You can view the search for wisdom in religion in purely secular terms, and ground yourself in a cultural morality through it, but to reject the cultural wisdom of the Judeo-Christian world as some kind of ‘Sky man worship’ is the height of arrogance. The wisdom within is real, and it is bigger than are any of us. Even if the atheist is right and God is but a figment of mankind’s collective imagination, throwing out the collective wisdom that has evolved into the Judeo-Christian culture, which we might collectively call ‘the Enlightenment,’ is to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.
The same is of course true with other religions as well. Muhammed could not have billions of followers today were Islam devoid of wisdom, so of course wisdom is there. The question with Islam is one of how well it interacts with other religions and other cultural norms, and indeed, we can ask that of any culture and of any set of cultural norms. What I would say about religion in general, is that though the people who wrote our various holy texts may have been inspired by God, they were still recorded by people, and as such they are only as true as the people who wrote them could make them.
We also have the problem of interpretation. Every religion has multiple interpretations, and though we should of course try to interpret meaning as best as we are able to do so, we should always be open to the possibility that our interpretation may be imperfect.
If we want true wisdom, we would weigh our religious beliefs against other religions, for surely, given that all religions evolved and that all major religions believe in a single, all powerful, fully good God, there is more chance to find wisdom where religions agree than there is where they differ. Perhaps God inspired all of them. Whatever the case, an all-good God would not want harm to befall anyone, so I would suggest that any religious belief that entails harming other people should be considered highly suspect; I am 100% positive that God does not want us to harm one another. There may be times when it is necessary to harm others, but that necessity comes from people – not God – and I am going to go out on a limb and say that this is true of any major religion. People, by and large, do not want to be evil, and will gravitate toward good, when given a choice, so I do not believe it possible to build a large, lasting religion on hate. Whatever your religion is, if your beliefs encourage you to harm other people, your interpretation is wrong, and the paradox of a wholly good God telling you to harm others should give you more than a moment of pause. To justify violence on religious grounds is to presume that your religion is an absolute truth the way you interpret it, and if any religion had any interpretation that was absolute in truth, everyone would gravitate toward it, making violence in its name unnecessary. That, incidentally, is what we are told to expect in Heaven. On this world, we make due with something less than absolute truths. If you believe your interpretation of a religion to be an absolute truth, then you believe you are God, and if you believe someone else is an absolute authority, then you belief that person to be God. To believe in God is to believe that though there is an absolute truth out there, it is beyond our ability to fully comprehend. God is the absolute truth, and until God reveals truth to us, we’re just guessing as best we can.
Our religions in fact teach us that we cannot interpret them correctly. Look at any prophesy in any religious book that was later fulfilled. All of these stories share one important attribute: none of them were fulfilled in the way people at the time had expected. Not only is the fulfillment of every prophesy in every major religion a surprise in terms of when, exactly, it occurs, but also in specifically how it occurs. If mankind cannot interpret prophesies well enough to make predictions based on them with any level of accuracy, then how is it even remotely possible for us to claim to be able to interpret anything else with enough accuracy to call it absolute? More importantly, once you loose the right to claim truth as an absolute, you can no longer justify violence in anyone’s name but your own. Try squaring that with God the next time you think about blowing up a building.
I was in the Marine Corps and the US Army, and was in combat fields in both branches. I trained long and hard on many different ways to kill people, and had my country called upon me to do so, I would have. My justification would have been the belief that my country is larger than I am – it would have had nothing to do with God. When I hear people using, ‘God wills it,’ as justification for violence, I think, if an omnipotent God really wanted someone dead, He would not need the help of mankind to make it happen. I would never harm anyone on the basis that, ‘God wills it.’ If God wills it, my faith tells me that God is more than capable of carrying it out Himself. God wills love. God wills harmony. God wills compassion. To the degree that there is a universal truth (and there is even if none of us are able to fully find it), God wills us to work together to better our collective understanding of it, and we work together by teaching, by debating, perhaps even by arguing, but not by committing physical violence against one another. The idea that God can be wholly good while also willing man to kill man.. No! God does not will it, and if you are using God as an excuse to harm others, you are assuming God’s role and willing it yourself. There is nothing I am more sure of, from a personal perspective, a moral perspective, or a religious perspective, and there is no truth I believe to be more absolute than this one: God does not will mankind to kill mankind, and doing so in His name is probably the highest sin we are capable of committing.
If we can all learn to seek wisdom more so than truth from religion, and to respect the fact that there is invariably going to be a great deal of wisdom in any major religion, completely independently from how much truth there may be, we can then begin to build a more collective sense of wisdom, and in the process we can build a better world. In a sense our culture would embrace our differences through the realization that we are not really all that different at all. At the same time, the question of whether or not there is a God would become far less important, for we would see that the wisdom of His word transcends even that.
Update: I’m getting a lot of comments on Facebook that make it necessary for me to clarify the intent of this post. I’m not saying all religions are equal, and I am not conflating all religions together. I am merely pointing out that it would be impossible to get billions of people to follow a religion unless it had some grain of truth to it, and that as such, there must be some wisdom in any popular religion. As a Christian, obviously I think there is far more wisdom in the Christian Bible than there is anywhere else, but pushing Christianity was not the purpose of this post. The point was to get people (primarily atheists) to accept that there are good reasons to keep our culture intact, and to get anyone who happens to be an Islamic fundamentalist and who might read this, to hopefully see that any true Islam must be peaceful. If it is violent, then whatever the justification (and however justified it might be), it comes from mankind – not from God.