08/19/2010 02:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Outgrowing the Need for Gods: Life Lessons from a Priest

Someone asked me to write about my view of religion as a scientist, the opposite of my last post, "Can You Speak Science?" Rather than attack religions (too easy), I will tell you about part of my life. Life is about our stories. Maybe this will give you pause to see individual people as milestones is your life story, too.

Story 1: Tavie

My great-aunt Octavia King was a product of the nineteenth century, even walking from Georgia to Texas and back with a mule-drawn wagon and dying siblings along the way. One day, on my grandfather's farm, she tried to scare me away from the pumphouse by telling me that the devil was in there. Although she had the best of intentions (after all, the pumphouse is not a safe place for a small boy), her cautions had the opposite effect. I returned later to check it out, and there was no devil there.

Verifying for myself what others told me then became a habit. I had already determined that the Tooth Fairy was bogus and had my suspicions about Santa Claus. The things I learned from science often conflicted with the Bible stories I heard from the southern Bible culture. Bible stories were collections written with all kinds of motives, heavily tampered with and unreliable, not a magic book. Claims people made about invisible friends, even Harvey the Rabbit, were dubious. So I came to regard the religion I grew up in as a rite of passage like high school -- educational, but you need to keep moving.

What I did find, like Thomas Jefferson, was the great ethical teacher Jesus. But like Albert Schweitzer, I learned that the historical Jesus was obscured by biblical debris. Various things had been added to the bible to make a more competitive religion, like automakers add cupholders to minivans. I still felt so strongly about what Jesus was teaching that I became an Episcopal priest. Along the way I learned how rotten people and churches can be when they threw me and my wife and kids out on the street for opposing war.

Finally the great lesson hit me: The people in the pews didn't take all this dogma seriously, either. They only wanted help in how to live their lives on a daily basis now, not in ancient Greek metaphysics. To them, Jesus teaching about a father's love for his prodigal son overriding society's view was real meat, not all the rules in Leviticus about when to stone your children to death.

Meanwhile science was showing me more than religion ever could. I came to understand how rare, precious and fragile life really is. When I see the stars overhead, I ask, What do they have to tell us, these our companions through time and space? Did they see the iron pounding in our blood forged in the stars before our sun? Did they find lucky little Earth hiding in a quiet corner? And did they see the cosmic winds wandering among the stars like sowers with bags of seeds -- sprinkling down upon Earth the beginnings of life?

To be angry about religion's failure to deal with daily life, love, evolution or the scale of this universe in time and space is a waste of time -- a non-renewable resource. The people in the pews taught the priest an important lesson: don't take religion too seriously. To quote the cowboy code: Life is simpler when you plow around the stump.

Like the little fish who discovered the ocean, we have finally realized that we are, each of us, a colony of cells in a skin bag, living on a rock hurtling through space at millions of miles per hour, dodging bullets here and there -- what a big dose of humility. Hopefully this helps us grow up, leaving the nest we grew up in and maybe even this planet. And growing up means leaving behind not only the Tooth Fairy but also the Sky Daddy. Now we must assume our responsibility as spiritual adults and care for ourselves and what happens here, learning to risk for each other even our own lives. Without a Sky Daddy to bail us out when we screw up, if we want to see the hand of good in the world, we must look at the end of our own arm. Can anyone doubt that we could stop war and greed or feed the world's children? As Jesus pointed out, it is only our own lack of courage that stops us.

So now be patient. As Carl Sagan said: "A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge." (See for more.)

My suggestion: If you think the world needs angels, quit looking for them and be one instead.