Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Crosses To Bear

The acme of ignorance is to feel that your beliefs are beyond reproach. Nowhere is that represented more fully than in organized religion.

Now, before I am crucified and told what a bad human I am for spouting my blasphemies, let me say that I have nothing against religion and religious conviction, save where such conviction is twisted toward purposes that are against the greater good of humanity. There is a great deal to be said for having faith in something, and I have struggled for many years with my own Catholicism, accepting and rejecting it at various times. I have studied many of the world's major religions, most recently having the good fortune to listen to the Dalai Lama speak of the path of faith in Tibetan Buddhism last summer. I think I got the most from his talks, because he emphasized that Buddhism shares so many commonalities with other religions of the world, and to find the true path, one must start with one's own faith. In other words, the Dalai Lama is not out to make everyone a Buddhist.

My belief is that you must have faith in something. Being a man of science, I have delved into the workings of the universe, from the tiniest atom to the most distant quasar. Einstein's equations have spoken to me of a universe governed by a set of unalterable yet malleable principles, that allow it to function, separated from the need for oversight. Set in motion, the grand cavalcade that is the march of the galaxies has been going on for billions of years, guided by simple equations and knowable forms. My core faith tells me that the universe will continue to work as intended, without the machinations of its creator. Who that creator is, and by that I mean I believe there was one, remains a mystery. The signs are there in the stars.

If you find the strictures of an organized religion more palatable, there is nothing inherently wrong with that... unless you are unwilling to question the tenets the religion is founded on. If the universe teaches us anything, it is that nothing remains static. So too it should be with our beliefs. When the evidence of our senses and our cognition tell us that the tenets of our faith are misaligned with the way of the universe, we must be willing to alter those beliefs. Strict adherence to beliefs in the face of contrary evidence is anathema. Science teaches us that lesson ever day; in fact, it tells us that no matter what we think, we must be able to subject our beliefs to critical testing in order for them to remain strong.

And while the average person can see clear to believe what they need to, in order to live a harmonious life, altering core beliefs to better fit their view of the world, it is the zealotry of some which unfortunately tinges religion with an unsightly pallor. Blind adherence to beliefs, whether religious or scientific, creates the illusion of power over the world. In science, it is too often the case that someone will try to make the universe fit their theory, rather make their theory fir the universe. The course of science is marked with ideas (Terracentrism, the ether, perpetual motion, constant creation, etc.) which held on far longer than they should have, given that scientists were sure they were right, and could not adjust their thinking until the preponderance of evidence made it folly to maintain the belief. Even then, some went to the grave certain their ideas were not incorrect, merely misinterpreted.

Religion, dealing more directly with personal faith in ideas, finds it harder to yield to fact or even to the idea that one faith is not necessarily the faith. While the adherents of a religion are often able to navigate the schisms caused by differences between daily life and religious teaching, far too many people are trying to force daily life to fit their religious beliefs, not just for themselves, but others. The friction caused by this is seen in much of the political debate in the United States over issues such as abortion, sex education, and school prayer. While it is good to see people take their faith seriously, it is disturbing when they take it so seriously that it blinds them to fact or causes them to feel that they must force others to fall in line (either through law or deed).

Now, my beliefs have been shaped over the many years of my life, and while in youth they changed frequently, as I have become older I find them becoming more set, less malleable. I am still able to change them, do not get me wrong, but the level of evidence and discourse required is much greater, and I put a greater premium on how someone approaches me in an attempt to change my mind. I find that a knee-jerk reaction is very off-putting; when I voice a contrary opinion, it is not an attempt to denigrate what someone else is saying, only to stake out the grounds for discussion. Those who cannot stand to hear a contrary view, who leap immediately to an offensive mindset rather than engage in discourse, very rarely will hold any sway with me. I do sometimes wonder if my views of the world have become too rigid, to the point of limiting my flexibility, but finding it hard to step outside myself as I once could, and forced to take my queues from others, I tell myself that I am being as scrupulous in that regard as I can manage. I would like to think my view is right most of the time, but I am the first to admit when I am wrong. Or so I would like to think.

It is my desire to see harmony in the world, and that cannot be approached until we are willing to set aside our differences. There is room enough on this planet for every type of belief (or non-belief), without the need to exhort against any one system, or to attempt to legislate them away. For whatever you or I might feel about any group's beliefs, at the core we owe them the respect that we wish to be accorded for ours. We will disagree, we will see others as perhaps misguided, but in the end we will extend the hand of friendship and goodwill, because it is for the greater good.


  1. "There is room enough on this planet for every type of belief (or non-belief), without the need to exhort against any one system, or to attempt to legislate them away."

    Yes. Yes there is. Excellent post.

  2. I've often said that the problem with Christianity is Christians.

    The faith allows for questions, argument, mediation, the pursuit of spiritual growth and enlightenment, for your belief to ebb and flow, and it even allows room for science and social change. But many people that follow simply want to swallow it whole like a pill, as if asking questions diminishes their faith. I've never understood that.

  3. Any belief system has to be open to the possibility that it doesn't answer every question, or that it may be based on false premises, which made sense at the time, but no longer do.

    The Dalai Lama admitted this, because someone asked him a question about why Buddhism is still a very male-dominated religion. There were several female monks on stage with him, and he made note of the fact that the path to enlightenment means that along the way, you have to be willing to adapt your perceptions to reality, in essence that enlightenment is not necessarily a static "thing," but more a way of operating.

    It's true of every religion -- the zealous cannot see the forest for the trees. They simply sweep aside contradictions to their faith and maintain the illusion of "truth." And it goes far beyond religion, because the same idea applies, as I wrote, even to science, where people are too wedded to their pet theory and try some very inspired genuflection to try and keep it relevant, even when it no longer is. Even after quantum physics proved to be the key to answering questions about light and gravity, there were still major physicists in the of the "ether."

  4. I find myself of the terrible mindset where I am rude to anyone who is not openminded. I expect everyone to be open to a multitude of believes and find myself judging those who are not.

  5. I know you have a real job and everything, but on behalf of those of us who are still in the academy doing religious studies:

    There is actually a pretty significant pluralist movement afoot. The newish buzzword is "interfaith dialogue" and there are constantly forums of nonbelievers, Christians, Jews, and (more now than before 2001) Muslims chatting about what divinity means and repeating over and over that we agree on more than we disagree for the most part. The language is shifting from "Judeo-Christian" to "Abrahamic faiths" and truly people love to talk about this stuff. You're in New Jersey: the Princeton divinity school undoubtedly has evening and weekend talks on this sort of thing, as does Rutgers probably, and this is probably too far north for you but my alma mater in North Jersey does a Thursday evening talk once a month, and it's usually on some sort of pluralist or interfaith topic.

    You should check out Opening the Covenant by Michael Kogan, a man who has dedicated 45 years of his life to interfaith dialogue between Christians and Jews (plus he's local!) and who has been described as a prophet by colleagues and reporters.