The Comforting Illusion: Lifting the Veil on Organized Religion
– by Greg Bentall
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So much of popular religion is simply a collection of ancient superstitions and old campfire stories. Even Pope Francis has told the Church that God is not a “wizard,” and we need to stop thinking that God is a magical being. God is not our ever-present personal nanny, or “fairy godmother,” whose task is to comfort and protect us, and to shield us from any danger, discomfort, or disappointment. We need to live peacefully with those whose faith is different than ours. We cannot and must not impose our religious beliefs upon others.
The Bible is not a book of magic. It contains no magical incantations or secret codes. It is the collected saga of the Judeo-Christian community compiled through the ages.
We need to mature in our faith and in our theology. Old ideas, such as the burning of witches, the Inquisition, the crusades, or colonialism are no longer acceptable. Fundamentalism is the primary obstacle to a mature and enlightened faith.
This book explores religion from a rational, 21st Century, scientific worldview. It incorporates our current scientific understandings and pursuits. The study of the Universe and the use of reason are human faculties that are precious and enlightening, and which must not be abandoned at the door of the Church.
Our goal in life is not to appease an angry god. Rather, the purpose of our respective lives is something that we discover in our spiritual journey. Each one of us has the freedom to pursue his or her own individual spiritual path. We must also grant that same freedom to others whose path may have taken them in different directions from our own.
This book also deals with the current turmoil of politics driven by religious forces. It covers the current culture wars and their effects upon our body politic. It emerges from the intersection of faith, science, and government.
The book deals in depth with about twenty separate topics related to faith, science, governance, and religious practices, and yet merges into an organic whole. I have tried to give the readers insight so that they can make intelligent choices on the spiritual path that best meets their own personal needs and aspirations. It requires that the readers eschew fanaticism, supremacy, and any hostility to those who may have chosen a different path from their own.
On May 22, 2011, a devastating tornado left the town of Joplin, Missouri in shambles. There were 162 dead and 1,150 people injured. St. Mary’s Catholic Church was in splinters. The Catholic priest was asked if God could have prevented the tornado. The priest’s response was that, “Of course he could. He is God and he could do anything.” He was then asked why God did not prevent it if he could. The priest said that God is a mystery, and that mere mortals often cannot understand his ways. He spoke about how God would use this tragedy somehow for good. As the priest struggled to explain this conundrum, his logic became more and more twisted and awkward. The priest had inadvertently stumbled into the God paradox.
The God paradox is simply this: If God is all powerful then he cannot be all good. If God is all good then he cannot be all powerful. Otherwise, there is no explanation of why bad things happen to good people. There is simply no simple exit from the God paradox. Like a Chinese finger puzzle, the harder we pull, the tighter the grip becomes. The result becomes some elaborate web built of prevarications. And the more we try to work the story the sillier it becomes. The priest’s whole congregation would need to wrestle with this. No doubt the priest would need to spin more yarns for the faithful in the process, thereby polishing the illusion that God the guarantor of our wellbeing.
The Holy Bible speaks of a God that intervenes in persons and communities. The Bible tells us that even the hairs of our heads are numbered, and that God is our ever present help in times of trouble. We want desperately to believe in a God who loves us and cares about our fate. This is the message that Christians hear most every most from clergy who seek to polish this illusion. This is not just a Catholic issue, but one that is carried out by clergy everywhere. It is just what clergy do, to try and soothe the faithful when bad times happen.
On days when the sun is shining and the birds are singing it is easy to live comfortable inside the illusion of a benevolent universe that will provide for our every need. We feel that we are being coddled by life, and embraced by a loving God. But other, darker days we are jolted back to reality by a tantrum of nature, a tragic accident, a life threatening illness or injury, a financial crisis, the loss of a loved one or other such disrupter of our comfortable existence. At times like those we rediscover how vulnerable we truly are. There are potholes in life that demolish our illusions and shatter our easy comfort.
The Joplin tornado had nothing to do with God. It is not that the good people of Joplin were being punished. There was no malevolence in the tornado, only indifference. To try to moralize about the destruction is pointless and totally wrongheaded. It just happened. Sometimes we think that bad things happen to us because we are doing something bad and we punish ourselves accordingly. We are somehow unworthy of God’s grace. This can drive some into fanaticism as they try to assuage their guilt. Others seek scapegoats to blame for the calamity. “If only we had gotten rid of THOSE people this would have never happened.”
The only graceful exit from the God paradox is to acknowledge that the situation at hand has nothing to do with God.
In truth the tornado is indifferent to our fate. The tornado does not either know or care whether we are just or unjust. It simply runs its course according to the immutable laws of weather systems.
Tornadoes are among the most capricious of disaster agents. A tornado can destroy all buildings on one side of the street while leaving the other side unscathed. The owners of destroyed homes might be thinking, “What did I do to deserve this?” while the people across the street might be thinking, “Thank you, God, for sparing us.” In truth both of these sentiments are but an illusion.
When Religion Turns Toxic
When religion turns toxic it can become one of the most destructive forces on the planet. Whether we are talking about the Crusades, Mayan human sacrifice, the Inquisition, the genocidal conquest of the New World, the KKK, the Salem Witch Hunt, Islamic terrorism, or the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, we are talking about hatred justified by religious fanaticism.
Of course not all religion is toxic. There are beautiful expressions of faith that can have world changing effects upon both believers and those whose lives they touch. There are religious beliefs and practices that transcend our ordinary existence, and make us one with the divine, the cosmos, the world in which we live, and our fellow travelers on this journey through life.
Think of Jimmy Carter building houses for Habitat for Humanity. Think of the gentle spirituality of the Dali Lama. Think of Albert Schweitzer, or Saint (Mother) Teresa of Kolcata giving their lives to serve the poor. Think of the divine transcendence of taize worship, wherein Christians and even non-Christians of diverse tribes come together to focus on the God of all. Think of the Baha’i faith, with its nine doorways of enlightenment.
What is necessary then is to understand the signs of toxic religion and to prevent it from developing.
Humanity throughout its history, even its prehistory, has been organized into tribes. Tribes can represent bonds of kinship, race, ethnicity, nationality, lifestyle, religious sects, or other demographic groupings that give us our primary identity. As we are social creatures, tribes are essential to our existence. Our culture and language are of tribal origin. Our tribal membership is an overwhelming factor in how we live, act, think, and believe.
Our tribal memberships give us a place in our community, and this is essential to human life. But the downside of tribal membership is that it can separate us from those who are not of our tribe.
If your tribal religion causes you to hate another tribe then it is toxic. If your tribe is the standard by which all other tribes are to be judged then it is toxic. If your tribe proclaims superiority over all other tribes, then it is toxic.
True spirituality rejects superiority and embraces inclusiveness. It embraces curiosity and the desire to learn about the ways of other tribes. It seeks to understand all science, human behavior, and wisdom gleamed from diverse sources. A mountain may be climbed by many different paths, and yet it is the same mountain with the same summit. The path that we chose may be the favorite path of our tribe, well known by our tribe’s long history. We know each step and handhold from those who have climbed the path before us. But to really understand the mountain we need to know the paths others have climbed.
Absolutist religion is highly toxic. When a tribe believes that it possesses the truth, and that all other tribes are misguided infidels, then there is no room for compromise or even dialogue. The absolutist tribe is ready to punish or even exterminate those who follow a different path. Their opponents are demonized as godless, heathens, infidels. Even related tribes which share most of their beliefs with the absolutist tribe believe are still singled out for contempt that may lead to persecution. Intra-religious warfare between Protestant and Catholic Christians, or Sunni or Shia Muslims can be even fiercer than inter-religious rivalries. Sometimes it is hard to tell the Christians from the lions without a program.
Toxic religion seeks to control others. Freedom of religion begins with freedom from the religion of others. The fanatic believes that they alone speak for God, that they alone can interpret their tribe’s sacred scriptures, and that they have the right to rule over others even by force of law. Those who most demand obedience to the sacred scriptures seem not to have even read them!
The fundamentalist always begins by expounding on the authority of the scriptures. And after doing that, then begin to spout off about their own personal beliefs and prejudices. “Yoga pants are a sin!” That one is a comic example, but others are utterly toxic. “God helps those who help themselves!” says no scripture ever. “Life begins at conception.” The ancients had no notion of conception whatsoever. They knew that a man could plant a seed in a fertile woman that would occasionally lead to new life. But reproductive biology was well beyond their ability to understand.
A serious read of the Christian gospels reveals that Jesus spent a lot of time and energy disputing with the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were part of the religious right of his day. These people were hyper religious, self-righteous, fanatical control freaks that somehow believed that they alone could interpret the scriptures or to speak for God. Jesus preferred the company of Roman tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners.
Living in Fantasy
If you fail to understand the world through scientific eyes, you will wallow in superstition and expend your energies trying to appease an angry god. We laugh at stories of primitive tribes throwing virgins into volcanoes to prevent eruptions. In truth the volcano is indifferent to human life, and the sacrifice of the virgin is both tragic and wasteful. Volcanism is the result of plate tectonics and not divine displeasure. Throughout our history, and even our prehistory, tribes have made sacrifices, even human sacrifices, to appease their angry gods. We need rain at the right times and in the right amount. We need fertile fields and abundant crops. Our ancestors needed seasonal animal migrations at their appointed times in order to survive. We feel powerless over the forces of nature that can bring storms or fair weather, abundance or starvation.
We may laugh at such primitive views of religion, but in fact we still practice them today. How many times have you heard that God is punishing us due to abortion or gay marriage? Such theories are the modern equivalent of throwing virgins into volcanoes. My standard reply to such absurdities is that if God did not smite the United States over chattel slavery or genocidal warfare against the Native Americans, we can be assured that God is not losing any sleep over gay marriage.
Others believe that God will protect us from all harm. Global climate change cannot happen because God will protect us! Nuclear war? God will prevent that from happening. Destruction of the ecosystem from the variety of poisons that we use to grow our food? God will feed us manna from heaven.
Those who are locked into an anti-scientific world view deny reality. They refuse to accept facts or logic or even common sense. They are sure that the religious mythology that they have been taught is the only way to view the world. Religious mythology becomes a closed loop system that proves itself true and everything outside its narrow bounds as false. It denies the very real and present dangers that threaten to destroy our civilization.
We can survive and even thrive as a species and a civilization but only if we learn to manage the Earth as trustees. We need to lessen the effects of global climate change, nuclear proliferation, pollution, poverty and hunger. We need to work at a sustainable economic system that provided food, shelter, potable water, energy, education, and health care for all of the Earth’s people.
Faith Demystified – Living Without Religion
I was admitted to the hospital recently. As part of the admittance process I was asked to state a religious preference. I surprised myself by saying, “None.” For the first sixty-one years of my life I participated in public acts of worship at least fifty times each year. I spent seven years in academic preparation for ministry, plus several more years after I was ordained. I spent 20 years as a pastor and regional church administrator. Religion has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember. So why would I choose to claim no religious affiliation?
In recent years I have become increasingly unhappy with the Church. Calling one’s self a Christian today seems to indicate a belief in ignorance, bigotry, superstition, fanaticism, and self-righteous zealotry. There was a time when there were progressive voices in the Church that stood against the dark tide of this hateful fanaticism, but those voices have grown strangely silent. Never has it been so embarrassing, or intellectually offensive, to call myself a Christian. That does not mean that I am embarrassed to proclaim Jesus as Lord. I am only embarrassed to be in any way associated with the Church that seems to have lost Jesus all together. There seems to be no Christ in Christian. Those who thump the Bible the loudest seem never to have actually read it. The raw, unbridled ignorance is appalling. The arrogance is stultifying. The self-righteous zealotry is insufferable.
As I contemplated my choice of no religious affiliation at the hospital, I realized that I had made the correct call. What do I need with a religion? As I ran my mental checklist there was nothing that any religion could offer me.
I am aware of my own mortality and of my own health issues. I know that one day I will die, whether that death may come in fifteen days, or fifteen years. I do not believe that I will live twenty more years, and would not wish to do so unless I could be vigorous and productive. Until my death I will live every day. And then die without either sadness or fear. Life is not measured by its longevity. Many live long and useless lives, and die without ever having lived.
I do not need a priestly presence to utter magic incantations, or to perform symbolic rituals over me. For all such things are simply an illusion that gives comfort to the fearful. Life and death are so much bigger than these illusions.
I do not need a shoulder to cry on. In times of illness, loss, or despair I will survive and even thrive. I know how to be strong. I can find comfort without some religious illusion. Life is grand beyond measure. Even death does not dismay. There is nothing sad about death. It is the inevitable end of life. I do not need a grief counselor as there is no grief. And when it comes, death will be a remarkable experience.
I do not need to rail at the unfairness of life, for nothing in life is fair. We all have our obstacles. We all take our lumps. An old proverb says, “I complained that I had no shoes, until I saw the man with no feet
And most certainly, I do not need some hillbilly preacher to come and save my soul, filling my final hours with ludicrous superstition and ignorance in the process. I do not need to be manipulated into faith, or be forced into making a confession. I do not need to work some arrogant preacher’s checklist before I exit my life. Those who would save other people’s souls are nothing but scalp hunters. They think that they have the power over salvation or damnation. They think that they can work their magic with God and in doing so to earn their own divine reward. Surely these are the most arrogant and delusional of all “Christians.”
So spare me all of this religious nonsense. Let me go with a clear head and a sense of fulfillment that comes from a life well lived. Let me study science and all manner of human knowledge. Let me explore the cosmos and learn of its wonders. Let me read great literature and learn what it is to be human. Let me walk and talk with my fellow travelers as we make our way on this journey of life. Let me find God in the eyes of a friend or the face of a stranger. And together may we fulfill our lives.
Faith Demystified – The Root of Religious Discord
Religious discord comes from bumping into belief systems that do not match our own, however illusory our own systems of belief may be. When I was a pastor, there was a young woman who had been baptized and raised Presbyterian. She was marrying a Baptist and joining his church. The problem for me was not that she was leaving the church, the problem was that the Baptists required that she be rebaptized!
The Presbyterians have a view of baptism that made perfect sense to me. Children of believers are baptized as infants. In this baptism both the parents and the congregation vow to raise this child in the Christian faith. This baptism is an act of God, and not human will. In this act God claims the child as part of the community of community. Baptism in the Presbyterian Church is seen as complete and final in and of itself. There is no need to have the baptism “confirmed” when the child reaches the age of consent. We Presbyterians sometimes slip and talk about “confirmation classes” for adolescents, but only because that term is so prevalent in the broader Christian community. What we mean to say is that there are “commissioning classes” for adolescents which signify that the child is now ready to participate more actively in the life, worship and governance of the church. The one new right established at the time of commissioning is the right to vote and hold office in the church.
Baptists have a very different view of Baptism, and it clashes radically with the Presbyterian view. It is not that one side is “right” and the other side is “wrong.” It is just that these two sets of doctrine cannot mesh together.
To join the Baptist Church, this young woman was required to undergo a Baptist baptism. Presbyterian doctrine eschews any form of rebaptism, believing that the first baptism is sufficient for the believer’s entire life.
If this woman from my church did not undergo a Baptist baptism, she would be only a visitor in the Baptist church, and not a full participant. Baptist believe that only believer baptism, entered into by someone old enough to consent to the proceedings, is valid in the eyes of God.
Also, of course, Baptist use much more water than Presbyterians. Baptists generally practice a full body dunking, while Presbyterians simply sprinkle water on the head. I will agree with the Baptists that the very word “baptize” means to dip or dunk. But personally I do not believe that the amount of water used in a baptism is of any more significance than the amount of food consumed during communion, and a church does not need to spread a full meal in order to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
While I fully understood why this young woman needed to undergo a Baptist baptism, it pained me because it felt like it was a denial of her upbringing in the Presbyterian Church. It felt like the Baptists were saying, “Your whole spiritual life as a Presbyterian was not legitimate. Now you must start over as a Baptist, unlearn everything that the Presbyterians taught you, and learn our Baptist ways.” Let me be clear that this message was not coming from the Baptist Church, but playing inside me head.
In summary, there is nothing wrong with the Presbyterian notion of baptism, and nothing wrong with the Baptist notion of baptism. The problem is that when we try to combine them there are discordant notes and emotional turmoil.
As part of this discourse on religious discord, In all honesty I need to raise my personal disdain for the Mormon religion. I am a strong believer in religious liberty, and I would never want to constrain or harm another religious community. I would never discriminate against a Mormon or refuse to vote for them solely because of their religious affiliation. But my personal vexation with the Mormon religion is that it presents to the world a counterfeit version of Christianity. The Mormons have usurped our Christian language, our Christian symbols, our Christian music, and even our Christian sacraments. In places where Mormonism is strong, people confuse the two very divergent religions and hence fail to understand Christianity or its message. It does not help that the Mormons insist on placing the name of Jesus in that religions official title, with the words “Jesus Christ” made bigger than the other words. It feels like they are saying to all of Christendom, “Screw you! We are the real church!”
A good example of this religious divergence is how the Mormon religion practices baptism. The Mormon’s do extensive genealogical research. A large reason for this genealogical research is to create lists of people who are long dead so that these deceased may be baptized. When we hear “baptism,” this sounds like Christian baptism, but in practice this is something very different. Nowhere in the whole history or doctrine of the Christian Church does it talk about baptizing dead people. This is the kind of practice that causes me to say that Mormonism represents a counterfeit version of Christianity. On the outside it looks Christian, but when you dig deeper it seems anything but.
I will cite one more example of religious discord, this time related to Holy Communion (Eucharist). The Presbyterians believe in a free and open communion. Anyone who confesses Jesus Christ as their lord and savior are welcomed to participate. If I think in terms of rules and regulations for a moment, I might also add that the believer should have been baptized. Communion is an outpouring of God’s grace upon the assembled faithful. It is the Lord’s Table and not our own.
Whenever I am worshiping in a Catholic Church there is always a dilemma. I know full well that I am not welcome at a Catholic communion because, first of all, I am not a Catholic. The Presbyterian notion that the Eucharist is open to all of God’s people is shattered.
But furthermore, even if I was a Catholic, I would still not be eligible to participate in the Eucharist. I am divorced, and that is a disqualification. To be restored to the Catholic Church’s good graces, at least in the days before Pope Francis, it was necessary for a Catholic to first pursue and complete the divorce proceedings in the civil courts. And after that, the believer would need to appeal to Rome for an ecclesiastical annulment of the marriage. Such a process could take decades and cost tens of thousands of dollars.
And thirdly, even if I was a Catholic, and even if I was not divorced, there is still the issue of completing all of the pre-Eucharist requirements, such as attendance at Confession. There are sorts of things that need to be done in order for a Catholic to get his or ticket punched so as to be ready for communion. So, the Eucharist is not an outpouring of God’s grace, but rather a reward for loyalty and good behavior granted to Catholics in good standing.
Thus, the Catholic Eucharist turn on its head everything that I as a Presbyterian hold dear. Again, it is not that the Presbyterians are right and the Catholics are wrong. It is just that we have two different and radically divergent versions of what the Eucharist means. Normally, when worshiping in a Catholic Church, I will take communion because I believe in the Presbyterian rules which say that I am eligible, and because I want to share in the Lord’s Table with a larger group of Christians that are beyond my own community.
The sad part of all of this discord is that it really does not mean a thing. It is like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton exchanging insults instead of focusing on policies that actually matter. All of this is a great distraction that keeps the Church from being the Church. None of this is going to feed hungry children, rescue refugees, or free people held in human trafficking.
When the Church cannot come together even over such common themes as the sacraments, what hope is there to talk about science vs. fundamentalism, gay marriage, economic disparities, refugees, or reproductive freedoms?
This article has only dealt with discord within religious traditions. We have not even mentioned discord between various religions.
In short, religious beliefs can create a climate of discord. There are endless disputes over the minutest points of doctrine. There is the obsession with the details of symbolic acts that in reality have no importance. There is the doctrinal rigidity that says that my understandings are correct, and therefore yours are all wrong. Wars have been fought and gallons of ink spilled throughout Christian history just trying to define the Trinity.
Islam was born out of officially Christian territory. An important historical fact was that the nations of Islam generally rejected the officially sanctioned language used to describe the Trinity. Islam recognizes Jesus as a prophet of God. But for the Muslim who could not call Jesus the “Son of God,” or embrace any sort of Trinitarian language, the only solution was to reject Christianity and start their own religion.
Faith Demystified – What Happens When We Die?
The deepest mystery of faith is what happens when we die. Some would say that we go dark like a candle that is extinguished. Others would suggest that there is a part of us that continues. There is a whiff of smoke as the candle is extinguished, and heat energy that continues forward in time.
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come? – Hamlet
As there is no definitive answer to the ultimate question, we choose between uncertainty and illusion.
Earlier I have pledged that I would not polish the standard illusions of organized religion. The following exercise is about creating our own illusions. This is an important skill for all spiritual sojourners. In order to thoroughly understand the nature of illusions is it necessary to be able to construct your own. A musician must have skills in composition in order to understand music at all.
Illusions are not bad things, unless we delude ourselves into believing that they must be true. The story of the Tooth Fairy comforts a young child who has just lost a body part. If an illusion of death makes it easier to die, and especially if it makes it easier to live, then it is a good thing indeed. As to what illusions you subscribe to is up to you within certain conditions. If you want to believe in Charlie Brown’s “Great Pumpkin” it is no concern of mine.
Illusions are not judged by their connection to reality. Please note my prior discussion of astrology. Rather, illusions should be judged by their fruits. Does the illusion cause you to relate to the cosmos? Does it connect you to other people, even those beyond your own tribe or faith tradition? Is it a compelling expression of love? Does it advance the causes of justice and compassion? There are many forms of malevolent illusions, such as racism, violence, addiction, sexual predation, financial predation, and more. But so far as an illusion is benevolent there can be little harm done in embracing it so long as you realize that it is in fact an illusion.
Here I would like to share you my own illusion, fully cognizant of the fact that the following is an illusion.
The universe is filled with hundreds of billions of galaxies. There is no much real estate out there that it is impossible to comprehend. Every human being that is now living, has ever lived, or ever will live, has a claim to an entire galaxy. Imagine that galaxy as an extension of yourself. Imagine it as a vast reservoir of love that is a part of you. You can draw love and energy from your own personal galaxy at any time. It makes your life, and the lives of all of those around you, limitless and unbounded. The sacks of flesh in which we dwell is not who we are. It is simply a temporary manifestation of our mortal existence. Our past, present, and future are vastly more than a face in the photograph.
When we die we cast off our sack of flesh, and return to the cosmos. What we take with us from our mortal life is our memories. Our memories are who we truly are in this mortal realm. They are the sum total of the experiences that we have had, and the decisions that we have made. Those things are our immortal selves in their purest forms.
Some would ask if we face judgment. Does God separate the sheep from the goats? I believe that the only judgment comes from our own memories. In death we become enlightened. We come to know what is really important and what is not worth worrying about. Perhaps those failures that we fretted the most we might find are nothing at all, like when President Jimmy Carter confessed that he had lusted after women in his heart. The most serious failure may be in seeing a homeless person on the street and passing by without helping. The real moral test is how we loved. Did we focus on ministries of justice and compassion, or were we too busy grasping after wealth, power, beauty, or some other vain pursuit.
The universe is even much fuller than I have already described. M-theory tells us that there are not four but eleven dimensions of spacetime. The added dimensions are not fully understood.
We know that there must be more than the four dimensions of ordinary space. Einstein proved that gravity causes spacetime to bend space. That very bending does not take place in ordinary four-dimensional spacetime, but must of necessity bend in one or more of those extended dimensions.
Perhaps one of those extra dimensions are where memories go. There is a basic principle in physics that says that information may never be lost. And what is memory but information?
What we tell ourselves about what happens when we die informs our mortal existence about how to live. We construct our lives from each decision that we make. We are aware of the montage of memories that we have collected. Layer by layer and frame by frame we construct a record of who we are. Our personal montage is both powerful and profound. It is only finished after a lifetime of striving. It is the unique and authentic story of our life. It is more enduring than our flesh and more powerful than our dreams. And yes, it does continue.
Faith Demystified – Richard Dawkins and Atheism
Richard Dawkins is a world class evolutionary biologist. Lately he has been seen as one of atheism’s greatest proponents. In his 2006 book The God Delusion he contends that there is no god and that religious faith is a delusion. In the same year he founded the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.
Dawkins is a radical skeptic, and we need skeptics. Skepticism insures that science is always self-correcting. Without radical skepticism we would be continuously duped by all sorts of falsehoods.
Skepticism is also an antidote to the general puffery of religious doctrines. In religion there is normally no proof of anything. Believers are asked to accept religious teachings on blind faith, or to trust in “divine revelation.” Any doubt, even a healthy skepticism, is often described as a lack of faith. Typically, the faithful are not allowed to asked questions such as, “Where did Cain’s wife come from?” Asking a question like this is seen as an attack on biblical fundamentalism and therefore an attack on faith itself.
Dawkins skepticism is a great defense against uncontrolled religious puffery. And for that we should all be grateful. The only way to answer the question about Cain’s wife is to realize that the creation stories are mythological stories, and not the recounting of historical events.
Skepticism can be taken too far. Ultimate skepticism would be to not except anything without absolute proof. I cannot prove that the sun will rise tomorrow, but I would certainly expect that to happen. Spirituality begins with the concept that our reality is larger than our grasp. By contrast, Dawkins would say that if he cannot see, hear, or touch something it does not exist.
If I could have a chat with Dawkins I would share with him the following story. An astronomer images a galaxy using visible light. The image produced is real and indisputable. To Dawkins the galaxy is what is captured in that image, and nothing more. The part that Dawkins misses is that there is more to the galaxy that we cannot see in visible light. Images taken in infrared, ultraviolet, or radio waves would show a very different image, with more and different features and aspects of the galaxy. So, Dawkins original view of the galaxy in visible light is correct but not complete. There is more to the galaxy than the original image could depict.
What we see depends upon what filters we choose to use. One could say that Dawkins does not see beyond the mundane world because he lacks the necessary observational tools. Dawkins seems to be a reductionist, saying that the universe is this and no more. That reductionism is every bit as much a bias as is a religious conviction.
Modern cosmology describes a universe that is not only more bizarre than we know, but even more bizarre than we can imagine. Quantum mechanics tells us that a particle can be several places at once. M-theory tells us that there are eleven dimensions of space and time. Hawking radiation means that black holes actually evaporate. Dark energy says that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. Under these circumstances a limited field of view means that we will miss much of what is happening. There is a lot of stuff going on out there that we do not understand.
There is more than one possibility in any circumstance. Light is both a wave and a particle. An electron can be several places at once. A storm can be both helpful and hurtful depending on whom you ask. The difference between a wildflower and a weed is that one is wanted and the other is not. Propositions can be true and false at the same time. We need to be very careful when setting the bounds of the universe that we do not leave out many things that do not fit into our reductionist preconceptions. The universe could be both created and non-created. The only difference may be in the filters that we choose.
On another topic I would also like to discuss consciousness with Dawkins. This is one of the frontiers between biology and spirituality. What is consciousness? We might also call this the self, spirit or even soul, although Dawkins would resist these words. Is our consciousness simply the electronic emissions of our gray matter, or could it be something more? Is consciousness something that could be captured and stored outside of the body? Could it be transplanted like a kidney? Imagine the possibility that a consciousness could be transferred from one body to another, or from a body to a computer chip. This is a question that needs to be answered in the near future.
Demystifying Faith – Our Place in the Universe
We are born of the cosmos, and this is not some religious illusion. The iron in our blood and the calcium in our teeth were created in ancient stars that exploded as supernovae, spreading their chemical wealth across the galaxy. We are stardust, and to stardust we will return.
The philosophy of Aristotle, was born in the 4th BCE shaped our understanding of the cosmos for about 2,000 years, even though his cosmology was dead wrong. Aristotle taught that the world was and disorderly and corruptible, while the heavens were eternal and unchanging perfection. Human life as a product of earthly imperfection was then also imperfect and unworthy of the divine. I wish I could have had five minutes with Aristotle to point out to him, “Just look at the Moon and you will see scars!” Even the sun has scars. The heavens are not changeless and static. Rather, they are in a state of constant change that is simply too slow for human mortals to notice.
Aristotelian logic infected Christianity causing all sorts of problems. It created the sense of duality between the pure, spiritual world and the corrupt, physical world. Human sex is dirty, messy, and filled with raw emotions. If you want to birth a god you need to do it through virgin birth, wherein a maiden is impregnated through the ear by the Word of God. And of course, such a god born of woman would need to eschew sex in order to remain uncontaminated.
There is a vast chasm between out folklore about Jesus and his actual life. He may have been married to Mary Magdalene. The anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary in John chapter 12 is clearly a sensuous massage. If Jesus was a much of a prude as we envision him he would have rebuked Mary for offer. It is not beyond the realm of possibility once we discard the Aristotelian cosmology introduced to Christianity largely through the Apostle Paul.
The Hebrews had no such qualms about sex. The Promise Land was often described as a land “flowing with milk and honey,” which is to say breast milk and vaginal fluid.
We are not inferior to the Universe; we are the Universe. It has been said that the astrophysicist if the Universe contemplating itself. We participate in all of its majesty. We are born of stardust, carry the genes of trilobites, drink recycled dinosaur piss, and fuel our cities with dead plants and animals fermented deep underground for millions of years. We are a part of everything that we see, everything that we touch, and everything that we eat and drink.
When we die our flesh returns to the ground to fertilize new emerging life. In about five billion years our Earth will be gone, swallowed by the Sun as it evolves into a red giant. The atoms of our body, forged in stars and supernova explosions, will return to the stars. This is not a matter of religious illusion, but of scientific fact.
It is not just life that evolves. Planets must also evolve to support life. Earth began as a fiery hell in the Hadean period. As the Earth slowly cooled and stabilized, primitive life forms emerged, such as blue-green algae. Early life emerged in an anaerobic environment devoid of oxygen. These early life forms released oxygen into the atmosphere. About 400 million years ago there was enough oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere to sustain life as we know it. We humans are the product not only of the evolution of life, but of a 4.5 billion year old long process to evolve the Earth to sustain life.
Everyone on Earth is more closely related than we can imagine. The Toba extinction event of 75,000 years ago was spawned by a mega-volcano in what is now Indonesia. There were very few humans to survive this bottleneck in our evolution, perhaps no more than 2,000. The result is that all modern humans are descended from the handful of survivors from this event. In our genetic difference, which are mostly cosmetic, we all have a common ancestor from the not-to-distant past. The fact is that we are all cousins. We all belong together.
As Max Ehrmann described in the Desiderata, “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”
Demystifying Faith – How Prayer Works
“I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”
― Mother Teresa
The purpose of prayer is not to change God’s mind. The purpose of prayer is to manage our internal orientation and focus. Prayer changes things from the inside out. Prayer and meditation can create profound changes in our mental state, level of awareness, focus, and self-control.
Peter Kramer in 1977 wrote a seminal work entitled Listening to Prozac. The theme of the book could be described as the remaking of the self.
Shortly before this book came out I had my own transformative experience linked to the use of Prozac. I had been in therapy for several years trying to deal with the trauma of childhood abuse. The talk therapy was not working because I could not go deep enough to get at the root causes. Prozac for therapy was like Novocain in the dentist chair. The Prozac allowed me to work through the pain and to complete the therapy.
Under Prozac I had a profound and surprising sense of “self.” There was a “self” there that was different from the painful things I had experienced. Under Prozac my “self” awakened. I could separate my “self” from what had happened to me, and from what I had done in reaction. I found myself saying, “I did that, but that is not who I am,” or “That was done to me, but that is not who I am.”
Peter Kramer went on to explore our mental states. He wrote that everything that we are, our emotions, our mental state, even our personality and character, are all products of our brain chemistry. This sounds like the ultimate reductionism, but it resonated with the experiences that I had undergone.
Kramer writes that controlling our brain chemistry controls everything about us and our inner lives. It controls our actions, our feelings, and even our personalities. He goes on to say that there are two and only two ways to regulate our brain chemistry. We can do that through chemical intervention or through our own mental hygiene.
The effect of chemical intervention is obvious. There are many forms of psychoactive medicines such as Prozac or Valium. There are mood altering substances such as pot, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine. There are also many forms of illegal drugs can cause extreme psychological trauma as well as physical damage to our bodies and our brains. There are diseases such as syphilis or streptococcus infections that can radically alter personality and behavior.
The notion of mental hygiene is a little less obvious. The main premise here is that wherever our thoughts dwell, that is who we will become.
It is easy to give our minds over to various addictions. For example, a man might become engrossed in pornography. He gets drawn to casual sexual hookups. He hangs out in strip clubs or other sex industry sites. He develops a constant craving for more exciting and dangerous experiences. He starts groping women or even involving children in his perverted fantasies. His needs are insatiable. His addiction usurps all of his money, time, and attention. He loses his job, his home, his family, but still he cannot stop. The changes to this man’s brain chemistry are as real as if he were abusing drugs. This is why addictions are so hard to break. Every time he breaks through another boundary there is an addictive rush. He lives to experience those highs and will sacrifice his whole life in the process.
Real, authentic prayer takes us in the opposite direction. Instead of unmanageable cravings we find inner peace. Prayer is reaching for the transcendent. Prayer is touching something greater than ourselves. Prayer lifts us out of the muck of our daily existence and fills us with something much greater than ourselves. In prayer we connect with the divine transcendence and through that we connect with all people in love. Prayer connects us with the infinite power of love. This love transforms our inner reality and alters our very brain chemistry.
Real, authentic prayer is available to all regardless of his or her religious affiliation, or lack thereof. There are universal factors shared by all human beings in our DNA. There is a brain chemical called DMT or “the spirit molecule.” Preliminary research has shown that many people, regardless of their spirituality, or total lack thereof, experience what can only be described as a transformative divine encounter when tested with DMT. The research is still in the development stage and I believe it unwise to draw any conclusions about what is happening. But this research does offer some interesting preliminary insights into the human brain and its faith encounters.
It would be hoped that anyone on a spiritual journey would connect with others on the same journey. In this way experiences could be shared, help and support freely given, and a sense of a common direction might emerge. A group united by prayer can then pool their energy and resources to accomplish more than any one person could.
Pope Francis recently made a stunning statement about prayer. “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”
Prayer does not end with ourselves. It begins with a transformation of brain chemistry but it does not end there. Prayer connects us with an infinite reservoir of love. It gives us power that is beyond anything that we can understand. When working together with other prayerful people we can multiply our powers and achieve the truly miraculous.
What Prayer is Not
Prayer is a very powerful tool, but few Christians understand much about it. Churches have not wanted to be honest about prayer. Rather, churches have spent their energy polishing the prayer illusion, often for financial gain. Most churches would no more give up the illusion of prayer than a casino would get out of gaming, or coffee shops stop selling coffee. The prayer illusion keeps churches in business, much to the loss of their members.
Before I can describe what prayer is I must first clear the decks and tell you what it is not. Prayer is not a way to persuade God to give you a better outcome. God is not your fairy godmother, not a genie in a bottle, not the Wizard of Oz hiding behind a curtain. Praying for your Aunt Agnes’s gall stones will not heal her. This is not what prayer is about. It is not how God works. I am sure that many people out there will want to dispute this point. They will cite anecdotal “evidence” that God did indeed heal their Aunt Agnes. Many Christians prefer a comforting illusion over hard reality.
People are easily duped because they really want to believe. It is like when you see an advertisement for a new weight loss formula that guarantees you will lose 40 pounds in your first month. And you think, you have been fat your whole life and someone has finally come up with a solution! It comes with a money back guarantee so what can you lose except for your excess poundage.
But such a naïve and childlike understanding of prayer can also cause much grief and hardship. How do you explain it when prayer fails to get your intended results? In the same way, please do not say that God allowed your loved one to die. God had nothing to do with it. That is not how God works and it is not how prayer works.
There is a story about a man who attended many faith healing services. He noted that he had seen many crutches cast aside, but somehow no one ever cast off an artificial leg. The healer will tell you that if the miracle you are seeking has not happened yet it is because you have too little faith, or have not paid enough into the collection plate. The evangelist will happily give you these reasons as he strives to keep the frenzy going in order to line his own pockets and to advertise his great spiritual “power”.
Only a fool prays for rain when the wind is in the east. (Please adjust as necessary for your own climatological situation.)
This is the reality. Everyone dies. Everyone gets sick. Everyone faces endless tragedies and uncertainties throughout their lives. They lose their loved ones; they lose their jobs, they lose their money; they lose their health. Prayer will not change this, although it may make it easier for the person praying to cope with adversity. Aunt Agnes will not be healed through prayer, and therefore I would never pray for her healing. I do not believe in practicing deception or in polishing the illusion of the genie in the bottle that will come forth to grant three wishes. If you believe in that sort of God all I can say is, “Grow up!”
I will pray with and for Agnes and her family, but not to heal or to preserve her life. I will pray that the family is embraced by God’s love and feel God’s presence in their time of sorrow. Some might tell me that even that is an illusion. But it is a far different order than trying to command the fawning service of God.
There has been a long standing practice in church circles that it was possible to pray someone into heaven. If your uncle of dubious character passed away, one way to insure his place in eternity would be to endow a priest to say mass for your uncle every day. In this way, the priest received a stipend and your uncle just might spend less time in purgatory.
In the world of mega churches and televangelism, prayers can be bought. Some of these charlatans will encourage you to call their prayer line to pray for Aunt Agnes’ gall stones. When you call they might even say that they will pray for a particular fee. The less transparent “ministries” will simply use your prayer request as an invitation to include you in their fundraising campaigns.
There was a story of an elderly couple who attended a mega church run by a well-known televangelist. They were about to lose their house due to extreme financial difficulties. The preacher asked them to bring in their family budget and he would pray with them. When the preacher saw their budget he told them that there was not enough money in it for Jesus. They needed to greatly increase their contributions in order to prove their faith commitment. In this manner the shyster-preacher tried to scam the elderly couple out of their last dollar. And of course that dollar was not going to Jesus, but to the shyster and his own pockets and his “ministry.”
Prayer never changes God’s mind. You cannot bargain with God, and you cannot gain his support and attention by any form of prayer that you can think of. God does not barter.
Clergy prayers have no special powers. Prayer is not about making fancy speeches or magical incantations. Having the whole church pray for Aunt Agnes’ gall stones will not change the situation, although you and Aunt Agnes may receive support from your fellow worshippers through prayer. Impossible prayer is still impossible, no matter how much you gussy it up.
Prayer is not about the worthiness of the pray-er. It does not help to recite bible verses, use magical incantations, or flowery language. You do not need to “butter-up” God before you begin because God does not have an ego.
Prayer is not about directing God to do the right thing. It is not about calling for help so that God will notice your plight and then help.
God is not your handmaiden. Instead of holding on to this illusion to get you through times of trouble and stress – grow up and adopt a less infantile notion of God.
- Be as strong as you can.
- Be as knowledgeable as you can.
- Learn to help yourself, your family, and others.
- Learn what real, grown-up prayer is.
- Learn to accept life with all of its chaos and caprice.
- Expect turbulence and learn to swim in it.
- Realize that whatever happens, for good or ill, it is not about you.
- You are not the center of the Universe. You are thinking of God.