There’s a feeling that frequently overcomes me as I read religious scripture.  It’s difficult to express, but if there’s one word that sums the feeling up, it’s “surreal.”

Its source is knowing that there are millions and millions of fellow humans who fervently believe that what I’m reading is some divine truth, as factual as their jobs or families, while to me it’s just as plain that it’s pure fantasy.  I wonder, how is it possible that our perceptions of the same stories and words can be so fundamentally opposed.  As irreconcilable as oil and water.  It’s like I watched The Lord of the Rings and everyone came out of the theater saying what a great documentary it was.  Something. is. not. quite. right.  What prevents me from understanding their scriptures as reality in the same way these other millions do?

The designers of religion have recognized this conundrum, and have crafted ingenious rationales why their “truth” appears like a bunch of hokum to outsiders.  Consider the words of Christianity’s Apostle Paul:

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. (1 Cor. 2:14-15)

Or Islam’s Prophet Muhammad:

This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah. (Sura 2:2)

Even Scientology has its “endgrams” – residual mental image pictures – of which we must rid ourselves in order understand our true nature.

In each case, there is some element, or lack of it, that obscures the underlying true reality, that biases our understanding.  And until we adopt the particular religion’s paradigm, we cannot fully understand and appreciate the alleged truth that it says is essential to our happiness, immortality, or what have you.  If this seems circular, that’s because it is.  The truth will be revealed to you only once you accept what they say as truth.

Many believers recognize the question-begging nature of their faiths, and a few honest ones realize other religions do the very same thing.  So that’s why they offer up other standards.  For example, a Christian might say that fulfilled prophecy demonstrates the truth of their religion.  Muslims claim the Qu’ran contains scientific knowledge of things unheard of at the time it was written, which proves a divine influence.  Mormons assert that the Holy Ghost witnesses to the truth of the Book of Mormon via a “burning bosom“.  All claimed reformed lives as evidence, too.  Why we should accept the superiority of one standard over any other is never quite explained.  They’re quick to point out the motes in each others’ religions (or even rival sects), but are blind to the beams in their own.

Sorry, if your religion requires me to swallow its tenets before I can comprehend its “truth,” then it is not for me.  Threats of eternal torture repel me even further.  Can any religion pass a basic smell test?

3 thoughts on “Surreal

  1. I've been reading a book called Aristotle's Children by Richard Rubenstein, and Rubenstein points out how unique it is that religions be so centrally based upon a written manuscript. Most ancient world religions didn't have a central written text that codified religious beleif, but Judaism comes along and places a lot of stock in the written Scriptures, and Christianity, and Islam follow that lead. Rubenstein's point is that this similar focus on the written word was one of the factors that allowed these three faiths to relatively peacefully co-exist in Southern Spain in the Middle Ages. This veneration of the written word actually made these religious thinkers very interested in the teachings of Aristotle, which in turn led to some pretty radical scientific theory and discovery.

    Any-hoo…don't know if that was relevant, but it popped to mind as I was reading your discourse on scriptural texts.

  2. Rubenstein's point seems at odds with the rest of history. Despite some brief periods of peaceful co-existence, I'd say the relationship among the so-called Abrahamic faiths is characterized by tension and conflict, precisely because they have written texts. Texts make the room for compromise and conciliation much smaller.

    But that's merely my impression, which is not based on any scholarly foundation. How does Rubenstein deal with the crusades?

  3. He doesn't really deal with Islam and Christianity's full-scale European conflicts per se. He focuses instead on their co-existence in Spain and that particular short time period (12th century) as the catalyst of scientific expansion in Europe. This peaceful period was doomed to fail, but for a time, it produced some really amazing thinking.

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