Culture and Religion

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Thoughts on Religion

While in high school, I started to have misgivings about the years of Catholic education. I began to see that the story really did not make sense. The all-powerful God did not align well with our complex universe. I discovered Zen (while in college) mostly in the books of Alan Watts, who also was brought up in a Christian environment. His books come from a similar perspective - comparisons between the Christian religions and the Eastern religions including Zen.

During my college years, I bought a number of books regarding religion, many of them by Alan Watts. The list of books that I find very interesting is available on this site. (A list of books about religion, including Zen)

I live in Wisconsin, which is certainly not part of the United States sometimes called the Bible Belt. Even so, we have our Christian radio stations and we have our regular letter writers to our local newspaper that often talk about needing more prayer and more teaching of the Bible in our schools and how God said or did this and that. The Christian God is simultaneously all-good (and we should thank Him endlessly for his goodness), merciless (and we should beg Him endlessly for the forgiveness of our sins as we are not perfect beings) and arbitrary (and we should thank Him endlessly if anything good happens to us but if anything bad happens to us it must be our fault - and since God did not prevent it from happening and since we are less than perfect, we should grovel (or pray) that it does not happen next time). At times, it seems incredible to me that our civilization is on the verge of interplanetary space travel and we still have large numbers of people still holding on to primitive religions that are many hundreds of years old.

One of the central concepts of Christianity is that God is the maker of the world and so the world is just an artifact that followed a plan. In our world, we have things that are made, like machines, furniture, etc. There are also things that are grown, like any life form (such as plants, animals, and people). A plant does not grow by adding on more blocks like a building, it grows from within. A child does not grow by adding on skin, the child grows from within. In the Eastern religions (which lack the authoritarian figurehead for a God that rules with a firmness reminiscent of the ancient kings), nature has a flow (the Tao) and is not made. (I have written a few other web pages that describe evolution as well as the concept of a human community.)

I grew up a Catholic and went to a Catholic grade school so I spent a great deal of time within a church. The Alan Watts book 'Nature, Man and Woman' offered an interesting perspective on the world as viewed when in church versus the world as viewed when not in church. In church, the universe has been made. God stands outside of his creation as a carpenter views his work. When not in church, the world has been grown.  The world is vibrant with variety and change. There are literally millions of different life forms, all in competition for survival. Our environment is also in a constant state of flux - warm or dry one day, cold or wet another. There are continual changes in everything. Certain fish will prosper in their current environment and others will not. Certain bugs will spread into new territories while others will have dwindling numbers. With time any of those changes can reverse their course - perhaps as a result of a new influence (like people?).

When I contemplate the intricacies of nature, I have a problem considering that everything is controlled by God. If He has control over everything (including whether my child will pass a math test today or I will have a car accident tomorrow), then this life is meaningless. At times growing up, I felt that way. As a Catholic, I was taught that we live our life for however many years - more years for some than others. When we die, we will live forever in heaven or hell. If our goal is just to get to heaven, it seemed odd that we struggle not to die rather than welcoming it. As soon as we have done what we believe is God's work (although neither the script nor the bill of materials are ever written down!?), we could die and go to heaven. Unfortunately at an early age (i.e., Catholic grade school), I was informed the game is not played by those rules. We have to live for as many years as God decides and then 'your time is up' and you die. Along the way, you will have to confront many temptations but those are a test of your worthiness to go to heaven. Within this set of rules, you still have to survive. The human body is not perfect, sometimes prone to illness and susceptible to injury. The Devil tempts us to do things that are wrong but offer short-term gains.

The presence of the Devil in this picture offers an interesting observation. Since God is all-knowing and all-powerful, when a person does something really bad (due to temptation by the Devil?), God must have let the person do that. Supposedly God always has the power to intercede. Therefore God lets some people go to hell while others will go to heaven. Similarly, God lets some people die in accidents while others survive. After all, God has his 'plan' for everyone - right? I remember being taught that babies that die before they are baptized must go to 'limbo', not heaven or hell, because the baptism is so important. All this sounds so arbitrary to me.

I became frustrated with this situation in (late) grade school. If I did very well on a test or in a baseball game, I felt that I was supposed to thank God for the success. If I did not do well, then it was my fault. As I grew up, I realized that if I tried very hard on a test or a game, it was my effort that was paying off - and that I should take credit for my success. If I did not try hard enough, then it might affect my level of success. I no longer remember at what age I had the realization that God is just like the Santa Claus story - he is always checking his list to see who has been naughty or nice.

In 'Nature, Man and Women', Alan Watts provided one quote from Lao-tzu (xxxiv) and one quote from the book of Revelations (19, 12-16). I find the contrast interesting and enlightening. The reader should be able to tell the source of each.

The great Tao flows everywhere,
to the left and to the right.
All things depend upon it to exist,
and it does not abandon them.
To its accomplishments it lays no claim.
It loves and nourishes all things,
but does not lord it over them.

His eyes were as a flame of fire,
and on his head were many crowns;
and he had a name written,
that no man knew, but he himself.
And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood
and his name is called the Word of God...
And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword,
that with it he should smite the nations:
and he shall rule them with a rod of iron;
and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.
And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name Written: King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.

The God of the Bible has quite the attitude, especially in the Old Testament. God tempts Adam and Eve with the tree of knowledge. If He is all-knowing, then He knows that they would submit to the temptation. After they lie about their behavior God banishes them, and mankind, from this paradise. God asks Abraham to kill his son, but God stops the act just in time. Later God grows weary with the people he created so He tries to destroy the world, with just Noah and his ark being saved (within the Biblical story; obviously all the other ancient cultures in the world survived this catastrophe - but the Bible is only about the Jewish people). Over time, the Jewish people again were straying from the narrow line that God expected. This time, he destroys two entire cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, including all the inhabitants, except for Lot's family. I suspect that some of the citizens, like children, were not guilty of the behaviors of their neighbors but they were still massacred in this odd form of human behavior control - negative rather than positive reinforcement.

A common phrase in American slang is 'an act of God'. This usually refers to something miraculous (like surviving a crash of some kind) or terrible (like the destruction of a flood or hurricane - and it might be something not be covered by one's homeowner insurance!). Another common phrase is 'the wrath of God'. This usually refers to something extremely terrible (like the destruction of a hurricane). This combination makes the character of God seem rather extreme, between acts of kindness and acts of violence or revenge.

This part of the page was updated after the WTC terrorist act. After these horrific events, the religious-oriented radio stations fielded calls from people questioning how God (being 'good') allows such terrible acts to occur. The callers are told how God has a plan and sometimes such events occur, or some type of variation on this theme. The bottom line is that if God is all powerful then no evil can exist without Him allowing it. The presence of Satan is required for God since it is not possible for good to exist without evil, just as there cannot be light without dark. Either God is both good and evil or there is a good God and an evil God. (Many authors have confronted this good/evil situation in their books, including Alan Watts, noted in my book list.) Also, no one ever mentions such behaviors attributed to God in the Old Testament that are noted above.

To me, the Bible is a written history of the Jewish people, with a fair number of mythical representations of actual events. Whenever I hear someone quoting the Bible as if it were the rule book for life and for a specific situation the Bible has the answer, I recall an idea from a book by Alan Watts. 'The Bible can be thought of as a finger pointing at the moon. It is unfortunate that many confuse the finger for the moon.'

A reader of my web site pointed out that an article published by Alan Watts in 1973 is available on the web. Unfortunately, some time later that link became invalid. Here is a local copy of that article: The World's Most Dangerous Book.  Alan had a few pointed comments about Bible worship - that are still very applicable over 40 years later.

Other related pages in this site (not in this group):

The Separation of church and state  This concept, part of the foundation of our republic, is becoming at risk as religious views intrude on public policy.

created - May 2000
last change - 11/07/2004
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