Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Philosophy of Religion - Hell, Labels, and Agnosticism

Today I'm going to make an attempt to flesh out my philosophy of religion (and perhaps my religion itself). This is a huge topic which I know that I cannot just outline or try to write an 8-page paper on. At least not right now, when I'm starting school, but also when I haven't developed it nearly to my satisfaction. So I'm going to start with some short (~2-5 page) papers, each on a particular subject of philosophy of religion. I'm definitely not going to be able to be systematic in this, but I plan on synthesizing (and expanding on) these topics in the future. Today I think I'll start off by discussing my general views on the idea of religion as personal identity.

The notion of a person following or not following a particular religion is so universally accepted that it may seem strange to scrutinize or question it. However, the onset of modernity and globalization has forced religions to interact in a way that civilization seems to be relatively unused to (i.e., tolerating, by choice or not, one another's existence). We now live in a world of more or less competing religions, where instead of sending swords to deal with infidels, they must stick with missionaries.

To many followers of the Western religions (and of course with non-followers) this relative nonaggression toward other religious traditions is seen as an improvement, since they believe that conversion-by-the-sword is the wrong way to inspire a change in a person's soul. Instead they advocate a more moderate, 'respect others' wills' approach. Others see more aggressive tactics (violent or not) as integral to missionary work, because the salvation from hell takes priority over being nice or tolerant of a person wishes.

It is interesting that this concern with hellfire may have much to do with how we define ourselves. If you are a non-Christian, you risk suffering the wrath of Jehova. If you are a non-Muslim, you risk a similar fate at the hands of Allah. This puts a stark difference between the non-Christian and Christian, non-Muslim and Muslim. It makes the issue black and white, a matter of either falling into an abyss or being saved. Interestingly, Jews neither have a hell nor actively attempt to convert people. Jewish identity is more complex than other conceptions of religious identity, for it has ties to culture and ethnicity that are not necessarily found in most others.

If you're reading this, you're probably like me in that you either don't believe in hell or believe that if it does exist it is not the hell of popular conception (eternal fire burning all unrepentant sinners). There are many reasons for this: disbelief in God or the supernatural, belief that God's benevolence contradicts notions of eternal (perhaps even temporal) judgment, etc. The rest of this essay will more or less assume this in order to draw out implications to be had from disbelief in eternal hell (though I might comment on reasons for this in a later work). Whatever reason for agreeing with this point, its potential implications are important: religious identity perhaps need not be so stark of a contrast between those who follow certain practices and hold certain beliefs and those who don't.

Obviously more has shaped religious identity than belief concerning hell. Ideas about meaning, the way the world works, etc. have shaped such an understanding. Whether or not religious identity has been shaped by Western conceptions of religion is something I am not prepared to comment on, due to my own ignorance on the subject and evidence either way. However, with the view that being a non-believer does not have eternal consequences for a person's soul, it seems that the distinction between religions may be relaxed in favor of comparing and contrasting, and incorporating elements of one another.

It is with this in mind that I have approached religion for some time now. Incorporating elements of Christianity, Buddhism, Gnosticism, and even atheist and pantheist ideas, I have come to have a rather complex (not necessarily sophisticated) view of religion. I have also incorporated scientific understanding and ideas like deep ecology to an extent. With this in mind, I have to ask: am I a Christian, a Buddhist, a pantheist, an agnostic, all, none, some? Perhaps such terms are useful in understanding what has shaped my perspective. But none of these really define me, give me a sense of purpose and identity in and of themselves. It is because of this that I gave up trying to define myself, because it was ultimately too restricting to force myself to think within a certain paradigm.

Oftentimes labels become less useful as an issue grows less absolute. Religion seems to be much more complex than a debate between theists and atheists, and framing the issue as such can be detrimental to both involved parties. However, I'm not necessarily convinced that taking no stance on the matter is the right way to go about it. It seems entirely possible to support a particular position without letting it define oneself. In other words, to say "I don't know what God is, understand this world, or know what my purpose is, but I've got a general idea and I'm going to live my life while trying to figure it all out" without needing a label to define it.

Of course, perhaps the question we should ask here is if identity is something that we should have or not have. On the one hand, it's a reason for conflict among the religious, and if a distinction is lost between religions a great reason for hatred and separation could be undone. On the other hand, identity can be a way to present a coherent worldview and way of life that gives both individual and shared purpose. The task seems to be in understanding if we can have purpose and coherence without division, which would seem more desirable than having all of these things.

Frankly, yes we can. Besides the fact that I know that myself and others around me do this on a daily basis, it's a well thought-out aspect of Buddhist psychology that if one dissolves one's ego or extensions thereof, then conflict will naturally settle. This peace is not without purpose, but is inherently valuable. It is perfectly fine to say that I have no religion, but derive purpose, culture, and understanding from wherever I find it.

This is not to say that the idea of a Christian tradition, Buddhist tradition, etc. isn't helpful in making one's source of thought coherent. It is useful to understand some basic ideas and beliefs that can help lead one to wisdom. And it would be missing the point to say that we should combine traditions into a 'unified religion'. The idea (whether one accepts it or not) is to let go of religious identity, not combine different ones (which would ultimately just make a new one).

Now if one believes that he/she should give up their identity as a Christian, Hindu, etc., it does not mean that they need give up their values, their beliefs, or really anything more than a label and the notion of exclusivity. I feel that, while it is of course up to individual choice, this practice should be standard for how we treat religion. Instead of calling ourselves and our children Muslim or Buddhist, we should think of religion as a personal commitment that doesn't fit simply into categories. It's a mode of being and living that simply is a part of the human condition, and there is no need for it to be more of a source of conflict than differences in music taste.

As a final note, I think it is fair to end this by keeping with the idea of not letting ideology define you, but still looking to give some description of religious ideas, by giving a bit about what I believe. I have dodged such a question in my own mind for some time now, but I will give it here in brief.

In short, I am what I call a 'positive agnostic'. Agnosticism has a perception of being a weak position, where one simply ignores the question of religion. Here, I do the same thing, but defend such a (non-)position by arguing that humanity's position is one where knowledge is a scarce resource. Our ideas about the divine and of the universe may be completely off, and to pretend certainty about anything pertaining to these would be a ridiculous venture. Maybe we can come to know such things, but I don't wish to give unnecessary credibility to positions which confirm or deny ideas concerning the divine.

Not to say that I don't have some ideas about the divine. I think God is 'the answer to the question implied in being', the meaning given to one's existence. From this perspective I seek to understand God.

I'm also one who disbelieves in the notion of self, which helps to shape my ethical stances. I am a utilitarian, though it might be fair to call me a negative utilitarian* (I am more focused with reducing suffering than maximizing pleasure, and I believe that happiness is much different from attaining pleasure). This mode of ethical thought is not grounded in God's commands, due to the problem raised by the Euthyphro dilemma.

Besides this, I believe in trying to live a good life like Jesus did. Jesus had a profound impact on the way I shaped myself and he still does today.

That's all I can say for now, because I'm tired and I haven't thought it all out completely. But I think it's a start.

*Edit on September 1st: Due to my working out some of the problems with this school of thought, I've decided to go with the distinction of "Non-hedonistic utilitarianism", which views the good as that which maximizes happiness. Happiness here is a stable condition that is distinct from pain and pleasure in that it is more lasting and self-transformative. I'll expand upon this point much more later; I might even work on it as part of my undergraduate thesis.


  1. I find myself in a similar position to you - trying to reconcile the concept that God is omnipresent, and without form, with the concept that there are those who practice God-consciousness, and Unio Mystica, those who realize the Anatman as Brahman, so to speak, and the concept that God is always with oneself, God is omnipresent and therefore there can never be a separation from Him.

    So, like a dream perhaps, I find my mind 40,000 leagues under the sea, battling the Great Octopus, knowing that I, I am but a lute for the Great Ocean to play upon.

  2. God is with me when I doubt; God is with me when I have faith.