Selected Thoughts About Religions
June 2011: Click here to see slides I used in a talk to 800 people in China, on the connection between science and the Confucian concepts of integrity and qi, linked to a visit of the leading Confucius Institute in Qufu.
September 2007: “Credo”, a summary of what I believe myself.
What can we say about the religions, ideologies and esoteric schools so prominent on earth, based on the new scientific worldview I have proposed on these web pages?
As usual, I do not have time to do full justice to such a complex and serious question. So here are just a few thoughts.
First, I agree strongly with those followers of such movements, who say that people really need an organized and coherent understanding of life, and a kind of discipline, and a sense of community, in order to be effective and create the kind of life that we would all want, living up to the natural spiritual urges of humanity. But, for myself, I find that the new worldview, drawing on the empirical data and ideas of earlier worldviews, does the job well enough for me. It also provides a way of reinterpreting and understanding many of the things written and said in the past. But what about community? And what do I tell kids who need a simpler version?
For community… I sometimes tell people the old saying: “I am not a member of any organized religion.
I am a Quaker..” Or a Quaker
Universalist. That’s a great community. It does not teach a specific
organized worldview. It tolerates and even encourages independent thinking and
feeling and listening. And it does not claim to be the “one true faith.” But if
I lived in
But what do we tell the kids?
Last July (2006), I told my son: “All the great religions of the world are about half true and half false. The true half has a lot of important and powerful ideas that are very true, that you need to understand deeply and appreciate better. About half is a collection of evil nonsense, designed by people who want to control other people and turn them into slaves. You need to learn which half is which, for all the major religions.” In reality, it’s not exactly 50-50, and this is a simplified statement.
For centuries and centuries, there has been a kind of inner dialogue going on in the world, not so precise or reliable as science, but extremely important to see and feel, in my view. Here are a few of my impressions about the flow of this dialogue… regarding
Not quite religions, but… Marxism, Maoism, Economic Determinism and Current Challenges. and Confucianism.
When I started this, only one of the four was highlighted (partially filled in). Why? See below…
From age 8 to age 21, I was one of the many people who believe that the universe is basically just what it appears to be on the surface. I was a clear and committed atheist, and believed that all of this stuff was just so much nonsense. I still respect that point of view, but disagree. Another paper posted here explains part of why I changed my mind.
(August 2007): Some attributes of religions in general…
Why did I post Buddhism and Taoism first? I started this religions page in September 2006, when a speech by the Catholic Pope – attempting to create greater world dialogue on religions – created a huge negative reaction in the Muslim world. The lack of understanding between the two was so huge… and so important… I felt called to say at least something. But with that concern – why in the world start with Buddhism and Taoism?
two reasons – one related to reader sensitivities, and one related to
organization. Sensitivities are number one. After all, if an overly academic
organization of words and discussion of historical views can get the Pope in
trouble, how can I imagine it would be any better for me? I have certainly had
the experience very often in listservs in the
These sensitivities raise an important question: why is it that today’s humans find it so hard to maintain a coherent and objective train of thought, and a larger perspective, precisely when the subject being discussed is anything truly important to them? It isn’t just religion. If you try to talk to someone who has just lost a job, and discuss what can be done to solve the problem, you are lucky half the time if they don’t just collapse into pieces. (And this isn’t just something I’ve seen! I have had some intense hard times too, though not that one.) To help someone in that situation at all, you have to pace yourself a lot, work very hard to cultivate, articulate and project positive feelings, and avoid pushing too far too fast into the logic of it. This limitation of the untrained human mind is a very serious challenge; my web page on the human mind gives about half of my scientific explanation for this problem, and some of the papers posted give about half of the rest. (As I type this, I can imagine my wife Ludmilla saying: “Not just positive feelings. Sometimes you need to cultivate their well-needed fear.” Thus spake Russia. Sadly, there is some truth in what they say at times – though most people have enough of their own fear already inside them, and don’t need any more. But some people get confused by “cool buttons,” not just “hot buttons.” They get carried away by unrealistic euphoria.)
Why do most people have a huge “hot
button” problem, whenever you discuss something truly important to them? Why do
they seem to suddenly lose the highest glory of the human brain, the power
which makes humans unique compared to other mammals -- the ability to truly
communicate with other humans? Why do they sometimes start dancing like angry
apes, making angry faces and throwing rocks and refusing to let third parties
see into the more human-like intelligence they hide or bury inside? (Certainly
I have seen a whole lot of that this past month, both in the Middle East and in
Part of the story is rational. When people do not expect other people to truly listen to them, why try? But if that were the only problem, verbal dialogue would ultimately be easy enough, like a business deal between hardened, experienced professionals.
The big part of the story is emotional – the “hot buttons” and “cool buttons” which make it hard for people to think straight. This syndrome has two explanations, in my view: (1) the fact that humans are a halfway house in evolution, higher than the mouse but not yet as high as the “sapient,” reasoning creature we flatter ourselves to think we are; and (2) from the mouse, we inherit a useful mechanism for learning and acting based on past memories (as opposed to our coherent understanding of how the world works), which I have sometimes called “syncretism.” (For example, see chapter 3 of the Handbook of Intelligent Control, my 1993 paper on supervised learning – but it is discussed in many others as well.)
To become more fully human and sapient, we cannot just
ignore our traumatic hopes and fears; we wouldn’t really want to do that, and
it wouldn’t be rational to do so. Hopes and fears and memory are a natural part
of the human mind, even at the highest level. To overcome the irrational
and childish response to these memories, in ourselves, we need to train and
strengthen the higher capabilities of the brain, by learning to articulate our
real feelings at the deepest levels. We need to learn to use the mirror of
science and the mirror of empathy to look more forcefully into ourselves and
into others, so that we can tell the truth to ourselves more accurately and
more consistently. In other words, we can train ourselves to become more
like that next level of intelligence we are evolving towards, the sapient
level; we can train ourselves towards a state of greater self-discipline and of
inner harmony. Is this an unnatural thing to do, like training a dog to walk on
two back legs? It is hard, in a way – but it is quite natural for us dogs to
want to get up and do it, in a world where our survival depends more and more
on learning how to get up on our legs… It is just as natural as learning how to
read. And yes, we do need to work on the higher skill of learning to listen to
each other – yea even unto deep dialogue at the highest spiritual level. When
you bow to
So I will start with Buddhism and Taoism because I hope for a bit more tolerance and patience there at this moment. But the experience of those parts of humanity does have lessons for the rest of us as well…
Long ago, the philosopher Nietzsche argued that dogmatic religious organizations exist in the world only because of hypocrisy. Telling the truth is a rule, an imperative, in the principles of most religions. The more one sincerely tries to live up to such principles, the more one is impelled to an inner conflict, which can only be resolves by breaking out the cocoon and embracing the full truth, the realities of our thinking and our limitations, and a full degree of intellectual freedom. I basically agree with Nietzsche on this. I remember what it meant to break with Catholicism and all belief in a spiritual world at age eight, and achieving the foundation of inner mental independence at age 15. But I would go beyond Nietzsche. If we who have fully embraced intellectual freedom overcome our initial hypocrisies, seek greater sanity and sapience, and fully open ourselves up to the larger realities all around and inside us… we will see that there really is something real out there, much bigger than our tiny brains, which fully lives up to phrases like “spiritual reality” and others beyond the scope of this introduction. That took almost ten years for me, and it was not easy. I hope that this web page can make it a bit easier for others. Best of luck to you.