Authors: Daniele Bolelli
Copyright © 2013 by Daniele Bolelli.
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What you are holding in your hands is not another angry, organized religion-bashing atheist book; it is not a New Age self-help book revealing the deep secret that positive thinking is better than negative thinking; and it most certainly is not an academic dissertation on the world's religious traditions.
It is true that a strange twist of fate has pushed me into an academic career teaching university courses on the history of religion as well as a few other subjects. It is also true that in these pages you will find references to individuals and practices from many religious traditions that may not exactly be common knowledge to those readers who have better things to do than pore through impossibly thick volumes on the topic. But make no mistake about it—this is not an academic work. Most scholars love spending their time devising new ways to dissect knowledge into tiny compartments and making it completely irrelevant to anyone's life—dusty creatures who forgot that real life takes place outside of the library. The game is being played in front of their eyes, but rather than joining it, they prefer to
sit on the sidelines and observe. No, this book is about real life, and as such, it dwells outside the boundaries of academic knowledge.
Since I have spent quite a few lines telling you what this book is not, now may be a good time to begin telling you what this book is. What you are holding in your hands is a call to arms. It is an open invitation to tackle the key questions at the root of all religious traditions and, for that matter, of life itself. It is an invitation to question all the values, all the beliefs, all the worldviews that humanity has so far held as sacred in order to find the answers we need to the very practical problems facing us. The goal is nothing short of reexamining what it means to be human and bringing a better way of life into existence.
If this seems like a daunting, overly ambitious goal, you are probably right. Timidity was never my strong point. This is not a task for small-minded people. We are on a quest to shake off the dust from the theoretical building blocks on which modern civilization rests. Our worldviews are in desperate need of some housecleaning. We enter the twenty-first century still carrying on our backs the prejudices and ways of thinking of countless past generations. What worked for them may or may not still be of use, so it is our job to save the tools that are still relevant and let go of the dead weight.
I am inviting you to embark on an adventure with a double purpose. The first is purely personal. On an individual level, one of the healthiest things we can do is question everything we have ever been taught. This is not motivated by disrespect or some adolescent desire to be rebellious. It is simply what becoming an adult is all about. Once we are old enough to figure things out for ourselves, we can look back at the beliefs we were taught to live by and decide what works for us and what doesn't. Any parent who is not a psychotic control freak would be proud to see his or her kids grow up
to think for themselves. Most people, however, go through existence in a state of perpetual psychological infancy. They hold on to certain beliefs because that's what they were taught. They internalize some values as kids and never stop to think about whether those values are actually healthy or not. Like trained poodles, they will simply live their lives according to the rules that were passed on to them. They never become individuals, never psychologically grow up and choose their own values—they are mere machines replicating a program that was downloaded in their brains.
What this book proposes to do is to look at many religions' answers to the key questions of human existence and, on the basis of this knowledge, come up with our own answers. In some cases, what resonates as true to you may be identical to an answer that already exists within a certain religious tradition; in other cases, it may come from mixing answers from different traditions; and in yet other cases, you may end up rejecting everything that has been proposed so far and create new answers that satisfy you better.
This book is not going to try to sell you on a particular ideology. Obviously, I will be answering these questions from my particular perspective, but the goal here is not to turn readers into Bolelliclones going around spouting my ideas. I am not inviting you to trade a prepackaged ideology for a new one. I don't want to make anyone my follower, and I certainly don't want to be anyone's follower. Life is too short to spend it living according to somebody else's dogma. This is simply a blueprint to give you ideas and stimulate you to come up with your own worldview.
Moving beyond the individual level, the second purpose of this book is much more global in scale. Humanity today finds itself at the proverbial crossroad. On one side, we have the technological skills to dramatically improve life on the planet in very meaningful
ways. Never in human history have we had so much power at our fingertips. For the first time, people across the globe can communicate with each other at astonishing speed, and many are beginning to look at life from a global perspective rather than from the narrowly provincial one that has characterized human life so far. On the other side, the beginning of the twenty-first century finds us flirting dangerously with self-destruction. Whereas some technologies can help solve our global crisis, others have the power to annihilate us. Our beliefs, values, and ideas are what determine how our increasing power will be employed. If it was perhaps excusable for human beings to hold on to crude and potentially dangerous beliefs when our capacities did not exceed those of glorified baboons, we can no longer afford plain, old-fashioned stupidity—not when we have the ability to wipe each other out and take the natural world along with us. There hasn't been a better time for a dramatic shift in human consciousness than now. Our very survival is at stake. What we need is a new way to face life that will increase our chances of tilting toward happiness and wonder rather than misery and species-suicide. As good old Albert Einstein put it, “We shall require a substantial new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.”
And this is exactly what this book is for. A better world needs to start somewhere, and there is no easier place to begin the work than in our hearts and minds.
I hold no naïve expectation that humanity is going to achieve collective enlightenment any time soon. There is a thin line between idealism and self-delusion. If our hopes rested on a global awakening, we would be in serious trouble. Betting on gloom and doom would be much more logical. However, if a strong enough minority of people changed positively in their thought and capacity for
action, and if most other people at least switched to less destructive beliefs, it would be more than enough to give cause for celebration.
So how does religion enter the picture? After all, wasn't religion supposed to become obsolete in the modern world? Scholars, journalists, and various pundits have been proclaiming for over a century that the popularity of religion would steadily decline. In an age in which science, reason, and separation of church and state are becoming the bedrocks of modernity, many expected it would just be a matter of time before religions would fade away.
If there were a prize for the least successful prophecy in recorded history, this would be a top contender. Forget fading away. Flying in the face of what the experts predicted, religion remains as important today to billions of people around the world as it ever was. The only place religion has declined in popularity is Western Europe, where mostly secular outlooks dominate, and overcrowding is never an issue in church. Put your finger anywhere else on the map and you will run into a very different story. With the end of the Cold War, more wars are waged now because of religion than for any other ideological reason. Religious doctrines affect the laws and policies of most countries on earth, including those that are theoretically based on separation of church and state. The clash between religious conservatives and those arguing for more individual freedoms that for several decades has characterized the political discourse in the United States is becoming a global phenomenon.
The reasons why all the predictions about the demise of religion have failed miserably are fairly obvious. No matter how much scientific knowledge continues to grow, as long as human beings
don't find answers to certain questions (Is there any meaning in life? Where do we come from? What happens after we die?), they will continue to turn to religion. Science is simply too dry to fill the void left by leaving those questions unanswered. For better or worse, religion is central to how most human beings perceive themselves and the world around them. Thus, it is plain stupid to assume that religion is irrelevant to finding a solution to the problems facing us: religion is both part of the problem and part of the solution.
Before leading you on too far, let's set the record straight about how I will use the word “religion” throughout this book. I don't need psychic powers to foresee that quite a few readers will have problems with it. Many will be puzzled when they find out that what I argue does not require believing in the afterlife or in the existence of God and is not in any way based on faith.
How does what you advocate fit the definition of religion? they will ask. In an effort to avoid leaving you stranded in ambiguity, let's deal with this issue right here, right now. Once, during the course of a lecture, an audience member asked renowned quantum physicist David Bohm, “Professor Bohm, this is all very interesting philosophy. But what does it have to do with physics?” Bohm replied, “I do not make that distinction.”
No clue where I am going with this? Let me try with another example. In 1492, when Christopher Columbus began shoplifting the American continent from its indigenous peoples, he wrote back home that “Indians could easily be made Christians because it seems to me that they have no religion of their own.”
Following in Columbus' footsteps, many European colonists thought that American
Indians practiced no religion because they never saw them going to church or performing actions that the colonists could identify as distinctly “religious.” In an odd way, you could say they were right. Among the hundreds of American Indian languages that existed, we would be hard-pressed to find a single word that could be translated as “religion.” If by “religion” we intend a special set of beliefs and practices that are separated from day-to-day activities, Columbus was dead on. Native peoples had no religion. But the truth was that religion pervaded every aspect of their lives. As a Dineh tribal member stated, “We don't have a religion, but we do have a ‘way.’”
The “way” referred to here is what exists before religion is formalized into a set of theological dogmas and rituals. It's what writer Peter Matthiessen calls “religion before religion.”
From this perspective, the entire spectrum of a healthy way of life is religion. The rest is a bunch of useless theology.