Searching for a Religion that Makes Sense

Richard A. Lawhern, Ph.D.

Current Draft:  June 10, 2008

Original Web Publication: October 30, 2003

This is a work in progress, subject to update,

an offering of "Giving Something Back"


Table of Contents:

Introduction and Scope

Problems with Mainstream Religion 

An Understandable Religion

A Logical Religion

An Internally Consistent Religion?

Should Religion be Verifiable?

Why a Religion at All?

Problems of Traditional Sources

An Illustration: Ten Commandments

Religious Affirmations for Modern Citizens

Tools for Transcendent Living 

God and Chaos - The Non-Origin of Evil


Introduction and Scope

In fairness to readers whose time and patience are limited, or who come here hoping to confirm their own religious beliefs, I should offer a couple of things up front before you waste time and go away grumbling.  If you're like a lot of mainstream believers, you can refuse to read what follows here and go away grumbling anyway, presumably "safe" from the challenges I might offer to your unexamined personal fantasies or delusions.  That's up to you. For others a bit more patient, if you came here expecting to find a ready made formula for peace of mind, then get over that idea.  There are no formulas offered here.  There are only "beginnings" of a journey of exploration.  Only you can determine your ultimate destination. 

This article is for people who have dropped out of one or more churches. A few of us may possibly have gone so far as to part company from all religious institutions. Many of us have found that the whole religious enterprise just doesn't make sense to us.  We find that traditional (particularly scriptural) beliefs are contradicted by much of what we observe in contemporary human affairs.  We also recognize that many of the assertions of traditional religion are completely unprovable in the rigorous sense that most educated people these days use the term "proof".  And we recognize truely vast divergences between the nature of the God that scriptural believers portray when they write about their faith, and the actions of both the God described in Scripture and behaviors acted out by believers toward other people. 

This article is thus partly about finding common cause with other people who know what they dislike about the character and dogmas of churches we've grown up in, but who haven't figured out how to recognize a 'place'  we might like better than those we have left behind -- or even if there might be such a place.  For some of us, there might not be.  For others, the place may not resemble those which most people who consider themselves "believers" would choose to occupy. 

This is also about helping thoughtful people to remain honest to their own ethical convictions, when such convictions lead them to reject traditional mainstream cultural mores concerning God and man (or better said in less sexist terms, the Divine Other and "humankind").  

The work you are now reading is much evolved and changed from the original manuscript published on this site in 2003. It has profited from much more reading than I did for the initial draft.  It has also benefitted from two years of active participation in a religion and philosophy forum at one of many Internet interactive discussion sites.  I learned a lot at, by talking to convinced Believers in both mainstream and New World scriptural traditions. Much of what I learned has led me to move further away from the professed faith positions of such people, and from my own early religious education. Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt, and that seems to have been what occured for me by trying to reason with people who had no intention of being reasonable at all. 

What I have learned from my attempts at diligent study has confirmed for me that THERE IS NO SUCH THING as a religion that "makes sense."  However,  I might offer you the beginnings of a possible "other way", or "way less travelled", which might have something more sensible to offer than traditional dogmas.  From that beginning, you will find yourself pretty much on your own. I do not propose to found a new movement or a new religion.  I do not propose to "lead" anybody into a new belief system.  I merely suggest that it may be time for some of us to grow up and relinquish beliefs we have inherited from a childish world. I do not underestimate the difficulty that such a proposal may entail for a reader who is already uncomfortable and feeling adrift from any sense of a moral or spiritual anchor. This is no easy process we are involved in. 

This article is about exploring alternatives to mainstream religious faith and also to the cultism, self-rejection and self-punishment that seem to be practiced by so many evangelicals these days.  Many people are looking for alternatives that might possibly make make better sense in a real world where people think and reason, rather than investing blind faith or proselytizing zeal in mysteries that us commoners are not supposed to be able understand.  

For some people, even the title of this article may figuratively raise neck fur.   'Since when is a religion required to make sense to mortal men?' they might ask.  In such a reaction, we can identify a common bias that is widely shared and deeply defended in much of modern religious life and discourse.  A lot of people assume that it is unfair or unreasonable to demand that the dogmas of their personal church should be either logical or verifiable in observations by non-believers. The idea that a religion should have some internal consistency of logic is utterly foreign and to some people perceived as outright offensive, even in supposedly "liberal" western societies.  Similar ideas in many countries of the Middle East can get you imprisoned for blasphemy, stoned or beheaded as a heretic. 

I am obviously not one of the true believers who sometimes assert that "you just have to have faith," when they are challenged concerning the belief system around which a religion is built.  To the contrary, I suggest that if a believer resorts to this kind of "faith" argument in response to questions about a belief system, then he or she has already conceded defeat in discussions with any reasoning and responsible human being.  

It seems to me that the ways many modern believers use the term 'faith,' amount to nothing less than a rejection of rational or analytic thought concerning a subject that many of us consider to be of central importance in our lives and those of others.   Many believers seem to be asserting that God doesn't make sense and shouldn't be required to make sense to us mere mortals.  Such a rejection of consistency simply isn't acceptable to me.  In my view, it amounts to a declaration of intellectual and moral defeat, a surrender to chaos, an apologia for what is sometimes called in literature "the unexamined life".  To use a phrase coined by others of my generation, it's a cop-out.  

My personal positions on the issues of faith do not make me popular with a lot of religionists.  Some of my exchanges with convinced evangelical Christians over the years have been downright hostile.  I don't routinely have occasion to talk with followers of Islam or Vishnu or Buddha.  But from talking with  folks at the periphery of such communities, a common principle likely applies in those frameworks as well.   As far as I can tell from simple observation,  all of these groups are practicing a great deal of mumbo-jumbo.  While mumbo-jumbo might offer a certain value as time-killing entertainment, I don't see a lot of substance in such beliefs that offers help for living constructively and positively in complicated times. 

All of this being said, I should never the less admit that I once attended a church.  After we dropped out of our childhood religions, my spouse and I for a few years maintained a loose association with local Unitarian Universalist congregations.  Though we were not formally church members or committee activists, we supported a local church financially because we perceived that they were doing a work of good will and positive progress in the world.  I'm not sure we continue to hold that perception strongly these days, but I continue to acknowledge the good will of people who try to build bridges to other faith systems, rather than burn them. 

An important reason why I tolerate Unitarians is that they accept practically anybody into their churches:  lapsed Catholics, Protestants of all stripes, Buddhists, followers of Wicka, polytheists, theists, theosophists... gays, lesbians, trans-gendered people, agnostics, free-thinkers, humanists and even the occasional atheist who is looking for an association with people who bother to think seriously about issues of religious commitment.  This is quite an interesting religious and intellectual community.  The U-U affirmation of faith (the closest that the church seems to approach anything resembling a dogma) prominently features a guiding credo:  "we encourage the free and individual search for truth and meaning."   And they seem to mean it. 

Some of the ideas in this article have emerged from the U-U wellspring, and from sermons and writings of a particular U-U minister by the name of Kitt Howell [see References].  Kitt died of cancer only a year after we met him, and the world seems a less kind and interesting place for his passing.   But some of his sermons started a process of exploration for my wife and me, that several years later has begun to mature. Wherever you are, Kitt, we hope you continue to be engaged in your personal search for truth.  Thanks for your able assistance in our own journey.  

Parenthetically, I suspect that if more U-U members displayed Kitt's sense of lively spirituality rather than their more typical dry intellectualism, we might even have become members of their church rather than simply admirers of its better worldly works.  

Problems with Mainstream Religions 

In the Introduction above, I have alluded to some of the basic intellectual and moral problems that I have with mainstream religious systems and organizations.  Before we talk about possible alternatives to such systems, I would like to expand somewhat on the nature of the doctrinal problems that ultimately drove me out of religion entirely.

First, let's do a thumbnail sketch of ideas commonly asserted by Christians, concerning the nature of our Universe as "revealed" by the so-called "Word of God" in their Bible.  As a thinking person, do you understand that such people are STILL arguing that biological evolution is unproven, and that all present human beings spring from one Original Couple - Adam and Eve?  And do you understand that they actually mean what they say?  I wonder at times if most people fully "get"  the magnitude of their intellectual misdirection.

According to Christian, Islamic, and Jewish dogma, God created everything that was created in seven days, starting from a condition where everything "was without form and void."  He created all of the planets, seas, skies, rocks, plants and animals we now know during that period.  On the 6th day, he created Adam, the Original Man.  Then not wanting Adam to be lonely, he took a piece of Adam's rib and made Eve.  Why the Creator didn't start Eve from the same Universal dust as Adam is unexplained.  Maybe He was tired and needed a head start.  However, he placed both of these humans in the Garden of Eden, which was to provide them with all of their needs without labor or want, for all of their lives - for Eternity, according to Christians.  On the seventh day, God rested. 

It also seems, however, that God created one tree whose fruit he told the Original Couple they were not allowed to eat:  the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  And not long thereafter, along came a talking serpent, and tempted poor, innocent Eve.  If she ate of the fruit of that tree, the Serpent said (or possibly Satan speaking through the serpent - Christian theology on this point tends to mix a lot of modern reinterpretations of the original tradition), she would "be as the gods, knowing good and evil."  Left unexplained in this text is the status and character of these "gods".  The "little-g-gods" concept is more than a little hard to reconcile with an entire Universe that was supposedly wrought by a single ominscient and omnipotent God.  Did God also make some form of demi-gods that aren't mentioned in Genesis?  We don't know.

Whatever... Eve accepted the blandishments of the Serpent, ate of the fruit, and gave it to Adam.  Presumably, they both then opened their eyes with an utterly different mental perspective and muttered "wow." They then looked down at their own bodies, and across at each others' bodies. 

God became aware of their disobedience when He next visited the Garden of Eden and found His two creations hiding themselves from Him in the bushes, knowing that they were naked.  In Genesis, it seems the term "naked" was automatically taboo.  Only innocents were allowed to run around naked in front of the Creator without bearing some kind of censure.  Once Adam and Eve became aware of the nature of good and evil, they were no longer innocents.  And censured, they most certainly were.

An interesting off-record speculation can also be offered concerning what then happened to these two innocents when they suddenly realized they were naked.  Like other human adolescents (emotionally and intellectually inexperienced though biologically mature), it seems reasonable to deduce that when Adam and Eve realized they were naked, they also woke up to sexual and sensual attraction -- in an instant!  And we all know what happens to adolescents when puberty breaks over them and the hormones kick in:  if they are unrestrained by parental training or discipline, as soon as they discover the nice sensations that go with sexual attraction, adolescents rather quickly start screwing themselves and each other like minks in the rutting season. 

 There is no evidence either way in Genesis that God ever provided his kids with sex education.  If one were to extrapolate from attitudes of contemporary Christian evangelicals, the logical conclusion would seem to be that they were intended to 'be fruitful and multiply'.  But orgasm, they had to discover and figure out for themselves.

When God learns  that His creations have used the capacity for free choice that He has given them, and have sought out the knowledge of good and evil, the Old Man (Heavenly Father) gets royally pissed off. He runs them both out of Eden, revokes their license to eternal life, and condemns them and their children to support themselves from their own hard labor and sweat as subsistence farmers.  And he does so in a territory that is today among the most hostile climates for subsistence farming in the world.  All this travail is the proclaimed natural retribution for Eve having been curious enough about the difference between good and evil to have eaten a piece of fruit.  She didn't even want to BE evil (not knowing what it was).  She just wanted to know. But that desire to know was enough to justify God's righteous retribution.

Thus begins in the scriptural story, the long, rebellious history of humankind. Our earliest ancestors having become mortal and lost their birthright due to Eve's curiosity and their joint disobedience, all of Adam and Eve's descendants are now said to be sinful in nature and in some fundamental way "not right with God", from the moment of birth to the moment of death.  We have all fallen from grace due to the bad choices of our Original Forebears, and there isn't a thing we can do about it. We suffer, supposedly, from OriginalSin....

Except, for modern evangelical believers, there seems to be an escape clause.  Depending on where in the world you are born, the bearer of these happy tidings may be called Jesus or Mohammed or Krishna, but the central idea is pretty much the same.  In each religious framework, there is some Intercessor in human history who has come into existence to give us "salvation" and return our birthright of immortal life - if only we will believe that the Intercessor actually is who he says he is (the Intercessor is almost never female in mainstream religion).  In Christianity, the intercessor is Jesus of Nazareth, and many Christians speak of this historical figure in the present tense, as if he had actually spoken to them while they were awake, conscioius and stone-cold sober. 

There are many internal contradictions in the Genesis fable, and many unacceptable contemporary consequences.  Not least of these contradictions is the fact that some evangelicals have tried to date the tribe of humankind from the Garden of Eden, using genealogies of the Old Testament.  And by this dating, everything that we see on earth today cannot be more than a few thousand years old.  Despite widespread physical evidence to the contrary, the more intellectually handicapped of these folks persist in proclaiming that God created man and woman and all of the animals only a short time ago, as geologic time is measured.  And despite extensive evidence from evolutionary genetics, the same folks insist that human beings are totally unrelated to other Great Apes.  Some of these nut cases deny even the concept of geological time and radio carbon dating. 

For me, the most fundamental problem of mainstream religion is the nature of the God portrayed in Scripture.  From the somewhat satirical portrayal I have offered above, it would be reasonable to conclude that I don't approve of the God figure described in the Bible and other religious sources.  And I don't.  The Garden of Eden fable is only one of countless incidents in the Bible narratives, in which the kind of God who seems to be described, could well be called (as I have in postings at  "The Divine Child Abuser".   This version of God is an arbitrary, angry, female-hating, punishing figure Who thinks nothing of torturing or killing his creations for the most trivial of offenses against His authority.  This is the God who approves of the "righteous" choice of Lot to turn out his daughters for a fun night of gang rape by a riotous crowd in Sodom -- rather than inconveniencing the two Heavenly Angels who are visiting in his house and whom the crowd at first demands.  This is the God who kills Abel for the sin of masturbating as an alternative to fathering children by his dead brother's wife.

This is a God who should be locked up in a padded room where He cannot harm Himself or others.  

I personally observe that the sort of God described above is all too often the one which is held in consciousness by self-righteous people as the ultimate Judge of human beings and of their non-religious political arrangements.  And the judgments of this Judge are harsh.  Where unbelievers, heretics, infidels or sexual deviants are concerned, such judgments are frequently fatal in some remarkably nasty ways. 

It is common for Christians to disclaim responsibility for the excesses of individual tyrants who "mis-use" religion as a tool of manipulation and domination over common people. Though it may be common, it's also factually wrong. The violent excesses of church-going Believers are not some kind of unimportant aberration. They are the RULE, not the exception in human history.

Before Christians can have any credibility asserting that their God is a more loving one than the God of the Old Testament, or their members a more loving people than other believers, such advocates have some serious study and thinking to do, not to mention some serious explaining of themselves and their own behavior. Explain if you will, the origins of the following historical events that have occurred not just in the middle ages but right up through the present day:

    -- Jimmy Swaggart leading his church and saving souls before driving down the street to bed down with prostitutes.

    -- The Bakkers defrauding their radio ministry of millions of dollars for their own benefit.

    -- Jerry Falwell preaching that AIDS is the punishment God designed and selected for gay people because they're gay.

    -- Jonestown Kool-Aid.

    -- The Texas Massacre.

    -- Thousands killed since 1945 in a combination of religious war and nationalist rebellion in Northern Ireland.

    -- Thousands of Catholic boys raped and abused by priestly "men of God", many of whom are STILL priests!

    -- Further thousands of Catholic girls emotionally and physically abused, tortured and sometimes raped in Catholic orphanages by the presumed ideological sisters of Mary.

    -- Millions of Jews sent to death camps in 1939-45, while Pope Pius stood by conveniently silent behind the walls of the Vatican.

    -- Hundreds of thousands of Jews persecuted and killed as "Christ Killers" by Catholic Poles, Estonians and Russians in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Where were Catholic Bishops and Cardinals then?

    -- Millions of Germans, French, Hollanders and others killed off by hunger, disease and destruction during 200 years of wars between Catholic and Protestant believers egged on by church leaders (~1500- 1700). And all of it started when a rare Catholic priest named Martin Luther stood up and called "indulgences" a priestly rip-off.
   We can go further back, if you wish. But the pattern is always the same: all mainstream religions cause, sponsor and approve persecution and violence -- as long as the victims are demonized as unbelievers or infidels.  Sometimes they sponsor persecution just because other people say their prayers "wrong." The violence comes built into the belief system. It is not some kind of mistake or error.  Thus I perceive the God of the New Testament as a Child Abuser, to no less a degree than that of the Old Testament. 


To move into the core subject matter of this article, let's remember the original question.  Is there an alternative to mainstream religion that makes sense?  It might be well to start the discussion by clarifying  what I mean by the term "to make sense."  For me, an idea or concept or system of concepts makes sense when it is (a) understandable to common people, (b) logical, (c) internally consistent, and (d) verifiable by examination, experiment, or shared experience.  Lets talk about each of these criteria.

An Understandable Religion?

Have you ever tried to read an article from the cutting edge of medical research, published in a medical journal that is read primarily by doctors?  In the course of providing online research support to chronic pain patients,  I frequently dip into medical literature rather deeply.  The experience is often unpleasant, though I endure it in a good cause. 

I frequently find reading about religion and philosophy to be no less tedious.  There are so many terms that simply don't transfer into daily experience.  Sometimes it seems to me that the philosophers might as well be arguing over how many angels can sit on the head of a pin.  Is God really a Triune Being comprised of Father, Son and Holy Ghost?  If so, then what in the dickens is a Holy Ghost? Was Jesus Christ (or Mohammed or Buddha) the son of the Deity or only a prophet carrying a Deity's message?

More fundamentally,  why should I care?   What possible relevance to me do such disputes or distinctions have? Has anybody outside a mental institution lately encountered a real-world manifestation of the Holy Ghost who walked up and said on recording tape,  "Howdy - I'm the Holy Ghost, and you're going to Hell if you don't listen to me."?  I really rather doubt it. 

But reality doesn't keep religious believers and evangelicals of all stripes from arguing about those angels, or about other things that seem to me equally trivial and distant from daily life.  I have lost count of the number of on-line postings I have read, in which the individual words seem to be understandable, but where every other sentence impresses me as outright gibberish or propaganda.  Regrettably, the evangelist habit of obsessing about artificially complex definitions and distinctions merely makes religion that much less comprehensible to less erudite people -- and that much less pertinent to all our lives.   

Most of us have much more immediate questions and concerns than those you'll see expressed in a forum on religion and philosophy. I for one would be startled and pleased to see a religion stand up to address questions such as the list below, using language that I understand:

  • How shall I live fully and well in the world as I find it?
  • What are my valid moral responsibilities to myself and to other people? What are my valid accountabilities? How are these two issues different in kind?
  • What is the nature of a healthy interpersonal relationship?  How can religion inform my ideas about relationships in my earthly life?
  • What is the nature of unhealthy human relationship?  When I see persons being harmed, what is it my responsibility to do about the harm?  
  • Does a God or a divine Creator exist?
  • Does a personal God act in my mortal life?  In what ways?
  • What is the nature of my relationship to a Creator?  What experiences characterize a humanly valid and constructive relationship to Deity?
  • What is the nature of prayer?  What do we actually do when we pray? What happens as a result of prayer?
  • What is the nature of a humanly healthy faith in the unseen or unproven nature of God or of ourselves? Can such a concept exist at all, or is it as delusional as the transparent foolishness of such evangelical dogmas as The Rapture?
  • Is my mortal life on earth, the only life I have? Or might there be a larger kind of life that persists either before or after my apparent mortal death? What are the implications of this for my daily behavior? 

Obviously, other people might have other questions to add to the list above. None of us sees perfectly into all of the issues that occupy or trouble our neighbors. I even suppose that some readers will always be fascinated or preoccupied with theological complication for its own sake.  I just don't happen to be one of them.  I want to understand and "own" any ethical system or belief that I claim as my own -- not just "have faith" in it.  The kinds of questions above are quite complicated enough to occupy my inquiring mind, thank you, without pondering ultimate causes. 

A Logical Religion?

Logic is an integral part of human reasoning and judgment.  We can think about logic as another word for common sense about ideas like cause and effect. 

Most people share a common understanding of how cause and effect operate in our world.  We don't believe that we're all figments of the imagination of some Cosmic Paranoid Schizophrenic.  We don't think our universe or our personal existence is simply random chaos.  We believe, at least provisionally, that there are principles of order and pattern acting in our world, even if we don't understand all of those principles in our own lives.  We intuitively understand concepts like cause-and-effect. 

For example, we understand by applying logic, that cause does not follow after effect in the passage of time.  If "B" happens after "A" has occurred, then it is impossible in our reality for "B" to have caused "A".   Conversely, just because an event "B" occurs after event "A," that doesn't mean that "A must have caused B."   "A" and "B" might not be related at all.  Both events could even be the results of some other occurrence "C" that we haven't seen and don't know anything about. 

Just because ideas often have an apparent logical relationship, that doesn't mean that every logical principle or relationship has to be simple or unsubtle.  A lot of logical things are quite complex. As a scientist by the name of Norbert Wiener is reputed to have said, "all truly interesting human behaviors are over-determined." That is, for every observed human behavior, there is usually more than one plausible cause or explanation that we can apply after the fact.

Being a logical person also doesn't mean that everybody will agree on the basic principles of cause and effect, as such ideas apply in every field of knowledge. We often don't agree about basic principles. Sometimes we can't even agree on vocabulary! 

If you have time to listen to a week of heated discussion, then just ask two economists from different schools of economic theory to explain how wealth is actually created, or what effects will predictably proceed from a tax cut or increase.  Ask politicians who hold conservative versus liberal views, to explain what the relationship should be between individual freedom and the proper size and functions of government. Consensus is a foreign word in such company. 

People have lots of reasons to disagree with one another concerning  basic ideas and principles.  Good people who hold opposite convictions about various principles in daily life may also do so "in good faith" -- meaning in this context, that we can put forward our arguments without deliberately lying or misrepresenting the issues on which we disagree.  We're seeing the same world, but through different filters and expectations about how things ought to work, or actually do work in that world. 

However, I believe there is one basic logical principle that should govern such arguments -- and our religious discourse, as well.  If we're going to bother to spend our time trying to learn and apply general principles about right behavior and right belief, then it seems to me that we also need to agree to the use of logic to test such principles against experience. Otherwise, the whole process becomes just an extended exercise in self-justification or rationalization.  This latter term, please note, does not mean "making things rational."  It only involves trying to make our beliefs sound rational to people who are easily led or fooled, including ourselves.  

From this train of reasoning, my personal conviction is that the most logical thing that we can do in any field of knowledge, is to separate untested (or inherently un-testable) opinions and beliefs from verifiable facts and principles.  This process of separation, however, is one that many mainstream religious thinkers and writers these days seem to resist ferociously.  They persist in arguing about stuff that nobody can ever hope to verify or prove to a non-believer -- and in denying that logic and simple common sense should ever enter into their discussions.  It is almost as if the preachers realize that if they ever narrowed their views to issues for which logic may apply, they might just possibly find themselves out of a job!

With a lot of these people, I'm not so sure that wouldn't be a good thing.  Maybe they could find a more honest line of work. 

Common sense - the logic of our daily lives - insists that in order to be true, ideas and concepts must have some basis or grounding beyond our own unsupported assertions and repetitions of dogma.  Just because everybody "knows" an idea or "all" the right-minded people are preaching it, that doesn't make it "so."  As humorist Will Rogers observed, it's amazing how much of what everybody knows, ain't so.  There was once a time in which all right-thinking people "knew" that the sun revolved around the earth. When a certain upstart revolutionary named Galileo proposed to "prove" that the opposite was true by using a new-fangled instrument called a "telescope", some of these right thinking people put him on trial for heresy and got ready to burn him at the stake unless he "repented of his sin." 

Not withstanding the ideological nonsense so often preached by religious believers these days, a  logical person needs to be able to test and demonstrate the truth of assertions about facts or principles that we encounter in daily discourse.  Just saying something is true over and over, doesn't win an argument or establish a principle as valid, especially in the face of contradictory observations or evidence.   In religion as in other realms of human exploration and thought, we need to be able to demonstrate the truth and consistency of the ideas and concepts in which we invest our faith. 

If there's no way to demonstrate a truth in human practice, then it seems to me that pontificating and fulminating about it is a simple waste of time better spent grooming my cat.

An Internally Consistent Religion?

Internal consistency is a quality of "systems" or collections of ideas that we can demonstrate to be true.  We say that two ideas are consistent,  if both are founded on a common principle or both are compatible with that principle in some observable way.  However, if two ideas about the world are contradictory to one another, or tend to lead toward substantially different conclusions about the nature of the world and our role in it, then we would regard these ideas as inconsistent with each other. 

There are a lot of significant inconsistencies in many mainstream religious doctrines and dogmas.  If we are to proclaim our belief in such doctrines,  then we find ourselves forced to accept as true, notions that fundamentally contradict each other.  This process must happen even though there is a voice of intellectual conscience within each of us that quietly says  "Hey, wait a minute here.... these ideas couldn't possibly both be true!"   

Let me illustrate with one of the larger contradictions of contemporary religious thought:  the problem of the origin of evil.  In Christian ideology, it is generally asserted  that we are the creations of a Universal God. We didn't just "happen" by chance. The God who created our universe is believed to be infinite, omniscient (knows everything that can be known), loving and morally good.  But the snake in this woodpile quickly raises its obvious head:  if we are the creations of an infinite and good God, then why do human beings so very often behave evilly?  Where did the evil in us come from?  Where did it originate?  Did the Devil (a fallen angel named Lucifer, if we happen to believe in angels) make us do it?  Then who created Lucifer?

Based on the biblical story of Genesis about Adam and Eve, Cis said to mean that we are created with the capacity to choose between good and evil.  Still unexplained in this construct, however, is where the evil that we sometimes choose could have come from.  That doesn't keep conservative and evangelical Christians from loudly asserting that all of humankind are "sinners" because of the bad choices made by our "Original Parents", Eve and Adam.  Supposedly, Eve was tempted by a serpent in the Garden of Eden, into doing the one thing that God told her and Adam they were forbidden to do. They were not to eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, or they would surely die.  Supposedly, the serpent ("Satan" according to some Christians, though that name is never used in Genesis) tempted Eve by telling her that if she ate of the fruit, she would be as a god (small letter g, not large letter G), knowing good from evil. 

But Eve wanted to know good from evil.  After all, God had stuck this humongous tree smack dab in the middle of the Garden, and they walked around the durned thing every day.  If anybody was tempting this innocent child, she had to assume that the message came from one of the creations of God, since God had made everything that was made.  So, wanting to know good from evil,  Eve ate the fruit. And then she convinced Adam to eat the fruit.  And THEN, knowing good from evil, they both realized they were naked... and they hid from God. 

Isn't it remarkable that Christians can read this fable and not notice that it explains nothing, while raising all sorts of unanswered questions?  Nakedness is evil?  Why, by gosh and by golly, we all know what happens between naked people, now don't we?  They are attracted sexually to each other. Among adolescents, we know how such an attraction works out, too.  Lacking effective moral instruction from a parent or guardian, the natural reaction of post-pubescent adolescents to nakedness is that they start humping one another (loving sexually) enthusiastically!  Of course, these realities are dealt with only by implication in Genesis and the rest of the Bible. And the implications are almost uniformly terrible and sinful in nature.  

Naturally, the all-knowing Creator God figured out what the Original Couple had eaten, when he found them hiding themselves in the bushes of Eden. For Eve's sin of disobedience and Adam's poor judgment in following his wife's curiosity rather than the admonition of his God, the Old Boy got mad as hell at them (irony intended).  God revoked their immortality and made them mortal, while also running them out of Eden.  Thereafter, they were to live not from the bounty of God's original creation, but from the hard sweat and labor of their own hands, as subsistence farmers in what is now one of the worst climates in the world for subsistence farming.  

Under the terms of this enormously compelling fable, the evil of Eve's disobedience became an ongoing source of evil in the human character, inherited by every living child and many-times removed great grandchild of the Original Couple.   Because Eve led her husband to the knowledge of good and evil, their children for all time are condemned to live out the consequences in lives touched by  death, hunger, and want.

Christian believers also proclaim that God cannot possibly be evil -- that it's only human beings who are bad or flawed creatures.  In so doing, Christians conveniently forget what tree it was in the Garden of Eden, where Eve supposedly plucked the apple that started the whole sorry mess and got us kicked out of paradise.  It was the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil."  And as the book of Genesis also tells us, it was a (presumably all-knowing) God, Who created the tree.  He had to have known in advance, that He was handing them a stacked deck in a game they could not win. 

So this is the ideological tangle that Christians and Jews are confronted with:  either God didn't Himself contain the evil knowledge that Eve was tempted to partake from the Tree -- and He is therefore not quite as Infinite as Christians claim, because she had to have gotten it from somewhere else...  or God actually is infinite and He contains both good and evil in His personal Character.   One or the other of these assertions about the nature of God might conceivably be true in a logical universe.  But the conclusion is inescapable that both propositions cannot be.  They are mutually exclusive.

Using even even the most rudimentary level of common sense, we know that no creature who creates things, can possibly produce something whose nature or potential is unlike its creator.   Mortal beings can be surprised by what they create, because our understanding is finite and we quite often cannot predict all of the outcomes of our actions.  But an Infinite, Immortal being who knows everything that can be known, cannot possibly be surprised.  He knows it all and He doesn't forget. 

This kind of cosmology gives me a headache!  I suspect that most sane people react that way. 

Regardless, if we insist on asking the hard question, "where does evil come from," we quite often observe that mainstream religionists will fall back on the most fundamental cop-out of all:  "good and evil are a mystery whose nature you just have to discover through faith in [Jesus Christ or Allah, or some other earthly figure]."  Believers in various religious dogmas may use a different name for the agent of faith in whom  we are called to invest belief, but the principle is pretty much the same.  When confronted with evidence of the inconsistency of their thought, they ignore the evidence and deny the validity of the question.  They refer us to unsolvable mysteries instead of principles anybody could understand.  Sometimes they do all of these things together, while breaking out the tar and feathers for the unrepentant soul who insists upon asking such questions in the first place. 

In fairness to honest people who are searching for answers in the  origins of evil and the nature of God, I will not leave this question to dangle permanently.  I believe there are better answers than Christians and similarly convinced believers offer.  We will talk about some of the possible answers before the conclusion of this article.    But for now, let us move on. 

Should a Religion be Verifiable?

In posing this question, I am not suggesting that the existence of God can ever be proven within our common Universe.  Although there is an abundance of evidence to suggest the possibility of  physically unseen dimensions in our experience that we might call "spiritual", there are also plenty of people who don't accept the validity or implications of such evidence.   And there are plenty of people who don't believe the evidence is conclusive one way or the other.

What I actually have in mind is not the verification of God, but a considered and thoughtful evaluation of religious communities that claim to be seeking God in their daily lives, as well as those seeking to bring their notions of God into ours.  It seems to me that a careful and reasoning observer should be able to ask questions and see answers that establish whether a religion lives up to its own promises for believers and for humankind in general. 

Let's consider a few examples of the principle.

If a framework of belief advocates the relinquishment of mortal concerns about wealth or prominence in worldly affairs, then it does seem too much to ask that such relinquishments should begin with those who lead the church.  After all is said and done, what better teacher is there than example. If a church requires vows of poverty or chastity from its members, then there would seem to be a clear conflict of interest, if its leaders live in wealthy circumstance or behave like libertines. That's been a persistent problem with many Christian evangelical sects and specifically in the Catholic church for centuries, but it is not exclusive to this particular branch of believers.  

It also seems to me that practitioners of a religion which proclaims  to love all mankind as the children of God, might start by loving their own children no less and by treating them accordingly. Scourging (beating or whipping) a child in the name of "mortifying the flesh", or denying routine medical care in order to prepare the kid for some promised reward in an afterlife is, first of all, physical and emotional abuse -- regardless of the proclaimed objective of the exercise.  And it is an abuse that we see almost daily reported in our news media, throughout the world. 

If a framework of belief claims to worship a good Creator, then it does not seem outrageous to me that this framework should concern itself with teaching people how to be good Creations in the world that we each encounter daily.  Nor do I think it is unfair to expect good people to behave well toward others who do not share their faith. However, when it comes time to translate principle into practice, it rarely works this way in reality. 

In one of his many novels, author Robert A. Heinlein once offered an observation about religion that has long impressed me as very thoughtful.  To paraphrase, "the most meaningful measure of a religion can be found in its treatment of unbelievers."    I would expand on his train of thought, to offer a conclusion that he might not have immediately intended.  I believe that no religion can accurately claim to be about love or even about God, if it grants its adherents permission to persecute or to shun unbelievers for their disbelief in the party line. 

I thus assert that any religion which mounts an Inquisition or a Jihad against those who believe differently than doctrine says they should, in truth has nothing whatever to do with God.  Reasoning observation demonstrates to us that such acts of religious perversion are never ultimately about Truth or spiritual enlightenment.  They have far more to do with justifying the human amoral instinct to arbitrarily compel or dictate behavior in other people.  Persecution has to do with power, not human healing or growth or right living.

--- --- ---

I'm trying to move us toward a central idea here.  Even if one chooses not to believe that human beings can prove the existence of God or determine the real substance of a natural relationship between God and humankind, we can at least observe the acts of religious communities who claim publicly to understand such a relationship.  If the acts of believers don't reveal religious people to be sane, honest, loving, true to their beliefs,  personally fulfilled and generally easy-to-be-around for non-believers, then it isn't unreasonable to infer that maybe their religious training hasn't done them or their neighbors a whole lot of good. In fact, the training might just possibly be outright wrong.  And it isn't wrong to point out such contradictions, however unpopular it might make the skeptics among us.

There is one specific aspect of religion in our times that I am personally convinced does absolutely nobody any real good:  guilt over our supposedly "sinful" nature.  Please note, however, that I am not talking here about conscience.  Conscience is the inner,  small voice within our thoughts that advises us when we are acting against our own best understanding of truth and right behavior.  Most of us know when we are behaving badly.  And most of us would agree that it is appropriate to feel regret as a desire to make amends, and to correct any harm we have done while we have behaved badly.  We call people who are incapable of feeling such regrets "sociopaths."  

However, reasoned regret and chronic guilt are not the same thing. Regret prompts us to make correction of our errors and faults, and then to be done with them.  By contrast, guilt goes on forever.  Guilt springs from the old-fashioned, creeping suspicion that deep down in our souls, we are just plain rotten to the core.  It is a belief that not only are we capable of acting badly on occasion, but that in our deepest substance we somehow are bad, faulty, evil and unworthy of life.  We are incapable (or we believe that we are) of ever being truly "good."  

Deeply guilty people feel that we haven't lived up to the standard that God (or more likely other people) rightfully demand of us.  We believe that we haven't made the behavioral or lifestyle choices we are supposed to make, in the ways we're supposed to make them. We despair.  At the extreme, we may even proclaim that we are worthless.  We become convinced that we will never be able to "get it right," or "make ourselves right."  

Guilt is the servant of human despair.

Anyone who has done group psychotherapy has probably seen a few examples of people who suffer from such feelings. Such emotions and doubts can be a crushing weight to carry around.  However, one of the most startling and sometimes difficult learning experiences in therapy is the lesson that such guilt is learned behavior, not a natural emergence of any innate human nature.  Most people who feel persistently guilty have been actively conditiioned or brain-washed to feel the way they do. 

Guilt is sometimes touted as a highly effective mechanism of control when used by parents against their children.  However, almost always, this control mechanism causes observable damage in kids.  The kid feels he or she will never be quite good enough to be trusted to make their own decisions or to assume full independence. Sometimes, the kid decides to live "down to" the expectations of such a parent, by acting out highly anti-social, even violent behaviors.  Alternately, the kid may identify with the parent who tortures them:  without the strict discipline enforced by the parent, the child believes he or she will inevitably fall into a life of personal waste, dissolution, and despair.  Or at least, that is the message a lot of kids hear in different ways when they grow up in dysfunctional families. Then the kid moves away from home or the parent dies.  Now what?  We either die from the guilt, join a religious cult that replaces the manipulative and disabling parent, become child abusers of a similar sort ourselves... or we have to grow up and leave guilt behind.

There is, of course, a major internal fallacy in a guilt-ridden view of ourselves.  Such a view is a basic distortion of reality that, if taken far enough, will deny us either hope or healing. It is essentially a lie that we tell ourselves.  And it can be demonstrated to be a lie with the exercise of basic logic and human observation.  If we were really worthless, then there would be nothing about us that is worth preserving.  Suicide would be our only way out of a life that simply has no meaning or joy for us, because we feel forever trapped in our faultiness.  In extreme cases, strongly internalized guilt may actually have this outcome.  Life becomes a meaningless game -- and in their despair, some people declare "game over" and end themselves.

By contrast, any real process of human growth or healing must begin with a very different view of human nature and of our own nature.  Healing or happiness are impossible unless we choose to believe that there is something about ourselves that is worthy of preserving and expanding. Then we can work to discover what that something is.  Sometimes we even have to invest this belief in ourselves before we can see positive results in a betterment of our human conditions.  To get better, we have to believe we can get better.

In other words (and you are permitted to hear the irony in these words, if you choose), we frequently find that we have to invest faith in something that is inside ourselves, in order to gain  improvements of our deeply felt misery and unhappiness. This is beginning to sound a little like religion, isn't it?

However, notice please where it is that the ideas we are called upon to believe, may reside:  not outside of ourselves in a book or a doctrine, or in other people's approval of us, or even in other people themselves.  Healing starts from inside ourselves.  To be saved,  we first have to believe that we are worth saving.  Nobody can do this believing for us.  Nobody can really force us to do it for ourselves. 

Likewise, not withstanding the predictable protestations of many religionists, it is a fair observation that investing belief solely in things outside ourselves has a persistent way of producing disillusionment over the long run.  The lover whom we idolize turns out to have feet of clay or a yen for somebody else's bed. The idolized preacher is met on a city street in the company of a notorious prostitute. The charismatic political leader refuses to make the hard decisions that comprise real governance.  No matter how we squirm and avoid and deny the requirement, we are inevitably brought back to confront ourselves in the mirror.   To live well with other people, we have to start by living well with ourselves.

These are principles that every teacher and healer is forced to learn, as a price for working in the healing and teaching avocation.  Healing for some of us might involve a relationship to something that we conceive as God. But growing up always starts with us, and not with anybody else.

Why a Religion At All?

Having come this far in our exploration of religion for reasoning people, it is fair to ask whether human beings need a religion at all.  For some people, the answer to the question is an automatic,  needy or even tearful "Yes! I am so alone! Save me from my loneliness!".  For other people, the most candid answer is "Maybe, if religion isn't too hard, and it doesn't ask too much of me..."  And for yet others, the answer can be "Whatever for?"  The range of possible answers illustrates some of the reasons that the question may be important. It becomes a central organizing principle in life itself.

Authors far more erudite than I have written at length about man's impulse toward religion.  I've read the work of a few of those authors and perhaps so have you.  There is a lot of insight running around loose in the world these days, and it doesn't seem unreasonable for us to borrow a bit of it.  In this, I suspect I've been influenced by some of the ideas of Joseph Campbell, among others (for instance, see The Power of Myth, written with Bill Moyers).  However, whatever I've read has been digested through the filters of my own experience, so I'm the one at fault if I've introduced errors of interpretation here.  More recently,  I have also been influenced by even more direct and uncompromising books.  I can heartily recommend Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, and The God Delusion  by Richard Dawkins. 

As Campbell and Moyers tell us about recent history, religion has been looked upon by both uneducated people and academics, in part as an answer to man's search for safety and predictability.  From this point of view, the earliest religious instincts and practices sprang from a human desire to render a large and sometimes hostile world more understandable or  predictable or safe. We propitiated the gods with gifts and rituals, hoping that our pleas for mercy from random catastrophe would be heard and our lives spared from the random accidents of life, lightning, fires, floods and volcanic eruptions of a world too large for us to personally control.    

From a somewhat different perspective, religion might also be about finding meaning and pattern in our Universe -- coming personally to terms with the issue of our own significance in the scheme of things, or lack thereof.  Some writers propose that at the most basic level, we seek to create relationship with a higher Universal Being, in an effort to transcend and overcome the experience that we fear most -- death itself.  Hence, the powerful emphasis in many religions on the sentiment expressed in the New Testament: "He who believeth upon me, though he were dead, yet shall he live." 

Whatever our social class or station in life, simple observation of our human social arrangements must suggest that human beings have a strong desire to personally matter in some way.  We want our lives to have a greater significance than simply being born, growing physically by a certain amount, eating a certain number of meals, copulating a certain number of times to produce a somewhat smaller number of orgasms and offspring, growing old, becoming sick, and eventually meeting death.   We want our lives to be for some larger purpose, and religion proposes to us what some of the purposes might be. 

For us moderns, religion can also be about exploring mysteries.  Like archaic man, we intuit that the world is larger and richer than our narrow perceptions of it.  We dream in powerful metaphors, and wonder whether the dreams are our own, or the messages of some larger Other who stands outside ourselves.  Figuratively, we see a moving finger writing in letters of fire on the temple wall, or hear a voice in thunders speaking from a burning bush.  Encountering the wonders of a large and often beautiful world, we hunger to know more about the nature of a Being who might work such wonders - often assuming without much focused consideration that such a Being exists.  

In our own century, we also observe that our world seems to have run amock with the proliferation of ever-more-complex technology for its own sake, uncaring of the human consequences in dislocation, disorientation, and loss of traditional human roles or purposes.  Thus, we might turn for solace or vindication to a view of our world that is larger than the machines that seem to turn us into nameless and faceless ciphers.   We listen for the music of the spheres, speaking in tones no mortal man has ever duplicated on an instrument of strings or brass or reed. We seek non-physical "laws" larger than our physics, which may guide or govern our moral and spiritual evolution.  We look for a spiritual high, to compensate us for the booby prizes which common life sometimes seems to offer. 

For writers such as Dawkins and Harris, the answers might not be so highly principled.  A lot of us seek God as a sort of powerful protector for our own interests and welfare because with something larger than ourselves to appeal to, we are SCARED all the time and right down deep in our bones.  For those folks, God becomes the Great Equalizer, who punishes our enemies and rewards our righteous virtueby giving us dominance over other people.

Perhaps all of these reasons for religious search have some validity in human experience, even if some of the reasons may be distasteful for peole who are possessed of a strongly developed sense of transactional ethics.  Each idea speaks to elements of a widely felt sense that in our times, physical science has begun to discover patterns in the Universe but has not yet found meanings that we can personally experience, understand and act upon to give our lives a significance that we seek.  Religion might be about finding those meanings. 

We might choose to accept this purpose for religion at least provisionally, and see where it leads us.  However, the next challenge beyond purpose is method. How do we want to go about getting to "meaning" -- and how do we determine where 'meaning' should be sought?


The Problems of Traditional Sources

In a search for meaning in our lives, we face some basic problems in choosing tools or resources for learning.  Do we start from one of the systems of belief that has already been offered up by believers?  There are any number of "holy books" on the shelves of any book store. Each has adherents who advocate "their" book as the ultimate source of revealed Truth for our times. 

Unfortunately, I would be forced by study and deliberation to observe that in greater or lesser degree -- at least with respect to modern people -- it isn't terribly hard to demonstrate that every one of those traditional advocates is wrong with respect to their assertions of Ultimate Truth in their own books.   All of the great holy books fail one or more of the simple tests we started out by considering in this article: logic,  understandability, internal consistency, or verifiability.

Here are some of the traditional titles one would need to go through, in order to make a choice between existing belief systems:

Egyptian Book of the Dead [~1240 BC]

The Old Testament of the Holy Bible [Origins 8th Century BC.  At least 20 different translations from King James forward]

The Torah and Talmud [scriptures and holy books of Judaism, 8th Century BC to the modern era]

The New Testament [also at least 20 translations or interpretations]

Tibetan Book of the Dead

The Koran [Qur'an - teachings of Mohammed, 7th Century]

The Bhagavad Gita [ancient Hindu teachings, claimed to originate ~3000 BC]

Tipitaka [sayings of the Buddha, ~5th century BC]

Sayings of Confucius

The Book of Mormon [scripture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, mid-19th Century]

Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures [late 19th Century]

You may well feel a bit of astonishment concerning the way I have introduced these titles.  Can I possibly be saying that the contents of every one of these books are deliberate lies or fabrications? 

Well.... not quite. There are at least some moral truths for modern readers in these and other books of antiquity. However, in many instances, the interpreted truth that we read today bears little resemblance to the text as originally set down. In other instances, the 'truths' that the writings once represented, are in many ways no longer pertinent or helpful for the times we live in. 

It is popular with many religionists to conceive of their great holy books as having been handed down in the flash of an instant Divine revelation to a single individual, and then preserved for all time, despite the errors introduced by more recent scribes and interpreters. The idea may be popular, but it isn't true.  Biblical scholarship has revealed that many of the Christian holy books were ghost-written and/or rewritten by multiple authors over periods of centuries.  Modern religious scholarship has demonstrated that words supposedly graved directly into stone tablets by God or dictated to a youth in the wilderness by Angels,  have actually been liberally  reinterpreted on multiple occasions through the centuries.  This phenomenon sometimes occurred when latter-day priests went looking for support for their particular messages to a restive or rebellious laity.  Reinterpretation and re-translation also happened when rebels tried to start a revolution to overturn other priestly teachings. 

Even for texts that have survived relatively intact, there is still an over-arching problem that mainstream religious advocates generally shy away from.  The moral lessons offered in such books were directed to people who lived in a vastly different world than we do.  It was a world with simpler economic and social conditions, and one in which attitudes toward authority and morality were derived from wholly different alignments and attitudes concerning political power and personal freedom.

In the world of 2000 years ago, representative popular democracy was unknown outside Greece, and not practiced there in any form that  you and I would likely now recognize.  Fewer than one person in ten (in some places, one in a hundred) could read or had access to anything that resembled a book.  If a man didn't scratch out his living as a farmer or herdsman, then his other options were very limited. A soldier's life expectancy wasn't terribly high, and there weren't a great many shop keepers or shops.  To become a priest, you had to be born into the right family.  

If you were a woman, your life was even more circumscribed.  In a lot of places, you had no personal or legal status at all, except as some man's chattel property (initially, your father, later your husband). There are still places on earth where these conditions prevail, though astute westerners no longer consider such places to be civilized.  In most cities of Biblical times, contaminated water killed many people with epidemic diseases before age 40, if famine didn't do the job first.  Bearing children frequently accomplished the same result for women. 

Even in the late 19th Century, society  and the state of human knowledge in many ways scarcely resembled our own age.  Social class was as effective a determinant of one's future prospects in western countries as caste is still, in India. Women still had no substantial status and few rights as independent persons.  The germ theory of disease was still a new concept and our present understanding of medicine was in its infancy.   

Such places are not a world in which most European or American citizens now live.  Even the concept of "citizen" is different now.  There are options and possibilities in today's world, that no reader of the original Torah or the more recent Book of Mormon could have dreamed. 

You and I live in a world where the traditional word "obey" is regularly stricken from a woman's script for Christian marriage ceremonies.  In this world, do we truly believe that our behavior and beliefs should be tailored to the many-times re-written personal revelations of a bunch of gray-bearded desert prophets -- some of whom were widely regarded as barking mad nut cases even by their contemporaries?  

There is something decidedly out of balance in this picture, don't you think?

Ten Commandments

Our problems concerning traditional tools for religious search are amply demonstrated by a reading of the Ten Commandments from Biblical tradition.  The version below is in a form that should be familiar to most western Christians from the Book of Exodus. Take a few moments, please, and actually read these directives, sample their tone, and ask yourself what kinds of unspoken assumptions they convey with respect to God and humankind. 

1. "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."

2. "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments."

3. "Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain."

4.  "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it."

5.  "Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee."

6. "Thou shalt not kill."

7.  "Thou shalt not commit adultery."

8. "Thou shalt not steal."

9. "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour."

10.  "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's." 

--- --- --- 

Many modern theologians are convinced by study of original texts, that several of these directives have been significantly doctored since they were originally written.  Over the years, various authors added on prohibitions of various sorts to the original texts.  Even apart from this tendency to elaborate, there are other problems.  "The" ten above are not the only commandments in the Bible or even in the particular section of the Bible from which they are extracted.  There are approximately 22 candidates to choose from in that section, most of them lesser known.  

It is unclear why this particular set should have been selected as worthy of inscription in stone.  But we can make some reasonable inferences. 

Four of the ten commandments concern rituals of authority or legitimacy imposed on worship in the name of a jealous and punishing God.  This God (Yahweh) was worshiped by a tiny minority sect, pushing its way into a previously settled area populated by competing polytheist or nature-worshiping animist communities.  It should not surprise us that the early Israelite priests were highly concerned with keeping their spiritual flocks from straying out of the fold of draft-eligible young men. 

The other six commandments are directives about right behavior between Yahweh-fearing people.  These commandments would most probably not have been unusual among any agricultural community of the area and time.  

Traditional priesthoods had a very substantial institutional and personal investment in closely regulating many areas of common community life. Perhaps at the most fundamental level of human nature, they had to do something that looked important and useful. It should not surprise us that small elites would write scriptures for the larger community that preserved their own interests in regulating both religious conformity and the avoidance of community strife.  In those days, an out-of-work priest could starve to death if he wasn't stoned first. 

Examine also, some of the self-ascribed characteristics and policies of the Yahweh who supposedly dictated these commandments.  Would you or I even consider persecuting the great-grandchildren of a non-conformist opponent, for his supposed "inequities?"  The commandments were written for a world in which the terms "innocent until proven guilty"  or "justice under law" were unknown concepts.  Even the term "God fearing" must put the teeth of many modern readers on edge.  What a contradiction of terms it is, to claim (albeit separately from the commandments above) that the Deity is a loving God, whom we must never the less meet with fear and trembling! 

Religious Affirmations for Modern People

Despite the glaring anachronisms in the traditional directives concerning right human relationship to a Creator and right behavior toward each other, many modern people still feel themselves to be in need of guidelines for living well.  We seek standards for behavior in a complex world.  If the harsh dictates of an angry, demanding and punishing God do not appeal to us as guides, then what more practical alternatives might we find?  What affirmations or rules of thumb might we offer to long-lived, highly heterogeneous people who are presented with a relatively wide range of possible and sustainable life choices?   

The following are some of my thoughts on the subject.  Feel free to add your own.  There's no magic in the number ten.

Affirmations about God and Mankind

1.  If a personal God exists, then we may eventually learn that He, She or It can have as many faces as there are seekers or worshipers.  

Perceptions are part of our way of interacting with reality outside of ourselves.  But we now know that perceptions are not objective reality itself.  No two human individuals perceive exactly the same God or even the same world.  How foolish it is, therefore, to argue about Ultimate Truth -- much less to kill each other over its  forms or doctrines self-proclaimed by religious leaders.  None of us in this mortal world has a corner on the market for Truth.  We're all seekers.

By sustained observation, we know that the central tendency of human life experience and progress is not uniformity.  It is variety. Allowed to prosper without violent interference, human beings will always seek to broaden the range of their possible choices and circumstances.  Humans seek expansion and liberation from limitation, as naturally as a flower seeks light.  This is our nature. Although a temporary excess of choices may frighten us until we grow enough to deal with the alternatives, the opposite condition is truly intolerable:  a fixed,  unchanging and fully determined world would be deadly boring. 

We are highly adaptable creatures, capable of creating or living within a wide variety of sustainable human arrangements, both social and personal.  We are also socially gregarious creatures -- we naturally associate with others of our species.  Our challenge is not to homogenize ourselves or others whom we may meet  into a common or dictated mold, by means of either force or persuasion.  The humanly valid task is to learn to respect and appreciate our differences, so we that may learn from each other and expand yet further.  Without this respect, tolerance is impossible and violent conflict may be inevitable. 

Note also, that my use of the terms "She" and "It" with respect to a Divine being are not accidental:  "He" is not inevitable or necessary in a world in which gender no longer defines capacity.

2.  It is usually a mistake to confuse a roadmap with the territory it describes. 

Our names or symbols for God are merely shorthand -- a convenience of reference -- for sharing with other people our personal experience concerning a dimension of reality that is much larger than the symbols. There may be at least a thousand pathways in personal experience, that religious writers have advocated as ways to know God.  However, if we choose to believe that God incorporates a spiritual dimension larger than our common physical reality, then it doesn't make a lot of sense to invest our worship or faith in a physical or symbolic "thing" that lacks spiritual dimension.  Do we really think that God seeks out residence in magnificent buildings or statues or paintings? Such a premise seems no more reasonable than the notion that the soul of a departed friend makes its eternal home in a gravestone.  

We may be awed or gratified by the beauty that is often created in the name of religious inspiration.  But let us not be overawed by these trappings.  They really don't seem necessary to an inner experience of God in common life, if God is what you seek.   It is respectful to honor the symbols of another person's belief -- but appropriate to remind ourselves that the symbols represent ideas that are larger and unseen.  Over-concentration on the symbols can leave less time to study the practical consequences of the symbols as they are used in everyday life. 

3.  If we choose to worship, then let us do so while standing on our own feet, at least as often as we kneel.   

An enforced kneeling position is one that evil men and tyrants have historically used as a means for subjugating slaves, dependents, and self-punishing masochists.  If we believe that God created the human species, then it is also not a bad working assumption to believe that God did not make junk.  And this would be true regardless of the self-evident fact that we've been around on this earth for a great deal longer than Genesis or the genealogies of the Old Testament seem to indicate. 

Self- respecting mortals can appreciate and render honor to a divine Being, while speaking eye-to-eye.  We can practice a thoughtful humility without cowering.  However, penitents who tremble with fear and face the floor rather than facing their Maker, might never fully encounter a spiritual Being who waits for them to open their eyes and look outward into a spiritually expanded and more aware world.

This image created in words is also a symbolism, of course. 

  Behavioral Standards in Human Social Arrangements

4.  Civilized people do not lie, cheat or violate their oaths.  

All of these forms of behavior are basic violations of trust.  When we make a promise or offer our honorable oath that certain ideas or acts are true, the welfare or even the lives of other people may come to depend upon the credibility of our promises.  We live as individuals in a larger matrix of interactive life.  Trust in each other and in the fairness and equity of our shared community life, is a social contract that we must not ignore or casually disregard if we are to have order or safety in our individual lives.  

We need only read history or observe current affairs to learn that when evil people or tyrants are permitted to manipulate the truth to their own arbitrary ends, all of us become mere means to those ends. Under such conditions, society and culture degenerate into a game of spoils, robbed from a shrinking pool of resources.

Perhaps we are all a bit uncivilized at times, when the issue is one of truth versus the convenient or face-saving lie.  But most of us understand almost intuitively that lies and falsehood eventually kill something in the human soul. We are made smaller by our lies, not greater. Thus, a more fulfilled life may reasonably imply that we should lie less often -- even when our best sense of the truth seems painful or inconvenient to our perceived desires or the dominance of our own egos.

5.  Civilized people do not casually or callously violate their marital contracts.  

Such a contract is also an oath.  If we do not intend to honor the value of our oath, then to offer it may be a form of fraud.

Our complex world has made possible a widening variety of arrangements and forms with respect to marriage and family life. We no longer live in a world where all authority devolves from the family patriarch, or where women are uniformly second class citizens if they are citizens at all.  Many women are now heads of their own households and some of them by choice.  Millions of long-term partnerships now involve same-sex partners.  Some long-term intimate relationships are no longer sexually exclusive, either by explicit agreement or by mutually negotiated behavioral standards. 

But despite this wider range of relationship choices,  marriage and family remain centrally important elements of human social organization and culture.  Regardless of one's particular individual alignments of gender attraction, any careful observation of history must convince us that the central building block of all human social culture is the mating pair.  

It is only in the last century that western civilization has grown healthy enough and rich enough for mating to frequently concern issues beyond producing and protecting children, or adjudicating property rights between siblings.  The pithier social questions of our times often involve what it is that "mating" should mean these days, and whether our marital contracts should apply to solely one man and one woman plus their children.  Some of us sincerely wonder if long-term monogamous marriage is even possible any more, given the high divorce rates we see around us.  But so far, nobody has come up with an alternative arrangement that does a better job of promoting the well-being of most people and their kids. So -- as in many other areas of real life -- we struggle with ambivalence and ambiguity. 

One theme around which a lot of our struggle revolves is that marriage is also a contract of trust.  When we enter into it, we make certain promises and confirm certain mutual expectations about personal and sexual behavior and commitment.    Even if the nature of our promises or expectations is evolving, it seems likely that a central principle will remain. 

We should not make promises that we do not intend to keep. Nor, however, must the promises that we make be in all matters the same as our distant ancestors made.

6.  To live fully, do not envy the success or wealth or  accomplishments of other people.  If such outcomes have importance to us, then it is better to emulate the behavior of those who have attained much through their own effort, than to stand in jealous envy of them and withhold our own.   

Jealous envy is one of the most corrosive emotions that a human being can experience.  It sours us to any good event that comes our way, by rendering the habitual  judgment that such things are "not enough" for us.  

Those who envy are never satisfied -- because somebody else always possesses what they think they want.  Even if the jealous one "gets what they want," there is always something bigger or different that lies just out of reach. Whether this something is a job or a house or a piece of jewelry or an attractive lover, does not greatly matter. For the jealous one, not even the possession of multiple envied things or persons can ever satisfy them. They are perpetually hungry.  If their grasping behavior and their intrusiveness into other lives becomes sufficiently compulsive or extreme, less grasping people often regard them as evil and avoid their company.

To become persons of substance or significance, it is not enough merely to "have" the outward appearances of success or status or attractiveness.   For in truth, we do not actually own anything that we have not first imagined and then created ourselves. Taking things from other people gives us possession of them, but not ownership. To be significant as persons,  we must act rightly for purposes larger than the mere possession of things that others have created.  We must give something of ourselves to the larger world, if we would seek its acknowledgement of our value. We must create, not merely possess. 

7.  Civilized people do not steal. 

Stealing is destructive and wasteful behavior, both when we steal from people whom we know and when we rob strangers.  This is true even when the victims are people we regard as uncivilized savages.  Historically, it has always been relatively easy to justify stealing from the ignorant or the powerless. But despite great polarization and conflict in the world and noting large disparities of economic condition, it is undeniable that common people everywhere are no longer ignorant. 

There is no acceptable justification for taking from others by force or by stealth, something that you have not paid for fairly, created, earned, or been freely given as an inheritance.  

We can argue another day about whether taxes should be regarded as state-sponsored theft, or as payment for services rendered under a social contract.

8.  Civilized people do not commit premeditated murder 

In the world around us, there are myriad forms of violence -- some obvious and some not so much.  Harm to our fellow human beings and to our physical world can come in many forms.  

One can find many learned arguments concerning specific acts that comprise murder, versus acts that result in the loss of a life but are not murder. Killing someone who is trying to kill you is considered by most of us to be justifiable self defense, as long as you aren't committing some other criminal act at the time and the person you kill is neither your victim nor a police officer. Killing people in a war is not generally premeditated by the soldier, however predictable it may be from the circumstances.  Political leaders can be prosecuted for war crimes, if they compel soldiers to kill or torture non-combatants.   

Some people also consider abortion to be premeditated murder.  Others consider abortion to be a justifiable homicide -- the taking of a potential though not fully developed and independent human life, for reasons founded in the health or well-being of the mother, that override our normal resistance to the taking of even potential life.  

In the long run, perhaps these distinctions are less important than a more central admonition that good people almost universally seek to honor both in principle and in practice:  

The Prime Admonition: "First do no harm that you don't have to."

Good people also do not keep the regular company of others who are violently inclined.  The behavior of violent individuals -- those who use force as a tool for domination over others, even when alternate nonviolent means are available to ensure personal survival and promote human accomplishment -- is widely recognized as evil.   Each of us is to varying degrees, rightly characterized by the company we keep.

9.  Love each other.  It's fun, energizing, and when we get lucky, it can occasionally become one of the pathways toward spiritual enlightenment. 

Speaking personally rather than generally, I've come to believe that people who advocate that the love of God contradicts the love of mankind or womankind, probably need a long vacation with time to re-think their belief systems. They really aren't talking about love. They've very often used the word love to signify a sort of one-way relationship of "obedience" to a higher authority -- which isn't the same thing at all.  Confusion over meanings is often a sign that we aren't thinking -- or acting -- with consistency or clarity. 

Love has a lot of dimensions.  Caring is one of them. Nurturing is another and desiring is yet another.  Screwing outrageously can be one of the more delightful dimensions, between people who are old enough both to consent to sexual play and to enjoy the sensations that sexual love offers. Delighted laughter is the natural result of all of these dimensions, when we love someone who is truly right for us and in tune with our deeper capacities or perceived needs. 

Sometimes love is experienced as need.  Sometimes it is felt as abundance.  Sometimes it is struggle.  All of these live within each of us in a constantly changing balance.  Whatever that balance may be for the moment, loving is never wrong for the long term, even when it eventually proves to be misdirected. We always learn from loving and engaging,  and then from working out the consequences.  

10.  The truth of a religious proposal or idea is verified not by dead Scripture but by live behaviors among those who offer it, in the observed consequences of its practice.  

This affirmation has as much to do with human social interactions as with the possible truth or existence of a Deity. The statement is founded on some of the concepts taught by a school of rational thought called "Empiricism."  Proponents of this school say most basically, that everything we know is founded on events or learning that we personally experience.  We learn not only by reading the words of others, but also by demonstration and by experiment.  Even when we are taught a concept that we believe to be truth in our lives, we cannot truly "know" that concept unless we can test it against something more than its existence in a book.  This reality is a major failing of all scriptural religion.  Most religionists don't "know" much of anything that can be shared with others who do not already believe as they do.  And no few religious believers wax eloquent in righteous indignation when challenged to show evidence in the real world, of the principles they assert as God's Revealed Word from Scripture. 

For the purposes of a religious search for truth and meaning, there are profoundly practical and positive results to be derived from empirical thinking.  This framework leads us to understand certain helpful things about faith and belief, and about behaviors that grow out of belief. 

For an empiricist, faith may become an investment of our time and chosen behavior in the possibility that a proposition about God or humankind or shared Reality and our Universe might be true.  We ask ourselves, "if this idea were to be true, then how would I be led to behave in daily life, and what should be the predictable consequences of my behavior?  What are the implications?"  In other words, our investment of faith leads us to seek to behave in particular ways -- and to then observe carefully what happens.  We can behave "as if"  a proposition is Truth, all the while keeping our eyes and our minds open to measure the outcomes of practice.  As experience accumulates, we watch for trends.  Are we seeing what we expected to see? Or is something else happening? Does what we see suggest some other truth? If not, then perhaps we didn't really understand truth in the first place. 

This process of propose - act - then observe outcomes should not be read as a final answer to all  problems of faith.  As any psychologist can tell you,  a tremendous number of subtle factors can contribute both to behavior and to our ability to observe causes and effects.  However, this kind of logical faith may possibly have major advantages over the beliefs that one often hears advocated by religious zealots.

-  An empiricist's faith is humble.  People who work in this framework realize that human beings never really know the whole Truth.  We diligently seek to discover pieces of truth in our human experience.  We don't make broad generalizations without evidence, and we aren't insulted by others' requests that we reexamine the evidence in light of more recent or different experience. 

-  An empiricist's faith is also gradual and particular, rather than a leap into the abyss.  We begin by testing a few articles of faith at a time.  We do the best we can to understand what happens when we invest our time and belief in these propositions. Then we expand the list if we meet with a positive outcome. We aren't forced to 'buy into' a whole dogma or else be declared heretics.  Experience really isn't about dogma.  It has more to do with simply paying attention and trying to learn as much as we can. 

- Empiricists do not reject out of hand, the learning or beliefs or theories of others.  Rational persons merely insist on seeing the same evidence or results for ourselves that others claim to derive from those beliefs.  We insist on repeating the experiment.  If the evidence isn't explainable or observable, then we have to suspect that the belief system may not be true for us, even if it seemed to be for its originator.  If the originator is actually advocating an ultimate Truth, then it should be just as true for us as for him or her.  Experience will either demonstrate that condition or contradict it. 

- An empiricist can change his or her mind without calling aybody a fool. This kind of thing is inevitable when we continue learning and expanding.  Likewise, it's been my observation that empiricists rather less often than religionists make fools of themselves by clinging obsessively to ideas that don't work out well in practice.

Even Socrates made mistakes and changed his mind when experience contradicted faith.

Non-Traditional Tools

Although traditional writings from the distant past might not be of great assistance in finding a religion that makes sense for our own times, such texts do not need to be our only resources.  We also have recourse to much more recent writing and thinking.  And common people can now observe and evaluate the world around them with far greater accuracy and insight than our forebears, if we choose to do so. From this background, I suggest several conceptual starting points from which a modern search for spirituality and meaning might begin.   I note in passing, that none of these ideas is original to me.  I have no personal or particular corner on Universal Truth.  

   - The Concept of Duality

One concept that may help to clarify our search for meaning is based on a long record of observations about the fundamental nature of our physical and cognitive universe.  We can find traces of this concept as far back as the early Buddhists and  Zoroastrians, and in more recent writings of  Kant, Hegel, and even some of the Christian philosophers. 

Briefly stated, at the scale of reality where most of us routinely think and function, there are no singular value concepts.  There are only dualities.   We literally cannot think about or define any value or moral concept, except in association with or by contrast to its opposite.  Obvious examples abound:

     Good and Evil

     Light and Dark

     High and Low

     Truth and Falsehood

     Health and Sickness

     Pain and Pleasure

     Order and Chaos

     Life and Death

            and need we add, God and Satan... ? 

From this observation, it is not difficult to derive a further and possibly even more startling insight:  human beings are incapable of thinking about "infinite" value concepts.  If a value or concept were to occupy all of our known or imagined universe, then there would be no room for its opposite.  But we cannot define any value concept without reference to opposites.  Our awareness simply doesn't work that way.  

  One might argue that our reality ought not to work in this confining manner.  But as George Burns says in a gentle conversation with a little girl in the movie "Oh God, Book II,"  this is just the way things are in our universe. We don't know how to think about an infinitely good and all-knowing God, or an infinitely bad Devil. For human beings, there are no absolutes. In common human perception, there is only incremental movement across multiple scales of value, between two or more poles. This seems to be a built-in element of our mortality. We literally cannot avoid it. 

   -  Concepts of the Unseen: Orders of Reality

Although we seem to be required by our nature to think about human values or measures of goodness in a dualistic way, there are other non-value concepts that seem not to be so obviously structured.  What, for instance, is the opposite of "inspiration" or the complement of "epiphany?"  How do we quantify or polarize imagination?  What are the meanings of our dreams? 

For most people, there seem to be no precise or fixed answers to such questions on any commonly accepted scale of values. We share a generalized perception that some inspirations seem to be more intense or important to outer life than others. Likewise, when we aren't having an "ah-HAH!" moment of epiphany, then perhaps we are simply residing in a more commonplace state of non-thinking reverie or self-preoccupation.  But beyond these vague descriptions, our human vocabulary really doesn't seem to offer much in the way of profound explanations.  We have only the experience itself, to process and perhaps to understand -- or not to understand, as these things sometimes work out.  

When we experience an inspired moment, for many people it is as if the broad field of Creation opens up before us, in a kind of non-chemical LSD trip.  Not long later, our awareness then seems to narrow down, and this larger field of reality disappears from present experience or awareness. We seem to have glimpsed for an instant, part of a larger picture that remains mostly unseen in everyday life.

Perceptions of inspiration seem to be intuitive rather than quantitative.  Intuitions are difficult to measure.  Indeed, it is practically impossible to compare one person's inspirational moment to another's.  Such matters are highly subjective and individual. One might say -- as some philosophers have -- that each of us lives in both an inner (subjective) and outer (objective) reality. These two aspects of our lives overlap and interact, but one never totally subsumes or defines the other. 

Modern non-traditional religious thought offers a number of helpful concepts that pertain to experiences of imagination or inspiration.  We speculate that inspirations might be glimpses of a larger Reality than we commonly perceive in routine life moments.  We intuit that both subjective and objective Reality might have "layers" or "orders of complexity."  And we suspect that human beings might possibly be capable of being consistently aware of larger, deeper, or "higher" layers, if we were somehow to train our awareness in appropriate ways. 

For a traditionalist, a common equivalent to such phasing might be simply that we might find God if we look hard enough in the right direction.  Likewise to a traditionalist, the way we "look" is through prayer. To a non-traditionalist or empiricist, prayer may not comprise the only useful tool, and there might be more than one useful direction to look.  

   - Concepts of Transcendence

Many modern writers -- and Joseph Campbell is only one of them -- have explored the concept of transcendence and its significance in searching for a dimension of the Divine that touches our human lives.  The central idea here is that in moments of inspiration, epiphany, or personal ecstasy,  we seem to contact or touch an order of reality that steps "beyond" the dualities that our reality normally imposes on perception.  It is as if something larger than good/bad, light/dark, hot/cold, true/false  is directly experienced. Usually for short periods of time, this larger "something" renders such polarities unimportant or even non-existent.  It "transcends" them to such a degree that people who experience such moments later relate that whatever it was that they encountered was unlike anything they have ever dreamed or imagined before. Many are moved to tears by the experience, and not a few are profoundly changed by it.  Ask a born-again Christian how a religious conversion experience feels, and you're likely to hear similar wording. 

However, transcendence is not without its problems.  Not too many years ago, the most common  experience of transcendence that many people talked about was drug-induced.  A transient expansion of subjective consciousness was described often, by people who had taken LSD or Peyote "trips".   For a generation of western youth, the wonders of modern neurochemistry were supposed to make the road to spiritual enlightenment easy.

Unfortunately for a lot of brain-damaged disciples of Tim Leary, the process turned out to be more hazardous than initially advertised.   Though this route to so-called mind expansion is now recognized to be a dead end for sustainable human health, it was popular for a time and is still bandied about by people who want to sell drugs to the unwary. It's not a bad policy to beware of prophets whom you must pay for their roadmaps to Eternity.  Quite often, the price can be too high. 

For an empiricist, the emptiness of the promises of chemical bliss is verifiable by observation.  The expansion of mind that drug pushers promised -- or even believed themselves -- simply didn't happen.  No great spiritual pathways were ever revealed in the confused and fragmentary memories that travelers brought back from such trips. No new mode of visual or auditory art emerged.  No general betterment of personal life or human relationships was evident.  Instead, the major outcome we can observe is a group of non-functional young people with very messed-up minds, some of whom are -- years later -- incapable of carrying on a coherent conversation, much less holding a self-supporting job.  That is self-evidently not spiritual progress.

However, even though some of the most popularized recent approaches to transcendence have proven to be over-sold, the concept itself persists.  In one way or another, transcendence of the mortal plane of existence and entry into awareness of a higher order of reality is an objective or an asserted result of every major traditional system of faithful or religious belief.  The fact that nobody we know about has ever succeeded in demonstrating this outcome in a repeatable way, has not reduced the apparent human desire to believe that somewhere in our pile of traditional or modern belief fragments, there simply must be a way into the larger reality reported by people who have had moments of transcendence. 

It is almost as if we all live part of the time within the mind of that youngster who so famously remarked in an old joke, "... I know there's just got to be a pony in here somewhere!"  

Thus, it seems to me that an observant person might be led to ask: are all of the many historical and modern claims concerning spiritual transcendence nothing more than human wishful thinking?  Perhaps some humanists might choose to believe so, and certainly atheists who reject any claim of a higher plane of sentient awareness than we commonly experience in everyday life.  But for the rest of us, there remains the troubling issue of the evidence.   There are realms of common human experience that are widely shared, for which no explanation seems to exist that can be attributed solely to the order of reality that we experience in everyday life. As discussed previously, imagination, inspiration, and spiritual ecstasy seem to be among these realms.  Even more intensely, so also is a widely known human phenomenon called the "near-death experience."

It would be difficult for an adult in western society to grow up these days without hearing about the near-death experience.  Literally millions of people have had one, and at least tens of thousands have reported or recorded their memories publicly , concerning what they experienced before "returning" to everyday life.  The elements of these reports have an almost amazing similarity:

  - The individual finds himself or herself in a life-threatening condition of illness or injury, at or beyond the borderline of unconsciousness. 

  - At some point, often as doctors are working around them to save their lives, they feel themselves floating upward or outward from their bodies.  They find that they can look back or "down" to see themselves, sometimes from an apparent viewpoint near the ceiling of the room where their body lies.  Though they know that they may be near death, they often feel a sense of peace or acceptance rather than struggle or strife.

  - The individual then feels drawn or pulled further away from their body.  They seem to float or be moved into a dark tunnel, usually standing up, though not particularly conscious of their own posture.  It is as if they look out into existence without need for their former body.

  -   As they move down the tunnel, they notice a brilliant light in front of them.  While moving toward this light, many see the images of relatives or friends who have previously died, who seem to be extending a greeting in this new and strange place.

  -  At some intermediate point in the tunnel, a fraction of those who have the near-death experience feel themselves unable to continue toward the light, and are pulled backward into their bodies.  They almost uniformly report a mixture of feelings of regret and acceptance from this experience.  Others continue onward in the tunnel until they feel themselves to be in the actual presence of the Light.  They feel that they have come near to some Personage - a figure whose personal identity is not known, but whom they perceive to possess great power or knowledge. 

  -  As they draw near to the Personage of Light, many of  these people find that they are led to review the events and substance of their lives.  Some who have led lives of dissipation or anger or immorality find themselves feeling profound regret over their misuse of the life and experience that was given to them.  Others report only a sense of seeing their lives and being led to accept or value everything that they have seen. 

  -  At some point during or just after this review, many observers feel that it is time to move on through the light to another place.  However, the Figure of Light may now offer them a choice, or give them direction.  They learn that this is not their time to pass through, but rather that they need to return to the lives they have known before.

  -  The observer then finds himself or herself moving back down the tunnel, away from the Personage of Light.  Eventually, they find themselves back within their own bodies again. Sometimes they awake immediately, and sometimes days later.  Some feel an almost palpable sense of ecstasy, and a desire to tell people around them of what they have experienced.  Others feel that the experience is a private one, regardless of how they have been affected by it.

One aspect of the near-death experience that is startling for an empiricist is the simple fact of its relative uniformity for the many who pass through it.  The same elements appear in reports of children as young as four years, adolescents, mature adults, and the very old; many of these elements appear in reports of young children who have never before been exposed to stories of this type.

The near-death experience has occurred for people of all religious faiths, and of no faith at all. It has occurred for people of all cultures that we know, throughout the world.  Interestingly, very few of the recorded reports assert any personal knowledge of the identity of the Personage of Light, regardless of the individual's commitment to a particular religious community.  Though not universally true, for a significant  proportion of those who have undergone such an experience, the reports indicate a renewed appreciation for life and an emergent commitment to live "better", with greater attention to the human needs of other people. 

The near-death experience is not without its detractors.  As in any other realm of life, there are those who claim that there must be a perfectly mechanical and non-spiritual explanation for the many common elements reported by those who have met the Light and returned. Some would assert that the tunnel, the Light, and the common memories that emerge must simply result from the structures of the oxygen-deprived brain itself. On the whole, I do not find these assertions to be fully satisfying or credible.  They offer no more verifiable evidence of biological mechanism, than do the proponents of the alternative view:  that the near-death experience offers suggestive evidence for the possibility of transcendence into an order or reality larger than our usual mortal awareness. 

The evidence that we have suggests quite powerfully that in the near-death experience, we may be seeing a real phenomenon that engages an order or reality beyond life and death as we commonly define these concepts.  For hundreds of thousands of people, something happens -- sometimes more than once.  And after it happens, these people are very often changed for the better in the observations of others who have previously known them for long periods.

  -  Tools for Transcendent Living: Prayer, Meditation, Diet, Dance, Motion and Other Forms of Mindfulness

It is reasonable to ask if moments of transcendence can only be experienced accidentally or without intent, as in the case of the near-death experience.  The evidence that we have suggests otherwise.  Transcendence might turn out to be an intent-ful process, though it appears not to be an "easy" process for most people. 

In multiple traditions of religious thought and practice, we encounter systems of mental discipline and training that are asserted to open the gateways from mundane reality into higher and broader places, in new orders of experience.  We also read the narratives or gospels of people who claim to have seen such places.  Despite our problems of interpretation and our lack of cultural context for the oldest of these reports, we can still observe that "something seems to have happened, here."  And we can perhaps begin to investigate and characterize what that "something" might have been.

     -- Prayer:  Most western or European readers are familiar with some form of prayer in Christian and Jewish tradition.  For many of us, a time of prayer is a little like having a personal conversation with God -- though the conversation is almost always a one-way monolog. We talk, and Something (maybe) "listens."  And we hope that if we are really good people, or if God is simply being attentive that particular day, then perhaps our prayer will be answered by some form of Divine intervention in our lives.  

Praying "for" some thing or condition to manifest itself in our lives is not the only form of prayer. There are also prayers of healing, unfoldment, or discovery. These are the kinds of prayer that affirm, "I/we know that God is present and is not silent..." and then stop in an expectant, listening silence. We expect no vast parting of the clouds or Godly voice asking us "You rang?"  We are simply making room in our lives to perceive some new message that we haven't heard before, emerging from the silence of the Void.  In this making of room, we invest a kind of provisional belief that something important might "happen." And then we wait attentively to discover what it might be. 

There is a vast difference in subtlety between "praying for a new bike" versus praying to discover the best and most humane thing to do in a complicated social situation affecting other people.  Many adults never experience that subtlety or feel comfortable with it if they do.  However, I rather doubt that people who have such difficulty would be interested in reading an article about the search for a religion that makes sense.  For more sophisticated readers, it might be reasonable to ask, "what is the evidence that prayer is answered?"  Whether we perceive a personal God who hears us as individuals, or we imagine a less anthropomorphic form of Divinity that operates only as an unseen force in human and Universal affairs, the evidence that prayer is sometimes answered, is actually pretty good. 

We know, for instance, that people who pray seem to have a better rate of recovery and a lower rate of complications from serious disease, than people who claim to be atheists.  We also know of thousands of documented cases of quite radical healing of life-threatening disorders, relying on prayer.  Several states in the United States authorize health insurance companies to reimburse for the fees of Christian Science Practitioners in their "metaphysical treatment "of patients with illness.   And perhaps most fascinating of all, there is fragmentary suggestive evidence that seriously ill patients who are prayed "for" by perfect strangers, may also have a higher recovery rate than patients who are not prayed for. 

If you doubt the relevance of prayer to human healing and medical science, then you have only to perform a search on the word in the Pub-Med database at the US National Institutes of Health.  As of May 2008, there were over 36,000 journal articles indexed in this source, that refer to the word "prayer" in one context or another.   Addition of the word "healing" will narrow  the search results to about 250 articles.  In this context, you might also investigate any of a number of books written by medical doctors.  One of the better that I've seen in recent years is "Love, Medicine and Miracles" by Dr. Bernie Siegel. 

If, after this reading,  you still doubt that the relevance of prayer as an agency for healing on a deeply emotional level, then you might be well advised to talk with almost any alcoholic in recovery who is active in the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.  There are over 10 million people in the US alone who may have experience to offer in such a discussion.  These are people who, quite apart from the particular rituals of their religious upbringing, have been led to seek a personal relationship with a Higher Power, as one of the steps in their recovery.  While by no means all of them credit the interventions of such a Power in their own sobriety, they have observed that inclusion of a Higher Power in their own thinking can be a constructive step in healing. 

     -- Meditation:  While prayer to a superior Being is perhaps the most familiar tool for spiritual exploration by western searchers, meditation is used by even more people of both East and West.  There are many forms of meditation, and many "spiritual systems" that employ it.  It is a common practice for at least 20 minutes of almost every day.  These systems view meditation as a way of clearing the mind of everyday word noise, centering our attentions and awareness within our bodies or minds, and allowing ourselves to experience a natural up-welling of creative, spiritual and physical energy that many people regard as an evidence of a Divine force, acting in human lives.  

Some practitioners of meditation compare it to prayer, though many others invoke no reference to a Higher Being when they meditate. However, there is an interesting common idea in the practice of meditation, that seems to arise in many systems of spiritual or religious exploration.  This idea concerns an attitude that many of teachers encourage in people who are first learning how to meditate.  

Teachers often tell their students that meditation is not "for" or "about" other things -- it is an activity of mindfulness to be engaged in purely for itself.  We don't meditate to "get well" or to "find inspiration", or to seek an out-of-body experience.  If any of those events happens to occur, it can be accepted as a positive experience. But creating such experiences is not the object of the exercise.   If we meditate with the purpose of repeatedly returning to such experiences, we may find ourselves "stuck." Some practitioners report that the imposition of purpose upon meditation actually seems to reduce the number of times that a desired result or outcome occurs.  

Such reports offer us an insight into the experience of meditation, and perhaps into its usefulness as a starting point for learning about or actually experiencing transcendence.  Despite the difficulty that western technological minds may have with this concept, meditation seems to be "about" releasing the human impulse to control everything or describe everything, or intellectualize everything.  Meditation isn't about some "thing".  It isn't about purposes.  It isn't about results.  It is about being  mindfully aware -- just being here now.  

The idea here is that it is okay for us to stop trying to control or describe or "think about" our existence or our experience or the next minutes of our lives, or what we're going to say to our mother-in-law when that busybody next shows her face from her apartment over the garage.  And only when we stop thinking, are we are truly free to engage with some larger order of reality.  This implied larger order of reality cannot be described adequately with words.  It can only be experienced directly, in a non-thinking but aware state. 

In other words, transcendence might turn out to be an experience that requires us to get outside our words "about" reality, and get inside the reality itself.  We go "there" (wherever "there" is) by going there, not by describing where it is.  We live in the territory instead of getting preoccupied with the roadmap or the sign posts along our road.

It must be noted that the kind of mental and spiritual journey described above is not a trivial pursuit.  It takes most people years if not a lifetime, to grow familiar and comfortable with regular meditation as a daily practice of mindfulness.  Many of us never learn how to quiet the mind and let go of the urge to be constantly thinking about "stuff." And some of those who penetrate the process more deeply than others, manage to distract themselves by believing that it is actually important to be able to levitate at will, or to be regularly clairvoyant, or to travel outside the body in spirit journeys.  Such distractions happen despite the fact that many teachers have said and written that spiritual growth and  transcendence do not seem to be about such parlor tricks, regardless of how much they stimulate our imagination. 

One of the more difficult exercises we can do in life, is to release the urge to do exercises and to go to places that we already think we know.  If you go only where you know the territory, you aren't going to discover much that's new.  And transcendence is a decidedly new experience for most human beings.    

     -- Diet:  Mental word noise is not the only barrier that many of us put into our own way, to avoid experiencing a larger order of reality.  As pointed out for centuries by teachers and Yogis, it's difficult to think clearly if our body is constantly howling its demands at us.  One doesn't have to do much research to understand that diet-related health problems can also be a major distraction from a productive and constructive outer life, as well as inner spiritual life.  Thus it is not greatly surprising that a large number of traditional systems of religious belief also propose extensive dietary rules for "purifying" the body.  One of the earliest dietary rule systems is Kosher, now practiced by orthodox and conservative Jews.  Catholics, Hindus, Sikhs and many others likewise have their own (quite different) rule books.

For some people, diet can be an avenue for bringing mind and body into greater harmony, and opening mental gates to a wider spiritual awareness.  For others, the avoidance of certain foods becomes an issue of moral purity or principle.  For instance, Vegans try to avoid all meats and products processed from animals, under an assumption that living animals are sacred.  Other vegetarians are less extreme in their focus on vegetable products as a "natural" diet, permitting themselves also to consume eggs, cheese and milk.

I would be the first to acknowledge that I am not a vegetarian and that I find some of the moral assertions of those who are, to be unbalancing for the kind of life I choose to lead.  However, I am also struck by Joseph Campbell's observation that the Vegans do not completely avoid one of the ironies of our reality:  Life can subsist and continue, only by consuming other life. Regardless of whether what we consume is from animal or vegetable sources, it is or has been alive.  Human and animal life cannot be sustained without killing some other complex form of organism.  Thus in principle, Vegans might not be quite so morally pure as they might assert themselves to be.   None of us are purely one thing or another.  We live on a continuum, always between dualities.  

This being said, there are still practical grounds for considering carefully whether the spiritual dimensions of our human awareness might be promoted or degraded by what we eat.  Likewise, we live in a crowded world, as the vegetarians remind us.  Meat is not the most efficiently produced food protein. 

Food for thought, perhaps. 

     -- Dance and Motion: Throughout the human history of spiritual and religious experience, we seem to find two competing models that believers offer to describe the relationship of transcendence to the human body.  The model that operates in Christianity and other western and Middle East religions asserts that awareness of the body is unalterably opposed to the ascendancy of spirit.  At its extremes, this model requires some believers to "mortify" (e.g. punish by scourging) the body in order to attain moral approval or acceptance by a higher Power.  

By contrast, a different model operates in some eastern frameworks of thought.  This model proposes that we might find a spiritual dimension of ourselves "through" the body and by creating harmony between body and spirit.  In this framework, mentally disciplined motion is accepted as a path for finding our way toward spiritual transcendence.   In this model, the desired end state is not for our mind or body or spirit to "win" some kind of cosmic argument between themselves, but for the three dimensions of our humanity to unite in a whole that is discovered to be larger than the sum of its parts. 

There are many kinds of dance and motion that might qualify as avenues toward spiritual integration or harmony.  Some of these avenues do not necessarily represent themselves as such in public discourse.  In this category, I would personally identify the practice of Tai Chi, though others more closely familiar with this combination of dance, exercise, and defensive martial art might not entirely agree.  There are many other candidates. 

All of the eastern martial arts seem to revolve around a central thread or a "way" that emphasizes the integration of physical, emotional, and spiritual elements of being -- whether in the interests of removing all distractions to the perfect exercise of a fighting art form, or in the name of some larger purpose of spiritual and human growth.  In most of these practices, meditation and centering of inward attention are accepted parts of the martial art itself.  

There are also ways toward spirituality that few western readers have ever heard about in detail, and that some would consider to be "sinful."  With the possible exception of a few Pentecostals or Jehovah's Witnesses, few church-going westerners would find themselves comfortable with the deep chanting, self-hypnosis, and trance states that occupy much of the day for a Tibetan Buddhist, followers of the Dervish way, and some Muslim mystics. And even highly unconventional western practitioners might condemn such practices as "works of the Anti-Christ," given that the prayers raised during the chanting do not focus upon the asserted Savior of all Christians.

Finally, there are ways and practices of spirituality that have long been condemned as outright abomination by less sophisticated western religionists.  Tantra, for instance, is a practice that offers a way toward spiritual union through sexual ecstasy.  Tantric yoga and Kundelini yoga and their Chinese counterpart, the Tao of Sex, all seek to find a transcending spiritual dimension in a carefully ritualized practice of erotic sex.  For readers wondering where to find the nearest local church, I would suggest that the search may not be a simple one.  Various types of Yoga are not widely practiced in such an organized way, though there are any number of illuminating books and classes from which one might begin to study. Parenthetically, most scholars do not regard the Kama Sutra (Hindu marriage ritual) as among the more useful of these books.  

Each of these frameworks of dance and motion has its adherents and its critics.  Each represents to a religious empiricist, a pile of fragments to be sorted through, to evaluate what possible pony might be in there.  Each has its strengths -- some verifiable and rational, and some that appear almost purely subjective.  The one small contribution that I might offer for readers beyond the introduction to these names, is an intuition that perhaps the various forms do not need to be exclusive of one another.  For people who accept faith as a working hypothesis against which to accumulate experience and assess outcomes, provisional belief or practice in the name of experiment does not need to be so confining. 

God and Chaos - The Non-Origin of Evil

At the beginning of this long article, I promised readers an attempt to provide a provisional answer to the philosophical problem of the origin of evil.  In addition to any discussion that I might offer, I also refer you to a thoughtful article on the subject, in one of the references below.  Kit Howell's book offers a lot of themes that may twist your head around in unpredictable and joyous ways. But his explanation of the nature of good and evil and their relationship to a God of our Universe, seems to me to be a journey in directions that move closer to understanding.  I offer this summary of Kit's thinking.  You can check on the details for yourself.

Western religious tradition proposes that God is a totally good Universal Being, occupying all of reality, knowing all there is to know, and having created us and everything else in our Universe.  

However, we also observe that human beings are capable of both good and evil behavior.  So did God also create the evil behavior?  Does God punish us for acting out in ways that He made us capable of?  If so, then this makes God the ultimate originator of evil. To a western psychiatrist, it might also make God the most powerful schizoid personality we've ever heard about.

We cannot have it both ways:  if God is truly infinite and all- knowing, then anything created within that infinity must be "like" its Creator.  So, if we insist on regarding God as wholly good, then we must also choose to believe that God cannot conceivably comprise the totality of our Universe.  

The God that Kit Howell describes is an unfolding, growing Being, embedded in our Universe rather than separate from it, expanding and evolving into a vast, chaotic field of existence.  This God is good.  This model for God does not pre-destine our existence or plan our tragedies, or teach us lessons by killing our children or maiming our young men and women or making us sick and sad.  The tragedies and the killing and maiming are the left-over business of chaos that God hasn't yet unfolded into. 

It may be asked, "then who created the Field of existence?"  And there is at least one honest, if not entirely comforting answer for the question.  "We do not know," and perhaps while we live at our present scale of reality we cannot know.  But more importantly, it does not really matter.   In this framework, we are free to pray to a God that didn't make junk (us) and who doesn't personally punish us for behaving badly (we are perfectly capable of punishing ourselves, and we often do).  

If this conception seems a natural one to you, then it may be that God migjt be seen or sometimes sensed within us -- evolving with us, and in various ways urging us to transcend the limitations of our narrowly defined selves.  Such a God is a life force of profound dimension and no little mystery.  But this God is not, at least,  the schizoid Creator who makes us faulty and then whacks us over the head with catastrophe because we act in the character that He is supposed to have given us.  

Parting Notes

This article has roamed across quite a wide intellectual territory.  Human culture tends to be that way, and I won't apologize for the meandering.  However, I would offer the reader one basic caution as you mull over what you may (or may not) have found here:  if there is one thing that I believe I know with considerable certainty, it is that I have not found or expressed Universal Truth here.  I have merely tried to capture some ideas about truth that appeal to my sense of proportionality and justice in human affairs.  

I don't remotely expect everything offered here to ring true for all readers.  And I don't care to even try to establish a new religion, complete with its icons and dogmas.  What I would like to do instead is to share this journey toward understanding and meaning, with other people.  If you received something here that you sense might be valuable, then offer your own experience and beliefs in exchange.  I offer this to stimulate thought and to learn from others, not to teach you what you haven't already found for yourselves in more natural ways.   

I invite your comments on this work in progress.  Please correspond to

Recommended Reading

1.  Howell, Kit, Little Victories - Tales From a World Without End, Mountain Publications, 1995.  See especially, "Job in the Steam Room."

2.  Campbell, Joseph, with Bill Moyers - The Power of Myth, Edited by Betty Sue Flowers, Doubleday, New York, 1988.

3. Dawkins, Richard - The God Delusion, Trans World Publishers, London, 2006

4. Friedman, Richard Elliott -- Who Wrote the Bible?, Summit Books, New York, 1987.

5.  Harris, Sam -- Letter to a Christian Nation, Vintage Books, a division of Random House, New York, 2006.

6. Lash, John -- The Seeker's Handbook - The Complete Guide to Spiritual Pathfinding, Harmony Books [Crown Publishers], New York, 1990

7.  Robinson, B.A., Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, on Internet at About.Com:, " Menu: The Ten Commandments - Many Topics and Viewpoints, December 9, 2001.

8.  Straight Dope Science Advisory Board - Who Wrote the Bible - Internet article: , January 2002


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