From the Ground Up

I was recently reading a Buddhist book about mindfulness when I began pondering why people flock to religion. Of course, there are several reasons. It comforts people to believe that someone (God) is looking out for them. It gives people structure; those who flourish when guided by rules and regulations enjoy following laws regarding morality. Simply, it makes people feel good; the spiritual aspect of religion is what, in my opinion, keeps it thriving in the modern world. 

The book, titled Mindfulness, by Joseph Goldstein, is filled with tidbits on how to live a life full of peace and happiness for not only oneself but also for other people. Just reading it put me at ease. Although Goldstein does reference the Buddha and other Buddhist adepts and their teachings, dogma is almost completely absent. The threats of eternal damnation are not there. The commands to worship are not there. The demand to believe in something beyond one’s five senses is not there. It is merely a guide to how to live a fulfilling life, and an insightful one at that. 

Everyone can use such advice. We all seek better ways to live. But usually, the advice we follow has strings attached; namely, faith. In Christianity, you must believe that Jesus is literally the Son of God in order to make it to Heaven. You could live a life filled with good deeds and still spend eternity in Hell simply because you did not believe the alleged words of a man who supposedly lived 2 millennia ago. 

But what purpose does faith serve? Why can’t one live a spiritually enriching life while helping others to do the same without a belief in the divinity of an ancient rabbi? 

It seems that adding a godly figure to the equation tends to qualify one’s moral code or spiritual life as legitimate. People think they need one in order to have the other. Some go to extreme lengths to justify or prove the existence of God. I have spent most of my time on this blog trying to argue that there is no good reason to believe in God. But in the past few months, I have become rather disenchanted with trying to do so. And it has finally occurred to me why: because there’s no reason to.

We have many reasons to try and live a rich and fulfilling life and we have many ways in which we can do so. We have one reason to have faith in an unprovable god: fear. More specifically, fear of death. We have created God in order to explain that which cannot be known because we naturally fear what we can’t understand. But I am arguing that we do not need to search for a god who is impossible to prove. We can – and in my opinion, should – share ideas about how to live a good life openly and without the restrictive boundaries of a dogma or religion. Religion presents a picture of justice and morality that is immutable. Wouldn’t we be better off having open, healthy discussions about morality and spirituality rather than fighting over the legitimacy of a holy book that claims absolute superiority? Ask yourself: what is the point of this?

 Consider a math problem. Are you going to settle your uncertainty about the problem by establishing an answer before you’ve worked through the process of solving it? Or are you going to approach the problem openly using the tools that you have at your disposal? If you establish an answer that you cannot possibly know, without trying to solve the problem rationally to the best of your ability, you will not experience any of the rewards of the natural learning process. Similarly, if we assume the existence of a god who we simply cannot prove, we are going to miss out on the important lessons that come with honest moral and spiritual growth, and in the end, we’re simply being dishonest with ourselves.

This is precisely where I disagree with people who say that religion and science do not overlap. According to Christianity, God is the ultimate answer to the ultimate question. There is no reason to wonder why or how any of this happened because we already know that the answer is God. Science can highlight God’s brilliance, but there is no questioning who is responsible. To science, nothing is set in stone. Nothing is certain. The whys and hows are constantly being sought after and we are constantly being rewarded with new truths and discoveries. The ultimate answer remains open-ended. We continue to discover, to learn, and to experience, but with the mystifying realization that the answer to existence will probably never be solved. And trust me, there is something deeply awe-inspiring about accepting one’s ignorance and understanding that our knowledge and wisdom can grow beyond the ceiling that religion has built. 

One might argue that healthy discussion is good, but there is no reason religion should not be part of the discussion. I agree that any wisdom or truth that can be gleaned from religion is wonderful. But consider the real motive of religion. Consider why we think we need God in order to lead a good life. Consider what purpose it actually serves. And then ask yourself if you could make the lives of yourself and others better if you abandoned dogma, religion and God and used good sense and open conversation in order to live happily and peacefully. I’ll finish with a humble word of advice: live not from the top down; that is, by placing your faith in something beyond the current life and living by pre-determined rules and regulations established from on high. Rather, live from the ground up; by looking for the truth and meaning around you and allowing yourself to grow naturally and learn freely based on your own personal experiences. I contend that you will find much more truth and fulfillment that way. 

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3 responses to “From the Ground Up

  • MaryAnn McHugh

    Very thought provoking. I don’t disagree with what you’ve written, but it seems as if man must need something higher to believe in, or why would he try so hard? It’s been that way since time began (as far as we know). Maybe as we keep evolving, things will change for the better. On the other hand, death is always the outcome for humanity, so fear will remain…and as long as there is fear, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to live happily and peacefully. Thanks for the thoughts.

  • Noah Ketterman

    You know what is interesting about the self help section of any bookstore where one can find books about mindfulness and how to live an insightful / fulfilling life? It is incredibly diverse. Also, I am confident that it will look completely different five years from now. We love to try to come up with meaning on our own, and we may sell a lot of books in the process, but we never seem to get it right so I won’t put too much stock into whatever the flavor of the month happens to be at this very moment.

    I do, at least partially, agree with your idea that there is a lot of value in the pursuit of truth. In that sense, you do demonstrate an intellectual curiosity that would make any scientist proud. There is nothing in the Christian faith that prevents that mindset, although an orderly universe (something necessary for this scientific pursuit) makes the most sense solely within the confines of intelligent design. The scientific community will cease to agree with you though in the suggestion that the chase is all that matters (or at least is the most important thing). It is true that science is constantly moving forward with new discoveries. However, every scientist agrees that there must be a conclusive finding at the end of the scientific process. We cannot simply stop at the step of sharing ideas. There is objective truth, and science would cease to exist as a discipline if that was not the case.

    So, let us (re) consider a math problem. Are you going to approach the problem thinking only about the learning process of arriving at a potential answer? Can you turn in a math test with a brilliant and elaborate set of proofs and calculations but leave the answer box blank? No, you cannot. Math, like science, has objective truths and while there is great value in the learning process to get you to the answer, there is more value in the actual truth. Truth exists, in every academic discipline, like it does when it comes to spirituality. The journey to spiritual truth is very important, but we all must understand that there is objective truth that vastly outweighs the value of the chase to it.

    If you have been reading Mark’s blog (if not, go back and do so because it is fantastic), you know where I stand on the issue of spiritual truth. I believe in a risen Christ who has restored a relationship with God which we did our best to destroy. But I can tell you that it has NEVER been a fear of death that drew me to Jesus. Rather, it is the FREEDOM from death that I now have in Him. If we really want to be honest with ourselves, we know the world is not right. We know that death is a reality and we would be right to step back, consider this, and wonder if something better was ever intended for this world, or for us. After all, isn’t that what spirituality is all about? I believe so and that is one of the many reasons the Christian faith makes sense, it frees us from the bondage of death. In Christ, we do not need to fear anything, actually, and that gives me great confidence to live a truly rich and fulfilling life.

  • Mark McHugh

    Thanks for comment. Sorry it took me like 4 months (literally) to respond.

    The self-help section of a book store probably will look different five years from now. The fact that we are actively seeking better ways to exist and more useful ways to help each other is better, in my opinion, than turning off the light and saying, “We’re done. Christianity is the truth and it cannot be modified.” To settle on an inadequate answer would be to limit ourselves far beneath our potentials.

    This ties into the math problem, as well. We’re dealing with a question that, according to my camp, does not have a foreseeable answer. If there is one, we do not have the capacity to know it at this time. So we continue attempting to solve the problem in different ways that will advance us towards a possible resolution.

    Since this isn’t a math problem, but something far more abstract, we can’t argue over it in concrete terms like we would a math problem, which makes it tricky. But I also think that its abstract nature helps my argument. We will probably never be able to solve an abstract problem like this, due to its subjectiveness and its dependence upon personal emotional experience. To admit that spiritual issues are largely subjective is to humble oneself to the position of not knowing. Claiming to have a concrete answer to an abstract question can be tragically destructive and simply doesn’t make sense. If you could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Jesus was the son of God, then that might be a different story, but to prove that an individual’s very essence is godly is impossible. You could prove he existed as a man, you could prove he said things, you could prove he was crucified, but none of that would prove his divinity. To believe he was divine is to objectively accept something that cannot be proven by any sort of objective means. And that’s why they call it, “faith.”

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