Wednesday 13 November 2013

It seems that all actual religions are honest about what they themselves offer (but wrong about other religions)


I find it very striking - although I don't know of anybody else who does - that actually existing religions seem to be honest about what they offer their adherents.


One might have supposed that the easiest thing would be to offer adherents 'the moon', or 'pie in the sky' - wondrous, extravagant rewards in return for their adherence; and yet this seems very seldom to have been the case.


For instance, life for a Roman Stoic seems to have held nothing to look-forward-to.

The Norse pagans depicted life as a grim and hope-less struggle against impossible odds; victory was temporarily glorious and admirable, and defeat could be delayed - but defeat was inevitable and the all men and the gods too would die - and the world destroyed and ruled by 'giants'.

The Eastern religions offer their adherents very little, except avoidance of something even worse. Hinduism offers escape from the horror of perpetual reincarnation; Buddhism offers escape from suffering but at the cost of annihilation of the self (i.e. death of the individual).


In general, Christianity seems to offer more, far more, than any other religion - greatly more than the ancient Judaism it displaced; we must die but after this there is resurrection in a perfected body, forgiveness of all sins, and eternal life in communinion with God and in His presence.

And the most recent Christianity, Mormonism, offers even more than mainstream Christianity: not only eternal resurrected life with God, but to live this life in a marriage of total spousal love and with a perfected family community; also the possibility of eternal spiritual progression after death, perhaps including full divinization.


It is striking that even secular atheists are honest about what they offer: i.e. nothing at all in objective terms and in the long run; only short-term and subjective feelings, enhanced pleasure and diminished suffering (which indeed they do offer).


If the human grasp of truth is always, to some extent, partial - then maybe our rewards will be commensurately partial.

Thus: if you are a good pagan, your destiny and reward will be pagan. And the closer you are to the truth, the greater will be your destiny and reward.


Why this should be, I do not know - unless it be that God constrains things thus: that He will not let any actually-existing religion claim more than it offers...

At most it seems a religion can falsely claim that the offers of other religions are false, and that its own meagre offerings are all that could be expected or wanted - or even that its promised horrors are in fact delights!

But the bare factual basis of religious claims seem always honest - so far as I can tell.


The error of most actual religions is not, therefore, in what they promise, but what they threaten. The error is to deny the validity of what others say, and to assert that others are damned to hell.

The reality is, perhaps, that the other are damned just as they are rewarded, according to their own criteria of what constitutes their destiny and reward - therefore, the best hope of a pagan is not very far from a Christian's idea of hell. An atheist's best hope is annihilation of the self, much like a Hindu...


But there is no reason for a Christian to assert anything more horrible as the destiny of non-Christians than other religions already describe as 'what happens'.

And, maybe, the best religion (among actual religions) - the true-est religion, is that which offers the most...



The Crow said...

The whole idea behind religions really isn't about what you can get out of them, although this seems to have become what people generally expect.
It isn't about getting stuff, but rather knowing how things work, and how one orients oneself in order not to run counter to those workings.
Service, not consumption.

Bruce Charlton said...

@C - The proper way to look at this business is that religions are descriptions of how things are organized, including consequences: if you do this, then that will happen, and so on.

Arakawa said...

If you categorize the varieties of Christianity according to this question, you get a division that is mostly orthogonal to denominational concerns.

Generally speaking, all varieties of Christianity offer:

(a) Forgiveness of sins via confession (whether personal and private, or via a priest).

(b) Communion with God (whether via prayer, or additionally via visible sacraments with a specific effect). This may result in worldly benefits (acquisition of virtues, or beneficial synchronicities) as a side effect, but it is a sin to pursue it for the sake of these things.

The teachings are widely divergent on the actual outcome of judgment in the afterlife, except to state that sin is an obstacle to eternal life, and thus some form of (a) is necessary.

For whatever reason, within each denomination there is a spectrum of opinion on how strict/lenient the judgment is supposed to be -- which, historically, has not been a point to schism on. Denominations are rather divided on what kind of framework they place the above, minimal Christian practice into (for instance, whether remission of sins in (a) is understood juridically as salvation from punishment, or mystically as some kind of negation of the internal damage the sinner inflicts on their own soul).

For instance, consider the very specific picture of the afterlife presented by the tollhouse teaching (one narrow and speculative teaching used by one particular denomination). I've encountered both optimistic and pessimistic variants of this. In the pessimistic variant, the unbaptized are thrown straight into Hell like garbage, without even being allowed to argue their case at the tollhouses (or, worse, the unbaptized and those baptized into the wrong jurisdiction of Orthodoxy, or into some other denomination). In the optimistic variant, pagans are implicitly understood to undergo judgment, but the Christian life can lead to a remission of the sins that would otherwise have been judged, which can ease their journey or allow them to bypass the tollhouses entirely.

In the latter case, the whole tollhouse account begins to echo pagan accounts of the particular judgment, where the dead are brought before any of a number of odd characters (a Yama King, say, or the Three Judges of Hades) who judge mostly based on conduct rather than intentions, and clearly cannot be mistaken for the Most High God of Christianity, and sent from there to any of a number of fates that range from horrifying to consoling (if not ultimately satisfying).

Arakawa said...

[continuing my previous comment]

The question is then whether Christianity offers a replacement model which gives a different picture of the facts of judgment, or if it offers a path of spiritual advancement that is largely orthogonal to this "standard model" (i.e. that of repentance and a renewal of direct communion with the Most High God). The most optimistic case I feel to be realistic is the latter, with the additional notion that repentance is so orthogonal to the standard scheme of life and death, that it can occur on either side of death -- although it is a difficult work in either case. This is, broadly speaking, the position taken by George Macdonald, or the Mormons.

(The more common and orthodox doctrine is that repentance is only possible before death. This is generally held to be an antidote to temptation to procrastinate one's repentance. But this runs into absurdity when we combine it with the commonly believed validity of deathbed repentance. If one is not ambitious in terms of theosis, the question then becomes "why bother to struggle beyond the bare minimum of remembering that I am a sinner?".

In the end, I'm starting to think the distinction is less relevant than I thought before. It is like taking an exam once... either with the knowledge that one will fail for all eternity, or that one will be forced to re-take it for all eternity until one learns the lesson. Ultimately; neither doctrine is kind to the lazy student -- and in George Macdonald's account, those who repent at death's door will presumably have some kind of task required of them in the other world, to make up for the work they did not do here.)

The notion of a spiritual path which is orthogonal to some standard ("default") scheme of life and death resembles Buddhism and (worse) Gnosticism, which view the pagan judgment as a sucker's game, but at this point in the analysis it is utterly straightforward to compare these religions based on what they offer as an ideal end point -- as Bruce's article proposes.

In this kind of scheme, it is easy to discern that there may be some correctness in a notion of partial rewards for partial knowledge.

... although I really don't see how, say, the Hindu risk/reward analysis you mention (the horrors of reincarnation vs. an escape from the cycle), can be squared with the Christian understanding which unequivocally excludes reincarnation, even in a partial and speculative form. (e.g. perhaps: The ghosts of the dead may end up spiritually attached to the world, and attempt to live vicariously through others, which the latter can sometimes mistake for evidence of reincarnation when they access the memories of the former???)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ara - Thanks for rising to the challenge of this post.

Obviously it is something I am rather unsure about - not least because it seems to be something that nobody else has noticed, which may mean that I am missing some obvious counter-example.

But it also allows me to develop what strikes me as a serious asymmetry between the reasonableness of what religions and denominations claim about themselves; and what they say about each other.

Arakawa said...


To be honest, it seems to me that the underlying issue is the balance between credulity and skepticism, when someone comes to you with an account of the world that does not fit into your prior understanding of things. Is your default reaction to credit their account, considering that there are many more things in the world than fit in a philosophy, or to immediately seek to find some error or inconsistency that can be used to invalidate it.

Too much credulity quickly leads to incoherence (everything can't be true at once, and not all apparent contradictions can be resolved; whereas the speculation needed to resolve the ones that can be squared is not profitable to bother with).

Whereas too little credulity will cause one to end up crystallized in a particular worldview. Which happens to work if one is on the correct path, but makes it impossible to evaluate whether one is really on the correct path.

Thus an Orthodox Christian will end up mired in the depths of supercorrectness, where every supernatural experience that does not fit in their framework of understanding can only be thought of as engineered by demons in a massive virtual reality deception along the lines of the moon landing conspiracy theory. This may not be a disaster on the spiritual level. But it is a very stifling sort of existence, and has its own considerable dangers. (It makes it incredibly stressful to take a trip to an unambiguously non-Christian country such as Japan, for instance, if one's worldview happens to imply quite clearly that 99.9% of the people you encounter there are Hell-bound. The one person I know who made the experiment, quickly started to look for the worst in every person he met there.)

However, an atheist with the same attitude will consider every possible supernatural experience to be the product of brain malfunctions, at best, and be unable to evaluate whether any religion has anything to offer. This is an even more stifling sort of existence, without any spiritual gain in exchange for it. And it requires you to believe that the vast majority of human beings who ever lived, while not precisely Hell-bound, were damaged or insane.

This balance is all the more crucial, since it is contrary to basic human decency to deny someone's eyewitness evidence without giving them a fair hearing, and at the same time it is contrary to basic human decency to encourage someone's delusions by giving a madman the same hearing as a sane person. This is where it all comes back, once again, to a problem of discernment.

And as you point out in favour of lesser skepticism, it is possible to meaningfully compare the major world religions on their own terms, without having to quibble with their basic and crucial assertions. Though understanding how that works out in the grand scheme of things can tend to get complicated.

SMERSH said...

Counterpoint: the religion that you don't like to talk about makes some rather grandiose claims about what awaits martyrs in the afterlife.

Bruce Charlton said...

@S - Yes, it fits my argument. Granting it all, it a lot less than Christian Heaven.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - That is covered in the reply to Smersh - paradise as you are, is much less than Heaven as perfected.

Shenpen said...

Dear Mr. Charlton,

Regarding Buddhism: why do you consider individuality a value, and its death a loss? I had my own "ego loss experience" and it felt incredibly majestic: it felt that by becoming nothing one becomes everything, because all the distinctions between the self and the other are lost. At that time I felt I am everything, or everything is me, or there is no me just the everything - at any rate it was a majestic, purifying experience.

This is the No. 1 thing I don't understand in theism. Why think the best thing out there is personal? Why think persons are valueable? Why think individuality is valuable? Why not just let everything be one with everything without distinction, overcoming our practical rationality with a sacred irrationality where the thinking mind is thankfully sacrificed and melted down, because there is no longer a need to tell the difference between this ro that?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Shenpen - Don't act on what I am about to say - I implore you! But if individuality is not a value and death is not a loss, then - given the potential for suffering, and actual suffering in the world - why not lose individuality NOW.

In other words, suicide seems the obvious and secure fast track to the annihilation of the self that Buddhists seek in such a roundabout way.

Why not?

Well, because it is not true - that is why not. And I do not think Buddhists really, deep down, at heart, believe what they say they believe - or else they have doubts; or they *would* kill themselves to end attachment, to end suffering.

But please don't try to convince me you *are* sincere!

Shenpen said...

Dear Mr. Charlton

obviously if one believes in reincarnation then suicide solves nothing but even without that, even in the materialistic mindset (final death) suicide extinguishes all sensations, while the "ego death" seeked in meditation merely transforms sensations, to one of wisdom, bliss etc.

There is a huge difference between eternal sleep and the cathartic experience of being one with the universe.

How is it possible that Western thinkers are unable to understand this difference? This is not that difficult, the difference between really not being here vs. being here but not thinking that the experiences felt can be divided to a "self" and "other"?

This is not hard, is it?

For example the dead man feels no pain, the average man says "I suffer", the enlightened man says "suffering is felt", no matter by whom. Why is it hard to grasp the difference why was never such thing developed in the West?

Bruce Charlton said...


Everyone must make up his own mind - but I spent a long time on Zen Buddhism, and if I express myself briefly, 'I don't believe it' - I believe it reduces suffering and can make individuals feel better; but I don't believe that it enables a genuine experience of being at one with the universe which both eliminates the self yet also allows the self to experience that one-ness; nor do I believe it leads to a special wisdom.

I've given Zen a good shot - over a period of some years; I regard that time as partly self deceptive and harmful - driven by and leading to spiritual pride, and partly wasted; and I don't intend to spend any more time on it!

Shenpen said...

Dear Mr. Charlton,

All right, but at least appreciate the problem why Liberalism became so huge in the West:

Eastern Man: "Just bow down, does not matter before what, it is just healthy for your psyche."

Western Man: "I will not bow down before anything, except Objective Truth! I will follow my desire and vanity except when Objective Truth says it is wrong!"

No wonder Liberalism came from the West. All Western Man needed to do is to take Objectve Truth, stuff like God's existence, rational laws of nature etc. out of the picture and instantly he was enslaved by his vanity and desire.

Eastern Man does not need crutches like objective reality or god to know vanity and desire are problematic. He treats them as basically mental health issues.

Thus resists Liberalism better.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Shenpen - I don't regard Eastern societies as significantly superior to West.

The main variable I look at to see if a society is potentially healthy from a psychological perspective is *chosen fertility* - and NE Asian societies are the worst in the world, the worst in human history, from this respect. To self-suppress reproduction so low I take as evidence of profound psychopathology.

Of course above-replacement fertility is not usually nor necessarily a good thing - it is necessary (but not sufficient) in a basically healthy society.

If the Christianization of China continues, it should have a side effect of increasing fertility and then China might have the potential to become a basically good society and justly the leading world power.