Simple truth: I know that there's plenty I don't know, including (what to make of) most things under the heading of religious belief.

At least in Western Culture there's a broad body of things folk believe which are recognised as founded (if not actually on science then at least) on secular knowledge – things that (at least Western) folk regard as having been learned from the real world, without any claim of divine assistance. This secular knowledge can be viewed as a religion – doing so, indeed, offers the speaker a delightful opportunity for teasing the scientific and academic communities with mild satires of their more pompous members. However, many folk seem happy to agree on this secular foundation who do not agree on the issues they call religious: so, for my purposes, it isn't religion.

When religion is stripped of things that such a secular world-view accounts for quite happily, they are left with what's believed for a reason called Faith. This is stuff that Is True but you can't Prove it's true without, fundamentally, some divine intervention: fortunately for us infidels, the faithful are on hand to bear witness to the revelation (albeit, typically, at many removes from the original recipient of the revelation – but, putting their trust in that recipient and the chain of witness that has brought The Truth to them, the faithful do have faith and so can bear witness to The Truth).

There's quite a lot of what goes on under the heading of Faith which is actually about declaring one's membership of (and fealty to) a socio-cultural group: which is no surprise – a religion won't survive long as a socio-cultural phenomenon unless it can assimilate the social need of us primates to know where we stand in relation to our peers. There's a fair amount more that's about the nature of places or times not accessible to living witnesses: belief in this may affect the believer's choices about how to behave in this life, and we may like or dislike the effects; but its effects are independent of whether the belief is right or wrong. If dead Christians are serving eternities in the hell of some obscure African tribe (whose culture was wiped out centuries ago, but they were right about the afterlife and how to get a good deal in it), all we'll see in The Vale Of Tears will be just the same as we'd have seen if they'd all been met and welcomed by St. Peter, as they expected.

Modern Science has met and addressed such issues: Popper and others simply reject the entire topic as being unfalsifiable so not worth discussing; but one can use a model with faith in it and use it scientifically if one wishes, though (for reasons William of Occam would probably respect) I prefer models which depend only on secular knowledge – if only because I can reuse them in discussions with folk from a broader variety of religious backgrounds. The infidel may well use the tools of reason in discussing, with a believer, the latter's beliefs. (I am not so much concerned with what is Science as on what can I hope to find the broadest generality of agreement both among folk and between our models and reality.)

There are also things that religions say about the real world which may be consistent with what we observe but equally consistent with some other model (which we might prefer for æsthetic, or other, reasons). This often comes down to accounts of causality: the amount of things that can be caused by disobeying divinities might seem absurd to the unbeliever, but all it takes for the believers is to have a good memory for their sins and call one or other of them to mind whenever anything goes wrong. If they have trouble summoning their own sins to mind, they can always pin the problem on their sin of not mending the ways of their sinful neighbours – an excellent excuse for meddling in other folk's affairs. Failing all else, of course, the religions of the book (at least) can always turn to Job to account for the rare cases of wholly virtuous folk suffering calamities normally reserved for sinners. God could be testing you, or might have decided it'd be character-building for you to endure a bit of suffering despite not deserving it. Besides, if you're so sure you're free of sin, go back and check under the heading of Pride – a Cardinal sin.

Gems of wisdom

Religion's a curious thing. Consider religions in general, excluding, if you have one, your own. Their main virtue is that they serve as a vehicle by which things learned by one generation get propagated to later ones: 'though they pass on wrong accounts of the nature of divinity and of our duties to the divine, it should be no surprise that on less contentious subjects they commonly manage to pass on more wisdom than folly.

Consequently I'm not averse to taking a good rummage in the world-view of a religion in search of any handy gems of wisdom they've managed to collect along the way. If the faithful think the bits I identify as gems aren't The Real Gems of their religion, I shalln't be at all surprised. I've just about enough humility to realise they could be right (they clearly believe they are, and I know that I don't know): and it may do them some good to realise that much that they've been told they only know By Way Of The Faith is, in fact, quite intelligible to someone who finds no need of that faith to recognise the gem as wisdom. If I can recognise some of your wisdom, after all, I might also have recognised some wisdom you'd be glad to plunder in exchange – though you'll have to judge that for yourself.

Many religions have, along with the lessons they propagate, organised communities which have explored the options for organising a collective economy capable of supporting its aged members and educating youth. One of the things these have tended to do is teach reading and writing – the means by which Truths can survive generations in which no-one understands them. (Some such communities have now become fine universities.) Many of the lessons folk have learned from such communities arise from the nature of people, quite independent of their religion: the need to assimilate these lessons has, in turn, lead varied religions to carry some gems which, likewise, transcend their differences.

Religions generally have rules or, at least, guidance for the faithful about how to live. Enforcing those rules, or encouraging folk to follow such guidance, tends to put the religion in a rôle of authority over folk – and such rôles have, like the life of a community, much in common due to how folk are without reference to the details of their religion. Obedience (to those with suitably founded authority), mercy and humility are fairly widely honoured as virtues.

Looking at a religion from the outside, not as one of its faithful, one must expect to find more than just the gems: but even that can lead one to see a gem the religion misses, or even shies away from. This can help the infidel to digest a truth previously suspected or known but not recognised as a gem until the folly of another man's religion gave the context in which its true worth became clear.

To put it another way, The One True God works in subtle ways and has even managed to infiltrate the False Religions with enough of The Truth that those so unfortunate as to have been raised Off The Path are at least a little prepared to be brought onto it. The Believer should be prepared to discuss truth with such benighted folk – be prepared to learn wisdom by way of them and introduce The Truth to them by showing it to them in the context of the gems He has seen fit to grant them.

See Also

The internet has plenty to say about religion. One of the more irreverent is My Little Golden Book About Zogg.

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