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Interconnectedness May 8, 2009

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Scientists and other academic types often wonder why so many people won’t just give up God already. Any rational human being with even the slightest ability for critical thinking that has been exposed to even the tiniest amount of information about the natural world should just connect the dots already. We are the product of millions of years of evolution – no God needed. 

Well I don’t think that it really is that much of a mystery why people don’t leave the church pews in droves. It isn’t an issue that can be won by a rational argument – religion is too deeply integrated into the human consciousness to let it go after a quick read of the “God Delusion.”

People want to be part of something larger than themselves, something that will outlast them when they die – a purpose and reason for their existence. Ernest Becker describes this basic human need in his book, “Denial of Death”, he calls it “cosmic significance”. Many people find this need fulfilled in religion, but others find it elsewhere. The activist finds it in the cause that they fight for, the soldier finds it in their undying patriotism, even the die hard sports fan can find it in the allegiance to their team.

I think that if you analyze your life honestly and carefully, you’ll find a belief system there that endows your life with meaning.

This is why when the outspoken scientist tells people that they should just grow up already and mature past God, he becomes hated for it. He isn’t just asking people to give up their irrational thoughts, he is asking them to give up the whole system that gives value and meaning to their lives.  This same scientist doesn’t even recognize the slight hypocrisy in his request, because his life already has meaning. The scholar is immortalized by his writings and his contributions to the advancement of human knowledge, he doesn’t need a church to worship in because he has his universities instead. Even the student that maybe doens’t carry the same prestige still has his love for learning and finds pleasure and wonder and meaning in his academic field.

But what about the farmer, the policeman, the baker, the accountant, the great majority of people that have lived their lives with the idea of the Divine being the God of the Bible. See when you ask them to give up God, you are not just asking them to forsake irrationality, but you are asking them to give up their whole system of cosmic significance.

Imagine from the creationist’s perspective how terribly cruel the idea of a lifeless indifferent universe is – to think that we evolved just to become smart enough to realize how small and inconsequential our lives are – this must be a very terrifying idea.

So when we become champions of reason, we not only have to sell rationality and critical thinking to the masses, but we also need to provide a new sense of wonder. A new sense of cosmic significance.

Maybe one of the ideas that can fill this void is the idea of inerconnectedness. We are all in this life together. We each affect eachother’s lives in deep meaningful ways. Everything about us is tied to the vastness all around us, from the food we eat, to the books we read, to the friends we have, and the television shows we watch. All of it dancing together in a complex web of interconnectedness. 

This idea is expressed in John Donne famous meditation:

All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated…As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness….No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Or from one of my favorite Buddhist poems “Call me by my true names” by Thich Nhat Hanh:

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.

Values and Religion May 1, 2009

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Perhaps my last post implied that religion is needed for values to flourish. I need to clarify this point because I think that the reverse is more likely true – religions flourish because people have values. 

And in fact, often times it is the atheists and non-religion people among us that have the most well thought out value system. This is probably because they were forced to think long and hard about each of their values, instead of just inheriting a value system from their religious tradition.

However what I do believe is that as religion’s role as a cultural force erodes from our lives it won’t vanish and the hole it once occupied just be left gapingly wide open. Instead new ideas and new cultural forces will ruch to fill in the void. People will find new centers of focus, new values, and new meaning. What I fear tends to fill this “spiritual vacuum” is the greedy consumeristic attitude that is only growing stronger. We see this all around us, people defining themselves by their cars, their clothes, their homes, anything that can be bought and sold. Walmart, Ikea, even the latest craze for organic food is fueled in part by people choosing to define themselves by what they purchase. Values become commodities defined only by market forces. Now of course there will always be the more thoughtful among us that will reject this shallow culture, and forge their own path in search of meaning. But what religion could provide is a culture where those that choose not to concede themselves to a shallow life of searching for bargains at the local strip mall won’t be regarded at as strange hermits leaving on the fringes of society, but instead their drive and passion for life could viewed as something noble – a quality worthy of emulation. 

The irony in all of this is that even the modern religious right have completely bought into this consumeristic life style. They teach it from the pulpet, greed is good, greed is American. They drive big SUVs and are proud of how much oil and energy they consume, and if anyone challenges them on this they are quickly dismissed as socialists. What this underscores is how easily religion can be hijacked. That is why this new religious movement must never become afraid of constant questioning. Instead of a meek congregation, the new congregation would never stop probing, constantly suspicious, and forever vigiliant.

The Case for Religion April 29, 2009

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Okay so we all know (at least the people that would read this blog) why we should be super critical of religion. 

Here are two of those reasons. 

– Religions makes truth claims about things that they know absolutely nothing about, the nature of God, the origin of the universe, the afterlife, etc. The ridiculous part is that they do this so confidently and so arrogantly that it is an embarrassment to anybody the least bit educated on the topics.

– Religion are often oppressive, telling people how they should live, what they can wear, what they can say, even who they can marry. 

And there are probably many more problems that you can find with religion.

But there are a few things that religion does give us.

At this point I should probably come totally clean on where I am coming from. I have been attending my own favorite religious group, the Unitarian Universalists,  also my own personal life philosophy was influenced a great deal by reading Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Happiness Hypothesis. But maybe even deeper there is some troubled corner of my own inner psyche that refuses to let go of religion. Most of my life I was deeply involved in the LDS faith, and I have to imagine that has affected my word view in a very profound way.

Now that I have all my cards on the table, I hope even the most neo-atheists among us will be sympathetic to my perspective-

It appears than in prehistoric times out in the Savannas of Africa there was a competitive advantage for groups of people to care for one another, and in those ancient days morality was born. This morality enabled larger groups of people to live together successfully, and over time people enjoyed seeing themselves not just as unique individuals but as part of something much grander than themselves. This new human quality propelled human civilization. Fast forward a few hundred thousand years and you have religion, political parties, even die hard Yankee fans – all because people enjoy belonging.

That basically is the crux of the argument. 

Humans have an innate need for religious involvement, it is not something that we can just discard as an evolutionary byproduct. Religion is too far interwoven into our common humanity. I think that is why despite the overwhelming evidence against many religious teachings people still cling to their religion. That is why I don’t think religion should be eradicated it just needs be redefined. Here are a few ways that religion can help humanity.

– Be a place to develop relationships and become a citizen. Be part of a community with shared values. 

– Preserve a common culture: A culture that unites us, without being oppressive, but teaching us to have values to strive for. A community that promotes equality and opportunity and social justice. 

– Be a place to experience divinity. This is a touchy one, because what is divinity? I think that if we define it as the interconnectedness that we all share in, the beauty and wonder of the world that surrounds us, or the capacity of humanity to care for one another, or the deep mystery of the universe that we are all a part of. Any one of those definitions offers even the most skeptical among us a chance to enjoy a feeling of awe and transcendence.

– Be a place where people can discover a path of growth and self-cultivation, where people are challenged to be better, to question their beliefs and live a fuller life. Of course it wouldn’t mandate exactly how this should be done, because we all are free to chose our own path, but it would be supportive without being overbearing.

– And finally teach peace, inner peace, interpersonal peace, societal peace, and international peace. 

To the extent that a religion follows those rough rules, and rejects teaching dogma and being oppressive and exclusive. I think that religion can be a very positive force in the world.

But the bottom line is that religion is simply not going to disappear, people will continue to find new religions as old ones are discarded – it is human nature. So why not take an active role in defining the next generation of religion.

Changing Religions April 27, 2009

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I read some new today that cheered me up:

Survey: Half of U.S. adults have switched religions

Check it out –

http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2009-04-27-pew-religion-switch_N.htm

This is great, it shows people are becoming less inclined to just believe whatever they were taught. People are less afraid of questioning and are bold enough to follow new paths.

I read once that the reason that US people still remain relatively religious, where in other developed countries (Europe) people have pretty much abandoned their churches altogether is because of the religious diversity in the US. What happens is that in the US churches need to evolve. They need to provide something useful to their congregations otherwise people just go somewhere else.  Basically there are market pressures to increase the relevancy of US religions. So European churches just grew old and stale, when US churches changed with the times and doing so brought in new converts.

I don’t know how true that is, but I like it. Churches that reject evolution, or ones that become too overbearing will die away slowly, simply because they don’t provide anything useful to their congregations.