Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Religion is unnecessary in view of the mesmerizing beauty of the Cosmos

The words we use are often misleading, religiousness might mean many things. It might mean my desire to love or that I trust that there is a deeper meaning to this life, but usually it means I adhere to a certain set of unproven beliefs.

To have a religion is, in this sense, similar to having a political party, a sports club, whatever. It means basically that we pretend to know something that we in fact only wish you knew. It is called faith.

Now faith is very different from trust. I may trust in you as a friend, but this is different from the claim that I know that you are a friend. There are relatively few things (if any) we can accurately claim to know, although we can trust in the most bizarre things.

Now religious people usually say that you have to believe in certain things in order to give meaning to your life. I think this is a big, horrendous lie. In my opinion all you have to do is to be open. Be open to the universe, be open to what you are. In the last centuries science as developed a view of the world more magnificent than any writer has ever been able to imagine. The quantities of fish, birds and wild life that has been around for millions of years in our planet alone, show us without doubt that we live inside a magnificent story, in which we are only a pale fragment. Our greatest achievement is that we have a center spot. In our spot we can look at the life of elephants and plants and dolphins and spiders and stars and planets. In our spot we can contemplate the incredible joy of creation.

As a species we are not very special in most respects: We do not take especially better care of our infants, we are not especially wise in our relations with our peers or with our environment, we are not the most beautiful, harmonious, delicate or even physically stronger, we are not the ones who live longer, or have a better sense of taste or smell. For all these and many other characteristics there are other species who can surpass us. Our advantage is in the preservation of knowledge, which means that, although we are totally in the dark regarding what the world or what it is there for, what is its purpose, we know how it behaves and we know many if... then sequences, which means, we know that if wee do this, then that will happen.

Through this way of dealing with the world, we have advanced enormously in our technical ability to survive in the farthest reaches of the earth. We have been able even to record the lifestyle of other animals, in pictures and film, and in concepts, we have shared them with others.

But, although the recordings of all this research has allowed for the construction of a vast amount of knowledge, the fact is, we prefer the myth. Most of us prefer to think that we have a different story, origin, role and destination. we prefer to think of ourselves as the rulers of the earth. In our mythology human life is more sacred than the life of any other animal. In fact, many of us, would think that it would be correct to say that human life is the only sacred life on earth. In practice this means that if, to save a human life, you had to destroy the entire planet, than it would be morally correct to do so. We would find more correct, according to our mythology, to kill billions of billions of living beings to save a single human life.

This is how self centered our species is.

Now, many generations have come and researched the reality of our world. They have made hypothesis and tested them, they were ready to sacrifice their prejudices, and the world they found was a world very different from this myth. In this world men are not at the center, they have much more to learn, a world, an immense world rises before them, with histories, a degree of complexity, a beginning and end which defies even the most prodigious imagination. The world described by science is undoubtedly wonderful beyond our imagination.

We took up religion to make sense of our life. We thought that, if we were to consider ourselves just another kind of ape, our life would be meaningless. But it is precisely the opposite that happens. It is only when we see our species and ourselves as part of this gargantuan story that we begging to realize how tremendously beautiful each of our moments here on this earth really is. The wonderfulness of this world is much more intense, much more real, speaks much more to the senses, to our hearts, to our souls, then the ancient sacred texts were able to convey. Compared with the magnificence of the Earth and the Cosmos, they look very pale, almost like rubish, although a shinning rubbish, shinning because, in spite of their blindness, they are part of the history of the Cosmos.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Spirituality versus Religion as a social phenomenon

I find myself very interested in questions such as: waht is the "meaning" and value of life and Existence. Is the beauty I see in the Cosmos only my personal whim, or has it some sort of reality, are numbers and concepts real, is free will just an illusion, is there life after death? These and many other questions occupy much of my time, even when I was a child they filled my heart and mind. I still feel mesmerized by them, and I pursue them. Sometimes I have trusted in people to provide ready-made answers to these questions. Organized religions propose more or less attractive answers to different kinds of people. On my own, the only thing I could say is that I do not know the answer to these questions. I would like to know, and, in a certain, inner, unexplainable sense, I do not doubt that there is something sacred and divine from the pebble of sand to a cluster of galaxies, passing by crabs and men and ants. I don't see anything specially divine regarding men and women. We are beautiful, and our story upon this earth is quite magical and full of grandeur. But so are the story of fish and dolphins and birds and rocks and volcanoes and stars. Everything in this universe seems so magical. For me this is not a reason to feel unimportant, by the contrary, being in such a great company, makes me feel that I am part of something that is worth to know and to be part of. My only fear is that I may not be up to it. Am I as beautiful as the stars and fish I see around me? A part of me real doubts that.

Although I have participated and firmly believed in several religions before, I have, for several years now, no respect for their dogmas. I appreciate their willingness to search for a spiritual life, for love, for "God", I appreciate the mystery, the connectedness to the "Holy Ghost", or "Jove" or Buddha, or the inner self or whatever. I appreciate the search for Heaven or Nirvana or Paradise or mere Happiness. But I truly dislike the dogmas. For when a person thinks that he or she knows what he or she does not know, she is blinded in two different ways: the first, she is in fact ignorant; the second she is ignorant of her own ignorance. This second aspect is for me more dangerous than the first for it stops the search. And that is the root reason that I abandoned all forms of organized religion in my life. Today the only thing I know is that I know nothing regarding the fundamental nature of reality or its purpose (if any).

In my experience religion may provide a strong connection to the invisible realm of values and purpose. Like Mozart's music and almost every form of art, and everything, it is like a portal to an invisible dimension, that unfortunately, cannot be explicitly communicated or even felt. It belongs to a realm of some kind of supra-consciousness, not itself an object of consciousness but allowing for consciousness and knowledge to exist. Guiding our directions, inspiring our words, but nevertheless staying out of the field of consciousness. Therefore I can say this strange paradox: that I have no doubt that there is life after death, and yet, I have no idea if there is life after death. Which means I do not know anything about any life after death (just like the staunchest skeptic) and yet I have absolutely no doubt regarding life after death (like the deepest believer). I live my experience of God, and yet, I have no knowledge of it. I cannot share it, except with people that live it too. I cannot even understand it, and yet, it under-stands me.

Because of this I have to facets to the world. Just like my nose might seem to be on the far right or on the far left of my face, so my position on religion seems to be one of complete despise and of complete entrancement. For instance I like to listen to religious rituals and see the dances and feel the spirit, I feel at one with devotees who surrender their heart to whatever deity and priest, and yet, on the other side of my face, I see the illusion and falsity of it all, of seeing "God" as something external, identified with this or that. Just like a lover who thinks he or she is in Love with anything else but Love itself.

To sum up, I think religious ideologies and doctrines are a great fountain both of ignorance and fear, and also of joy, wisdom and illumination. In themselves they are certainly only falsities. For the mind (at least the minds we know of) does not seem capable to understand even the simplest things like the beauty of Beethoven. How can it express "God"? But because they motivate and give credit to the search of the Divine, they can actually be an incentive to a personal journey towards everything. Obviously, the person who uses religion well, will have, sooner or later, to overcame it.

In my experience the overcoming of religion comes in three different steps:

1) Obedience - the passive side - to listen, to be ready, to be open, to be receptive. Judaism centers on this aspect.

2) Love - the active side - to nurture, to give, to be creative. Christianism centers on this aspect.

3) Dissolution - the ecstasy - when there are not two but one, the encounter. Some forms of Buddhism center on this aspect.

These three things are connected, they revolve around each other, and no one religion masters them all. In any case, all of this seems to be just a way to tune in with the Cosmos, with Existence. However, this "tunning in" is only the first step. It is like a writer or a painter who gets is moment of inspiration, it is the right moment to start writing a book, but he has to start it. By starting it he will make visible that inspiration to himself and to others.

The inspiration is there already, but it is not explicit, it is like a seed, it must be developed so we can know what it is. Science, art, philosophy, are ways in which this elusive "in tuneness" gets itself known. It expresses itself through us to our own eyes. We have created it, somehow it should be already in us, but it had to be combined with other elements from the world to achieve its shape, to be known in the heart and mind.

But so far we have been unable to find a complete expression of this transcendent beauty. Perhaps the all universe, as a whole, is its expression. As we strive to find even better accounts of that beauty we will evolve. But if we hold on to what we have achieved we will simply grow old. The hideous face of organized religion is precisely this adherence to past principles. It gives it a very ugly face, as if it wanted men to love expressible ideas instead of the inexpressible Life that inspired them. Thomas Paine and Bertrand Russell, among many others, have clearly exposed some of the ugly traits of religion as an organized belief system. Here is such an account by the philosopher and mystic Bertrand Russell:

Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?
by Bertrand Russell

"My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race. I cannot, however, deny that it has made some contributions to civilization. It helped in early days to fix the calendar, and it caused Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they became able to predict them. These two services I am prepared to acknowledge, but I do not know of any others.

The word religion is used nowadays in a very loose sense. Some people, under the influence of extreme Protestantism, employ the word to denote any serious personal convictions as to morals or the nature of the universe. This use of the word is quite unhistorical. Religion is primarily a social phenomenon. Churches may owe their origin to teachers with strong individual convictions, but these teachers have seldom had much influence upon the churches that they have founded, whereas churches have had enormous influence upon the communities in which they flourished. To take the case that is of most interest to members of Western civilization: the teaching of Christ, as it appears in the Gospels, has had extraordinarily little to do with the ethics of Christians. The most important thing about Christianity, from a social and historical point of view, is not Christ but the church, and if we are to judge of Christianity as a social force we must not go to the Gospels for our material. Christ taught that you should give your goods to the poor, that you should not fight, that you should not go to church, and that you should not punish adultery. Neither Catholics nor Protestants have shown any strong desire to follow His teaching in any of these respects. Some of the Franciscans, it is true, attempted to teach the doctrine of apostolic poverty, but the Pope condemned them, and their doctrine was declared heretical. Or, again, consider such a text as "Judge not, that ye be not judged," and ask yourself what influence such a text has had upon the Inquisition and the Ku Klux Klan.

What is true of Christianity is equally true of Buddhism. The Buddha was amiable and enlightened; on his deathbed he laughed at his disciples for supposing that he was immortal. But the Buddhist priesthood -- as it exists, for example, in Tibet -- has been obscurantist, tyrannous, and cruel in the highest degree.

There is nothing accidental about this difference between a church and its founder. As soon as absolute truth is supposed to be contained in the sayings of a certain man, there is a body of experts to interpret his sayings, and these experts infallibly acquire power, since they hold the key to truth. Like any other privileged caste, they use their power for their own advantage. They are, however, in one respect worse than any other privileged caste, since it is their business to expound an unchanging truth, revealed once for all in utter perfection, so that they become necessarily opponents of all intellectual and moral progress. The church opposed Galileo and Darwin; in our own day it opposes Freud. In the days of its greatest power it went further in its opposition to the intellectual life. Pope Gregory the Great wrote to a certain bishop a letter beginning: "A report has reached us which we cannot mention without a blush, that thou expoundest grammar to certain friends." The bishop was compelled by pontifical authority to desist from this wicked labor, and Latinity did not recover until the Renaissance. It is not only intellectually but also morally that religion is pernicious. I mean by this that it teaches ethical codes which are not conducive to human happiness. When, a few years ago, a plebiscite was taken in Germany as to whether the deposed royal houses should still be allowed to enjoy their private property, the churches in Germany officially stated that it would be contrary to the teaching of Christianity to deprive them of it. The churches, as everyone knows, opposed the abolition of slavery as long as they dared, and with a few well-advertised exceptions they oppose at the present day every movement toward economic justice. The Pope has officially condemned Socialism.

Christianity and Sex
The worst feature of the Christian religion, however, is its attitude toward sex -- an attitude so morbid and so unnatural that it can be understood only when taken in relation to the sickness of the civilized world at the time the Roman Empire was decaying. We sometimes hear talk to the effect that Christianity improved the status of women. This is one of the grossest perversions of history that it is possible to make. Women cannot enjoy a tolerable position in society where it is considered of the utmost importance that they should not infringe a very rigid moral code. Monks have always regarded Woman primarily as the temptress; they have thought of her mainly as the inspirer of impure lusts. The teaching of the church has been, and still is, that virginity is best, but that for those who find this impossible marriage is permissible. "It is better to marry than to burn," as St. Paul puts it. By making marriage indissoluble, and by stamping out all knowledge of the ars amandi, the church did what it could to secure that the only form of sex which it permitted should involve very little pleasure and a great deal of pain. The opposition to birth control has, in fact, the same motive: if a woman has a child a year until she dies worn out, it is not to be supposed that she will derive much pleasure from her married life; therefore birth control must be discouraged.

The conception of Sin which is bound up with Christian ethics is one that does an extraordinary amount of harm, since it affords people an outlet for their sadism which they believe to be legitimate, and even noble. Take, for example, the question of the prevention of syphilis. It is known that, by precautions taken in advance, the danger of contracting this disease can be made negligible. Christians, however, object to the dissemination of knowledge of this fact, since they hold it good that sinners should be punished. They hold this so good that they are even willing that punishment should extend to the wives and children of sinners. There are in the world at the present moment many thousands of children suffering from congenital syphilis who would never have been born but for the desire of Christians to see sinners punished. I cannot understand how doctrines leading us to this fiendish cruelty can be considered to have any good effects upon morals.

It is not only in regard to sexual behaviour but also in regard to knowledge on sex subjects that the attitude of Christians is dangerous to human welfare. Every person who has taken the trouble to study the question in an unbiased spirit knows that the artificial ignorance on sex subjects which orthodox Christians attempt to enforce upon the young is extremely dangerous to mental and physical health, and causes in those who pick up their knowledge by the way of "improper" talk, as most children do, an attitude that sex is in itself indecent and ridiculous. I do not think there can be any defense for the view that knowledge is ever undesirable. I should not put barriers in the way of the acquisition of knowledge by anybody at any age. But in the particular case of sex knowledge there are much weightier arguments in its favor than in the case of most other knowledge. A person is much less likely to act wisely when he is ignorant than when he is instructed, and it is ridiculous to give young people a sense of sin because they have a natural curiosity about an important matter.

Every boy is interested in trains. Suppose we told him that an interest in trains is wicked; suppose we kept his eyes bandaged whenever he was in a train or on a railway station; suppose we never allowed the word "train" to be mentioned in his presence and preserved an impenetrable mystery as to the means by which he is transported from one place to another. The result would not be that he would cease to be interested in trains; on the contrary, he would become more interested than ever but would have a morbid sense of sin, because this interest had been represented to him as improper. Every boy of active intelligence could by this means be rendered in a greater or less degree neurasthenic. This is precisely what is done in the matter of sex; but, as sex is more interesting than trains, the results are worse. Almost every adult in a Christian community is more or less diseased nervously as a result of the taboo on sex knowledge when he or she was young. And the sense of sin which is thus artificially implanted is one of the causes of cruelty, timidity, and stupidity in later life. There is no rational ground of any sort or kind in keeping a child ignorant of anything that he may wish to know, whether on sex or on any other matter. And we shall never get a sane population until this fact is recognized in early education, which is impossible so long as the churches are able to control educational politics.
Leaving these comparatively detailed objections on one side, it is clear that the fundamental doctrines of Christianity demand a great deal of ethical perversion before they can be accepted. The world, we are told, was created by a God who is both good and omnipotent. Before He created the world He foresaw all the pain and misery that it would contain; He is therefore responsible for all of it. It is useless to argue that the pain in the world is due to sin. In the first place, this is not true; it is not sin that causes rivers to overflow their banks or volcanoes to erupt. But even if it were true, it would make no difference. If I were going to beget a child knowing that the child was going to be a homicidal maniac, I should be responsible for his crimes. If God knew in advance the sins of which man would be guilty, He was clearly responsible for all the consequences of those sins when He decided to create man. The usual Christian argument is that the suffering in the world is a purification for sin and is therefore a good thing. This argument is, of course, only a rationalization of sadism; but in any case it is a very poor argument. I would invite any Christian to accompany me to the children's ward of a hospital, to watch the suffering that is there being endured, and then to persist in the assertion that those children are so morally abandoned as to deserve what they are suffering. In order to bring himself to say this, a man must destroy in himself all feelings of mercy and compassion. He must, in short, make himself as cruel as the God in whom he believes. No man who believes that all is for the best in this suffering world can keep his ethical values unimpaired, since he is always having to find excuses for pain and misery.


To this day conventional Christians think an adulterer more wicked than a politician who takes bribes, although the latter probably does a thousand times as much harm. The medieval conception of virtue, as one sees in their pictures, was of something wishy-washy, feeble, and sentimental. The most virtuous man was the man who retired from the world; the only men of action who were regarded as saints were those who wasted the lives and substance of their subjects in fighting the Turks, like St. Louis. The church would never regard a man as a saint because he reformed the finances, or the criminal law, or the judiciary. Such mere contributions to human welfare would be regarded as of no importance. I do not believe there is a single saint in the whole calendar whose saintship is due to work of public utility.


Sources of Intolerance
The intolerance that spread over the world with the advent of Christianity is one of the most curious features, due, I think, to the Jewish belief in righteousness and in the exclusive reality of the Jewish God. Why the Jews should have had these peculiarities I do not know. They seem to have developed during the captivity as a reaction against the attempt to absorb the Jews into alien populations. However that may be, the Jews, and more especially the prophets, invented emphasis upon personal righteousness and the idea that it is wicked to tolerate any religion except one. These two ideas have had an extraordinarily disastrous effect upon Occidental history. The church made much of the persecution of Christians by the Roman State before the time of Constantine. This persecution, however, was slight and intermittent and wholly political. At all times, from the age of Constantine to the end of the seventeenth century, Christians were far more fiercely persecuted by other Christians than they ever were by the Roman emperors. Before the rise of Christianity this persecuting attitude was unknown to the ancient world except among the Jews. If you read, for example, Herodotus, you find a bland and tolerant account of the habits of the foreign nations he visited. Sometimes, it is true, a peculiarly barbarous custom may shock him, but in general he is hospitable to foreign gods and foreign customs. He is not anxious to prove that people who call Zeus by some other name will suffer eternal punishment and ought to be put to death in order that their punishment may begin as soon as possible. This attitude has been reserved for Christians. It is true that the modern Christian is less robust, but that is not thanks to Christianity; it is thanks to the generations of freethinkers, who from the Renaissance to the present day, have made Christians ashamed of many of their traditional beliefs. It is amusing to hear the modern Christian telling you how mild and rationalistic Christianity really is and ignoring the fact that all its mildness and rationalism is due to the teaching of men who in their own day were persecuted by all orthodox Christians. Nobody nowadays believes that the world was created in 4004 BC; but not so very long ago skepticism on this point was thought an abominable crime. My great-great-grandfather, after observing the depth of the lava on the slopes of Etna, came to the conclusion that the world must be older than the orthodox supposed and published this opinion in a book. For this offense he was cut by the county and ostracized from society. Had he been a man in humbler circumstances, his punishment would doubtless have been more severe. It is no credit to the orthodox that they do not now believe all the absurdities that were believed 150 years ago. The gradual emasculation of the Christian doctrine has been effected in spite of the most vigorous resistance, and solely as the result of the onslaughts of freethinkers.


The church's conception of righteousness is socially undesirable in various ways -- first and foremost in its depriciation of intelligence and science. This defect is inherited from the Gospels. Christ tells us to become as little children, but little children cannot understand the differential calculus, or the principles of currency, or the modern methods of combating disease. To acquire such knowledge is no part of our duty, according to the church. The church no longer contends that knowledge is in itself sinful, though it did so in its palmy days; but the acquisition of knowledge, even though not sinful, is dangerous, since it may lead to a pride of intellect, and hence to a questioning of the Christian dogma. Take, for example, two men, one of whom has stamped out yellow fever throughout some large region in the tropics but has in the course of his labors had occasional relations with women to whom he was not married; while the other has been lazy and shiftless, begetting a child a year until his wife died of exhaustion and taking so little care of his children that half of them died from preventable causes, but never indulging in illicit sexual intercourse. Every good Christian must maintain that the second of these men is more virtuous than the first. Such an attitude is, of course, superstitious and totally contrary to reason. Yet something of this absurdity is inevitable so long as avoidance of sin is thought more important than positive merit, and so long as the importance of knowledge as a help to a useful life is not recognized.


Religion prevents our children from having a rational education; religion prevents us from removing the fundamental causes of war; religion prevents us from teaching the ethic of scientific co-operation in place of the old fierce doctrines of sin and punishment. It is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will be necessary first to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion."

The complete text is here.