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Can Religion be Reasonable?

by Joe Henchy

presented 2006/06/25 at PUUF

Good Morning. It's really good to see you. I know how much competition there is out there on a beautiful Southern California morning. I hope I can stir, rub, and even excite some of your minds with my thoughts, feelings and questions about life.

"What do mean life? What happened to that reasonable religion?"

Nothing, if you look in the dictionary, it says religion is the quest for the ideal life. Some people think religion means God. Theology is the study of God. We won't ignore God. That isn't wise. As Karen Armstrong says in her book, The History of God, "God does not exist but is the most powerful reality in the world." To ignore God is to ignore a large part of the human consciousness.

But we want to start at the beginning. Back in Neanderthal days, Thor turned to his hunting buddy, Grog, and said, "What life about?" Grog looked at Thor and whacked him upside the head with his club. Certainly, that's one answer. Luckily for Thor, he met Ugh while his skull was still intact. When he asked Ugh the life question, Ugh replied "Me like to know." And the world's first religion was born. This unrecorded moment undoubtedly took place and it marked the start of human consciousness from a cognitive standpoint. We separated from the animal kingdom once and for all.

The earliest religions were primitive worships of the Earth, Sun and Moon. When people formed communities, so did their Gods and pantheism was born. The Gods weren't perfect, but they had a good time and were someone to ask for favors.

About 1200 BCE a momentous sea change started. 3200 years ago sounds like a long time. But when you compare it to 15 billion years to the big bang and 4 million since Lucy first walked upright, it's not even a blink of the evolutionary eye. I know those figures can be disputed. They should change the name of archeology to yayn yayn. No matter what you find. "This rock is 2 billion years old. A month later "yayn yayn, this rock is 3 billion years old. And they'll argue about it for a billion years.

Whatever, we stopped scraping our knuckles on the ground about four million years ago, but modern humans did not appear until 200,000 years ago (by modern, they meant their skeletal structure.). Then it took until 7500 years ago to form a village and cooperative society. Notice a trend? The major steps keep getting smaller.

The next step was the one we mentioned. About 3200 years ago Moses went up on Mt Sinai and had a chat with the big god, Yahvew. He came down, smashed the golden calf and told the people there is only one god. Monotheism was born. The only trouble was the people weren't ready for it. It took another six hundred years before the Jews abandoned their other Gods.

By now, we were in the axial age, which was 800-200 BCE, and change was endemic. In addition to Judaism in the Mideast, Confucius and Taoism in China, Buddhism and Hinduism in India and rationalism in Greece all started. Why would we have this mushroom cloud of intellectual foment stirring above the world in this short period? Each of these regions had no contact with the others and their results have nothing in common. Some elevated a God. Others diminished Gods.

They were graduation gifts for the human psyche. It now had a personal conscience. What do you mean? Having a conscience is part of being human. Hollywood would have you believe that. Fred Flintstone had a conscience, right? Wrong, Fred's whole life revolved around one thing, survival. Sunrise and sunset were triumphal milestones.

So it wasn't until about 2500 years ago that the individual became the center of human thought. The main consequence was that people wanted answers to the unknown, which was pretty big in those days. The answers were varied. I'm not going to try and explain all the great religions. That would take more years than I have. But I'm going to be skimming thru in an anthropological sense to try and get at the essence of what was happening to humankind at this point in time.

In China, Confucius and Lao Tsu laid out the way to lead a good life. One that is in sync with the course of the natural world. There were no Gods

In India, the multiple Gods were downplayed. The emphasis was on achieving a transcendental state of ecstasy. In Hinduism, it involved Brahman, the major God who was a part of all of us and a state so powerful it couldn't described, but was the ultimate goal. Siddartha Gautama, who became the Buddha, prayed for six years. One night, he meditated instead and entered a trance of nirvana. He spent 40 years, as the Buddha, spreading his word on how to achieve nirvana. As with Hinduism, Buddhism uses reincarnation for multiple chances to achieve that ultimate state.

In Greece, the philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, downplayed God and uplifted the mind. But in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE both Socrates and Plato incorporated the golden rule into their teachings. That made it unanimous. Confucius was the first to introduce it. But the rule also appears in the Tao, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity and Islam when they developed.

How could this simple little sentence be that important? Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. Remember we talked about the hallmark of the Axial age was the attainment of a personal conscience. The golden rule not only recognizes that personal conscience but empowers it make moral decisions about right and wrong. All these dissimilar people in different cultures formed religions to help guide them to the ideal life. On each of these disparate paths, the golden rule appeared as an important law. Sometimes the most important.

Humankind had come of age. The world didn't change to hearts and flowers. But Each person had a moral compass to guide them through the labyrinth of life. So, in a short period of time, the religions for 95% of the world's population came into being. What's more, they are all still going strong today. This was a major inflection point for humanity.

Were these religions reasonable? Pretty much. Their rules were built around the cultural structure of their society. They had too to attract members. Nobody was born in them. Infighting in the early churches produced schisms in Christianity and Islam creating the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church and the Shiites. Finally, the reformation produced the Protestant potpourri that put a multifaceted face on Christianity.

That's pretty much where we stand today. Are these religions still reasonable? Mostly not. Religions that rely on dogma or words from the Supreme Being are still where we left them 2000 years ago. The world is not. A point that puzzled me was why Jews couldn't eat pork. One day as I was checking some historical facts, it came to me, if you live in the desert without refrigeration, not eating pork is wise. Now it's not. I was raised a Catholic. They have a double whammy, not only is God perfect but so is the pope. But they have these guys called Jesuits who can explain anything. They can explain how Pope Innocent VIII was infallible when he signed the papal bull authorizing the inquisition. Bush could use one of them as Attorney General.

Most of us here have made the journey from one of those rigid religions. As we grew older, the smokescreens developed more holes. Eventually we found ourselves in the sea of non-believers. The reasons are varied, but for a basic cause I think most of us would agree with a favorite saying of Eddie Logan, a 96-year-old bootblack at Santa Anita racetrack, "I don't follow no empty wagons." Wisdom doesn't have a degree.

When Gerrie and I decided the kids needed religious exposure, one of the first ads we saw in the Denver Post was "Can Religion be Reasonable?" After laughing for five minutes, we decided it would be worth the entertainment value just to go. The rest, as they say, is history. We heard about a religion where the individual and her or his mind were highly valued, where truth wasn't handed down but searched for. Home, at last.

Over the years I've always considered lack of dogma and the absence of a supernatural requirement to be UU's greatest appeal to me. But as I've mellowed, these have become less and less important. We do have dogma, the seven UUA Principles. Which include our version of the golden rule, "we affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." You didn't expect something simple like "do unto others" did you? In our own multisyllabric way, we have feelings.

We also have a mission statement for this Fellowship. Between the two, they commit each of us to some lofty goals. But I would much rather be striving for something higher than be hounded by a litany of thou shalt nots. And isn't that more in keeping with the dictionary's definition of religion as a quest for the ideal life. Hey, maybe we're the ones that are mainstream.

Recently I had something of an epiphany in this area. I was writing a press release for the groundbreaking ceremony. It required some research into the early days of the Fellowship when this was a cow pasture. I read about the original groundbreaking for this building forty years ago. I looked at an old picture of Bob Kinz at the microphone leading the ceremony. Then two weeks ago, there he was at the microphone. From a little distance, it looked as though nothing had changed. Bob was still going as strong as ever. He's a remarkable man.

But in Bob's first remarks, he quoted A. Powell Davies, Minister of the all Souls Unitarian Church of Washington DC. In explaining Unitarianism, he said, "Instead of a creed. It agrees to follow the living truth and sets its people free to do so." Two words jumped from the paper at me, living truth. Why had I spent so much of my life searching for the truth when it didn't exist? When I left Catholicism it was because I felt it was wrong. But two thousand years ago it was right. Now it was a dead truth.

The concept of a living truth is probably the most valuable criterion each of us can have to evaluate the future as it rushes at us. And I say rushing advisedly. There were more changes in the twentieth century than the previous nineteen hundred years combined. And the twenty first century is going to make the 20th look like it was standing still. The rate of change has become exponential. I don't mean in technological gimmicks either. I mean in human beings.

In 2003, the human genome was sequenced. What does that mean? It means that the people who are working on people, doctors and scientists will finally have a parts list. Genes express for Proteins and enzymes, which cause every unique action our bodies take. With the map, scientists who have part of an answer can identify and test candidates. As the use of more genes is identified, like a picture puzzle, the rest become easier to find.

What changes can we expect? It might be better to say what won't change? Remember I just said the axial age was an inflection point? Well, that time has come again. We are once again in an inflection point in history. But instead of the six hundred years of the axial age, this one will probably be less than sixty years. And we are already in it. At least from the turn of the century. What is the big difference? Throughout our existence, we have reached out and changed the external world to improve our lives (pastuerization, penicillin, vaccines). Now we are going to reach in and change ourselves to improve our lives.

What changes will come first? Elimination of disease, that's where the money is. Ten years from now from now, a number of major diseases will be gone. Twenty years out, all the diseases we know now will be gone. As great as this is, most of it will be done by drug companies and we know how high their moral standards are. After the early victories, there will be tremendous pressure. People who will benefit are not going to be objective. I know if they told me they could give me back my hearing. I could do some big time rationalizing to get my mind out of this two eared prison. And there are so many people much worse off. That pressure and the big bucks could cause forged tests. Mistakes in genetic engineering can be very disasterous. Will the 40 million without health insurance share in this wonderful bounty? Will America live on while Africa continues to die young?

Genetic manipulation will eliminate aging as we know it. Any one under 50 today can expect to live to be a healthy 150. This is real, not science fiction. Before you dance in the aisle, that means the planet will fill up and young people will have to be sterilized to prevent more births. And if you work until 120, where are these young people going to find jobs. See how many conundrums that presents all along the life curve? At what point would you checkout voluntarily? It's a question you are going to have to answer.

I've just presented a couple of the basic scenarios futurists are wrestling with. Many of the others are not so black and white. Others are much more frightening. And they'll all be here in the next 10 to 40 years. In the year 2037, we will achieve Singularity. That basically means engineered intelligence will exceed biological intelligence. Does that mean the machines will be more intelligent. No, we will all have been getting neural implants. But engineered intelligence will keep expanding exponentially.

So the times they are a changing and we'd better be too. What's the answer? I don't know, but I'm glad I'm going searching with the reasonable church of the no fixed answers. And never have the words of Einstein been more appropriate, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used to create them." I can't see anything less than a global village succeeding. But I go into the future with two tools. The living truth to help me adjust my compass for change and the timeless truth, the golden rule to measure my morality. And mostly, an abiding faith in my deity, the human spirit.


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