Over the last six months that I've been blogging for the Huffington Post, I have written about a variety of subjects - primarily about how to find spirituality in our every day activities. Most of these blogs receive a small amount of comments, but occasionally, when I include the topic of God or religion in the blog, there is a deluge of contentious responses.
These responses usually begin with those who make an argument that religion is an invention born from humanity's ignorance, encouraging its followers to act irrationally, leading inevitable to atrocities, and that God is merely the projection of our primordial fears and childish desires, shutting down our minds, and resulting in division, hatred, and destruction. If we could only abandon the archaic notion of God, and abolish religion, they write, humanity can progress toward a rational, peaceful future.
These responses also often cite the conflict between religion and science, and the belief that faith is inconsistent with fact, quoting passages from codified religious texts that seem to endorse brutality, war, sexism, and irrationality, in order to point out the dangers of religion, and the absurdity of the belief in a Being who demands that we do such horrible things.
I've discovered that even though I note that:
1. God is not found in theory or religious doctrine, but, like love or art, is experienced
2. The Bible is not a literal account of historical facts, but must be read on a deeper level
3. Most religious people are not fundamentalists, and that religion is actually a very minor cause of war (the devastating wars of the last several hundred years, which have accounted for the vast majority of human war deaths - American Revolution, French Revolution, Napoleonic Wars, American Civil War, World War One, The Russian Revolution, World War 2, China's "Cultural Revolution", the Soviet Union's purges, Korea, and Viet Nam - were not fought over religion, except for regimes who sought to abolish religion)
those who respond usually ignore these points and return to a characteristic, literalist image of anyone who speaks of God and religion. Or, if all else fails, will question my sincerity and honesty.
At this point, another group weighs in, pointing to the slippery slope of moral relativism, warning that without the guidance of religion mankind would revert to anarchy; that there is only one way, one truth, found in the Bible and in the particular interpretation of it by a particular branch of a religion. The modern world, they argue, is filled with temptation and sin, leading man away from faith, and only by following a particular path can one find eternal salvation.
And so the debate goes back and forth.
This debate between dogmatic religion and strident atheism, which began thousand of years ago (Socrates was executed for denying the Greek gods), and reached public acceptance in the West at the dawn of the Enlightenment over 200 years, was recently re-ignited after 9/11 by a series of books that attacked religion and belief in God as inherently dangerous. Other books were soon written in response, some by credible scientists and theologians, seeking to find a middle ground between faith and science. These moderate books, though, seem only to enrage the voices from both extremes - fundamentalists and atheists - who dismiss them as pandering or equivocation. Because the extremist voices are louder, simpler, and more entertaining than those of thoughtful moderation, they are covered more actively by the media, leaving many in the public to believe that these extremist positions are the only ones possible. As William Butler Yeats wrote in his poem, "The Second Coming",
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Let's be honest; we like extreme views: Such strong, black and white positions are more exciting and accessible, especially relating to such complex issues as religion and faith. The obvious danger of extremism, though, is that it rejects any intention to find common ground and reconciliation, and holds with stubborn instance that, in fact, no common ground can be found, because those who disagree are, at best, simply wrong and, at worst... well, we've seen the horrors of such extremism in Fascism, Nazism, and militant religion. The irony here is that those who claim to speak on behalf of reason on one side, and faith on the other, must abandon the professed objective, impersonal position of open-minded rationality on the one hand, or the proclaimed compassionate, inclusive position of faith on the other, in order to remain stuck in their extreme positions
The argument between these extremists furthers the illusion of a conflict between mind and emotion, physicality and spirit, rationality and faith. This sense of conflicting dualism is at the core of human unhappiness, because when we come to believe that an inherent component of our being (say, curiosity, sexual desire, ambition, intuition, even love) is wrong and must either be controlled or destroyed, we can only conclude that there is something irrevocably wrong with us (and with others) and with life itself. We must, therefore, always on guard, anxious, vigilant for the "other" to arise. This is a futile and dangerous strategy, however, because when we try to exile an inherent part of who we are, that part simply stays buried, un-nurtured, waiting to be heard and healed, and if not examined and voiced, will eventually erupt in anger and hatred.
So, how can we move this dialogue forward? The next blog will suggest some ideas