“I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons in one religion, and it is spirit.” Khalil Gibran
Many people say there are certain subjects you should avoid in public, or around the dinner table. Most commonly they are referring to money matters, politics and sex…but that list most often includes religion. As far as I’m concerned, these subjects make for the most interesting conversations. However, religion is without question the most sensitive. Some folks contend that it’s virtually taboo to ever question or doubt someone else’s religious belief. I’ve known people who will break off any association with you if you criticize their religion. In some countries, people will kill you! This kind of barbarism, in this day and age, is hard to believe, much less forgive. Nevertheless, these are good reasons to keep people’s religious beliefs and rituals private - limited to their home or place of worship. I say, let society remain a secular zone.
The above reasoning does not mean I completely discount the value of religions. As I’ve often noted, all religions have some form or other of the “golden rule”- i.e. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. As one prescription for everyone’s behaviour I believe this one an imperative for creating an enduring peaceful society … especially if it’s supported by the rule of law and a fair justice system. If everyone adopted the golden rule, and truly believed and endorsed its logic, then a secular society, devoid of any religion, would work. The essence of this thinking is an inherent empathy for all other human beings. Humanism, by another name: a kind of secular spirituality based on the knowledge that we’re all the same. Same fears, same needs. We can all get along, if and when we respect one another and encourage (allow) the goodness in every person to shine. It seems rational doesn’t? Except we’re often irrational beings.
This discussion, so far, has not spoken to the utilitarian value of great religions. They are after all designed to generate peaceful, and fruitful, societies. And, they sometimes work in isolation. For example, countries that are uniformly of one religion get along quite well. But when two opposing religions clash with one another, in the same country or region, we see hatred of “the other” emerge … and, all too often, wars. This phenomenon has been a consistent theme through-out history. People have been willing to die, or to kill, for their religion. A good friend of mine wears a t-shirt with the quotation: “I killed because of my atheism – said no one ever”. Obviously, given the tone of this essay, I’m all for a secular society but fully approve of religious beliefs that are kept private. Many years ago our Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, weighed in on the subject of homosexuality, and sex in general. He pronounced that the government has no place in the “bedrooms of the nation”. By analogy, the state has no place in the homes and places of worship of “believers”. Whether a god (God) exists is something I doubt wholeheartedly, especially one that is a thinking and speaking god living somewhere in “heaven”…but that is my prerogative. But everyone should be free to practice their religion – but not in a way that infringes on other people’s lives.
What I do not doubt is that religious beliefs have a reason for their origin. The thing that spawned all major religions was a quest for meaning and finding answers about the nature of the world. It all began with the Sun god of the Egyptians, Zeus and the many Greek gods of Mount Olympus, the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses, eventually evolving into more inward, spiritual forms of enlightenment like Buddhism and Taoism. Finally, there was the monotheistic religions of the Middle East (where god was curiously given a male gender despite an older history of reverence and worship of the goddess - i.e. Mother Earth or Gaia – the mother of all life – that once equaled, often surpassing, worship for male gods). These latter religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, were said to have been inspired by direct revelations from god. The key figures in the development of these three religions communed with this male god and revealed “his” wishes to their followers. These “religious experiences”, were the basis for all the laws and teachings of each religion. Whether any one religion has the correct view on reality and things like heaven and hell is best left to every person’s private belief and conviction. And, stay there.
I feel compelled to add a note on what philosophers call “metaphysics”: the study of the origins of the universe, time, space, “being” itself, cause and effect...basically the questioning the fundamental nature of reality. The word comes from the Greek words “meta”, meaning beyond or after, and “physika”, meaning physics. For centuries, philosophers have argued about and postulated on the true nature of our universe. This quest has long since been taken over by scientists like the great physicists Albert Einstein, Max Planck and Stephen Hawking (not to say that philosophers are not still engaged in these questions – they are). It’s important to understand that these secular efforts are done in the same spirit as that of the prophets and great seers of various religions: the goal was to understand “reality” and, most often, find meaning and purpose in that reality. Their method was not revelation (though most scientists probably had their eureka moments when intuitive insights came awfully close to religious experiences) but rather empirical research – a method that carefully observes and tests various hypotheses. And what are some of the latest findings of these modern-day physicists?
Originally, going back to the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus, the world was said to be made of indivisible “atoms”- the building blocks of things. In more recent times scientists also claimed that the universe was made up of these small particles known as atoms “matter”, which has mass and occupies space, and “energy”, things like light and heat. Seems simple? How about Einstein proposing that energy and matter are two sides of the same coin. He wrote, “Concerning matter, we have all been wrong. What we have called matter is energy, whose vibration has been so lowered as to be perceptible to the senses. There is no matter.” The table my computer is resting on is not matter? What?! We now know that when we observe matter through an electron microscope what we see is infinitely more space than objects (those things like electrons, nuclei – protons and neutrons, photons, etc.). One of the newest, and tiniest, subatomic particles are known as “quarks” – they have been given qualities described as “upness”, “downness”, “charm”, “strangeness”, “truth”, “colour”, and “flavour”. Sounds like a weird world.* as matter keeps getting broken down to smaller and stranger things. Yet my computer table still feels so solid!
Confirming Einstein’s theory, quantum physics has taught us that, “Atoms consist of particles and these particles are not made of any solid material substance. When we observe them under a microscope, we never see any substance; we rather observe dynamic patterns, continually changing into one another – a continuous dance of energy,” writes Dr. Fred Alan Wolf. People like the well-known contemporary meditation teacher, Jack Kornfield, see a correlation between meditational states and the behaviour of subatomic particles that Wolf describes. Kornfield talks about an “ocean of consciousness” where perhaps all objects, like cars, houses and mountains, are just particles of our consciousness (sounds like a form of “solipsism” to me!). The famous scientist Max Planck, at the end of his career, after studying matter his whole life, once admitted that, “…having studied the atom, I am telling you there is no matter as such.” In a speech in Florence, near the end of his life, he goes on to say, “Yet in the whole of the universe there is no force that is either intelligent or eternal, and we must therefore assume that behind this force there is a conscious, intelligent mind or spirit.” (contrast this with Stephen Hawking”s quote that “God may exist, but science can explain the universe without the need for a creator.”) Perhaps the two world views, one with god(s) the other without god(s), do not have to be mutually exclusive. For example, Planck’s conclusion, this need for an intelligent mind or spirit behind it all, reminds me of what Lao Tzu alludes to as “The Way” in the Tao Te Ching; and, also the Gospel of John’s description of “The Word” in the New Testament – neither points to a need for a “creator”. Of course, in popular art, the closest recognition of an underlying intelligence is nicely portrayed in the Star Wars films – I used their idea of “the force” to teach my children about an underlying spiritual reality and “goodness” that I believe, pervades the Universe (expressed best by the character Yoda). In 2012 a new particle was discovered in the Large Hadron Collider (in Cern, Switzerland) called the “Higgs boson”. It is considered the most fundamental of particles and the one that gives mass to matter. It was big stuff. It had been postulated to exist 40 years before it was discovered and proof of its existence was a monumental event in the world of physics. This particle also has an interesting moniker: “The God Particle”.
Why did I go through all this religious and scientific history? Partly to show that secular scientists can sometimes find their thoughts drifting into the same ineffable territory occupied by people of spirit. But my main purpose was to point to the possibility that religion and science may have a lot in common: first, they both don’t have THE ANSWER (or all the answers). And, second, they each talk of energy, discovery and revelation; and it is in this realm that people might find a common language, experience and understanding. With the help of great mystics like Gibran we might be able to bridge the gap between the two world-views, and recognize one another’s perspective and contributions. Ultimately, agreeing to live and let live.
* And I haven’t even mentioned string theory, worm holes, black holes, antimatter, dark matter, etc.