To believe or not to believe...
A thought exercise. I admit (attest??, proclaim??) I haven't fully bought into this, but here goes...
Atheists: "Faith has no basis in fact."
Religious types: "Duh, if it had fact, it wouldn't be faith."
I understand this point. I've been a Christian all my life and know the words when Jesus spoke to Thomas "Blessed are they who do not see, and yet believe" We're taught there this is merit in faith without seeing.
Here's the thing:
Somewhere in the wilds of some jungle in the South Pacific, there is some guy named Ubu who believes very confidently that the world was created on the back of a great multi-headed war duck. His father and the witch doctor in his tribe taught him this. He went through an induction ceremony involving sharp sticks and scars when he was 11. He believes that if he keeps less than 3 wives and does not kill at least 2 enemy tribesmen, he will not go on to receive the great infinite prize. Ubu has never seen the multi headed war duck. Ubu will live with that faith, struggle with it from time to time, think other people are unworthy or unchosen because they don't believe it, and die clinging to it.
19 young men from another place had a different looking war duck, a god named allah, who with the involvement of Mohammad even wrote a big long book for them to refer to and pray over, and told them to kill people who didn't believe as they did. They hijacked airplanes and killed 3000 of my tribesmen.
My god also has a book, which says some pretty good things, a lot of very scary things, and a lot of weird things. I have to seriously ask myself - what really is the difference between my clinging to my faith and Ubu clinging to his? The faiths are different. Some parts seem better than others. Some parts seem more beautiful than others. The idea of forgiveness certainly is more appealing than your eternal destiny being determined by how many wives you have. But is there a real way beliefs can be compared? Parts of Ubu's faith are more beautiful than mine. If we go a couple of thousand miles to the northwest, we'll find probably the world's most complete, well thought out, and reasonable faith - Hinduism. But they still have a brutal caste system and some very strange elements in their beliefs. Can I really say, in terms other than simply that it is my faith, there there is something of intrinsically greater value about my faith as compared to that of others? I know the right answer to that from my training, but really, seriously, can I say that? Can I really believe that Ubu and I are qualitatively different on an order that carries eternal consequences?
If it were that important, wouldn't it make more sense? In my faith, all goodness, nobility, courage, etc. comes from a single source. Such things are the purpose of the faith. Christianity is all about being made clean from sin and perfection in the person of Christ. Which is more noble and courageous of me in considering the person of Ubu? That he is tragically uninformed and ignorant, doomed to an eternity of hellfire because of where he was born, and who is father and witch doctor were, or that we might be more similar than I would like to admit?
What if Ubu, Mohammed Atta, etc. and I are really doing the same thing? What if we all are meeting the same human need? Why believe? Because I want to walk the streets of gold and bask in the light of god's glory? An infinite reward is an easy choice. All of my other life's experiences to this point suggest that easy choices are unfulfilling and pointless. I can feel myself flee back to my faith, and insist upon believing that those streets of gold really are there and that the war duck isn't, but it feels like I am running away from something. I feel like a baby eagle who has put off learning to fly for one more day. There is comfort, but is that the same thing as significance? It doesn't feel right. If that is the path to enlightenment, why doesn't it feel like it?
If I think that Ubu and I might be the same, it's compassion. I am looking at a strange human living a strange life, and finding common ground between us. If I think about Ubu as being ignorant and damned, that's exclusion and condescension. If my faith is the source of compassion, then how can it be the opposite point of view from compassion?
Then I consider the implications. If Ubu and I are the same, then Jesus is no more real than Ubu's war duck. I am a pitiful speck in an immense and eternal universe, and when I die, I will cease to exist for all time. That's terrifying. I am alone. There are no streets of gold. There will be no reward.
That is scary. Can something not be true just because it is scary?
But if Ubu and I are the same, then I am not alone. I have Ubu. I can learn things from him. He can learn things from me. We can find out a little more about what is meaningful or valuable in the cosmos and pass that knowledge on to those we interact with and to those who follow us. If the goal of my existence is greater compassion in the world, which is a more meaningful afterlife - for my eternally preserved self to experience a forever of personal comfort in a heavenly paradise, or for people to actually be more compassionate to each other after I am gone? Which choice is more noble? Which is more meaningful? It seems that if we can commit ourselves to real compassion, nobility, goodness, etc, then the most important parts of us really do live forever. If, that is, we truly think those parts are important. As I consider that, I find myself confronting real courage, real compassion, real hope, and the world really does become a better place.
An interesting problem, wouldn't you say?