Sunday, September 30, 2012

The destiny of the unevangelized, and the incompetently evangelized

One of the strongest objections to any faith system claiming Universality is the destiny of the unevangelized -- simply put, it is troubling to claim that only those who hold a certain belief will reap an afterlife reward -- and those who do not hold such belief will instead be punished with an afterlife of suffering -- where it is demonstrable that some number of people will have lived and died without ever even hearing of the belief. This, indeed, presents one of the major divides within individual religions, with believers fervently arguing for one position on the issue or the other, to the point of schism and bloody internecine religious war.

Perhaps more troubling still, there is the gray area of those who heard some snippet or other of this claimed 'one true' belief, but were presented it incompletely or incompetently, so that they were in no position to form a reasoned judgment about the relative logic of it while they lived. Indeed, where decisions are made based on imperfect information, it must become a very delicate art indeed to assert that one person over another has information perfect enough to make a decision upon.

The idea of admission to the positive afterlife based on "works" at least disposes of the problem of the unevangelised (and the less-discussed corollary of the incompetently evangelised), as one of the major failings of theistic faiths. But, such an idea disposes as well of the notion that one must have the correct belief, and so undermines the notion of one religion especially being the truth. Perhaps more devastatingly, as religious edifices go, it undermines the argument for funding and empowering a lavishly appointed priest-class.

And as to those who hear some piece of evangelism, it is quite possible that more people come to altogether reject the idea of a given "God," or of any especial iteration thereof, due to the offensive showing made by various theistic adherents, than due to any inherent objection which might be made against the idea itself. And just as clearly, there are at least some theists much prefer to experience the smug self-satisfaction of thinking they've won an argument via some fine point of theological wordplay than to experience something like actually helping the needy. So, if there was a God who punished anyone, it ought to first be thought to punish its own errant followers for setting such a shameful and repulsive example that their brutish conceit drives the multitude away from their professed deity.

The problem of the offensive missionary:

Picture this: a young missionary of one of the claimedly universal faiths (and I cite no especial example of a faith -- though I certainly could cite many out of personal experience) steps off the boat and onto a remote South Pacific island, one never before subject to any sort of evangelism. Previous visitors to the isle had only stopped to trade and survey, never to spread any faith, and so the natives are completely unaware that any religion exists other than their own local traditions, most likely some mix of reverence for nature and veneration of ancestors, passed down to them for thousands of generations. The people of this island speak no English; the missionary counts on miraculous intervention to supplement his communications, and so has learned but a few sentences in a language spoken by the next nearest islanders, presumed to have a common root. This missionary immediately takes to berating the natives for their failure to conform to his own moral preferences. Perhaps, based on his own errant religious instruction, he insists that the the natives will be condemned to eternal punishment because they wear nothing above the waist, or because they engage in work on a certain day of the week, or fail to engage in prayer on another. Perhaps this missionary declares that all of the marriages on the island are illegitimate because none, before his arrival, have conformed with his understanding of the appropriate ceremony. But shortly, he has given an absurd impression to the natives, who politely shoo him off their island at the next opportunity, resolved that the belief system peddled by this unprepared interloper is nonsensical, and thusly declining further missionary visitations.

Are these natives now to be deemed well-enough versed in the religion so poorly evangelized to them to be liable for eternal damnation, should they reject it? Are their children so liable, if the previous generation opts not to bother sharing the story? And, would it be at all fair for a deity to punish the nonbelieving native, and yet not punish the missionary whose conduct caused this affirmative state of nonbelief? And this problem is not limited to the isolated islands, for even in the hearts of the populations of crowded continents, there are countless preachers of countless faiths and sects and interpretations establishing a cacophony of assurances and accusations, threats and finger-pointing, enough to propel any sane man to tune out the claims of religion altogether (even those claims which might, on quiet reflection, be reasonable and defensible).

The problem of the isolated planet:

And beyond this, it stands to reason that if it's expectable for a deity to create some people (isolated tribes, etc) who never hear the true word, then it could create an entire planet of people who never hear the true word. And yet, it has been our experience in finally encountering those long-isolated tribes that they tended to have independently developed a theological model all their own, perhaps an animistic or polytheistic one, perhaps one with pantheistic or pandeistic or purely deistic overtones. And, naturally, just maybe, though extremely rarely in practice, it may be one with all the trimmings of monotheism. And so there might be another planet out there where some intelligent life has come to the fore and set forth a civilization with a level of knowledge and technology and sophistication of social institutions to rival our own. And, indeed, such a civilization, though not privy to any of the thousands of 'true' faiths professed on Earth could easily have as many 'true' faiths, as many doctrines and debates and deicides. And adherents to any faith on this alien world might be every bit as assured, every bit as fervent in their beliefs, as any Earthbound believer.

But here's the catch.

If it is possible that a 'true' deity may have revealed itself once, to one group, without bothering to provide for isolated groups to learn the truth encapsulated in its revelation, then perhaps we are as a planet such an isolated group. For one cannot reasonably postulate a deity capable of allowing an entire planet to wallow in ignorance and false faith without confessing that ours might be that planet. And in the same stroke, one ought to admit that, if there is a "one true faith" that all people are intended to discover, then all theistic faiths claiming universality are proved false by those who have lived and died without hearing of such faiths. Instead, what can be called true must be what can be discerned from a logical examination of our world, even by those who have never heard a word of any scripture.

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