Saturday, July 6, 2013

Frank Thoughts on Religion, Science and Faith

It may not be abundantly apparent, but I have come to a considerable level of peace about my religious background, toward which I have been guilty of directing quite a lot of anger, animosity, poison, bitterness and resentment.

At this point, I regard those years lost to a rigid mindset founded upon years of indoctrination that I was part of a select group privy to the only truth worth knowing, and see that time essentially as a catalyst which sparked within me an unquenchable inferno of curiosity about the world around me. For so long, even the mention of "science" put me on the alert for "untruth". For so long, I believed that the world was 6,000 years old, and that dinosaurs were just remnants from "God's failed worlds"... For so long, I closed my ears to empirical evidence because it conflicted with the narrative of a book I was assured held not only the truth of the matter, but the very keys of my salvation. I wasn't ready to challenge the tenets of my religion, and risk the fate of my eternal soul, in favor of "Man's ways" which are always lower than God's ways. I couldn't disappoint my fellow believers, I couldn't doubt. It wasn't worth it. It was, forgive the expression, a No-brainer.

But, along the road, something changed. I began to consult science. I began to actually engage with theories. I began to learn the history of science, and how very un-convoluted (albeit generally beyond my own realm of knowledge) these scientific explanations actually were. The world is not 6,000 years old. I once had considered science to be for the lesser mind, for those not up to the task of true Faith. It had seemed simply to be the wild imaginings of a few desperate minds who couldn't handle the truth.

I think what gave me such a dismal, fearful view of science, was that it had always tempted me. And during times of so-called "Faith-crises", I considered MYSELF to be one of those desperate, lesser minds. I felt stupid for not "getting it"; why wouldn't God answer my prayers as a 7, nearly-8 year-old child, pleading to know if I should get baptized? Why did this trend continue through every rite of passage as I became a Young Man and was told to pray about receiving various callings and priesthood offices? I always came to the same conclusion: that I already KNEW what the right thing to do was, and God was not going to be tempted by "sign-seekers".

 I had always been a little uncomfortable with the attention I was given in the weeks prior to such advancements in the church. I guess I just didn't care for the attention, but it also seemed a little vainglorious. We were asked to stand in front of the congregation to be given the ol' "those in favor, please indicate by the uplifted hand..." routine. the process gave me the feeling of something resembling a jury of my peers (but mostly of my Elders), and the Pollice Verso of ancient Rome. As the years went on, I also became uncomfortable with the very apparent, arbitrary regard, that I (and every other "worthy" boy) was entitled to in Sunday School, when we made such an advancement. When we were ordained, we were praised and patted on the back incessantly for the duration of the 3-hour block of church meetings. Not only had we passed judgement, we were something of a celebrity. Even when it wasn't "our day" as Young Men, we were often cited as gleaming examples of what it was to be faithful in our callings. Perhaps one Sunday it would be praise for performing the ordinances of the sacrament, or giving a talk, etc... I had a very doting Sunday School teacher as a priest, but she had a different tone when speaking to us "Young Men" as opposed to the "Young Women". It's something I can't ever really explain, except that we could all tell, and it was really awkward... She really had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find praise for our female classmates, and it almost invariably fell along the lines of their modesty, always with a smack of hesitation that made us all cringe that we were about to hear another lecture on the topic of dating, modesty, etc. I was pretty well used to staring at my shoes to hide my red face during those years.

As a 10 or 11 year-old, I wrote a letter to God, after a lesson about how Joseph Smith did the same while in prison, asking why he was so persecuted. An answer had come to him in the form of scripture. I wrote my own letter. I didn't want scripture, I just wanted that 'burning in the bosom' that the Book of Mormon promised. To my mind, it was about the most sincere supplication I could compose. It was a demonstration of earnestness, and I wasn't seeking a sign-- Not one that I hadn't been promised, anyway.
I hid the letter beneath a box of stereo equipment in my dad's office area. I guess, at the end of writing it, I felt the process wasn't complete until it was "sent", but reasoned that the means of sending it were more gesture than anything, since God could see right over my shoulder as I wrote it, let alone that he knew my thoughts before I even penned them, possibly before I even thought them. I concluded that I would leave it under that box because I didn't recall it ever being moved in the years since it had been placed there, and surely it wouldn't move before I received my answer.

I'm not sure how long it was before my dad rearranged his office area, but I remember the day he did. I didn't want him to know I had been "futzing around" in there, because I would likely be in trouble. But I also didn't want him to read a letter that was not meant for human eyes. I dashed in with singularity of purpose, snatched the letter, and bolted back out. My dad didn't know what the heck was going on, but he didn't ask. Very uncharacteristic of him to let something like that slide without intervening. To be honest, I don't recall what burning woes I wrote it over, but they were every bit as eminent in my young mind as any mortal threat. I wish now that I had saved that letter instead of burning it, because it would have proved invaluable to me in assessing my religious experience as an adult, struggling with the same torment and anguish, likely over the same types of paradoxical dogma. It would certainly be worth at least a chuckle at this point.

After writing off the no-brainer approach to religion as a 18, or 19-year old, I began zen meditation and yoga. Not surprisingly, I got a lot out of it in terms of feeling peace, or "the spirit". I had acknowledged years before that I could not distinguish the "Holy Ghost" from the wave of emotion I felt while listening to instrumental rock music. and I had begun to believe that they were one and the same sensation. I also began to encounter and appreciate philosophy.

It called to me. I was eager to explore my own thoughts on my existence, and what I valued. I had come around to the idea that what I thought actually did matter more than unquestioning obedience, whether right or wrong. I knew I had morals independent of dogma, or doctrine, and I was interested in learning their root, or origin. This didn't mean that I couldn't find truth in the "gospel", but I was so burned out on the Sunday school answers, that I went into semi-retirement from all things to do with God for a couple of years. God, whether he existed or not, did not concern me. It had no bearing on my behavior. If I was going to make it into heaven, it would be because I was choosing— Nay, contemplating, reasoning, discovering— the right. I was participating in the process with my God-given mental facilities, and coming to my conclusions. I was done with outsourcing the process of deciding what I would do. I wanted nothing to do with the "low road" I wasn't just leaving the church to sow wild oats, or to 'eat, drink, and be merry'. Quite the contrary; I simply felt that I was betraying a sense of obligation by not seeking for the answers to my burning questions, wherever I may find them. Soon enough, I was calling myself a "Theistic Existentialist".

While it's not a science, per se Existentialism takes a devoutly empirical approach to life. All we know (as human beings) is what we see, touch, hear, taste, and smell.  We (as human beings) cannot account for what anyone else feels, or sees, et al. Because it is outside our own realm of experience. We know that we exist, and that is enough. "I think, therefore I am."

Existentialism takes the position that we cannot cite our human nature for our choices. We are all on a level playing field. No one human is any more human than any other human. We all make our own choices. And when I make a choice for myself, I am essentially casting a vote on acceptable human behavior for EVERYONE. I create the world I live in through my actions.  If I lie, cheat, laze, steal, litter, love, hate... I am condoning the same behavior in my neighbor, in my children, in my parents... I am demonstrating that I have thought it through, and acted in accordance with my values. And my values are not more or less important than any one else's. Not only that, but after the fact (say, lying, for example), if I regret my behavior I cannot say that I don't really hold that value, because my actions have demonstrated that I did indeed put value on that behavior. In fact, Jean Paul-Sartre goes so far as to state that it is impossible for us to act contrary to our values, because our behaviors are our values in action. I may have behaved in ignorance, but the choice was still mine. If I don't know what I am doing, then I can only do what feels right... But what if what feels right is wrong? I suppose that if it can be demonstrated that what I feel is right is actually wrong, then there will be some empirical basis, or some graph that will demonstrate it. Otherwise, I have done no more wrong than any other person who has done wrong, as long as I have not acted contrary to my sense of morality.

This is often indited as being a slippery slope of moral relativity. However, in my experience the existentialist is less concerned with the relativity of his moral decisions than the Christian, who can always "act now, and ask forgiveness later", or the age old approach of sinning during the week, and repenting on Sunday all the while with some self-righteous conviction that they could never be as bad of sinners as atheists, or rapists, or Brother/Sister So-and-So.... Moral relativism is alive and well in many a congregation, but generally in the form of relating others' morality to their church buddies, and taking pride in keeping their own lives out of the gossip circles.

While they may make amends, the Existentialist doesn't repent in any religious sense. The Atheistic Existentialist would say that this is because there is no one-- no God, no savior-- who can undo what has been done, and therefore what is done is done for time and all eternity. I cannot simply ask forgiveness of my local deity and absolve myself of a moment of indiscretion. "What we do in life, echos in the eternities..." No Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Cards. The Theist Existentialist would say that, whether God exists or not, he should not have any bearing on our choices, because true morality comes from within, and not from external compulsion. If one is moral out of fear of punishment, or desire for reward, he is not moral at all.

In fact, to be a liiiittle more scientific about it... according to a prominent developmental psychology theory, Lawrence Kohlberg's Progression of Moral Reasoning, these two reasons are the lowest stages of moral reasoning, and are generally observed in toddlers. "I'll do the right thing for fear of punishment" is the most basic  At some point, these toddlers are supposed to progress to the or "I'll do what is right, as long as I get a reward." sense of moral obligation, and remain there until (or throughout) adulthood. It might be a better example to say "I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine". This back scratching approach is reason enough for many many people to never question their beliefs, because to jeopardize the status quo is simply not worth it. Take a look around the pews next time you're in church: Back-scratching is a MAJOR factor ;).

Most adults, through simple habit, or social conditioning, arrive at the stage of moral reasoning that "you do the right thing, because it's the right thing to do". This stage represents the bulk of everyone I have engaged with in a religious discussion. At least they consciously aspire to this stage of reasoning (there are still another 2-3 stages beyond this one, and Kohlberg asserts that everyone aims a little higher than they actually fall on the slide scale of moral reasoning, but that's a good thing any way you slice it, and it goes nicely with the whole theme of "repent now, try again next week"). I concluded that to truly be a principled, moral person, you cannot plagiarize your convictions out of a book, or from a conference talk. You have to be able to write and reason your own morality. At some point in my religious discussions, the question usually is posed (and usually by me) "How do we know what is right, or true?". Almost invariably, I am either given a scriptural reference, or a tearful testimony of what they "know beyond a shadow of a doubt".... But while these have always triggered emotional responses in me, they have not satisfied my query: how do you know? Or, if that is how you know; how do I know? Afterall, the existentialist cannot take another's experience as "Gospel truth", because for all the existentialist knows, the bearer of the testimony is as much a figment of their imagination as the God of which is being testified may reasonably be believed to be.... You can't just inject emotional knowledge into the equation and call it upper-case Truth.

I held onto the appellation of "Theist" in identifying as an Existentialist, not because I had spoken to God, or because God had spoken to me. Actually, to be frank, it was because I had very little concept of what God might be. I had grown up with a very black and white (yet with so many shades of grey) concepts of God, and who he was. He was He who always got an upper-case He, Him, His. He was still out there, I just couldn't let a fear of consequence govern my obedience to Him. I was not simply one of his children, following the rules to escape a beating, or eternal fire and brimstone, weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth for that matter. I didn't know who He was, but I wasn't questioning His existence.

When I was about 22 or so, (after coming back into "full fellowship" in the church, yet again, for a year or so), I— yet again, and not for the last time— became disillusioned with the tenets and rituals of organized religion. I stopped going, this time with the full blessing of my Bishop, who was a real mentor for me at that time, and someone who I respected immensely and independently of his title (and alleged stewardship over me). I read a book published in the late 1700s by Thomas Paine titled "The Age of Reason". The book is a very methodical and logically argued rejection of the (King James Version) Holy Bible. After reading it, I shook off the title of Theist, and began to consider myself a Deist.

Up to this point, I didn't think you could do cease being Theist, without being Atheist (but really though, that may be more true that I should admit). I had never heard of Deism before. Paine made the case that the Bible is one of the most incoherent, outlandish and inconsistent writings in existence, and holds nothing of a knowledge of God.it is, indeed, blaspheming God by the use of his name. It has been a while since I have read that book (little more than a pamphlet really...) and I'm not going to brush up for the purpose of making his case for him here, but it rocked my world. It seemed to me unthinkable to challenge the Bible, and yet here was a man who had done so as a contemporary of the Founding Fathers of our country. Christianity is on trial in his book, and he is a ruthless and effective witness to the disjointed testimonies of the gospels. He is a Deist. Deism claims a belief in God, but that he doesn't interfere in the affairs of mankind. My ears perked up, or my mind was lit up... at any rate, this explained why I had never had a conversation with God. I could still believe that I was being tested by him, and be completely okay with the fact that he was not doling out answers to this veritable "Pop Quiz" of a life experience. He doesn't answer prayers, in the same way that teachers don't answer questions during an Exam. He doesn't interfere with the natural order of the universe in the same way that a toy maker doesn't start a top spinning on his workbench, before applying touch up paint. He doesn't interfere with the consequences and progression of our choices. Whether it's misplacing car keys, or sending a child off to war and then praying for his/her safety. We are responsible for our choices, and God loves us just the same! I was coming around the idea of being in a life-long IQ test on a spinning planet set in motion in time immemorial by a creator, not a conspirator.

After one more bout with the LDS faith, and yet another failure to pray, fast, and study myself into belief, or even contentment, I wrote off organized religion. I have been inactive for about 3 years now, and not even a miracle will bring me back; there are plenty of miracles to be had outside of organized religion.

I don't know what to call myself now. I have never felt a closer connection to God than I do now. Not the "Heavenly Father" that I grew up worshiping, mind you... but a completely separate deity, one that doesn't answer to the attributes heaped upon "him"(?) by the doctrine of any organized religion.

8 months ago, I was about as certain as one can be that almost every claim of interaction with God was simply a psycho-social conditioned interpretation of one's emotions. Now I am not so sure. I have had undeniable spiritual experiences that have been the most beautiful, healing, and affirming experiences of my entire existence. One thing I do know, is that I have found a faith that works for me, and it is unlike any faith I have heard before in my life. I grew up being taught that "Faith is a belief in things that are hoped for, but not seen". Yet this never rang true to me, any more than if I were to be told that "what you hope to be true, is true." (in many ways, I would say that that is a very good description of what I was taught). I was also taught that "Faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things...", yet quite nearly every "Testimony" or "witness of truth" I heard in my time in the Mormon church began "...I know this church is true". I said it myself many times over, because I was also taught that "A testimony is found in the bearing [sharing] of it..."
and "fake it till you make it..." I am still haunted by my "experimenting upon the word" of those bits of lay-clergy advice. People still hold me accountable for a testimony that I have long since renounced. I know they don't mean it in a manipulative way, but that is the inherent nature of the process of indoctrination, and subsequent abdication. Those who redact their testimonies, or no longer believe, are painted as deceivers who never had the faith to gain a REAL testimony, and are therefore unqualified to make statements regarding the gospel, because they have not truly participated. Or else, they are told (with lots of love) "I KNOW you don't really believe what you say about the church: I have heard you bear your testimony of it...." It leaves me speechless, because I am being held accountable by my former Sunday school teachers for things my mother whispered in my ear at the pulpit on monthly Fast and Testimony Sunday... I don't know how to tell them that the gold star they gave me for that month just doesn't factor into my belief system anymore.

I have also redacted my opinions on science, but only because I have made claims that I no longer espouse. And that's what "good" scientists do: they apply the scientific theory to their theories on science. I used to consider science to be infallible, but science is actually keenly aware of its fallibility, and perpetually assesses the need to amend or replace a claim or theory. Science is obsessed with modifying its position to reflect progress toward Truth. Science is well acquainted with not having the answers, because that is where science lives. Science dwells on a precipice where only the pertinence and reliability of the knowledge it acquires keeps it from plummeting into the bottomless chasm of confusion, from which is is perpetually redeeming itself through the harrowing process of experience, and experiment.

The new faith that I have found is a comfortable balance upon the backs of the emotional, subjective, non-sense, high stakes world of Religion, and the empirical, logical, high-risk Mr. Spock-like world of Science.

I have meditated on my soul for nearly a decade now, and this year I had a tremendous breakthrough. I know I have a soul. I know that that soul exists because I can feel it, and I can hear it. Not only emotionally, but physically. And I have come to the conclusion that the energy flowing through my body, while it may simply manifest in scientific laboratories as an Electromagnetic field, is actually the flow of my soul. Call it chi, call it electricity, call it an Aura, call it my spirit... It is there. And it can be positive, and it can definitely be negative. It can even take the positive energy around me and turn it into negative energy, but it can also take the negative energy around me, and make it positive.

And in this EMF, I have a unique signal, or signature, which is what makes me a unique individual. My Self. It is in a constant state of flux. And when I am purely myself, it is a radiant, natural euphoria-educing energy field. I know this because I have experienced it.

What makes my EMF unique is the knots in it. Call them blocked Chakras, or demons, or interference... But I can feel them. They are physically there. There are knots in my soul, and while I cannot see them, I can feel them. Like a spelunker in a pitch black cave, I can feel the twists and binds. As soon as I have traced out the knot, I begin to untangle it. When it is untangled, I may continue going deeper and deeper into my soul, til I find another knot that impedes my progress. because I can feel them, I have a stubborn faith in my ability to untie those knots. I alone am responsible for that process. Even if it takes all the time I have in this world, I have that stubborn faith that I can do it. A great man is said to have said 'if you have as much faith as a mustard seed, you can move mountains'. My faith in my own potential--whether God-given, or strictly happenstance, is what allows me to tap into that potential. Faith has never worked for me when I put it outside of myself. Faith is confidence, faith is taking a second look at your qualities, not calling for a lifeline. I consider myself to have a leg up in being able to feel these knots, even if at times they seem impossible. At least I am not grasping in the dark for something that I have been told is there, but which I have no personal knowledge of. Touch is knowledge. And sometimes that's all the empirical evidence I need.