Personally, I am of the opinion that many things in life are not only uncertain but also inexplicable. It is quite obvious that the natural world is a very complex and interconnected system. Our mistake is that we think because we are in various ways able to manage parts of that system, usually through trial and error, that we also are capable of understanding the whole of it, when in fact we have only been able to understand the miniscule part that we have rearranged to our advantage.
Our galaxy, the Milky Way, partially visible from earth has about 400 billion stars in it. And every star is a sun, such as our own. In deeper space there are hundreds of billions more galaxies. Neither you nor I, nor any scientist or philosopher could possibly hope to understand the meaning of our existence in that infinite universe, nor the purpose of the universe itself.
Religions, on the other hand, have very cogent explanations of the how and why the world exists. Usually they are based on a belief system magically passed down from a heavenly being to a prophet or divine interlocutor centuries ago. They are then codified by others who knew or apprenticed under that person, and those beliefs are today propagated by priests or accolades that presume to be the latter day apostles who have exhaustively studied and have been certified within their particular hierarchies as to the knowledge they profess.
Needless to say, it requires an act of faith to believe that what is being told to you has basis in fact. Facts that are often challenged by history. For example, we know that in the Third Century AD, the Emperor Constantine was faced with a dilemma in governing his kingdom. His populace was divided between Christians (about 10%) and those who worshiped a sun god amongst many other pagan deities. These were deities that previous emperors felt obligated to appease since they were vengeful gods capable of creating the downfall of empires if they were wronged. So, the Christians who worshipped only a single god were considered bad luck and their torture and death were the weekly fare in the empire’s colosseums. However, Constantine wished to strengthen his control by uniting them under one belief. Being forward thinking, he presumed that Christianity was the most likely belief system to hold together in the future and he considered himself one after a vision/dream in which he correctly foresaw victory in an important battle if he ordered his soldiers to paint Christian symbols on their shields. Additionally his mother had also become a Christian. Christianity had the advantage of being rewarded with eternal life after death, whereas the pagan religions didn’t believe in future life except for the gods themselves.
Being a politician, however, he ordained Sunday as being the day of rest and veneration of God. Whereas previously Christians had worshiped on Saturdays. Thus, the worshipers of the sun god were somewhat appeased by the selection of Sunday. As for the Christians they were rewarded by being the chosen religion. (Except, of course, the Seventh Day Adventists who still regard Saturday as their day of worship.) Politics, as you see, hasn’t changed all that much, because Constantine’s empire held together and he used belief in a religion to unite it.
Additionally, as all politicians do, Constantine appointed a committee to review all the scrolls, books and writings then in existence and bring them together in one collection. The result of that was the Bible as we know it today. What happened to that which was left out? Some still exist as the agnostic texts, but who knows how much was relegated to the dustbins of history, unacceptable to a political committee beholden to an emperor trying to appease all factions. I think we can rest assured that also not considered would have been the 15,000 clay tablets found centuries later in the Ebanite language not deciphered at the time of the committee’s deliberations. Nor the 400,000 fragments in Egypt that dated back well before the committee’s time and mentioned the New Testament. Not to mention the Dead Sea scrolls, not discovered until 1947.
More exact translations of the original texts in later years have changed some of the meanings. For example, some of the Seven Commandments are now looked at differently. “Thou shalt not kill” has been more precisely translated as ‘Thou shalt not murder’. Killing in the cause of Christianity, Islam or Judaism was not considered a sin, certainly not in the Muslim world where Armageddon is not a particularly frightening thought since it is believed that ‘Allah will recognize his own’. In other words, the infidels will go to hell, but the believers will go straight to heaven.
Also, the commandment on adultery actually included any fornication outside of marriage, even masturbation. Likewise, under the Muslim religion casual sex is forbidden. Meaning young men with high testosterone levels who can’t afford marriage are left with suicide bombing as the only available option since it leads to a quick path to heaven and the 13 virgins that await those who have killed in the service of Allah.
Some of the Eastern religions have their own unique take on man and the universe. Hindu texts, for example, describe multiple cycles of creation and destruction, each presumably lasting about four billion years a time span they equates to one day in the life of Brahma. Since each Brahma is estimated to live about 100 years in his time span, the world and its universe by their reckoning becomes astronomically old.
Perhaps it is not too far-fetched to presume that religious dogma is as much about control as it is about faith. Whether the control is exerted by the Emperor Constantine, or by popes, mullahs, evangelists, or present day movie stars, power and acceptance of it are the cement that is used to bind faith to the will of others.
Bioarchaeologists, for example, have discovered that even in paleoamerican cultures there often was a belief in some life after death. Burials often included objects that the person would need in the afterlife, toys for children, arrowheads and spear tips for adults. They also found that more than 30% of the adult skeletons showed injuries from tribal or clan warfare that resulted in violent death. Since the Americas at that point were so thinly populated it could be presumed that battles were more likely do to differing belief systems rather than territorial control. The skeletons also showed that inhabitants of that time arrived in the Americas by both land routes and by water craft. Some of the facial reconstructions resulted in physical characteristics more closely resembling the Ainu populations now only existing in the remote areas of Japan rather than Eskimo or Indian features. (Once, while living in Japan, I visited a remote mountain area where the heavily bearded Ainu still managed to eke out a subsistence living in rude huts and cooking over campfires.)
While there are many faiths in the world, there are two main ones that proselytize: Christian and Muslim. Both believe that only their religion can save you. Both also believe that prior religions have become superceded by their one true faith. Both also denigrate followers of other religions as heretics or infidels. And all have gone through, or are going through, a phase where beheading, hanging, burning at the stake of unbelievers is a moral duty if done to further their just cause. (Even the New England witch hunts a few centuries back are an example of this.)
At one time, both made little or no distinction between the powers of church and state. This despite the fact that Christ was said to have counseled his followers to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is his. Meaning prayers to God and taxes to the government. Now, of course, in most Western countries there is a distinct separation between church and state–very clearly demarcated here by the writers of our Constitution and Bill of Rights. (With the exception of the present day Tea Party, a fundamentalist off-shoot of the GOP, which would apparently prefer blending the two.)
Not so in the Muslim world. In Islam, there is no distinction between church and state. Possibly this derives from the different circumstances in founding the two religions even though both began in the Middle East. In Christianity, Christ was very much an outsider, definitely not a part of the establishment. In Islam, Mohammad, at first a prophet, became a sovereign after putting his enemies to the sword and establishing rule under strict Muslim precepts that had been passed down to him by Allah, through a Hebrew intermediary. Incidentally, Muslims believe in both Hebrew and Christian prophets, categorizing Christ as a valid prophet but not as the divine son of God. Muslim extremists, like their fundamentalist Christian counterparts, believe that not only themselves but others also must abide by the directives they have established for themselves.
For example, in Pakistan once considered a secular democracy now has totally banned alcohol, internet services, cell phones, erotica including movies, pork and food and beverages made by the wrong, or non-Muslim sects, gambling, any material from India, lesbian and gay rights, photos displaying female nudity, musical evenings. Religious minorities are prohibited from uttering Muslim greetings aloud.
In viewing the Muslim faith we must look at it as a very young religion, with the view that religions like human beings become more benign as they age. For example, the Puritans who settled in the Massachusetts area in the 1600s, were very intolerant of other faiths, admitting only those who conformed to their view of religion. Quakers were disfigured by cutting off their ears or branding their cheeks with the letter ‘H’ for heretic. Adultery, blasphemy, sodomy, or even rebellion by teenagers could result in a death sentence. Working on Sunday, or publicly kissing your wife could result in being fined or put in stocks. Yet, at the time, these were considered the most cultured and educated people to leave England for colonial life, artisans of great note and some with degrees from Eton and other fine colleges.
So, while this may be a questioning of some aspects of both science and religion, it is not meant to be a denial of perhaps a spiritual existence. I, like millions of others since time immemorial have had such strange and unfathomably bizarre experiences that would seem to deny rational explanation. But, being aware of something you cannot fully comprehend is one thing. But, quite another would be using it as a basis to construct an all inclusive view of everything around us. Some scientists like their religious counterparts want to make all encompassing deductions. The ‘Big Bang’ theory would be a good example of this. It is probably a human tendency to attempt to structure ideas and to enlarge from what we may have observed to what we imagine it to mean.
My view has come to be that speculations concerning the universe and our purpose in it are simply not within our realm of comprehension.