The Learning Of Knowledge

I wonder how much organised religion relies on not teaching things.

Us humans are awesome learners. We kind of have to be. Amongst all of the creatures placed upon this planet, we are born with the least amount of survival instincts, have the longest childhood and the most to learn to become a functioning adult. In short, we have to learn how to be a human being. This is unlike my cat, who was born with a raft of instincts peculiar and specific to her species. She doesn’t have to learn how to be a cat – just how to live in the world whilst being a cat, including living with me.

We also like to have some rules of society to follow, especially to interact with fellow humans. We don’t like all of them, but we know we need them. Things like what side of the road everyone should drive on, or how money works. Even language is one of those kinds of rules. Religion has also always been about rules. What you need to do or say to the gods so the river floods this year. What to wear when you visit a sacred space. Even what to think about those dastardly people in the next valley who everyone wished were a bit darker so they weren’t quite so similar looking to you and your neighbours.

The thing about rules, though, is that they usually require a ruler. Or at least a proxy. Kings, Emperors, Presidents. Barons, Dukes. Priests. They may not always like to admit it, but priests are – by definition – a proxy between the gods and the people. They carry messages from the people to the gods and messages from the gods to the people. Sometimes the latter are stories and that is where religions teach. Such teaching can range from how to respect the gods, all the way up to how the world is because The Gods Said So. Which means the latter becomes a problem when the world starts disagreeing,

I like learning about the world and have been doing that for many years, often by reading books. The latest is one written as a story set in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, with fiction by Terry interspersed with real science narrated by scientists Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart in a down-to-earth, chatty style. This is the fourth book that has been done like this, and they cover a lot of science. This latest one talks a lot about sciences often given little time in the mainstream, such as anthropology. It also wanders through some of the latest theories in biochemistry, too, like some possible scenarios about quite how some reasonably simple molecules could be self-organising enough to form the machinery of DNA. It’s complicated but it’s the sort of thing that us humans are driven to ask questions about.

Except when we’re not. And that brings us back to religion again.

Most Christian church-based teaching assumes and therefore teaches that the Bible is more-or-less accurate. This includes firm belief that there was a Noah, an ark and a flood, that Moses did indeed lead the children of Israel across Sinai, and so on and so forth. The church also reaps the products of a long line of thinkers and politicians, ranging from Augustine and Constantine to people like C. S. Lewis and N. T. Wright. And then neglects to teach the flock about them. That creates a vast body of dogma that pretty much has all the same provenance. That makes it difficult to question bits because a common reaction is to state that you’re questioning it all.

One of the reasons I left my church was because I’d run out of things for them to teach me. It took me many years to do that and I only really noticed it when I found ways other than the Sunday morning sermon to learn about my religion and its sacred books. But I was learning things that weren’t getting taught at church. Things the congregation had carefully been taught not to look for. History, scholarship and critical thinking. The experience reminds me of the old saying about when is the apprentice ready to leave master.

It was obvious when I suddenly realized the weekly sermon was repeating teaching I’d heard several times before over the decades. It got especially obvious when my Bible Study wanted to study the book of Jeremiah “directly”, which meant a) without a study guide and b) without any other literature. I wanted to explore the history of when and why it was written and what else was happening in Judah at the time. Everyone else was content to re-inforce what they already knew about the book.

So I left.

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