at it again, eh Marcus? whew, what a topic.
i minored in the study of religion, which complemented a lot of what i learned in sociology. i haven't read this entire thread, but but it's a topic that really interests me. i'm sorry if i write a lot and that bothers anyone. i guess i'll start be describing my own beliefs.
i don't like calling myself agnostic, because it literally means 'unwise,' and i don't consider myself unwise. i prefer the term ambivalent, meaning that i grasp multiple frames of reference, but i cannot commit to a single one.
on a theoretical level i have to admit that i can't know if god exists, but i have to admit the same thing about the Easter Bunny. the same is true of souls or spirits, karma, and other supernatural forces people have described. if i had to say what i think is most likely, i'd agree with Marcus: we're animals composed of chemical processes that came to be by happenstance and will simply die and decompose.
but seriously, i don't care about those questions. the other largest influence on me has been 'Buddhism' (as well as the broader tradition of metaphysical philosophy in India). i use quotation marks because when you study even just one religion, you realize you're studying religions
there's a traditional parable in buddhism, where a seeker of knowledge goes to every authority asking questions about the origin of the universe, and everyone tells him he needs to see a smarter person. finally, (i think it's) vishnu tells him to see the buddha. when he sees the buddha and asks about the nature of creation, the buddha tells him to stop asking stupid questions. he then says, "if you were shot with a poison arrow, what would be the first thing you want? would you want to know who shot the arrow? would you want to know who distilled the poison? would you want to know what village they are from, who their fathers were, or what type of wood they used to make the arrow? No, you'd want to know where the nearest doctor is."
to many buddhists, asking those kinds of ultimate questions is meaningless when you're still in a world characterized by suffering. the most important question for them is how to end suffering. the larger lesson i learned is that i want my beliefs to be based on the here-and-now.
the first lesson in my religion classes was a task: define religion. we never did very well. we learned that religion can be defined in many ways, but the only universally one is that religion is a word. more specifically, it's a category of human behavior that was invented by westerners. what we think of as central to religion is central to western religion; for example, some Indians prefer to say, "we don't have a religion, we have a dharma." and this isn't just splitting words, either. the history and practice of religion in the west creates many assumptions we have that simply don't apply. we often think religion is based on (explicit) faith, but that isn't the case. faith isn't a central part of some religions. to use India as another example, ones dharma is often a matter of rational and tentative choice, rather than faith. moreover, faith is an everyday necessity. it's another word for trust, and there's a very basic kind of trust we need to go about our day-to-day lives.
it's trust in the world. we need to trust or have faith that the world we act in is real. we need to have faith that gravity will continue to work with each step we take, that if i say 'apple' you'll think of the same fruit as i, etc. (they call this 'ontological security'). faith in a great something-more isn't really all that different. how many actions would be unthinkable without faith in a god or other great something? and what actions do beliefs cut off?
still, this broader notion of faith isn't an bad place to look if you want to study groups of people, with or without religion in mind. agnostics might seem to have it hard in this respect, except believing in something more isn't necessary to believe that 'out there' is real. some theoretical psychologists point to creativity (not originality) as the basic human test of whether or not we're real, the logic being that to create something in external reality proves our internal reality.
the leads to my answer to your original question, Marcus: "Why are all 'other' religions so 'hated'"?
i think it can be hard to tolerate other beliefs, psychologically. the notion of cognitive dissonance basically says that when an individual is confronted with a new experience or stimulus, there are three basic responses we have: attack it, ignore it, or integrate it into our sense of things. but what's important isn't how you deal with opposing points of view, but how you maintain your own. especially if the main support of your belief (whether or not you know it) when your main support is "everyone else believes X, and they can't all be wrong" finding someone who believes Y will be pretty disturbing.
what do you think is the first knee-jerk reaction anyone would have to ideas that basically contradict your sense of order in the universe? you might feel threatened, and if you accept or at least entertain what some of these psychologists have argued, it might even seem like your very existence is at stake. how easy is it to integrate beleifs that seem to explicitly contradict your own? you can simply say they're wrong. but what if the fate of your soul or those you care about is at stake?
one common way i've heard is the "multiple paths to the same destination" idea, that all the world's religions are all pointing to the same thing despite apperant differences. i don't agree with this idea on the level of what it's saying, but i don't oppose it because of what it's doing (getting a few people to stop fighting).
personally, i don't worry about what'll happen after i die. if it's simply entropy, i won't be around to care anymore. if there's a heaven and a god, i hope s/he'd have enough wisdom to approve me for my virtures, and not deny me for denying him/her. i take nietzsche's view in Thus Spoke Zarathustra
(part of which was quoted in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri):
Long slept Zarathustra; and not only the rosy dawn passed over his head, but also the morning. At last, however, his eyes opened, and amazedly he gazed into the forest and the stillness, amazedly he gazed into himself. Then he arose quickly, like a seafarer who all at once sees the land; and he shouted for joy: for he saw a new truth. And he spoke thus to his heart:
A light has dawned upon me: I need companions- living ones; not dead companions and corpses, which I carry with me whereever I go.
But I need living companions, who will follow me because they want to follow themselves- and to the place where I will. A light has dawned upon me. Zarathustra is not to speak to the people, but to companions! Zarathustra will not be shepherd and hound of the herd!
To steal many from the herd- for that purpose I have come. The people and the herd will be angry with me: the sheperds shall call Zarathustra a robber.
Shepherds, I say, but they call themselves the good and just. Shepherds, I say, but they call themselves the believers in the orthodox belief.
Behold the good and just! Whom do they hate most? The man who breaks their tables of values, the breaker, the lawbreaker:- yet he is the creator.
Behold the believers of all beliefs! Whom do they hate most? The man who breaks up their tables of values, the breaker, the law-breaker- yet he is the creator.
The creator seeks companions, not corpses- and not herds or believers either. The creator seeks fellow-creators - those who grave new values on new law-tablets.
The creator seeks companions and fellow-reapers: for everything is ripe for the harvest with him. But he lacks the hundred sickles: so he plucks the ears of corn and is vexed.
The creator seeks companions, and such as know how to whet their sickles. They will be called destroyers, and despisers of good and evil. But they are the reapers and rejoicers.
if there is a god, and s/he wants me in heaven, and s/he gave me free will, then s/he'd better damn well accept that i'll arrive at my own conclusions about things. i'd hope that she'd judge me for my virtues and actions in the world, and not solely on whether or not i bow down to him/her. otherwise, i'll take my chances in hell (eternal suffering? eh. didn't they tell you i'm from Earth? i'm used to it). but in this respect, i could never be a muslim (which literally means 'one who submits to the will of Allah'). it's reminiscent of William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.
The voice of the Devil.
All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.
1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
2. That Energy, call'd Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call'd Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.
But the following Contraries to these are True
1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age
2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3 Energy is Eternal Delight
Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.
And being restrain'd it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.
The history of this is written in Paradise Lost, & the Governor or Reason is call'd Messiah.
And the original Archangel or possessor of the command of the heavenly host, is call'd the Devil or Satan and his children are call'd Sin & Death.
But in the Book of Job Miltons Messiah is call'd Satan.
For this history has been adopted by both parties.
It indeed appear'd to Reason as if Desire was cast out, but the Devil's account is, that the Messiah fell, & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss.
at any rate, this is all just some food for thought. i think they're very interesting ideas. i do think it's true, that humans have two opposing drives: one for security, and one for exploration. and i do think those who value security over exploration tend to despise explorers because we return from the unknown with new and threatening things. but i don't think mainstream, institutionalized religion must
do this. to use India again (my study of religion minor was almost entirely focused on Indian religions), there are many times many varying beliefs, but the larger culture has a sense of context sensitivity: "what is right for me might not be right for you." people can practice their beleifs, find security and explore in new and threatening ways. this doesn't mean parents don't try to stop their kids from going of an joining that weird sect in the next villiage; of course they do. but not for the sake of their childrens' souls, but for the sake of their lives (some of the less mainstream sects involve living in poverty, self-mortification, and other less-than-desireable lifestyle elements). in classical india, the religious disputes were settled in a royal court of debate. the party considered "wrong" wasn't punished or forbidden, and only marginalized because they'd lost face. so religion, even organized religion, need not be exclusivist and prostylizing.
anyway, a lot of this is just prefacing my view of religion. i think religion is the packrat's basement of society. some of the things are leftover from times gone by, but it's all mixed up with stuff we use all the time. i definately don't see religion as a vestigial organ: some parts of religions are vitally needed. for example, i've never before encountered anything with the psychotherapeutic power of prayer or meditation. but some things are leftovers: rituals from bygone times, distorted histories, and even just story tales. i think the Vedas of India, for example, were probably nothing more than drinking songs sang by travelling bards until they seddled (there are frequent mentions of gambling, fighting, drinking and getting high on a drug they called soma). religion is also a place (well, the corresponding churches, temples, mosques, stupas, stone circles, and whathaveyou) to meet with like-minded people and feel at home. when you have people congregating peacefully, there's always a lot of potential for power, which attracts the easily corruptible. but attracting so much stuff (people, history, ritual, therapy, dietary advice), it's no surprise that religion also tries to explain things; but is religion the chicken or the egg? i don't know, and i don't really care (but if i had to venture a guess i'd say the egg). i think humans always want answers to the Big Questions, but those answers needn't to turn into religions. and people will always want to feel connected to each other, but they don't always have to do it in a way that makes them opposed to others. power will always attract the corruptible, but ultimately it is WE who give them authority.