Disagreement with the church’s stance on political or social issues
All three of these reasons, in my opinion, come down to one central problem: Christianity has shifted its attention away from the central message and onto things that are divisive, especially politics.
How would you like to watch me eat oatmeal and tell you about how, it seems to me, prominent atheists are starting to discover religion in general or Christianity specifically? Cool — I have the video you’re looking for!
If you believe in the existence of God, can you support your position? If you’re an atheist, can you refute the most compelling arguments? If you answered “No” to either of these questions, you might enjoy and benefit from this video.
And please, whatever you do, please get engaged and go crazy in the comments. Pro or con doesn’t matter.
Because not only do I believe in God, I believe that God wants you to be engaged with Him. And I believe that if you engage with Him, in time, you will belong to Him.
Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions is maddening – not because it is uniformly bad but because it contains a tarnished brilliance that is a clue to an underlying schizophrenia ultimately revealed in its conclusion. At times you think it may be building into a tour de force, but then you are confronted by a disappointing blemish. It is written eloquently and awkwardly at the same time:
“Guidelines are weakening even here, but it is still pretty much the case that if a corporation executive were to forget his necktie, he would have trouble getting through the day.” (italics mine)
Who would expect, in a thoughtful book like this one, to find “pretty much” or “corporation executive” instead of “corporate executive?” Contrast these transgressions to this insight:
“Reality is steeped in ineluctable mystery; we are born in mystery, we live in mystery, and we die in mystery. Here again we must rescue our world from time’s debasement, for “mystery” has come to be associated with murder mysteries, which, because they are solvable are not mysteries at all. A mystery is that special kind of problem which for the human mind has no solution…” (italics mine)
An excellent way of expressing the religious mystery for sure. And yet the ear begs for the clumsy transposition of “which” and “for” to be undone. There are gems to be found in the dirt, but unfortunately there is dirt to be found on most of Huston’s gems. It’s clear he spent years researching the book, and it’s painful to be so critical. But passages like this one, found in the conclusion, sum up the central problem underlying his inconsistencies:
“Our realization that science cannot help us reopen the door to looking seriously again at what the wisdom traditions propose. Not all of their contents are enduringly wise. Modern science has superseded their cosmologies, and the social mores of their day, which they reflect – gender relations, class structures, and the like – must be reassessed in the light of changing times and the continuing struggle for justice. But if we pass a strainer through the world’s religions to lift out their conclusions about reality and how life should be lived, those conclusions begin to look like the winnowed wisdom of the human race.”
This is the viewpoint of a person who supports the continued erosion of the world’s religions — the viewpoint of someone who is opaque to his own disrespect of the traditions he seems to endorse. Is he blind to the living people he has studied, many of whom would take issue with his willingness to “pass a strainer” through their faiths and winnow out what he likes and does not like? How many of them (myself included) would say that the world’s religions don’t “look like” the wisdom of the human race?
Huston’s book would have been better if he had embraced the world’s religions to an extent sufficient to make him willing to fight harder for their preservation.
A recent post by Steve Grogan entitled “Why I Prefer Spirituality over Religion” got me thinking. I started to simply reply in the comments, but I soon realized that I had far more to say. Here is Steve’s post:
And here’s my response.
I understand how you feel. Truth be told, I have had similar knee-jerk reactions myself. But deep down, I don’t believe that many people are “churned out of churches” with narrow viewpoints because they have ideas “ground into them.”
You have come upon the verge of a powerfully brilliant realization, and I hope you don’t mind if I — one martial artist to another, in a friendly way — give you little helping hand making the leap.
Humans are not generally stupid or easily brainwashed. I believe people sometimes espouse ideologies they really aren’t deeply invested in, and that they do so for reasons that are frequently quite mundane. They make investments in order to receive gains. If they are lonely, they may go to a church to make friends or to interact with existing ones. If it benefits them socially, politically, or commercially, some folks will attend a church just so that they can hobnob with powerful people, make business contacts, and so forth. This group explains why, as you said, some people you perceive as religious don’t practice what they preach.
Others attend a given church out of tradition. Going to the same church that grandma and grandpa attended provides a sense of security, stability, and comfort. Or maybe they just go because they’re bored, or because they feel they’re supposed to.
And there are the role players. These are people who attend churches to pursue their self-aggrandizement, so that they can either feel — or appear — pious, hardworking, selfless, and/or committed. They volunteer for projects, try to raise the most charity money, lead the choir, the committee, the study group, etc.
Many go to church in search of guidance and direction. The ones who are free-thinking and determined may stay for years, quietly studying and seeking, perhaps even secretly harboring a viewpoint divergent from fellow congregants, holding out hope that someday enlightenment will come. Others are more rudderless. For them, something, anything, is better than wandering aimlessly. Once inside, lacking wisdom and insight, and surrounded by others who follow the teachings, these types do whatever it takes to exemplify the ideal.
In my experience, there is usually a small but very vocal group of people who are the hardcore believers, the ones who have mistaken the communion wine for the Koolaid. Don’t judge the entire congregation by these characters. That would be like judging all Muslims based on the behavior of a few jihadists.
With all this in mind, it should be no surprise that people in religious organizations might be “unwilling to admit that anything else might be true or make sense.” When you challenge someone’s religious beliefs you are forcing him or her to self-evaluate. People don’t want to look themselves in the mirror. Hardcore believers will be especially resistant because they have invested so much more. It is as if they have built a massive and incredible bridge, and you are asking them to admit that the engineering is faulty, or that it perhaps may lead nowhere.
Human beings don’t usually like facing facts about themselves and others. They don’t enjoy admitting uncertainty, poor judgement, or true motives. If they are in a congregation owing to heritage or tradition, it isn’t fun to admit that grandma and grandma might have been wrong. If they’re there because their friends are there, a challenge of beliefs may ignite feelings of tribalism. In the end, although some people do push back against religious criticism because they are true believers, reasons vary greatly because people vary greatly.
Making assumptions about the homogeneity of “religious” people — some of whom may only appear to be religious — lacks nuance. This goes for all broad categories of people. You are a martial artist, a practitioner of Wing Chung. Why do you practice it? Do all practitioners of Wing Chun have the same reasons? How many reasons are there for people to practice Wing Chun and advocate its concepts? I posit that there are as many reasons as there are practitioners. How would you react if someone criticized Wing Chun?
Most of the things you have observed have more to do with human nature than they have to do with religion. As a martial artist, you know that when a person is pushed, he usually pushes back; when she is pulled, she pulls back. This is a natural tendency.
But the master is the one who pulls when he is pushed, who pushes when she is pulled.
Perhaps, when dealing with intolerant people, folks with whom you disagree, and so forth, you might anticipate the push. All options are available to you in terms of thoughts, feelings and actions — pushing, pulling, blocking, shielding, clashing, avoiding, and so on.
From one martial artist to another, I feel I must warn you against the great trap that is dualism. I really hope you don’t think of this as a lecture. I enjoy your blog, and I find it thought provoking. Please keep posting.
The Universe, in all its beauty, complexity and wonder, is simply too big to easily experience and absorb. Taking in everything, from the stars in the night sky to the twinkle in your lover’s eye, would be like trying to take in the entire internet. The human mind has as much trouble getting a handle on totality as it does organizing all websites at once.
Religions and philosophies are like web browsers and their search engines. They focus on certain things, put them in a particular order, filter out some results. They slant things a certain way. Sometimes this filtering is good. It helps people make sense of the input. Other times, key pieces of information get left out, folks don’t realize that the results have been filtered, and they take action without knowing the entire picture. This can be largely harmless, or it can be extremely damaging. Keep in mind that this is how governments control citizens, how cults operate, and how brainwashing is accomplished: by controlling input, cutting off contact with essential information, and blocking ‘restricted content.’
Mysticism is the attempt to do the seemingly impossible: to take it all in, to let it all inside, to “grasp the divine essence or the ultimate reality of things, and to enjoy the blessedness of actual communion with the Highest.”
Most folks can appreciate the importance of getting all of the information before making important decisions. Like when you’re sitting on a jury, buying a new car, or contemplating marriage. But when it comes to religion (and sometimes the web) some people just can’t seem to get on board.
Why is this? Why do people so often fall in love with the idea of love rather than with people, become so enamored with fictional tableaus that they want to live in them, and frequently seek the comfort of groups over the excitement of flying solo?
I think it boils down to evolution. People who play it safe live longer than people who don’t. Their DNA gets passed down more often. But it’s the ones who want to brave uncharted territory, to go where no one has gone before, who innovate, bring back new spiritual, philosophical, and technical information, and breathe new life into our cultural DNA. Mystics have changed the world. Think for a moment about what geometry would look like without Pythagoras, where physics would be without Newton and Schrödinger, psychoanalysis would be without Jung, where literature would be without Blake, Thoreau, and Huxley, and so on.
Raise a new window on reality, change the channel, go someplace you’ve never been. Try a new browser.
The consensus model of human evolution is that we originated in Africa and from there migrated to the rest of the world. The phantom concept known as “race” is the result of adaptation to environment, isolation, and cultural favoritism toward certain traits. To oversimplify, if your gene pool lives in a cold, cloudy and remote place and your culture thinks blue eyes and blond hair are pretty, eventually you get vikings. Race is just a way to categorize people by how they look even though we’re all the same species.
Most rational people understand that anyone obsessed with racial purity is a prejudiced, backward-looking, dangerous numbskull. Race has all the significance of a fashion trend. Trying to preserve racial purity is like fighting to keep bell-bottoms forever in style. Only way more dangerous.
In prehistory, before cities, governments, and agriculture, when we wandered out of Africa as hunter-gatherers, we were in familial bands with the same politics and religion. Agriculture came into fashion and we began to settle down in one place, which gave rise to the idea of city-states. At that point we were still able to say with some certainty that our neighbors were of the same basic political and religious persuasion. But still, there was increasing friction. It’s no coincidence that the world’s oldest city is in Sumer and that’s also the home of the world’s oldest legal code.
Just like “race,” the idea of the city-state is dying. Not only can we no longer rely on our neighbors to look the same, we can no longer rely on them to be of the same political or religious persuasion. Just as we are returning to our original “race” we are returning to our original social structure — family units with overlapping views on politics and religion. In fact, we’ve progressed so far so fast that even that isn’t a certainty. According to this Washington Post article, “15 percent of U.S. households were mixed-faith in 1988. That number rose to 25 percent by 2006, and the increase shows no signs of slowing.”
The idea of a nation united around a single set of cultural beliefs is an obsolete fashion. Trying to preserve it is like trying to keep everyone riding penny-farthings instead of mountain bikes. Only way more dangerous.
Our political and religious systems are not keeping up with our evolution. Religion is doing better, I suppose because it’s far easier to change how you think about God than it is to change how you’re governed. Religions that are adaptive and forward-thinking are doing better than those that refuse to let go of the past. The fastest growing Abrahamic religion is Islam at 1.84% annually. Compare that to Wicca at 143%. No, I didn’t forget the decimal. That’s 77 times faster than Islam.
Politically we’re still holding onto outmoded notions, and it shows. Here in the U.S. we have a deeply divided congress and we just had a presidential election that, for all intents and purposes, was a tie. Trying to force half of a country to live the way the other half wants to live is as ridiculous as making everyone wear leisure suits and platform shoes. Only way more dangerous.
Economics is faring just as poorly. For generation after generation the growth model of economics has been the black tie of the ball. Now that we know that there are too many people on the planet, resources are running out, and climate change is a real threat, the growth model is looking pretty mush busted. Old ideas about economics failed to predict the 2008 financial collapse and only a handful of people are questioning why nobody is rewriting the economics textbooks. Nobody’s talking about how to get everyone employed and fed without growth, or talking about how to reduce our population.
Across the world there are people holding on to the old ways, and they come in all colors and styles. Sometimes they’re plainly outfitted as fundamentalists or conservatives, but other times they dress up and play progressives. It’s all so tiresome and outmoded. Politics today is like a fashion show from the 1950s. Only way more dangerous.
Let’s embrace our evolution and move on to new ideas — shrug off our old outfits and put on some fresh clothes.
Thanks to my son for pointing me to this must-read article at Scientific American. It explains the history behind the current state of affairs — climate change denial, vaccine phobias, the ‘marriage of industrialist money with fundamentalist values,’ etc., and explains the dangers it poses to us all.
Reading the article I wonder, as I have many times before, why people like me (occultists and practitioners of alternative religions) are so pro-science. I have friends of almost every alternative stripe — Occultists, Voodooists, Wiccans, you name it — and they seem much more pro-science than the mainstream. How can believers in magic ally with the enemies of ‘magical thinking?’ And yet I very rarely find climate change denial and opposition to stem cell research among the alternative crowd.
I don’t worship science or believe that we can ‘science our way out’ of climate change because I think population growth and social issues will outstrip scientific reductions in carbon emissions. But denying the validity of science isn’t helping anybody.
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