Having come to understand that we, as humans, have always created our own mythologies as explanations for life, and that cultures everywhere have done this with astonishing variety, you’d think there would be a religion for each of us. How do we pick?
Consider that every religious person has in fact picked their religion, whether he or she realizes it or not. If you are religious, you picked one church or temple over the other, or chose not to worship in a building but rather connect with God in the woods. If you grew up Catholic or Jewish and just accepted the faith of your ancestors, recognize that some person in your past picked the religion you now call yours. So the faith that you hold to be absolute for you is actually a relative choice. As such, it cannot be absolute for everyone.
Understanding this is both the beginning of tolerance, and if we’re honest, the recognition that our understanding of God has been made up by people. After all, if your God is not the same as another’s, and both were picked by the faithful, then neither can be ‘True’ in the absolute sense. What may be true to your faith, catalyzing the dynamics of belief in your life and functioning as The Word of God, is another man’s mythology. Others cannot be compelled to accept it based on some objective veracity. For one person, Christ was resurrected and ascended into heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father God. For another, that’s a superstitious story about a middle eastern blue collar worker being elevated into the outer atmosphere without a space suit to sit next to his Dad. For yet another, aliens abducted the so-called Christ.
I haven’t found a religion that satisfies me completely. I do like elements of Christianity, like the emphasis on responsibility, on loving your neighbor, on non-violence on keeping bad spirits out. I like elements of Zen Buddhism, like the polar thinking that recognizes the background space is just as important as the subject (in art). I like the Mormon emphasis on family, social cohesion and preparing for disaster. I find fascinating native dances and rituals that are artistic portals to the ‘world behind’. I like indigenous peoples’ emphasis on humans being part of a family of creatures, which leads to respect for nature. I like the Catholic church’s sponsorship of the arts (especially in the Renaissance). I like Buddhist notion that we are part of a process and flow and are one with our environment, the earth and ultimately the universe.
On the flip side, I’m not fond of the mystical idea that the earth expresses itself and humans are the universe becoming conscious of itself. I don’t like the pagan-ish idea that blood atones for sin to satisfy a rather blood thirsty god. Nor the idea of God sending souls to hell to be tortured for eternity. Nor do I like exclusive thinking about an individual human the ‘one way’ to God, or the corollary that a priestly caste has to mediate. I’m also not fond of the faithful holding on to centuries old stories from a Holy Book (take your pick) that get shoe-horned into present relevance by a dutiful expositor constrained by theology. I’m not superstitious about spells and smells changing our future, or about casting bones or cards to predict it. I also don’t like the counter-intuitive teachings of Buddhism that make my life just a drama being played out by a self that doesn’t recognize it’s all an illusion. Anything to do with passive fatalism and introspection doesn’t sit well with me, especially when our planet needs urgent regenerative intervention.
Instead, I desire a belief system that can catalyze passionate, principled action in my life. I want to focus on cherishing, nurturing and protecting the sacred. You know, we actually get to choose what is sacred! Not in an arbitrary way, but based on principles deeply ingrained in our humanity. How do we choose to not choose greed and exploitation? Doesn’t humanity have a negative imperative that is as strong, and often stronger, than the will to do the collective good? The simple answer, for me at least, is that I have to have faith in humanity.
Where there is education and well managed prosperity, people settle into peaceful co-existence. When there’s a collapse scenario at play, otherwise ‘normal’ people can turn to cannibalism. The longer we see required lifestyle changes as just lifestyle choices, the closer we come to a collapse situation. In other words, the absence of an effective religion will only expedite the rise of an oppressive one. Dictators get power when people are oppressed, poor and powerless to change things themselves. We really have no other choice than to believe in humanity.
So what should we believe in? How should we then live? Today, there is no more an urgent topic than reversing climate change.
Imagine if the earth’s environment was more sacred to us than our right to consume whatever we like from Fred Meyer or Amazon. Not only would we save money, but we would drive demand for different types of goods and services. For me today, doing the right thing for the planet is just a lifestyle choice. I may choose to buy organic, or to advocate against extractive industries, raise awareness for alternative energy sources and recycle my new monitor’s box. However, I still feel entitled to drive a SUV, to have two monitors on my desk and drive alone just because I like my own mind space. If I fail to eat 100% grass fed beef, I don’t really feel deeply about it. I think factory farmed meat is unethical and will share YouTube videos about its cruelty, and consequently look for local sustainable beef (as long as it’s available on my way home from work).
Here’s the problem: while such lifestyle level of choices are laudable, they are not stopping climate change. We need something more drastic that is at the same time not externally coercive. Governments may set quotas, and industries may cooperate if they can find profits. The more hurricanes, floods and droughts we see as the result of extreme weather, the more we will shift behaviors for the sake of survival. Yet all of this will not be enough, and it won’t stop the exploitative instincts of those with power to find new ways to influence the green NGOs into compromise. We need to change the human heart, and here is where religion comes in.
Think of the transformative power Christianity has had on Western civilization. While there have been dark periods, at the same time, the happiest countries in the world have Christian roots. The faithful will of course impute the power of change to Christ himself, and interpret success as evidence of his divinity. I look at it differently, however, i.e. more in terms of changed behaviors. The Christian religion catalyzed people to behave in certain ways that were conducive to a civil society. It wasn’t just Christianity that helped. Local culture and values morphed the religion into an effective, cohesive social structure. Once those values and behaviors become deeply embedded in the society, countries can secularize.
Early faith is fanatical. Think about the level of personal sacrifice that religious extremists are willing to suffer. Ascetics deny themselves food, live in the desert, make pilgrimages on their knees. Believers will fight holy wars, and fanatics blow themselves up in the hope of a getting a direct pass to heaven. What drives these people to extreme behavior? It is their world view, the internalized story line that they have accepted for their lives. I’m not advocating that people blow themselves up to stop logging trucks, no. But I do see the power of the commitment to defend what is held as sacred, like the Sea Shepherd activists putting their boats between the poachers and the whales. We need to define a new sacred worthy of sacrifice.
So while all kinds of external pressures from the harsh environment, from dutiful governments, corporate philanthropy and peer group shaming can drive us towards good behaviors, there’s nothing more powerful than people making dramatic lifestyle choices based on their own conviction of faith.
Thus, when we combine the notion that religions are manmade, and that faith systems are the most powerful internal motivators, along with the imperative to save the planet, we can create new faith that drives people to action.
Do we start a new monolithic religion? Isn’t that politically untenable? Won’t we find peace only on the other side of major religious wars? I don’t think so. We can’t spread the new sacred through political and military power. It has to spread person to person.
Rather than startup a new major world religion to compete with Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and the like, we should instead teach communities to self-serve. This is all made possible through an understanding of the democratic nature of dynamics of faith. Historically, we have looked to the religious elites, to the prophets and holy scriptures for the contours of our faiths. Now we can use the principles of community mythology to put structure around faith building. The result will be an endemic set of shared values expressed in a plethora of local cultures.
— Roy Zuniga
copyright (c) 2015 roy zuniga