Old-Time Religions

Religion

If you have access to Salon, I recommend the interview of Karen Armstrong by Steve Paulson. In particular I recommend the interview to those of you who hate religion, although I believe you’d enjoy it if you don’t hate religion.

Armstrong is a former nun-turned-agnostic and religious historian who has written some excellent books, including A History of God, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism, and a lovely biography of the Buddha.

In this interview Armstrong makes several points near and dear to me. One point is that religion isn’t primarily about belief in some Big Daddy God. Nor is it about miracles or belief in an afterlife or in supernatural beings, like angels. The problem is that westerners, and no doubt Americans in particular, cling to a very narrow and mostly infantile definition of religion that focuses on belief in a Big Daddy God, heaven, miracles, etc. So most of us in the West think that’s what religion is. That, and the fact that the world seems infested with warring religious whackjobs, makes religion easy to hate. I understand that.

But the problem isn’t with religion. The problem is that, somehow, we’ve allowed religion to be defined by the stupid and the warped, resulting in stupid and warped religion at war with all things rational and humane.

At the same time, Armstrong argues, hatred of religion is a pathology. She says that some people who hate religion are “secular fundamentalists. They have as bigoted a view of religion as some religious fundamentalists have of secularism.” I can relate to that, but I think many people in western culture have been exposed only to the most ignorant, dogmatic, low-level kinds of religion, and have no clue religion can be any other way. Some commenters to Mahablog will write that all religion is superstition or even mental illness, which saddens me.

How do good religions go bad? Armstrong’s newest book, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, looks at the Axial Age, 900 to 200 BCE, during which the world’s great religious traditions developed, independently of each other, in four regions of the world — Confucianism and Taoism in China; Hinduism (I would have narrowed that to Vedanta), Buddhism, Jainism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece.

Armstrong says,

Without any collusion, they all came up with a remarkably similar solution to the spiritual ills of humanity. Before the Axial Age, religions had been very different. They had been based largely on external rituals which gave people intimations of greatness. But there was no disciplined introspection before the Axial Age. The Axial sages discovered the inner world. And religions became much more spiritualized because humanity had taken a leap forward. People were creating much larger empires and kingdoms than ever before. A market economy was in its very early stages. That meant the old, rather parochial visions were no longer adequate. And these regions were torn apart by an unprecedented crescendo of violence. In every single case, the catalyst for religious change had been a revulsion against violence.

First of all, they all insisted that you must give up and abandon your ego. The sages said the root cause of suffering lay in our desperate concern with self, which often needs to destroy others in order to preserve itself. And so they insisted that if we stepped outside the ego, then we would encounter what we call brahman or God, Nirvana or the Dao.

But by “god” the sages didn’t necessarily mean a big daddy in the sky:

In my book “A History of God,” I pointed out that the most eminent Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians all said you couldn’t think about God as a simple personality, an external being. It was better to say that God did not exist because our notion of existence was far too limited to apply to God.

“God” in this sense is not a person or spirit. “God” might represent the ground of being, for example. But if religion isn’t about worshipping gods, what is it? Armstrong says,

Religion is a search for transcendence. But transcendence isn’t necessarily sited in an external god, which can be a very unspiritual, unreligious concept. The sages were all extremely concerned with transcendence, with going beyond the self and discovering a realm, a reality, that could not be defined in words.

The mystical traditions of most religions are about disciplining oneself to transcend “I” and directly experience beingness outside of space and time. Some neurobiologists suggest that some of the older meditation practices — which are nothing like “transcendental meditation” or the relaxation techniques that pass for meditation these days — cause some parts of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain to shut down so that the seeker experiences being without the boundaries of “I” and the passage of linear time. However it happens, through this experience the mystic’s perception of self and other, life and death, time and space, etc., changes. With the guidance of a skilled teacher or guru, the mystic becomes more at peace with himself, and he develops more selfless compassion for others.

The problem with mysticism is that it’s a ton of work. So over the years religions developed myths and rituals as learning aids. The myths may have begun as guides to the ineffable, not meant to be taken literally. But over time myths become beliefs and harden into dogma, and the ineffable ground of being is given a personality and parameters, and it becomes Big Daddy God.

IMO religion that defines itself by doctrine and ritual is not religion at all, but a cheap substitute thereof.

A theme that runs through several of Armstrong’s books is that, before the modern era, people didn’t take scripture literally. Even though fundamentalists think “old-time religion” means taking every word of the Bible literally, in fact this rigid literalism is a newfangled thing that arose in the past couple of centuries or so.

Well, faith is not a matter of believing things. That’s again a modern Western notion. It’s only been current since the 18th century. Believing things is neither here nor there, despite what some religious people say and what some secularists say. That is a very eccentric religious position, current really only in the Western Christian world. You don’t have it much in Judaism, for example. …

… I think we’ve become rather stupid in our scientific age about religion. If you’d presented some of these literalistic readings of the Bible to people in the pre-modern age, they would have found it rather obtuse. They’d have found it incomprehensible that people really believe the first chapter of Genesis is an account of the origins of life.

A mystic might say that Genesis is a parable about the development of human consciousness, for example. Adam and Eve become self-aware, and after that come shame, greed, and other unpleasant things they weren’t aware of before. The original moral might have been that the cure for shame, greed, etc. is to transcend ego.

Armstrong says that scripture should be read like poetry. “It’s an attempt to express the inexpressible.” She also makes the interesting point that science sometimes uses mythological language — e.g., “Big Bang,” “black hole” — for realities that dangle just outside the scope of most human cognition. “I think some scientists are writing a new kind of religious discourse, teaching us to pit ourselves against the dark world of uncreated reality and pushing us back to the mysterious.”

Armstrong goes on to call belief in an afterlife a “red herring” (the Buddha said pretty much the same thing in one of the early sutras). Also,

Sometimes, I think the way monotheists talk about God is unreligious. … people very often talk about him as a kind of acquaintance, whom they can second-guess. People will say God loves that, God wills that, and God despises the other. And very often, the opinions of the deity are made to coincide exactly with those of the speaker. … God transcends personality as God transcends every other human characteristic, such as gender. If we get stuck there, this is very immature. Very often people hear about God at about the same time as they’re learning about Santa Claus. And their ideas about Santa Claus mature and change in time, but their idea of God remains infantile.

One of the things I came to appreciate about Buddhism is the attitude that all teaching is provisional. The student may be taught myths or doctrines or initiated into some esoteric practice, but always it is understood that the lessons are like rungs in a ladder; to get to the next rung you have to leave the old one. In some religions belief in a god or gods is such a provisional step. But monotheists too often get stuck at Santa Claus God level, and even the churches have forgotten what comes after believing in Santa Claus God. And limited, fearful people who feel threatened by the modern world have twisted religious beliefs into something hard and ugly. Instead of practicing religion as a guide to transcendence, they’ve reverted to primitive, tribal forms of religion to protect themselves from whatever it is they are afraid of.

In the 1930s, Albert Einstein wrote that religions seem to have three levels. Level one is religion practiced to assuage fear; believers perform rituals and pray to imaginary gods to protect them. At level two, people form a social or moral concept of God. “This is the God of Providence,” Einstein wrote, “who protects, disposes, rewards, and punishes; the God who, according to the limits of the believer’s outlook, loves and cherishes the life of the tribe or of the human race, or even or life itself; the comforter in sorrow and unsatisfied longing; he who preserves the souls of the dead.”

But there is a third stage, with “no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it.” Einstein called it a “religious feeling” — I think he might have bumped into the limits of language, as that sounds pretty lame — but he continues,

The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. The beginnings of cosmic religious feeling already appear at an early stage of development, e.g., in many of the Psalms of David and in some of the Prophets. Buddhism, as we have learned especially from the wonderful writings of Schopenhauer, contains a much stronger element of this.

The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it. Hence it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with this highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as atheists, sometimes also as saints. Looked at in this light, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi, and Spinoza are closely akin to one another.

How can cosmic religious feeling be communicated from one person to another, if it can give rise to no definite notion of a God and no theology? In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.

Einstein goes on to argue that those who have dedicated their lives to scientific inquiry are “the only profoundly religious people” in this materialistic age. And, truly, there is no reason for science and religion to be at odds with each other. It’s not religion, but the fear, ignorance, and superstition that passes for religion, that’s the problem.

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42 Comments

38 Comments

  1. hettiemae  •  May 30, 2006 @6:49 pm

    You have given us a lot to think about. Thanks.

  2. Donna  •  May 30, 2006 @7:10 pm

    We will learn to eat radiation.” That was a sentence I heard many years ago spoken by a mystic who was asking her listeners to consider the idea that human events are the purposefully created challenges set up to ‘grow our collective and individual souls’, much like a hurdle runner sets up higher and higher hurdles to grow athletic ability.

    Can’t say why, but when I read the post above, those words just popped out of my memory place. Tis true, such a startling idea resonates with something inside me…. I have never forgotten those words.

    Before we can graduate to figuring out how to ‘eat radiation’ and digest it into benign, we practice our skills by figuring out how to chew on and digest into benign some of the poisons emanating from fundie religiosity and rovian spin.

  3. Transister  •  May 30, 2006 @7:39 pm

    Thank you for this discussion. I have been intrigued by Karen Armstrong, her experience and her writing. IMO women have yet to contribute their input into this god business.

  4. Daniel DiRito  •  May 30, 2006 @7:58 pm

    Read an article on the debate about whether science needs religion to have a conscience…here:

    http://www.thoughttheater.com/2006/05/does_science_need_religion_to.php

  5. justme  •  May 30, 2006 @8:04 pm

    Maha, I think this may be your finest post ever….parts of it brought me to tears I found so much truth..your “IMO “really hit the nail on the head and the 3rd and 4th paragraphs..put words to something I lacked the ability to say but have felt for a long time..I would like to hear more of what Karen Armstrong has to say also…thank you introducing us to her….

  6. Sam  •  May 30, 2006 @8:08 pm

    Maha. Fantastic is all I can say.

    I’ve heard that the Internet has opened up the doors to the “essay” again and you continually prove this to be the case. I hope one day that you’ll compile your essays into a book with chapters on religion, history, ethics and politics. Honestly. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read your work (and it is work, even though you make it seem easy) and have wished I could hand it to someone. Keep it in mind, won’t you?

    Thank you for putting Karen Armstrong out there for all of us. To use her metaphor, some of us have leaped off the ladder rung of: “Santa Claus God? You’ve got to be kidding!” and have been wandering around down here ever since. Many have made it up to the next rung, but feel there is something slightly off and they either cling there with the sense that they’re just not getting it, or else they carry away what they’ve learned in life and simply do their best. Not so many in our culture try to get up there and take a look around with Einstein or Buddhists. So few of us read Spinoza and Schopenhauer any more, so how would we know what we’re missing?

    I do have one difficulty Buddhist teaching myself, however. I’ve always sensed that going beyond the ego is against my instincts for what is the most useful lesson here on earth. Each of us is a unique being and to live with this being and embrace it with understanding, and to learn from it all we can, seems the way to wisdom to me. The only way we can understand how others suffer is to “be in their shoes” and feel it. Sort of how we don’t truly understand our parents unless we have been a parent ourselves. Imagination can only take one so far in this sensual world. Of course, we should not have to commit murder, in order to understand what it would feel like. That’s not what I mean. But to seek to live life fully and to understand our individuality with all its faults, and to learn from this, seems to me the way to better understand humanity. This, I think, is what Jesus was all about. (And this includes our animal nature as well. Someone like Jane Goodall probably has a profounder understanding of human nature than most clerical people.) Anyway, it has always seemed to me that Buddhism distances itself too much from what we were meant to experience here on earth. Maybe I’m misunderstanding Buddhism?

  7. joanr16  •  May 30, 2006 @8:21 pm

    “[O]ur notion of existence was far too limited to apply to God.” I seem to recall Thomas Merton writing something very similar in The Seven Storey Mountain, which I read maybe 15 years ago. I must have jumped up and cried “Hear, hear!” then, too.

    I think your posts on spirituality are among my favorites, maha. You write with such good sense, balance and calm. You introduce the less-informed among us (well, me anyway) to thinkers like Karen Armstrong, and provide an overview of their ideas that only makes us want to learn more.

    I admit to being one of those folks for whom the last five years has turned “religion” into an allergen. I think I’m just now coming into an emotional place where the questing spirit will take hold again. Thanks so much for this post!

  8. Lynne  •  May 30, 2006 @8:33 pm

    I had heard of Karen Armstrong; after reading your post I think I’ll delve into her work.

    Donna, this is probably not what your speaker of memory meant, but we have always eaten radiation – from the sun. I am an elementary teacher (Montessori) and we emphasize the connection of all things. (How sublime is that?)

  9. erinyes  •  May 30, 2006 @10:02 pm

    Interesting post Maha.
    I had a feeling you were speaking directly to me because I have expressed my disgust with contemporary western religion more than once at this blog. I feel that what passes for religion in the U.S. are mostly personality cults, the likes of Swaggart, Robertson, Jim and Tammy Fay Baker, Jim Jones, Benny Hinn, ad nauseum.
    I have no doubt that many people get a sense of security by being members of these cults, it’s far easier to believe in a big protective daddy than realizing a positive life force flowing through every living thing on the planet My concept of “God” is just that, neither male nor female, but the yin and yang together, it’s not something you can learn in the common sense, it’s something you must discover.When you find it you realize the nonsense the preachers teach has little if anything to do with truth.I whole heartedly agree with Einstein.

  10. Swami  •  May 30, 2006 @10:25 pm

    Very insightful post, Maha.

  11. Chief  •  May 30, 2006 @10:31 pm

    Maha,

    I agree w/ #5 & #6 above. Your best post – ever.

    I have gotten about 1/4 of the way thru Ms. Armstrongs, “A History of God.” A very tough, complicated and compelling read. Requires a lot of time and concentration, at least for me.

    Anyway, remodeling & moving got in the way so I plan to finish it this fall.

  12. maha  •  May 30, 2006 @10:32 pm

    Each of us is a unique being and to live with this being and embrace it with understanding, and to learn from it all we can, seems the way to wisdom to me. The only way we can understand how others suffer is to “be in their shoes” and feel it. Sort of how we don’t truly understand our parents unless we have been a parent ourselves.

    Yeah, my old Zen teacher used to say the same thing. 🙂

    The practice really has to be practiced to be understood, because it sounds contradictory.

    Shunyata, or no-self, as a concept may sound like shutting yourself off from yourself, but the experience of no-self is just the opposite; it’s a realization of self. That makes no sense at all, I know. If mysticism could be explained it would save a lot of people a lot of hassle.

    The foundational practice of Zen is a meditation called zazen, and zazen is a kind of brute force introspection. The formal student spends hours every day sitting in physical and mental stillness, and over time all one’s defenses, mental barriers, neuroses and selfishness float to the surface where the student can see them, acknowledge them, and release them. It can be physically and emotionally painful. But one cumulative effect is to make one more sensitive to others and more mindful of moment-to-moment experience. Being fully mindful and in-the-moment at all times are supposed to be the hallmarks of a good Zennie. I never got that good, although I am less of a space cadet than I used to be.

    Anyway, the point is that the practice doesn’t shut one off from humanity, but instead allows one to become more fully engaged in humanity. At some parts of the training the student does get a bit self-absorbed, but that’s temporary.

    In one of the most famous texts of Zen, the Genjokoan, Dogan Zenji wrote “To study the Buddha way is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self; to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.”

    The Mahayana and Vajrayana sects, which include Zen, Tibetan, Pure Land, and Tendai, emphasize a teaching called bodhicitta. which is the aspiration to practice Buddhism in order to benefit others. That way no trace of ego attaches to practice, and a desire to realize enlightenment doesn’t become an impediment to the realization of enlightenment. There is no wisdom without compassion.

  13. Sam  •  May 30, 2006 @10:46 pm

    Maha,

    Oh, I get it! You explained that excellently. But we do need to get out still and “live” it, right? There must be a balance between the living and the reflecting? Maybe that’s the part I’ve been misunderstanding. We always get this view of monks squirreling themselves away from the world (as the Christian mystics do) and not “partaking” and “relating” to the fullest. Am I understanding this correctly?

  14. Sam  •  May 31, 2006 @3:15 am

    Spirituality is a genuine search, without prejudgments, for meaning in life. It’s an individual quest which may be based on reason or superstition, but I respect anyone who tries to work it out for him- or herself. Some belief systems commonly lumped in with religion, such as Zen Buddhism, are more correctly thought of in terms of spirituality.

    No argument with you here, “No More…”

    However, I had a problem with some of the statements made by Professor Cromer:
    “He suggests that objectivity is a very uncommon kind of thinking that evolved only in ancient Greece. Many countries established astrological systems, he points out, but only Greece produced solid geometry and number theory.”

    The ancient Greeks were a deeply religious people. (Pythagoras himself was an Orphic mystic.)
    http://n4bz.org/gsr/gsr5.htm
    They did make breakthroughs in math and science, but then so did many of the later philosophers and scientists whose religion was based on the monotheistic religions.

    Personally, I’ve often wondered if science didn’t actually arise from superstition. When you think about it, both of them are an attempt to understand the universe and our place in it. (As well as our attempt control it!) I’ve wondered if religion is a sort of link between them. Some of the trails go off into the wild blue yonder, but others help us gain understanding of ourselves. Just my own musings.

  15. maha  •  May 31, 2006 @6:12 am

    We always get this view of monks squirreling themselves away from the world (as the Christian mystics do) and not “partaking” and “relating” to the fullest. Am I understanding this correctly?

    It depends; there’s monks, and then there’s monks. As a rule Buddhist monks aren’t as tightly cloistered as some Christian monks. It’s sometimes the case that a community supports the local monastery with donations, and in turn the monks provide various services to the community, as priests and teachers and advisers. So the monks take part in community life. In Japan, monks are expected to marry and raise little monks; monking tends to be a family business. Some monasteries shut themselves off from the world periodically for intensive meditation retreats, but they usually don’t do that all the time. In America most Zen students are laypeople who work with teachers on weekends and occasionally longer retreats.

    That being said, I think becoming too insulated from the rest of the world is a common peril, and wise teachers correct for it.

  16. anonymous  •  May 31, 2006 @9:14 am

    Karen Armstrong never met a religion she didn’t like. So much blah blah blah.

    Religion is evil–it’s caused more human deaths than any other single factor. The sooner people get rid of religion the better.

    The concept of a personal god is stunningly ridiculous. If there is a supreme being, it’s like humans vesrus ants–couldn’t care less about humans & would easily step on them & poison them for convenience. In fact, looking at the human race, perhaps that’s exactly what the supreme being is like!

  17. maha  •  May 31, 2006 @9:37 am

    Karen Armstrong never met a religion she didn’t like. So much blah blah blah.

    Actually she’s highly critical of much religion. You should read her book on fundamentalism sometime.

    Religion is evil–it’s caused more human deaths than any other single factor. The sooner people get rid of religion the better.

    I think after the 20th century one could argue that political ideologies beat out religion in the mass slaughter business. Maybe we should get rid of politics.

    The concept of a personal god is stunningly ridiculous. If there is a supreme being, it’s like humans vesrus ants–couldn’t care less about humans & would easily step on them & poison them for convenience.

    Clearly, this guy didn’t read the post at all before he took it upon himself to comment on it. This is ignorance personified.

    In fact, looking at the human race, perhaps that’s exactly what the supreme being is like!

    Some religious teachers have made similar arguments. I’m thinking of Shunriyu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. It’s been a while since I read it, but as I recall he says something about God not knowing who God is.

  18. WereBear  •  May 31, 2006 @9:38 am

    Gee, Maha, you must be a prophet… because you predicted a comment like the one above.

    I can understand the people who get turned off all religion because of bad experiences, but that is giving foolish religion too much power. We all have a spiritual longing which needs to be fulfilled. We’re wired that way.

    Thanks for a beautiful essay. And for people like anonymous: Ya know, if you can’t expand to fit the divine, you then shrink it to fit you.

    And it has nothing to do with the divine.

  19. maha  •  May 31, 2006 @9:45 am

    Ya know, if you can’t expand to fit the divine, you then shrink it to fit you.

    I doubt anonymous got past the first paragraph, which is a shame, because he’s just the guy I was writing it for.

  20. fc  •  May 31, 2006 @10:37 am

    “because he’s just the guy I was writing it for”

    There are none so blind as those who refuse to see…

    Beautiful post, Maha… I agree it may be one of your best. I have been reading here for a while and have never commented. I could not let this one go without letting you know how powerful and meaningful it is to me…

    Regards
    – fc

  21. Gautama Bit  •  May 31, 2006 @10:44 am

    > She says that some people who hate religion are “secular
    > fundamentalists. They have as bigoted a view of religion as some
    > religious fundamentalists have of secularism.”

    That sounds like a strawman to me. I’ve never met such a person who hates religion (the concept, not a specific religion) or who hates all religions.
    Unless of course specific ideologies like Stalinism is meant, but even then it’s not because of a bigoted view of religion, but because it’s a threat in terms of power and influence over people.

  22. maha  •  May 31, 2006 @11:08 am

    Dear Gautama Bit: See Exhibit A, comment #17. And I’ve met a lot of people like this with a blanket antipathy for all religions.

  23. NewCenturyProf  •  May 31, 2006 @12:22 pm

    Maha, excellent post. So much so, that I’m compelled to post a note even though I’ve lurked around your site (its on my favorites and go-to list every day) a long while.
    It is heartening that there are still folk out there that have not had their world views corrupted by the exclusive dogmas and rituals that appear to signify the essence of religions as practised in the modern world. While I agree that the notion of an anthropomorphic and male at that god is an infantile one, would not pointing this out inflame an already shrill fundamentalist follower?
    The basic opposition is between the conception of god from a purely personal point of view, and the other emphasizing group membership and rewards flowing therefrom. The latter is unfortunately much more tangible in the material world requiring much less personal discipline.
    Last point is that even as the Westerner, i.e., American more than the European smugly basks in his/her socio-technological sophistication and superiority, the fusion of religion and politics continues, and the confusion intensifies that their religious beliefs are “truer” than the others (just look at Gen. Boykin a high ranking US military officer).

  24. Donna  •  May 31, 2006 @1:16 pm

    #8, Lynn. Maria Montessori in the early 1900’s was so much ahead of her time. She was so wise, especially in understanding that to really change the world would involve educating a whole generation of children in a different way, i.e., allowing their natural curiosities and inner abilities to motivate their learning, rather than destroying those children’s inner abilities by substituting carrot and stick motivations [grades and punishments].

    Here is a poem written by a 14 year old who had only known Montessori education through sixth grade [my son]:

    “Soaring over plains and seas
    always touching nought but breeze,
    on through moonlight, wind and sun
    That’s the way it should be done.

    To be different
    tis a pleasure
    it’s not a thing
    we can measure.

    Never thinking,
    always free
    Never falling,
    Always me.”

  25. anonymous  •  May 31, 2006 @6:39 pm

    re 18:

    I’ve read Armstrong on Islam & have watched her several times on Book TV or other in-depth interview situations. Enough’s enough. I can’t bear the woman. Her sense of superiority about her polyregionism is a turn off.

    Western religion is all about a personal god–the Big Daddy concept is just a small component of that. You can’t be spiritual if you don’t believe in a personal god, even if you don’t think it’ll do something directly for you. Spirituality is NOT about the meaning of life, it’s about finding something bigger than yourself (or humans in general) out there. It’s called god. And if god doesn’t care about you, you can’t be spiritual about it.

    Good point about the 20thC. Of course, have to count the holocaust victims as religious deaths, but the others really mounted up. The difference between deaths cause by religion and deaths caused by politics is that you can live without religion but we have not yet figured out how to live without politics. Many people like to kill other people. It’s better to have fewer reasons for doing so than more reasons.

  26. maha  •  May 31, 2006 @9:48 pm

    Western religion is all about a personal god–the Big Daddy concept is just a small component of that. You can’t be spiritual if you don’t believe in a personal god, even if you don’t think it’ll do something directly for you. Spirituality is NOT about the meaning of life, it’s about finding something bigger than yourself (or humans in general) out there. It’s called god. And if god doesn’t care about you, you can’t be spiritual about it.

    You have very limited understanding of and experience with religion, although you are not alone. The enormous majority of Americans define religion the way you do. However, this definition is not universal, not even among American Christians. And in the distant past Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart and Teresa of Avila pushed outside of the “personal God” box. It might be argued that in some respects Christianity is more primitive today than it was in the 14th century.

    BTW, the Buddha wants me to tell you that there is nothing bigger than yourself. You occupy all space and time in the ten directions.

    Re “You can’t be spiritual if you don’t believe in a personal god” — you are saying that only monotheists can be spiritual? That leaves out a lot of the world’s great religions. Most of ’em, actually.

    And if god doesn’t care about you, you can’t be spiritual about it.

    This is fascinating. You believe in a personal God but you hate religion? You’ve got issues, son. I don’t believe in a personal God, but I tend to think well of religion and consider myself to be a religious (and spiritual) person.

    Well, whatever issues you have with God, me and God hope you work them out.

  27. anonymous  •  Jun 1, 2006 @9:56 am

    re 27
    1. You can define religion in your own narrow way (following one of Armstrong’s tricks) but that doesn’t prove anything. Religion is what most people think it is not what a self-selected group of people would like it to be.

    2. I don’t believe in god, am neither religious nor spiritual. Don’t know much about Eastern religions (listened to a college course on tape that covered the major ones but wouldn’t pretend that’s sufficient to get it), but have spent countless hours in nature, backpacking, planting trees at my country place, watching birds, etc. Think the concept of spirituality in nature just as silly (a kind of superstition, one step above believing in ghosts) as being spiritual about god. Nature is fabulous and provides all kinds of emotional and physical rewards–but not spiritual.

    3. I would argue that I don’t have issues, but religious people do. My issue is with otherwise intelligent and sensible people who seem to think that religion & god add something to their lives. But, whatever floats your boat.

  28. maha  •  Jun 1, 2006 @2:47 pm

    1. You can define religion in your own narrow way (following one of Armstrong’s tricks) but that doesn’t prove anything. Religion is what most people think it is not what a self-selected group of people would like it to be.

    And, I’ve agreed that most people in the United States define it as you do, but the United States is not the whole world, nor does the majority view of religion in the United States today conform to how religion has been viewed throughout human history. You are, in fact, the one who is defining religion in a rigid and narrow way.

    2. I don’t believe in god, am neither religious nor spiritual. Don’t know much about Eastern religions (listened to a college course on tape that covered the major ones but wouldn’t pretend that’s sufficient to get it), but have spent countless hours in nature, backpacking, planting trees at my country place, watching birds, etc. Think the concept of spirituality in nature just as silly (a kind of superstition, one step above believing in ghosts) as being spiritual about god. Nature is fabulous and provides all kinds of emotional and physical rewards–but not spiritual.

    That’s fine, but what if I were to say “I don’t understand quantum mechanics, therefore quantum mechanics is bunk”? That would make me pretty stupid, huh? Now, I have a limited understanding of quantum mechanics, but I respect that the real smart people who work with quantum mechanics know stuff I don’t. I would not presume to argue with them about their area of expertise.

    I submit you have an extremely limited understanding of religion, spirituality and mysticism, which is fine with me. But rather than just say “I don’t know much about it and it doesn’t interest me,” you insist on imposing your very limited knowledge on me. And I assure you my knowledge isn’t limited.

    3. I would argue that I don’t have issues, but religious people do. My issue is with otherwise intelligent and sensible people who seem to think that religion & god add something to their lives. But, whatever floats your boat.

    If you didn’t have issues with religion you wouldn’t be arguing with me about it, especially since I have no interest in converting you or imposing my views on you. I’m just trying to inform you that it’s not always like this; it can also be like that. And this opinion is based on considerable scholarly study as well as real-world experience with diverse religions and religious people.

    And here you come along and say, I don’t know much about religion, but I’m right and you’re wrong. So which one of us is being ignorant and bigoted, pray tell?

  29. Lynne  •  Jun 1, 2006 @3:28 pm

    Donna,
    Thanks for sharing that beautiful poem. I am constantly amazed at what I learn from (and about) young children every day.

  30. Sam  •  Jun 1, 2006 @4:14 pm

    anonymous –

    As in everything, if you have a passion about an issue, educate yourself about it. Afterwards, you may hold to the same views, but at least you’ll know you’ve informed yourself.

    I used to be a flaming atheist after reading the Old Testament at age 13. I loved nature, too, and I proudly (note: proudly) strove for a “materialistic” view of it. But nature just made me too damn happy. And then, with the birth of my first son, I couldn’t contain my sense of wonder about it all and I opened the door to it all again – only this time from a different perspective. I dabbled in “liberal Christianity” and learned a lot, but it still wasn’t what I was looking for. I’m too immersed in science to adopt it as my own view. I’ve always liked what Spinoza had to say and I admire Einstein’s view, but all in all, I think this simple definition sums it up for me: “Spirituality involves activities which renew, lift up, comfort, heal and inspire both ourselves and those with whom we interact.” To me, it all comes down to love. Animals have this spark in them as well. It might just be hormones and evolutionary social/emotional development, but until I know this for sure, and that there’s really nothing else behind it (do YOU know this for a fact?), I’m still open. Now in this fascinating world of dark and light, cruelty and love, what’s wrong with that? 🙂

  31. anonymous  •  Jun 1, 2006 @9:45 pm

    Nice for all the feedback.

    I was raised Roman Catholic, was extrememly religious (intended to become a nun–era of The Nun’s Story movie) until age 13; atheist ever since (half century). Have done a fair amount of reading and investigation of religion because it is an almost universal social phenomenon and more recently because of Islamists & terrorism. Have made serious efforts to understand what the fuss is about. Still can’t figure it out. Birth of my son, nature, ballet, all the other things I love about life give me great pleasure–not mystical, not religious, not spiritual.

    You can assign what I say to ignorance, but you won’t find many people more up on the subject–perhaps the rest of the commenters. But if you want to feel superior and dismiss my opinions because you think I don’t know what I’m talking about, feel free.

    Now you all have a good time.

  32. maha  •  Jun 1, 2006 @10:53 pm

    But if you want to feel superior and dismiss my opinions because you think I don’t know what I’m talking about, feel free.

    I’m sure you know a great deal about a narrow spectrum of western religion, but you’ve been debating a Zen Buddhist. I was raised Christian and understand your perspective, but your perspective is extremely limited and ignores most of the world’s religions and even some traditions of Christianity.

    I don’t want to feel superior to anyone, and I don’t give a bleep what your religious beliefs are or even if you have any. But clearly you have one hell of an issue about religion. This post obviously pushed a button. But it’s your button. It doesn’t have anything to do with what I wrote.

    Like a lot of other people I was put through all kinds of humiliation in high school gym class because I’m a klutz at sports, yet I don’t hate sports and do not harbor any resentments toward gym teachers. I like walking and enjoy the outdoors in spite of the fact that I’m a disaster at team sports. I don’t think that’s a problem. You don’t feel a need for religion, and I don’t think that’s a problem, either.

    But there is something pathological about your compulsion to dictate to me what I’m supposed to consider “spiritual.” That’s just plain weird. You might want to reflect on that sometime.

  33. Sam  •  Jun 2, 2006 @12:16 am

    Whew! Lotta anger there. Didn’t realize I was coming across as superior. I sincerely apologize. I realize now that it was probably my first paragraph that got to you, since you obviously have a personal interest in religion based on your past and you are educated about many aspects of it. It wasn’t apparent from your previous posts somehow, although maybe I was just too busy trying to get my own views across.

    Anyway, I didn’t mean to offend. My only request is that you might consider maha’s last paragraph above. I mean, if you want to live in a completely materialistic world, I don’t think less of you. I’ve been there for most of my adult life as well. And who knows? I might end up joining you again one day. But “spiritual” is a pretty broad concept and quite individual to the person.

    No hard feelings, I hope.

  34. anonymous  •  Jun 2, 2006 @12:49 pm

    Not angry at all. My comments on blogs run the gamut from informational to weighing in to jocular to sarcastic/provocative. The difference here is that I am in a small minority, versus other poltical or foreign policy forums where my input is closer to that of other participants. Also seldom have others reacted to my comments. I have enjoyed the interchange and thank you for engaging me.

  35. Angela  •  Jun 3, 2006 @7:47 pm

    I’ ve just discovered your blog (via Greenwald), and I just want to say thank you. I read the Salon article a few days ago, posted my similar gratitude for it in the comments, and _then_ read the other commentary. I was just blown away by the full-scale hate-fest. It was incredible.

    But for me, it was important because I have felt since at least adolescence, to a very strong degree, the “religious feeling” of which Einstein speaks. My thinking on religion has been based on my own independent exploration and thinking about things — fueled by my drive to explore and understand the world as much as possible within this lifetime — and yet what I thought about things was so outside both atheism and fundamentalism (or even most mainstream Christianity. I cannot tell you how much I dislike the “Jesus is my buddy. Jesus is my bestfriend” stick-it-on-a-billboard religious talk) that I had no one to talk to. Independent thinking and exploration is still at the base of this, and yet I think that because we are after all social animals, we need community. I need someone I can discuss my ideas about religion _with_.

    One thing I’ll say about the whole transcending the ego business — I think it’s both true and not true. The problem is how you define or understand the self. On the one hand, we have an ego that’s pretty good with dealing with the material world, paying the bills and getting out of the way of traffic and so forth — the problem is when you think that ego completely defines who you are. It’s a limited ego and a limited reality. I think that who we truly are is both closer and deeper — immanent and transcendental — intimate and liminal — than we could ever suspect. (Cue William Blake hic nunc — a poet who _does_ define to me what true religion is about. Isn’t it great how it’s the poets and artists, the ones who explore and don’t respect boundaries, who open us up to the world and to ourselves? More than any legislative religious official).

    I heartily recommend that you rediscover Mister (Fred) Rogers, who was a minister and a liberal. Look at the clip from 1969 where he spoke to a Senate committee.

    http://www.crooksandliars.com/2006/05/27.html#a8470

    He preached the value of the individual, and at the same time he was one of the most selfless people alive. That is the difference. After all, the old saying is that if you want to be loved you must love — both of which, which are a giving and taking of oneself in a constant flow of self and other, make you a bigger person than before. If you are to love your neighbor, you must love yourself. If you are to love yourself, you must love your neighbor. Neither exist by themselves. Both narcissism and self-sacrifice are abominations.

    And this is why I’m a liberal.

  36. Sam  •  Jun 3, 2006 @10:55 pm

    Angela –

    Thanks for that link! I am thankful that I had young children when Fred Rogers was around or I might never have become familiar with him. We always felt that he was such a gentle, loving and sincere soul. So few of him in this world. The children (and their parents) who were exposed to him were lucky indeed.

    Loved your thoughts and I’m glad you expressed them. (You’ve expressed many of mine, too)

  37. Angela  •  Jun 4, 2006 @12:43 am

    Sam —
    Thank you! That put a big smile on my face.

  38. Nitai  •  Jun 25, 2006 @1:54 am

    Hello,

    Here are few thoughts

    Science and Religion goes very well together. This is the opinion, of course, only of the religious scientists. There is nothing wrong to see the ways how God created things. Recently I read three interesting statements I like to mention here.

    Dirty Politics-practiced by people who don’t care for general, global peace and welfare of all but are nationalists or limited to favor one religion. These are not only politicians but scientists as well.

    Dirty Religion-Neophyte religionists fight; those a bit advanced make friendship with anybody interested in god and are compassionate to those ignorant about God. The most advanced are those who have love of God and are called saints. They have the realized vision that all living entities are the big family of God.

    Dirty Science-scientific coverups; attempts to interpret everything in atheistic way; tendency to godlessness; suppressing and disregarding religious scientists all belongs to dirty science.

    Well, I personally hope that this present reality will change into something better with new scientific discoveries supporting the existence of God.

    For the end I would like to mention one interesting link where I found some interesting readings.
    http://www.freewebtown.com/bhaktivedanta108

    With best regards
    Nitai

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