However much it might seem otherwise, there is not the slightest hint of tongue in cheek in this presentation of the Fundamental Axioms of Religion. I am dead serious. Each of these axioms is there for a reason, after all. In general, the fundamental reason is the socio-memetic process of evolution that led the religion to be successful and survive the stiff competition with other religions.
The first axiom is pretty obvious. How far would any religion get if it went around saying something like: ``These holy scriptures are pretty much what Isaiah and Moses and the rest of the boys sat around and made up one day over a tasty cup of fermented grape juice while trying to get the Chosen People to follow them and do what they needed them to do so that they didn't get slaughtered by the Philistines or the Egyptians or the Assyrians or the Phoenicians or the Romans or any other barbaric outsiders, and they kind of made sense in a lot of ways and seemed to work for a desert culture with at best primitive medicine and limited natural resources, so the Chosen People kept them.''
``We hope you like them and adopt them too in spite of the fact that there isn't a lot of danger from the Assyrians any more and we don't live in the desert and have modern medicine. We'll even make you an honorary Chosen Person if you do, and we think that however much you suffer for your Beliefs, you'll probably Get your Reward in Heaven.'' No, to survive in any competition with more assertive religions, a religion needs to be assertive itself. It needs the Prime Axiom and will state it any number of times just to make sure that no possible reader of the scriptures can possibly miss the point that the axioms are true without doubt, and that to even think the word ``probably'' or ``maybe'' is a Sin and to think words like ``doubt'' or ``maybe not'' is a big Sin.
The second axiom is actually almost never openly stated, openly written down. God is generally portrayed at least to the masses as a Human, just a Super Human10.15. This worked well enough when the ``world'' of most humans' experience was at most a few weeks travel in any given direction - perhaps a thousand miles square. A million square miles is a lot of territory, but is very definitely finite, and religions almost without exception placed this territory square in the center of all creation, usually quite literally with the rest of the Universe revolving around it10.16.
It doesn't work so well for a visible Universe some twenty-seven billion light-years across, where a light year is around six trillion miles. Hmmm, a bit of multiplication suggests a spherical radius of around miles, a volume on the order of cubic miles, and there is no real reason to believe that we are in the center, or even that there is a center per se10.17, so the volume could go on, and on, and on. Real infinity (or even Really Big Numbers that like to flirt with infinity on their days off) are a bit scarier, and the notion of this really really big male human figure that is bigger still that this volume - infinitely bigger, even including its invisible, possibly infinite, extension - starts being really kind of laughable. Especially if you take that ``in his image'' stuff seriously and envision God as having human-style genitalia10.18.
So the omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent thing are generally inferred from scriptures that are less explicit than this or from obsequious10.19 prayers that generally praise His infinite power and wisdom and presence 10.20and from the prominently displayed conclusion that whatever God is, He Made All This. Including us. Usually with a fairly explicit and completely unbelievable (but divinely inspired and hence beyond question) story about just how he did it.
This is just as well, because one gets into such trouble with all of the above and Gödel and even plain old logic. Logic hates absolutes, because they are so easily led into contradiction and paradox and besides, nobody ever states the absolute premises correctly. It isn't ``All men are mortal'', it is properly ``All men who have already presumably died were, as far as we know or have heard about, mortal, and we suspect that there is a rule that will eventually cause all men living to die too''. Of course this doesn't sound anywhere nearly as impressive without the absolute all. Religion has a double handful of trouble with these axiomatic properties of God. For example, being omniscient, God knows of all real Evil. Being omnipotent, he could end it. Being omnibenevolent, he wants to end it, that being the kind of thing an omnibenevolent being might oughta do, and we certainly spend an awful lot of prayer time on God asking him to do that which in principle his omnibenevolent nature would have him doing without being asked. The truth is, we don't believe that God is all of those things or we would never pray for anything at all - we would be quietly certain that all things are for the best10.21.
Yet Evil apparently exists10.22. Yep, there is a real problem there, one that no amount of ``and it all works out in the wash'', or ``God permits Evil because without Evil there could be No Free Will'' makes all better, at least not to anyone who experiences misfortune or human Evil directed at their own person or the persons of their loved ones.
The same problem exists with the concept of the devil, the anti-God proposed in many religions both to provide dramatic tension and as a source of, as the prime cause of Evil10.23. Supposing that the Devil10.24 exists, he (presuming that it is somehow masculine) exists because God Made Him. If he has free will (an Evil free will, of course) it has it because God willed it, both the freedom and the Evil. God could unwill him at any instant. Even retroactively to the beginning of time, since God must live outside of ordinary time.
In fact, if God is truly omnipotent, then any act of creation or uncreation is little more than a whim - it cannot require any energy- or matter-like finite resource unless God is bound into the stuff of the Universe, with a ``physics'' of Its own, and necessarily less than omnipotent etc.
Truthfully, God in Its most abstract concept as the bearer of these infinite properties has a hard time doing anything at all, as change implies a state of less than perfection (in physics or elsewhere) and besides, time itself is just another dimension of the Universe and not the kind of thing to which God as an infinite being could be bound. In some sense I ``like'' the notions portrayed in the Vedas, that God in this sense is timeless and motionless, a state of pure being, and that for anything interesting to happen this being has to split itself into parts and create time, duality and change so that anything at all fun can actually happen. Of course with the fun comes its dual twin, not-fun.
So perhaps scripture is wise to stay away from this. It fails to show us the Face of God except where that face is anthropomorphic at worst or plain old Human at best. The Holy Ghost, the Atman, the Soul of God, is left unspoken, undescribed save indirectly and in hushed tones and by the elect and the daring, and otherwise left to be a mystery to us all. The religious superorganism has a soul, after all, and that soul is God for better or worse, and as such is just as indescribable as your own soul, for all that you experience it10.25.
Which leads us to the axiom of prophetic revelation. Religions have a serious problem even given axioms 1 and 2 (which God knows justify absolutely any drivel10.26 in the known Universe being inserted as unchallengable fact if you take them seriously). How do the scriptures get from God to Humans?
Well, one perfectly reasonable way would be for God to manifest Itself directly to each human person and, every time they Sin, whack them in the buttocks with a holy lightning bolt while stating in thunderous tones what their Sin was. If they are blasted away into smoke, so what? God can reassemble the smoke in the blink of an eye into a properly chastened human10.27. God has plenty of capacity for timesharing, after all - infinite capacity. Or he could just manifest himself as a white haired old man an in a gentle tone describe the torments in eternal fire that await them should they persist in their Evil Ways10.28.
However, this would, apparently, be too easy. Even I in all my doubt would have a hard time doubting a personal agent who could routinely generate lightning bolts aimed at my more delicate parts whenever I thought Bad Thoughts, or if a pair of Personal Angels manifested themselves right as some girl bent on Wickedness with me permitted me to get to third base and began, in quavering tones, to tell each of us individually of the rich punishments that would await us if we persist. No such luck.
No, God reveals his holy scripture through - wait for it - humans. Holy Prophets, actually. Or Rishis, or Gods Themselves but in a human avatar, sometimes to one of the masses, sometimes just to the elect. These carefully selected humans - some of whom were ``good'' before their selection and a few of whom were ``bad'' before their selection - are given Holy Truths and are expected to preach them, to write them down, to cause them to be given the Holy Stamp of Approval, and eventually to make the cut into Scripture, the memetic blueprint of the religion itself.
This leads to all sorts of problems, as one might expect10.29. For one thing, Religion A's prophets are Religion B's blasphemers and heretics (and vice versa) , almost by definition. Common humans are simply expected to be able to tell the true religion on the basis of axioms 1 and 2, on pain of posthumous torment (or in some cases prehumous torment, in the event that you choose B and fall into A's hands) should you choose incorrectly.
I can only put myself into the place of one of the prophets or saints, say, Joan of Arc. I hear voices in my head (I do hear voices in my head, it is part of how I think or am able to sing along with the radio while I drive). How do I know those voices are ``me'' (whatever the heck that is) or ``God'' (ditto, actually) or ``delusions associated with undiagnosed schizophrenia''?
Prophets and saints rely on preternatural knowledge which is another way of saying that they just ``know'' that the voices in question are those of God. Joan of Arc knew that God wanted the French to slaughter the English more than He wanted the English to slaughter the French; God wanted there to be a few more centuries of bloody war in Europe. Sure. But Joan was a bit too close to the heretical even for the Church and in those days excommunications was just the beginning of the surgery on the body religious when cancer was discovered...
Anybody out there who thinks that people who ``know'' they are always right are ever likely to be always right a) are not married; b) have no kids; c) have never taught; d) really mean to add ``when they agree with me''. You all are invited to visit any website (Google will provide you with dozens) devoted to the real-time prophecies of every religious would-be-prophet, borderline personality and undiagnosed schizophrenic in the country. Well, at least those that have access to the Internet and the particular delusion that God is talking to them personally all of the time and warning them about the evils of radio towers and the need to get Orgone Blasters to ward off the devil10.30.
I myself really cannot even judge; what they hear is in their heads, I only hear what is in my own. I'm pretty sure that the only voice I hear inside my own head is me, even when I'm talking to myself with one part of me gaming out God's position on Things using that axiomatic reasoning thing and some assumptions I can live with. But then, when I predict that 2005 will have a cold winter (as will most years for the next thirty years or so) I rely on a knowledge of Gleissberg cycles and Maunder-type minima and not prophetic dreams. And I don't dream of or prophecy two really bad hurricanes hitting in November because that is just dumb, however impressive it would be if it ever happened and I prophecied it. Bet on enough long shots, sooner or later one will come home, eh, and then the fact that you've lost your house, your wife, your job, and are living underneath a bypass somewhere from all the best you lost will all be forgotten.
For another, these ``prophets'' of whom they speak, they are human beings are they not? Now I have a hard time convincing myself that the world I see is really there - I have to think about it a bit10.31, as it might not be so. If I work through it all and decide ``yes, the world I see is Real Indeed'' then my next step is to figure out what I know or can deduce about it from various possible sets of axioms. I work through that and choose Science as the basis for the personal knowledge of my own faith because it appears to work and openly embraces my state of doubt. I then try to think about God, but am told to stop - don't do that. God's Holy Word was Revealed to a fat bald man who lived in the desert10.32. Those words were remembered for generations, written down and modified by generations more, and finally incorporated in a body of Proclaimed Truth. I'm supposed to believe this, without any possibility of validating it? Not even the conditional belief sort of validation possible to science?
One looks at (for example) the following:
An oracle considering Damascus. Behold, Damascus will cease to be a city, and will become a heap of ruins. Her cities will be deserted forever; they will be for flocks which will lie down and none will make them afraid. (Isiah 17:1-2)
Now a wonderful thing about prophecies about disaster - the fact that they haven't happened just means that they haven't happened yet. This is one that hasn't, more than 2000 years after the prophecy. Damascus has stood, undeserted, one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, for most of recorded human history. But hey! Sooner or later it will doubtless all come true. Here's another radical prophecy, this one my own:
An oracle concerning Earth. Behold, the Earth will cease to be a Planet, and will become a cloud of glowing gas. Her inhabitants will be long gone and forgotten; her matter will be absorbed by a dying star.
The difference between the two is pretty obvious. The first is useless and by any sane measure, incorrect. Isiah was doubtless all pissed off at (As)Syrians because they were the dominant culture and his wasn't, so he predicted the fall of Damascus. So safe! So practical! A prophecy that was bound to come true eventually and eventually was almost certainly going to be long after he died, but in the meantime oh, all the reputation such a bold prophecy gave him personally, all the heart that it gave his followers!
The second is just a plain old scientific prediction, based on the observed and well understood life cycle of stars like our Sun. Eventually it will burn out. As it does so, its core will collapse and its outer gaseous layer will expand as it becomes a ``Red Giant''. At this point its outer surface will engulf the orbit of the Earth, which will long since have boiled away to Earth-vapor. The End, beyond any possible non-miraculous redemption. We can even tell roughly when this will happen, where Isiah was understandably vague about just when this collapse of Damascus was going to occur. Hey, maybe (with George Bush II in office as I write this, rattling spears at Damascus) it will be Real Soon Now.
However, Holy Scripture does not share the axioms of Science, certainly not as prime axioms. Isiah doesn't have to be proven absolutely correct on one, single prophecy to be considered a prophet, and the failure of many of his prophecies to come true is discounted as nothing - they just haven't happened yet, or they did happen but we missed it. Huge amounts of human energy are spent trying to figure out just which world historical events those prophecies were supposed to refer to so that they can be proclaimed to have been validated by the associated faith10.33. Prophets that turn out to have bee correct, sort of, if you look at things just right, only some of the time are an embarrassment.
Given the complete lack of a standard of truth for any word in any Holy Scripture other than its self-proclaimed infallible correctness, these first three axioms leave little room for any debate. That is their purpose. They defend the memetic integrity of the religious superorganism even though we all know that the scriptural words were written out by humans every one.
The fourth is an offensive axiom, directed at competing religions. They have, without exception, their own prophetic works, their own Geeta, their own cultural recipes, their own vision of God. They also all claim divine inspiration and infallibility. It is therefore necessary to cause each believer to differentiate, to become part of the One True Body of the socio-memetic superorganism (and hence be cherished and protected, within reason) or to become Other and be converted (forcibly or not), rejected, reviled, crucified, impaled on a stake, burned, blown up by a suicide bomb strapped around someone's waist, or just plain slaughtered.
Sorry to be so negative, but historically that's just the way it is. In addition to the Crusades, over a hundred thousand people died during the partitioning of India into India and Pakistan, and India and Pakistan (both nuclear powers) are arguably the world's most likely candidates for the next nuclear war that will kill at least millions (North Korea, of course makes this only a bit more than an even bet). There is a militant movement in modern Islam that is utterly intolerant of Other even within the general culture of Islam where major wars and genocidal acts now routinely occur over the differences between Sunni and Shi'ite, let alone the differences between either one and Christian or Jew or Buddhist or Hindu.
The basic point is that the world's successful religions are perfectly capable of mounting both an offense and a defense against competing religious superorganisms, and in some cases they don't mind spending the ``cells'' of their bodies - human lives - like water to achieve a goal of primacy or even regional ascendency. They fight wars and kill and die (all acts that tend to be more or less considered to be fairly serious kinds of ``Sin'' by axioms elsewhere in the religious scripture, proving fairly conclusively that consistency is not that important to adherents of any religious faith) over minor differences in the details of their scriptural axioms, and of course over the very real political and personal power that ascendency brings to its leaders and the perceived benefits that it will bring to those relatively minor cells within the body of the faith(s) that survive.
The next axiom is one of completeness. At one point in time religions did not have such an axiom - it is a relative newcomer. Some religions even have the opposite axiom and expect new revelations. However, the more aggressive of modern religions have found it very useful to lock in their axiomatic dogma in such a way that new revelation is impossible, so that change is actively resisted by the entire superorganism. Changes still happen, of course, but by rejecting changes a priori by claiming that e.g. ``Mohammed is the seal of the prophets'' (so that no prophets can EVER come after him) or creating a process for change that is so slow and tedious that it takes literally centuries to acknowledge that Galileo was right and the Catholic Church wrong about something any kid with a telescope could see for themselves, they prevent any sort of ecumenical dilution of the differences so carefully created by the previous axiom.
In this way again they retain identity. One word for a member of the Catholic Church who uses birth control, thinks that married priests, woman priests, and gay priests are really OK with God, who isn't opposed to the idea that other people should decide for themselves if abortion is right or wrong for them, that the pope isn't infallible and maybe should be elected by a somewhat more democratic and non-patriarchal process is: ``protestant''. By maintaining the Catholic Church's archiac, patriarchal viewpoint on most of these issues (in spite of a remarkable lack of actual scripture addressing most of them directly) they differentiate from the protestant churches. By maintaining their own private keys to spiritual identity, those churches remain independent of each other.
The rest of the axioms serve fairly obvious memetic purposes. Enough bad things happen to people that all successful religions learn to exploit their fear of bad things by claiming to have a formula for affecting the basic processes of good and bad fortune. New Orleans is hit by two devastating hurricanes. Is it inevitable, given that the devastation was largely caused by the fact that the city was built right next to the sea and below sea level, on the shores of one of the world's most active sites for hurricanes? No, it was God's Will, caused by all the folks who live there who smoke and drink and show their tits to strangers on the stage. All the good people who were killed there, or lost their homes, or their jobs, were guilty by association, all the innocent children who suffered were guilty of the original sin committed by Adam and Eve and hence bound to be punished along with the rest. So turn to God (the line forms at the left) or this will happen to you. Note that this ploy is used more aggressively by the smaller religious sects, as they rely on recruitment of new members to grow at the expense of the larger, older, better established sects. But it is a constant subtext of nearly every sermon.
Feeding the priests goes without saying. In fact, a religion usually needs an extended economic superstructure to function as a superorganism in the colony of interrelated superorganisms that make up any society. It needs money to spend as the church not just donations to support a local priest, and a centralized infrastructure that is both literally and figuratively the ``head'' of the church. Some of the world's religions have less centralization and some have more, but it is hard for any religion to get by one priest at a time and without any centralized mechanism for preventing scriptural drift and heresy.
Finally, all religions do provide many, many real benefits to its members. This is a memetic necessity. The body of the superorganism has to remain healthy, strong, vital, in order to survive the competition with its neighbors. In fact, the more the competition, the healthier (historically) those members have grown. When there has been only one religion, enforced without choice by means of sword and noose and pyre, religions can get away with being pretty damn hard on their members. However, that creates fertile ground for heresy and schism and the formation of new religions that promise to treat its members better. Would Christianity have gotten anything like the traction it did in Rome if slaves who converted to the local religion where immediately freed and made citizens? Promising rewards after this life made the process of conversion even easier, as a religion didn't even have to deliver a better life right away.
Still, marrying and burying are what religions do best. We do all share an intuitive idea of God, of the importance of things, at the very least of the importance of our own lives and those of our loved ones to us. Humans take great comfort in the rituals and the beautiful promises of Religion, and Religion in turn more often than not does deliver a measure of peace and a sense of belonging and a set of rules that permit people to live together in harmony.
This isn't a bad thing, not at all. My purpose is not to try to destroy religion, or even to suggest that religions are a bad thing. It is to point out that they are all about worshipping scripture, not God, and that, if you look at that scripture with objective eyes, most of it is self-serving in completely understandable ways and for completely understandable reasons, and there is no good reason that I can think of for preferring one set of scripture over another, since there is no reasonable (or even understandable) standard of truth for their axioms, and there is an open and callous disregard for their obvious failures and inconsistencies.
Let's now return to the topic of axioms per se for a moment, and compare how the axioms of religion and the axioms of science, both ``religiously'' applied, lead to very different views of the same phenomena in the same Universe. Although I personally prefer one of these views, I cannot prove it is right, nor can I prove that the religious view is wrong.