A comment made by Les to an earlier entry made me think. Les noted that fundamentalism isn’t limited only to religion. I agree with this sentiment quite strongly. It does seem that some of us non-believers do get a little vitriolic at times, and I think we are sometimes a bit too hasty to reject anything that is proposed by those who are a little more willing to accept things on faith. This is not to say that I’m suggesting that we stuff reason into our back pocket and go around believing things willy-nilly. Indeed, nothing can be farther from the truth. I think anything that is accepted without first surviving the most rigorous tests that we can devise to disprove is nothing more than speculation that is mistaken for knowledge.
This said I would like to get to the topic that is suggested by the title of this entry; namely that organized religions have some underlying virtues. Now I will admit I’m not an expert on religion but I do enjoy reading and one of my favorite topics is comparative theology so I know a little bit about a few of the major faiths. In these faiths (Buddhism, Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Mormonism, Reform Judaism, and Quakerism) I’ve noticed some underlying themes that I think everyone can accept whether they accept the more doctrinal claims or not.
First among these is the requirement that we care for our neighbors. This is something that, from my experience at least, seems that we’re all woefully inadequate at doing. I would hazard the guess that most of us have no idea who are neighbors are and it would be a snowy day in Sudan before we’d take the time and effort to go next door and lend a hand doing the laundry. I think this is something that we can all learn from religion. We do need to take more responsibility for the welfare of those around us. People are social creatures, and the defining characteristics (evolutionarily speaking at least) of social species is some level of cooperation and altruism (depending on how you define it).
Second, is the rejection of material excess (this is truer of some religions than others, however, they all reject excessive greed). This is something that I also think is lacking in our contemporary society. Indeed, as a friend of mine once noted (though perhaps she stole the quote from a movie, I’m not sure whether such is the case or not) the things we own end up owning us. I look around and I do see many people who, though they have given up worship of God, fairies and Zeus treat money and random stuff with flashing lights as something that should be put on an altar and prostrated in front of. I don’t think this is any less silly than sitting in a cave starving yourself and self flagellating to get a little closer to a bearded dude with a toga that lives on a cloud. Again, this is something that we all can learn from religion; there are other things way more important than gathering crap.
Third, every single religion that I have ever read about places love as the most important virtue. Love of oneself, love of others, love of your enemies, love of creation (well Buddhists aren’t so stoked about creation or samsara, they pretty much think it’s a crap sandwich with a side of crap), love of donkeys and whatever else you can think of. As much as it might make me sound like a hippy (don’t worry I don’t smell like patchouli) I think that encouraging love is something that is quite laudable. If there was a little more love there’d be a little less misery, and as much as I hate to say it, there seems to be a lot of misery out there than can easily be avoided. People in Africa who can’t afford their AIDS medication, well if we cared for them a little more they’d probably have that medication. People in the middle-east who constantly have to avoid bombs from terrorists and stray bullets from us, well if we all got along just a tiny bit better that probably wouldn’t be happening either. Hell, even a little closer to home if we all cared about each other as people we’d have fewer problems with racial tensions, homophobia, and gender inequality. A little more love might just be what the doctor ordered.
All in all, I think organized religion tends to be a bit scary, a little silly, and not all really for me, but there are a few things that one finds in it that is entirely on the mark. Maybe instead of always pooh-poohing each other over what we believe (this goes both ways) maybe we should all take five minutes consider what other people think and perhaps accept it if it makes sense. This said, no one is ever going to convince me that free will and an omnimax deity are compatible. Such a claim isn’t logically consistent. However, if you want to tell me that we should take an hour a day and do something that benefits others rather than ourselves because in serving others we serve “God” then maybe you wouldn’t get an argument out of me. Anyhow, that’s all I have to say.