Established Religions – an overview

  • This page is part of a group of pages looking at answers to the ‘big questions’ – ‘What is the purpose of life?’ and ‘How should I live?’ are probably the biggest. For more on my motivations and approach, see Journey towards a Path if you haven’t already read it. As I said there, I looked first at the foundations of logical reasoning, science and philosophy – ‘Metaphysics‘ – and then at the major ‘Established Religions’, here, to see what might be useful.

Established Religions

The major world religions fall into two groups (according to Wikipedia, anyway): ‘dharmic’ and ‘Abrahamic’. The dharmic religions are Hinduism and its offshoots Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, while the Abrahamic are Judaism and its offshoots Christianity and Islam, the monotheistic religions.

‘Buddhism is the fifth-largest religion in the world behind Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and traditional Chinese religion, in that order,’ again according to Wikipedia. There are dozens or hundreds of smaller religions, depending on how ‘religion’ is defined. Some belong to one of the two major groups (e.g. the Baha’i Faith, which is Abrahamic) while some are unaffiliated (e.g. Taoism).

Looking at existing religions, I see that:

Firstly, most people I know who are affiliated with established religions are nicer and happier than most who are not, but also that religions are responsible for much of the world’s conflict. (This is ‘binding’, the root of the word ‘religion’, in action: strengthening ties within a community makes people happier but weakens ties between communities (cf. recent work on the evolutionary advantages of altruism: altrusim within groups disadvantages individuals within the group but advantages the group with respect to other groups). Meanwhile, religions’ inability to tolerate dissent makes conflict between groups more likely and more vicious. It is the collision of religions which makes them most toxic, though the anti-intellectualism which is a necessary consequence of authoritarianism (see below) is pretty bad too.)

Secondly, each religion consists of rules for living in the world, rules for transcending the world, and what I will call ‘cultural baggage’ – elements which are not essential to either of the other two but are products of the culture in which it was first expounded. (Things like the Jewish dietary laws, which make good public health sense for a community with primitive hygiene and no refrigeration, or the Buddhist practice of endlessly chanting scriptures, which makes good sense in an almost illiterate community.) I am perfectly willing to accept cultural baggage on its merits but I don’t think anyone should be required to give it the same respect as the core message of the religion.

Monotheism

Most religions are unsatisfactory from the ‘truth’ criterion or from the ‘fairness’ criterion, as set out in Metaphysics, or both at once.

  • We have been given the world by our bountiful God so it is ours to exploit as we please? No. (Extending the reach of ‘fairness’ beyond humanity to all living creatures, and/or beyond the present to the future, gives us reasons to reject the idea. And look at the mess we make while believing this.)
  • Miracles (aka granting of prayers) are just not on: Dear God, let 2 plus 2 equal 5, just for me? No (against science).
  • The active, interventionist God is not on: God will give us victory over the infidels? No (similarly against science – and fairness suggests we would be in line in for a retaliatory miracle).
  • The ‘chosen people’ worldview is just not on: We have been divinely appointed to rule the world? No. (Quite apart from conflicting with my fairness criterion, it might have worked when everyone in the community had the same religion but now it is a recipe for endless conflict.)
  • ‘Divine authority’? No. It manages to conflict with both truth and fairness: This is the word of the lord and it is eternal and infallible? No. (Just think about how that ‘word’ got into the world: some individual person said it. Fairness says his words don’t deserve to be privileged.) Truthwise, think about the scientific method, i.e. consistency and testability: If a statement is declared infallible it cannot be debated or tested. Such a position is profoundly anti-scientific and profoundly anti-educational.

Terry Lane covers this ground at greater length in God: The Interview (reviewed here). Arguments against religion in general or against specific religions can also be found on the net. See, for instance, the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

Religious structures frequently mimic or echo family structures, with God as head of the household, believers as his children owing him respect and obedience and liable to be punished if they don’t give it, and everyone outside the household as ‘not one of us’ and less valued if not rejected outright. It has been hypothesized (e.g. by Pataki) that that is why religions seem so natural to humanity: that the ‘innate’ respect for teachers’ and parents’ authority which underpins learning of survival skills has expanded from its evolutionary origins and transferred to respect for religious teachers and civil authority.

Perhaps the authoritarianism of most religions is part of the cultural baggage of religions which grew up where only a tiny fraction of the people were literate, but perhaps it is due to this quasi-familial mindset. (Just as an aside: authoritarianism is inherently divisive, because anyone who contradicts authority is automatically schismatic, heretic; there is no possibility of agreeing to differ.)

Extending this line of thought: God or the priest as father-analogue puts us perpetually in the role of child, unable to make decisions of our own and therefore to take responsibility for our own actions. ‘Just do what I say and you will be all right,’ may be comforting but it denies us permission to think and gives us a cop-out too. I would rather be an adult.

That expresses it as a personal preference, which it is, but there is a stronger argument from fairness. If we all put ourselves in the ‘child’ role, no-one takes any decisions; things are better if we all put ourselves in the ‘priest’ role (that was the original impetus for the Protestant Reformation, though it has been eroded over the centuries since then) but we are still looking to God or scripture for direction rather than thinking for ourselves.

At this point I am ready to say that I cannot accept any religion which requires uncritical acceptance of dogma (scripture, the priest’s announcements) or any religion which posits an active, interventionist, personal God, or any religion which supports oppression of one group of people by another, especially on the basis of an accident of birth (e.g. gender, ethnicity, social class).

That knocks out Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the three major monotheistic religions. (Judaism may be the least objectionable of the three in most ways but its emphasis on the ‘Chosen People’ is inherently divisive.) I don’t know much about Baha’i. I know it tries to take the best of the other Abrahamic traditions but leaves the contradictions between them unresolved, and it still passes personal responsibility upwards to a (paternalistic) God, so I won’t even look at it in detail.

There are strands within these religions which still appeal to me. They tend to be the strands which are least tied to the organisational structures, most individualistic and most mystical; the obvious inference is that they appeal in spite of, not because of, the religions they are derived from. If I get back to them it will be in the context of the ‘Perennial Philosophy’ (which is introduced at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perennial_philosophy and discussed later in this article).

Dharmic religions

What of the dharmic religions, then?

Hinduism is the oldest, emerging in a recognisable form about 1500 BCE. It is polytheistic but many traditions view the gods and goddesses as merely aspects of one unknowable divinity and that divinity, in turn, as an image or personification of the dharma.

And the ‘dharma’ is the ‘law’ or the ‘way’ or ‘duty’ or ‘teaching’ or ‘reality’ – which highlights a difficulty Westerners have with Asian religious thought: translation of concepts. Even very simple foreign words resist translation into English (should ‘maison’ become ‘house’, ‘home’ or ‘mansion’?) and the richer and less familiar the concept, the harder the task of translation. I will try to present enough alternative translations to give a broad sense of each new term as I introduce it.

‘Hinduism centers around a variety of practices that are meant to help one experience the Divinity that is everywhere and realize the true nature of the Self,’ according to Wikipedia. Meditation, Yoga (four main forms of it – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga) and devotional practices are common. Most Hindus worship the impersonal, unknowable God (Brahman) in the more approachable anthropomorphic form of one of the many Gods or Goddesses – Krishna, Vishnu and so on.

The phenomenal universe (i.e. commonsense reality) is seen as Maya (illusion). Enlightenment consists of seeing through Maya to the ultimate, permanent reality of Brahman.

Buddhism split off from Hinduism in much the same way as Christianity split off from Judaism or, better, Protestant Christians split from the Catholic church. Most of its fundamental concepts are the same but the Buddha (born about 560 BCE) taught a gentler, simpler and more personal approach to enlightenment. If fact, his teaching has been summarised from within the tradition (Dhammapada 183) as ‘To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s mind.’ It looks like a good recipe to me.

The Buddha said daily life is unsatisfactory (in fact, brings suffering) because it is impermanent and yet we grasp at it, and that the way to escape its unsatisfactoriness is to learn, through a programme of ethical behaviour, study and meditation which he set out as the Eightfold Path, to stop that craving. God vanishes almost entirely from his scheme and so does authority (see below, Kalama sutta).

Both Hinduism and Buddhism are much older than Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and they have similarly split into multifarious traditions and sects – but without (and I think this is important) the bitterness (amounting to persecution and warfare) found between the Abrahamic religions. (True, there is religious violence in India, but it is between Moslems and Hindus.) I suspect this is due in part to the fact that neither religion has any centralised authority to be threatened by such splits. (There was an acrimonious split in Buddhism analogous to the Protestant/Catholic split in Christianity, but is was a very long time ago; it resulted in the separation between Mahayana and Theravada traditions.)

Jainism is older than Buddhism. It is radically ascetic (one sect refuses to wear clothes – at all) and radically non-violent; perhaps this is why it has never been a large religion. It rejects God in any form but venerates liberated souls.

Sikhism began in sixteenth century India with the teachings of a respected Guru and is now the fifth largest organised religion in the world. It is more doctrinaire than Hinduism. It can be seen as a fusion of Hindu and Islamic ideas: Hindu ‘enlightenment’ is redefined as ‘union with God’ which is to be achieved by devotional exercises (primarily meditation) but the unknowable creator God and Maya, the illusionary ‘real’ world separating us from the reality of God, are understood in much the same way as in Hinduism.

At this stage, I am prepared to say that the dharmic religions as a group are much more credible and attractive to me than the Abrahamic religions.

I like the stress on cause and effect and on personal responsibility for improving one’s life; the emphasis on non-violence; and the tolerance for different approaches to religious practice and/or philosophical enquiry.

Narrowing that down, neither Jainism nor Sikhism seem to contain anything I value except elements which are also present in Buddhism and/or Hinduism. In much the same way, I can say that Hinduism contains little that I value that is not shared with Buddhism; and Hinduism seems to carry more negative cultural baggage (Gods, and the caste system, for instance) than Buddhism.

Buddhism, in fact, seems to carry less cultural baggage than any of the other major religions – see my Buddhist Beliefs page for a summary. The Gods, incarnations, demons and other supernatural beings found (especially) in Tibetan Buddhism are later accretions from other (Hindu and native Tibetan) traditions.

Returning to an earlier theme: is Buddhism really a religion, or is it a philosophy? About 60:40 religion:philosophy is my estimate. There is an agreed body of scripture, and there is an organisational structure analogous to Christian churches, monasteries and convocations. On the other hand, there is no central authority, there is no prohibition on individual thought or practice, and no ‘god who must be obeyed.’

In fact, there is encouragement of individual enquiry. See, for instance, the Kalama Sutta (even the ‘translator’s note’ is enough, but the whole piece is relevant). The core of it (from the linked alternate translation) is:

The criterion for acceptance
[The Buddha is speaking.] “Come, Kalamas [i.e. people of the village he is visiting]. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias toward a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘This monk is our teacher.’
Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.

So I will go further:

Theravada Buddhism seems to have retained the rigour of the original teaching rather better than Mahayana and is therefore closer to what I am looking for.

Other approaches

There are Westernised secularised versions of Buddhism and Hinduism (Transcendental Meditation, for instance) but they tend to be unbalanced, focused on isolated teachings and a fairly selfish search for personal happiness without any wider considerations. There are also Western ‘medical’ versions of meditation practice which tend to share the same fault. Melbourne psychiatrist Ainslie Meares was one of the first.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is similarly studying mind/body interaction from a Western medical viewpoint and promoting mindfulness meditation. ‘As in the Buddhist tradition but you don’t have to approach it through that tradition – it can be learned in a secular setting,’ is the way he described it in an interview with Margaret Throsby (ABC-FM, 21 December 2006). Kabat-Zinn is the founding Director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

The Perennial Philosophy is well outlined by Aldous Huxley:

At the core of the Perennial Philosophy we find four fundamental doctrines.

First: the phenomenal world of matter and of individualized consciousness–the world of things and animals and men and even gods–is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their being, and apart from which they would be non-existent.

Second: human beings are capable not merely of knowing about the Divine Ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower with that which is known.

Third: man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.

Fourth: man’s life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground. … These four doctrines constitute the Perennial Philosophy in its minimal and basic form.

So far, so good. He continues:

A man who can practice what the Indians call Jnana yoga (the metaphysical discipline of discrimination between the real and the apparent) asks for nothing more. This simple working hypothesis is enough for his purposes. But such discrimination is exceedingly difficult and can hardly be practiced, at any rate in the preliminary stages of the spiritual life, except by persons endowed with a particular kind of mental constitution. That is why most statements of the Perennial Philosophy  have included another doctrine, affirming the existence of one or more human Incarnations of the Divine Ground [Logical error? Aren’t the ‘statements of the Perennial Philosophy’ abstractions from religions, so God was there all along and has just been acknowledged?], by whose mediation and grace the worshipper is helped to achieve his goal–that unitive knowledge of the Godhead, which is man’s eternal life and beatitude [Defaulting to Christian conceptualisation].

The biggest fault in Huxley’s analysis is that he is blind to the evils and nonsense that are carried alongside the Perennial Philosophy in mainstream religions. In fact, he goes on to say that any of the major religions is an acceptable substitute for the Perennial Philosophy. By doing so he loses my remaining support.

The people behind http://www.religioperennis.org/ see themselves as inheritors of the twentieth century movement. Sadly, examination of their writings reveals the faults I see in Huxley’s outline, and more: a small, inward-looking group of people who rely on cult-like authority and highly improbable ‘historical’ traditions.

Some (e.g. The Charter for Compassion) would like to use the Golden Rule instead of the Perennial Philosophy as their abstracted-from-all-religions solution to the problems created by conflicts between religions. To illustrate its universality, I will just quote from a Buddhist discussion of karma formerly published on kalachakra.net:

The idea behind karma is not only found in Buddhism and Hinduism; it seems that the Bible certainly conveys the same essence:

All things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

Also the ‘Golden Rule’ of Confucianism makes a similar statement:

Tzu-kung asked, “Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” Confucius answered, “Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”

 

For many more iterations of the Golden Rule, see  Ethic of reciprocity on Wikipedia. For another approach to reciprocity, which binds it closely with the Buddhist idea of ‘not-self’, see the interview with Douglas Hofstadter in New Scientist, Mar 10, 2007.

The beginning of a path

So what is the beginning of my path?

  • Truth and fairness.
  • The Golden Rule still looks good for a basic formulation of my position.
  • I reject monotheism and any (other) interventionist god/s whatsoever, along with any religious group which forbids rational enquiry or dissent.
  • Buddhism is the closest religion to philosophy and has some virtues philosophy and secular meditation practices both lack; it looks like my best way of further exploring my concerns from a moral perspective and gives me access to a refined tradition of concentration practices.
  • Yoga is a technical toolbox for the practice and may supplement Buddhist practices.

Since Buddhism looks likely to be important to the journey, I have taken time to study it. Core Buddhist Beliefs and An Introduction to the Main Schools of Buddhism, now also on this blog, are results of that effort.

Created 21 Jan, 2007;
refined and first published 2008;
added to this site (links updated, minor clarifications) Feb 2022

Metaphysics from a clean slate

    • This page is part of a group of pages looking at answers to the ‘big questions’. ‘What is the purpose of life?’ and ‘How should I live?’ are probably the biggest. For more on my motivations and approach, see Journey to a Path if you haven’t already read it. As I said there, I looked first at the foundations of logical reasoning, science and philosophy – ‘Metaphysics’, here – and then at the major ‘Established Religions’ to see what might be useful.

Metaphysics

For a long time the purest, most rigorous application of logic was in mathematics and especially in Euclid’s geometry. Formal geometry depends explicitly upon axioms – statements that have been accepted as true without ever having been proved and have been declared foundational. Axioms are, by definition, unprovable (if they were provable, it would show that they rely on something even more fundamental). They are given the status of facts, incontrovertible knowledge, although different geometries (e.g. spherical vs planar) have different axioms, and mathematicians draw freely on them for work on any problem.

Philosophical writing uses a similar scheme of logical argument but the beliefs underpinning it (1) vary from one writer to another and (2) are rarely stated explicitly. Often, I think, it is because the writer is unaware of the fact that they may not be true, or even that they exist. It seems to me that any philosophy needs to identify and justify its starting points before it can proceed safely. If it doesn’t, it is building on sand. I think the underlying assumptions or beliefs should be stated as axioms.

Axioms

My chosen starting points are truth and fairness. Every step of the journey will be tested against these two ideals.

Truth might seem to be such an obvious and essential requirement of any serious enquiry that it need not be stated as an axiom. However, it can not be taken for granted in philosophy or religion: particularly in religious contexts, the ‘truth’ of a given text may be beyond question and therefore forever indeterminate, neither provable nor disprovable.

What I have called ‘fairness‘ is my only other axiom; I hope it is all I need. What do I mean by it? I mean that no beliefs (except this one) are privileged over any others – and therefore that no beliefs are exempt from enquiry or rejection, while all beliefs are equally entitled to respect until they have been examined.

I have chosen it because anything else presupposes some truths without stating them or being able to examine them. In other words, it is a way of clearing a working space, a way of saying that everything is in doubt. It makes any point in the territory as good as any other, and it guards against special pleading or favouritism. (e.g. ‘We should be allowed to do this but you are not, because we are male/white/the Chosen People,’ fails the fairness test.)

Finally, its immediate consequences in the social sphere seem good. It means that everyone has an equal right to life, freedom of expression and freedom of belief; and it leads straight to the Golden Rule (treat others as you would like to be treated) which is about the best, most universal basis for ethics known to me.

From ‘fairness’ to the Golden Rule:
If no person or belief has a privileged position, ‘What should I do?’ is exactly the same as, ‘What should my neighbour do?’ and, for that matter, ‘What should my enemy do?’ — the questions must have the same answer.
Therefore, if others ought to treat me as I want to be treated, I ought to treat them as I want to be treated.

Truth rules out anything that is in direct conflict with science, because science is organised, self-consistent, tested and testable knowledge – and, because there is so much of it, no single statement or set of beliefs can overturn it.

Truth is a property of statements. Words are our only means of formulating and clarifying ideas but are one step removed from reality. Some religions (e.g. Zen Buddhism) distrust words because statements have no necessary connection to reality, and I do too. But they are the best tools we have.

Tools

Logic is the tool of choice for dealing with statements. It cannot generate new ideas or guarantee truth but it can protect against muddled thinking.

Ockham’s Razor (see http://skepdic.com/occam.html) is part of my toolkit and when in doubt I am likely to call for it.

Consistency is valuable but is not primary. Truths can’t be inconsistent with each other (if they seem to be, one must be untrue or one or both must be incompletely stated). But consistency is not enough, because falsehoods can be consistent with each other.

The validity of shared (common) sense-impressions, i.e. the existence of consensus reality may be a necessary axiom too, but seems to be strongly suggested, if not proven, by fairness plus Ockham’s Razor (e.g. I believe I see an apple; we both hear you tell me that you see an apple; therefore the apple probably exists). For now I will just accept that the commonsense view of the reality around us is a good enough description of the world. Science provides a more detailed description, but it is still only a description and it takes for granted the commonsense view.

Knowledge : belief, religion : philosophy

Two pairs of overlapping terms need to be sorted out before we go much further: knowledge and belief, and religion and philosophy.

Religion and philosophy are easy to separate. Philosophy is (literally) ‘love of knowledge’ and is scientific in method (provisional, open to debate and to change) whereas religion is (literally) ‘binding’, bringing people together under a set of laws, traditions and, of course, beliefs which are not usually open to debate or change.

Knowledge and belief are harder to separate. Truth and knowledge, in science, are always provisional, liable to be overturned by a new discovery. That makes knowledge more like what most people call belief. My best definition is that abstract knowledge is a subset of belief – more solidly attached to the world, better attested, less likely to be overturned. It might even be reasonable to call abstract knowledge, ‘well supported belief’ and other beliefs, ‘poorly supported beliefs’.

We must remember, however, that not all knowledge depends on words: there is experiential and bodily knowledge as well, such as knowing how to walk.

On the other hand, there is (in my opinion) no such thing as ‘innate’ knowledge or morality (or ‘innate’ musicality): everything we know, we have learned from the world around us, and especially from the people in it. If you need evidence for that, think about language acquisition, read about infants brought up by animals and look up the story of the neglected babies in Romanian orphanages.

Useful and beautiful ideas

Reading about religion and philosophy over thirty-odd years I have encountered a lot that I liked and …the rest.

One concept I liked very much, and still do, is the Taoist idea of ‘according with the spirit of Heaven’ or (in its hippie formulation) ‘going with the flow’ – seeing life as a river and learning to recognise its currents and accommodate to them. (Recent reading suggests that ‘dharma’ and ‘tao’ have much in common.)

Another is from Hinduism: that there are several paths to wisdom and the seeker’s personality type dictates which is most appropriate: (analytical) knowledge, love (devotion), works (service to others) – head, heart or hands – though any without the others is eventually found to be incomplete. (My preferred path is obviously ‘head.’) Similarly, in Buddhism, wisdom and compassion are seen as complementary.

‘Karma’ is central to both Buddhism and Hinduism. It is often erroneously thought of as ‘fate’ (as in, ‘No man can escape his karma’) but is more correctly interpreted as a law of cause and effect: whatever we have done in the past will inevitably affect what happens to us in the future. Sometimes we will be able to see the connection and sometimes not, but the connection is still there.

The Sanskrit word Karma (or kamma in Pali) literally means action. In Buddhism however, karma mainly refers to one’s intention or motivation while doing an action.

The shortest explanation of karma that I know is: ‘you get what you give’. In other words; whatever you do intentionally to others, a similar thing will happen to yourself in the future.

Our largest obstacle to understanding or even believing in karma may be time. The results of our actions show up with a time delay, and it becomes extremely hard to tell which action caused which result. Actions done in a previous life can create results in this life, but who can remember their past life? For ordinary humans, the mechanisms of karma can be intellectually understood to some extent, but never completely ‘seen’.

The idea behind karma is not only found in Buddhism and Hinduism; it seems that the Bible certainly conveys the same essence: ‘Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A person reaps what he sows.’ (Gal. 6:7)

… Two of my personal favourite reasons to believe in karma, are that it represents ultimate justice as everyone will harvest the results of their actions, and even if karma would not exist, as long as I try to avoid negative actions, the world would be a better place to live in for everyone anyway.

(quoted from Kalachakranet in 2007 but no longer on that site in 2022)

See also: Karma by Thanissaro Bhikkhu on Dhamma Talks.

The next part of this series examines Established Religions.

Created 21 Jan, 2007;
refined and first published 2008;
added to this site (links updated, minor clarifications) Feb 2022

Pataki vs Religion

Against Religion

Tamas Pataki

Scribe (2007)

Tamas Pataki could be accused of misleading advertising. His title should have been Against Christianity or Against Monotheism. And his cover image, with its implicit hard-science associations, is misleading too, because he argues against religion primarily on the basis of Freudian theory.

To be fair, Pataki does warn the reader in his introduction that he is going to focus on the monotheistic religions. Christianity (the religion of about 33% of the world’s population) is his main target, while Islam (20%) and Judaism (a mere 0.2%) are often caught in his field of fire but less often singled out. He barely mentions Hinduism (13%) or Buddhism (6%), and in fact his prime argument applies to them poorly or not at all. Continue reading “Pataki vs Religion”

Journey towards a path

  • I wrote this in 2007-2008 primarily for my own benefit but then decided to put it on my website in case anyone else might find it useful. Nearly fifteen years later (2022) I find that I still agree with most of it so I’m moving it across to my new site rather than simply deleting it as I close down my old site.

I seem to have set out on a journey, and to have surprised my family and friends more than myself by doing so.

It is actually more accurate to say I have found time to recommence a journey that began when I was teenager but has mostly been on hold for the last twenty years. (That alone is probably enough to explain why my family and friends were more surprised than I was.) My journey re-started when it did (2006-07), rather than years earlier or later, for a mixture of personal reasons: events just combined to urge me to redefine my relationship with the world.

The journey is a quest for answers to the big questions that most of us ask from time to time and usually set aside. ‘What is the purpose of life?’ and ‘How should I live?’ are the biggest, but they lead to questions about society’s relationship with our increasingly fragile environment.

Why bother asking them, or attempting to answer them? Because anyone travelling without a destination in mind is likely to arrive somewhere they didn’t mean to get to – and don’t particularly like. Also, perhaps, because it has recently become apparent that the major religions present problems to which the world needs solutions.

But why bother writing about it? Initially to explain my ‘new’ preoccupation to my family and friends and to learn more myself. (We all know that teaching a subject is a great way to learn it.) As that progressed, I decided to put it on the web in the hope that it will help others on their own path.

Finding a starting point

Because of the kind of person I am, I have spent some time looking for a starting point. The journey has to begin by clearing away errors and other obstacles. Changing metaphors midstream, I know that if I start from insecure foundations I will not be able to build a bridge over the swamps of unreason and superstition.

To be clear: I cannot and will not accept any answers or explanations which conflict with reason or with scientific knowledge. The standards against which we test religious or philosophical knowledge should be the highest we can find and should certainly be no lower than those applied to scientific knowledge. I am prepared to believe there are things I don’t know or that science doesn’t know, but not to believe things which cannot (by virtue of internal inconsistency or conflict with rationally established truths) be true. I know it’s not possible but I would like metaphysics to be as rigorous as physics. (Wouldn’t that change the world!)

Starting any journey with a completely blank map is not only impossible (since we must have some knowledge to frame questions) but also time-wasting, so examining existing maps of the territory – the answers that others have found – was part of establishing my starting point.

I looked first at the foundations of logical reasoning, science and philosophy – see ‘Metaphysics‘ – and then at the major ‘Established Religions‘ to see what might be useful. That exercise led me to look more closely at Buddhism and therefore to ‘An introduction to the main schools of Buddhism’ and ‘Core Buddhist Beliefs’. The associated Reading List, fiction and non-fiction, includes a variety of related books – philosophy, religion (pro and anti) and the environment.

Terry Lane: God – the interview

Godd Interview coverGod: the interview

Terry Lane

ABC Books, second edition, 2004

Terry Lane prefaces his book with a warning and a plea, and it is only fair to repeat them here: the contents of his book, and therefore of my review, may disturb those who are content with their deeply held Christianity. That was not his wish, nor is it mine, and we would ask such people not to continue.

Lane is widely known in Australia as a radio interviewer for the ABC. When asked casually whom he would most like to interview, he said, ‘God.’ The idea took root and this book grew from it.

Continue reading “Terry Lane: God – the interview”