Last Sunday, I saw a report on the CBS Sunday morning news about a soldier (two duties in Iraq) being discriminated against in the U.S. military because of his 'atheist' belief. This story is another reflection of what seems to be a growing elevation of religion into so many aspects of government, including the current presidential election. For a country founded on 'freedom' of religion and the separation of church and state, religion seems to play a too prominent role in media, politics, and our public lives.
I am particularly concerned that there are such strong negative opinions about people who believe differently than others.
Religious diversity (across the spectrum from atheist to polytheist to monotheist) is part of human diversity, it is a means of understanding each other's inward discoveries of mind. Knowledge, in general, is obtainable in two ways: external discovery, generally using the lens of science, and inward discovery, generally using the lens of religion or reflective practices (for secular and religious alike). These two modes of knowing are like two sides of a coin, to keep discovery and the accumulation of knowledge active is like rolling the coin on its edge. Letting it fall flat to one side or the other leads to a narrow-minded view and stagnation.
Our human diversity of inward discovery is revealed by the beliefs we have as to our place in the universe. The range of knowledge obtained by this inward process of investigation changes throughout a lifetime, across people, across cultures, and across generations. But the constancy of the investigation - of the process of questioning and discovery - is reflected in many ancient texts of religion, philosophy, and modern science.
It seems to me it is time we attend less to 'what we each believe' and ask the question, are you looking? Are you taking time for reflection, for investigation and inward experimentation? Perhaps those who think they 'have the answer' and that no further exploration is needed are exactly those who see only one side of the 'coin' and keep us from gaining new knowledge. It is the open-mindedness, the willingness to discover using both inward and outer modes of investigation that will likely shape our evolutionary future toward a more conscious and peaceful planet.
Religions provide an institution where one can study ancient teachings and learn from individuals who have done in-depth study of the inner landscape, but religion is not an excuse to stop the process of looking inward for oneself. It is the process of inward exploration that helps us each discover who we are and our place in the universe. These first person experiences must be met and melded with the current worldview of the universe, today defined using the lens of science.
Both modes of knowing are important and both require questioning, investigation, and continued questioning. The role of religious differences (including atheism) in our lives is a vital reflection of a vibrant population of diversity along a dimension of pursuit of inward knowledge. To discriminate against one branch of thought that differs from another weakens the pursuit of knowledge itself.
When religious ideology becomes a guiding principal behind harmful behavior, as all religions have done (and secular institutions as well) at various times throughout history, it is likely a stagnation of the people practicing at that time - a fixation of sorts, when the fluid individual discovery was stopped by forcing adherence to a fixed 'answer.'
I know that the best means to share my understanding of 'the meaning of life,' if you will, is to keep exploring, and to encourage others to explore, the inner landscape of mind.
Henry David Thoreau once said it so beautifully, "Direct your eyesight inward, and you will find a thousand regions in your mind yet undiscovered. Travel them and be expert in home-cosmography."