|Religion from the Latin religare "to bind back." In other words, "to live one's life in a constipated fashion." Or, as someone (Robert Anton Wilson?) once said, "Convictions create convicts."|
I feel fortunate not to be bound and gagged by someone else's religious doctrines. But I'm not sure why--I am just as assuredly bound and gagged by my own beliefs, the most important of which I am probably not even aware.
To me, beliefs--including religious beliefs--are like prison bars. I find prison confinement an apt metaphor for belief systems, for believing something--like being thrown into jail--is not a matter of choice for me. I am not able to choose, at a moment's notice, to believe, for example, that the President of the United States cares about my personal well-being. Nor am I able to choose, at a moment's notice, to disbelieve in the law of gravity. What I believe and disbelieve is a result of the information with which I am presented. Information in-forms me; it literally forms my beliefs.
Furthermore, being thrown into a belief system is like having blinders put on. Beliefs constrain what we are able to see and imagine. Most prison cells don't have much of a view.
Now, there are things I believe are true that I wish were not true. I believe that Todd Blackledge's last minute pass that helped Penn State beat Nebraska in 1982 was caught out-of-bounds. I wish it weren't true because it taints the national championship I waited so long to experience. But the replays, the photographs, the evidence in-forms me otherwise.
I can imagine that if I REALLY cared about how that game was won, I could find ways to talk myself into believing what I wanted to believe. I have seen people try to ignore, discount, or discredit things that contradict what they would like to believe. I know from my own experience that I cannot do this this. When I have tried to talk myself into believing something I knew in my heart of hearts wasn't true, I just couldn't do this. I am not able to choose what to believe and disbelieve.
I don't know; maybe other people are better able to choose their beliefs through selective attention to the evidence. Suppose they succeed, after a period of sustained effort, in creating a new prison for themselves. What have they gained? Do religious beliefs serve some useful purpose?
Religious beliefs apparently serve many purposes, so identifying THE
purpose of religious beliefs would be fatuous.
Religious beliefs help create meaningful lives in three ways. They deny the finitude of our existence by giving us additional chances to go around again through reincarnation and/or by allowing us perpetual bliss with God. Additionally, some religions reassure us that everything is part of God's plan, that there are good reasons (however undiscernable) for accidents and suffering, and that the faithful eventually will be rewarded. In the same vein, happy coincidences are signs that God has a personal plan for you--so keep the faith. Finally, some religions provide specific codes or recipes for living to remove any doubt about how to spend our fourscore years on earth.
Unfortunately, however convenient religion might be for making a finite, meaningless life infinite and meaningful, it just doesn't work for me. In my heart of hearts I am an atheist (a-theism=without belief in God). I often get on with my life, fully aware that it doesn't matter, but cheerfully ignoring this fact. But I must admit to indulging in quasi-religious thoughts occasionally, and these thoughts make my life more meaningful.
I agree with Teilhard de Chardin's view of evolution as a progression of successively more complex layers, although I do not see (as he did) the Christian God as the alpha (beginning) and omega (end) of evolution. From the lithosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere (layers of earth, water, and air) evolved the biosphere (life). More recently, Teilhard suggests, a discernable mental layer he calls the noosphere has evolved.
Here is where I depart with Teilhard. Where he sees the human species as the spearhead of noospheric evolution, destined eventually for renunion with God, I see us as merely a part of the natural evolution of the "nervous system" of our planet. Just as the neurohormonal system of individual organisms evolved to allow communication among, and regulation of, individual cells, I think communication networks are evolving within and across all living species. The WWW is one obvious example of this, but I won't hazard a guess how much impact the Web will exert on the overall evolution of our planet's noosphere.
More modern versions of Teilhardian thinking can be found in concepts such as the global brain and the Gaia hypothesis. I was surprised to find that Web searches on these two terms in 1995 turned up less than a dozen hits. One noteworthy site that did turn up was authored by Doctress Neutopia, but the good doctress seems to be perpetuating a joke. I think. Not that it matters; humor takes nothing away from a valid message.
More recently I found a page called Project NatureConnect with similar lines of thinking. Also, I found I nice Guide to Eco-Ideologies. When I first constructed this page I said, "Perhaps there will be more activity in this area soon. And, then, perhaps not." Looks like the former is true. Today, the key words "global brain" turned up 5926 hits in AltaVista, while "Gaia hypothesis" generated 3351 hits.