Over a long life I’ve come to believe that belief doesn’t matter as much as acting according to certain beliefs. I’m not thinking of the just-in-case sort of thing, behaving according to a religion’s rules on the off chance that the teachings may be true and affect your chances of an afterlife, or what kind of afterlife you’d qualify for. I’m thinking in practical, everyday terms.
I’ll get back to the religious connection soon, but I have another example in mind. Every now and then I see something to the effect that scientists (I don’t believe I’ve seen details as to which scientists) are more and more convinced that we’re living in computer simulation being run (or set in motion far in the past) by hyper-intelligent entities to whom our entire cosmos is just a game setting. Do I believe this? Of course not. I’m not capable of understanding their reasoning well enough to believe or disbelieve. My reaction is, interesting, but so what? What difference does it make to how we need to go about our lives? There have been other theories of life being an illusion, but illusion or not, we’ve learned how we have to deal with it. We feel hunger, pain, joy, or loss, and generally know what causes these feelings. A broken bone will hurt, whether it’s an illusion or not. Gravity affects us in predictable ways, even though it’s not completely understood and there are theories that it doesn’t actually exist. We still have to accept gravity’s perceived effects, from the way things drop if we let go of them to the way planets revolve around suns and suns around the central masses of galaxies. We have to act on our perceptions of what works, and revise those perceptions when we see evidence to the contrary. And whether we believe in something like global climate change or not, we’ll feel its effects.
Getting back to religion: that computer simulation idea has a certain similarity to some of the traditional religious creation stories. Hyper-intelligent entities creating our cosmos sound pretty close to some notions of deities. But when it comes to our ideas of good, evil, morality, immorality, all those sorts of things, I think—not necessary believe, but think—that they've evolved along with our physical attributes. Maybe those extra-terrestrial (and extra-galactic) entities have imbued us with those values as part of their game (somewhat like the Sim City computer game my granddaughter plays, although I don’t know whether that includes value systems), but it seems more likely that they’ve developed as survival tools just as opposable thumbs and big brains have. Being able to live together in communities is a survival tool. Being suspicious of other communities may have at times been a survival tool, even though these days it may be more of a danger to survival.
But it doesn’t matter whether you believe in a particular deity as much as whether you behave as though certain teachings of that deity are important to making life work. Most religions have something resembling the Golden Rule of Christianity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We recognize the value of this idea, and have a vague sense that life would be better if everyone did this, even though very few people actually manage it.
Christianity is the religion I was brought up in and know the most about, and the teachings of Jesus as reported in the Bible seem right and good to me, but that doesn’t depend on belief in Jesus as a deity, or even as a historical figure. I know that presumed followers of Christianity have caused great harm, and continue to do so, probably outweighing all the good that others of those followers have managed to do. I know that the magnificent works of architecture and art and music inspired by Christianity do not outweigh the persecution and warfare waged in this religion’s name.
Still, there may be something I do believe, as far as there can be any belief based on human perception. I read something today that made me think of this. My Senator, Elizabeth Warren, is known as a fighter for justice, but not for her religious beliefs. It turns out, though, that her political activism is based on a deep faith. She doesn’t flaunt this, but sometimes quotes passages from the Bible to explain her views, including one from the Book of Matthew 25:40. When Jesus’s disciples ask when they have seen him hungry and fed him, or sick, or imprisoned, etc., he tells them, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Warren quoted this, and then shared her interpretation: “He’s saying to us, first, there’s God in every one of us, there’s Jesus in every one of us — however you see it in your religion, that inside there’s something holy in every single person.”
My belief is not that there’s something holy in every person. I don’t even have a clear sense of anything being holy, or even what holy means. But I do believe that whether or not Jesus ever existed, someone, more or less two thousand years ago, wrote those words, and related ones on the subject of caring for each other and helping those who need help. And I believe that the fact that those words were considered important enough to be written and passed down through the centuries—as were similar ones in other religions—is reason to hope that we humans do have a sense of what is good, what works in life, however often we may fail to follow those words. Does it make any difference whether that sense was imbued in us by extra-galactic computer gamers, or deities, or our own evolutionary development? Probably not. But I confess to preferring to think—maybe even believe—that we did it on our own.