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I Believe . . .

It appears there has been a recent proliferation of books published (none of which I have read) on the subject of defending or promoting atheism or giving the case against religion and an even greater number of words written about them in reviews, newspaper articles and journals, of which I have skimmed a few. My main wonder is what all the fuss is about.

Except for creationists or similar it is generally accepted that the Universe, of which Earth is one tiny speck, has been around for many billions of years. Of the approximately two million years that humans  in some form have inhabited the earth, it is only a few thousand years ago that their development led some groups to believe they could influence nature by offering prayers and/or sacrifices. Eventually there developed the various religions as we know them around the world today which recognise either many gods, one god or none at all.

The Peters World Atlas 2002 reveals interesting statistics. The ‘one god’ school has numbers for Christianity at 22 percent and Islam 11 percent with Hinduism (many deities) at 10 percent. This shows 43 percent of the world’s population have belief in a religion which recognises a god or gods. Interestingly there is no mention of Judaism because it accounts for less than 1 percent of world population. A search on the web shows Judaism to be ranked 12th with about 14 million adherents worldwide which is less than ¼ percent of world population. With other religions factored in, Buddhism 5 percent (no concept of God), Confucianism 3 percent (ethical principles and no hereafter), ‘Natural’ religions 4 percent and Shintoism 1 percent (worship of ancestors and nature), it is shown that there is about 43 percent of the world’s population with no theist faith at all.

Historically coercion has been used to persuade the masses to accept one religion or another. Military coercion in the form of raids and invasions to expand territory resulting in gradual conversion of populations, economic coercion in the form of higher taxes for non-adherents and political coercion as in England between Catholic and Protestant monarchs and later in communist states where all religion was supposedly banned. Helping to keep the masses under the control of the elites included such threats as excommunication, fear of not winning a place in heaven – or worse, everlasting hell, or even death by execution for reneging on the faith as during the Catholic Inquisition and also in Islam.

Presumably much of the egocentricity in the west, with so much emphasis on the three religions of the same god, Yahweh, God and Allah (together accounting for 33 percent of world-wide population), is geographical. In India the antagonism is mainly between Hinduism and Islam. Different locations reveal different local problems as currently in the Middle East between Islam and Judaism and also the sectarianism problems between Shi’a and Sunni.

Wherever the accident of birth sees each child born, each individual is born totally dependent and without language or religion. A child develops speaking the language of its home. A child raised in a religion-free zone will not acquire religious knowledge. For this to occur it would need to be exposed habitually to ideas, concepts and beliefs by those around it. How many people make a conscious choice of religion and how many simply continue with what they were born into as part of their traditional culture, religious or not?

As evolution marched on there came a point when this particular species – human kind – developed the power of thought, separating it forever from other species. Then came the questions. Why? What does it all mean? What is life’s purpose? Perhaps this is where the divergence between believers (in a theist sense) and believers (in a non-theist sense) causes the greatest difficulties. Religionists usually talk of atheists or those without religion in a negative sense as if they have no belief or have rejected their (the religionists’) notions of a god. I see it a different way. As an atheist I do have belief, – it is a positive belief – in the universe as it is, as it evolved and as it will continue to do. I could accuse the religionists of denigrating my belief when they say that isn’t enough, but why bother, I don’t need their validation.

I believe we don’t need to be intellectuals, philosophers, academics, students of theology or popular authors to know how we feel about religion and why we feel the way we do about world issues.

I believe that we should try to leave the world a better place than the one into which we were born.

JANET SURMAN