Saturday, April 28, 2007

Look Inside

Do you know what you believe?

It sounds almost silly. Your initial reaction may be an emphatic "Of course!", but have you ever taken a moment to examine any of the ideas in your head up close? Have you ever considered the assumptions on which are predicated your whole understanding of the world as you know it? Where did you get these ideas? On close examination, do you even agree with them?

Or perhaps they were just there in your environment as you grew from an infant to an adult. Assumptions absorbed early in life and reinforced through continued exposure to the people around you, who themselves held those assumptions, very likely also without ever examining or questioning them or their origins in their own minds.

Folk wisdom? Some. Folk folly? Some. The point is not that these ideas are inherently good or bad, right or wrong, but that we are generally unaware of their influence on our lives. Recognizing ideas for which we cannot account is the first step toward taking control of this situation and of our thoughts.

Once we identify one of these "unexamined assumptions", the next step is to examine it up close and in detail; to consider what it means and whether it makes any sense. For any such assumption, this process can result in rejecting that assumption entirely, in which case it becomes necessary to begin to reexamine ideas we may hold that are in some way predicated on that assumption. That can take quite a while but the good news is that it usually happens subsconciously, in the background. It can be unsettling, as it may require certain assumptions to be discarded, undermining whole sections of our understanding of fundamental aspects of our world-model, rather like the realization, usually during our adolescence, that our parents are just regular people. In other cases, this close examination can result in a greater understanding of the assumption and why it's valid, transforming a previously unexamined assumption into a stronger, well supported one. In either case, this process is very empowering.

Religious assumptions rarely survive this process. In fact, religious assumptions generally don't stand up to even minimal scrutiny. They are imprinted on most of us early and often, sometimes reinforced by vehement and urgent admonition; something we are pre-programmed to respond to in our early childhood and many of us never completely outgrow.

The religious establishment asks-- no, demands that we accept their stories basically "because they said so", or because it is written in books that they hold as sacred or insist were written by whichever deity they identify as their one true god. What does that mean? It means shut up and don't ask questions. This alone should set off our bullshit detectors, but so early and often subtly we are indoctrinated to these influences that they are in us before our bullshit detectors develop.

It's not too difficult to understand how ancient people could have come to accept the notion of gods in the first place and later of a single omnipotent god. If that progression had continued, that too should by now have passed. Instead, we now have a huge portion of the population that accept an absurd story involving a whole "new" pantheon.

When questioned, many very religious people resort to formulaic responses drummed into their heads by whatever clergy they've been listening to or reading; responses that often miss the point of the questions presented. They often counter by insisting that the nonexistence of their gods cannot be proven. But when presented with the reality that not only is there no evidence to support or prove that their gods do exist, but there's nothing even to suggest it, they often resort to making dismissive and hostile remarks.

The one thing most cannot be inspired to do is to think for themselves, examine their assumptions, ideas, beliefs, and see how they look in the light of day. Somewhere deep inside, they must know that to do so would destroy this fragile, often self-contradictory web of acceptance on which they rest their lives. But if this is so, then their professed belief is disingenuous. Do they think they are fooling their omniscient, omnipotent god?

The various religious establishments all claim to be the source of morality. Each faction within each religion has its own interpretation of what this moral behavior is. Most of them involve a considerable amount of denial of our basic nature. This is a recipe for repression that may be responsible for squeezing out some of the most abhorrent human behaviors that otherwise might not develop.

Moral behavior does not arise out of religion; it arises out of humble introspection. This should be a moral imperative for each and every one of us.

Look inside. Really, honestly look. You will find a whole lot of unexamined assumptions just waiting to be investigated. It's scary at first. Don't let that stop you. The fear will pass as you realize how empowering it is.