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Religion and Personal Responsibility

Freedom an Existential Point of View

I’ve written before about ethics and morality and the idea that one may be ethical without being religious.

Religion serves an important function in peoples’ lives in many ways. And I have no problem with that until religion advocates an abdication of personal responsibility. I respect the degree of faith that people have and sometimes wish I had that level of faith. When my father was in his last months he found great comfort from the rabbi’s visits to our house.

My wife, who is Catholic, believed that having our kids go to Sunday school and attend Sunday services fairly regularly, helped them develop their sense of right and wrong, or the ethics by which they live their lives. They are not now practicing Catholics but are extremely good and ethical adults and have a strong sense of right and wrong; but neither are religious at all.

I’m pretty sure my sons’ attendance at Sunday school and church didn’t hurt them. And I think my wife was correct in that early church activities and attendance helped with their ethical development, along with what they learned from our teaching and modeling, Cub Scouts, school, sports, and interaction with their friends.

I am with Holy Man, India 1978

In my travels and work in other countries I’ve experienced a sampling of the vast palette of the world’s religions. I’ve been to Mosques and Hindu and Buddhist temples all over Southeast Asia, China and India, and Anglican churches in Australia and New Zealand. Living in Singapore I’ve attended Muslim weddings and funerals. (The weddings were a lot more fun). I’ve attended Thaipusan, a Hindu holiday celebrated only in Singapore, Malaysia, and in Fiji where the participants stick hooks through their flesh.

Thaipusan 1988 in Singapore

My Chinese neighbors in Singapore celebrated the festival of the Hungry Ghosts. And we even rescued our dog that had been abandoned at a small Chinese temple in Singapore. (Please see my blog post: “Sitka, A Dog’s Story”) In Iran I saw the beautiful mosques in Isfahan, Qom, and Tabriz, and in Afghanistan I saw ancient, crumbling mosques. All of these structures were built by humans to celebrate man’s faith in the supernatural and unknowable.

But I’ve also seen faith in God become destructive and I’m not talking about religious wars, intolerance, and persecution. Those are huge issues on their own. No, in this post I’m talking about giving up personal responsibility to God. When I was still in high school back in Nebraska, a friend of mine was from a Christian Science family. His little brother got sick and died from appendicitis because his parents believed that God would heal him through their prayer, and they didn’t take him to the doctor and hospital for a relatively easy operation. Well, of course their prayer didn’t work, and my friend lost his little brother because of Christian Science theology.

That incident, along with similar ones, make me wonder why people believe in God. It is one of the many reasons I minored in philosophy when I did my Masters degree in English. After all of these years I still wonder why. Recently I read an interesting piece on the internet: “7 Reasons People Believe in God” by Austin Cline.

I found the piece quite interesting and recommend reading it. Cline writes that among the reasons for people believing in God are family pressure and social indoctrination, and of course the fear of death. Religion provides answers to many of life’s questions and gives people hope in a complicated and often terrible world.

One reason Cline mentions is an aspect of religion with which I’ve always had a problem and is the focus of this blog post. That problem is embodied in the story of my friend’s family, and it is the abdication of responsibility and fear of freedom. Cline writes:

One of the most disturbing aspects of many people's religious beliefs is the manner in which these beliefs make it possible for believers to avoid taking personal responsibility for what's going on. They don't have to be responsible for ensuring that justice is done because God will provide that. They don't have to be responsible for solving environmental problems because God will do that. They don't have to be accountable for developing strong moral rules because God has done that. They don't have to be responsible for developing sound arguments in defense of their positions because God has done that.

Reading Cline’s words above remind me of the bumper sticker: Let Jesus Take the Wheel.. The obvious reference is for Jesus to take over for us; we don’t have to be responsible or in control. It was also the justification for not taking my friend’s little brother to the doctor. They believed that God would take care of him. Faith would heal him. Yeah, let Jesus take the wheel and see how that works out for you

I understand why people think this way. The world is complicated. People feel overwhelmed and that they have lost control. Belief in a higher power that “can take the wheel” is comforting. But to believe such a thing to the point they abdicate their free will—to give up on the fact that they can do anything themselves--to give up on the fact that they are responsible for what happens--relieves them of guilt and responsibility and puts it all on God. Such a feeling may be comforting yet is misleading and dangerous.

One of the reasons I was attracted to existential philosophy is because at its heart it places so much emphasis on freedom. Man is free. Man is free to create but must take responsibility for what he creates. As I studied the writings of Sartre, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Camus I realized the wonderful and terrible aspects of existential freedom.

Sartre says that man is the sum total of the choices/decisions he’s made. In other words, the being (man/woman) creates itself. Initially I found that to be an awesome belief; I am free. Then as my understanding matured and I understood how Sartre and the other writers point out the terrible responsibility that goes along with that freedom. If one creates something terrible then that being is responsible for it. Sartre discusses this in depth when he writes about “being-in-the-world.” We are responsible for what we create and for how it influences others.

Most of existential thinkers are atheist. On the other hand, Soren Kierkegaard was extremely religious. Still, he wrote about freedom with the idea that God knows what He wants us to do but He won’t do it for us. It is up to us to find what God wants us to do. The idea of freedom and responsibility are still present.

I don’t advocate people becoming existentialists,

Atheist, theist, religious, or not. The important thing to remember is that we can’t depend on whatever god we believe in to take care of everything. We must take care of ourselves.

I will write more on philosophy, specifically existentialism in future posts.

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