The Bible has included many legends that explain how things are connected. One of them explains why people were spread out and began to speak different languages. According to the legend this happened because the people rebelled against God. They were determined to build a tower that went up to heaven, and I suppose they by doing so they thought to exalt themselves before God. The tower was perhaps a symbol of a pagan worship as well. The authors of the Bible were not doing any historiography, but this legend describes human behaviour quite well. There’s something about us humans that makes consensus and cooperation difficult. We see this particularly in the context of beliefs. No one wants to admit this of course, perhaps least of all in Islam.
Recently I came across a page where Muslims can ask questions about Islam. Someone called Shefiu wondered what the disagreements within Islamic law was all about, and whether the disagreements started in the Prophet’s time (I assume we’re talking about Muhammad). The answer is just as typical as the controversy; it is just as difficult to acknowledge that we are not able to cooperate. Here is the first sentence in a rather long answer:
“To correct your view, there is diversity in the four schools of thought and not disagreement; none of the scholars (imams) who were the founders of the four schools of thought disagreed among each other .”
In other words, there is diversity in Islam, but not controversy. I wonder, however, why it is necessary to have four different traditions if there is full agreement. Not to be sarcastic, but I’d like them to show some of this diversity. Most people know about the conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. This started in 632, the year when the Prophet Mohammed died. The figures vary slightly between different sources. Therefore, between 10 and 20 % of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, are Shia Muslims. They are in most countries minorities in a Sunni country, except in Iraq, Iran, Bahrain and Azerbaijan, where they are the majority.
This conflict is also an important part of the problem in Syria. This country has a Shiite minority which rules over a Sunni majority. The president comes from the Alawites sect. There is a similar situation in Iraq, but opposite. Saddam Hussein and the Sunni elite ruled over the Shiite majority. After the elections the Shiites naturally took over. The conflict arose after the Prophet Muhammad died. Those who wanted the Prophet’s closest associates to take over his position became Sunni Muslims. Those who wanted Muhammad’s descendants to inherit the power became Shia Muslims. This is how Islam split into two main branches. This has as much to do with power as with religion. One of the reasons it is so difficult to make peace in this region is that it is easy to arouse the old enmity between the two groups and to disrupt the fragile peace, which has maintained a certain balance. The fact that Saddam Hussein was overthrown has, for example, started sectarian violence and killings against Sunni Muslims across the Middle East.
We see the same in Syria. The uprising may have started as a real political rebellion, but it is now a sectarian struggle between the poor Sunnis (many of whom are Al Qaeda supporters) and the Shiite elite. Terrorist groups exploit this division which is obviously devastating for peaceful Muslims, and for the rest of us whom they see as the infidels.
This is something we have struggled with in Christianity as well. Christianity also experienced strong disagreement from the start. In the beginning, it was for example, unclear whether one had to be a Jew first to become a Christian. The Bible also reveals some clues concerning disagreement about the role of women. One of the biggest conflicts has been one the key theological issues, the Trinity. It is so complicated that I do not understand it myself, and I am of the opinion that religion should be as simple as possible. Such details are really just distracting. One thing’s for sure, the Trinity is not essential for belief.
It was a central part of this belief that Jesus had always existed, but a small group of early Christians believed that Jesus had been born as a human and adopted as God’s son, so called adoptianism. This belief developed in the 2nd century, and was put to rest in the 3rd century, but it rose again in Spain in the 8th century.
The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem also illustrates how difficult it is to reach an agreement. According to tradition, this church was built atop the tomb of Jesus. Everyone wants to control it, but this controversy has repeatedly led to decay because they could not agree on the restoration. They have split the church among themselves for centuries and in the middle ages it was decided by bribing authorities. The Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic Church had the largest areas, but the Ethiopian and Syrian Orthodox church also had smaller chapels within the church. There have been several cases of brawls that ended with hospital visits and arrests because monks in the various denominations believed they had been insulted, like when a door to the Franciscan chapel was left open after an Orthodox mass. We are still just talking about pettiness. The biggest conflict in Christianity has been between the Catholic and Protestant churches.
I don’t know so much about Judaism, but I know that there are various conflicting traditions there too. The Karaite tradition recognizes only theTanak as an authority on Jewish law and theology. It doesn’t recognize the oral tradition of the Torah.
Humanistic Judaism emphasizes Jewish culture and history as a source of Jewish identity, and thus keeps God on the outside. We can imagine that groups like the Orthodox Jews, Modern Orthodox Jews and Conservative Jews are at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Many look to the East for an alternative to the contentiousness of the ‘big three’ religions. Buddhism is often seen as a religion of peace. I will not go into it here, but refer to what I have written previously about Tibetan Buddhism (Yellow journalism and A peaceful leader). There are so many traditions within Buddhism, and when it comes Tibetan Buddhism, there is no doubt that the conflict between Dalai Lama and Dorje Shugden is about power.
Is science an alternative?
Science is the newest of the major religions, and there is much faith here as well. If you walk around in a university campus today, and ask questions about evolution, you’ll probably get an overwhelming amount of answers from students who say they believe in evolution. You’ll also encounter a large majority of students and professors who say science has basically nothing to do with faith. They will not acknowledge that we are talking about something that requires a certain faith; generally referred to as leap of faith. That is, however, just what happens when students and professionals in academic subjects say they have confidence in the textbooks they read. Granted science has some methods to follow. It has to be possible to observe something, and it must be possible to repeat an experiment with the same conclusion anywhere in the world.
It goes without saying that this is problematic when we talk about evolution. We are talking about changes you can’t observe because of the long time involved, and the evidence for this theory is difficult to find. Defenders of the evolution theory refer to evidence that occurred millions of years ago. I agree that evolution is logical. Life changes and beneficial features survive, but this is still no more than a theory. This theory is still used, very aggressively and hostilely toward others, not least in relation to those seeking a more spiritual life. I have previously written about the opposite views of Richard Dawking and Rupert Sheldrake in The dilemma of a scientist. Personally, I’m among those who embrace both religion and science.
We also see that many scientists disagree more or less because they have to disagree about something. This is particularly the case in climate research. There are strong feelings involved, and despite the fact that there have never been greater amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, there are still some who believe that we can safely continue with high emissions. They believe that what we see now is nothing more than a natural variation. This is a position that big finance is very happy with. This may say a lot about us humans. We love to disagree, and we are constantly looking for weaknesses in our opponent’s arguments and logic. Believers in science like to pretend that science always tries to act in mankind’s best interest, but there are always some scientists that go too far. There are some wild ideas that have been used in science fiction, which there are scientific theories to support. One of them is ecophagy (popularly called “gray goo”). These are self-producing nanobots using carbon, for example, which we are made of, to make copies of themselves. It is not possible today, but it is not inconceivable that we’ll get there in the future.
Those who talk about chemtrails are often labeled as crazy “conspiracy buffs,” but they may not be. Here we have another example of a dispute within science where those in favor of ‘geo-engineering say it is in our best interests, but those opposed point out the potential for these experiments to go horribly wrong. Further, geo-engineering is not just a field that has given life to the conspiracy theories about “chemtrails”. There is being research done on the possibility that we can influence the climate by releasing huge amounts of nanoparticles in the stratosphere, thereby reducing radiation from the sun. It should in theory prevent global warming. There was a hearing on this in the U.S. Congress in 2009, so there is no doubt that it is something they are considering. But it is controversial, because no one knows what consequences this will have.
That’s the way we are. We humans don’t always listen to people we diaagree with even when they are authorities on the subject at hand or are talking common sense, instead we happily run things the way we want. I thus almost can’t believe what I’m hearing from seemingly intelligent people when they say things like, “The world would be a better place without religion.” That experiment is called communism. On a smaller scale, we have seen the hippie culture. Both have some elements that sound promising, but both were thoroughly exposed as being hypocritical. I was born in 1968, inside the period when the hippies were going to save the world with their LSD, marijuana, rejection of the consumer society and, let’s not forget, free love. While I grew up many of these radical people went into important positions in society. They didn’t accomplish anything, except making people disillusioned. Both communism and western radicals in the 60’s and 70’s had many sensible ideas, but man is unfortunately not entirely trustworthy.
The Norwegian Humanist Association
This group is the most famous atheist belief organization in Norway. In controversial cases such as euthanasia they chicken out, and don’t offer any opinion or advice to their members. They say that members are free to make their own decisions. Difficult issues seem to be too controversial for them. There is, therefore, disagreement about one of the most important fields in atheistic humanism. Some believe they have the right to decide over their own bodies (essentially the same approach as for abortion), while other atheists believe it is wrong to take a life. It is a strange organization. It is very active in trying to change the Norwegian Church doctrine, but is far less visible in the general debate of values.
Today there are many who have a euphoric attitude in their rejection of religion. The net overflows with domain names like “no religion, irreligion, good life without religion and especially the good old atheism’. If we just get religion thrown out, life is going to be a never-ending party. There are actually some who believe as John Lennon did, that a world without religion is a world without hell. He was a naive pacifist with an excessive faith in man, but the truth is rather that we need religion as a defense against the hell we make for ourselves.
Here in Norway, the Labour party governed for long periods after Word War II (they won the first four elections after the war), which means that, at times undemocratic and atheistic ideology, has governed the church. It remains to be seen whether what looks like an increasingly dystopian world is being turned into a euphoric utopia when religious belief organizations, which also includes the humanists, and the scientists are being marginalized in the Norwegian society.
You can probably tell that I’m somewhat sceptical about a society that allows humans to look into themselves to consider what is right and good. We’ve seen everyone have a go: Christianity, Islam, atheism, science, capitalism. We have seen the same power struggle going on among these big players in the minor religions such as Tibetan Buddhism and Judaism as well.
I’ve said it before, and I’m happy to say it again. To throw out religion because we believe people have weaknesses is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. There are many who say they can offer an alternative to those who do not identify with religion. I am not impressed with what these options have achieved so far. We are still building towers. It is a question of promoting ourselves, to show what we as individuals and communities are able to do. In a society that wants less religion and dissention there are many people and opinions that do not fit. Today’s tower of Babel does not reflect less pride, intolerance, arrogance, vanity, etc. than the Bible version.
In the history of Babylon 130 years after the Great Flood, people were punished by being spread out over the earth, they did not understand each other because they spoke different languages. The punishment we give ourselves today may further confusion. We have tried everything, without having proving that we are strongenough to do without God. This is especially true in relation to our ability to think collectively.
Perhaps it is sometimes strength in admitting our weaknesses, and to be open to those who want spirituality to be more visible in the community. I actually have an understanding of those who choose atheism, but not for those who are fighting tooth and nail for the whole society to opt out of the spiritual life.