Saturday, May 27, 2006

Fact, Fiction, Religion

In one response to my last post, a friend wrote that my arguments against the “Da Vinci Code” work because I know more than the average person, but that surely some other equally informed person could demolish my points.

Whenever we enter the realm of religion it seems that way largely because religion, at the core, is not about facts.

Most religions begin with one or several charismatic figures, historical or mythological: Abraham, Gautama Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed. These figures utter delphic words about what life is, where we come from and to where we are going after death, and provide some cryptic guidelines for living.

Then come a class of imams, lamas, rabbis, priests or whatever else they may call themselves. These people -- traditionally male only -- wear certain special ceremonial or occupational clothes, perform or lead in certain ritual actions. The scholarly among them codify, interpret, canonize certain sayings of the religion's founder(s) along with words attributed to divinity and ultimately the code or interpretation or book -- the Bible, Talmud, Quran, Vedas -- becomes the object of veneration.

Moreover, the overwheling majority of people use religion for fairly simple things: propitiation, social discipline, self-satisfaction and a sense of security in a troubling world. They want pain removed, if they have pain; they like ritual acts that make them feel good about themselves; they want doctrines, teachings or holy writings that assure them that they are right. Very few people actually believe there is someone other than themselves in charge or seek enlightenment or submit to a whole-hearted life conversion -- especially if that endeavor might disturb them from continuing along they way they are.

The reason arguing about religion seems endless is not because people really care about religion, but because the facts are never really quite clear -- inevitably, but also conveniently, so. Does God exist? Did Jesus or Abraham? The evidence for a historical person named Mohammed who wrote the Quran is overwhelming, but obviously not for his divine inspiration. Gautama Buddha's tomb can be located, although we don't know for certain whether what we know about his life is accurate.

Even if we accept God, Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, or Mohammed as reality, what did they actually mean to tell us?

There are literally hundreds of Christian churches, each proclaiming themselves to be somehow the "bestest." There are at least a half dozen forms of Judaism. There are about as many variants of Islam and Buddhism. Can all of these be equally true and right and, indeed, bestest?

The quest is on ... endlessly.

You could not, however, easily find a lot of people who would tear down what I have said in my last post. Indeed, yesterday NBC aired an impressive documentary piece on its Dateline NBC show in which viewers were shown that the storyline of the DaVinci Code (click here to read the NBC story) is just what author Dan Brown said it was: fictional. Most historians agree that the facts are just not there.

Let's examine critically the notion of fact, just as we did with religion.

The idea of a fact is a relatively new, 18th century development from empiricism, the proposition that truth can be grasped through objective and verifiable observation. Western societies worship at the altar of facticity, yet facts aren't necessarily true.

You slap a table and decide that it is solid. But actually it isn't. There's a proportionally huge space between the electrons and the nucleus of atoms, so that the actual hard matter is really much less solid than our touch suggests. The actual pure mass of a transatlantic ship, say the Titanic, would be about the size of a baseball, if you managed to eliminate the subatomic empty space.

Even more, at the quantum level the physical laws that objective and verifiable facts confirm otherwise no longer apply, which is why modern physics has become the modern philosophy. Truth is a bit of a Russian matrioshka doll.

An image of that sort is what a charismatic religious leader would have conveyed in a pre-scientific world. In such a milieu it was accepted that demons and angels pulled us this way and that. It was also understood that we really don't know very much, that the storyteller is not as important as the story, and that some wholly invented stories teach truth.

Religion, in its theistic and atheistic forms, has never been about facts, but about what we intuitively find to be true. It takes wisdom to tell them apart.
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