Sunday, August 23, 2015

What If... ?

It is a fascinating experience to attend a secular women's conference. To most of the attendees, at least the ones who spoke up about it, secular translates to atheist. Technically it also includes people who identify as humanist, even agnostic. I count myself in the latter category. I strongly support resisting any attempt to assume everyone in this country is Christian, and that any part of our government should incorporate that or any religion. Choose your own religion, fine with me. Just don't shove it down my throat, thank you very much.

There was more table talk today, keeping me on site way longer than my role required. But one piece of it is still rattling around in my head as part of a conversation with a staunch atheist.

The context was in a discussion of various people's paths out of religiousness and into atheism.  The peripheral issue dealt with an inability to separate one part of her Roman Catholic upbringing from the whole of it: this one part was unbelievable so for her the whole was too. It was a logic thing rather than a validity of her unbelief, at least as she explained her journey. Not that she had noticed it. Rather, I brought it to her attention as it reminded me of another conversation I had participated in recently. It also involved someone not being able to separate out one piece of a religious belief from the whole theology, though this time not their own religion.

In this other case, the topic was about reincarnation. A woman who was known to all parties in the discussion had a very interesting experience under hypnosis. She "regressed" to a time when - she said - she was a member of the French court during the time of Marie Antoinette. While hypnotized, she came up with a lot of details about what daily life was like then. Plus she spoke in a language that resembled French but was mostly unrecognizable.

Note that she had never been particularly interested in this time of  history. Nor had she even studdied French. Like most of us, she probably knew a handful of words gleaned from menus and war movies, nothing more.

The whole experience was so remarkable that she was hypnotized again, this time while being recorded. This was then taken to experts on the history of the time, who validated the "day in the life" details, and a linguist who was an expert of the version of French that was spoken back then. He also validated that she was speaking perfectly for that time, something that even had she been exposed to modern French, she would not have known.

All this was taken as validation of reincarnation by at least some of those present hearing of her experience. I personally found it fascinating as a possibility. It raised a lot of questions, of course. If one can accept just the possibility of it happening, then have the rest of us had past lives? Could those be reached through hypnosis? Where/when might I have lived before?

One in the group got hung up on reincarnation because he was unable to separate it from the whole religious theology surrounding it. He thought that to accept reincarnation, one also had to accept that we came back as bugs, as animals, that present lives determined our next one and whether we would be rewarded or punished by a better/worse existence, and that our ultimate goal was nirvana, or a complete lack of existence. Since he didn't find any sense in all the surrounding ideas, then for him there was no possibility of reincarnation existing. And if it did, it must be for the reasons as put forth by the religion.

It couldn't just simply be.

I, on the other hand, find it quite easy to look at one particular piece of a theology without that automatically requiring the validation of all the other ideas put forth. What if... we really had souls? What if... there was some kind of afterlife? What if... some kind of consciousness could inhabit another body at some point before/after inhabiting the current one?

In other words, what if many or most of the world's religions are just a little bit right? What if those religions get most of it wrong, but each has just a wee bit of the picture, all of us being blind men touching a tiny piece of the elephant or the dung heap left behind it?

As fascinating as those questions are to me, do not confuse them with my belief in any of them. Just because I find the ideas fascinating does not not mean I propose any "TRUTH" in any of them. I'm just saying I can conceptualize the separation of different pieces of any particular theology - or philosophy, if you will - from the whole body of thought that has grown up around them. I could, for example, disbelieve in the virgin birth and still find validity in the Golden Rule.

One thing I do firmly believe is that no one of us can know what the truth is on any of these questions. Not while we are alive. Perhaps not afterwards either. I'm just saying we can speculate, piecemeal.

Of course, in a rollicking tabletop discussion, those subtle points of the argument are difficult to articulate. Apparently my point got missed. Let's return to the conversation with our atheist who abandoned her Catholicism, in fact all religion, due to finding a flaw with one piece of it. I was trying to use the other example as a way of de-linking one idea from the whole, not that I had any problem with her conclusions. This was just about the how of the process, not my judgment on its value.

First, the point she verbalized was that reincarnation didn't exist.

OK, no argument from me. I can't prove it does or doesn't. That's why I'm agnostic. But just for imagination's sake, what if it did? That didn't mean it came with all the rest of the baggage about karma.

Well, she just didn't believe in reincarnation. She wasn't going to go down the "what if..." road. After all, if reincarnation were real, without karma, then what was the point of it? What was it for?

I wasn't about to try pointing out the irony of an atheist demanding there be a point to existence in order to believe in existence. Even if that existence was a possible different one than this one.

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