* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, November 30, 2015

Asking the Right Questions -- Community

Another question that religion often seems to answer has to do with people's search for community -- a sense of belonging. Religion answers the questions, "Where can I find community? Where can I feel like I belong?" with caveats. You can find community here, if you believe the things we tell you to believe, or at least claim to. Religions are largely based on a set of beliefs, beliefs that often run counter to reality, and in order to be part of the community, you have to at least pretend to buy into those beliefs. Some people are so desperate for a sense of belonging that it seems like a pretty good deal.

A person looking for a sense of belonging enters into religious community and is told what to hope for in an afterlife, how to find a sense of purpose in service to an imaginary supernatural, and what to believe about the way the world works. It's very convenient to have someone tell you what to think, because then you don't have to go through the trouble of thinking for yourself. Some people appreciate that. So, we wind up with entire communities of people who have stopped thinking for themselves, willingly participating in a joint delusion that their emperor is wearing the latest high couture, because it's easier than wrestling with the messiness of reality.

The relationships people develop in these kinds of religious communities often wind up falling short of authentic connection, because the delusions offer easy responses to any concern that might be raised. People say, "I'll pray for you," because it's easier than actually diving into the muck of someone's pain. People say, "Trust God and it will all work out," because they have given up the capacity for taking personal responsibility in their lives. People say, "Those evil people who don't believe the same things we believe are going to hell," because it's easier to write off people who don't conform than it is to engage with people and learn from different perspectives.

And it's no wonder that people opt for easy, quick-fix answers. If they started trying to figure out the nuances of their religion's beliefs, they'd only confuse themselves. Out of one side of their mouths, religious leaders speak about infinite love, and out of the other side of their mouths, they speak with contempt for other human beings. It's more about power and influence than it is about helping people take personal responsibility for their lives, but because people have what seems like a reasonable substitute for community, they don't question it.

Of course, there are some religious leaders who say exactly what I'm saying here. They see possibilities for their tradition to take a different path that focuses on authentic connection and personal empowerment. Yet, they want to hang on to the same delusional foundations in order to create something different. They still want their communities to believe that prayer changes reality, and that a supernatural can take care of things that people are too weak to handle for themselves. It's hard to build a community of personally responsible human beings when you reinforce the belief that there is ultimately a supernatural who is in control.

Even in liberal religious communities, gaining a sense of belonging often requires conformity. It may not even be about belief in a supernatural or the power of prayer. Some religious groups require that their participants be passionate about fighting back against oppressors -- their version of "evil" people. Some religious groups expect people to use non-judgmental, politically correct language. In order to fit in and find community, people have to meet certain belief standards. While the motives may be noble, the end result is often just another set of trite phrases and pat answers.

Whether a religious community leans toward fundamentalism or liberalism, there is a tendency for individuals to stop thinking for themselves and go along with the herd. Those that don't, leave. This isn't just a feature of religious groups, of course. Groups of human beings tend toward homogeneity and mindless conformity. Religious communities amplify the issue by insisting that they know things that they don't actually know -- and often just plain aren't true. A homogeneous, mindless herd of people who believe that an all-powerful supernatural is on their side and is directing their actions can do a lot of damage.

At the same time, communities need clear identities. It's appropriate for a group to make a claim like, "We are people who first and foremost believe in shaming oppressors and fighting back against oppressive systems." Or even, "We are people who believe that prayer is an effective means of changing reality." If you share that belief in common, then you might find a sense of belonging with like-minded folks. Some groups even claim to be welcoming to everyone, but what this claim of hospitality actually means is, "We welcome anyone to come and be like us, and believe what we believe, and do things the way we do things."

Unlike the question of hope in an afterlife (which is better focused on hope in what we can do in this life), and unlike the question of purpose (which is better framed as one's decision rather than a destiny prescribed by a supernatural), the question of community and belonging is an appropriate question for people to ask. "Where can I find a genuine sense of belonging?" and "Where can I find authentic community?" are important searches that everyone engages in. Too often, though, religious communities require people to take the words genuine and authentic out of those questions, and people settle for a less than authentic community because they fear that there isn't anything else for them. People give up their own sense of personal responsibility, their own sense of self, in order to have a sense of community, because there are plenty of places that say, "You're welcome here, if you believe what we tell you to believe. You can belong here, as long as you do things the way we do things."

This question of community is worth a great deal more exploration, but for now it can suffice to say that the right framing of these questions doesn't leave out the most important words: Where can I find a genuine sense of belonging? Where can I find authentic community? We need connection with other human beings that empower us to live into a best possible version of ourselves, not restrict us to living into a best possible version that someone else imagined for us after reading an ancient text through a particularly warped lens. We need community that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person and allows for people to deepen their own connection to their deepest, most noble selves. Our sense of belonging is most meaningful when we are able to bring our whole selves into that community and find resources to grow and develop as individuals.

As we'll see moving forward, meaningful community includes five important characteristics: (1) mutual self-disclosure, (2) mutually expressed active and unconditional love, (3) mutual hospitality -- or willingness to be of service and to receive from others, (4) mutual honesty in communication, and (5) sincere affirmation. Healthy communities also have the ability to set clear boundaries and to define a central shared purpose or vision, but boundaries and purposes that create wholeness aren't based on delusions. Meaningful community does not require belief in anything beyond humanity. Meaningful community does not need to involve a supernatural. Meaningful community is possible if a group of people chooses to be intentional about putting these ideals into practice.

Before we look more deeply at how we might locate our hope realistically, take personal responsibility for our sense of purpose, and find a sense of belonging and create meaningful community without buying into mass delusions, there is one more basic question that religious pretends to answer. We'll take a brief look at the problem of evil next. In the meantime, don't leave out the most important words in your questions. Finding meaningful answers requires asking the right questions:

How do I live in such a way that I'll be satisfied with how I influence the world around me?
What am I passionate about? What is my personal life dream that creates greater wholeness in the world?
Where do I find a genuine sense of belonging? Where do I find authentic community? 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Asking the Right Questions -- Purpose

In addition to inventing and answering questions about an afterlife, religion presumes to answer questions about purpose. We've seen that we can meaningfully reframe afterlife-focused questions as "How do I live in such a way that I'll be satisfied with the influence I have in the world and with the legacy I leave behind?" We can also phrase questions of purpose without religious assumptions, and answer them more legitimately.

Believers who assume the existence of a supernatural seem to find it perfectly acceptable to ask, "What purpose does God have for my life?" or "What is God's plan for me?" Asking the question in this way accomplishes a few things. First, it suggests that our activities are part of a larger intentional scheme, coordinated by a better-than-human benevolent intelligence. It also removes personal responsibility for determining purpose, since it becomes the responsibility of a supernatural. In addition, it can provide a false sense comfort during challenging experiences to believe that everything is part of a larger plan or purpose that is beyond the individual's ability to perceive.

Before we consider whether framing the question of purpose differently can accomplish more for us, it's worth acknowledging that most people who believe that a supernatural has a secret plan for their lives are also susceptible to influence by religious leaders -- people perceived to have some spiritual authority. For some reason, it's acceptable to think that you are too ignorant to understand what purpose a supernatural might have, but that a professional minister somehow has special insight about what that supernatural wants for your life. This is just another way of abdicating responsibility. As long as someone else is taking responsibility for telling me my life's purpose, I don't have to worry about that. This might benefit some people if the spiritual authority they listen to has their best interests in mind, but it is far too easy for a unscrupulous spiritual authority to manipulate believers who aren't willing to take personal responsibility for their decisions. 

There is something appealing about the whole concept that God has a plan, and your life fits into it in some unique and special way, even though you are just one small piece of the puzzle. It's rather like destiny or fate, but more personal. Thus, when people experience difficult circumstances, they can fall back on this idea that a warm and loving destiny-weaver has a plan, and that everything is going to work out alright. They may even quote a scripture that promises that "all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28). That can really make a person feel special and comforted, even if it doesn't seem to connect in any way to practical reality.

Just as everyone searches for hope, everyone searches for purpose. We've seen that the question of hope can be addressed in terms of how we live and how we influence the world toward wholeness. The question of purpose can be directed at us as well, rather than at some unreal external force. This might mean a little more work that just letting someone else tell us what to do, and it might mean a little more honesty when we experience challenges. 

Ultimately, we are the only ones who determine our purpose, whether we recognize it or not. If we listen to a religious leader when they tell us what we should be doing, we are still personally responsible for our decisions. We make a choice, even though it seems easy because someone is telling us with authority what a god wants from us. If we just sit at home with a sacred text and derive from that what our purpose must be, we are still the only decision-makers involved in that process. There is no supernatural guiding us. We have just become so unused to hearing our own inner voice that we think it must come from outside of us. Whether we are honest about our responsibility or we pretend that it's beyond our choosing, we determine our purpose.

This is scary for a lot of folks, especially if they've been taught that they aren't enough. Churches often teach that human beings need some supernatural aid because we aren't enough on our own. They say that we aren't wise enough, or we aren't good enough, or we aren't powerful enough to live purposeful, meaningful lives. They say that we need help from something better than us if we're going to find real meaning and purpose. This degradation of human capability is poison. It prevents people from recognizing their authentic power to make decisions that are personally satisfying and that nurture the world around them. The truth is that human wisdom and goodness and power is all we have, and it is more than enough. 

We find purpose when we take personal responsibility for our decisions -- understanding that we don't control other people, we only control ourselves. When we take the time to determine what is meaningful for us, what we really care about, we can define our purpose with clarity. When we are willing to risk the vulnerability of stepping out of our comfort zone and living into a more ambitious purpose for ourselves and for the world, we nourish our hope as well. This involves asking the question of ourselves, "What do I really care about?" thoroughly enough that we get to a powerful personal statement of purpose. To get there, we have to dig through our irrational fears and the lies that we've accepted about ourselves and other people. This takes some work, and it takes claiming our personal responsibility for our lives. And it has the potential to give us a more authentic sense of meaning and wholeness than abdicating the question of purpose to a supernatural or its representatives.

What about the idea that we are just one small piece in a bigger plan? That idea actually has some truth to it. There isn't a plan per se, but our actions do take place in a larger system. What we do in our lives can contribute to nurturing the world toward wholeness, but we don't do it all ourselves. Other people who have tapped into their purpose also find meaning in contributing their own piece. We don't have to feel overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done in the world. We can recognize the opportunity to take meaningful action in an area that's important to us. We don't have to feel ashamed that what we do gives us personal satisfaction. Purpose and meaning are not supposed to be self-sacrificial. The point is to do something we find personally satisfying and that nurtures the world around us toward greater well-being.

The question we can ask then becomes, "What purpose do I have for my life?" and "How do I live into a personal life dream that creates wholeness and increases the well-being of others?" We don't need supernaturals to tell us what inspires us, or to point out to us what the world needs. We don't need "sacred" texts to set us on the right path. We do have to be honest about our own biases and our own fears, and we need to dig deeper than answers that seem designed to keep us safe. Having a purpose isn't safe. Living into a personal creative life dream is powerful and satisfying, but it requires some vulnerability and risk. That's why we need people around us who can support and encourage us, which leads to another important question about community. We'll learn how to ask that question meaningfully next time. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Asking the Right Questions -- Afterlife

Some people have a problem discarding the idea that a particular book is more sacred than any other. At first glance, discarding a sacred text seems to mean that there is no way to gain authoritative information about some important things. Who decides what's important, though? Many religions make assertions about what questions are important, because those are the questions religious doctrine can answer. But if the questions are nonsense in the first place, the answers can't be very meaningful or valuable. Apart from blindly trusting the assertions of a religious tradition, how do we determine what questions are meaningful? Until we do that for ourselves, we won't really know whether it's safe to discard a potential source of meaningful answers.

One question that religion seems to spend a lot of time on is, "What happens after I die? And how do I make sure that it's pleasant for me?" This is a nonsense question. First of all, after you die, you start to decompose, and possibly you nourish the earth a little bit. That sounds painful, but you won't feel it. Because you'll be dead. Dead people don't have brain activity. It's part of the definition of being dead. No brain activity, no sensation. Once your brain stops functioning, you're pretty much done experiencing anything you're going to experience. Death is an ending.

But what about the soul? Where does my soul go when I die? Another nonsense question. Of course, we would have to define "soul" to know how much nonsense the question is, but there are really only two definitions that make any sense in this context. Sometimes when people say "soul" they mean an spirit or immaterial part of a person. This suggests that people are essentially some sort of ether inhabiting a physical form for a time, and that they continue to exist ethereally after the physical body is used up. The problem with this idea is that rigorous examination has never yielded any evidence that people have such an immaterial component.

Wait a minute, you say, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Wrong again. I know it's a clever phrase, and there's some truth to it, but when rational and scientific inquiry has examined a matter over and over again with consistent results, one can draw some reasonable conclusions from that consistency. Ghosts, spirits, and other supernatural entities make for great stories, but they are not part of reality. A part of us does not actually continue to exist once our bodies cease functioning. So the question of where our soul goes is a meaningless question, if by "soul" you mean an immaterial and immortal part of a person.

"Soul" can also mean a person's essence -- not an immortal intelligent part of them that continues to have will after their bodies are used up, but the core qualities and ideals they embodied. In this case, one can say that a person "lives on" in the memories of others. A person can leave a legacy that continues to influence the world long after they have died. People create works of art, initiate or contribute to institutions and organizations, usher in social change. All sorts of things that people do continue after they have died. Just in influencing one's own children, family, and friends, we continue to have influence after we are no longer alive. We don't have any choice about how that influence happens once we're dead, but we might consider that our essence continues to persist in this way.

So nothing happens to an immaterial part of you when you die, but your influence continues in the lives of other human beings. That means that what matters most is not some eternal destiny, but how you influence things in the present tense, while you are still alive and aware and making decisions. The question, then, is not, "How do I ensure a pleasant afterlife?" because there is no such thing. The question is, "How do I live in such a way that I'll be satisfied with the influence I have in the world and with the legacy I leave behind?"

Wait a minute. What about Heaven and Hell? You know that I'm going to say this is another meaningless question if you're asking about your own actual future existence. It makes sense that we would have developed these ideas as a species. We've never really known what to do with death. Some of the most ancient human-created structures that still exist were built as tombs, places to honor the dead and usher them into some sort of afterlife. Whatever beliefs we developed were designed to provide comfort to the living, though. These beliefs do not describe reality. And it doesn't matter how many people believe in something, just believing something doesn't make it true. Heaven isn't going to pop into existence just because a lot of people believe it exists. And you're not going to develop an immaterial immortal essence just by believing hard enough.

Religious ideas do offer us some great metaphors, though. The idea of heaven and the idea of hell are very useful. The problem is that so many people seem incapable of understanding what a metaphor is. When you start taking things literally, you abuse the image. Now, people use the idea of heaven as a spiritual carrot and the idea of hell as a spiritual stick. The metaphors have become tools of coercion. If it's possible to free the idea of heaven and the idea of hell from the literal interpretation that seems so prevalent today, they can still be useful metaphors. If we use them as metaphors, though, it's our responsibility to be clear that we're doing so.

Knowing that a large number of people interpret these ideas literally means that we have to be overly cautious if we want to communicate clearly. Just like we might be sensitive that young children are in the room while Santa Claus is being discussed. It's a shame that our culture encourages people to be rational about believing in Santa Claus, but then discourages rational thought in so many other areas, particularly where religion or consumerism is concerned.

"Where do I go when I die?" should certainly be on a list of meaningless questions. Any resource that seems to make that question important is a resource we can safely discard. That is, unless we find it useful in a more metaphorical sense, in which case we ought to be very clear about how we're using it. A more meaningful question is, "How do I live in such a way that I'll be satisfied with how I influence the world around me?" A resource that seems to speak to that question is worth examining. That doesn't mean every answer is equally useful or credible, but at least we can begin to articulate the question more clearly.

We'll articulate some other big questions before looking at where to discover meaningful answers.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Eschatos (for now)

Having concluded the gospel of John, I spent some time considering what to tackle next. The decision was difficult. Continuing with the second third of Isaiah would make a lot of sense, considering that so many believers mistakenly conclude that the book is about Jesus. (The "servant" in the book is more likely an idealized, emotionally mature person in the midst of an anxious society.) The letters of Paul, taken in any sequence, would be useful perhaps, since many of the Christianities that exist today are based more on Paul's flawed thinking than on any of the Christ narratives. Especially with regard to judging people who seem different, Christians frequently rely on the words of Paul to condemn others and spread fear.

However, even these compelling possibilities seem uninspiring, at least for now. Thus, the title "Eschatos" -- last things, endings. I have accomplished several things that I set out to demonstrate when I began this exercise. First, I have shown that meaning can be derived from a text without assuming the historical accuracy of the story in the text. Second, I have shown how one might discard harmful assertions from "sacred" texts in order to bring one's beliefs into alignment with one's deepest values. Third, and perhaps most importantly, I have consistently reflected an atheist/Humanist philosophy that holds human beings in high regard and forms a credible foundation for ethical and moral behavior. I have freely interpreted the text through a lens of my own choosing, as every interpreter does, such that the Bible was brought into alignment with the guiding principle that every person has inherent worth and dignity.

It should be noted that some of the text had to be dismissed or refuted in order to do this. This is because the Bible is a flawed document written by imperfect human beings who often didn't know what to do with their anxiety and fear. Yet, I don't really think anything I have written here will convince someone to read things with an open mind if they're prone to believe in a literal translation of the text. And those who are willing to read things with an open mind don't need my encouragement to do so. In any case, I don't need to continue with this particular project in order to demonstrate how you might first clarify your own guiding principles, and then read whatever text you choose to read with an eye toward deepening your integrity and aligning more intentionally with your deepest, most noble self.

I originally chose the Bible because it's such a strong influence in Western culture, much more so than Buddhist writings, for instance, which might more easily line up with my Humanist assertions. Recently, though, I've been saddened by how flippantly some believers use biblical texts as weapons to harm others. The ideas of bigotry and fear, practices of injustice and hatred, even acts of profound dishonesty and abuse are sanctified by words from this collection of texts that ought have no more importance than any other ancient document.

It is clear that a significant portion of the population interprets the words of the Bible as license to not learn how to think critically, as permission not to develop into fully human vessels of love and light that create wholeness. I find that I am repulsed by words that attribute human worth to the benevolence of a supernatural, not least of all because that imagined supernatural is also used to disguise hate as virtue and fear as righteous indignation. Where I may once have easily interpreted Humanist ideals out of a theistic text, I now find it abhorrent to in any way legitimize words that so many believers use to justify lazy, narrow-minded thinking that keeps people from wholeness rather than fueling a journey toward wholeness.

The idea that there is a supernatural who guards and guides human life is simply wrong. Abdicating one's personal responsibility to the will of an imaginary god is simply irresponsible. Human beings do not derive worth from anything outside of themselves, and they do not need to be cleansed or redeemed by a mystical sacrifice. Human beings have inherent worth and dignity. This means that there is nothing a person needs to do to earn the status of being enough. And there is nothing that can take human worth away from anybody.

Human beings are still flawed. We still give in to our anxiety, and we let our fear make decisions for us. An even more flawed mythology isn't going to help us deal with these issues. What we need is to take responsibility for our own part in the greater system of humanity. Human beings are capable of growing in their emotional maturity. Human beings are capable of developing integrity. Human beings are capable of doing the work of creating wholeness in their lives and in the lives of others. And we don't need a god to do these things. And we don't need a sacred book.

Sacred books and gods are convenient, it's true. But they are also easily abused without dispute. Legitimizing belief in a god for the sake of empowering people to do good things in the world unfortunately opens the door for belief in a god to empower people to feel justified in hatred, fear, and violence. As a species, for the last two thousand years, we have failed to teach people to use their myths properly. Thus, it is better to work to discard the myths and replace them with something more useful and better suited to the task of human development.

There are some tools that are necessary to do a certain job, even though they could be dangerous. We keep those tools around because they are useful, and we take precautions that they are used and kept in a way that maintains a level of safety. It would be irresponsible to do otherwise. Belief in a god is not a necessary tool. For the creation of wholeness, for developing greater integrity, for recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of every person, for growing in emotional maturity, belief in a god is unnecessary. More importantly, belief in a god frequently keeps people from creating wholeness, developing integrity, recognizing human worth, and growing in emotional maturity. When a tool is unnecessary and dangerous, the responsible thing to do is to throw it out.

You can say, "Those people don't believe in the god I believe in. The god I believe in is wonderful." That's nice. You don't need it. If you want the luxury of keeping a tool around because you find it convenient, despite the harmful things so many people do with that tool, I believe it is your responsibility to teach people how to use that tool properly. If you want to hang on to your supernatural, it is not alright that you stand by and watch people do abusive, hateful, fear-driven things in the name of your supernatural. You are responsible for how you allow others to use your tools. If you want belief in a god to remain in public usage, you are responsible for speaking out boldly for what kind of god you're willing for that to be. The people I hear speaking out boldly for their god are only saying things that reflect their fears and anxieties veiled in religiosity.

For me, belief in a god is unnecessary, and sacred texts are unnecessary. These things are too dangerous for me to continue accepting and legitimizing them. Accepting the premise of the importance of the Bible has become a distraction from delighting in life and creating wholeness. I'm grateful for your attention as a reader, and I hope that my words have been meaningful to you thus far. My hope for you is that you find ways to deepen your own connection to your deepest most noble self in everything that you read, and that you continually recognize the truth, beauty, and creativity within you. Live into a best possible version of yourself, and the result will be a better world.