BELIEF SYSTEMS: Examining logic, reason and prejudice. By John Cooke

John and I share emails and recently he sent this gem to me from a collection of essays he is writing. I wanted any readers I have to read this and grin. Bill

BELIEF SYSTEMS: Examining logic, reason and prejudice.

By John Cooke

Nothing so raises the temperature of a conversation as when religious or political opinions are brought into it. On such occasions, logic and reason wither before the onslaught of prejudice. Can this be attributed to the fact that the seeds of both politics and religion are frequently sown before a child’s critical faculties have been sharpened? They thus embed themselves like a malignant mutation, unfettered by reason, to become a hard-wired component in the developing psyche?

Societies are separated from each other most notably by language and religion, and it is surely no coincidence that the number of religions and the number of languages (each notoriously difficult to count) are both remarkably similar, lying at the very least somewhere between four and six thousand? In outbursts of violence it is undoubtedly easier to slaughter people with whom one cannot communicate, and who revere different deities for their divine protection.

In this plethora of religious belief systems, each one holds unquestioningly that they alone possess a monopoly on truth, and that all the others wander in an heretical waste land. If — and it is a very big if — any one religion is indeed correct in its claim to veracity, then this null hypothesis has but a 0.00025% chance of being right. Slim pickings! In statistical terms, it is surely more probable that none are right. I have to wonder what a non-partisan theological response to this might be?

There are many other theological questions to which I long to hear an authoritative and convincing answer. Thus we are taught from infancy that when life ends, if we have been good, we shall go to Heaven, there to dwell eternally with angels amidst abundant milk and honey (a questionable diet for calorie counters). In this context, heaven is portrayed as a paradise possessed of everything we have ever longed for in our earthly existence. It is an ancient tradition to ascribe human characteristics to the inhabitants of celestial realms. Thus Greek and Scandinavian deities, for example, display the full gamut of human emotions and failings.

This picture of a blissful eternity, while perhaps comforting to the poor and oppressed, nevertheless raises some difficult questions. In reality the thought of an eternal, unending life is actually far more frightening and depressing than the prospect of death and eternal peace. What pleasures can there possibly be that would forever continue to provide delight without the spice of novelty? Even if one were to find the answers for which one thirsts in life, observing the world forever without being able to influence or participate in terrestrial activities would soon induce a depression from which even suicide could not provide relief.

If I die in great pain, crippled by disease or physical trauma, perhaps with extremities detached, am I destined to bear such burdens for eternity? As this would surely negate many of the pleasures I have been assured are in store for me in paradise, one must assume my deficiencies will have been made good. Thus I am, in effect, taken back to the days when I was still whole. Likewise, are infants never to progress beyond utter helplessness? What heavenly rules govern such advancement or retardation of aging? For those to whom the pleasure of good food and fine wine is a major element in the enjoyment of earthly life, are they to be denied for eternity that which has given them the greatest joy? Surely this would seem more like Hell than Heaven. And how well do fine vintages age in eternity? If fine food is indeed to be enjoyed in heaven, one must enquire after the consequences — what happens to celestial faecal matter, for example? There are many other human activities that appear to raise questions when translated to the heavenly sphere. Are antagonistic couples doomed to quarrel forever, and will mistresses remain permanently unrequited in love? Does sexual intercourse lead to pregnancy, and if so, is heaven populated with baby angels that have never had an earthly existence?

I can already hear the howls of outrage and dissent. “Oh foolish, ignorant fellow! You were wrongly instructed. You have misunderstood the ‘true’ concept of the deity.” And so begins an exercise in obfuscation. It is not the physical you, it may be claimed, that ascends to Heaven, but some mysterious ‘spirit’, a phantasmagorical distillate of the mind, a disembodied intellect. For those devoid of intellectual delights, one must wonder what pleasures await in this curious paradise. Nothing in the abstruse world of quantum physics is so utterly inexplicable as the theologian’s concept of ‘spirit’ or ‘life force’. And yet I have heard the ‘spirit’ hopefully explained in terms of quantum cosmology as an existence with different dimensions, a divine universe in parallel . I can present no evidence to contradict such a pseudo-scientific argument, and yet if one were to invoke dimensions beyond those with which we are familiar, then it is strange indeed that communication or overlap between such parallel universes should seemingly only be accessible through the human mind. Or is this ‘spirit’ perhaps a phenomenon inherent in all living things? If so, can we recognize it in an Amoeba, a Cane Toad or Bristlecone Pine? Is Heaven likewise populated with the spirits of extinct flatworms, trilobites and pterosaurs? If it is indeed a uniquely human character, then at what stage in human evolution did it first appear? Do Neanderthals and Denisovans share Heaven with Ützi and the Tollund man — and if not, why not? There are too many black holes in the logical fabric of religion to win over a sceptic like myself.

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