I have said we will avoid a diatribe against religion, but maybe you could allow me one page here to rant. I'll try to hold it down. ...
Neptune's Steeds by Walter Crane
click for full image
It is difficult to let go of things from our childhood that are familiar and comfort us. These are structures from our past: The tooth fairy, Santa Claus, the boogeyman, Tinkerbell, the sky daddy [God] -- even the power of our parents and other adults around us who seem to be infallible and in control are among those things. But as we grow older and maybe wiser, we learn that our invisible friend is not real, the Easter bunny is just chocolate and that adults are not really in control. - - - We are on our own.
We cherish some of these things, after all it is our childhood and the things in it belong to us more than to some religion that claims them. But in order to grow and learn, we eventually must learn how to think for ourselves - carefully and critically. Such thinking is like a bird learning to fly. It involves leaving the safe structure of the nest and some people can't do it.
It is OK to have both an emotional and rational response to the universe. For example, I am starting this web site called the SentimentalStargazer which explores science and rationalism with emotions - how we feel about what we learn.
And much of that learning comes from the people around us.
Sometimes they teach us unintended lessons - as when my Great Aunt Tavie scared me away from the farm pumphouse when I was little by telling me that that was where the devil lived -- but actually planted in me the seed to question authority.
Some teach us intended lessons that take us much farther than they could forsee - like my calculus professor from Ga Tech - Dr. Joe Wray - who taught me to use math to visualize what was going on in the sky. Then one day I officiated at Joe's funeral. Life has lessons like that.
Many people have died from society's desire for greed and control using religion and militarism [another religion]. Religion is not harmless. But we can rescue some good things from it. Religion was once a locus of thought, wonder and science. That was before it became an instrument of control.
Some of the claims of religion - that it is the source of morals or that some laws were handed down from on high by some gods - are obviously false. The Ten Commandments (actually about 613) of the Bible were preceded by Hammurabi's Code. We had moral behavior long before we had institutional religions and actually moral altruistic behavior is demonstrated by our non human predecessors - bonobos & chimps, birds and alligators. [See suggested reading at right.]
Before we dismiss religion we need to recognize that it has been the center of human grappling with ultimate questions for thousands of years. Although religion is now entangled in institutions and often condones obscene behavior in the name of some gods, science has no better record of moral leadership - witness eugenics for example, or the use of technology for nuclear bombs, napalm fire bombing, or biological weapons.
Many of us have learned from the Christian tradition how to respond to crises like St. John of the Cross' "dark night of the soul" and to be self directed by their own light within ala Quaker Thomas Kelly. Others have learned that self and control are illusions - in the Buddhist tradition.
And some even learn the final lesson: that life has the meaning that we give it, no more - no less, and the amount we will give for each other even includes our lives. These lessons are both very rational and yet very emotional -- but no religion or sky daddy needed.
So for example, evolution - the major religious battle of our time - is an observed fact, not a hypothesis. Things change. We all know this: the stars and planets, plants and animals change. Theories are not about whether evolution / change exists. They are about how it works. Darwin and Wallace advanced one theory about how evolution works. Other people such as Lamarck also advanced their theories.
Why does Darwin in particular strike such fear in the hearts of religionistas? Why not Wallace? Why don't they get excited about Galileo and Copernicus anymore - or the microscope’s revelation of microbes, not demons, as the source of diseases?
My guess - Probably because as our knowledge increases, our need for gods decreases. We now understand some things about fire and weather, atoms and microbes, galaxies and blood cells without resorting to magic and miracles. Zeus, Osiris, Isis, Marduk, Tiamat, Lilith and even Yahweh are out of a job.
As a result good and evil become our responsibility and that is scary.
Maybe it is just time to say "grow up" and push the bird out of the nest to see if it can fly. Some won't spread their wings or may just die in the nest. Don’t you die in the nest. Spread your wings - think - jump - and fly!
My non-theist concept of god starts with Quaker Thomas Kelly's "A Testament of Devotion":
"Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life."
Sounds a little Hindu or Buddhist, doesn't it? - Sounds like Jesus' Kingdom of Heaven. Also reminds me of the "Namaste" greeting - "I salute the light within you." As an atheist, I have to work through his terminology to understand what he means. But I find myself agreeing with him and with Jesus, or St. Francis, or Henri Nouwen, or Annie Dillard ...
As a non-theist, here is my recasting of the Cherokee story of two wolves told to youngsters:
There are two kinds of gods within us, one - the gods of myth and superstition - throwing lightning and riding sun chariots across the sky, and the other - the good, the happiness, the love and understanding we seek - in ourselves and in others. Both are created by us but one is as much a part of our humanity as our bones. One god is created from our insecurity, fear and greed. The other is built on our humanity, love and the self confidence that lead us to care for each other and venture out among the stars.
Which god will win? The one we feed.
Next >> Jesus, A Master Teacher
[Sorry about the preaching. It's an old habit of mine.]