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What IS religion?

There is, without a doubt, an intensifying debate between advocates of religion and those opposed. A good place to start in this debate is what we mean when we say "religion." A social scientist might construe religion as "a set of beliefs and practices that are grounded in a particular iteration of morality." I think this definition is insufficient. We need to explore and be clear on what religious people mean by religion, otherwise, no fruitful conversation will ever occur among the participants of one such debate!

To aggravate the issue, it is absolutely true that there are many who refer to themselves as "religious," but are unaware of the basic premises and arguments of religious philosophy - this doesn't add to the debate either.

Both sides of the question consider the matter of great importance. There is a call for an intelligent discussion between religion and common culture - and there's no better place to have it then TED!

Would anyone like to take a stab at defining religion?

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    Sep 25 2012: Let me give this a shot.

    At the core of the human condition is the need for purpose and understanding. All religions and philosophies seek to answer more or less the same basic set of questions.

    (Why do we exist? Is there intelligent design to the universe? What is God? Is there a God? What happens when we die? Is there a soul? How did it all start? What is good? What is evil? etc...)

    I argue that religion is a metaphor constructed to respond that basic human need. Each religion and philosophy is a different metaphor to understand the same thing. People need to live with meaning in a way that appeals to them on a personal level. Religions all try answer the same questions in different ways.

    On the flip side, religions seek to teach people to live a moral life. Same principles, different explanations.

    I think the challenge in the near future is fostering a global community based upon mutual respect and universal values of moral behaviour.

    How do you think this can happen? What are the big struggles?
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      Sep 26 2012: Thoughtful - thanks Shawn. I agree with the basic sentiment: we do need a universal appreciation and respect for each other. I would suggest that the biggest struggles tend to stem from rigid, intolerant ideologies. At the heart of the matter is the true nature of humanity: what is it that really makes us tick? Religions propose something, other systems - atheism, for instance - suggest another. Their claims are sometimes diametrically opposed - they both can't be right. The solution is always Truth, in whichever form it comes. This is why this conversation is much needed, I think.

      Thanks again!
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        Sep 26 2012: My friend, who is finishing a degree in pastoral studies, told me about a part in the Bible where Jesus talked about the Pharisees (a leading religious institution at the time). Jesus claimed that they were hypocrites and was against the idea of organized religion. Another friend, who was involved in this conversation is a follower of Jesus but in very simplistic terms. He told me that Mother Teresa said it best: "[Jesus's teachings are] to love until it hurts, and then love some more". Nothing more than that.

        Maybe what's happened to religions is that they have strayed from their basic beliefs. Christianity is perhaps what Jesus intended it to be. This may be true for a number of religions? I'd love to hear what others have to think. I like Ammar's comment on the Prophet Mohammed and those basic beliefs? Who can argue that they are not good ways to live?

        Religions propose an answer, Atheism refuses an answer...but the question still persists. I've been learning about Albert Camus and Soren Kierkegaard and what they call The Absurd. It may be a form a logical answer to this question. Check out the wikipedia, it has some very interesting ideas.

        Religion can be a very positive and a very negative thing. Maybe this conversation, and many many more can lead to an emphasis on the positive and the removal of the unnecessary negatives!
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    Sep 25 2012: Good question. My answer challenges some of my own former beliefs about Atheism.

    I'd say that most concisely stated, Religion is a belief in the nature of existence. I would have preferred to use the term "the universe" to include everything that exist but we no longer use it that way (darned physicists).

    By that definition, Atheism, as we generally think about it, is a religion that hold that nothing exists that we can't observe or rationally conclude based on observation. I'd note that I prefer this definition because it includes Buddhism that has an irrational belief in the soul(and a number of it's attributes) but does not posit a deity. It also excludes a number of philosophies that offer ideas about morality but don't say much about what may or may not exist(Confucianism for example).
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      Sep 26 2012: Robert, thank you so much for your honesty. You're on the right track in terms of your characterization of atheism, but I think it's incomplete. The question, I would think, is the nature of God - the focal point of a religious person's beliefs. For example, the deist conception of God is not at all held by the most ardent advocates of Christians and Muslims (etc.). In other words, God is not a deity figure at all in the Christian and Muslim conception. In fact, God as a deity would be something that Christians would also disagree with.

      While things in existence could be rationally observed, thus held, there is still no contradiction regarding the existence of God if one were to characterize God as Aquinas did: ipsum esse.

      Thanks again for the comment!
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        Sep 26 2012: I have to disagree that the question is the nature of God, given that you've offered a semantic dodge trying to subsume my concept of the universe under the heading of God. In essence, the way you're defining God is everything that exist. OK, I believe that things exist, therefore I believe in God. This says nothing about whether I believe these things are intrinsically interconnected, form an intelligence or have emotions as a group ("for God so loved the world..."). This is a major problem with Christianity as they like to play games with semantics. Notice that we don't even have a word now that would distinguish the concept everything that exist, from a very specific personality reveled in the Bible that performed specific actions and has specific desires. Perhaps this is where you were going with trying to parse the definition of "deity"?

        The prerequisite question is how do we know what exists and what it's nature is. The empirical paradigm gives clear criteria, but I'll admit that I am open to other possibilities. What is your criteria for believing revelations of a series of Jewish mystics? Would these arguments apply equally well to a series of Indian mystics?
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          Sep 28 2012: Hi Robert,

          It isn't a semantic dodge at all. I mentioned in the response Aquinas' characterization: ipsum esse. I suggest you google it.

          In the Christian conception, God is not - not! - simply everything that exists. That's just absolutely not it. That falls more in line with nature mysticism, like "the force" in Star Wars. If it's ingredient in the universe, by definition, it isn't God.

          The reason why I am claiming that we need to get these terminologies right first is because if our definitions aren't right, we're not even in the same world, haha! In a court of law, the judge, at this point, would turn to one of us and say, "uhh, counsel, you're in the wrong room."

          If you're defining God as "everything," my goodness, Robert, I agree with you! It's plainly not the Christian conception. Furthermore, no one believes in God BECAUSE things exist. That misrepresents the argument too.

          Thanks again Robert.
      • Sep 26 2012: "In other words, God is not a deity figure at all in the Christian and Muslim conception."

        The American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition:
        de·i·ty n., pl. de·i·ties. 1. A god or goddess. 2.a. The essential nature or condition of being a god; divinity. b. Deity. God. Used with the.

        Your statement is simply inaccurate. I can assure you that every priest who has studied Latin would tell you that the Christian God is the Deity. Please be more careful with your use of words.
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          Sep 28 2012: Hi Barry,

          Dictionaries offer definitions, yes, but not exhaustively so. There is a wonderful talk here on TED by the lexicographer, Erin McKean (it's highly-recommended, super entertaining!), where she critiques the obsolete model of dictionaries. The talk was met with much fervor, and its applications are even now reverberating in academic spheres. For example, a sure way to get a big, fat F on an academic paper is to exclusively rely on dictionary citations as evidence in an argument.

          I am further suggesting that your claim is not grounded in truth. By priests, I wonder with whom you've spoken - I happen to be acquainted with many.

          Deity, in theology, claims a very specific understanding regarding the divine nature. The Romans' views of their gods were radically different from the Christian understanding. Zeus was construed as one of the gods, having particular attributes and having a particular influence on the world. His nature as a god was indeed a "deist" conception. Deity, almost like a human kind of being but with supernatural capacities (and much better-looking!), who puppeteers humans and is in control of every aspect of the world - this is not how Christians and Muslims view God. It would surprise me to hear a priest refer to Christ as a deity, truly.

          By all means, please explore this claim for accuracy. Or if you'd like, you can ask me questions, and if I don't know the answer I'll try to find them for you.

          Many thanks.
  • Oct 25 2012: The most simple answer to every question.
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    Oct 22 2012: religion is a belief .we all have our beliefs .it is just as love or a thing that direct your life .

    we have different beliefs and sometimes it is a person you respect or a thought which you think it is right .
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    Oct 22 2012: For many who were born in a religious ( any) family environment, Religion grows with us growing in that environment. as a a habit and a custom. We inherit religion when we are born from our fathers and mothers just like our last name.
    If we live in a "religion practicing" family our faith to that family religion grows strong as we grow and watch father and mother exercise their faith daily or on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays etc and as we start to accompany them for that activity. Alternatively if we are born to parents who do not believe or practice any faith, it is highly unlikely that we become believers ourselves, in that sense many of those who consider themselves believers did not have the opportunity to question the foundations of that (inherited) religion and its philosophy as Christian Martinez mentions in his opening statement, rather adopted it as a given and grew up with it.
    My experience with my own (2) kids and of course this experience do not provide a scientific base to define or undefine Religion; I offered them the opportunity, when they reached age sixteen to reflect on that specific inheritance and formulate an opinion by themselves: "You were born Catholics because your father was born like that and so did your grandfather" etc - Now you have the opportunity to 1) look at all different religions and faiths that world has to offer 2) compare with what you have inherited and exercised as a faith within your family 3) chose to keep things the way they are as far as your religion is concerned or choose another "way" that reflects more your aspirations, ideals and beliefs. They had two years for that "internal search" and today, several years later, my son turned Buddhist and my daughter is fairly agnostic! Religion is a form of knowledge that we are ( or not) comfortable with and that influences our behavior and our perception of things together with education, life experience, science, etc...........
    Personally I am an atheist
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    Oct 21 2012: To me, religion is the answer for simple minds questions of where they came from and what their purpose is in life. I feel that religion is the scapegoat of ignorance.
  • Oct 20 2012: The human brain is the topic we should be most concerned with when addressing questions of religion. As an organ it generates and manipulates representations in the form of physical states and through this process generates a transect of the reality we inhabit.

    The brain receives raw sense data and interprets it based on hardwired biases (like high attention being paid to bright colors or high aversion towards unexpected loud noises). One of the biases that is built into our brain is a high preference to human subjects. This makes a great deal of sense given our natural history of evolving as social creatures. In fact it seems that we have evolved a system of intuitions about the operations of others' mental faculties. This bias is not perfect, however, because it does not only make inferences about human subjects. This personhood module fires in response to almost any set of "contingent" behaviors. Objects in free fall are handled by our intuitive physics. Things which move apparently under their own power get handed to the personhood module. This has allowed us to outsmart potential prey and predators as well as form tight nit social groups, because we are able to think about thinking.

    This ties back to religion, because religion is an extension of our bias towards anthromorphism. We are capable of mistaking that the universe must have a human face because it seems to be a never ending series of contingent events. The human brain loves patterns, but in the absence of any discernible pattern, it will impose order onto the outside world. This is exemplified by our ability to "see" figures in clouds. We do not literally "see" the face in the clouds, but BECAUSE THERE IS NO PATTERN, we invent them.

    With the advent of written language we have seen the codification of social norms, natural history, and metaphysics in terms of anthroporphism reinterpreted a multiplicity of times which is explained by their underlying etiology being individual human anthropomorphism.
  • Oct 17 2012: Science and Religion both seek "truth," or "understanding" of life. I see Science as much a religion as Christianity... or Mathematics... or Art.

    They're different perspectives to the never-ending pursuit of ascribing the future with hindsight, which then tends to turn systematic as an attempt to achieve order- hello Language.

    Multiple perspectives is most efficient when trying to understand perspective itself. After all, the world used to be flat.
  • Oct 14 2012: "All religions have relation to life, and a life of religion is to do what is good" ~ Emanuel Swedenborg.

    In my mind, a religion exists when enough people except a similar belief system. When big enough they may 'car-pool' to pay for a leader, a building and any other opportunities for growth and organization.

    In our New Christian Church we believe that each good person of any religion is a micro-religion and forms a pixel in the 'picture' of heaven.

    So if a religion does not make us a better person, we may have to switch 'car.' :)
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    Oct 13 2012: Religion is defined as " A belief in, and worship of, a superhuman and controlling power, especially a God or gods". According to my IPad dictionary at any rate. It is also " A pursuit or interest followed with great devotion ".Also " A particular system of faith and worship".
    So we have three definitions through which almost the whole population could be described as "religious". Totally wasted description. Reading comments by others on the subject, it would appear that folks attach their own meaning to the word and then proceed to vent their own bias on the god - no god debate. Maybe that was the intention, as the word "religion" is too wooly to debate.

  • Oct 10 2012: I would say it is most likely the best answer our ancestors could find when they started to grew consciousness and comprehended the world around them... from an historical point of view first rites actually started when they came to understand the meaning of death
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    Oct 9 2012: In all the 3 examples I have sited, the methods are different and independent of each other, however the conclusions are the same. Doesn't science follow the same principles of rigor? Testing the same proposition by different methods and logic to check if the same conclusions could be derived? And the results are also demonstrable.

    The problem with religion is that there are too many stakeholders for any particular point of view and each think of themselves as the best. Giving way or even tolerating a different point of view is dangerous for their own survival and that is why we have such stubbornness from so called religious people.

    If only we can accept "all roads lead to Rome" then we would not have so many issues and people would be much more open minded about all the options available for enquiry, be it be termed religion or anything else.
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      Oct 10 2012: Your second and third paragraph brings to mind religion's warning on the power of deception. The problem that I see is that people are not capable of realizing that religion has the power to deceive as well as the power to lead to greater things. That is why religion became institutionalized, and why such institutions must be regarded with scrutiny.

      I like your viewpoints. I have had spiritual experiences, and they differ considerably from what religion teaches. In my opinion, religion was a way to think deeper, and what it has become is in total conflict to how it began.
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    Oct 8 2012: I can sense your disapointment in my argument. I don't say science does not work. For a light bulb to light up, it makes no sense praying. My only contention is religion to me is same sense of wonder and curiosity that led Edison to invent the light bulb. What we normally term as religion is an organized effort to spread a system of thought. Would request you to read a book called Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra. The 2nd chapter argues that the established knowledge gained in religions goes through the same kind of rigor and scrutiny as the knowledge gained from scientific methods. The expression and the techniques are different but the principles of the scrutiny are the same.
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      Oct 9 2012: I actually have browsed that book. Interesting, but I found a lot of it new agey nonsense.

      Believers in the subjective, traditional religious or new age seem to like to borrow the prestige of science, or claim they are equal. Science has actually helped us better understand reality in a consistent repeatable way as demonstrated in technology.

      The so called spiritual path leads to a different conflicting subjective belief for every person. That are probably all wrong, except for one at best.

      You said for your there is no difference between religion and science and any field of study.

      But you do acknowledge science works.

      Then you refined your contention to a similar sense of wonder from science and religion. Fair enough.

      I guess religion is a human endeavour, and so is science. But the approaches are completely different in most cases. Certainly the outcomes are.

      Science is our best approximation of understanding reality we have. In some fields our understanding has been tested over and over, demonstrated, backed with evidence, accurate predictions etc. One ever improving approximation of the truth. We use science to build and create, to understand reliably.

      One "truth" approximation in science. Multiple often untestable conflicting subjective beliefs from the spiritual path.

      I must be missing something if as you say the principles of scrutiny are the same?

      Religious and spiritual beliefs are typically based on a spirit realm and spirit beings that we have no evidence actually exist. Completely different to science. Because they are intuitive and subjective people can make up whatever they like. And they do. And they can not all be true. And much can not be demonstrated or tested.

      The key similarities seem trivial to me. That is they are human activities, and make claims about reality.

      .What am I missing?
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        Oct 9 2012: Let's just take religion and the conclusions it draws of the ultimate reality. Here I would be citing 2 instances from 2 vastly different faiths across 2 time periods and also across 2 geographies. The reason I am chose these 2 examples is because I wanted to be sure that there is no influence of one on the other and hence we can safely say that the conclusions drawn were independent and achieved by following indigenous methods.

        The 1st example is from a book called Sufism by William Chittick (page 17) where the poet/saint Rumi is describing the condition of Hallaj ( when his love for God reaches the ultimate limit. Rumi says " When Hallaj's love for God reached it's utmost limit he became his own enemy and he naughted himself. He said "I am Real" that is "I have been annihilated, the Real remains and nothing else" Strangely this is the same condition which is described in a Hindu scripture called Chandogya Upanishad which was composed in mid of the 1st millenium BCE in India. In a conversation between a Udakka and his son Svetketu, the father talking about the ultimate reality says "Tat Tvam Asi" which translated to English means "Thou art that". So the self is being completely identified with the Ultimate Reality and there is no distinction between the two in the ultimate state.

        The question naturally arises as how can different faiths across different time periods and geographies talk about god in the same language. The expressions here are eeringly similar and makes us wonder at the commonality of the experience. Now there are other examples as well of the same experience. In Buddhism the concept of contingent existence states that nothing arises on it's own. The pre-existence of a lot of factors makes way for something to exist, which in turn would mean that the ultimate reality is experience of my own existence as contingent to everything around me. So my own self gets dissolved in everything else.
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          Oct 10 2012: It is easy to explain similarities using science and reason.

          And the differences.

          So you found some similarities. It's a bit like saying there are similarities and differences in languages.

          Although languages are not making conflicting claims about reality in the way religions do.

          Buddhism also states we reincarnate and does not need gods. Islam has a god, and no reincarnation.

          The similarities you can pick out don't answer all the differences.

          So which beliefs are true and correct. Reincarnation or paradise/hell? Any proof.

          Is your proof simply that there are similarities.

          That is not proof.
      • Oct 17 2012: "Science has actually helped us better understand reality in a consistent repeatable way as demonstrated in technology." - please be careful with such a bold statement. I hope you realize you're using "better," subjective, with the all-inclusive "we."
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    Oct 6 2012: Religion to me is an enquiry into the nature of things around us. It is a quest and as with every quest it involves choosing your line of thought and creating your assumptions and then progressing to make your own study of the subject chosen. So everyone is entitled to have his/her own religion and all enquiries are correct. Following the same principle science is also a religion and are not opposites to each other as many try to project.

    We tend to define religion too retrictively and mostly confuse the basic quest of humans with an organized system of beliefs. All organized system of beliefs would have it's stakeholders and thus by definition people whose interest lies in preserving the system for their own survival, however human mind is not bound by such restrictions and thus we see the clashes happening. We can call ourselves theist, atheist, agnostic..... anything....but as long as we are looking for answers earnestly we are religious. Presence of the concept of GOD is not a prerequisite for the existence of religion. Buddhism is a prime example of this.
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      Oct 7 2012: Re: everyone is entitled to have his/her own religion and all enquiries are correct.

      I agree with everyone being entitled to their own religion.

      But are you suggesting any direction people take are valid and true?

      Or are you suggesting whatever people believe from their inquiries is correct/true.

      I guess people are entitled to believe whatever nonsense they like. To search in anyway they like.

      But the outcomes are not necessary correct. They may believe falsehoods.

      In fact there are so many conflicting and contradictory religious beliefs. They can not all be true.

      I think I understand what Mean when you talk about everyone being religious if seeking meaning or understanding or truth about our existence. But I suggest religious is not the best word for this as it best relates to religions, not supernatural and subjective beliefs that are more individual, less dogmatic and certainly not to views that rely more on reason and evidence.

      Religion and religious thinking typically come back to falsehoods or unverifiable revelations, scriptures or authority. Personal supernatural beliefs are also usually ultimately subjective, intuitive, and either false or unverifiable. Both may be reinforced by personal mind experiences which we have no way of telling actually connect to some proposed supernatural realm, that probably does not exist. And if there is, no one can agree. They may as well be making it up.

      Please don't lump my pursuit of truth and understanding under the same label as people who believe in supernatural subjective religious type beliefs with invisible magic beings and spirits that probably don't exist and that we apparently have no way of accurately understanding or detecting if they do. In which case they might as well not exist.

      You say we define religion too narrowly. I suggest you are defining it too widely. Why not use more precise language. Searching for truth and understanding, which may or may not be tied to religious superstition
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        Oct 7 2012: Hi Obey, let me start by saying that I liked your comment on my is but a very natural question that arises from the definition of religion I am proposing. However who is to judge what we believe? There are many theories which have not yet been proved in physics....even today we have contenders who say that Darwin was incorrect...and still we treat them as valid attempts at understanding our world. On the other hand if you look at the history of every religion it has begun from a simple quest to make sense of the world. The expressions and assumptions have been determined by the social conditions. But essentially all these are efforts with the same intention. If we had put conditions on the thought process of a Buddha or a Christ or Einstein, I dare say the world would have been a different place altogether. All of us would think, some will be proved more correct than others over time. Thus to me there is no real difference between religion and science or religion or any other field of study. Religion to me is an enquiry and if I think I have the right to make such an enquiry, everybody else has the right. We perhaps would only differ in our expressions and assumptions.
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          Oct 8 2012: Hi rajat, I guess wewill just agree to disagree.

          Especially about there being no real difference between science and religion.

          One is based on evidence. The other subjective ideas and faith.

          Try praying for there to be light. Or switch a light on made from technology that is applied science.

          Science actually works.
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    Oct 2 2012: Religion - dogmas, social/cultural norms, metaphysical/philosophic concerns, appealing to authority, and (but not limited to) methods of indoctrination.
  • Oct 1 2012: The government defines religion as "a sincere and meaningful belief that occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to the place held by God in the lives of other persons."

    I feel this is an accurate definition of religion, but it would also characterize Atheism as a religion as well, which I'm sure many Atheists would protest. As Atheism is a belief that there is no God or gods, it places that belief on the level of God and therefore qualifies as a religion under the governmental definition.
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      Oct 7 2012: My atheism is simply not believing in gods and goddesses.

      Its simply based on my general skepticism for all claims, particularly supernatural claims - ghosts, angels, physics, astrology, crystal healing, faeries, invisible beings etc. For me not believing in Zeus or Yahweh is the same importance as not believing in astrology or alchemy.

      It does not really sit in the place a god or goddess or multiple gods might sit if some were shown to be real.

      While there may be a case for tax free status for not for profit atheist groups, and maybe this is a way to indicate people are just as free not to have religion as they are to have any religion they want, for practical purposes simply not having theist type beliefs is not being a theist, its not part of a religion.

      My values, ethics, and detailed world view can be completely different from other atheists, which is somewhat different say from someone who is a member of the catholic church.

      Glad to have the respect and the freedom, but don't really feel I'm part of a religion.

      I like the words freedom of or from religion. We should all have this within limits of harming others.
  • Dan F

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    Sep 27 2012: IMO religion is a man composed elaboration on the human condition and the salvation of the soul. It was creatively designed to be appealing to the obedient and faithful concerning how and why they come to be and what the future holds for them beyond this life.

    Religion is comforting to followers because it addresses the mysteries of life and death by introducing the existence of God. This supernatural power created, directs and controls everything. By commitiment to faith in Him and His sacred word, through His representatives the believer enters a paradise upon the end of life on earth.

    This is the essence of religion as I understand it.

    It can be characterized as follows:

    Religion is dogma and edict.
    Religion is held rigidly truthful by the sacred word.
    Religion is organized by powerful men of authority.
    Religion is spread by institutions and traditions.
    Religion is as rich to some as it is repressive to others.

    Atheist such as myself are simply saying, "This is not for me." In my case knowledge of natural history opened my mind. Biology and chemistry were challenging for me, but fascinating and far more revealing from my perspective.

    I do support the right of the individual to worship their God so long as it isn't imposed on me.
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      Sep 28 2012: Hi Dan,

      Thanks for your response. Atheism holds that all things can be rationally understood, so it's no surprise that many, such as I, would understand where you're coming from. While the Bible narrative could to the uninformed seem "creatively designed," theologians may suggest quite the opposite. I'd bring up Aquinas at this point.

      If we read, as an example, his Summa, one would have an impossible time demonstrating that the principles are irrational. Instead it reveals the limits of reason particularly as it relates to us humans. Yes, this does mean that we are suggesting that we can't possibly know e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g, and atheists take issue with this.

      When you mention "[t]his supernatural power created, directs and controls everything," this simply isn't how Christians characterize God. What's missing is the concept of freedom, which is fully, in all ways, recognized. I would admit that some religious people (I suppose I can only speak from my experience as a Catholic) have erred in this respect, and are prone to anthropomorphizing God, but that's just bad catechism. I would instead begin with first-hand texts, and go from there.

      As for the last line, thanks for your tolerant attitude toward religion, and rest-assured that authentic adherence to the teachings of Christ would not shackle you to any such practice against your will. We mean this. The only suggestion is that if it's true that all of creation came from somewhere, and that all of creation is destined to an end, then perhaps we are most naturally ourselves when we are oriented toward this beginning and end - God, in our view. In other words, it is in this orientation that we are most free. It is in this orientation that where we are most at peace.

      Many thanks again,

      • Dan F

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        Sep 28 2012: Hi Christian,

        This debate is difficult because you want to lawyer and I can give you points for being clever, but I'm still not buying what you are selling. First, you want to describe atheism as a belief system and it isn't. Atheist recognize mystery. It's mystery that perks up my ears. Religion sees no mystery, rather religion has all the answers as you know. Unlike many followers of religion atheist will not overlook conflicting facts concerning the science of natural history and scripture.

        The comfort you enjoy is that many more people are religious than atheists. The power structure is on your side even to the extent of theocracies.

        Aquinas advanced some logic as to why religion deserved credit, but come on this is just more thirteenth century lawyering.

        If you or any one else is interested in understanding atheists better there is no better spokesman than the late Christopher Hichens. He was a journalist and writer by profession, but his legacy may well be in his verbal communication and connection. He has debated this topic with some of the best in the field of religion. I would suggest those interested simply seek out one of his many debates on Youtube that look interesting and enjoy the dynamics as the civil sparks fly. Most all these debates I have watched are formal, but fun.

        As to your last comment and message. Your attitude is more limited than you think. Let me assure you religion is significantly repressive and even hostile around the world, especially to women and children.
      • Oct 2 2012: "Yes, this does mean that we are suggesting that we can't possibly know e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g, and atheists take issue with this."
        We may or may not be able to know everything, it seems improbable, what is "everything" anyways? I have a problem with this train of thought though, should we stop trying to explain unanswered questions or should we take a religious approach and just claim that a deity spoke to them in private and revealed an oversimplified history of the origins of life and civilization?

        "I don't care if someone wants to say, you don't understand it, God did it. That doesn't even bother me, what would bother me is if you were so content in that answer that you no longer had curiosity to learn how it happened. The day you stop looking because your content God did it I don't need you in the lab, your useless on the frontier of understanding the nature of the world."

        -Physicist, Neil Degrasse Tyson
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        Oct 7 2012: RE: Atheism holds that all things can be rationally understood. I don't think so.

        Atheism is just a lack in belief in gods and goddesses. It is not an all encompassing world view.

        It might come from a sceptical outlook requiring evidence or reasonable evidence in support of any supernatural claims. You might be confusing cause for one possible outcome.
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    • Sep 27 2012: Some religions have had many very good effects, for centuries.

      That is why they are still around.

      It does no good to debate with someone who believes in religion. They will go on believing.

      This is a competition. If and when it becomes clear that atheism is a better way of living, more and more people will choose it. If you want to destroy religion, the course of action is plain and simple: live well.
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        • Oct 10 2012: "I am still confused about what do you think what are the good and bad effects of religion."

          I am confused by your confusion. For the most part the good and bad effects of religion seem completely obvious. For centuries religion was the basis of moral behavior; many generations learned morality based on religion, and many behaved morally.

          IMO, one of the bad effects of religion, that is not completely obvious, is the emphasis on the afterlife. People who are primarily concerned with entering paradise after they die are not very concerned with improving the quality of life on Earth. Especially those who are taught that suffering is not only acceptable, but necessary.
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        Sep 28 2012: I would suggest that it is worthwhile to debate with someone who believes in religion. In fact, most religious people - especially in our age of unprecedented recognition of freedom - ask the toughest questions, on themselves especially, and religion offers them a coherent answer.

        When you say "live well," what do you specifically mean? One might bring up the question of ethics - or not, haha - but how would one, even practically, demonstrate that the ethic would endure?

        I ask, Barry, because I don't think the answer is simply to say "live well." Why? Because there happen to be so many opposed views of how to "live well." Who's right? For example, the great oppressions of our time offered a particular view of life that was diametrically opposed to ours - and it's interesting how most of them, as their first step, systematically eradicated traces of religion.

        This isn't to neglect the painful fact that wars have also been waged in the name of religion. Yes, this is true. We could demonstrate ever so scrupulously how this is against - against! - religious teachings. It does speak of the fact that humans have a tendency to err, and that there is a need for an enduring standard.

        Thanks again,

        • Oct 10 2012: By "live well" I mean do YOUR best according to YOUR values.

          Providing specifics about what I consider living well is irrelevant.

          The competition between atheism and theism will be decided by future generations based on the difference in the quality of lives of atheists and theists, and also on their reproductive rates.

          Perhaps I am becoming close minded about these issues. I am 63 years old and have experienced many discussions about religion and atheism. It appears to me that both groups are actually close minded on this subject. Many like to discuss, but it seems that no one is ever convinced to change. The discussions can be entertaining, and some of your comments are original (at least to me) and make me think.
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      Sep 28 2012: Ammar,
      The positive things are a sense of something greater, a sense that there is more to know than just what can be seen. I have had spiritual experiences that confirm to me that this is so.
      A sense that we are our brother's keeper. Mutual cooperation benefits all.
      A sense that life does not end when the body dies. We are more than a body.
      A sense that we are not alone even when the world is at odds with us.
      A sense that we can pray and it doesn't fall on deaf ears. Although, few know how to pray.

      The negative things are unquestioning beliefs that leave you without answers. My father became an alcoholic because he could not deal with his belief in purgatory. He drowned his fears in alcohol. Fortunately, the truth set him free. That is what drove me to question things in religion.
      The feeling that religious leaders see themselves as above others in their knowledge of God. They don't like you questioning things. They see it as a rebellious attitude rather than an inquiring mind.
      The acceptance that a sacred text is infallible and should supersede observation. The church's rebuke of science has been ongoing despite the fact that science has solved most of the problems created by the early church. The witch hunts were all based on misconceptions on what causes evil. It took science in understanding disease to bring it to an end. Yet they still think science is wrong.

      I am highly in favor of the spiritual quest. I am highly opposed to dogma. I think that the modern church is stuck in ritual. There is little change. It feels like a broken record. Sometimes it feels like romper room. And when the church tries to argue with science, it is completely out of its league.
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        Sep 28 2012: Hi Roy,

        Thank you so much for sharing - many would appreciate the strength you demonstrated through these experiences.

        I would simply submit that Church does not argue with science in the way that you construe it.

        The Church recognizes fully the merits of science as science. It only calls into question the claims that some people make in the name of science precisely when it deviates from its nature.

        Science, rightly so, can strongly make assertions about the observable, but when it questions theology, it's already beyond its reach. As soon as arguments are exchanged, science evolves into philosophy, and it necessarily goes outside of itself to keep on. That "science is right" and "religion is wrong" is not a scientific claim, but a philosophical one.

        In science, we present evidence and formulate theories consistent with our findings.
        As soon as science enters the realm of the universal, it ceases to be science. It becomes, as you say, dogma.

        In the end, the Church construes God as the true, the good and the beautiful. There is no contradiction between science and religion. If science demonstrates conclusively a particular thing to be true, which in turn happens to be contradictory with the Church's position, then the Church necessarily must alter its stance - this it has done many times in history. It remains the case that the war between science and religion is pure fiction, perpetualized by those who have an interest in doing so.


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          Sep 28 2012: I believe that personal experience is necessary in order to give credence to faith. There are many who can't defend their faith because they have no personal experience to draw from. Quoting of scripture alone is not sufficient in my realm of thinking. The witch hunters knew their scriptures. They were among the vilest of people that ever lived.

          Your arguments concerning the church verses science are only true to the open minded. I see claims in the religious sector which are often exaggerated to strengthen the argument against science. And I see denials of non worldly realities by science based solely on "show me the proof". Today science is recognizing the existence of the unseen, dark matter and dark energy being among them.
          The controversy between evolution and creation is still getting widespread attention. Science knows that life evolves. But there is much that we still don't know about it. Science also knows that the earth is not six thousand years old. This knowledge was first raised by geologists examining earth science, many of them being religious at the time. They questioned the literal interpretation of Genesis. Today geology has grown into a highly refined science that only strengthens the claims of a very old earth. Yet religious advocates are still trying to force creation science in the schools.

          The aggressive atheist's rebuke of spiritual matters is equally strong. They deny anything that does not conform to the scientific method as if science alone is the only criteria by which to judge experience. I have witnessed things that science alone can't answer.

          As to those who see a communion between religion and science, I see a growing trend in that direction. But hardcore fundamentalists and aggressive atheists are still very prominent in today's society. To them, the war between science and religion is very real.
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    Sep 26 2012: The sad truth is that the definition of religion caters to the dogmatic cults that have replaced spirituality and philosophy. Most people who regard themselves as religious have never read philosophy and take the Word of God as literally true. Many don't believe that they need any other book than the one they hold as the truth, whether it be the bible or the Koran. And other so called religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism are not regarded as religions in the west.

    I think that you see past the dogmatic cults, but you are in a minority. I was raised a Catholic. I no longer attend Catholic church and have no desire to return. I have known Christians who take it seriously and have testimonies of how it has affected their lives. I am one of them. I have also known Christians who just go through the motions and have nothing to show for it. Unfortunately, most fall into the latter group.

    I still look for religious people who have had spiritual experiences but find them few and far between. I have had spiritual experiences that challenged my faith, forcing me to search it out. It has led me to mythology, mysticism, Eastern philosophy, other world religions, and the realm of science.

    The Catholic church has had a very strong influence on the development of Christianity. They declared what heresy was and burned many of them in their early years. They decided what would go into the bible, and it excludes anything that explains what is in the bible. The Christian bible contains nothing of ancient geometry. It contains nothing of gnostic Christianity. It contains nothing on transcendentalism. It contains nothing of mythology (even though its creation story is a myth). And when Galileo challenged the church, it divorced itself from science. I think you want to know what religion should be and not what it is.
  • Sep 26 2012: I disagree. There is no debate. Any true debate about religion would start by defining religion. And it also ends there.

    Only the followers of religion can define religion, and they will never define it in such a way that it can be debated. They have no motive for a true debate. They know that they know the truth. They know that others are misguided. Their motive is to convert all nonbelievers.

    There is no debate, merely strife and noise.
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      Sep 26 2012: Unfortunately, Barry, your response seems to suffer from the same closed-mindedness that you accuse religious persons of having. Of course there is a debate, and you actually hit the heart of the matter: you mention in your last line that "[t]here is no debate, merely strife and noise." Would you accept this as a truth - as a guiding principle of your life? That there is merely strife and noise and we shouldn't even bother with an explanation?

      The honest advocate of religion would also disagree with your claim that they are disinterested in views that are quite seemingly opposed to theirs. They are in tune, I would say, with the same kinds of metaphysical and philosophical dilemmas that atheists, say, take for granted.

      Thanks for your comment.
      • Sep 26 2012: No, Barry is quite correct. A religious person believes their "truths" without evidence and is sure that their god is correct and the others is incorrect. With the exception of Islam and Christianity which seem to share a god, this is universal.
        To call an atheist close minded is a great insult and certainly ironic coming from a (apparently) person of faith. I think any atheist would change his/her mind if anyone could put forth an argument for the existence of a god that cannot be explained by natural processes or that requires a deity to exist.
        It has never been done to date.
  • Sep 25 2012: It is an irrational belief system of some anthropomorphic entity or power that exists outside of natural laws and is based on no evidence. There is also usually some extraordinarily ridiculous fact or concept that must be believed without question in order to be part of the religion.

    It is usually accompanied by a magic book with apocryphal origin(s) and a hierarchical control system to keep the believers in a state of fear. Facts presented in the magic book may not be questioned or investigated in any way and any scientific progress that contradicts the magic book must be attacked as vehemently as possible.

    The central entity in the religion does not appear or talk to any ordinary believer, but does communicate through its hierarchical control structure.
    The central entity in the religion usually has a series of confusing and often contradicting rules for receiving his/her/its blessing. The receipt of the blessing always occurs after the death of the believer provided that all of the rules are followed for the entire life of the believer.

    Practice of the religion may also include telling everyone else in the world about the religion while not allowing the reverse. Occasionally, the religion takes on a xenophobic aspect and anyone not converting to it is seen as an enemy and or sub-human who must be exterminated.

    If you have a belief system that meets the above description you probably have a religion, or an undiagnosed mental condition. The separation of the two is too intricate a task to be described here.
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      Sep 26 2012: Gordon, I'm curious about this religion that you're describing. I would agree with the merits of evidence, so I'm just wondering about where your sentiments are rooted. By your definition, an observer might even construe you as religious? By this, of course I don't mean that you explicitly affiliate yourself with a named religion; but that your response definitely seems to have an ideological and moral slant to it. In other words, a religion by another name, but a religion nonetheless. An advocate of religion, in the spirit of the original question (Catholicism, Islam, etc.) might say that your account, so commonly held today, is a caricature that is based on many assumptions that is not representative of true religion.

      Thanks for the comment.
      • Sep 26 2012: My comments are about religions in general including Catholic, Islam, Mormon and even scientology.
        My sentiments are based on my recognition of religions as a great evil that do no good and are a crutch left over from our days of huddling in caves trying to figure out what the lightning is doing.
        I am militantly anti-religious, an atheist by any other name. My description covers most if not all religions in that they all have some specific thing matching a description.
        For example, the Catholics must believe that Jesus died and arose in three days, otherwise you cant be a catholic.
        The Mormons must believe that Smith found his tablets, translated them and then lost them.
        In Scientology you must believe that souls ("thetans") reincarnate and have lived on other planets before living on Earth
        These are all different central belief systems but they hold the common characteristic of being ridiculous statements that must be taken as fact without question.
        All organized religions are hierarchical power systems in which the devotee must be considered a serf. The deity always seems to have the ability to watch its charges day and night, judging you for things that you might only think of.
        Most religions demand that everyone convert to their chosen creed else we would not have the word missionary.
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          Sep 28 2012: Hi Gordon,

          This is simply inaccurate, even irrational. Of course religions - all of them - have to be viewed in their entirety, otherwise one can't possibly make any sorts of assertions about them. I find that many critics of religion have scant knowledge about the literature, but confidently make grandiose claims about them. Reading a verse in a chapter in the Bible does not make one an expert on Christianity. What if the claim is tethered/balanced by another principle in another chapter?

          We could extend your logic to the following: it makes no sense to refer to oneself as a "loving" person and then proceed to destroy people's lives. A golfer who has never touched a club. A farmer who has never seen soil. Could a Christian be Christian without believing in Christ?

          Contrary to the caricatures of secular society, Catholicism, as an example, makes very particular claims that are very pertinent to our lives. I highly recommend informing yourself of its claims, and you'll recognize that some of the assumptions held in your response are actually not based in truth.

          Many thanks,

      • Sep 28 2012: That actually a farily humorous position to take.
        Religious spokepersons are well known for making statements about topics that they are totally ignorant science...and often say hateful things about books they have not even read.
        One of the habits that I dispise is of course a religious person who quotes one verse of the bible out of context because it vaguely sounds like it supports his/her position. They are ubiquitous and often have their own TV shows.
        I agree that I would not label someone who destroys peoples lives as a loving person. I would label them a sociopath or perhaps a psychopath (depending). A golfer who does not watch golf is a TV viewer, a farmer who does not farm is probably an absentee landlord.
        Although it is currently not possible for a Christian to not believe in Christ that may change over time as it has with the Jews who no longer have to believe in God to be a Jew. That was not always the case.
        Catholicsm, as with all other religions makes claims about things it cannot know and doesn't know. If their statements seem pertinent to your life it is a coincidence.
        My criticism of organized religion (as opposed to spirituality) may seem harsh, but that is from long acquaitence to organizations that I think have done much evil that they should answer to.
  • Sep 25 2012: Religion is a belief in the supernatural, or maybe an organized belief in the supernatural, with spirituality being the same thing on an individual level.
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      Sep 26 2012: The Christian tradition would note the merits of this comment but conclude it to be incomplete.
      • Sep 26 2012: Why is it incomplete? Can you show me a religion without a supernatural component?
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          Sep 29 2012: That's YOUR definition of religion. A religious person may define it differently. Interesting to look at other perspectives.
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    Sep 25 2012: Any BELIEF that became prisoner of dogmatic blocked/blind mind.
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      Sep 26 2012: Would you suggest, Salim, that truth is relative? Don't truths flow from other truths, to the exclusion of untruths?
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        Sep 26 2012: Yes I think & feel so.
        Truth is relative to time, place , person and also perspective.....
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    Gail .

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    Sep 25 2012: Those who are religious have shut off their minds, allowing others to think for them - whether forced (as a child's survival can depend on accepting the parents' dictates) or by choice (just giving up). Religions are fear (scarcity) based.

    It is time for humanity to give up its fear/scarcity-based systems - ALL of them. When we do that, we will be able to construct abundance based systems. Only then will we be able to recognize freedom and equality.
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        Sep 25 2012: lol..i totally agree with you .a cup of tea
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        Sep 26 2012: Absolutely, religions tend to have an ethical component to them that those opposed tend to neglect.
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      Sep 26 2012: This is unfortunately untrue. Catholic doctrine, for instance, would explicitly repudiate domination for the sake of domination. God (not the caricatured, deist version, but "ipsum esse," after Aquinas) is precisely love, which is opposite fear.