Religion, Faith, Filling Out a Form

Free-thinkers aren’t all they are cracked up to be. They follow rules, day in, and day out, but don’t admit to their slavishness. Their criticisms of organized worship are inconsistent.

I am of those who believe in one God, has a faith and who structures their life according to a set of rules, i.e. lives a religious lifestyle. The former is likely uncontroversial with many people. The latter is probably more likely to raise hackles. How can I live my life according to a set of rules? Why live my life according to a set of rules? What are these rules? Has someone really handed them down? What is the point?!

Typically, I will be portrayed as someone who is slavish, not to mind mad. Being mad is probably forgiveable. Slavishness is considered an unpardonable sin nowadays.

[Before I proceed, let me say I’ve had many of these conversations, they havent gone the way I’ve wanted in that I haven’t articulated myself the way I’ve wanted, I’ve gone away and had imaginary conversations with myself about what I should have said, and this blog post is like a big clearing house for all those imaginary conversations!!!! Anyway …]

What is my response? Well, at the most basic level, I follow the ‘rules’ because I believe in a hereafter – a good world here amidst the chaos of the world (which doesn’t mean its easy or glorious but more means that it is a fulfilling life) and a good world in the life to come – a good life here and after.

Now the ‘non-slavish’ people who mock me (as they are entitled to do) … I would question how free they are. A simple and uncontroversial example: let’s take bureaucracy. How many people nowadays fill in forms either through compulsion or through the hope of receiving some award, e.g. a tax break on earnings? They will choose the correct form or take care to tend to the correct form sent to them. Whether by compulsion or choice, they will follow the instructions, write with the correct pen, stay in the boxes and not go outside, file the form by the due date, sign, date, etc …, doing each and every step required. Is this not obeying and doing what one is commanded to do? I could easily find other examples, following rules at an airport, rules at a restaurant. Humans spend their lives being dictated to.

So, ok, they will say that they have been compelled, or choose to fill out the form with some material benefit in mind. And, after all, there are punishments if they don’t and rewards if they do! Simple!

So, let me get this straight: you won’t do something if you genuinely believe it to be the right thing to do or, alternatively, if you are convinced in your heart that faith requires you to follow these rules? On the other hand, you will obey down to the minutest detail instructions to fill out a form because of fear of immediate punishment or because of hope for immediate reward? Sounds like slavishness to me!

But no, I don’t blame you for filling out your form. I fill out forms. I do so because I fear immediate punishment and/or hope for an immediate reward for not doing/doing so. However, I would like to think that the limit of my actions are not that of a simple calculation of rewards and punishments. Furthermore, I don’t think its a case of ‘one cannot serve two masters.’ Someone could have rule-bound religious habits and also rule-bound secular habits but those of the rule-bound religious ones (if followed consistently which we must assume) prevent someone from following things by the secular arm that go against their conscience – maybe not in all cases, but there is a higher chance.

In fact, I believe that many people who are critical of religion actually understand deep down that there has to be some belief that goes beyond merely doing what you are compelled or incentivized to do by a government or some private organization, that there are higher purposes to our actions. Just about everyone likely subscribes to this belief, except for criminals who do what they want or completely irresponsible individuals who are out of control. And the odium they generate for not following the same rules as everyone else – for being a ‘law unto themselves’ – is proof enough that people reject non-slavish behaviour as reprehensible.

So, maybe our sceptic will say that they want to do good but they don’t need to follow a set of rules and rituals. After what I have said, they may admit to being less brazen about how they live their life than the criminal or irresponsible, but still would claim that in the spheres where there is no tangible reward or punishment they yet would do the ‘right’ thing without being tied to institutional decrees or orders.

And, one can at least give a psychological theory here for the opposition to regular and rule-based worship. People feel so constrained by their slavishness to a government or governmental agency that they are jealous to guard a sphere of freedom for themselves at all costs. With the lack of power that many religions have today, religious people present themselves as easy targets.

Someone following their own anarchic morality may indeed conscientiously object to something ordered by the secular arm. But given that their independence of any organizing principles is nothing special (because they are slavish generally in worldly things) the fact that they admit that a purely worldly slavishness is inadvisable all the time, it seems rather absurd to juxtapose a supposedly free and easy lifestyle to one that demands discipline and order regardless of the immediate pay-off. It really is nothing to boast about, being slavish for penal or economic reasons, but rejecting slavishness that is based on conscience. In reality, religious people are following their conscience 24/7, a ‘free-thinker’ only where their conscience can’t be silenced. What is so great about being a ‘free-thinker’?

But anyway, in the heel of the hunt, we have seen that all except the most criminal and irresponsible (whose behaviour is odious) would accept there are higher ideals to live for. If that is so, where do these ideals come from? Is it really the case that we can just dismiss this source of higher ideals? Isn’t it likely that this higher source has created us for a purpose and purpose implies structure and that means rules, regulations, order, etc …?

… and slavishness! But, hey, you cant have two masters. And, as Dylan said: “you gotta serve somebody.”

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