Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Loss of Belief

Last month, a story from National Geographic came up in my Twitter feed that gave me pause. The line said “The World's Newest Major Religion: No Religion.” Churches have noticed this trend unknowingly by seeing membership decline and attendance dwindle. What might have been perceived as an organizational or local problem is actually a worldwide phenomenon.

In 2014, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking made a big media splash, a one-day wonder, with the announcement that there is no God. His belief is that science can explain everything. He even made the statement that “we would know everything that God would know,” which sounds suspiciously like the temptation of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Religion used to form the core of a person’s life. It defined their place in the world, had established rituals for life events like birth, puberty, marriage, and death. It united society with a sense of morals and traditions and customs. It defined right and wrong, what was acceptable and what was not. A secular world substitutes laws for values, certificates for ceremonies.

I understand how this came about. It’s hard to understand the teachings of an itinerant preacher of the first century, or the leader of a people who received a set of stone tablets that defined God’s law before that. Our world has expanded, and we learned of cultures that weren’t Judeo-Christian, that had a very different set of beliefs about God than ours. The idea of a heaven in the clouds makes no sense when we send men to the moon. Scientists make pronouncements filled with math and logic about their amazing discoveries, things that are nowhere mentioned in the Bible or the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita.

On a day to day basis, it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference whether we believe in God or not.

Or does it?

Joseph Campbell, in his classic “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” describes many myths and religions throughout the world. It appears as if, no matter what the specific belief system, there are certain stories that are universal. How could these stories from so many places and so many times be the same when the peoples who told (and tell) them are isolated from one another?

And how do you explain that sense of “the other” that some of us have experienced?

I believe that there are two ways of knowing truth: the scientific and the mystical. Science provides what we need to build cities and roads and power plants. It can take us across the ocean or, one day, to Mars. It’s easy to experience. It’s composed of what we can see and touch. (Except theoretical physics, which often seems like magic to me, but those revered scientists seem to be able to explain it to one another, so I’ll take their word for it.) The experience of it is repeatable. If I drop a ball, it’s going to fall down every single time. (Barring other influencing factors, but you know what I mean.)

The mystical is harder. For one thing, it’s not out there. It’s inside you. Most of the time, you can’t point to it or pick it up in your hands. If a doubter says, “Show me God—or spirit or a miracle,” a challenge Jesus faced often, a believer will try to explain how the doubter needs to see. But since the whole method is different than the way science teaches us to see, the doubter has an impossible time understanding and so concludes that the believer is delusional.

Because the mystical is not experienced with the senses, but with the spirit or soul, it requires quiet. You can’t experience it with the television on or in a lecture or driving to work. You have to calm your thoughts, something that’s very difficult for me to do. I have hamster brain. If the world is quiet around me, my brain runs on a wheel, pulling up worries and old memories or lists of all the things I should be doing. It’s hard to listen for the other.

There are techniques to quiet conscious thought. Meditation, with the chanting of a mantra that drowns out the hamster, can work. Walking a labyrinth, which requires focusing on the next step and slows you down to a measured pace, works for me. Music—not rock and roll or jazz or country, but something like Gregorian chants—can also fill the mind with quiet. Even today’s latest fad of adult coloring books has somewhat of the same effect.

If you think about today’s world, it’s rarely quiet. And we rarely spend time with ourselves. Even when alone, we’re texting or following Twitter or doing something else with our phones or iPads. There’s a racket of mental noise.

But in the quiet, you can sometimes glimpse God.

I can hear the doubters mocking that statement. But how do you explain places like Iona or Rosslyn, which have been sacred to different religions through time? Or Jerusalem, sacred to three major religions? These places are often described as being where the veil between worlds is thin.

I used to go to a Unitarian church in Massachusetts, a religion which doesn’t even think you have to believe in God to belong. It was an old building, and it stood on a hill above the town. The first time I walked inside, I got a sense of “presence.” I immediately knew I was standing on holy ground. It is another of those thin places.

And how do you explain that personal experience of the other by perfectly sane people?

I know a lot of evil has been committed in the name of religion. It’s not something to be proud of. But I also think humanity experiences a great loss when it ignores the mystical. The loss is something I mourn.