Also, as I've said before, I think there are some universal truths that can unite everyone behind a common purpose. I've been going back and forth with Uncle E now for several weeks, trying to nail down some core belief that we share. I can't be sure that I've got it yet, but I think I might be on to something. So here you go.
I've always thought that beneath all of the religions, there is some "objective truth", that they're all looking for. And they all have bits and pieces of it, but the real objective truth is so profound that it's hard to hold in your head. It's what I'd call a God-scale concept. So it gets corrupted, dumbed down, or stories get built on top of it in an effort to explain something that is very much beyond our full understanding. And cynics use people's innate desire to find the truth to gain power and influence for themselves. And the question becomes "which religion should I adopt?" or "Which religion is the most true?", which boils down to "Which truth-fairytale with power-mongering built in should I believe?"
The problem is, people feel a real need to know "the truth", so they make all kinds of justifications and rationalizations why the false stories and power-mongering are in fact a good thing, and part of the "real truth".
So what do you do? My answer has been that the truths religions are trying to tell are true for all religions, we just don't understand exactly what they are yet. So I've tried to look for things in what everyone is saying, from all of the different religions, and the atheist community, that might represent a common ground, because I think that common ground is the truth.
I've come up with something simple, that I've really known all along, I just haven't articulated in exactly the way I did with Uncle E just recently, and will do here now. The simple truth is, we all have a conscience, and we all use it to determine "real" truth.
Don't scream moral relativist yet. Because there's a little bit of faith here. The faith is that my conscience comes from wherever it is that truth comes from, and will reliably guide me to do whatever it is I should be doing with my life. With any religion, you are pressured to take on faith any of the claims of that religion that you can't prove with evidence. I've found that that one assumption, that one single leap of faith about the truth of my conscience, gives me all of the benefits I can find in any of the religions, and it has none of the mind-bending baggage that comes with trying to believe that EVERYTHING a particular religion says is true. Not only do I not have to believe everything a particular religion says, I can look at a religion's claims and decide whether I think they are true or false, without worrying about whether I will have to re-write my entire world view.
Really, I think most people who are not born and raised in a particular religion, but actively make the decision to enter it, do so because their conscience tells them something about it represents the real truth. So what they're doing is trusting their consciences, but not fully realizing that's what's guiding them, and ending up letting something else (a particular doctrine) guide them over the long term, which leads to problems.
Maybe I'm wrong, but I think that's the one thing that unites religious people. Whatever conception of God you have, you keep it because your conscience tells you it's right enough (many find it's not perfect), not because of any other logical justification you may be able to give me or anyone else.
Think I'm wrong? Think about this for a second. If your conscience told you the church you were in was not where you should be, would you think your conscience was defective and continue to follow that religion, or would you leave? Sure, you would question, and possibly wonder if you were going nuts, but in the end, what would you do?
This is a tough question for a lot of people, because their idea of conscience is so tied up with a particular religion's ideas. And when I discussed this with Uncle E, who has been Catholic for 45 years, after a day, he came back and said that conscience trumps Jesus, and if his conscience told him he had to leave the church he would do so. But he said that even though this was the case, his belief in God was the most important thing, even more than his belief in the correctness of his conscience, because without God there would be nowhere for a "true" conscience to come from. So atheism is still out, conscience in his view doesn't unify theists and atheists.
The problem is that when people say "God", they almost always mean a particular kind of God. For example, the "There is only one, worship no Gods before me" kind you get with monotheism, or the one that made us in its image you get with Christianity. But if you think about it, do we know this for sure? Do we know there is only one God? I've wondered, what if the universe was made so that there is one objective truth, and a real way to tell good from bad, but it was made by a group of gods working together as a community? Many Gods, but one Plan for the universe. Does anyone have a reason besides "My religion says no" why this couldn't be true?
I asked Uncle E. this question this morning, because he put forward a belief in God as the source of our consciences as the foundational truth he and I did not share. But the thing is, if you want to call "the source of our consciences, and the source of a real objective truth we should seek for" God, then OK, I believe in God then, because I do think my conscience means something and will guide me well. But what does this God look like? Are we sure there is only one? Are we sure God is the first cause, instead of being made by the first cause and in turn making the universe? Are we sure about anything about God, other than the fact that since we have a conscience that is such a marvelous guide to what we should do in life, God must exist as the source of that?
I think we can verify the reality of our conscience, and through that make a valid argument for the existence of God, but that doesn't allow us to argue for a particular conception of God. And since our conscience is what we use to decide what conception of God to accept, God isn't more important in our daily lives, it's our conscience that matters. Put another way, A belief that our conscience will guide us well is more important than any particular conception of God.
If, instead of "My God is the source of my conscience, so an assault on my God is an assault on the truth of the idea that my conscience could guide me reliably", people said "My conscience determines which God I accept as real", I think that might solve a lot of problems. In a few words: My conscience is the foundation of my beliefs., instead of My God is the foundation of my beliefs
It's the reverse of how Uncle E. looked at things. I wonder, now that I've pointed this out, what he'll say?
UPDATE: His response is:
I think a lot of this, like Einstein's relativity, depends on the position of the observer in relation to the observed. From my viewpoint, it might be conscience and truth first, God second, but the truth is that God came way first, and I am just a late arrival. It can be helpful noting how it looks from my viewpoint, but that is very parochial, and the non egocentric viewpoint is the more truthful one overall. But I suspect that distinction of observer may be one cause of our disagreements.
If you look at your conscience as being the source of your beliefs, it does unify you with everyone else, including most atheists I've talked to. Because, if you're an atheist, how do you choose your moral structure? Should it be utilitarianism, empathy, survival of the fittest, some other concept, or some mix of these? Your answer will often depend on looking at the effects of the various alternatives and thinking about which one your conscience likes the best. So there's an important but rarely highlighted distinction between religious people plus conscience-following atheists, and those (predominantly atheist, but also possibly extremist holy-book-thumper religious) who think it's not important to follow their conscience because it's not as reliable as some other guide to action (logic/scripture).
So, to the religious people: what do you think? Could you regard yourself as being "on the same side" with someone who had a completely different conception of God, or didn't believe in God at all, but acknowledged that following your conscience is how you should live your life? Or is God truly more important to you than following your conscience?
UPDATE, in response to Uncle E's thoughts: And, if viewing your conscience as primary (the source of any coneption of God you will accept) allows you to work with everyone else for a better world, is the parochialism of this view justified by its effects? It's an "ends justify the means" agrument, I know, but I've often wondered if I should support a religion that I'm pretty sure is not 100% true, because of the beneficial effects. This is just that same question rephrased, except instead of a religion, I'm wondering if we should support a "parochial" but in a very practical sense true, view, for the sake of working together for a better world?