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Comparative Religion Babblings

First off, The Pain: Christianity and Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism.
As often, the Artist's Statements are often as good as the cartoon ("any belief system that proscribes bacon is clearly discredited").  And I could contemplate whether Catholic schoolgirls or tasty food is a better contribution (one's cheaper, at any rate), but I want to move on.  Like many, I'm intrigued by "Eastern religions", not so much because I start out thinking they have some special truths but because I like seeing the wacky differences in human societies.  I'm still hesitant about asserting actual knowledge, since with older histories and (historically) larger populations than Western religions, plus apparently real lower levels of persecution, there's at least as much variety in say Hinduism as there is in Christianity, and I haven't read the Vedas while I've read much of the Bible.  Still, I think I've picked up something, and, provoked by yesterday's reading on what Hindus think about Jesus, I wanted to dump out a caricatured view.

Judaism: the universe was created 6000 years ago (don't tell me Adam having an age of 963.4722 years was originally meant as a metaphor), and, after some bumpy periods where God tried to kill every man, woman, and child alive, the Jews were selected to be God's light unto the nations.  The Jews actually made it to major nations such as China and India, but AFAIK were never significantly noticed.  Nations such as the Mayas or Japan had to do without.

Christianity: building on the above, God then incarnates himself to go around healing a rather small number of sick people before getting crucified and resurrection, as a way of sending a "salvation or else!" message of barely-avoidable eternal torment to all of humanity living in a small province on the edge of the second biggest empire of the time.  Early Christians did make it to China and India where they were, again, ignored as one more wacky religious minority.  And again, people such as the Mayas, Japan, or the aborigines had to go without, at least for a millennium or so.

Islam: as above, but Jesus wasn't the son of God, just a great prophet, second only to Muhammad, who had the *real* Final Word of God, This Time We Mean It. 

Mormons: as above, only different.
So far, old hat, and standard atheist caricatures of religions -- often extended to all religions.  Which is actually my point, because a little learning suggest something else (after repeating caveats about how saying "what Hindus believe" is fairly risky):

Hinduism: there is no single point of creation; rather, the universe has always existed, as is vast if not infinite extent, with many worlds, and many cycles.  The Epicureans would be happy so far.  In inverted Epicurean logic, the Hindus argue that anything created must have an end and so an immortal soul must have an eternal history.  The current world is billions of years old (this is why I picked on the 6000 number; as far as I know, Hindus don't have to resort to "metaphor" in getting along with science here.)  With all this scale, the notion of any single or final revelation of God to Man is absurd: Hindus believe Krishna was a divine incarnation, but also so was Buddha, and Jesus, and Sri Ramakrishna in the 19th century.  All equal, all God.  Conversely, other Hindus don't say Jesus was an incarnation, but a Yogi -- not God come to Earth, but a man who touched Godhead.  Again, nothing unique about it, and it's only the ignorance of the West which makes it think so.  The oldest Veda, the Rig Veda, apparently has "there are many roads to God" right in it -- a marked contrast to the Judaic family.  India isn't the uniquely chosen holy land (though it has holy lands) but the country which has the most advanced Yogic science.  Instead of a finite lifetime leading to infinite reward and punishment you have karma and reincarnation, with multiple tries to re-achieving union with God.  (To the question of why souls got separated from God, one webpage simply said "we don't know".
Of course, they also have a caste system and burning widows alive on funeral pyres, and when I read about the putative infinite powers accessible to Yogis I immediately imagined what I or many friends would do with infinite power and a spark of compassion, like cure *all* disease victims, not just the ones I could touch.  (I alluded to this under Jesus, too: healing the sick and blind is apparently a PR or calling card thing, not an ongoing activity for the God of Infinite Love.)  But leaving aside the good old standby of theodicy, Hinduism just feels far less ridiculous in the sense of theological scale, with a big and old world, multiple revelations, no divinely favored center of or final time for revelations, a proportionate reward system.  There's probably still stuff to ridicule, stuff perhaps fixed in Buddhisms (plural deliberate), but some of the most egregious problems of scale and locality I have with the Abrahamic family aren't there.

And, woo, the melatonin is kicking in.  I hope this is somewhat coherent...



( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 13th, 2007 08:42 pm (UTC)
I think Eastern religions actually are suckier than Western ones. Sure, they sound nice in philosophical theory, but in practice the societies they stabilize are even worse, so they are a stronger poison with more deceptive packaging.

I mean, there is no doubt in my mind that I'd rather be a farmer in psycho-Lutheran Sweden than under the "enlightened" theocracy of the Dalai Lama.
Mar. 13th, 2007 10:34 pm (UTC)
I don't think I know enough about the mass of Eastern societies to evaluate claims like that. Yeah, I've heard Tibet was basically a monastic theocracy and sucked, and by comparing to Sweden I guess you're controlling for being cold and resource-poor. But you've got other differences -- landlocked mountains vs. highly coastal country, residual cultural influence from Norse pagan times in Sweden, a longer settled history in Tibet -- and other societies than Tibet: India's traditions of democracy, republics, and religious tolerance (including outright atheists); high literacy rates in non-Himalayan Buddhist countries, thanks to Buddhist elementary schools; saner attitudes towards sex. Other societies in Europe, too: Isabella's Spain; Russian serfs; Occupied Ireland. I don't know enough to integrate over all that.

I can see an argument for reincarnation doing even more to stabilize hierarchy than Christianity, since it not only gives a divine seal of approval but gives the lower class an expected stake in future lives. (And I've read Buddhism was disruptive in India because it cut across castes, and later you'd get conversions to Islam partly to escape caste effects.) But the actual effects? I don't know enough to know.
Mar. 14th, 2007 01:23 pm (UTC)
Well, India's religious tolerance might be most noted under the Moghul times. But they were Muslim, right?

Lamaism might be particularly lousy. Pre-revolutionary Mongolia sure doesn't seem to have been particularly enlightened.

What I'm saying is that I see no practical evidence that for the people at large or for general progress or indeed the development of democracy and some sort of freedom concept that Eastern religions would be better. Indeed, I think - given the wealth and population of the East - they may be worse because of how they stabilize an existing order and pacify the population with less egalitarian pretensions than Christianity and Islam sometimes have. I'm not an environmental determinist (though I do believe in environmental effects) so I have to believe that the belief systems, traditions and choices people develop have an effect on what their societies will look like.

Besides, you have the whole plethora of "spiritual" junk. Islam and Christianity sure has that too, but the very magnitude of such stuff infusing say, Hong Kong, is outright scary.
Mar. 17th, 2007 04:08 pm (UTC)
Part of my ideas of India's historical tolerance comes from Amartya Sen (himself an atheist, and critical of modern Hindu nationalism). There does seem to be an actual "many paths" line right in the Rig Veda, the very core of the religion, and I note that in 600 BC it was safe for the Carvaka to be openly atheist, while the otherwise similar Epicureans had those fig-leaf non-creator non-interventionist irrelevant but existent gods, perhaps to avoid being killed for atheism by Athens. Sen's got other evidence to marshall, as well. I've never heard of the Jews having problems in India; this might be my ignorance, but it's what I have to go on.

Lamaism may have been lousy, but that tells me more that theocracy is bad rather than that Buddhism is particularly bad. Is it worse than life under a powerful Catholic Church? I'm skeptical. And as I said earlier, I've read Buddhism had strong egalitarian effects relative to the caste system, though not permanent ones.

Oh, found my source on old Indian republics:

Spiritual junk: Catholic saint cults; American angels and Creationism.

I see your points, I think, and yes, the most democratic, progressive, and secular (well, maybe; South Korea and Japan seem pretty good) nations came out of the Christian area. I'm just rather skeptical that this is because of Christianity, at least in any clear way. Yeah, belief systems and choices matter -- but that can include choices made outside the religious context, too.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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