I am a religious person. I believe in the deities of Daoism, a Chinese religion which has existed as an organized religion since approximately 200 CE. More and more, I’ve read people’s testimonies on social media making the case for atheism, or at the least, attacking religion and people who describe themselves as religious. I’ve been thinking about the rising popularity of this belief in non-belief. Certainly, there are some reasons for people to turn their backs on organized religion in recent years. Probably the biggest factor in the current trend can be traced to the seemingly endless parade of sex scandals committed by priests in the Catholic Church and that institution’s culpability in covering up said scandals.
Another factor has been the rise of large scale evangelical organizations across the United States and the active role these groups have played in our nation’s political process. Increasingly conservative, and willing to overlook the very un-Christian actions and words of our president, the “Christian Right” have raised the ire of people who dislike the hypocrisy which comes with pairing Jesus and Donald Trump in the same breath.
A third influence on the rise of non-belief is the prevalence of technological tools, both hard and soft, such as the iphone and social media. While I don’t have anything original to say about people’s dependence on their phones and social media in a general sense, I do believe that these modern things move us further away from the eternal. To follow religion is to accept the importance of something universal while living in a world where the trivial is magnified to become all-important.
By the way, throughout this post, I’ll be defining terms in the interest of clear communication. Sometimes a discussion can go sideways because people are debating a topic without clearly defined terms and parameters. I’ll define a god as any being or group of beings, or substance which exists at a higher level than humans. By exists at a higher level, I mean possesses a clearer understanding of reality and the world than would be possible by anyone who is entirely human(a nod to Jesus who Christians believe is both human and divine).
As I mentioned in the first sentence, I am a religious person. I believe in divine powers. I believe that there are forces at work both beyond my control and understanding. I hope to lay out why someone would want to be religious and why doubt in higher powers doesn’t guarantee someone has a clearer understanding of reality.
Let me make it clear that I’m college educated with a Master’s Degree in History. I’ve been teaching various history classes at private high schools since 1986. I feel this is a necessary point to make because one of the common assertions by those who champion atheism or agnosticism is that people who are religious aren’t very intelligent. While often not stated directly, there is often the hanging implication that someone who believes in deities is thinking irrationally. And you know what? That argument is correct. I am thinking irrationally when it comes to religion! But this is where the Atheists’ argument begins to break down. Because the arguments opposing the existence of deities is based on a paradigm created in the exciting times of 16th-18th century Europe.
The triumph of reason over religious beliefs has its origins in the European Scientific Revolution. Men like Galileo, Kepler and Newton developed proof that the universe followed universal laws which could be divined through a series of constructed scientific experiments. Johannes Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion are one example which proved that the movement of planets could be known and predicted by the human brain. Then came the European Enlightenment, where various philosophers such as Voltaire and David Hume laid the ground for today’s Atheism by criticizing religion as superstitious beliefs. It was these philosophers and others who argued that everything in the world could be knowable by the human brain. It was during this time that great intellectuals took on the task of organizing all of the information known in the world into one enormous collection known as “Encyclopedie.” By engaging in this massive project, finished in 1772, Denis Diderot and the community of intellectuals around him hoped to, “change the common way of thinking.” It was this kind of hubris which characterized the Enlightenment and also paved the way eventually for people to deny the need for God or religion.
I would propose that the case for non-belief is based on two components which, taken together, closely resemble a religion: a. human reason is the basis for understanding all things in the world. And all phenomena can be explained through this same reason via scientific experimentation and collection of data over extended periods of time. b. Human senses provide the parameters for what is, and what is not.
It is my belief that worshipping a deity and the religion surrounding that being are an important part of leading a good life. I have friends and relatives who maintain that this kind of path can also be found (and is easier to practice) without religion. I’d like to challenge that assertion. To deny religion, and the existence of any higher beings/powers is to place human reason at the center. This bases our world view on the twin pillars of scientific discoveries and the Enlightenment reasoning. Both of these movements derive from humans. The flaw in this is two fold. First, all humans are limited in perspective and time on this earth. As a result, any morality developed only based on human reason are limited to a particular time and place in history. For example, William T. Sedgewick, an MIT professor and leading expert on issues related to public health in the late 1800’s to 1921 opposed giving women the vote because, “We must not forget pregnancy and lactation, both of which are a great strain on a mother’s vitality, . . . . Any further strain, like the responsibilities of the suffrage, is bound to be harmful to both mother and child.” This was based on the reasoning of the time that each person’s body had a finite amount of energy and women needed to channel most of that supply towards reproduction functions.
I do believe that people can lead a moral life without following a particular religion, but the method for both paths is the same. In my mind, being a moral person means letting go of the ego. This is the first, and most important requirement for people of faith. It means accepting subservience to another higher power. It means that the answer to any question is sometimes beyond our understanding. I’ve heard people in the past question God’s existence because “How could God let something like this happen”(Feel free to insert the historical calamity of your choice)? But that line of questioning, based on Enlightenment logic, assumes everything should be knowable to the rational mind. In Islam, when people make plans together, they will finish by saying, Inshallah, “If Allah Wills It.” Here is an acceptance that if things work out, then it was meant to happen, if they didn’t, then that’s also for the best. But this seems contrary to the philosophy of those rejecting religion. They seem to be saying, ” I am totally in control” or” I understand all of the forces which are affecting me.” And also that judgements based on “good” and “bad” can be determined in the immediate aftermath of events.
The second reason why I disagree with Atheism logic is because it’s a way of thinking based on materialism. This world we live in and the observable universe is all there is. However, just like our minds are limited by individual perspective and time, so are our senses. My teacher, Master Meng, explains that the Dao exists outside of the five senses. He remembers conversations with scientists where they express doubt about the existence of beings outside of these senses and responds to them that cats can see many more colors at night than we can, dogs are able to distinguish many more smells and sounds than is possible with our noses and ears. So why, he asks, is it probable that with our limited senses, we are able to definitively say what exists or doesn’t exist? He explains that Dao exists in the fourth dimension, a realm outside of the normal world. In Daoism, the only way to come in contact with the Dao is by letting go of oneself, usually through intense meditative practices. But this can also happen through the practice of religious rituals.
My point with this is, in a sense, atheists are right given what they accept as true. God or gods can’t exist based on the parameters they’ve constructed derived from Enlightenment thinking. But this materialist understanding is created from a belief every bit as irrational as religion: that our seeing of the world is accurate. So if you accept, as a religious person does, that there are things outside of our 3-D five senses’ perception of the world, then you’re much more open to living a life based not on material things with yourself at the center.
Attacks on religion often rely on the various sins of religious leaders and/or their followers. But these criticisms are based on biased thinking. Some of the worst atrocities in the history of mankind were perpetrated by leaders and people who denied the importance of following religion: Hitler, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, Mao and the Cultural Revolution, Stalin in Russia even the Terror of the French Revolution. In fact, the Terror was directly inspired by Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau. I believe, as a veteran historian, that the fault lies not with strict secularism or devotion to a religion, but an inability to see that the human practitioners of any religion are fallible and prone to make mistakes. Accepting that I don’t have a monopoly on the truth just because I’m religious is an essential part of my faith. This is borne out multiple times throughout my day. The simplest example is when I get angry at the car stopped in front of me only to realize they were waiting for pedestrians to cross the road! Every time I become irritated with someone or a situation, I think that maybe I don’t understand the whole picture. And invariably, armed with that approach, I gain greater clarity of the world around me!
If you’re paying attention, it may have become clear to you the key word in all of this: Acceptance. Accepting that we don’t have all of the answers, that control is an illusion we create to keep the monsters in our closet at bay. My experience with religion is that it’s forced me to confront my demons, not put up temporary barriers. As one of my teachers early on told me while explaining meditation techniques, “When you see the darkness inside, above all else, remember to love yourself!” At its best, religion is the very essence of what humanity is all about. Following Daoism has certainly taught me to work towards becoming a better path. Finally, there is this quote from Robert Jastrow, NASA scientist in the 1950’s-60’s who once said,
“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
As always, I welcome thoughts or insights which I may have missed ignored.