Monthly Archives: August 2011

Religious Freedom: America’s True Heritage

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The idea that Christianity, namely the Puriticanical version, founded America, which is an assumption made by religious and non-religious alike, is inaccurate. This is an assumption which overlooks the religious pluralism that actually existed throughout the colonies, as well as ignores the fact that a few colonies were actually founded on the principle of religious freedom. For example, Pennsylvania, which was founded by the Quaker William Penn, allowed all manners of worship from Anglicanism to Judaism to Native traditions; and Rhode Island, which was founded by Roger Williams, who gave Jefferson the idea for “a wall of separation between church and state“, and Anne Hutchinson, also promised religious freedom to all residents. As time progressed more colonies, like Maryland, which passed itsAct for Religious Toleration in 1649, began to allow religious freedom; although many did so only in practice and not by law.

When America became a nation, religious freedom was among the primary concerns of the people and the legislators alike, leading to fierce debates over what relationship, if any, should exist between state and religion. These debates eventually culminated in the ratification of the First Amendment, which effectively established secularism of state as the law of the land. Ironically, most of the chief proponents of religious freedom were churches, like the Anabaptist, the Methodist, and the Quakers all of whom petitioned their colonial, then state and federal, legislatures to uphold the truth that religion exists solely between a man and his god and that no government, least of all a republican one (as in a Republic, which is what we are), should attempt to coerce any citizen to believe what his heart and his mind have not determined for himself. In fact, in both the Journal of the Virginia House of Burgessand in the Journal of the House of the Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia, there are a multitude of petitions from the mid-1700′s, following the height of the First Great Awakening, through to 1786 when Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom was enacted as state law, all from the various religious groups demanding religious freedom. There was one petition that even went so far as to argue that religious freedom must also include the “Moslem” (Muslim), who, like the Christian, does also believe that his religion is true. Futhermore, numerous letters were published in various colonial newpapers, such as theVirginia Gazette, throughout the late colonial and early Republican periods, which were written by Americans who argued in favor of laws which protected religious freedom for all.

Therefore, historically speaking, religious pluralism, and thus freedom, is the true foundation of this nation. We must stop perpetuating the lie that Christianity, in any single form, is the foundation of America because it is not. As stated in the Treaty of Tripoli of 1797, it never was and never will be.

Originally written by me, Karen Lyn, and published on “Take Back America Movement” on August 15, 2011.

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Common Streams

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As I have mentioned, I have no religion. At best I am a spiritual humanist, who teeters on the brink between Deism and Agnosticism. I have, over the course of my life and my college studies, struggled with the concept of organized, doctrinal religion and the dogma that typically comes attached to it. Nevertheless, while I have come to reject religion, though I maintain a sense of faith, I still find religion, from Christianity to Zoroastrianism and everything in between, fascinating. For better of for worse religion, in all of its many forms, has had a profound impact on the course of human history; and, for that reason, it deserves our respect, careful study, and understanding.

This is one of the reasons why I study it, as an aspiring historian I recognize that of all of our various social constructs, religion has been the most destructive, the most inspiring, and the most pervasive.  Religion has been used as tools of manipulation, oppression, and war.  Religion has been the inspiration for most of the world’s most iconic and beautiful pieces of art, literature, and music; it has been the source of inspiration for many early scientists to study the natural world, and it has moved people to revolt for social reform.  Religion, from the philosophical to the doctrinal, can be found in every society throughout recorded, and possibly even pre-recorded, human history.

It is this latter observation about religion that has lead me to Religious Studies in college, in addition to studying history. Prior to college, as I first began to question my religion, which was evangelical Christianity, I had read a few books about other religions, and was fascinated by how many common streams flowed throughout each one, such as those that are shared between Taoism and Judeo-Christianity.

The basic principles of Taoism – the Tao is everything, everything has its time and place and to do without acting for self satisfaction- have a lot in common with the basic principles found in Judeo-Christian teachings. I am in no way saying that Taoist traditional is identical to Judeo-Christian tradition, only that they share similar principles.

In Judeo-Christian tradition, God is everything, everything is from God, and everything has a purpose made by God from the beginning; for example, Ecclesiastes 3 ,“there is a time for everything, and a season for every action under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to sow and a time to reap, a time to cry and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…” and Romans 1:20, “for since the beginning of creation God’s invisible qualities have been seen, being understood from what has been made.” This is similar to Taoist teaching in that there is a natural order which flows from the Tao to all things: the sun shines in the morning and the moon at night; spring, summer, autumn, and winter each have a purpose and come when the time is appropriate: “The way of nature is clear to anyone who looks.”

Taoism teaches that trying to bend, mold, or force the Tao to our will only hurts us in the long run, and that desire can lead to our separation from the Tao. According to chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching one should free oneself from desire and “live within the mystery of creation…” when one becomes caught up in desire all one will see is the manifestations of that desire. In chapter 74 we are taught that when one tries to take the “Master Carpenter’s place” and use “the Master Carpenter’s tools” one only cuts one’s own hand. These are concepts which are also taught in the Bible; for example Romans 1:25-26 when people “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the created thing rather than the creator…God gave them over to their shame…and they received in themselves the penalty for perversion.” According to both the Tao Te Ching and the Bible, when one lives against that which is pure and natural one is left to suffer for those choices, but when one follows the flow, the path, the way, one finds peace. Of course, what is considered pure and natural is a matter of debate; however, the basic principles remain the same.

Taoist teaching also emphasizes the importance of wisdom over knowledge. Wisdom comes from experience and observation of natural order, it shows us when to act and when to follow; whereas knowledge is the memorization of facts and statistics which force us to dissect and analyze the Tao, reducing it to unrecognizable fragments strewn about until life loses all meaning and joy. This idea is also supported in Ecclesiastes 7:12 “wisdom preserves the life of its possessor.” Knowledgeable people run about talking all the time, puffing themselves up like a hot-air balloon, showing off their knowledge to all who will listen. Chapter 5 of the Tao Te Ching has this to say about such people, “the mouth becomes exhausted if you talk too much. Better to keep your thoughts inside of you.” And Proverbs 10:19 in the Bible tells them, “The more you talk, the more you are likely to sin. If you are wise, you will keep quiet.” Both the Tao Te Ching and the Bible teach that true wisdom comes when one lives in harmony with the natural order.

Taoist teaching also emphasizes the value of humility, as does that of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Chapter 76 of the Tao Te Ching says that those who are soft and yielding will thrive, a concept also taught in the Bible; for example, Psalms 37:11 “the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace,” and Matthew 5:5 “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” Through humility, not pride, one finds comfort; by acting without selfish endeavors one will succeed.

Though I cannot help but find the similarities between Taoist principles and Judeo-Christian principles to be quite interesting; what I most respect and appreciate about their common streams is what they can teach us about our place in the world and what they imply: that everything is connected, that peace and happiness come from living within the natural flow of things, from which everything comes and to which everything goes. This a drastically different idea than that which we have been taught in the western world, especially in America where what is good or real or beautiful is that which is most useful; whereas, in the common streams, everything is good and real and beautiful because everything is everything else.

We, in the western world especially, treat life as if it is a race only to reach the finish line and realize we should have walked instead of ran. We spend so much time worrying and working only to miss out on the things that truly matter and, as a result, never seem to be happy with the fruits of our labor. We see everything in terms of how it can be used for personal gain, as a result we pollute the earth and create drastic disparities in income thus creating a society in which people are valued by how much they own rather than for the sheer fact that they are living, breathing, feeling humans. Perhaps we would do ourselves some good to wade a bit in the common streams and reevaluate the things we value.

To believe or not to believe?: The Humanist answer to the question of morality without religion.

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I admit, I struggle with the concept of a personal “God.” I always have, and chances are I always will. I am not above admitting that, while I hope there is an infinitely wise and compassionate being out there that cares what happens to us, I honestly do not know if there is a “God.” This is why it is called “faith,” because it exists in lieu of evidence and requires one to suspend logic and reason in order to believe in its existence. Why do I say this? Simple, I was raised to love “God” and believe in “God” while simultaneously being encouraged to think and learn and question. Though I cannot bring myself (yet, who knows what the future holds) to completely abandon belief in a “divine being,” I also cannot reconcile the existence of a personal “God” with my own rational, logical mind. Here are a few key problems with the belief in a personal “God”/religion as a whole:

1) I hear religious people praise “God” for the most mundane of things, from finding their keys to getting the winning bid on E-Bay, and honestly it’s more than a little insulting to me as a human being. What “God” would involve itself in the lives of people enough to let one person “win” at buying another person’s junk, but do nothing to end world hunger or climate change? There’s no love there. There’s no mercy there. And there’s certainly no logic there. If there is a “God” and that “God” was truly compassionate and interested in our lives, then that “God” would make food grow in the desert and make lakes spring up from the ground so that none of “his” children would go thirsty or hungry. Supposedly, the answer to this is that “God” helps those who help themselves, if so then what is the point to praying or believing at all? Which brings me to problem number two…

2) Free-will: The religious like to tell me that free-will is a testimony to “God’s” love for us. Really? From my view, no it’s not. Not when that free-will is used to molest children or rape women, or when it’s used to be an alcoholic or a drug addict or to make billions of dollars at the expense of the health and welfare of other humans and the planet. A compassionate loving “God,” like any parent, would step in periodically and correct the bad behavior of “his” children. Free-will is little more than a thinly veiled attempt at excusing dead-beat parenting. What “God” ignores the pleading of a child who wants their parent to stop drinking? What “God” does not step in when a child is being molested or abused? There is no logical way to justify this level of neglect. Yet despite this glaring neglect, I am told, by the Christian Bible itself, that all I need to do is ask and I shall receive. This brings me to problem number three…

3) The religious claim that the Torah/Bible/Qur’an/(insert other holy book here) is THE truth/word of “God.” While I respect these documents as historical works which help us to better understand how people of the past thought of/worshiped “God,” their existence does not prove that “God” is real, it only proves that people believe “God” exists. If any of these texts was the truth/word of “God” then there would only be one text, firstly, and, secondly, there would be no discrepancies or contradictions therein. The Bible alone, the text to which “Christians” turn for everything is fraught with contradictions: in Genesis, for example, there are two creations of humankind, two different accounts as to how many animals Noah took on the Ark (and that’s just one book). Furthermore, if any of these texts was the word of “God,” then there would be no room for question or doubt; for example, from where did Cain’s wife come? If incest, then “God” is either really bad at planning out things or people, who had no scientific understanding of the natural world, made up such stories as a means by which to explain what they had no other means of understanding. Moreover, each of these texts tells us to be kind to each other, yet each also tells us to kill those who are different from us or to allow people who are not contributing to society to go without food; this brings me to problem number four….

4) The religious claim that morality only exists because of “God.” Really? That’s more than a little ethnocentric; plus, it requires a rather large measure of denial of all of those things in the holy texts that aren’t exactly moral. Furthermore, what is morality? If morality is an agreed upon code of ethical behavior meant to make the lives of people living within a society better, then we have problem with the claim that morality exists because of “God” because each religion/culture varies in many ways from each other as to what are those agreed upon codes of behavior. Secondly, in order to agree upon what it is to be moral, we must first agree upon what it means to sin. Every religion, every culture has different concepts of what it is to “sin.” In some religions/cultures sex outside of marriage or with a member of the same sex is considered a sin, in others it is not. In some religions/cultures capitalism would be considered a sin, but in others it is not; and, these differences in opinion often result from different interpretations of or passages within the texts of  a single religious tradition.

For these reasons, and a number of others I chose to not discuss for the sake of time,  I cannot truly believe that there is a personal “God” nor can I accept that there is only one religion which reveals the infinite wisdom and compassion of said “God.” But, can morality exist without religion/belief in God? In my summation, yes it certainly can and does. In my studies of various religious traditions I have found one common thread: the Golden Rule, which tells us to treat others as we would wish to be treated. The existence of this rule indicates an innate desire within human beings, throughout time and across distance, to care for and be cared for by others. It indicates an innate morality, a human ethical principle which exists independently of any one religious belief. It indicates that morality exists because humanity as a whole, via a natural drive to preserve our species, endeavors to prevent bad actions by encouraging good actions so as to create a better society for all. We do not need “God” or the threat of heaven and hell to coerce us into doing what is right, we need only to recognize that we are all humans and that what is good for one is good for the whole. This is the humanist answer to morality without religion, to treat each other with same respect and a level of compassion with which you would want them to treat you.

Religion vs. Faith

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I was once asked to explain what I thought was the difference between religion and faith. This is what I said:
We are told that faith is the path less traveled. If this is true, then religion and faith are like two paths in the woods. One is wide and well worn, the other is narrow and riddled with roots that trip and thorns that scratch. To take the safer path requires no risk on our part and demonstrates a lack of trust in God. However, to take the dangerous path requires risk and strength of character, because it requires trust. Faith requires us to trust that it’s ok to fall, and that when we do all we need do is clean our wounds and continue onward. Faith requires us to trust that the first fall will not be the only one, and to trust that when we have fallen too many times to walk anymore, it’s okay to crawl. But, most of all, Faith requires us to trust that when we are no longer able to crawl, Jesus will carry us home. So, the difference between Religion and Faith, from what I can tell, is a difference between safety and risk; between distrust and trust.

Why Hell Is a Contradiction of Compassion

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I find the existence of Hell to be illogical and irrational as its existence would contradict the image of a compassionate and rational “God.” The entire premise behind hell is that of vengeance, which is emotionally driven by feelings of rage and the injury of one’s pride, and is therefore illogical (natural, but illogical nonetheless).

I believe that if there is a “God,” then that “God” must be an infinitely rational and compassionate being. I say this because if “God” created this universe and all of its untold wonders, then “God” most be rational. Also, if we were created in “God’s” image and we a capable of reason, then how much more so is “God?”

I have several issues with the existence of hell (and even the Devil, but that’s a whole other debate). Firstly, I take issue with the existence of hell because there is no basis for it within the Jewish faith, from which both Christianity and Islam stem. The Jews believed that if one did not get into Heaven their soul ceased to exist. The concept of hell actually has it’s roots in pagan religious traditions (the Underworld, for example). Since Judaism is the root of Christianity and Islam, then hell cannot be a part of their beliefs as it breaks the theological continuity that should exist from root to stem. Secondly, I take issue with the concept of hell as its existence does not coincide with the image of a “God” which is rational and compassionate. As I said, vengeance is irrational, just as eternal torment is not compassionate, nor is the evaporation of the soul; the former is, to me, like Gitmo for the soul, while the latter is like giving the soul the electric chair. Each of these options supposes “God” to be capable of vengeance, if so then “God” is neither rational nor compassionate.

I have toyed with the concept for the afterlife for some time. I accept the possibility that heavenly paradise exists; a perfectly sublime, eternal existence as this would be conducive to the image of a compassionate “God.” However, I cannot rationalize the existence of hell and keep with the image of a “God” which is rational and compassionate. In my opinion (and I have been building this one for years and have concluded that it is the only logical option if we are to keep with the image of a rational and compassionate “God”) the cycle of life and death is more like that of the Buddhist concept: we are born, if we live a life of compassion, we go to Heaven; if not, we are reborn to try again, as many times as needed to get it right. To me, this keeps with the idea that “God” is rational and compassionate while achieving the “punishment” of sin (which is harming others) as being stuck within the cycle of birth and death would keep us from paradise without resulting in eternal torment.