Have We Outgrown Religion?

This is a thought experiment that I’ve been conducting with myself for most of my adult life. It will probably offend some people, as religion is a very touchy subject. Please know that I often write a blog post simply to clarify my own thoughts and get thoughtful feedback. I’m not trying to tell anyone what to think or believe or disbelieve.

Recently I came across an article entitled, “A 43,900-year-old cave painting is the oldest story ever recorded. Archaeologists say it might also contain the oldest known religious images.” By Kiona N. Smith. I’ve always been fascinated by cave paintings, so naturally I had to read on. (And I highly recommend that you do, too.) One passage really jumped out at me:

“Before we could develop religion, we had to develop the ability to think and talk about things that don’t exist in the natural, physical world. We had to learn to describe and imagine not just things we had already seen, but things no one had ever seen… In other words, we had to invent the concept of fiction.”

Was the author equating religion to fiction? Or perhaps she was describing the process of faith? I don’t know. Either way I found this to be a fascinating topic.

It is not unreasonable to consider religion to be a philosophical invention of sorts. Religious tenets came about to explain those things that we didn’t understand, and also to set forth a set of rules to define morality. Much of it has to do with a subject that most of us still struggle with: our own mortality, and the acceptance thereof.

The thing is, we’ve learned so much since the establishment of most mainstream religions. The invention of refrigeration alone makes most religious food restrictions unnecessary, whereas at the time they were critical to maintaining life. We’ve also invented planes, trains, and automobiles, so our horizons have expanded and we really don’t need to have such a tribal worldview. And the invention of medical devices, microscopes, telescopes, computers, the scientific method, birth control, and meteorology have changed the way we see our planet and have impacted the way we live upon it.

Because of all this, I find it impossible to live within a rigid, inflexible religious system that is more than 2000 years old, just as I wouldn’t take medical advice from that era. Any philosophy that isn’t living, breathing, and adapting to current circumstances and our increased knowledge base does not serve us well. The fact that the Pope won’t condone condoms, even in countries ravaged by AIDS, is just one example of this.

I think we’ve outgrown religion as it currently stands. If it can’t keep up with the times, it should be left behind. My opinion. You are entitled to yours.

this-cave-contains-the-oldest-story-ever-recorded

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Finding Your Unsafe Place

Everybody has a comfort zone, and there’s no shame in that. There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable. Unless.

If you go through life without ever being challenged, you will never grow. If you don’t experience new things, you will never learn. If you don’t seize opportunities when they present themselves, you may never fully live.

Growing and learning and living can be quite terrifying. You might have to force yourself along that path. But I guarantee you that the very best times in your life will be those where you start off not feeling particularly safe. It’s important to find your unsafe place.

I’m not talking about wandering dangerous neighborhoods alone at night. I’m not urging you to enter a lion’s den wearing a T-bone steak necklace. Don’t go rob a bank.

But take leaps of faith. Take risks. Allow yourself to fail spectacularly. Experiment. Carpe that diem. Do something you never thought you would do.

Open yourself up to the possibility that your comfort zone can be expanded. Explore those unsafe places. Make them your own.

comfort-zone

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Making Plans

When you make plans for the future, you’re demonstrating a delightful amount of optimism. Because life is fragile. It can pop like a soap bubble at any time. I’ve seen that happen more than once.

John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”

Sorry, John. You know I love you. But I disagree. I think life is making plans. The alternative, making no plans at all, or sitting back and letting the world kind of wash over you, is a form of death.

We are not meant to live like moss on a tree. The fact that we feel the need for religion shows that we struggle with accepting fate. I don’t think we are meant to be so accepting. We are meant to be the architects of our own lives.

Plans give you purpose. Purpose is what makes life worth living. I find the best antidote for depression is having something to look forward to.

Even more evidence of optimism is making plans with someone. It says, “We’re in this for the long haul.” “I have great expectations for us.” “You are the person I want to spend time with.” “I have faith in our relationship.”

The only thing I can think of that’s better than anticipating your future is anticipating your future while holding someone’s hand.

planning-for-future

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Flying for the First Time

I love birds. I love the attitude of crows, the energy of hummingbirds, the ostentatiousness of roosters, the menacing glare of raptors. I love that some have names like “Blue-Footed Booby” or “Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker”. That just makes me smile.

It fascinates me that different species build their homes in unique ways. Some nest in the hollows of trees, others weave their own. Some use mud. Still others burrow underground. Some even surround their nests with shiny objects. They have as many varieties of homes as humans do.

It’s also very cool that they have so many types of song. The morning birdsong here on the West Coast sounds nothing at all like the birdsong that I used to wake up to back East. I particularly like those birds that mimic other sounds. I think that shows an interesting sense of humor and/or an amazing ability to obfuscate.

My favorite bird is the Kookaburra, pictured below. They have intelligent eyes. Their beaks look too big for their heads. They have plump little bodies, like me. They are native to Australia, a country I’ve always wanted to visit. And I just like the name. Kookaburra. (I got to see one in a zoo once. I think we had a moment.)

I’ve known more than one person who is afraid of birds. I find that sad. Usually, if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. And while I have been momentarily freaked out when having to usher one out of my house, and Hitchcock’s The Birds is a scary movie, I guess my fascination with them is stronger than any anxiety.

I once wrote a post entitled Rete Mirabile, which describes how birds can stand on a snowy branch without freezing their little feet off. That’s impressive. It’s also amazing to watch a bird dive straight into the water from a great height without killing itself. And what’s not to love about something that’s related to dinosaurs? Don’t even get me started on the miracle of flight.

That leads me to the most spectacular thing about birds of all. Consider this: Every single bird (except the flightless ones, of course), has had to take a leap of faith once in their lives. What must it be like to fly for the first time? That moment when you’re at the top of a tree and you just have to jump and trust that your wings are strong enough to support you. That’s inspiring.

Every bird has gained his independence by taking a chance. I wish more people would. They’d be all the better for it.

Kookaburra

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Letter to a Future Love (In Hopes That He Exists)

I’ve been looking for you for years. I often wondered if you were right under my nose and I just wasn’t seeing you, or if I wasn’t looking in the right place.  More than once I thought I saw you, and you just couldn’t or wouldn’t see me. I always wondered if you were reading my blog, which was the only way I knew how to show myself to the world.

Did we pass each other on the street without recognizing each other? I’d look into the faces of strangers, hoping they’d see me, really see me, and consider me worth the effort. I’m sure I looked like every other face in the crowd, but inside my head I was screaming, “Where are you?”

It’s been a long, lonely, painful slog. I know you’ve been looking for me, too. If you’re reading this, I’m just glad you’re finally here. All during the search, precious time was passing; this was time I could have been spending with you. It felt like such a missed opportunity.

Every time I saw something new, I wanted to share it with you. Every time I got good news, I wanted to tell you. Every time I hit a rough patch, I wished you were there to comfort me. And there were a lot of amazing experiences I passed up, simply because I didn’t want to go it alone. I hope we still have time to do those things. I hope you’ll want to.

All I’ve ever wanted, really, was someone to travel with, and take naps with, and be playful with and have intelligent conversations with. I’ve wanted someone brave enough to win over and love my psycho dog as much as I do (that alone will weed out the vast majority). I’ve wanted someone who looks forward to seeing me as much as I look forward to seeing him.

I wasn’t looking for glamor or perfection, just mutual acceptance. I want us both to be able to be ourselves. I want someone who gets me. I want us to be able to count on each other. I had that once, and it was abruptly taken away. (I just hate mortality, sometimes.) I miss it.

I want to create a safe and peaceful harbor, together. So if you’re reading this, thank you for showing up. I’m sorry for almost having given up on you. I should have had more faith. But having said that, what took you so long?

Love

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Faith Ain’t Reality

I admire people who have faith. Religious faith in particular is a quality that seems to have eluded me most of my life. I would truly love to be able to let go and let God, as the saying goes.

It has to be comforting to think that there’s a higher power who has ultimate control. It must be liberating to not have to think you are the primary decision-maker in your own life, that the buck doesn’t stop here after all, that some cosmic being is on your side, and therefore a large amount of the responsibility belongs to someone or something else. It would be so nice to guess that your fate has already been mapped out for you. That there’s a plan. What a weight would be lifted from my shoulders! I’d also love to think that prayer could solve my problems.

I just can’t do it. I like facts. I want evidence. Proof. Otherwise, how is it different from believing in unicorns?

I wish there were unicorns. I’d love to see a unicorn. I’d love to live in a world where unicorns wandered the streets. But I live in the real world.

Here’s what gives me comfort: we’ve learned so much about the universe and how it works that it becomes increasingly easy to not rely on the great unknown to answer the decreasing number of unanswerable questions. We know what causes eclipses these days. Nothing is devouring the sun.

Now, the trick is to maintain a moral compass when you technically don’t answer to anyone other than yourself. Perhaps that’s the kind of faith I need to nurture: the concept that humans have the maturity to be capable of morality without oversight.

Wish me luck.

unicorn

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What the Clouds Can Teach Us

When you go for weeks on end without seeing the sun or the stars, it’s easy to start to imagine that they’re not there anymore. (And I live in Seattle, so I know what I’m talking about.) The clouds seem to be pushing down on the earth, and there’s this free-floating feeling of claustrophobia that permeates the atmosphere. The world seems a lot smaller than it actually is

At times like this I kind of get a sense of what it must have been like to live in a world without advanced science. If all you can believe is what you see with your own two eyes, it would be easy to think that the world is flat. Magic must seem real. It would be much simpler to believe in a higher power when you yourself feel so utterly powerless. (And by that I mean leaders of any kind who are willing to tell you what you want to hear even though it’s based on no evidence whatsoever.)

But I can live with clouds, despite their ability to obscure and cause despair, because I’ve flown in airplanes above them, where the sun is still shining brightly. I’ve seen photographs of the big blue marble on which we live, and I know that the clouds are shifting and temporal. There is no need to make ritual sacrifices, as the sun will rise again without our help. Just speak that truth as often as you can. Spread the word. Let no one forget.

The scientific method has proven many things I cannot see. That may sound like faith, but faith is a belief in things without proof, often based upon the words of people who lived without science. And even those who choose that fundamental path rely on science every single day, even as they discount it.

If you’ve ever ridden in a car, used electricity, taken advantage of modern medicine, or communicated with anyone by any method other than smoke signals, you are benefiting from science. You cannot function in the modern world without it. But of course you still have the right to believe that it’s evil, if that’s what you really want.

But in the meantime, I will look up at the clouds and know with certainty that the sun is shining above them. And one of these days, I’ll see it again. Because when all is said and done, science prevails. It’s in the very gravity that keeps you from floating away.

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“Are you incapable of complexity?”

I read a fascinating book recently, Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder. It’s about, among other things, Dr. Paul Farmer and his amazing work in Haiti to help stem the tide of Tuberculosis. As you can imagine, as a man of science it could sometimes be hard for him to be able to allow for local customs and superstitions.

At one point, while he was wrestling with the concept that people can maintain two disparate philosophies simultaneously, a very wise woman said to him, “Are you incapable of complexity?” That’s really profound. I totally get it.

There are people in this world who struggle with the thought that there could be shades of gray. Everything has to be wrong or right. Black or white. True or False. These are the type of people who think that if you believe in the theory of evolution, then you cannot be the least bit spiritual. You HAVE to be a full-blown, unwavering atheist.

These people never understand me at all. I am completely capable of accommodating science and spirituality. Granted, I don’t rigidly adhere to all things that were written thousands of years ago before science really took a foothold. But I’ve seen too many unexplainable and awe-inspiring things to believe that science can answer every single question. I believe that the universe is too beautiful to simply be defined by mathematical equations. And I believe that the fact that we are such complex creatures that we are able to come up with and adhere to the scientific method is pretty darned amazing in and of itself.

I think the wisest, most admirable people are the ones who are open minded. They are the ones who can believe in proof and yet still have faith. They are willing to concede that not everything is known, but they’re capable of questioning and exploring and learning. They can be flexible. They do not hide in a comfort zone. They embrace a diversity of thought. Yup. That’s my tribe.

Acyrlic-Paintings
Okay, so this has very little to do with the subject at hand. I just found it on Amazon.com art, and I liked it. See how complex I can be?

Feeling Helpless

I’ve always admired people who have a strong sense of faith. Whether that translates into religious belief or just an unshakable sense that everything’s going to be all right, it’s just not something that I possess as a general rule. Most of the time that’s fine. The only time it’s bad is when things are bad. Then I feel helpless. And that’s my least favorite feeling in the world.

I’d love to think that my little problems are significant enough to get the attention of some higher power, but I just can’t seem to take that leap. I guess it’s called a leap of faith for a reason. I’m just not a leaper.

Life experience has made me more of a believer in the laws of nature, and nature can be cruel as hell. I’d love it if the cute little baby zebra would somehow be snatched from the jaws of the lioness, but if that were the case, we’d be up to our butts in zebras in no time. In the long run that would be problematic.

I guess that’s the whole point. There is a bigger picture. We’re just not always privy to it. If there’s actually an organized plan (and I have my doubts), I am only one very tiny piece of the puzzle, and my desire to be saved from my misery is not as important to that plan as I’d like it to be. Oh well.

The only thing I am fairly certain of is that there’s usually a lesson to be learned from all of life’s drama. That, at least, is worth the price of admission.

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Have a Little Faith

There are certain things that I long to hear from people that I care about.

  • I have faith in you.
  • I’m proud of you.
  • I trust you.
  • You can do it.
  • I appreciate you.
  • I love you.

Yes, it’s always dangerous to rely on outside sources for your personal validation, but as far as I can tell, most people crave it. That’s why Facebook is so popular. There’s something addictive to having people “like” your opinions. We naturally prefer to be agreed with.

Sadly, many people seem to withhold the above statements even when they feel it. And if you have to ask, “Do you trust me?” you come away feeling slightly pathetic. So you don’t ask, and you don’t know.

Unfortunately you cannot control external validation. But if you want it, you can be sure that others do, too. And you can control that. Tell the people that you love that you are proud of them, trust them, have faith in them. Let them know. If you do, then maybe, just maybe, they’ll pay it forward to someone else. You could have an impact beyond your own intimate circle of friends and relatives.

Having said that, I appreciate you, dear reader. Namaste.

Namaste

[Image credit: illuzone.net]