Paul P. Mealing

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Saturday, 8 September 2007


This is another letter I wrote to New Scientist - in response to an essay by Helen Phillips entitled, Is God good? She discusses various studies done by academics examining the effects of religion on people's behaviour and ethics. The general consensus seemed to divide people between 'extrinsic' (those who are overtly religious and belong to religious organisations) and 'intrinsic' (those whose religious beliefs are more personal and less overt). It was found that the 'extrinsic' tended to have an 'in group' mentality, though it must be emphasised this is a broad generalisation, that made them less tolerant of people of 'other' religious persuasions, whereas the 'intrinsic' were more tolerant of 'others'.

This is a brief synopsis - she also discussed the evolutionary (social) value that may have been inherent in forming religious beliefs, as well as how we may have come to believe in a God or Gods as external supernatural beings. There was also a consensus that, while morality seems to be inherent in humans, it is not dependent on religiosity per se.

As a side issue, Karen Armstrong in The History of God, puts forward a thesis that our idea of God changes over history. In other words, God seems to exist, at least in our writings, in a historical context. But I would reference Augustine who seemed to appreciate that God was part of our 'inner journey' as much as something external. Or to quote 19th century German philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach: God does not exist independently of humanity.

Reference: New Scientist, 1 September 2007, pp32-6

When I was a young child, my father, who had spent 2.5 years as a POW, told me something I’ve never forgotten. He said: there are 2 types of Christians. There are Christians who go to church every week and wear their religion on their sleeve. Then there are Christians who don’t claim to be Christians yet they behave like Christians. In my now 56 years of living I’ve never seen anything to contradict that statement.

More relevant to Phillips’ topic, there are 2 types of religion: institutional religion that is political in every sense of the word; and religion as a personal experience, that is part of life’s journey, either as a unique, possibly one-off experience, or as an evolvement of one’s spirituality. I believe this is the distinction between ‘extrinsic’ and ‘intrinsic’ religion that is discussed by Phillips.

In the case of intrinsic or ‘quest’ religion, it is experienced as something ‘beyond’ the self. We can’t even explain how consciousness emerges from the neuron activity of our brain, so how can we explain a sense of ‘supra-consciousness’, and why should it be dismissed simply because it is no more explicable than ordinary consciousness? After all, they are both an experience as opposed to an objective observable phenomenon.

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