I was intrigued but not really surprised to read a few days ago that atheists and agnostics know more details of world religions than do professing Christians or members of most religious systems. The Pew Foundation Forum published last month the results of a questionnaire of 30 religious questions and discovered atheists and agnostics knew more about religious beliefs that do believers. Interesting. How could that be?
For one thing, it might be that church and religious members are just having a good time with their friends, singing about God, Allah, Buddha, or whatever, and it makes them feel good. And they may enjoy those wonderful altruistic times of helping out people in trouble, traveling to help those in stricken areas, or responding to various emergency calls for help. In my early religious years when I began involvement with a church, I loved the music and new friends I made. I liked the feeling of being somehow special and blessed with hearing that God loved me, especially after making a public confession that I believed what I was told. I liked the idea we were helping to “save lost people” in far away, exotic countries. In college, I loved being in nightly prayer meetings sharing burdens, worries and concerns with dorm brothers. What’s wrong with this? It all would have continued on uninterrupted if I hadn’t begun doing one risky thing; ask questions. What I thought was an open and honest organization with truth then began criticizing me for having doubts and asking certain questions. We were never to question the message, only the way to sell it to others more quickly. Thus becomes the modus operandi of many religious organizations.
In contrast, I don’t feel we can ever come to a deeper, liberating freedom unless we do ask and keep asking the questions we have. A teacher in an India Ashram would say, “Find out who you are and you will find the truth.” How is that accomplished? But questioning who I really am, and what the world is around me. I would not want not to be part of any church or religious organization that did allow or encourage the hard questions; “What is this God’s Word? Why is this called God’s Word? Where did it come from? Why does a book called ‘God’s Word’ command certain people who are homosexuals and taken in adultery to be stoned to death? How can a prayer stop the earth from revolving around the sun? Why can’t evolutionary teachings be acceptable as a way of creation? Why didn’t historical writers in the time of Jesus take note of his raising people and himself from the dead? Why didn’t they notice the darkened skies and earthquakes occurring when Jesus died?”
Questions are what get believers in trouble. And so over time, many of the faithful stop asking them and just confess what they are told in order to gain entry into the special group. If they are born and reared in the tradition, it makes it even harder to question, often raking in the harsh scorn of close relatives. In the 4th Century, when the Christian church became a “Creedal Church” the important thing was that one just confess such creeds and teaching of the church as sufficient and true. Have faith in them as from God. Don’t question them unless you come up with the “right answers.” I once asked a young woman questions about her “historic Christian faith” and she stopped me saying, “If you make me doubt, I’ve been told it is a sin!”
And so even in today’s world, if someone wants to ask honest questions and come up with viable answers, he or she can easily find themselves outside the kingdom. Today more are saying, “So be it!” I would myself. Some are called “Atheists.” I would and could not stay with a group which made me profess and confess something I could not honestly state or question. If I be called damned as heretic, lost, hated by God, so be it.
Today I think we are living in a second Reformation period. The first one in the 16th century was precipitated by the printing press. Information could be copied and multiplied into hundreds of copies for distribution. No longer executing the offensive one would stop the spread of ideas. Today it’s not only the plethora of magazines and newspapers but the internet which continues to spread questions and new answers at the speed of light. Authorities find it harder to stop the waves of independent thinking and asking. People are demanding to a new level of honesty and openness beyond being told, “Just believe it ‘cause my minister/seminary/bible tells me so.” Today the waves of questions and new information about settled truths continue to flood the world. Old institutions built on confessions and obedience seem to be toppling faster than sales of Bill’s sweat shirts.
I grew to appreciate the teachings of some eastern religions and books like A Course in Miracles which teach that all questions of this world are open-ended ones. Indeed, this world is a place of doubt and where problems never can be solved. Logically, this is the very nature of the universe, right? I appreciate ministers and teachers in any religious system (and in a way, we are all part of some system) which admit it is all a mystery and there are no clear “black and white” answers. I tried to do that while working as a minister in a Presbyterian Church. I grew to appreciate other religions of the world I had never been exposed to while on a special grant to study in India. I grew to see the similarities in attempts to understand the Great Mystery, the questions about Ultimate Truth. I found peace and serenity, albeit with doubts and trepidations, in coming to the place where I can let it all just go. I was taught and experienced anew what many ancients did; the closest we come to Ultimate Truth is in silence and listening. I am coming to the place where as the book A Course in Miracles teaches, the universe is an illusion of reality since it is ephemeral and bound by the rise and disappearance of time. Moreover, I am growing to see the universe as our own creation of mind rather than from an entity called “God.” If it be true that we are truly Spirit which chose to become embodied, we created it in our dream. This is the usual world in which we still exist in our waking physical hours, but leave in moments of deep stillness, in sleep and ecstasy when we sense the loving Presence. Some call this the return to our True Selves.
So on with the great questions! Follow them all the way until in exhaustion and defeat, we return to the understanding of the ancient seers who saw It as just Is-ness. Meanwhile, keep asking the questions, traveling down the roads of honesty into atheism, agnosticism, or whatever ism until we awaken deeper into that which is No-Thing, Eternal, and Us! Happy doubting; It can become the door to one’s awakening.
BTW, I missed one of the answers….