The content of this webpage, and everything associated with this webpage, is independent of the Peace Corps and the United States Government, though I think they should read it too. This blog solely reflects the experiences and observations of Jake DeBerry.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Thoughts on Spirituality

I write a lot about religion – perhaps to the boredom, frustration, or apathy of those who read my blog. After all, this blog is about my experiences in the Peace Corps and not necessarily a forum for my opinions on a very encompassing and complicated topic. I find the topic very interesting for a number of reasons and read about the world's religions often. This is my last blog about religion in which I'd like to clarify my personal view and what I'd like to see instead. If you don't like this type of blog – no need to read it –I'll be putting a new one up soon.

First, I would like to apologize if I have offended anyone over the course of these two years with my blogs, but I'm honored that you would read them. I'm not as careful as I should be and my words are not always well selected. But, in my opinion, religion is the most sheltered area from criticism in human life – and I don't think it should be. Every other topic we can dissect with rigor and intellectual honesty without predetermined premises, regardless of where that may take us. Unfortunately with religion, that isn't the case.

Secondly, the fact that I'm still loved by those with whom I very publicly disagree is a great testament to the progressive attitudes we have versus our ancestors of not too long ago.

For a long time I wanted to believe in Christianity – my grandfather was an amazing man and a Reverend in the Methodist Church. Both sides of my extended family are religious. As a kid I went to church every Sunday, including Sunday school and bible school during the summer. The moment I trace back to getting my mind actively working on the topic was my sophomore year in college (19yrs old) when a previous girlfriend asked me as we were driving about my religious stance – she was from a Jewish background (although mostly non-practicing) and I was from a Methodist background.

Up until then, I was always told what my religious stance was or asked by someone who just wanted to know if I believed the same things they did…never really asked by someone who was interested to discuss it – and it was, in a sense, an awakening. For the next few years I tried to become more knowledgeable about what it was I was saying I believed – and I wanted to believe.

Around 23 years old though, as much as I previously tried, I couldn't continue to ignore or rationalize the mythology and the contradictions within the bible, the convoluted history of how the bible came to be, the impact of over 1,400 years of tyranny and killing off anyone who disagreed, the divorce from reason that religion is allowed and its insolubility with logic, all the suffering and injustice in the world that continues to exist today, and the continued suppression of education and free-thought under the banner of religion. It was a process of many years from when I started to really think and study the topic to where I am now, someone that does not believe in a deity but with a love for the mystery, the adventure, and the beauty of our existence and the universes.

We all have a feeling within us that there is more to what we are…more to what we are doing…something bigger. That energy we have and we feel…the desire to be connected to something greater than us. What is that feeling?

In our world, many lives have incalculable amounts of suffering, the work we do is incessant and unfulfilling, the relationships we have are strained, loved ones die, our bodies grow old and hurt, we are always alone inside our own mind, having money has become a noble albeit unscrupulous pursuit and a lot of people work passionless in jobs because they like or need the money, our personal and collective problems seem to be spiraling beyond our control most of the time, and our world is overflowing with injustice. The way we live is often bereft of meaning.

Thus, religion is one sanctuary many people have for some of our needs not found in our daily lives. It gives us solace and gives absolutist answers to questions we have and helps us feel connected with that feeling of something grander. When our loved ones die, it helps us to think we might see them again or that they aren't really dead but transcended into a different realm. It consoles us about our own thoughts of our inevitable death. Regardless of how alone we feel – religions tell us that you're not alone – someone loves you. Religions try to give us answers, regardless of how based on wish-thinking and conceit those answers may tries to give us rules regardless of how hypocritical and unworthy they may be. But, religions' ability to console or control doesn't make it true. The idea of Santa Clause has the ability to make kids behave...but that doesn't make him true (and yes, I use this analogy because in a way, I think religion is Santa Claus for grown ups).

My favorite thing about Christianity is that it teaches love, forgiveness, and compassion. If Jesus did exist, then it is easy to see how a man like that would be killed – the Jews of that day wanted a warrior, not a teacher preaching about loving and forgiving the very people who were oppressing them. I like the teachings of Jesus – I find them visionary for his time and some of them are in line with how I want to live as a person. But I don't find solace in thinking he was god's only son, born of a virgin, sent to die for sins that I committed before I was born, and if I don't accept him as God's son and my savior then I, along with all the Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others shall dwell in agony and pain for eternity...but he loves us. I do not like all the mythology that goes along with it.

I find solace elsewhere. I agree with Richard Dawkins' idea that when we die, what we will experience is the same thing we experienced before we were born. Does that make my life sad? I don't think so – in fact, it makes me want to live more fully now and not wait. I give my life its meaning – my time here is truly special...and limited. I see the world and the universe as a giant mass of energy and I am one very small part sharing it. What gives my life significance is how I interact with that energy now and what impact my life may have on the future once I'm gone. Am I helping or am I simply wasting my energy on unworthy activities? I want to be a person with an extreme enthusiasm for living while maintaining respect and compassion for other life and those properties that give life.

What would I like to see? The author Sam Harris put it best, "a non-denominational, fully rational spirituality." I do not believe in god...but that does not mean I want to rip the world of its mystery or beauty. In fact, I now perceive more mystery and beauty than when I was a believer. There are so many things we don't know and perhaps things we will never know – and that's okay, but let's look anyhow. I don't feel the need to fill those gaps of my ignorance with god simply because I don't know but feel a connection with the beauty around me. There is certainly an energy about the world and the universe that we can't grasp and I find that truly magnificent and intriguing. The fact that we can appreciate our lives and our surroundings is amazing. I feel a kinship with everything in this world – the sunlight, the soil, the mountains, the oceans, the animals, and everything else.

The community that churches create is a good thing - when that collective energy is focused on love and understanding, which makes our minds more open and accepting. Though, history and current news show how easily that collective energy can be turned and justified into hate and violence, which creates a more dual-perception of me/us vs. them in our brain.

It would be great to see Sunday gatherings where people get together to read Plato, Shakespeare, Hegel, Voltaire, Nietzsche, and Spinoza, among others. It's great to hear big groups singing, meditating together on love and appreciation of what we have, and enjoying the common threads that unite us. I'd like to see our everyday schools and libraries look more spectacular like churches...and that's where we could meet to enjoy the bonds of community and further our understanding of each other and our world. Churches could be turned into libraries, clinics, museums, or schools...instruments of learning and rational thought, healing without superstitions or divorced from reason, or appreciation for our lives, our bonds, and our shared resource, the world and the universe.

Looking from history and then extrapolating into the future – I am hopeful. Humans have gone from believing the most idiotic of dogmas and baseless assumptions on many topics from medicine to sacrificial offerings to masturbation. Collectively, we have progressed into today's world where thoughts outside of religion need a good reason to believe it – religion isn't there yet.

The bible, for instance, was taken 'literally' for over a thousand years. Some people still claim the bible is the word of God and should be read literally. However, many people have gone from saying the bible is 'god's word' to saying it was 'divinely inspired' and man's 'free will' and interpretation abilities are the problem. Now, a lot of people just cherry-pick from the bible what they like and chalk up the bad stuff to the 'men of the times' that wrote it.

But – looking at the correlation of education & lessened religiosity, the trend seems to be that in the years to come as we learn more, religion of today will be placed alongside the religions of the past as silly and exploitative, barbaric and cruel, laden with human bias and conceit, and yet interesting that so many people professed a belief in it. I just hope it won't be too long until we discard the dogma of the past arrive at a more humanistic, moral, and rational approach to our lives, our communities, and our spirituality.

Thanks for reading,
Much love,

“Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one, he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear."
- Thomas Jefferson

“I believe in Spinoza’s god, who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists – not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.” Einstein

"The name of this monstrous absurdity is Original Sin. A sin without volition is a slap at morality and an insolent contradiction in terms that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality. If man is evil by birth, he has no will, no power to change it; if he has no will, he can neither be good nor evil; a robot is amoral. To hold, as man's sin, a fact not open to his choice is a mockery of morality. To hold man's nature as his sin is a mockery of nature. To punish him for a crime that he committed before his was born is a mockery of justice. To hold him guilty in a matter which no innocence exists is a mockery of reason. To destroy morality, nature, justice, and reason by means of a single concept is a feat of evil hardly to be matched.

Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with free will, but with a 'tendency' to evil. A free will saddled with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice, and the decision is weighted in favor of a tendency that he had no power to escape. If the tendency is of his choice; he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free…" Ayn Rand – Atlas Shrugged

"I do not know for certain about death and the gods – but I am as certain as I can be that you do not know either.” Socrates


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