Just posted this on Facebook:
If you wanted to get to the root of Western thought, if you wanted to find the place where our common cultural perceptions and assumptions are formed, where would you look?
The Bible, of course. Even if you're never affected directly by it, either because you don't read it or you don't believe in it, you're immersed in a culture that, though it has changed much, is still much rooted in this one Book.
Many people, most, really, in America, do, however, believe in the Bible through one interpretation or another.
Does this bode for good or ill?
It's hard to tell. On one hand you have people like Todd Akin or similar who are so blinded by religion they end up taking ferocious and nonsensical positions that jeopardize women's rights and all the social progress that's been made.
But on the other hand, you have Catholic organizations that organize adoptions, and churches that give out food to the poor and the homeless.
And then, once again, you have those same Catholic organizations shamefully denying adoptions to gay people, creating an unnecessary homeless child and a childless home.
Since these issues are so complex, I like to look at them through the lens of the Church I'm probably the most familiar with: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or the Mormon Church.
I spend a lot of time on Mormon youth sites, and to a large degree I approve vastly of what I see.
The youth are encouraged to see beauty in the world, give service to their communities, and love and make friends.
All of which is stuff I approve of very much and try to live by myself.
And then there's teachings I'm mostly lukewarm about.
Youth, and indeed all Mormons, are taught by official Church doctrine to never smoke, drink, do illegal drugs, or drink coffee or tea, or any caffeine.
I can certainly see the virtue in all those positions, and I might agree with them to a certain extent that most of those things are unnecessary to finding happiness and many of them can even be distractions on the way to things that lead to true happiness, diversions into materialism and excess.
However, even if those are good positions to have towards substances, I don't think they should be taught universally.
I think every person is individual and should set their own standards, and if they decide to enjoy a cup of coffee (like me) or have a glass of wine or two at dinner, or smoke marijuana occasionally, I can't possibly see why that should interfere with happiness.
Some might be predisposed to, say, alcoholism, and thus should probably avoid alcohol at all, but like I said, these are individual choices, and I don't think any one choice should be the only valid one for all people.
And then there's teachings that flat-out distress me.
For example, the Church's official teachings, though not representative of each branch, are that homosexuality, though it shouldn't be persecuted, is a horrible sin placed next to murder and atheism.
That's horrifying. To think of the devout Mormon LGBT youth who would read the words "homosexuality is a gross and repugnant sin" makes me wince.
As well, much of the Church's sexual puritanism is, I think, misplaced. The Church teaches that all sexual activity, pornography, masturbation, petting, ANYTHING that could relate to sex in any way, before marriage, is a sin next to murder, and that only faithful and child-seeking sex with your spouse is acceptable after marriage.
Once again, for some, that might truly be the best path, I'm really sympathetic to idea of avoiding lust in favor of family. (Gandhi missed the death of his family because he was sleeping with his wife, a horrible mistake he never forgave himself for)
But sex, especially in youth, is different from substances in that its more fundamental. If a youth gets taught "masturbation=death", and they fail to follow that, that's natural and understandable, and making them guilty and fearful for their eternal soul for normal sexual behavior is horrible.
So, to gather from that, the Mormon Church's teachings are a mix, some of which I like very much, some I'm lukewarm and a bit uneasy about, and some I'm a bit horrified by.
As it goes with most religions of which I have knowledge. To look in the Bible, the vast majority of the New Testament I love, and it seems like it should make up for and supplant the nasty and vindictive Old Testament.
And so, I think most religions are, mostly, inherently good, but surprise surprise are corrupted by human nature.
No better example exists for this than the Pope. Vatican City is basically a place where a bunch of old men share a billion dollar fortune, gathered from believers all over the world, and they're allowed to spend it however they want and their administration has no external oversight, being a sovereign state.
Ideally, religion would guide the Pope and all the Cardinals and Bishops to use that wisely, but such a perfect storm of corruption is sure to lead to horrifying abuses, as can be gathered from the Church sex abuse scandals.
There are some inherent problems with religion, such as valuing faith over reason, a bizarre idea, creating perfect storms of corruption such as the Papacy, and probably worst of all, narrowing minds by providing a ready-made system of philosophy.
I see people every day for whom politics and philosophy, and really, world events in general, just things outside of their immediate life routines of school and leisure, is a ridiculous thing to talk about.
I see people for whom all they know of is their own lives, and everything outside of that is God.
It leads people to become introverted, not socially, but it makes people lack a global view of the world, which is essential, as of course we live in a global society.
The fantastic wealth I was born into is intimately connected to the crushing poverty of many regions of Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. Our wealth, and their poverty, are two sides of the same coin. Praying for them and then forgetting about the problem is not the solution, much more creative solutions involving awareness, and ACTION, are needed.
And so, with that in mind, what do I think about religion?
Perhaps the best way to categorize myself would be TBD.
Cause I don't really know.
I was born into a family mostly without religion, I haven't gone to a church of any kind since I was about 2, and haven't had any religious instruction or any religious knowledge since then, until now, when I'm becoming self-taught about religion.
There are some things I do know, however, just take a look at a map. You'll see that religions are spread throughout the world, concentrated in some places and in others.
Islam is concentrated in the Middle East, from the Arabian peninsula and North Africa, through to Central Asia and Indonesia.
Christianity spreads from Europe through the Americas to South Africa and parts of East Asia.
Atheism is prevalent in China.
And Mormonism is spread all over the world, but concentrated most heavily in Utah.
There's historical reasons for all of this. Islam was spread through conquest and conversion, from its place of founding in Mecca through North Africa and the Middle East, which retain the religion to this day.
Christianity was spread through the world by colonization. North America is Protestant, having been settled by Protestant Great Britain, and South America is still Catholic, having been colonized by Catholic Spain and Portugal.
And on and on and on.
Religions appearing to be spread through cultural learning and learning from the parents, seems to me to say that either the formulation doesn't matter and God doesn't care who's worshipping (I don't want to call God a Him, because that's weird that God would have a gender, but I will for convenience) Him, or no religion has any intrinsic truth whatsoever.
But that doesn't get to the heart of the truth.
Perhaps the weirdest discovery of the 20th Century was that it was discovered that quantum theory, physics of the tiniest, smallest particles, show that particles don't have an intrinsic position unless they're being looked at.
The physics aren't essential to understand, and too complicated to discuss here, but experiments show that, when we're not looking at it, A PARTICLE IS LITERALLY ONLY A WAVE OF PROBABILITIES SHOWING ITS LIKELIHOOD OF BEING AT A CERTAIN POSITION.
This is totally weird and perhaps impossible to understand.
You know that old question, if a tree falls in the forest and no one's around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Quantum theory would say it doesn't. Quantum theory would say that if you're not looking at it, the tree doesn't exist in any definite state, it only exists as a set of probabilities, with a certain chance of being fallen and certain chance of being standing, and it only "chooses" one of those once someone looks at it.
To reiterate one more time, because it's nearly impossible to understand:
Experiments show that a particle, or an object, LITERALLY DOESN'T EXIST if it's not being observed, it's ONLY A SET OF PROBABILITIES OF WHAT ITS PROPERTIES ARE.
This isn't just a metaphor or a way of thinking about it, quantum theory literally predicts that the whole world is just a set of probabilities for what it could be, and it's only given definite substance when conscious beings like humans look at it.
This bizareness would seem to indicate that human consciousness, rather than just existing in the universe, is actually an integral part of the universe, and that human free will and observation give the universe substance and change it even as they observe it.
That's weird, but take it a step further:
Human consciousness is generated, seemingly, by a large mass of neurons called a brain that pass around little electric charges and chemicals through receptors and channels.
Somehow, all that makes you and everything about you.
Does it really?
Well then, why do we assume human brains are the only thing to have consciousness? A tree is a living being that moves materials and generates products to ensure its survival.
Why do we assume it's not conscious? Would a tree achieving consciousness seem to be any more preposterous than a brain doing it?
Imagine if aliens who had never seen humans before came upon some guy with Locked in Syndrome, who couldn't speak or communicate in any way, but could still think and hear and do all basic life processes.
Aliens might determine that this guy was "alive", but if he had no way of signalling it, they'd have no way to know that his brain wasn't just some intricate, random geological formation, and they'd have no problem about destroying it.
They'd have no clue he was conscious, and he'd have no way to tell them.
Just in the same way a human brain achieving consciousness through chemical processes would seem bizarre to aliens, a tree possessing consciousness might seem bizarre to humans, but I can't think of any reason why they should lack consciousness or intelligence.
Which means that maybe human consciousness isn't the only consciousness, even on Earth, that gives form to things.
And take even that a step further:
The human brain is made up of neurons, specialized cells to carry charges and signals throughout the brain. Each neuron isn't conscious, being only a complex chemical factory.
Yet each neuron, not being conscious, contributes to a human brain, which is conscious and intelligent.
Each neuron isn't "aware" that's it's just part of a conscious brain, it's just doing what it's told, mindlessly.
If, as we can learn from human brains, a series of unthinking chemical processors can give rise to higher consciousness, and if, other beings like trees or animals or whatever have the possibility for consciousness based on the inherent irrationality of consciousness existing even in a human being, might we, intelligent humans ourselves, only be smaller parts in a much greater whole?
Perhaps we, like the neurons, are unaware of our deep connection, doing only what we're told, but always fundamentally missing our deep connection to ourselves, to the Earth, and the Universe.
Perhaps all our lesser consciousnesses are just pieces, like each neuron, in a Greater Consciousness, one we'll never understand, just like each neuron will never understand the whole brain.
Perhaps we're all connected to the entire Universe through one great Consciousness, and this is a Universe where that very Consciousness is what gives rise to what we know as reality, as demonstrated by quantum theory.
Or perhaps I'm a raving loony.
The only thing I know for absolute sure is that the world, conscious or not, is very beautiful. The natural world especially has great beauty.
Of course, I don't know why they're beautiful, or even what, exactly, beauty is, all I know is that they're beautiful and that I feel a connection to the Earth and all the living things on it.
You might have noticed I post many photos from the Pacific Crest Trail on my Facebook wall.
There's a reason for this. First of all, of course, it's very, very beautiful, and I feel a connection to that like I don't feel to electronic devices or material goods like this very computer I type on.
Second, all the ideas I just mentioned in this whole, fantastically long post are just that: ideas.
I have no clue whether they're true or not, or even whether it matters. All I know is that I don't yet fully understand them. Obviously, because I'm, somehow, not shocked by the idea of beauty, and I know I should be. I just haven't yet grasped the concept, the wholeness of beauty.
And I don't think I'll ever be able to in a world of materialism and trivial pursuits like food, video games, and idle pleasures.
The Pacific Crest Trail, besides being a beautiful place, is also a quiet one, and probably a pretty boring one: exactly the environment I'll need if I'm ever to understand all these ideas, like the deep questions of life itself.
That's why I currently consider my rapidly changing religious ideas as To Be Determined, because I just don't know. And I don't think I'll be able to until I find the time, someday, to actually understand a concept as important as religion.
And I hope to know, someday.
All this is very well and good, and it was going to be all, until recently, when I've been reading Gandhi's autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth.
It provides probably the most compelling evidence for a God that I've ever encountered.
Gandhi gives the evidence quietly, as was his way. When asked about his message, Gandhi would say "my life is my message".
And he does, his faith in God shines through every page, and his autobiography might be best described as a story of God.
It explains his religious journey and his experiences with religion, from youth, where he read the traditional Hindu scriptures and enjoyed them, but didn't really FEEL them, leading him towards atheism, towards his adult life, which was a life of ever increasing faith in God.
And not a specific Christian or Muslim or even Hindu God, exactly, but a God of truth, for to him God and truth were one and the same, and it didn't matter if that truth was Christian or Muslim or Hindu, but only that it was truth.
So I'll let Gandhi have the last word with a few quotes I found stirring. Read them with an open mind:
"A Gujarati didactic stanza gripped my mind and heart. Its precept-return good for evil-became my guiding principle. It became such a passion with me that I began numerous experiments in it. Here are those (for me) wonderful lines:
For a bowl of water give a goodly meal;
for a kindly greeting bow thou down with zeal;
for a simple penny pay thou back with gold;
if thy life be rescued, life do not withhold.
Thus the words and actions of the wise regard;
every little service tenfold they reward.
But the truly noble know all men as one,
and return with gladness good for evil done."
"It was more than I could believe, that Jesus was the only incarnate son of God and that only he who believed in Him would have everlasting life. If God could have sons, all of us were his sons. If Jesus was like God, or God Himself, then all men were like God and could be God himself.
My reason was not ready to believe literally that Jesus by his death and by his blood redeemed the sins of the world. Metaphorically there might be some truth in it. Again, according to Christianity, only human beings had souls, not other living beings, for whom death meant complete extinction; while I held a contrary belief.
I could accept Jesus as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher, but not as the most perfect man ever born. His death on the Cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it my heart could not accept.
The pious lives of Christians did not give me anything that the lives of men of other faiths had failed to give. I had seen in other lives just the same reformation that I had heard of among Christians.
Philosophically there was nothing extraordinary in Christian principles. From the point of view of sacrifice, it seemed to me that the Hindus greatly surpassed the Christians. It was impossible for me to regard Christianity as a perfect religion or the greatest of all religions.
Thus if I could not accept Christianity as a perfect, or the greatest, religion, neither was I then convinced of Hinduism being such. Hindu defects were pressingly visible to me. If untouchability could be a part of Hinduism, it could be but a rotten part or an excrescence."
"If I found myself entirely absorbed in the service of the community, the reason behind it was my desire for self-realization. I had made the religion of service my own, as I felt that God could be realized only through service. And service for me was the service of India, because it came to me without my seeking, because I had an aptitude for it.
I had gone to South Africa for travel, for finding an escape from Kathiawad intrigues, and for gaining my own livelihood.
But as I have said, I found myself in search of God and striving for self-realization."