Thursday, March 13, 2008

Of Reason and Religion (Part 1)

The Contradiction of Religious Plurality

As a declared atheist, I have always been fascinated with the phenomenon of religion. In an age of explosive informational discovery and dissemination, how is it that more than 85% of the world’s population still holds firm belief in one religion or another? As I have endeavored to expand my understanding of the principles of religion, the psychology of our species and the general scientific nature of existence, I become increasingly astounded by the prevalence of the religion. As rationally as possible, I would like to share my examinations in the hopes of solidifying my conclusions and perhaps opening the door to subtleties I may have missed. I begin with what I will call the contradiction of religious plurality. Let’s quickly refresh the high level concept of a few major religions.


Christianity is a belief held by some 1.5 billion people, one quarter of the earth’s population. Fundamental to the religion is the concept that all of humanity is participatory in sin. To sin is to transgress against the moral obligations imposed by an omnipotent creator of all existence, God. Those who are guilty of sin are delivered into eternal damnation after death. An individual thought to be the living embodiment of God, Jesus, was born into the world over two thousand years ago. Through faith in and worship of Jesus, the sins of an individual can be forgiven. Upon death, an individual is judged against various criteria for salvation. Those who pass are granted eternal life in Heaven, a nebulous frame of being foretold to be ultimate paradise.


A further 1.1 billion people hold belief in Islam. Both the Christian and Islamic religions recognize a number of the same individuals and histories. A fundamental digression stems from the rejection of Jesus as the manifestation of God. Under Islamic belief Jesus is thought to be a prophet of God. Faith and worship is reserved only for the one and only one God. This variation began in the 7th century, brought forward by a powerful political and religious figure, the prophet Muhammad.

Example of Polytheistic Religion

The ancient Egyptians followed a polytheistic religion based on numerous deities embodying various facets of the natural world. A series of interrelated interactions between the original deities was believed to account for the scope of known existence at the time. The god, Re-Atum, produced the deities Shu and Tefnut, embodying air and moisture respectively. The world was created when the Shu and Tefnut birthed two children, Nut (Sky) and Geb (Earth). At one point, Nut and Geb became lost. Re-Atum found the two lost children and upon reuniting, created humanity from his resulting tears of joy.

The Contradiction

I refer to these three religions because they timeline nearly five millennia of evolving belief and account for the religious doctrine of nearly half of the world’s population today. As is inherent to most religions, adherence to the standards of practices for each of these religions is a strict requirement. Those worshiping erroneously are ineligible for salvation. Herein lies one significant problem, the requirements of each of these religions is significantly different from the others. Under Islamic standards, the act of recognizing Jesus as a manifestation of God implies all Christians are guilty of worshiping a false god. Similarly, under Christian rule, every Islamic follower is damned for not accepting Jesus as their lord and savior. To the Egyptians, both groups have not properly maintained the deceased mortal vessel and are therefore incapable of attaining joyous existence in the afterlife.

Here then is my point: Should not every religious follower bear some significant doubt derived from the consideration of the contrasts and contradictions between all religions of the past and present? Admitted doubt is as good a place to start as any. After all, it is as impossible to disprove a religion as it is to prove it. Religion proffers tautology: God is because God is. Perhaps our general conceptions about ancient religions fortell future reflection upon current religion. Why is concept of the Sun as a deity or the tears of a god birthing humanity any more primitive or outlandish than the belief in the deliberate creation of the earth by an omnipotent being? If the followers of any of the described religions are or were in fact absolute in their belief, what does that say about their acceptance of the consequences for the dissenters around them?

To accept absolute belief in any one religion implies some staggering consequences. Using Christianity, as an example, the following statements illuminate some unfortunate truths:

  • For not accepting Jesus as their lord and savior, nearly three quarters of the current world population, 4.5 billion people, will be subject to damnation.
  • The accumulated human population of the world for 4.5 million years prior to the teachings of Jesus was by default damned due to ignorance. (Of course ardent believers would lessen this toll by disputing the figure of 4.5 million years of human history… but that’s a discussion left to a future topic.)
  • The faithful believe the current iteration of their religion is the final and correct version even in the face of continuous evolution and/or downfall of all previous religions.

Certainly, by being a member of the most heretical belief structure, atheism, I am destined for a wide variety of damnations. I wonder which religion offers the more pleasant version of hell.

To be continued…

Next I would like to touch on one of my favorite contemplations, the ever exploding contradiction between our examination of existence and religion.