Friday, December 28, 2012

And the Angel Said unto Them ...

No angel but the smoke plume of a combined heat and power station near Freiburg
(Photo BZ)
It is a tradition that Der Spiegel, the German copy of Time Magazine, chooses for its Christmas edition as cover story a religious topic: Warum glaubt der Mensch und warum zweifelt er? (Why do men (and women)* believe and why are they doubtful? This year the other important German weekly Die Zeit published an article about religion too: Warum wir glauben müssen (Why are we fixed on believe).
*In the following I use man in the meaning of the German Mensch that includes women

Looking back in history religion has evolved from polytheism to monotheism in the order of their becoming: Judaism, Christendom, and Islam. I know little about Mohamed but the development of Christendom out of Judaism transformed the punitive God who nearly had annihilated his own creation in the Flood into a God that we shall address Father, a God who still is strict but forgiving.

The abuse of any religion as an instrument of power runs like a thread through history and is particularly true for Christianity. When at the end of the Middle Ages persons like Wycliffe, Hus, and Luther tried to reduce the mission of the Church to its spiritual roots they were treated as heretics. Declared a heretic even after his death Wycliffe's body was exhumed and destroyed while Hus was burnt at the stake during the Constance Church Council. When Luther in his anti-roman fight eventually stood with his back to the wall he made the ill-fated pact with the local sovereigns. They only were too happy to transfer the treasures of the Catholic cathedrals into their coffers, annex the rich territories of the monasteries, and take the post of a Lutheran regional bishop. In all this the common man sometimes came out of the frying pen into the fire like in Calvin's oppressive Geneva Republic and frequently longed for a revival of Roman Catholic rule.

When during the Thirty Years War atrocities were committed in the name of God both by Catholics and Protestants common men and women started to doubt not only God's justice but his lovingness too. A villager of Gerstetten, Swabia, wrote in all his misery: Only a few houses of our hamlet still exist. We live like animals eating bark and grass. Nobody remembers that a situation alike had existed before. Many people say it is now certain that there is no God ... We however believe that God has not left us … It consoled the common people when priests and pastors kept telling them that they will be compensated in a future life for their sufferings and miserable earthly existence that often contrasted so much to the luxurious, libertine life of their rulers.

In the middle of the 18th century Enlightenment generated two classes of thinkers: deists (Rousseau and Voltaire) although opposed to the Church and atheists (Diderot and von Holbach) denying the existence of any God. The French Revolution opposed to the Church too did however not want to hurt the religious feelings of the people and erected temples to the Supreme Being we worship. Rulers like Frederick the Great and Napoleon simply looked upon religion as something to be used to their benefit.

In the 19th century philosophy took hold of religion. Feuerbach's atheism described religion as the self-reflexion of man, a projection of human unfulfilled wishes and positive attributes into an individual God-figure, i.e., a mirror of man. Marx impregnated by the misery of the Silesian weavers who were trying in vain to compete with spinning jenny saw in religion a pervert political instrument of human oppression in sedating the common man. In short, religion is opium for the people.

In the 20th century physiology and psychology took over from philosophy trying to come to grips with religion. In an earlier blog I already referred to Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod who more than 40 years ago in his book: Le hazard et la nécessité not only denied a creator-God but attributed man's quest for God to a genetic defect we must overcome. How can this be accomplished? Should one cross-breed atheists?

Here comes the entry point to Manfred Dworschak's article in Der Spiegel: Cross-breeding atheists will not help for they are less reproductive than strong believers or fundamentalists: Wives of ultra-orthodox Jews on the average give birth to eight children and also the Amish people are productive well above average. On the other hand, atheists do not grow by birth but by the afflux of apostates.

In the 21st century the genetic cause for believe is again rearing its head: Geneticist Dean Hamer's God gene hypothesis postulates that a specific gene (VMAT2) predisposes man towards spiritual or mystic experiences according to Hamer's book: Faith is Hardwired into our Genes but where is our "soul" located? Neuro-theologist James Ashbrook spotted the ability to treat mystic experiences in the lobus parietalis superior of our brain. That would mean that even the atheist will believe in something, a position linguist Uberto Eco and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini support in their dialog: In cosa crede chi non crede? In what believes somebody who does not believe? Unfortunately in the English translation the book title is poorly simplified to Belief or Nonbelief?

Accordingly Christian Schüle writes in Die Zeit: Man's belief is something natural. Ratio, the axe of reason, does not give answers to the question: Is there a plan behind everything and is my life guided?

Man is born as a pro-social being. Modern psychology sees an evolutionary advantage in religion for living in a community demands a certain reduction of personal egoism. Such an ego-deflation then allows people to better cope with the dangers and hardship of life. The evolution psychologist Lee Kirkpatrick takes up Feuerbach's ideas but in a positive way: Man strives after a positive self-perception but is aware of the abyss between wish and reality. This tension man tries to solve by religion, i.e., a synonym for the search of a father figure.

God's eye is watching

In Der Spiegel Dworschak also considers religion as something inherently human. He too points out the (evolutionary) advantage of belief but more in the direction of Big brother is watching you. Families and small communities may trustfully live together but for the communal life of larger communities not only rules but also somebody assuring their abidance are necessary. Consequently in the Old Testament God issues the Ten Commandments. He watches and He punishes any breaching of the law. God dominates Judaism, Christendom, and Islam in demanding good social conduct. He will reward with redemption and heaven, otherwise He has the means to punish the spoilers with damnation and hell.

Scientists observe that people of the same faith trust each other to a high degree and therefore Schüle calls trust the currency of religion. As an example Dworschak mentions the Indian religion Jainism. The Jains have taken over the international diamond trade in Antwerp from the Jews and trading diamonds requires a high level of trust. And is there not a high level of mistrust between Christians and Muslims?

What did I learn from all that? In spite of all the new scientific attempts to "explain" religion the Church is still in the upper position calling the Christian believe a great mystery. The priest celebrating Mass concludes the Eucharistic Prayer proclaiming: The mystery of faith and the community answers: We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again.

And at the end I again have to come back to Saint Paul who writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, 13-12: Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

With this in mind Paul develops his vision of a (Christian) society without laws when he writes with respect to the Ten Commandments in his letter to the Romans 13, 8-10: 8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Love is all you need (The Beatles).

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