoming unrealistic given our current state of knowledge, to think that God’s Ultimate Plan is limited to this planet; rather it relates to our stellar locality, our galaxy , this Universe and now glimpses perhaps of other Universes. I have no doubt that other sentient life forms have developed and gone in the 13+ billion years since the “big bang”, some may be around in parallel with mankind but immeasurably far away, and others will continue to arise and develop and then disappear in the future. To think that mankind on this insignificant planet Earth is unique, seems a great impertinence and one we should get our head round. The answer is that we don’t know but natural curiosity and belief will drive us ever forward in improving our knowledge as long as we survive as the human race (or whatever we may become). Our understanding of God’s way is inextricably bound up in this never-ending quest.
I find all this very positive, albeit scary, for the future of mankind with the definitions of life and after-life perhaps being re-defined at some points along this vast journey as we collectively learn more and more about our Universe(s) with guidance messages from God along the way.
This article (which happens to have been written by a Christian),has been written in an attempt to come to terms with the fact that Western Society is becoming more and more secular in the 21st Century (AD). The Author, Philip Norris is a very experienced Engineer, an avid observer of the human condition and erstwhile writer and blogger. He wants to spark a new debate on why this might be. Is this the new “ignorance” borne along by lack of time and many distractions in our societies that has critically eroded our traditional beliefs; be they be Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Buddhism or Hindu.
This is not a religious tract so please don’t switch off at this point; it rather is a way of putting religious beliefs into a modern perspective that will hopefully endure far into the future. The big operative phrase is “The great Impertinence” of human thought that unwarrantedly puffs up our perceived place in this Universe.
This article, however, expresses great optimism for the future and beliefs – so find a quiet spot, read on and then join the debate on social media.
Great Horseshoe Nebula in the Orion Constellation