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A Brief Defense of Religion: The Double-Standard Argument

Any important or powerful idea is potentially dangerous to the very degree to which it is important or powerful. It is as foolish, therefore, to blame mechanized industry for Hitler and Stalin — or to blame advanced physics for Hiroshima and Nagasaki — as it is to blame the message of Jesus Christ and the sacraments established for our spiritualization for the Crusades and the Inquisition. Why, then, is this such a common foundational argument for atheists and materialists?

The faulty assumption of materialist reductionism notwithstanding, religion is treated as a separate entity, a thing apart from “the rest of life.” There is contradiction, here, on the part of materialists, but also on the part of “religionists.”

Materialists, for their part, want to have their cake and eat it. On one hand, we have atheists like Sam Harris who propose to study religion as any other “natural” phenomenon. That is, Harris wants religion to be a strictly sociological, anthropological, and neurological event, codifiable and quantifiable, but without the qualia of real experience. The religious person would balk at such an approach, not entirely without reason. To study the physical attributes of red light, or the biochemistry of a raspberry, is yet quite distant from the experience of redness or the feel and taste of a fresh raspberry. In answer to the faithful, however, there is surely something to be learned from, say, studies of the neural correlates of religious experience. The materialist will be forever barred by the nature of things from his true goal: religious experience cannot be explained away by mere brain states. Though not the place to go fully into the topic, it is relevant at least to point out the relationship between drugs like mescaline and DMT and religious experience. Drugs like these may provide a “sneak peek” into the world of mysticism, but do not produce — outside of traditional, sacramental contexts, at any rate — the lasting constructive shift in perspective and behavior which arise quite naturally from meditation and deep prayer. Even the so-called “God helmet”, touted by unsophisticated atheists as proof that God is all in the brain, seems to produce nothing but a hazy sense of “presence” with literally none of the hallmarks of authentic contemplative experience, and certainly no lasting change in the participant. If anything is proven thereby, it is only that there are indeed brain-states correlative with religious experience, but that tells us precious little about the nature of that experience. Seeing how the brain responds to the color blue would give a colorblind scientist no notion of the feeling of “blueness”.

Even with this desire to study religion from the outside, as it were, and to treat it as a fully “natural” event (leaving aside the purely Western need to distinguish with absolute sharpness between nature and supernature), the materialist still wishes to hold religion at arm’s length from human culture-at-large. This distinction is artificial and quite unnecessary, but the secularist will call it justice.

It is from this violent analysis of human nature that arises the attack of atheists like Richard Dawkins that the religious person is mentally deranged and that religion is a psychological anomaly requiring eradication or cure. (For mercy’s sake, we will not here delve into the proposition of Sam Harris and others that Muslims ought to be conquered or killed for the crime of being Muslims; this would take us far afield. It is enough to mention it as a possible extravagance of atheism, and that it is not representative of the majority atheist belief). It is obvious, and not enough as arguments go, to say that this is quite the reverse of the historical pattern, so far as “mental health” is defined by social functionality and statistical normalcy.

The back-alley stabbing attempted here against reality is quite easy to thwart. Study after study by “dispassionate” science shows the very real usefulness of religious faith — or even mere belief — in maintaining healthy attitudes during convalescence, old age, and life’s many trials are too clear to ignore: religion appears to aid, rather than hinder, psychological health. Taken to extremes, religion is as liable as anything to produce imbalance and extravagance, but when properly incorporated, it seems to be factually beneficial. This is, as a materialist will be quick to point out, little or no help in proving the truth-claims of religion, but it does kick a leg from under the claim of the inherent destructiveness of religion to the human mind.

Medically beneficial or not, there is something inherent to the place of religion in the human psyche; rare indeed is the person with no religious impulse at all, and even atheists tend to see something pitiable in a void of any sense of mystery and awe when staring into a starry sky, walking along the ocean’s edge and gazing at its vastness, or listening to the majestic peals of thunder approaching with black clouds in train. Like it or not, this very sense of grandeur and beauty is as “religious” as anything. Those students of religion-as-phenomenon often say that religion is an attempt on the part of the “primitive” mind to understand and participate in this majesty. The religionist might well respond: by the very suchness of things, we will participate in this suchness in any case at all, but only religion permits us to do so consciously, deliberately, and fully. This is the difference between the non-action of the Sage, on one hand, and the blind action of the passion-filled and the inaction of the lazy, on the other.

The mistake of the religionist referred to previously is also based in the false separation of religion from “the rest of life.” This separation is absurd. Religion is for humanity, for life, and not the reverse. If it could only meaningfully apply to quiet evenings alone, religion would be no different than watching television (except, perhaps, for the fact that we are socially encouraged to publicly discuss television, but not religion). A saying has it that faith is personal, but not private. Forgiving the inadequacy of a merely personal faith, the saying is useful in that it points to the need to fully live one’s religion without needing to violate the freedom of conscience of those around. In order to fully live one’s faith, one must first have faith to begin with. Faith is an investment of trust in a process, not mere ascent to a set of precepts and abstractions. Insofar as doctrines are necessary, they serve as foundational pointers to the process in which one might place faith, but they do not themselves make up that process. The religious process may begin in one specific arena — say, politics (Confucianism), collective worship (Judaism), or private contemplation (Buddhism) — but it must inevitably bear fruits which spread further seeds upon the soil of every other arena of life. In essence, all religions lead to the unicity of individual life, of collective society, and, eventually, of all existence. “He to whom all things are One, and who draweth all things to One, and seeth all things in One, can be steadfast in heart, and remain peaceable in God.” (The Imitation of Christ, I.3) The error of separation, of division, of dualism is one shared by many among the religious and secular alike, but it is still an error.

To draw the circle closed, the power inherent in any authentically religious perspective is, then, also its danger. But nuclear technology can provide cheap electricity as easily as it can vaporize millions of lives; it is entirely a matter of motivation. We may draw the analogy out a bit further: the amount of raw power made available by nuclear technology comes with the corresponding risk of that power going out of bounds and causing destruction purely accidentally. So, then, with ideas. Religion has been a powerhouse for enslavement of individuals and nations, but also a dynamo of freedom in the hearts and hands of the wise and charitable. It is the nature of Revelation to point the way to Liberation for those with eyes to see and ears to hear (and, despite New Age and other post-modern claims to the contrary, there is little enough evidence that real, lasting, organic, and responsible freedom is possible without dogma). This very capacity to break chains, though, may be redirected by the unwise, shortsighted, egotistical, or downright malicious among us to the cracking of bones. The same key will lock and unlock. When you lift an axe, shall you split logs, or skulls?

The Emerald Tablet of Hermes the Thrice-Great

1. True it is, without falsehood, certain and most true.
2. That which is above is like to that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above, to accomplish the miracles of the one thing.
3. And as all things were by contemplation of the One, so all things arose from this one thing by a single act of adaptation.
4. The father thereof is the sun, the mother the moon; the wind carried it in its womb; the earth is the nurse thereof.
5. It is the father of all works of wonder throughout the whole world.
6. The power thereof is perfect, if it be cast on to earth.
7. It will separate the element of earth from that of fire, the subtle from the gross, gently and with great sagacity.
8. It doth ascend from earth to heaven; again it doth descend to earth, and uniteth in itself the force from things superior and things inferior. Thus thou wilt possess the glory of the brightness of the whole world, and all obscurity will fly far from thee.
9. This thing is the strongest of all powers, the force of all forces, for it overcometh every subtle thing and doth penetrate every solid substance.
10. Thus was this world created.
11. Hence there will be marvellous adaptations achieved, of which the manner is this.
12. For this reason I am called Hermes Trismegistus, because I hold three parts of the wisdom of the world.
13. That which I had to say about the operation of sol is completed.

In praise to God for giving me to understand the Arcanum of which I sought, I pray as Hermes did to the Divine Poimandres (Corpus Hermeticum 1:30-32)

I have come, divinely inspired by the truth. Wherefore, I give praise to God the Father with my whole soul and strength:

Holy is God the Father of all.
Holy is God whose will is accomplished by his own powers.
Holy is God who wills to be known and is known by those that are his own.
Holy art thou who by the Word has united all that is.
Holy art thou of whom all Nature became an image.
Holy art thou whom Nature has not created.
Holy art thou who is stronger than all power.
Holy art thou who art higher than all pre-eiminence.
Holy art thou who suprasses praises.

Receive pure offerings of speech offered to you by inner mind and heart, thou who art unutterable, vast, beyond description, who art spoken of by silence.

I beg you that I may not fall from the knowledge that leads towards our essence, and endow me with vitality; by this grace, I shall enlighten those of the race who are in ignorance, my brothers and your sons. Wherefore, I have faith and I bear witness. I go to life and light. You are blessed, Father. He who is your man wants to share in your holiness, as you have given him all authority.

Idolatry

Unfortunately, it is scorn for others that often marks religion’s public face in America, leading me to suspect that one of the most popular idols around today is still the Pharisee’s prayer as recorded in the Gospel of Luke—when he prays, it’s to thank God that he is not like other people, who don’t go to church, or if they do, don’t say the right prayers. Idolatry in this sense is the original equal-opportunity employer, and anyone can play: the Protestant fundamentalist looks down on the mainstream one as not “really” Christian, the conservative Catholic despises the “cafeteria” one, the self-proclaimed spiritual seeker sneers, “You go to church? I find God in nature.” (Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, 1999 Riverhead, pg. 92)

Biblically speaking, idolatry is a pretty strong word. It doesn’t refer merely to worshiping created things (though it does refer to that), but perhaps especially to worshiping human concepts. “Idea” and “idol” share a root. Neither one is evil, of itself. Graven images and concepts are never dangerous of themselves. Always, always it is the use to which humans put them that comes to either good or ill. The created gods (Apollo, Thoth, etc.) are no more demonic than the Archangel Gabriel; studying their ways, the myths and stories about them, and the ideals for which they stood is a powerful experience, and God can speak to us through the created gods as well as (and more easily than) he can do through our fellow humans who often lack faith and put up obstacles to God’s grace.

Our human concepts are more harmful still, as they themselves are the obstacles we place between ourselves and grace. These ideas include the comparisons of which Kathleen Norris speaks. Since becoming a Christian, I have heard many times from my friends and acquaintances something along the lines of, “Church is so dead. I can find the Divine Force in the woods and flowers.” Before I was a Christian, I often heard, “God is beyond trees and rocks, not in them. Those of us who worship in a church can look past mere pantheism.” They both hate it, but they’re both right.

The religious life is not about dictating to one another where God can and can not be found, least of all telling God where he may or may not go. Instead, it is about gradually coming to the realization that God can be found anywhere if we are willing to open up to his Presence. It is best, of course, if we all begin where we most easily sense God’s Presence by temperament. For some people, it is the church in which they grew up, or at least a church or temple of the same religion or denomination. For my girlfriend (a Pagan) and I, we share a sense of the divine at our local botanical conservatory (Phipps Conservatory), the deep woods, fire spinning events, art and natural history museums, and Easter Vigil at her grandmother’s Byzantine Catholic parish. We are not limited to those places and times, but each have our own as well. We share meditation, but I also find God in the Bible, while she finds him instead in the act of creating art. Am I wrong for not finding God in drawing or painting? Perhaps I am, and maybe that will change as I try my hand more and more at those arts. Is she wrong for not finding God in the pages of the Bible? Certainly not, for reading the Bible is as much an art as writing poetry or drawing, and just like poetry and drawing it can require a lifetime from those not born with something of a knack.

Heaven and Earth are not coterminous, are not the same. They are also not separate. God’s dimension meshes with our own, combines with it, dances with it and unites with it in Love in an infinity of ways, many of which we cannot begin to guess or imagine. We must not blaspheme the Holy Spirit by trying to tame it, placing it in a box labeled “Christianity” or anything else, and claiming that God cannot minister with the Holy Spirit to those who have never heard the name of Christ or even those who have heard the Name and despise it. We will be forgiven our curses of the Son, our blasphemies against the Father, but if we live, think and speak in a way that says, “God cannot reach people of those religions,” we have set ourselves up for the fall of pride and have forgotten some of our most precious missions. The religious life is not about dictating to one another where God can and can not be found, but instead making of ourselves one of those place-time junctures wherein God dwells in our universe.

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The Grace of God

I don’t claim to be an expert on all of the mysteries of faith; I’m just a sincere and devout seeker who does his best to listen to wisdom as God reveals it to me. I will try to share some of the insights which have come to me in hopes that I’m on the right track and they’re useful to somebody else.

Grace is truly a mystery. In the face of an unfathomably vast universe and an infinitely powerful God, it seems foolish that God should care about us collectively, let alone individually. As Brennan Manning pointed out in The Ragamuffin Gospel (2005, Multnomah Books), God’s love for me, you, and everybody else is very foolish. It makes no sense at all from a rational point of view, and were we to witness one of our friends behaving with us s much amorous fervour we would in all likelihood confront them about it and tell them that they were headed over the edge of a cliff. And yet, God continues to pursue us to the ends of the Earth.

Did Christ’s death on the cross really somehow pay for our sins? I have no idea. I can’t comprehend how that would even work, but the drama of the story, even if merely allegory, is striking. It horrifies many, and scares the living hell out of any Christian reflective enough to contemplate it. So what’s the draw? Why have so many people through history been moved by the Passion? Once again, this is a mystery, a spiritual reality beyond analysis, beyond intellect, only valid within the realm of direct personal experience.

The greatest importance of the Passion, though, is the resurrection. I will not argue over how literally we are to take this particular event, but I will say that it has become of the utmost importance within my own spiritual life. The risen Christ signifies the very fact of grace, ever-present. The Greek word used in the New Testament for Christ’s “second coming” is “parousia”, which translates not as “coming” but more accurately as “presence,” identical in sense to the Hebrew “shekinah”.

Thus, God in Christ, that is Love, is ever-present and abiding. We can access it at any time just by accepting it as true.

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Learn to live with questions

As a Hermetic, I’m often in touch with sources of information that many people do not have ready access to. Still, a lot of information is withheld. It seems like humans aren’t given a lot of answers on purpose.

Many people of faith (of every faith) have a hard time with this. The very fact that we aren’t capable of knowing everything is, in part, what produces fundamentalism.* Some people are utterly tortured by that lack of knowledge; their worldview relies upon constants, and when the ideas thought to be constant are frequently moving, shifting, and outright changing, we humans can come to crises. It is important, therefore, to carry several tools in your faith kit along your spiritual path.

First of all, be skeptical. This does not mean that you shouldn’t believe anything; frankly, that’s impossible in any case. Instead, be careful about the ideas and answers that you do accept. Always ask questions; the Socratic method is nothing to be ashamed of.

Second, love the questions. Learn to accept uncertainty as a gift from the Divine, ever leading you to explore His mysteries and His creation. Questioning the assumptions of your faith is not a sin, but instead a great compliment to God as it displays your willingness to use your divinely-gifted talents and intellect. We are here, in part, to learn, so learning is never wrong of itself.

Third, Occam’s razor! This one gets thrown around a lot, but it really can be helpful. In essence, any answer you come to should make the fewest number of assumptions possible to the situation. That will tend to keep you on a reasonable track. Of course, in matters of spirituality, we often have to run full-bore held aloft by unproven hypotheses, but we need to be fully conscious of the fact when we do and understand the limitations of our situation. As Galileo Galilee said, “Religion teaches us how to go to heaven; science teaches us how the heavens go.” Faith has its place.

While it sometimes makes me feel uneasy, I really enjoy the search. I get to exercise my intellect, along with my intuition, gut instinct, and my heart. Body, soul, and spirit get involved in equal parts and the whole process is exhilarating.

*For a fascinating historical and idealogical analysis and account of the rise of fundamentalism in the Abrahamic faiths, see, The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong (2001, Ballantine Books)