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Jul 21 2012

Is Religion a Rorschach Test?

Religious texts can be interpreted in an almost infinite variety of ways. What do different religious beliefs tell us about the believers?

Talk to a hundred different believers about what God is like, and you’ll get a hundred different answers.

Take, as the most familiar example to most Westerners, Christianity. Ask one Christian about what God is like, and she’ll tell you of a strict, punitive authority figure: a creator and enforcer of rules, with clear ideas of right and wrong, a firm expectation that everybody should follow them — and harsh, intractable punishment for those who don’t toe the line.

Ask another Christian, and you get a different picture entirely: a loving parent, occasionally firm but mostly gentle and supportive, giving you lots of latitude to find your own path, who only wants you to be happy and to be your own best self.

Other Christians — notably deists and theistic evolutionists — see God as a sort of hands-off manager: initially founding the business of the Universe, intervening now and then to make sure things run smoothly, but mostly just sitting back and letting his creation run itself. And still others see God as an impersonal abstraction, an intellectual ideal, the encapsulation in metaphysical form of ideals such as love and morality.

Why do these images of God vary so much?

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Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Is Religion a Rorschach Test? To find out my thoughts on what different religious beliefs tell us more about the character of the believer — and why it’s better to take responsibility for our own values, instead of fooling ourselves into thinking they come from God — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

8 comments

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  1. 1
    Steve

    People have always created their gods in their own image

  2. 2
    jheartney

    One of my favorite cartoons about mutually exclusive Xtian God concepts:

    http://www.thepaincomics.com/weekly070307a.htm

  3. 3
    savoy47

    A case could be made that religion originated out of the Rorschach effect.

    Everyone at the dawn of human existence could see the shapes and faces in the clouds. It seems reasonable and more favorable for survival, to assume that a powerful “life-like” force was at work than not.
    Camouflaged hunters and prey in the jungle are similar to the fleeting
    views of the powerful sky dwellers. It would also seem reasonable that the best way to interact with the cloud people would be the same way they interacted with other tribes.

    Life is dependent on finding and exploiting needed resources. The most valuable of all possible resources would therefore be the ability to barter and gain favor with the cloud tribe. The second most valuable resource is the ability to convince people that you are in possession of the first.

    Religion is the condensate of endless futile efforts to barter and negotiate favor with the gods. The placebo effect, conformation bias and the law of averages provided enough “evidence” that their efforts were paying off. Lacking a disproof of gods these efforts will endure forever. Religion stems from the drive to acquire resources. Heaven is the place where all the resources that will ever be needed, are there for you.

  4. 4
    viaten

    It seems to me people mostly want to believe in an God they think will see them to an afterlife. Variations in beliefs about God are accepted as long as others also see afterlife in the Rorschach test and are not a threat to the religion.

  5. 5
    Cujo359

    I’ve certainly used that line often enough. People get out of their religions what they want to. I haven’t noticed it mattering much which religion we’re talking about, though it might. In the end, most major religions have enough philosophy associated with them that folks can pretty much pick and choose what they want to believe, or they can ignore the philosophy and just send a check.

  6. 6
    Nemo

    Wait, how can a deist be a Christian, or vice versa?

  7. 7
    Leo

    I think you should let this be a Christian-specific piece, not generalise this point to all religion. All your examples are about Christianity and potential converts shopping around for a religion. This happens in other religions too, especially Islam, but you don’t give specific examples. And there are huge counterexamples: Judaism is all about picking everything apart and interpreting it and justifying the interpretation and commenting on it.

    Nemo (#6): Jefferson was a Christian deist. I suppose it’s about believing in a version of Jesus who hasn’t interfered with Earth much in the last 2012, only listening to prayers and making a small intervention now and then.

  8. 8
    hall-of-rage

    Basically what Leo said. Obviously in any discussion of religions’ flaws, we can’t let Christianity off the hook. But assuming you do know enough to include other religions as well among your examples, you should do so. All the people of non-Christian religions I know, even my atheist Jewish roommate, are tired of having “religion” be generalized from “Christianity.”

    I was talking to a theist friend of mine who does take responsibility for her own morality and believes in a god because it comforts her and keeps her going; she was surprised to hear that there were lots of theists who don’t acknowledge that they created their own god-images. I’m astounded by that…but education all ’round is good.

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