I’ll go ahead and throw it out on the table, because I want to be clear from the beginning. I am an atheist. I don’t think there is a supernatural force at play that comes anywhere close to some kind of father/parent/police figure hovering and presiding over existence. I know that you can get locked-in an argument about how can you really prove anything exists, and it’s a doozy to be sure. Sensory experience and thought/imagination certainly open up the doors for the possibility of things existing, but just feeling and knowing that these things are true on some level can be agonizing.
The level of truth we assign to these things can be achieved by at least two methods. Firstly, we can compare them to other things that we think are true, and arrive at a truth by comparison, or second, we can follow an emotional response that tells us it’s true, just because. These methods of thought are really the basis for how you approach the world, with those adhering to the former being your cynics, rationalists, skeptics, and nullifidians (love this word), and those adhering to the latter being your religious, believers, and the faithful. Perhaps this is a spectrum that is worth exploring, and make no mistake, both approaches can be deep and involve profound experience that warrants the many hours it can take you to arrive at…. well, more questions.
This is the problem with discussions on belief. I’ve already digressed, shamefully.
The point is, I don’t really see religion as a group, anymore, and this is great because it’s unifying. It’s Catholicism without the voodoo. People the world over are trying to make sense of everything they do by assigning truth to the ideas they have about what they do, every day. In order to make sense of these ideas, as stated in the last paragraph, they will employ a mix of those two methods of thought. To compare their ideas to other ideas, they’ll need to get them from somewhere. Books, TV, media, friends, and teachers, and these might all take on a particular flavor depending on geography and governance. We’re all familiar with the totalitarian regimes that attempt to control the free-flow of information, as your behavior needs to be manipulated and justified by approved ideas for the sake of obedience and stability.
When you see people the world over, doing this same thing, the tangible and pragmatic nature of the ‘group’ disappears. Nobody is doing the thinking for somebody else. You can be influenced by other people, sometimes strongly, but it’s your thinking that makes you you, no matter what method of thinking you employ. From here, it doesn’t make sense to have religious groups, you just have people making sense of their lives with what’s available. With this in mind, the problem can never be Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism – these are useless and arbitrary lines we draw when pretending to understand human behaviors, and ideas that we use to bolster a sense of identity when we need it. The problem is dangerous ideas and how they manifest in the mind.
The interesting thing about religious identity is that it can involve a lot of truth by comparison. But the core ideas, the ones that form the foundation for the entire faith, they are not established from truth by comparison. They are true just because. In my opinion the core beliefs are accepted at a later date than the first introduction to a particular set of ideas. If there’s something about the ideas you like – I enjoy the company of people at Church, I agree with the things Jesus (allegedly) said, Church has helped me to make sense of my life – these ideas become so meaningful that the core ideas that they are resting upon have to be true… just because. So while religion might not be useful as a group identity, it is certainly a great conceptual and cognitive tool for providing stability and understanding in one’s own life.