25 October 2009

Religion without a god

Extract from Atheism Explained: From Folly to Philosophy (Ideas Explained) by David Ramsay Steele:

Buddhism. None of the sects of Buddhism accepts the existence of an all-powerful Creator God. Most Buddhists believe in the existence of devas, beings with powers far more exalted than anything human, and having little to do with humans. Like humans, devas may misbehave and be reincarnated as lower life forms. Buddhists have traditionally held that the universe has existed and will exist for ever.

Jainism has about fifteen million members, in several differ­ent sects. It's an old religion dating back to ancient India, though most members are now outside India. Jains have always been noted for strict morality, asceticism, and dedication to learning. They explicitly reject the concept of a Creator or controller of the universe. They hold that the universe has existed for infinite time, going through repeated cycles which will continue for ever. Jains will not usually reject the word 'God', but will define it in terms of abstract qualities rather than a conscious agent. Similarly, they appear to worship their tirthankaras (great sages of the past), but will always insist that they do not worship these individuals, only the virtues they embody.

Daoism is a traditional Chinese religion. Its two main scriptures are the Daodejing and the Juangzi. Daoism is concerned with human life, personal and social. The (or Dao 'way') is the natural flow of things. Daoism has no concept of worship and no concept of salvation. Its central tenet is wu wei or non-interference: violent, invasive action will pro­duce more problems than it solves.

Confucianism is a system of beliefs in which a very vague reference to 'heaven' plays a small part, nothing like the cen­tral part of 'God' in 'the Abrahamic faiths. Confucians emphasize right conduct, which to Westerners often seems more a matter of etiquette than of morality.

'Chinese traditional religion' refers to beliefs currently held by most Chinese (nearly a fifth of the world's popula­tion). It's largely an amalgam of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, along with some 'folk beliefs' that are not specif­ically Confucian, Daoist, or Buddhist. What is called 'ances­tor worship' is an element in traditional Chinese thinking, but it does not necessarily commit its followers to the the­ory that the deceased ancestors are still conscious.

Falun Gong is a new religion, with about one hundred million followers, based on the writings of 'Master' Li Hongzhi. It has been banned in China since 1999. Most of the beliefs concern qigong, the traditional breathing exer­cises associated with Buddhist and Daoist meditation. Li has expressed views about the malign influence of aliens and about distant and finite 'gods', but these views are not paid much attention by rank and file practitioners of Falun Gong, who are mainly concerned with raising their consciousness, improving their health, and behaving morally.

Shinto is the traditional folk-religion of Japan. Most Japanese follow both Buddhism and Shinto to some extent, often merely ceremonial (at weddings and funerals). Even today, more than ninety-five percent of Japanese have no contact with classical theism or anything close to it. Shinto involves recognition of numerous gods "the eight million gods"-though 'nature spirits' might be a more accurate rendering of the Japanese word 'kami'. As in many forms of non-Abrahamic religion, there are virtually no demands on what an individual personally believes. Shinto has little in the way of a distinctive morality: elaborate traditional Japanese morality comes mainly from Confucianism.

Christian atheism is something that springs up from hun­dred different places. The Death of God Theology of the 1960s has been influential, but mainly confined to theolo­gians. The best expression of popular Christian atheism is Don Cupitt's book, Taking Leave of God. Christian atheists work within many traditional denominations, though many find themselves most at home in the Unitarian Universalist churches.

Unitarian Universalists have their historical roots in Christianity. Unitarians were Christians (such as Arius, fourth C.B. ) who denied that Christ was God and rejected century C.B.) the Trinity. Universalists (such as Origen, third century were Christians who believed that all souls, even Satan him­self, would eventually be saved. In the U.S., Unitarians 1961. However, they also accepted and Universalists united in into their ranks people who did not believe in God or an after­life. They no longer define their denomination as specifically. Christian. A recent survey of the labels Unitarian Universalists choose to apply to themselves (respondents were permitted to give more than one answer) came up with the following per­centages: Humanist, 54 percent; Agnostic, 33 percent; Earth-centered, 31 percent; Atheist, 18 percent; Buddhist 16.5 percent; Christian 13.1 percent; Pagan, 13.1 percent.

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