Saturday, August 23, 2008

Passing the Impasse: Inviting the Religious and Non-Religious to Participate Together

Note: the following is the beginning to something I want to create to help get religious and non-religious people working together, not against each other, to solve problems in the world. What I envision is a group similar to the Interfaith Youth Corps of Chicago that engages people in community service projects primarily, with an optional component that allows people to discuss their differences through civil discussion without any pressure or expectations.


Throughout my life I have been fascinated by two subjects more than any other: science and religion.

I did not grow up religious. At a very young age I learned about science and critical thinking by watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos series on television. Sagan never, to my knowledge, discounted or belittled religion. He seemed to consider himself an agnostic to the ultimate question as to whether a supernatural being exists or not. However, he never did shy away from putting claims about phenomena in the physical world to the test of reason.

Looking around our world we see several major religious traditions, and countless other smaller ones. Within each major tradition are sects with their own beliefs and practices. It seems that each of these traditions consider themselves correct and others wrong. Could it really be that there is one correct path and all the others are wrong? My own position is simple. My belief is that no one has all the right answers. That certainly includes me. But, when people practice a religion, they often form strong communities based on the ideals of love and shared values. They draw strength from the religion's rich stories, teachings, parables, and guidance for both the old and young. Yet, religions change too. In the Christian gospel accounts, Jesus continually questioned the Jewish religious leaders of the day, leading ultimately to a new religion founded upon his teachings.

Therefore, shouldn't religious people of today continue to question popular religious traditions and practices the same way Jesus did?

Now, what about science? Do the scientists have it all correct? Hardly. In fact, true science is based upon the idea that hypotheses must be tested by multiple independent people and in multiple ways before they become accepted as well established theories. Einstein's theories have been corroborated time and again by experimental evidence. Does that mean that Einstein's theories are complete? No, it does not. It means that they can predict observable behavior accurately under a given set of circumstances. But, there is more research that has to be done before his theories and quantum mechanics can be reconciled. Even then, we may never have a complete and final understanding of how nature operates.

Therefore, shouldn't scientists continually questions ideas and theories the same way Einstein did?

We all know that there are many scientists who are religious, some who even hold to fairly traditional and literal interpretations of many religious texts. Francis Collins is a prime example of someone likely to be known to many. We also all know that there have been many books published recently from prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris that aim to show that science is superior to religion. So, who is correct?

Once again, neither "camp" is correct about everything. There are some things religious people are correct about, and some things that non-religious people are correct about. Life is almost always like this. One side is very seldom entirely correct and just as seldom entirely incorrect.

Personally, I am an agnostic atheist in the following sense: I do not believe that any human being has ever, or could ever, claim to know the absolute truth about the ultimate nature of reality. In this sense, I reject all claims that any particular religion is "correct" about God and therefore I reject all human conceptualizations of God. Mystics of all faiths have come to much the same conclusion. I am not just making this up. To speak about it without jargon, they essentially state that any idea or conceptualization we could hold in our finite, human brain, by definition, cannot be God. A thought is a thing. Mystics say God is not a thing.

However, I am agnostic to the proposition as to whether there is an existence higher than what we experience. I am not calling such an existence "supernatural" as is popularly portrayed. Instead, I offer a simple analogy to illustrate my point. Imagine you are a character in a 3D video game. You've been programmed with such sophistication that you can make decisions within the context of your own environment. The environment is governed by rules and laws. We might call them "game physics". How would you, as a game character, ever come to comprehend the fact that you were actually constructed by human beings in a totally different plane of existence?

Therefore, who is to say that our universe is not a construction of a force that we simply cannot, by definition, ever comprehend?

Likewise, who is to say that it is? I am not postulating our own universe is like that. There are theologians, philosophers, and scientists who have argued both sides of that question with far greater sophistication and erudition than I have to offer. However, what I am saying is that I think religious people and non-religious both need to take a second look at what they believe before they step all over each other. Each side can learn from the other through civil discussion and participation.

The goal of this site is two-fold:

1. Allow religious people and non-religious people for form community groups aimed at helping people in their community, regardless of any creed, belief, or lack there-of.
2. Allow religious people and non-religious people to engage in civil discussion about ideas.

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