Friday, December 07, 2007

My problems with religion

Growing up, Catholicism was a very important part of my life, and I think I'm right in thinking that faith had a very influential hand in my development into who I am now.

However, over the last couple years, I've done a lot of thinking about it, and I've fallen away from belief. This hasn't been borne out of a convenience or distaste for attending Mass -- it's more based on some very deep and important questions that I believe are left unanswered by Catholicism in particular and religion in general.

These questions might be better termed catastrophic philosophical errors -- because in a few cases, they are mutually exclusive postulations that are both required to be true in order for religion (particularly Christianity) to have any merit whatsoever. So here we go with two I feel are most important and foundational:

I: The Concept of Original Sin and Salvation through the self-sacrifice of Christ

Christianity holds that all of man is cursed with "Original sin" due to the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Creation story. Since humanity is all presumably the offspring of that first couple, it is held that everyone must be sacramentally baptized in order to be cleansed of that stain and thereby gain eligibility for eternal reward.

Additionally, it is due to Jesus Christ's sacrifice of himself that my temporal sins can be forgiven.

The problem with the first idea should be readily apparent. While the ancient Jewish tribes did not believe in any real afterlife, they did believe in a sort of trans-generational karma, whereby the good or bad deeds of a man (women rarely figured into such ethical calculus) would positively or negatively affect the livelihoods of his offspring.

This belief has been discarded by Christians -- except in the case of so-called "original sin." In order to believe in original sin, one must accept the idea that one person's actions, good or bad, have a spiritual impact on his or her progeny.

By any objective ethical standard, this is ludicrous. If my father were to deliberately disobey the rules of the Church in some way, I would not be punished for his "sin." And if I were, it would not absolve him of his own culpability for it.

Similarly, it is ethically ridiculous to believe that it would require the self-sacrifice of another person (albeit the son of God in human form) to absolve me of any sins I should commit 2,000 years after the fact. Were God really inclined to A) innumerate the sins of humanity and hold them guilty for them, and B) offer absolution from the same, it would not require him to send a son to die on a cross in a middle eastern backwater in order to do so. He could simply do it.

Christianity wants to have it both ways, but can't: Either I am accountable for my actions and my actions alone, or I am not.

II: Divine Providence versus Free Will

Another perennial problem for Christianity are the mutually-exlusive postulations that 1) God is all-knowing and is aware of the past, present, and future all at once and therefore knows the outcome of all of time and that 2) man possesses free will.

This is problematic, because if someone -- including God -- knows for a fact and has seen that I am going to pick a red shirt to wear tomorrow, then when I ultimately choose that shirt, I have only made what feels like a choice to me. If the outcome has already been seen, then any choice I have in the matter is illusory.

So, either the future can be known, or I can have free will. It cannot be both.

Over and over, I've heard Christian apologists try to address this very quandary (Augustine wrestled with it in Confessions) by way of various analogies. Tonight, I heard a priest use the concept of a film strip -- as temporal beings, we can only be aware of what is happening around us immediately, in the frame of film we are currently in. God, however, can see the entire film at once, and is aware of how things will eventually unfold.

This metaphor actually serves better to underline the serious philosophical problem rather than solve it. I've seen The Godfather Part II many times, and every time, Fredo Corleone gets shot in a rowboat toward the end. Never once have I seen Michael's weak brother do a thing to change the way his fate unfolds and avoid his pathetic death on Lake Tahoe.

The point is that characters in a film reel have no choices, and if they did, it would require breaks and branches in the film. And if there were breaks and branches in a film reel, then no one could know which ending was going to result in any particular viewing -- it would depend on the choices the characters made at each branch.

So, if time is truly like a film reel, then it is true -- human beings do not possess real free will and any choices we make are illusory. If this is the case, then striving to be good is futile, since our fates are already known by an Almighty who is allegedly willing to damn us to an eternity of torture for simply following the path he so wisely set out for us. This would also make intercessory prayer ridiculous, because changing the future would be impossible if it is already known.

If this is not the case, then God does not know the future and we can't really be sure of any prophecies we've ever been provided with, since God would apparently be giving us his best guess at an outcome that even he could not yet see, since it does not yet exist.

Personally, I think the second case is more likely, but since so many people are so attached to the Bible, I doubt it'll ever gain much mass appeal.

I'm not trying to be blasphemous or to denigrate anyone for their own faith. I am well aware that people much more intelligent than I am have had very strong faiths... but I cannot be so dishonest with myself as to pretend to believe something when these seemingly deal-breaking problems exist in the faith that's been set out before me to believe.