A few days ago, the international press was abuzz with the news that Pope Francis had, in one sentence, doused the fires of hell. La Repubblica founder, Eugenio Scalfari, reported the Pontiff as saying that corrupt souls don’t go to hell but simply disappear. Possibly Mr. Scalfari, aged 93, simply wanted some reassurance before kicking the bucket. Be that as it may, the Vatican quickly corrected the news, putting our minds to rest that the fires of hell are raging stronger than ever.
Dogma vs Values
This incident in itself is irrelevant, but it begs one question: why does this even matter to the rest of us? Is staunch belief in religious precepts and dogmas essential to living a life based on sound values? I am not questioning the importance of religion in society -that is a completely different topic. But what baffles me is the link that many seem to make between religious tenets and values. The world’s largest religions have a list of “indisputable beliefs” that form the core of their creed. The problem is that most of these ‘facts’ are metaphysical in nature, therefore cannot be proven in any way. So the owner of a critical mind (most of us), for whom blind belief is not an option, can only cope by dissociating values from those beliefs. A running Gallup survey notes that religion is becoming less important for most people. The Guardian also quotes a pan-european study by theology professor Steven Bullivant that pretty much reaches the same conclusion. That does not necessarily mean, however, that values are in decline.
I find discussions about heaven and hell and other religious precepts only interesting from a philosophical and possibly a theological point of view. I don’t see their impact on everyday life, except in a negative manner when taken to an extreme, like blowing yourself up to spend eternity in the presence of virgins. Why should one’s values and behaviour be determined by whether there is an afterlife, whether Mary was a virgin or whether Jesus was married or not? For me it does not make a ‘iota’ of difference. The basic value of Christianity, which is my religion of influence, is to “love thy neighbour as yourself”. I seek to live by that value because I believe that it leads to a better world. And I would continue to do so even if somebody had to prove that indeed there is no afterlife. As a matter of fact, I don’t care if there is an afterlife or not. And just in case there is one, I would like to think that there is more value to living according to your values without expecting compensation at the end.
Religion vs Spirituality
In Europe, after centuries of moral struggles and even bloodshed, society has pretty much pushed aside the yoke of pervasive religions. In the process, however, it also threw away spirituality. It is a pity. The pendulum has swung so much in the opposite direction that many have discarded even the concept of nurturing one’s spirit.
To me, spirituality is the humility of accepting that reality is much bigger than what our five senses can deduce: that we are part of something bigger. It is the innate need to connect and to accept that we have obligations towards the rest of creation that are intrinsic to our existence. This void is keenly felt. The fact that many seek to fill it with other ‘esoteric’ methods like Buddhist retreats, Ayahuaska, yoga and other practices imported from other parts of the world belies our need for the internal peace and silence that spirituality brings.
Science vs Religion
As a firm Darwinian with a background in Social Sciences, I find it very hard to reconcile many traditional religious beliefs with scientific facts. Science, however, does not disprove the existence of a reality bigger than what humans can perceive. Quite the contrary. It is true that leading scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins have argued that science cannot support the existence of a god. That, however, only applies to our traditional concept of a god and as such is debatable. Through branches such as astronomy and quantum physics, Science has opened doors to realities that are weirder than any author of holy texts could ever have imagined. We are talking about particles that can exist simultaneously in different places, or particles that ‘communicate‘ even across the universe. These are things that we cannot feel and touch, but which nonetheless underlie our very existence. To me, Science runs counter only to dogmatic religion and not to spirituality in the sense I described above.
In the end, I think the easiest is to take the most basic belief of the Abrahamic religions as a given: God is Great. And if he or she is so great, our puny minds cannot possibly hope to understand him or her. So how about putting all the effort into understanding how to make our world a better place?
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