Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Spirituality vs. Religion

Two weeks ago I posted about my frustrations with the concept of heaven.  I got an interesting comment that I wanted to talk a little more about now that I have thought it over.

I'm OK with survivors telling themselves whatever they need to accept a loved one's death, get beyond it, and carry on with their own lives.

I think it is important to separate the ideas of some kind of afterlife filled with otherwordly concepts of perfection and the reality of religion.  Let's be entirely frank:  People who pretend to think that everyone who dies goes to a place of perfect happiness aren't hurting anyone.  (Note that they don't actually think this or they wouldn't so desperately avoid death nor be so utterly devastated when someone else dies.)  People who think that some benevolent force created everything aren't hurting anyone either.  It is much the same as the fact that 90% of people think they are in the top 50% of drivers by skill; it is a fiction that masses of people buy into that honestly we can't do much about and isn't doing us much harm by and large.

The trouble comes from religion itself rather than the spiritual beliefs that are associated with it.  For example, in the funeral I attended that sparked the first post there were endless repetitions of the idea that people who accept Jesus as their saviour go to their reward in heaven.  An important part of this idea is that people who don't accept Jesus as their saviour don't get to partake in this endless happiness but instead are eternally punished by God himself for their iniquity.  This is *not* like the idea of conscious continuity after death or a benevolent Creator because it is a divisive force suggesting that anyone who does not follow a specific religion and adhere to specific rituals is by definition Evil and that those actions are deserving of the most hideous punishments possible.  Of course if you ask the people at the funeral about what was said nearly all would say that it was a nice set of speeches filled with goodwill and pleasant thoughts but they will entirely ignore the obvious fact that what was being said there can very simply be read as

Sky is evil.  His beliefs are wrong by definition and he will suffer eternal torment to pay for his transgressions.

Of course a very large part of religious believers don't think that.  They actually think that people who are nice and good go to heaven or even that everyone goes to heaven - well, maybe not the murderers and arsonists, but nearly everyone.  The trouble is that by reading these passages and supporting an organization that actively promotes the agenda that anyone who does not follow its beliefs and perform its rituals will suffer eternally you promote divisiveness instead of community and hatred instead of acceptance.  If people want to think there is a benevolent, anthropomorphic Creator or life after death then they are mistaken but it is hardly important; people are mistaken about lots of things.  It is religion itself that is the problem, not the common spiritual beliefs that people hold that happen to coincide with things that are taught by that religion.


  1. I disagree with both aspects of your parathentical note. People who believe in heaven try to avoid dying because suicide is a sin which will get you barred from heaven. Putting yourself at risk to benefit your religion is actually done (or was actually done) a lot in the past to justify going to wars.

    People are devastated when loved ones die for selfish reasons. It doesn't matter that they may be off to eternal life and it doesn't matter that you're going to join them at some point. You selfishly still want them around now.

    As far as a sense of community goes, that's just how cults work. They have a sense of community among members and outsiders can convert or go away. Biker bars and fancy golf courses work the same way.

  2. It isn't true that everyone who believes that if you believe in Jesus you'll go to heaven also believes that if you don't you won't. There's a significant number who are of the opinion that you can still get to heaven, but that belief in Jesus is the shortcut.

  3. I think your offence at "Sky is Evil" is misplaced. I would paraphrase that thought by saying
    "The Bible says 'If you believe the bible you are awesome; if you think the bible is nonsense then you are Evil' "
    Sky thinks the Bible is nonsense; the logical conclusion then is that 'The bible says Sky is evil.' Since Sky thinks the Bible is nonsense, he should not be concerned that it considers his life evil.
    But for Joe who believes the Bible it can be comforting to be told he will be rewarded in heaven for believing the Bible.

  4. @Ziggyny

    It is true that there are people out there who have joyously given up their lives for their religion with the assumption of guaranteed entry into heaven. These people are a tiny minority. The vast, vast majority of religious people desperately avoid death not because of some intellectual idea of suicide not being okay but rather because they really, really don't want to face oblivion, the end of self. They might use the idea of heaven as a comforting thought but they don't fundamentally believe that dying is a ticket to eternal bliss.

    You are right that people are sad when their loved ones die for selfish reasons, no argument here. However, if they actually *knew* their loved ones were happy they would not be nearly so upset - just as upset as if their loved one moved a distance away. Remember, under that model they get to see each other again, just like you would if they moved away. The reason you see the overwhelming grief is on a deep level they *don't* believe they will see the loved one again. The idea of heaven is a pretty fiction that very few people actually believe.


    The trouble is not what the Bible thinks. It is that people believe it. I had several friends who I knew for years and years and was close with and neither of us even knew what the other's religion was. When they found out I was an atheist they reacted with incredible spite and hatred immediately - as if I had utterly betrayed them. They fundamentally believed the idea that people who aren't part of their religion were evil, despite being entirely decent and reasonable folk in every other respect. You might want people to stop at "The Bible thinks Sky is Evil" without extending that to personal hatred but you would be fooling yourself. They are told the Bible is right, they are told the Bible teaches that Sky is Evil, they think Sky is Evil. That is how it goes.

  5. @Wendy: Like Sky says in the post, an awful lot of people who believe in Jesus seem to believe that everyone goes to heaven (a huge part of the religion is forgiving everything, and the popular conception of Jesus backs that up). But the last funeral I went to, whatever the people in the room thought, the priest was up there saying that Jesus was the one and only path to salvation and I'm pretty sure a good part of the room believed exactly that.

    @Dave: The problem is that I think it really matters what people say. If someone stands up at the front of a room and openly attacks a large group of people (the majority of the people in the world, for instance) as being evil, and everyone sits around and nods then that is a bad thing. While the majority of the people in that room were paying more attention to a different part of that message, and while the vast majority of them do not actually live their lives in a way consistent with that message, it's still not a great situation. Priests aren't stand up comedians; they aren't in a great position to tell us afterwards to take the fact that they said that we would suffer eternally in the light-hearted spirit it was offered.

    But besides that, I feel like the view that religion is okay because people need comfort is getting a little stale. At a funeral some people are religious and some people aren't. Some people have a very strict view of the religion and others follow the spirit rather than the letter. When a priest walks up and gives a sermon that is directed towards only one segment of that group, that in itself is a rotten thing to do. Are the atheists in the room supposed to be the grown-ups and say, "Well, the religious people need their comfort?" Atheists are not the kindergarten teachers of religious people.

    Obviously if you invite a priest to speak at a funeral you should know what you are going to get. I personally would not invite a priest to speak at a funeral. If people want to take personal comfort in believing what they want to believe that's fine; that the rest of us who are also grieving have to be insulted and have the memory of the person we cared about insulted is not fine.

    *Note: Obviously in your life you'll go to plenty of funerals for people you didn't actually know that well, and if the people closest to them want to insult you to make themselves feel better you should probably just suck it up since they are the ones that are grieving.

  6. There's a pretty big difference between moving a long distance away and dying. I moved a long way away when I was 18 and I'm sure my mother was sad that she didn't get to see me daily anymore, but she was still able to email me. IM me. Call me. She can still get on a plane once every 2 years and visit me.

    If I die, she can't email me and get a response. She can't ring me up on the phone or pop in for a weekend visit. I'm just gone. She may believe that 40 years from now she'll get to see me again but that's not going to be any comfort at all in the short term. (And for all she knows I'll be in hell, not heaven, and she won't even get to see me again in 40 years.)

  7. @Ziggyny

    It is true that she could not get a response soon. However, there are legions of people out there (I actually don't know if this is canon for Christians generally or not) that think that dead people can see the living and watch them all the time. According to this belief set you can send them messages any time you like but you just can't get a response in the time frame you are used to. People used to move across the country and expect to never hear from each other again and yet they did not grieve over doing so in the way we grieve over death. This attitude towards heaven and death is not new but the ability to be really out of contact for extended periods is.

    You should note too that many Christians believe that their dead loved ones contact them though visions, dreams, seances and other paranormal phenomena. This is clearly not a view held by everyone but the idea that we can communicate with the dead (slowly and inefficiently, for sure!) is fairly common and those that hold these beliefs still grieve the same way for the dead.