tisdag 16 november 2010

Concluding Remarks

The following text is an English translation of the last chapter of "Tro Vett Vanvett" ("Faith Sanity Insanity")

If you were hoping to learn about new unique ideas or arguments, you are probably quite disappointed. Indeed, it is not easy to say something new on a subject that has been studied and debated for thousands of years and on which so much has been written by prestigious philosophers. The old saying "there is nothing new under the sun" is hard to deny when you venture into areas of religion and belief.

Not even the expression "the eternal book about the universe" is entirely new. Initially, I thought I had invented it myself, but a poetic reference to " the great book of the universe" had been made already some four hundred years earlier by noone less than Galileo Galilei himself. No need for further comparisons.

What could possibly be seen as something unusual about my writing is the disrespectful and rather mundane treatment of a sacred matters that one is traditionally expected to approach with great humility and solemn respect for established religious views and beliefs. Is this perhaps the reason why so many appear to be satisfied with empty phrases aimed at answering sincere questions about God, how he actually is and how we can understand his will and intentions behind all that happens in the world? An example of such empty phrases is that "God's ways are inscrutable", a phrase which is usually pronounced with a dignified look of profound thoughtfulness.

During the CNN hearing of the republican presidential candidates in the fall of 2008, the baptist priest Huckabee expressed himself in the following way about the Bible: "There are parts of it I don't fully comprehend and understand, but I am not supposed to, because the Bible is the revelations of an infinite Good and no finite person is ever going to fully understand him. If they do, their God is too small." - For this he received a resounding applause of the audience who apparently took the view that the answer was brilliant, which it may also have been in that particular situation. It is probably also not simple even for deeply religious clerical servants to understand the God that they worship. But why should one then worship God, if one is neither able nor even wishes to be able to understand how he is?

God is by definition all-powerful, but why would he be good, loving, forgiving, and a guarantee of eternal life, isn’t this just a fiction held by those who wish that God would be like that? With equally strong support in the Holy Scriptures, it can be claimed that God is a punitive and revengeful god who will when time is ripe "separate the wheat from the chaff". Perhaps there is a greater reason for us to fear God than to worship him?

According to the Christian faith we are actually called to do both, both love and fear God. The likely idea behind these hypotheses is that one should love God, because he is good and fear him because he is almighty. Can anyone think of a more schizophrenic message?

When we look around the world with all its evilness and misery, all the suffering and destitution, it is difficult to see how God could be both good and all-powerful. This question is ancient and widely known under the name of theodicy. It was one of many issues discussed in the book, however, without reference to that particular term.

I am not aware of having ever heard an intelligent answer to this question. Is there such an answer? In any case, the dogma of God's omnipotence and goodness is repeated over and over again as if it had never been questioned or the problem simply solved by reference to God’s inscrutability.

The conversations taking place in the book develop in ways that I think is common among people who have known each other for a very long time. They are not meant to be viewed as scientific discussions with high demands on rigourous stringency, but rather as a lively exchange of personal thoughts about religious and other lifestances. As you surely noticed, my friends were kind enough to give me very good opportunities to develop my own views. Their replies and standpoints were, however, not selected for the reason that they would be easy to refute but because they seem to me representative of ways in which many people ponder over these ultimate questions.

Even though the talks were not scientific, they touched on some specific scientific subjects. One of these is the "mischievous" electrons as Sven told us about in the sixth chapter. What he was referring to was the discovery that the physicist Werner Heisenberg made in the 1920s, and which has since been called the "Heisenberg's uncertainty principle."

Einstein initially refused to accept that it would be impossible to determine the behaviour of any physical element. In a letter dated 29 april 1924 to his colleague and friend Max Born – winner of the Nobel Prize in physics 1954 - he wrote the following lines translated by myself from German: "The thought that an electron that is hit by a beam can freely decide to choose the moment and the direction in which it shall move is to me unacceptable. If so, then I would rather be a shoemaker or even en employee at a casino than to be a physicist. My repeated attempts to give the quants a more tangible shape have, however, not succeeded."

It is against this background that one can understand Einstein's later and more famous expression that God does not play dice. So he wrote to Born on 4 December 1926 (also here in own my translation): "Quantum mechanics are very respectable. But an inner voice tells me that it is not the real Jacob. The theory offers a lot, but it conducts us hardly any closer to the Old man’s secret. In any case am I convinced that he does not play dice ".

Born experienced Einstein's rejection as a "hard blow". He noted, however, that Einstein actually did not put forward any real justification for his criticism but only justified it by reference to his "inner voice" and that God would not play dice. Was this an indication that Einstein, the possibly greatest scientific genius of all times, was genuinely religious? This is a question widely discussed even today. Richard Dawkins has for example touched on this topic in the introduction to his book "The God Delusion" and the Israeli physicist and philosopher Max Jammer has written an entire book on it with the title "Einstein and Religion".

The important thing here is not, however, Einstein's criticism or whether he by any chance was a deeply religious person. The essential thing is that Heisenbergs theory in fact has stood its ground over so many years and shaken the perception that everything is predetermined. At the same time it lent a scientific support to the idea that people have a free will. Much of what we do, think and say may be anticipated, but only with varying degrees of uncertainty. We are shaped by our genes and we react to what happens around us, but we can usually freely choose between the options available to us and these are normally quite many. The choices we make are our own personal choices. We are no robots.

This idea has long been challenged by prophets of determinism, beginning with the Greek philosopher Democritus till the French 19th century mathematician Laplace. However, it seems that it is now resting on a fairly strong scientific basis.

"Cogito, ergo sum", said Cartesius in the 17th century. He viewed his ablility to think as a proof of his own existence. The existence of stars and stones and other tangible things might well be doubted, but not his own. That he was able to question it proved to him that he actually existed.

In my own humble opinion Cartesius could have gone a step further and said: "I think, thus I live". Against this statement may be argued that even an earth-worm lives, even though it cannot think, and that life came about with the appearance of the first single cell organism. Is it so?

Biochemical researchers are likely to agree that life did not occur for the first time at one single marvelous moment ("such as when two atoms have sex with each other"), but through a long molecular process that led to the formation of single cell creatures with ability to develop into ever more complex species of plants and animals.

On this issue the chemistry professor, bio-physicist and Nobel Laureate Manfred Eigen has pronounced himself as follows: " ‘the origin of life‘, i.e. the development from a macromolecule to a microorganism is just one step among others, similar to that from elementary particle to atom, from atom to molecule ... or even that from single-cell organisms to organic compounds, and finally to the human central nervous system. Why would this step from the molecule to a single-cell organism be viewed with greater respect than any of the others? " (My translation)

In a book by the well-known catholic professor Hans Küng from where I have quoted Eigen’s statement I also found the following said by another theologian with the name of E. C. Hirsch: "The origin of life is no longer the secretive place where God would be found more than elsewhere. Either one believes in God, or one does it not here either. A proof of God does not present itself. Thus, it stays with the old question: ‘why is there anything at all and not nothing? ' With this, the secret of life rests within the secrecy of materia. From where has the matter come that has (under appropriate conditions) the property of producing life? " (My translation)

Beneath this bridge between science and theology one may sit down to ponder about what life is and which its origin is. For my own part, I am inclined to believe that life for its existence depends on the thought and vice versa. No thought without life. No life in the strict sense and especially not in a human sense without the ability to think. - Cogito, ergo vivo!

This approach is also consistent with the way in which death is defined in countries such as Sweden. When the possibility of thinking no longer exists, then also life is gone.

But what happens with thoughts that are not being thought any more? – Here is an answer given by Viktor Rydberg, a Swedish writer and poet of the 19th century.

“Your righteous thoughts, your loving kiss
the dreams you dreamt, no time can kill
such harvest lives and always will
belong in kingdom of eternities”

No doubt, this is a truly inspiring message, uplifting, encouraging, beautiful and poetic. But does anyone think that it is true? – What happens to all poems, when noone reads them anymore?

Not everyone shares the scientifically founded theory of evolution. In addition to those Norwegian members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church whom we met at a restaurant in Rab, there are many who advocate a theory of creation that is based on a literal interpretation of the old testament. The complexity of nature and the human species is for them the proof that everything was created in accordance with an 'intelligent design'. For them this is the Truth, no matter what.

How often has it not surprised me that people who are sceptical to religions are often accused of being "Besserwissers" claiming to have found the Truth, while others with cemented religious beliefs seem to merit particularly high degrees of respect and reverence.

In fact, it should be the opposite. Non-religious people may form their philosophy in a rational manner basing it on scientific observations and logical reasoning. With an approach like that one must be prepared to change one’s conclusions, if conditions change or if it is demonstrated that the logic is flawed. Our concept of truth must always be questioned. It must never be like carved in stone.

Those who are religiously convinced of having found the Truth do not find it necessary to defend this "Truth" with rational arguments, which they anyway reject as being too restrictive. According to Huckabee and others it is anyhow not possible to understand God. His routes are inscrutable and it is impossible to navigate along such routes with the help of logical thinking. Instead, we shall have to rely on something that we neither can nor even want to understand. Within Christianity one refers to Jesus' words: "I am the way, the truth and the life". – For convinced believers this is sufficient. With them, it is difficult to discuss as they know already all they need to know. They have found the Truth. They know better. Is it not these people who are the real "Besserwissers"?

My problem with atheism and some of its proponents is not so much the self-confidence with which they trumpet their message but their alacrity. Sometimes it seems as if death and the anxiety people feel when facing it would not be so much to worry about. You can usually hear atheists express themselves in the following way: "We live only once in this wonderful world and only a short time. Therefore, let's not waste our valuable time to think of death and the time thereafter but on how best we can live our lives before we die."

This is an essentially rational way of thinking and not without wisdom. But what does one say to those who are afraid of dying and disappearing into the eternal oblivion? – That they should not to be afraid? That there is no life beyond death and therefore nothing to worry about? – For those who are afraid of hell, it may be comforting, but hardly for the others. Throughout history, many have struggled with their anxiety when faced with the atheistic perspective that all that awaits you at the end of life is death. Herbert Tingsten was one of those who openly declared his fear of dying, both on TV and in books and articles. Others have also dealt with the same subject, sometimes in an artistic way in film and poetry, like Ingmar Bergman, Pär Lagerkvist and others. Outside the public stage one does not usually speak about one’s fear of death. It is not a subject that lends itself very well for discussion at dinner parties. Nevertheless, many belabour it in silence.

For those who are convinced that there is a life after death and not afraid of ending up in hell the fear of dying should not be very strong. However, for many atheists, who do not believe in a continuation of life beyond death, the fear of their ultimate obliteration may be a big problem. Against this background, I find it strange that neither of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Christer Sturmark is treating this problem more seriously in their respective books, "The God Delusion”, "End of Faith" and "Faith and Knowledge 2.0 ".

A lot can be said in favour of atheism, such as its contribution to the human intellectual emancipation and its struggle against religious repression in all its forms. Unlike some religions it has, however, no earthshakingly joyful message to deliver, no gospel. On the contrary, it has a rather sad outlook on what awaits us after death, namely nothing. This notion is based on a well developed skepticism, a kind of honesty in recognition of the fact that the incredible remains incredible regardless of the number of people who believe it and of the strength of their faith. Whilst the firm believer thinks he sees the "Truth", the atheist chooses to see it in the white of the eye.

As mentioned in the first chapter, the world's most eminent science community has taught us that the universe began to exist some 13.7 billion years ago. This may seem to most of us a whole eternity, but it is not. Eternity is longer. No one knows how much longer. The concept of eternity cannot be imagined. However, it is not impossible to imagine that there was a time also 13.8 billion years ago, or 13.9, or 14.0 etc. It is the opposite that is difficult to understand, namely that, according to the same scientists, there was no time at all before the Big Bang. Also, we do not know what caused the Big Bang. We are again faced with the old question why there is something rather than nothing?

What it was that triggered the process which began with the Big Bang is still an open question. This phenomenon cannot be explained with the help of scientific methods. Not yet at least, I may add. Thus, the subject leaves ample room for speculations in the truest sense of the word, for reflections, fantasies, dreams, etc. In this complete lack of knowledge no opinion is wrong, nor is anyone right and nothing can be proven. Some say that they do not know and abstain from speculating. Most people tend, however, to believe in some sort of primary power, a universal consciousness or a cosmic spirit. Many people choose to name this phenomenon God without worrying too much about who created him.

Another question is what kind of relation this primary power or God has to the universe as it is today. Does he carefully follow all that happens? Does he involve himself in the functioning of galaxies and nebulae? Does he even know where our earth is? In this scientific vacuum, there are enormous opportunities for everyone to develop his/her most imaginative concepts. Also here, there is no right or wrong, because nothing can be proven, nor disproven.

Similarly, we can ponder about ourselves. As previously discussed, we may with reasonable certainty assume that we exist. We may even go so far as assume that we live, as we are able to think. We have reason to believe that we have a free will with which we have evolved to unique creatures. Everyone has his/her own personality. All of us perceive ourselves as subjects saying "I" about ourselves and experience the world around us with all our senses. We remember. We have a consciousness. All this together, we may call our soul.

The physicist Paul Davies, who in several books dealt with the borderland between metaphysics and physics, says in his book "The Mind of God": “I cannot believe that our existence in the universe is just a twist of fate, a historical coincidence, a temporary spot of light in the cosmic drama. Our involvement is too intimate. The physical species Homo may not mean anything, but the existence of an awareness in any organism on any planet in the universe is certainly a fact of fundamental importance.”

It has been said that a person loses a few grams of her weight, when she dies. Is this the soul that leaves the deceased? I would find it hard to believe that, but the question remains - what happens with the "soul", when we die? Does our consciousness live on in a spiritual dimension or is it strictly tied up with our poor brain cells?

Is there, as Davies seems to suggest, a connection between an x-dimensional cosmic consciousness and the individual human immaterial soul? Here one may again imagine several scenarios, one more fantastic than the other. Everyone can create his/her own view of the world in precisely the way that suits him/her best. One can speculate as one may wish. No one is right, and none is wrong for nobody knows anything. All must be free to develop their own theories without pressure from any side, no matter how benevolent. This is the meaning of freedom of religion.

Noone needs to learn from others which theory or belief that is correct and which is wrong. This is patently absurd, because none can be based on verifiable scientific observations. It is not about reality but about dreams of life in other from us hidden dimensions. Here we can get no help from any theology, because there is no knowledge of God.

Each in freedom created religious belief is profoundly personal, shaped by the individual with a mix of thoughts, feelings, fears and desires, hopes and worries, spirituality, and poetry.

Any such belief may have meaning for the believer. It can bring comfort and provide a form of security. It harms noone but helps to legitimise a religious thinking that may often lead to serious problems. They occur, for example, when the believers work hard to convince others of the "Truth" they found, when such conversations exert pressures of different kinds, when they lead to indoctrination and violations of the freedom to form one’s own life stance. When faith does not remain a matter for the individual, when like-minded believers gather in sects, congregations and organized religions that demand strict loyalty of their members and have the power to control their behaviour, then there is a growing risk that those who wish to think freely or differently will no longer be tolerated. Then we can expect terror, other acts of violence and widespread religious repression.

I therefore believe: we need no preachers, no missionaries, no inquisitions, no Crusades, no holy wars, no occupation of sacred places, no religious repression – in short, we need no religious sects or religious communities. Nor do we need any organized religions. WE NEED NO RELIGIONS!
Religions have many rules. They restrict people's freedom and make life difficult for those who have to adapt. Here's a selection of such rules:
* Provisions on Muslim women's clothing restrict their freedom and tend to underscore their social inferiority in relation to men. About the status of women and their humiliation in Muslim environments we can learn a lot from several different sources. One of these is Aayan Hirsi Ali's book "The Caged Virgin: an Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam.
* Muslim men and religious male Jews must wear a beard. Orthodox Jewish men must have curly sidelocks in front of their ears and their wives have to cover their hair, when they are away from home or shave it off and wear a wig. Why this interference in strictly personal matters?
* Muslims and Jews must not eat pork, a prohibition which Christians have not accepted and why would they do that? Pork is a quite suitable kind of nourishment for humans. If due to ethical or other reasons one would prefer vegetarian food, then one will abstain from eating meat, but that would apply to all kinds of meat, not just pork
* Jehovah's Witnesses may not eat food made of blood such as blood-pudding.
* Mormons must not drink coffee or tea, nor may they smoke.
* Faithful Muslims must not drink wine or other alcoholic beverages.
* Religious rules do also regulate when and what to eat during the Christian and Jewish holidays and for Muslims during the month of Ramadan.
* Jewish and Muslim rules prescribe how animals should be slaughtered and in orthodox Jewish homes, one must not keep certain types of food in the same places as other kinds of food, nor must they be placed on the same table at the same time.
* What we can and cannot do during holidays must also be regulated and in orthodox Jewish circles such rules are taken very seriously.
* Less surprising is perhaps that Christian, Muslim and Jewish rules prescribe for the believers how they must pray, when they should stand up and sit down, when they should be on their knees, which way to turn themselves and how to bow.
* Noone must crack a joke or speak critically about Mohammed. Anyone doing that risks to be murdered by some dutiful islamist acting on behalf of an Ayatollah.
* In several religions, their authoritative representatives take a specific interest in interfering with people's sexual behaviours. This interest is, however, not primarily focused on the prevention of prostitution or trafficking. Other issues seem to be much more important, such as prohibition of adulterous relationships, homosexuality, the use of contraceptives, etc.
* The Witnesses of Jehovah must not accept to receive blood transfusions, even if they otherwise risk to die on the operation table. A long list of people who died for this reason, including many children, is published on http://www.ajwrb.org/about.shtml. Behind this Web page is a group that calls itself the associated Jehovah's Witnesses for Reform on Blood. They struggle to reform the official policy of the Witnesses.

In the foregoing I gave some examples of sectarian prohibitions and restrictions that limit the believers in their choices. This list could be made very much longer. It is difficult to understand what all these rules have to do with religion, except that the majority of the rules have origins in one or the other passage in some ancient scripture.

Preachers of religions do, however, not restrict themselves to prescribing what their members must not do. They also provide guidance on what they have to do to get into heaven, to arrive there quickly and safely as martyrs, to escape hell, to gain salvation and avoid damnation, to find the eternal truth and do God’s will.

As mentioned already, none of this is based on any knowledge of God and his will, because no such knowledge exists. In the eminent confusion of religious beliefs about God and on whose side he is, religions tend to lead to discord and rivalry amongst each other and there are similar trends also within the religions. Religions do not unite, they divide, which often leads to terrorism and religious persecutions. Therefore, I believe that a world without religions would be a freer and safer place to live in.

The professor of religion and baptist reverend Charles Kimball has written an interesting book entitled "When religion becomes evil" in which he examines how seemingly peaceful religions can become evil and threatening. Kimball points out that the following five characteristics may serve as alarm bells:

When religious leaders claim to possess the absolute truth
When they demand blind obedience
When they announce that time will soon be ended
When they let the goals justify the means and
When they declare holy war,

In spite of the fact that he fully understands the implications of the development he describes, namely oppression, mutilations, murders, terrorism and “holy“ wars, he does not believe that the fault lies with religions but with the human tendency to distort them.

However, those accused by Kimball to "distort" religions are those who go back to their origins, to the oldest and most genuine of all documents, to the historical foundations of religions, i.e. their most ancient scriptures. Through all our times people have been bickering about which religious interpretation is the one that is “true” and about who has distorted what. When it has proved impossible to peacefully convince “the others” of the "correct" doctrine, one has not hesitated to condemn, oppress, persecute, expel, torture, burn or beat to death those who "distorted" the faith, i.e. the "infidels." The history of religions is filled with countless "true" teachings and an equal number of "false" ones.

Against this bleak background I would like to conclude by quoting another poem by Pär Lagerkvist, also this from "Anxiety" which was published in 1916.

Here I wish to stay,
Here I will lower my head.
Holy spaces.
No human words are true.

Neither any words of God, I feel inclined to add.

1 kommentar:

HC sa...

The following comment was made by Christina Julin:

Maybe no words are true; neither those made by humans nor by Gods, but there is truth, which is universal and goes beyond reason and thought. Reason and thought might eventually help us find the truth, but without compassion and love there is nothing.