11/11/2013 08:58 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Raising the Bar on the Conversation About Religion

Anyone interested in religion must ask three essential questions:
1. What is the purpose of religion?
2. What is the meaning of faith?
3. What is the nature of God?

Simple, unchallengeable answers to these questions have been proposed by both critics and defenders of religion. For some critics of religion the answers are as follows:

1. Religion is a collection of archaic superstitions that were created long ago to ease the fear of death and explain natural phenomena not yet understood by science. Religion remains compelling today because people continue to suffer from these ancient insecurities.

2. Faith is the blind acceptance of codified dogma that must be fully adopted and never questioned so that religious authorities can retain control. Believers are deliberately kept from exposure to reason and science, because such exposure would naturally lead to challenge, and the end of faith.

3. God is the name given to a fictitious being created by religious authorities to judge, reward, and punish us for our actions, to enforce religious dogma, and to maintain blind faith. Just as there have been many gods that we now reject as ancient mythology, so should any intelligent individual reject the fictitious deities that are worshipped today.

For some defenders of religion there are also fixed, but apparently very different, answers:

1. There is only one true religion - my religion -, which is the only path to eternal life. All other religions are false, and if one truly cares about the salvation of human souls, believers of these false religions should be shown the truth, and converted.

2. Faith is the submission of individual will in full acceptance of the absolute truth found in the holy books and doctrine, which are the literal and unchangeable word of God as revealed to a select few.

3. God is a being fully described in these holy books alone, Who demands that we follow the commandments and principles found therein, reap the reward, or suffer the consequences, which are eternal and irrevocable.

These two divergent visions of religion, faith, and God dominate much of the debate today, leaving many to believe that one must be absolutely right, and the other absolutely wrong. But are these are only choices? Is any reconciliation possible, or are we faced with a dramatic spilt in humanity between these two extremist sides?

To believe that there can be no reconciliation, as do people on both sides, is to indulge our deepest fears: our fear of uncertainty, of change, of appearing foolish, and of facing our own flaws and prejudices. This indulgence drives us to extremist positions, keeping us in needless conflict, and stopping growth. Embedded in this conflict, though, is the seed of growth, because human intelligence evolves through the deliberate reconciliation of perceived opposites. The early 19th century German philosopher GWF Hegel called this the "dialectic" process, through which the reconciliation of a "thesis" - something believed to be true - and its "antithesis" - the opposite of the thesis - leads to a new, higher realization - the "synthesis". And then, the synthesis takes the role of thesis, is again challenged by its opposite, and a new resolution is found. Through this process we climb the ladder of consciousness and arrive at continually higher truths.

This process begins with the willingness to accept that those with whom we disagree or whose position we don't understand may have something to teach us. I recently came across a parable that tells this truth:

A man walks through the woods, pushing past thick brush, which scratches his face and blocks his view forward. Finally, after much effort, he reaches a clearing, and there, situated in the middle of an open field, is a modest house with one small window. The man comes to the house and peers through the window. Inside, he sees several people who appear to be dancing. Although the man cannot hear any music through the glass, he sees that each dancer seems to be moving in response to a common rhythm, although in different ways: one sways, one jumps, one twirls, one leaps...

The man comes closer and puts an ear to the glass, but still hears nothing. "These people must be imagining music that does not exist," he reasons. "They must be crazy."
One dancer sees him, stops moving, points to the door, and waves for the man to come in. The man shakes his head and turns back toward the woods. "I do not associate with crazy people," he thinks.

As he nears the edge of the clearing, a quiet voice enters his mind. "Perhaps there is real music that you do not hear. Perhaps you should open the door and find out."
The man hesitates, then quickly enters the woods. "No," he thinks, "There's nothing wrong with me. Those people are crazy! Dangerous! I must warn others". As he re-enters the woods the sharp brush scrapes his cheek.

The man encountered people whose actions are totally foreign to him. He sees their outward appearance, but can't "hear the music" that motivates and moves them. This inability to fully share in the internal experience of others is part of the human condition, and in itself is not a problem. We must have this separation and distance from others so that we can live as distinct individuals, each with a unique purpose. What makes us each unique is that we all hear different internal music that calls us in different directions.

Like the man in the story, we all encounter those who experience something that we don't share. When this happens we are faced with two conclusions: We can tell ourselves that the other person is responding to something that is not there - either because he/she has been told lies by others who wish to control him/her for various reasons, or because he/she is irrational. Or we can conclude that he/she is having a genuine experience of something of which we are unaware.

For most of us, the second option is unappealing. It may make us feel that there is something that we are lacking; that we are "defective" in some way. Like the man in the woods, when the thought enters our mind that we may be missing something, we may reject this possibility, and instead angrily conclude that not only are these other people delusional, but that, in their delusion, they are dangerous. And so, our reaction may be to mock or condemn. Then, instead of exploring this new possibility, we negatively label the other so that we can avoid ever considering what they have to offer.

By so dismissing them we also dismiss anything that they have to say, and in doing so dismiss the message before it's heard: "Don't listen to him. He's crazy/wacko/anti-science/a bigot/a fascist/an infidel/a con man/delusional/brainwashed/full of shit". This outright rejection and condemnation is simply cowardly and childish, and sends us back into the woods, only to get scratched and lost.

We don't need to choose between science and religion, logic and faith, natural causes and God, evolution and the Bible, absolute truth and subjective individual inclinations, body and spirit, physical evidence and personal experience, certainty and paralysis, this life and eternal life. The belief that these extremes are our only choices comes from an unwillingness to explore deeper possibilities from the fear of discovering something that will undermine our sense of security.

It takes great strength to embrace our own limitations and to take guidance when it appears. But this is the courageous path of personal and communal growth that we must follow if we are to evolve together as a species.