Faith Demystified – Living Without Religion


confucius104563Faith 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


Faith Demystified – The Root of Religious Discord

church conflict

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.

DISORDER

 

 

 

Faith Demystified – What Happens When We Die?


Faith Demystified – What Happens When We Die?

Galaxy

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.

Gravity

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


Faith Demystified – Richard Dawkins and Atheism

Richard Dawkins

Houghton Mifflin provided this photo of Richard Dawkins, author of `The God Delusion.’ (AP Photo/Houghton Mifflin)

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.

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Faith Demystified- Our Place in the Universe


dalai-lama-science-buddism1

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.”

 

Faith Demystified- How Prayer Works


Demystifying Faith – How Prayer Works

quote-you-pray-for-the-hungry-then-you-feed-them-that-s-how-prayer-works-pope-francis-81-13-03

“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.

 

Faith Demystified – What Prayer is Not


 

 

Prayer

FAITH DEMYSTIFIED

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.

 

 

 

 

Faith Demystified – Astrology as Religion


FAITH DEMYSTIFIEDZODIAC

Astrology as Religion

Astrology is a system of beliefs that is not normally considered a religion. But in truth astrology really is a religion, and if not that it makes no sense at all.

In ancient times astrology and astronomy were one. Both involved scanning the heavens to look for signs and portents. Ancient astronomy was necessary for several reasons, including time keeping and navigation. If you understand the attributes of the North Star you will know both your directions and your latitude.

Astronomical observations can also serve as a clock and calendar. The movement of the constellations helped to indicate the seasons. When ancient people saw Orion they knew that winter was upon them. The Sun marks the hours of the day and the moon marks the days of the month.

Four of the most crucial observations in astronomy are the dates of the two solstices and two equinoxes. These four days mark the beginning of each of our four seasons. If you can discern one of these dates then your calendar is set for the year.

Knowing the season and time of year was critical for ancient tribes. They needed to know the periods of hot and cold weather, rainy seasons and droughts. They needed to know the time for special events such as river flooding, the ripening of fruit, any animal migrations or fish spawns, and most importantly, they needed to know the time to plant their crops. To find these key dates the ancients needed only to discern the movement of the Sun and stars. The stories of these star cycles were woven into the tribes’ cultural heritage as sacred texts as a way of maintaining this knowledge through generations.

Stories enhance memory. As a young Boy Scout I was taught how to tie a bowline knot by the following mnemonic: The rabbit comes out of the hole, goes around the tree, and back in the hole. This is something that I have never forgotten. In this manner the ancients would learn that it was time to plant crops when the lion was visible in the sky.

In short there were many good and necessary reasons to watch the sky and to chart its movements. Now to explain how the science of astronomy diverges from the religion of astrology I need to take a side trip to discuss the notion of a superstition.

A superstition can be described as follows. Imagine a scientific experiment in which a pigeon must press a red button in order to obtain food. The pigeon tries a number of moves, and accidentally finds a workable solution. The pigeon first scratches its head and then presses the red button. When the pigeon does this the food appears. There are two discrete actions. The difference between these two actions is that scratching its head is not part of the chain of causality, while pressing the red button is part of the chain of causality. The head scratch can be thought of as a superstition. The pigeon believes that this action is required even though it is irrelevant and has no effect upon the outcome

Superstitions abound. We get a boost of confidence from the comfort of our superstitions. The gambler believes that his luck in poker is enhanced by wearing his favorite hat. The candidate for a job may wear his “lucky tie” to a job interview.  All such actions are superstition because in truth they have no impact on the outcome. They are not part of the chain of causality.

Now back to the night sky. All sorts of things in the night sky can be observed that are not part of any causality. The motion of the planets seem important, but in reality it means nothing. The arrival of comets, eclipses, meteor showers, aurora borealis, and many other visible events actually mean nothing of consequence. The tribes do not know what celestial events are portents of things to come, so they watch everything.

Let us review the basic facts of astrology that all can agree with. The Sun, the Moon, and all of the planets move through one vast racetrack in the sky. In astrology this is called the zodiac, meaning a circle of animals. Astronomers call this same racetrack the ecliptic, because eclipses can occur when the moon crosses that race track.

The sun and all of its planets were formed out of the solar system’s accretion disk. They are all on the same plane and so follow the same racetrack across the sky. The Moon is slightly different. It was formed not from the accretion disk but from a later impact of a Mars sized object called Thea with the Earth. The Moon’s orbit could have been tipped in any direction, but just by coincidence, the orbit of the moon is a mere 5.5 degrees off of the ecliptic. So, for all practical purposes we say that the Moon shares the ecliptic with the Sun and planets.

Here is where astronomy parts company with astrology. The astrologers will tell us that the sun moves through the twelve houses, or constellations, spending approximately 30 days in each house. This makes the illusion feel very predictable and comforting. The problem is that symmetry is a total fabrication.

  1. In truth there are actually thirteen constellations on the ecliptic. Astrologers never talk about Ophiuchus, and do not even want to think about it. The addition of a thirteenth constellation would mess up their cherished symmetry of design.
  2. Some constellations are much larger than others. It takes the Sun only 7 days to cross Scorpio, but 45 days to cross Virgo. In case you are wondering it takes the Sun 17 days to cross Ophiuchus.
  3. The astrological calendar is seriously broken. It is based upon ancient positions of the stars that are no longer correct. The astrological calendar is off about 25 days. Imagine using a calendar for January 1 when it is really December 7. The star patterns shift over thousands of due to the precession of equinoxes.
  4. Even if items 1-3 could be corrected, what difference does the position of the planets make anyway? Thinking that the position of the planets at the date of your birth can somehow affect your personality or destiny is simply a superstition as defined above. The gravitational effects of the obstetrician during your birth would have millions of times more effect upon you than the position of Jupiter in the night sky.

I have always been vexed by intelligent people espousing nonsense about astrology. I have tried to argue with them, stating items 1-4 above without effect. Their response is that I simple do not “get it”. They seem content to ignore the facts and logic, and to believe in something that I hold to be appalling nonsense.

And then I understood! Astrology is a religion. Religions are full of beliefs in appalling nonsense. If a Catholic can believe that Jesus is contained in a cracker, If a Muslim can believe that women must wear burkas, if a Jew can believe that eating a lobster is forbidden, If a Mormon can believe in ancient Jewish colonies in South America, then perhaps it is no more fantastic to believe that the position of the planets at the time of your birth controls everything from your personality to your destiny.

Astrology gives many the means to feel connected to the Universe. It enables them to feel a part of the cosmos, and to experience the transcendence that is common to all religious motivation.

While President and Mrs. Reagan publicly proclaimed their faith in evangelical Christianity, the real religion of the Reagan household was astrology. When President Reagan was shot Nancy used her astrologers to schedule every key event. In later interviews she explained how important this was to her. With her world falling apart astrology gave her a sense of comfort and control.

Religion must be a deep seated human need. It gives people a sense of security, no matter how illusory. It connects tribes and people with the cosmos and their place and time in it. It is a set of believes that organizes and orders our lives and somehow makes them more manageable.

 

 

 

 

Faith Demystified – Sacred Texts


Sacred texts

FAITH DEMYSTIFIED

Sacred Texts

All religions are human artifacts developed to explain the questions of faith. This is true of all sacred texts. Stories were told around ancient camp fires. After a hard day’s work the community would gather to eat, relax, socialize, and make plans for the morning. There were all sorts of stories told for entertainment. The hunters would boast of their courage and prowess. There were stories of great events of the past, stories of people who had passed on, stories about the cycles of the seasons, and the majesty of nature. There were stories about family life, sexual conquest, childbirth, contact with neighboring tribes, and all manner of human activities. They recount tribal history. There were “blooper” reals remembering when someone really fouled up.

From around the campfires of old there emerged a special collection of sacred stories. These stories centered on existential issues, great yearnings, the deepest questions, and the most profound mysteries.  These sacred stories had a quality of transcendence, lifting the community out of their mundane existence and delving into the greatest mysteries.

  • What is a small tribe of humans compared to the trees and the mountains around them?
  • How can we understand the vast canopy of stars overhead?
  • Where does the sun go at night?
  • Why do the patterns in the sky never change?
  • What happens when we die?
  • Where are those who have passed on before us?
  • Why does new life spring from the earth according to season?
  • Where do we come from?
  • Who are we as a people?
  • What is the meaning or purpose of life?
  • How are we connected to the universe around us?

Stories were created by the community to explain these and other mysteries. They were told and retold for entertainment, to educate the children, and to remind and confirm the tribe of its shared heritage. Communities grow around the stories that they share.

The oldest profession is not prostitute, as many people believe, but shaman. The shamans wove stories to explain the questions of faith. The ideal priest had an inquisitive mind, a fertile imagination, a gift for public speaking, and significant people skills that would draw the tribe towards him or her. She would be a great listener who collected stories and wove them into a magnificent tapestry. He would also be a great entertainer. An oral tradition of sacred campfire stories emerged. Through many generations the stories would become more and more organized and accepted. “Official” versions of the key stories were selected from the many variants. Eventually such stories were written down.

As these stories became ever more normative for the communities of origin, it became desirable to assert divine sanction. Through the use of a created illusion, texts might be ascribed to divine origin. The stories are now seen as transcending the stories of mortals. The authorized sacred texts now are thought to have sacred origins as well as sacred content.

Sacred texts begin from sacred content. Then they are distilled and refined by the community over time. The texts are thrashed like wheat to separate the grain from the chaff. The texts are fermented like wine, carved like an amulet, or purified like a metal in the caldron. In time these texts are truly transformed. They represent not divine revelation, but rather the best distillation of human wisdom by the community. They become the spiritual and intellectual foundation for the community. They reflect the community’s history and chart its future.

Faith Demystified – Prologue


Ghandi

FAITH DEMYSTIFIED

Prologue

The quest for faith is one of the strongest of all human urges. The oldest archeological sites contain evidence of religious awareness. The Neanderthals buried their dead, suggesting that they were aware of their own mortality. The quest for faith includes of the following categories and more:

  • What happens when we die?
  • The world is so big and we are so small. What is our place in the world around us?
  • How do we gain control over our own existence? How can we protect ourselves from forces of evil? How do we deal with the forces that we cannot control?
  • What is the meaning of life? Are we here just to survive to breed and die?

Religion is a human artifact designed to deal with those issues and questions. Questions of faith are truly beyond human comprehension, and so we fill those gaps with a comforting illusion. An organized set of these illusions is called a religion. Religion is an illusion designed to hide a very harsh reality. Illusion is not a bad thing as long as we recognize it as an illusion. The tooth fairy is not just some random nonsense. Rather, it is an illusion to soothe our children as they lose their baby teeth. Instead of mourning the loss of baby teeth, we celebrate it as a sign of growth and blessings.

Likewise, when a 12-year-old girl begins to bleed she might feel like she is dying. In response we create celebrations for rites of passage. We celebrate the passing from innocent childhood to sexual maturity and adulthood.  The reality is that the transition from girl to woman is filled with frightful consequences. Women through history (and prehistory) have been victims of:

  • Oppression and slavery.
  • Sexual assault.
  • Unwanted pregnancies.
  • The excruciating pain and risk of childbirth.
  • Reproductive health issues.

The transition from girl to woman is a terrifying, dangerous, and yet a most glorious event. The illusions created in rites of passage hide these harsh realities from view.

There is perhaps no more sophisticated example of religious illusion than that of a military funeral, or a visit to Arlington Cemetery. To see this illusion you must hold two video clips in your mind at the same time. On one screen, picture the Normandy Invasion. There is blood and body parts being thrown about by exploding ordinance. There is barb wire and machine gun nests and bodies exploding on the beach. There are young men being cut down in the prime of their lives. Many of these men will never hold a woman, or have a child. Their whole life is cut short by this hell on earth.

Now, shift your focus to the other screen. You will see soldiers wearing white gloves and fancy uniforms. You will see chrome polished swords and the finest marching that can be found anywhere. The soldiers form up and march with incredible precision. Each turn and heal click is precisely choreographed. Each participating soldier is physically perfect, strong, young, and handsome. You will not see tattoos, or facial hair, or pot bellies. The soldiers must meet strict height and weight standards. And you certainly will not see any one-legged soldiers there, not even those wounded in battle. The illusion of cleanliness, order, perfection, and precision at the Changing of the Guards ceremony is created precisely to deny the reality of the horrors of war.

The illusion of religion can become a problem when we forget that it is an illusion. Violence and hostility between various religious communities is often spawned by the “My religion is better than yours!” conflict. This conflict even occurs within religious communities, with Christians fighting with Christians of a different brand, or Muslims fighting against other Muslims for the same reason.  When we insist that our religion is the only right path then we will have inevitable conflict with everyone else. My personal experience with Buddhists is that they tend to be peaceable precisely because they realize that their own understanding is not undermined by someone else’s views.

Sometimes we can hold on to our illusions too tightly or for too long. When I taught my son to ride a bicycle he began by using training wheels. Training wheels are an extra set of wheels on the back of the bike that allow the bike to stand upright even when it is not moving. At first the training wheels help, but then soon become a hindrance. A bicycle, by its very nature, is designed to lean right and left. When a bike is up to speed it is not steered by the handle bar, but rather by leaning and tipping the bike.

The moving bike is held up by the physics of gyroscopic stability. The addition of training wheels makes it impossible for a bike to actually perform as a bike. Training wheels are for those bike riders who do not believe in gyroscopic stability. As my son would learn to ride the bike from the street, up a driveway, and on to the sidewalk, the training wheels would hit curbs and other obstructions and cause the bike to crash. Without the training wheels such maneuvers would have been easy. With training wheels these maneuvers became impossible. So the very training wheels that were supposed to hold the bike up actually caused it to crash.

There is much in the Christian tradition that is harmful and cause the same problem as training wheels on a bicycle.  It can be very difficult for some people to let go of their security blanket.

As a pastor much of my job was to support the Christian illusion. Many Christians think that the particular words of a ritual are magical incantations that have the power of a Harry Potter curse. At Christmas time no one wants to hear that Matthew’s Christmas story portraying the Star of Bethlehem and the Magi (three kings) is a total fabrication and tacked onto Matthew’s gospel by later editors. Such an acknowledgement would be like the loss of training wheels. The faithful turn to religion for security, certainty, consistency, and comfort.

As a pastor I had to polish the illusion; that was my job. But here I do not have that constraint. Here like the Masked Magician I will take you behind the illusion. I will show you what happens behind the smoke and mirrors. Here, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I will lift the curtain to show you that the wizard is just an ordinary mortal with a mastery of illusions.

I pledge to you my absolute honesty. I will not try to varnish the illusion, but to lift the curtain so that you may better understand its workings. I do not disparage religion, but only want you to understand how it works. My background is in the Christian religion. But the quest for meaning is a universal phenomenon. All religions share the same journey, each one by its own path.

{This is a prologue to a book I am planning}