With the rise of the millennials, we see a whole new generation distinctly less religious than their parents. One in three have serious doubts about the existence of God, although less than 10% would openly declare themselves atheists. One in four doesn’t go to any kind of church, and increasingly say that religion is totally irrelevant.
At the same time, we witness the emergence of militant atheists, as well as the new atheists. Richard Dawkins, in particular, has taken on himself the task of vehemently opposing all forms of religion as downright superstition and demanding equal rights for all atheists. Ironically, the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom OF religion, but not freedom FROM religion.
Can we take this all at face value, or can we discern a deeper trend? Are people become less religious while at the same time becoming more spiritual?
Part of the problem is that contemporary journalists less and less distinguish between atheism and agnosticism, despite a huge difference. Technically, atheism requires a positive disbelief in God and religion. You know that there is no God, and only fools would believe in such a notion.
Agnosticism, on the other hand, is a very intelligent position. You don’t know if there is a God, and you may never find out. In today’s global, post-modern society, unless you trip out on psychedelics, have a near-death experience or an enlightenment experience through meditation, you have no reason to believe in God apart from a religious conversion.
Most of us in growing up and entering college go through an intense period of introspection. This is an essential phase of individuation, of becoming your own person. You learn to question your own preconceptions and beliefs. For those of us with a solid faith, our God re-emerges from such a journey all the greater. For those for whom God was a given, a belief system they did not dare question, it is an altogether different matter.
We all remember Carl Sagan with great fondness, a passionate astrophysicist who brought the Cosmos into our living room and fired up our wonder and amazement at the Universe. Carl was deeply committed to the peace movement. His theory of Nuclear Winter had a decisive effect on accelerating negotiations between Russia and America in 1985.
In point of fact, Carl was an atheist. But he didn’t make it his business to assert his rights or try to crush other people’s faith. Carl was like the closet gay professor who has far too much respect for the intelligence of his students to impose his perspective. Carl’s profound appreciation of the physical universe was deeply spiritual.
When you read Carl Sagan’s Varieties of Scientific Experience, you might as well be reading Saint Augustine’s Confessions. The Cosmos is sacred and deserves the reverence that we normally reserve for God. You might even ask, “Is there really a difference?” After all, “God” is a placeholder word for Joseph Campbell’s “Transcendent Mystery.”
In recent years, perhaps in reaction to both Bush Administrations and fundamentalist activism at the highest levels of government, Richard Dawkins has emerged as the pre-eminent antagonist of religion. Dawkins was friends with the pioneering paleontologist, Richard Leaky, who helped establish Africa as the cradle of humanity. Growing up, Richard was an actual altar boy.
Entranced by evolution, Dawkins quickly lost his faith. He developed an anachronistic view of evolution and the inherent superiority of Western Civilization. He never seemed to grasp the implications of Relativity or Quantum theory. The modern mind is the only proper one for a highly educated man to have.
I saw Richard Dawkins firsthand at his book signing for The God Delusion. His book provides deep insight around the challenges of atheists. Richard is quite the gentleman with a delightful English accent and a razor sharp wit who keeps his audiences laughing. The only problem is that he keeps erecting straw dogs in the form of the most primitive types of fundamentalism. Richard never considers that the vast majority of religious people on the planet would disavow that perspective.
Sam Harris started out as a neurologist doing clinical research on brain patterns associated with people’s beliefs. Sam became deeply disturbed by 9/11 and took time out to write The End of Faith, in which he advocates reason as the cure for religious fundamentalism of every stripe.
Unlike many other notable atheists, Sam Harris studied philosophy and went to the East to study meditation. He regularly practices Vipasana and meets with religious moderates who share his commitment to end religious fanaticism. Sam actually co-wrote a book, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue, with Maajid Nawaz. Sam is even invited to speak at churches to enlighten their congregations on the virtues of a secular, nonsectarian outlook.
Sam admits to never having a full-on enlightenment experience, while not discounting such a possibility. Watching him on video, you can’t help but feel his deep care for the world. You might say that Sam Harris is religious without being religious, most definitely spiritual.
Ken Wilber, as well as Sam Harris, has expressed his frustration with mythological elements in every religion, feeling that they are a stumbling block to authentic faith. As a reaction to this, people end up choosing a two-dimensional, scientific “flatland,” favoring the third-person perspective over first and second-person perspectives. It is much like draining all the art, poetry and music out of life. What is the point?
This was not always the case. Joseph Campbell had a previous generation reveling in mythology as “the song and the dance.” Joseph Campbell saw religious symbols from every culture, East or West, modern or traditional, as being pointers, “transparent to the transcendent.” When someone points at the moon, don’t stare at his finger, gaze at the moon!
The great irony is that sophisticated theologians never took the old man in the rocking chair seriously. They knew it was all symbolic. However, the more sensitive among them realized the power of poetry to explain what could not be adequately explained any other way. For example, Chapter One of Genesis can be taken as a poem about creation. If you read it in that light, it is exquisitely beautiful. To take it as a text in biology is to do damage to its original meaning.
Sam Harris openly expresses his appreciation of church architecture and ritual and the warmth of people coming together to address matters of ultimate concern. What Sam objects to is having the mythic elements taken literally. He suggested that we need a universal, nonsectarian language to address that which pertains to God. Much like Neo-Latin in scientific discourse, this new language could unite us all in a common vision.
In co-authoring, Awaken Perfection: The Journey of Conscious Revelation, I discovered that in addressing a global post-modern society, it is all about developing a new conceptual language. It became clear that we must include all great religious, spiritual and philosophical traditions while transcending them.
Think about this. If Christianity only took the Apostle John’s claim seriously that God IS love, then wherever there wasn’t love, we would know that the experience of God was somehow missing.
Imagine being focused on an unconditional love that applied to all people at all times everywhere. Religion would be a practice of probing into the depths of our being to find that love, and then manifest it freely.
Who could possibly object to that? Billy Graham, our matchless global evangelist, just passed away. It is ironic that the best spokesmen for humanity in his wake are a humanistic Buddhist, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, and a Jesuit-Turned-Franciscan priest, His Holiness, Pope Francis I. Both are distinguished by a boundless compassion the world can’t quite get enough of.
Time for us all to unite!