The last half-century has witnessed growing mistrust of those in charge, especially political, business and religious leaders. This story addresses one element in that unprecedented sea-change of populist sentiment: how one person’s disquiet over accepted convention led to a new way of thinking, one steeped in ancient beliefs and yet part of common ground today.
I was warned not to write this.
“You’ll make people angry,” said one friend. Another friend spouted righteous indignation: “Your essay is a thinly disguised anti-religious tract.”
The first is true. The second is false.
For years I’d wrestled on and off with a dilemma. An acquaintance brought it to a head recently in an unpredictable and implausible way: “Are you religious?” Lucy had asked. Her dark brown eyes beamed across the table with intelligent curiosity.
“Yes and no,” I replied. Lucy’s question startled me. It shouldn’t have, considering the setting. I was a guest at a supper in a church. My wonderful wife attends. I don’t.
“Would you mind explaining?” Lucy challenged, her manner kindly yet firm.
“I’ll try,” I smiled back. “I was raised nominally as a Christian protestant. Later, in order to marry the woman I loved, I became Roman Catholic. I’ve practiced neither. The reason? I’m extremely uncomfortable with organized religion, yet ironically I have a deep respect for religious beliefs.”
“Really?” she asked, returning surprise.
“Yes, and for many decades I didn’t know the reason for that discomfort.”
“I have a sense of ‘why’,” I replied. “The roots go back a long way.”
“It began as a child on my parents’ wilderness farm. They had a profound respect for Nature. We were surrounded by it… immersed in it, really. My father often spoke with reverence almost of ‘Nature’s grand design’. It was his way of explaining the mysteries around us. My intuition began tuning in to an unexplainable something about Nature.”
“That’s an unusual juxtaposition,” Lucy said. “Organized religion and Nature.”
“They are at once both inseparable, and yet incompatible,” I replied.
Lucy knitted her delicately groomed eyebrows, throwing a silent question in my direction.
“For many years my beliefs were scattered… unorganized,” I explained. “Frankly, I thought little about them. My understandings began to emerge while I was at university, although not in a consciously deliberate or organized manner. That’s when two key elements came into focus.
“The first was a respect for indigenous culture, thanks to a cultural anthropology course taught by an indigenous woman. She was raised in her culture and held a doctorate degree in the history of indigenous peoples.
“I learned that a core value of indigenous cultures is the belief that humans are born with an obligation to be stewards of all that is provided by Nature… what many call The Creator. They believe that being servants of Nature ensures they will be served by it. They have held that profound insight for thousands of years, long before this era of climate change. Bottom line: in the indigenous cultures every living thing has a purpose, has needs and has a direction, and that means everything, plant and animal has a contribution to make in some way.
“I’ve also come to realize that people who use terms such as The Creator, or God, or Allah, or Buddha, or others, have a shared vision, whether they know it or not. It’s a pity so few see it that way, hence my reference earlier to “inseparable and incompatible” – an unfortunate and pointless conundrum.
“My second university influence came from courses in history. Scholars tell us the original purpose of religion, dating back many thousands of years, was to foster civility within and among groups of humans, and to nurture within individuals an understanding that living by higher principles best served their own interests as well as those of their social groups. This is religion in its purest and most commendable form.
“However, I was dismayed to learn also from history classes that for centuries leaders within organized religions like Christianity, Buddhism and Islam have deliberately incited animosity among peoples to serve their own selfish purposes, often the cause of devastating wars. Examples abound: the Crusades, when knights were excused by the Christian church for slaughtering whole villages, or the massacre of millions of Jews by Nazis who piously proclaimed their Christianity, or the barbaric savagery of ISIS who falsely claim Islamic purity, or the sexual molestation of tens of thousands of innocent children by Roman Catholic priests and nuns who’d sworn celibacy, crimes kept secret for decades by the church hierarchy.
“I would never suggest these are representative of what religions are all about, then or now,” I told Lucy. “Of course not! I share this not to pass judgment but to identify influences upon my early life. Indeed, these horrible acts are the very antithesis of what most religions claim to stand for. Yet these and other aberrations committed by organized religions left a deep impression on my psyche.
“There’s yet another side to organized religion that’s just as egregious but devastatingly insidious: interpretations of ancient writings. We understand that these interpretations were first crafted to help illiterate followers comprehend early writings. Sadly, they were often given malevolent spins for the sole purpose of exerting control over the very people they claimed to serve. I would in fact submit that many religions have deviated from their original purpose of exemplifying civility, and have become a means of imposing a form of bondage upon groups and often upon whole civilizations. That is the defensive behavior of people who are feeling threatened, not acts of compassion and civility. This, perhaps as much as anything else, is at the heart of my antipathy toward organized religion.”
Lucy interjected: “Do you hold all religions responsible for what you must admit are the actions of a few?”
I replied: “I have no desire to hold anyone responsible, nor would I presume any right to judge. That’s not the point. This is merely a discussion of one person’s views, how these came into being and the views that resulted.
“Let me say that I recognize and applaud the importance of like-minded people, coming together with shared values and for mutual support, and that includes religious beliefs. This instinctive social behavior, present in all beings, makes a wonderful contribution… it’s the glue that holds societies together. And that is why I have no negative feelings toward followers of religions, organized or otherwise; they’ve every right to choose what to believe. My disquiet is with religious leadership, who’ve tolerated and even committed egregious transgressions upon their followers and upon others, dating from ancient history right to the present.”
“Fair enough,” Lucy offered. “However you must agree that most religions do have a record of delivering much good around the world.”
“Absolutely!” I answered. “Religions continue to teach societies how to live exemplary lives. And of course there is the legendary Mother Theresa and tens of thousands of other people working in the name of religious organizations before and after her who are bringing enormous relief to millions around the world. They are the personification of the heart and soul of true religion.”
“I sense a ‘but’ lurking there,” she added, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.
“Yes,” I said. “There are a few more piece-parts to my unease. For example, almost all religions require followers to have blind faith in some beliefs, including a few that defy basic common sense.”
“Examples?” Lucy asked.
“Original sin,” I replied. “No one will convince me that a new-born baby has committed any wrong, but some religions demand this to be an article of faith among their followers. Requiring people to believe in certain things without question in order to join a ‘tribe’ is a repugnant element of that bondage I mentioned. Similarly, the notion of Immaculate Conception also challenges credibility. Believers call it faith. I respect their right to their faith. I don’t share it.
“Another example, and I found this one ironic, is that most religions insist that followers believe theirs to be the only true religion. But how can any one religion lay claim to fostering civility and love for fellow humans while at the same time demanding that followers embrace only it and shun, or denigrate, or even go to war against all others? Obviously, they can’t all be right and all the others wrong.
“A fourth example is the proposition that only humans are bestowed with the means to further the will of their deity, be that God, Allah, Buddha, Creator, or whoever. I endorse the indigenous belief that all living things have a purpose and a role to play in Nature’s grand design. That is to say, all living things have some form of consciousness to go along with their purpose, even if those are instincts that we humans in our arrogance too often choose to dismiss as primitive and thus inconsequential.
“So after assembling these thoughts over the years, where did it lead you?” Lucy asked.
“Curiously enough, back to my childhood learning for starters,” I replied. “I’ve come to realize that the basis for doubt had been sewn even then in an unlikely way. I spent a lot of time as a child wandering in the wilderness around our farm. There was an abundance of opportunities to observe the flow of Nature. At the time, human development had not disturbed much of our surroundings… trees, bushes and grass, or the wildlife: deer, moose, wolves, coyotes, squirrels, grouse, hawks, etc., all flourished as Nature intended.
“I was given the privilege then of sensing—although still too young to understand—that the flow of Nature, the grand design my father mentioned, carries on regardless of and indifferent to the whims of humans, at least until the recent onslaught of climate change. Nature is a magnificent teacher, for those open to learning. There is an anonymous saying that illustrates this sentiment: The Earth says much to those who listen. I’ve often wondered if religions evolved from attempts by early humans to understand the greater world around them… again, to explain and to help them understand Nature’s grand design.
“It took decades for me to become conscious that I’d been deeply influenced by my exposure to Nature. I’ve since developed a profound respect for its all-pervasive wisdom. Yes, it can seem cruel at times, when we observe predators capturing prey, but all of that and more have an integrated purpose in Nature. Similarly, Nature can be incredibly gentle, for example as we watch a doe frolic on a shoreline with her fawn, or an otter couple romping with their newborn pups. There is an inexorable flow in Nature, and only it can know the directions it must pursue.”
“Are there more pieces to this?” Lucy asked, smiling. “What you’ve been telling me is beginning to resemble a life-sized jigsaw puzzle!”
“Yes,” I replied. “I’ve had the privilege over the years of learning from a few elders in indigenous communities, and have come to admire their grasp of the world around them, that is, of the natural world. They and that university course helped me to learn a lot, although I have just begun that learning journey.”
“When did all of this begin to come together?” she asked.
“Ironically, in my sister’s kitchen. She had invited me for lunch one mid-summer day and remarked on my deep tan. I replied that years earlier I’d made a joke to my late wife about my ability to tan easily, saying in jest that it was because of my partial indigenous heritage.
“My sister began to chuckle. She’s been studying our family genealogy for thirty-plus years. ‘I’ve been doing more research on dad’s side of the family,’ she said that day. ‘It looks like our great, great grandmother was Mi’kmaq. So what you said in jest was in fact true! Part of our ancestry is indigenous!’”
“Did that news bring all those pieces together for you?” Lucy asked.
“It helped with the assembly,” I replied. “Learning of my indigenous ancestry, limited as it is, told me a bit more about the basis for my instincts and my attraction to Nature.
“It took a while to fully embrace the fact that my beliefs were formed from my exposure to Nature and to indigenous culture, and less from my unease with traditional religions. Indigenous cultures center around mutual caring for each other. Their top priority historically has been the well being of their society as a whole and of individuals as essential parts of that whole. Material things are secondary, unlike our greed-driven western culture. There are exceptions, of course.
“Can you see the irony that emerges here when we contrast the compassion of indigenous beliefs, with the transgressions made in the name of the world’s ‘great’ religions?” I asked. “Specifically, I’m reminded that a few of those venerable religions were complicit in sustained attempts to commit cultural genocide upon these trusting and deeply caring indigenous peoples. This has been happening also in other parts of the world. Governments now admit that cultural genocide was a priority of European colonialists for hundreds of years after they arrived in North America. It’s a testament to the resilience of indigenous cultures that they survived and are recovering today.”
“What about the great names from religious history?” Lucy asked. “Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius and the others. Do you have doubts about their role in their religions?”
“Not at all,” I replied. “I’m certain they all existed and that each had an profound influence for good upon their followers. However, I’m less confident about those who made records of the teachings or in the subsequent interpretations of those recordings. Most were written long ago, thousands of years ago, and in many cases hundreds of years after the events they sought to describe. Furthermore, many of those written records are parables, not journals of events, as some would have us believe.
“Over the centuries, many religious leaders interpreted those writings in ways that are subject to challenge, often mischaracterizing selective passages to serve their narrow purposes. This included relegating people, particularly women and minorities, to subordinate roles in their societies. It’s still happening in many places.”
“Another question,” Lucy said. “Many religions teach followers about a life after our bodies die. Do you believe there is life after death?”
“Almost everyone I know who’s lost a loved one has drawn comfort from that belief,” I replied. “So have I. Most people seem to agree that living things have a life force—often called spirit—that leaves the physical body after death. Where it goes and whether it lives on in another form is a question yet to be answered empirically. Indigenous peoples refer to the Spirit World. Perhaps that is an apt description. Numerous reports that document near-death experiences also support a belief in some form of existence beyond physical death. I’m drawn toward those beliefs, but I must admit the jury is still out.”
“So,” Lucy asked. “How would your describe yourself… religious, agnostic, atheist, pagan or even heathen?”
“If I choose to wear a label,” I replied. “The closest one to being accurate might be ‘spiritual’… it’s in my nature, you see.”