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Religious Musings

Reclining Buddha in Chang Mai, Thailand

I heard someone say the best proof for intelligent life out in space is that the aliens haven’t tried to contact us. I guess they know better than to get involved with us particularly now, with the way we’ve handled the pandemic.

In a few of my blog posts I’ve discussed religion—from what I’ve said one might get the idea that I’m an atheist. Perhaps an agnostic . . . I really don’t know. My intention wasn’t to disparage religion or God so much. Rather my attacks focus on the secular manifestation of religion. Not faith, nor belief in God, but the worldly religions that take advantage of people, giving them false hope, and taking their money. Put your hand on the television and the check in the mail.

I’ve been in many mosques and temples throughout Asia, having spent most of my working life in Singapore. I’ve also been to the Vatican and walked through the Sistine Chapel and seen first-hand countless other beautiful churches in the Old World. In fact many of them were built by the people as votive offerings to God for seeing them through various plagues. I suppose after we find a vaccine for the Covid-19 virus we should build a new cathedral as a votive offering in thanks that most of us made it through.

I don’t mean to make light of the thousands of unfortunate people who have died or have been adversely affected by Covid-19. It has been a trial . . . but at least we don’t have horses pulling carts through the streets while someone shouts, “Bring out your dead.” And, I’m sure after it’s over and we have a vaccine we will feel somewhat like those who survived the plagues. And we have an advantage . . . we know what’s killing us, and we have a pretty good idea generally how to protect ourselves.

I was brought up in conservative Nebraska, and as a Jewish boy there, I didn’t feel that I quite fit in to say the least. My parents made me go to Temple and I was a good boy, but the religion thing never took with me. I just never could buy into it. I enjoyed the stories of Jonah, Noah, Moses, Abraham, and the rest in the Old Testament. But I don’t think I ever really believed that someone could part the sea or survive being eaten by a whale. I never really understood how educated, sane people could take the bible so literally. Of course, I understood that the stories in the Bible served to teach the people then how to behave in their daily lives – and the stories still do. The Ten Commandments make perfect sense. How do you get people to think about and adhere to those commandments? Rather than just tell them, which probably wouldn’t have worked, they had Moses climb the mountain and have the Lord present him with the commandments carved into stone tablets. Tell me that’s not impressive; and it would have made an impression on the uneducated/ignorant people in Moses’ day.

The comedian, Lewis Black, has spoken about religion in a number of his shows. Here are two excerpts from one of his comedy bits. Black puts things into perspective in his own inimitable way, echoing many of my own thoughts:

Because I didn’t buy into the biblical tales taught to me in Sunday School doesn’t mean that I don’t feel the holy spirit. I just can’t see God as an old, bearded white man who sits in a throne in heaven looking down upon us and answering our prayers. Like Lewis Black said in the video: “I have thoughts.”

So how did the general view of God come about? Anthropomorphism. We humans anthropomorphize things around us. We talk about Mother Earth, Old Man Winter and Father Christmas. We give male and female names to hurricanes. We say god or the angels are crying when it rains . . . and so on as we project human qualities on to the natural world around us. I talk to my dog, and attribute emotions and thoughts to her that she is not capable of feeling or thinking. Sure, she is conscious and demonstrates her love for my family and me in many ways. But she isn’t human and down deep I know this. Still, I talk to her and I “know” she understands my every word. Right . . . but that’s okay.

Check out these sites. They do a nicer job of explaining anthropomorphism than I do:

and an extremely interesting paper by Peter Westh:

Our tendency to attribute human qualities to things is as good an explanation as any as to how religion developed. There is something amazingly special in being sentient. Those of us who are self-aware tend to ask those unanswerable questions about “why” we are here and the meaning of life and all of that. It is terrifying to think we are alone and may have no meaning—that we are just an accident of evolution. How comforting when we confront the vastness of space to feel there is a guiding principle. I think there is a guiding principle, but it isn’t an anthropomorphized “god.” I view the spirit of the universe (what one might call God) as the laws of nature. When I think of “spirit” I think of the spark of life in us that when we die goes back into the universe. Carl Sagan once said, “The cosmos is also within us; we’re made of star stuff.” He meant that everything in our solar system is the remnants of earlier exploded stars. And when we die our atoms will once again become part of the whole. Star stuff. It is comforting in a weird way.

While we are alive our awareness makes us feel apart; we feel separate from the universe, which we really aren’t. But then you get into the whole Cartesian duality of “I think therefore I am.” Descartes was onto something there. And his view of dualism props up the idea of a soul that exists apart from the body and which continues to exist when our body dies. But does it? When we die, we (our body and our consciousness) return to the whole. That concept is satisfying to some extent. Of course, the idea that our identity, our sense of self, that which makes us feel apart from the whole, will be lost is terrifying.

When I look up at the night sky through a telescope at the moon, planets and galaxies far away, I sense the incredible beauty and vastness of the universe. I feel it also when I’m on the coast and experience the beauty of the ocean. And, in the mountains away from the constructs of man I feel a kinship to nature. It is symptomatic of man’s egocentric view of the world and himself that for him God is all around and religion tells man that he/she is special. Looking at nature and the universe I feel a “spirit” about it. In this way I suppose my beliefs run closer to Buddhism and Taoism than western religion. Not so much a spirit that is concerned about me, but something of which I am a part . . . one infinitely small part. My consciousness, my sentience, sets me apart. It makes me feel special.

Wat at the Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Our tendency to anthropomorphize makes us feel, and wrongly I must say, that the spirit is focused on us – that we are the center. I’m not so sure about that. But I am sure that as the dominant creatures on our planet we should have taken better care of our planet. There’s something in the Bible about humans being stewards of the earth, responsible for all the animals:

Genesis 1: 26:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

And this is one of the problems I have with holy men – they pick and choose lines from the Bible and twist them to fit their own needs and desires. Getting back to being stewards of the earth . . . are we doing a good job of that? I think not. But then, that’s another blog post.

I ‘m confident that if Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed returned to present day earth they would be appalled at what has been done in their names. It wouldn’t be what they’d intended through their teachings at all.

And to relate these musings back to the beginning of the post, if we earthlings did meet highly advanced alien creatures, how would we resolve that reality in terms of our religious beliefs? That meeting would certainly raise a number of theological questions that would implode the minds of our contemporary religious leaders. I would love to watch that happen. I surely would.

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