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10 Wrong Questions and False Arguments That Frame Our Thinking About Religion

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1) Is there a God? No, there isn't. It's that easy. There's no magical sky daddy who created us and lives in a place called heaven or anywhere else. There are also no angels, devils, heavens, hells, heavenly saints or magic virgins. These categories we've inherited have perverted the discussion of religion, resulting in an understanding of the subject in our culture that ranges from sadly ignorant to profoundly dumb. However, it's not entirely our fault. We're taught from an early age that the question of religion comes down to whether we "believe in God" or not. It doesn't. Or it shouldn't. Worship of the anthropomorphic God is virtual idolatry, monotheism with a polytheistic mindset. God is not someone to be worshipped; God is an experience to be known.

2) If there's no God, then who made the world? No one. If the world didn't work, we simply wouldn't be here. End of story. Like Ann Richards said about George Bush: "He found himself on third base and assumed he'd hit a triple." Just like us. We found ourselves alive on Earth and assumed we were meant to be here instead of looking around at a world that functions and taking delight in the fact that it does, and gave rise to us. Per Alan Watts: "Man is a little germ that lives on an unimportant rock ball that revolves about an insignificant star on the outer edges of one of the smaller galaxies." But how cool is that?

3) What about the conflict between science and religion? There is none. This silly, alleged debate is the sad result of those who take the Book of Genesis as history instead of poetry. Science explores the origin and nature of the physical universe. Religion explores a deeper, more profound, psychological experience of human life. They work two completely different sides of the street. The nonsense that is creationism -- or its uptown cousin, intelligent design, which is just creationism with a GED -- is the sad byproduct of those who need to feel that the Bible must be literally true in its entirety or it's rendered entirely false. This perverts both science and religion. The phenomenon of a magnificent sunset can be explained scientifically: what causes the brilliant lights, how my eyes take in the sight and how my brain processes it, how many muscles move in my face when I smile. None of this negates or diminishes the joy or wonder I might feel sitting on the beach watching it. That is a moment for poets to write about, or artists to paint. Why do we need to feel that there is any purpose to the sunset beyond the sunset itself?

4) Doesn't the question of God and religion come down to faith vs. reason? No. Faith in the existence of a benevolent God is the way religion has been framed in our culture, and that is unfortunate because it blinds us to a deeper understanding of religion. However, a kind of faith is an element in our lives, but it's faith informed by reason. There are times in life when reason will only take you so far, like when you're in a plane that's barreling down the runway. You can be comfortable in the knowledge that the odds are on your side and that the pilot is experienced and sober, but in that moment before takeoff, you are in a world beyond your control. Experientially, there is little difference between saying, "I have faith in God," and, "I believe life is good." Either can give one the strength to persevere in tough times. Now, perhaps the God connotation is too strong for people to hear the word any differently, but there is a meaning to faith that arises out of human experience but which has nothing to do with some benevolent God looking out for you. At one of the many poignant moments in The Power of Myth -- conversations between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell -- Moyers asks him about faith, saying, "You are a man of faith. Of wonder." Campbell replies: "I don't need to have faith. I have experience."

5) What about the afterlife? There is none. There's no beforelife. There's no afterlife. The Kingdom of Heaven is a psychological or mystical concept that has been misconstrued as a physical place. Eternal life is an experience of the here and now. Our yearning for an afterlife is based on our insecurities and fears about death and the unknown. What we are is energy that can neither be created nor destroyed. Our individual lives are waves rolling in off the ocean. Nothing more. There is no soul that is in any way attached to our personalities. Of course we want to think we go on. Who wouldn't? You put all this effort into a life and then it's like you're mugged and it's all taken away. But the notion of an eternal soul has to do with our common essence, not our individual existence. When the energy goes out of us, "us" goes. However, insofar as our essence is concerned, we are eternal, though, again per Joseph Campbell "just not the 'we' that we think we are."

6) If there's no God, then what is the meaning of life? Wrong question. Why do we assume that meaning needs to come from above and that our lives only have significance if they're part of some divine plan? The right question is: where is the meaning in life? Meaning is something we infer from the experience of being alive that makes it feel worthwhile. Meaning exists within the fact that our lives are finite. In fact, it's because of that fact that life's meaning is heightened. The meaning is in the experience.

7) Doesn't religious war negate the claims of religion? No. It proves the harm that can be done when a cunning dictator manipulates a race of stupid, gullible, desperate people. Marx's opiate of the masses easily becomes the amphetamine of the extremists. Religious war is an oxymoron. While every tradition has blood on its hands, the culprit is blind belief and obedience, whether it's to an absolute power or an inevitable historical movement. At various times in history that same mindset has been used by both the church and the state. And while religion is not always the culprit, it is more tragic when religion is used as a justification for murder or genocide because of the inherent expectation of moral behavior. Religion can be used as a weapon only when people are stupid enough to fall for it.

8) What about those who claim to speak for God? Villains, thieves, and con men (or women). God is not an entity. There is no God who speaks or endorses political candidates. When preachers or politicians claim that their efforts are part of God's plan, they should have a net thrown over them, because that is insane. Anyone who claims to be receiving these messages is either crazy, or lying for power or money, or both.

9) But isn't God interested in my life? No. Thinking of God as some divine father-figure who knows your every thought and watches over your every move is the outgrowth of our fears of being alone in the universe, coupled with the knowledge that we will most likely lose our parents and have to live our lives without daddy's guidance. God the Father provides comfort for our existential fears. He's the daddy who never leaves. And while the psychological need is understandable, and very human, this idea is perverted into the notion that there is a God who wants you to be rich, successful or happy, putting aside the fact that only in America could we conflate the two things we worship, God and money, despite their contradictory impulses. There is no God who wants you to be rich, and especially not one who can be bribed through donations. This notion has created some very well-off, happy-talk preachers who have managed to sell the idea of divine sanction for greed and personal aggrandizement, impulses that are the antithesis of religion. The "God wants you to be rich" line is just motivational speaking -- purpose-driven megachurch nonsense.

10) But how can we have religion without God? Most people in the West see this as an impossibility. But as an exercise, ask it as a possibility. In other words: how might it be possible to have religion without our traditional understanding of God? Religion has not been handed down from above. It erupted from within the collective unconscious and the knowledge that our ego-driven experience of life is limited, and a more profound experience is there to be known by anyone at anytime. This awareness -- call it spiritual, mystical, or simply psychological -- is the experiential core of religion. Of all religions. All traditions have the purpose of laying out a road map to it, not as a replacement for our normal experience, but as an enhancement of it. We need to refocus our understanding of religion from an aspect of our identity to an activity. From something we are to something we do. We need to bring religion back down to Earth. Lose the literal interpretations of gods, heavens, angels, and miracles, and resurrect religion as an activity of connecting with that part of us that is not us, but lives in us, or flows though us. Call it energy, being, essence, Tao, Brahman, God -- it doesn't matter. These are just linguistic and cultural variations on a single theme. Religion is an outgrowth of a very human desire for self-knowledge and an experience not just of our common humanity but of our unity with all life -- an experience that inspires us morally, socially, and culturally. However, as long as the discussion remains mired in false arguments between faith and reason, religion and science, or belief and atheism, we will never crawl out of this intellectual hole we've inherited, and we run the risk of losing the important message that religion is intended to communicate.

This post is adapted from a book I just published: Deconstructing God: A Heretic's Case For Religion.

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