Jun 20 2016

Re-Religionization: Secularization Can’t Stop Human Nature

Category: books,cosmology,Evolution,parenting,religion,scienceJames @ 2:35 pm

Summary: Religiosity is an inescapable part of human nature. Secularization won’t—can’t—overcome it. Instead, the growing trend of secularization has just led those professing no religion to express their innate religious natures in sub-optimal, ill-thought-out, ad hoc ways. My book, The Triple Path, offers a better alternative that integrates our modern scientific understanding of the world with the wisdom of the world’s great religions.

I just finished reading Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions by Catherine Bell. It is an academic work surveying the field of ritual studies, describing the role rituals play in human existence, and discussing the various types of rituals. I found particularly interesting this passage analyzing the causes and consequences of secularization in society:


“A more moderate position suggests that secularization is neither a linear developmental process that spells the demise of religion nor a mere interpretive bias on the part of Western scholars. Rather, it can be seen as a type of self-limiting process at work in all ongoing religious systems both ancient and modern. It is self-limiting because it can stimulate religious revival and innovation. As such, secularism may result from some critical degree of contact with different cultures—afforded by travel, conquest, immigration, or competition with neighbors for access to limited resources. If the exposure to plurality—that is, to other value systems and alternative forms of social organization—is intense and sustained or occurs at times of internal social chaos, it can begin to undermine the coherent sense of a unifying order that underlies a traditional society. Some people opt for new and foreign ways of doing things, especially if they are not the ones benefiting from the old ways. People have choices they never had before, whether they want them or not. The mere existence of choices among ways of thinking and acting relativizes what was once deemed absolute, raises questions, necessitates decisions, and promotes experimentation. In this context, some groups become more defensive of tradition, attempting to shun all new options while preserving the old without any change whatsoever. They may even attempt to ignore or retreat from the world around them. Yet older customs strictly maintained in the face of change do not function the way they used to, when they never needed to be asserted and defended. As a society tries to hold together increasingly diverse points of view, one effect is the institutional differentiation that comes with secularism. For example, as Catholics and Jews moved into small, traditionally Protestant New England towns and claimed their rights as full citizens, the explicit and implicit role of Protestantism in the fabric of the town’s social and economic activities was forced to retreat. What was a loss for some was a gain for others. As a result there is a shift of religion from the public and communal sphere to the private and personal, leaving some institutions shorn of all involvement in religion, while others become more explicitly the bastion of religious practice, values, and even public outreach and political lobbying….[A] view of secularism as a theory of institutional differentiation precipitated by the force of pluralism has come to dominate, in part because it recognizes that religion does not die out in secular cultures. On the contrary, in the form of autonomous institutions, religion may have a much sharper profile, it may demand more personal commitment, and it may even exercise more single-minded influence on other institutions.”

Secularization doesn’t mean the end of religion, as some fear. But it does create winners and losers and changes the nature of religion and its role in society.


The key phrase in the passage is that secularization “is self-limiting because it can stimulate religious revival and innovation.” The Second Great Awakening is a great example of this—America’s Founding Fathers were mostly Deists who disbelieved in many parts of Christianity and weren’t big on organized religion. But the next generation after them brought the Second Great Awakening, a period of great religious fervor and religious innovation. Something similar will happen in response to the current trend of secularization.

Some anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists point to cultural universals that are found in every human culture, and which appear to be an innate part of human nature (and thus a part of nature rather than nurture). For example, in every culture on Earth, humans speak languages to communicate and use personal names to identify themselves. Religion is another one of those cultural universals. It is found in every human society on earth.

The current trend of secularization won’t change human nature and eliminate religion, just like if a group decided to give up using language it wouldn’t eliminate language in future generations. If a group did that, refusing to teach language to their children, the kids would end up inventing their own language. In fact, this has happened among deaf children growing up in countries where a sign language wasn’t taught—when deaf children were brought together in an institution for the deaf, even though no one taught any language to them, they naturally and spontaneously invented their own sign language to be able to communicate with each other. Similar things happen when kids who speak different languages are all brought together (say, because their parents are migrant workers)—they invent a new creole language to communicate.

Something similar is inevitable with religion. Even with the growing trend of secularization, even if parents refuse to teach any religion to their kids, religiosity and religion will still continue in some form. It may be transformed (either in content or in its role in society), but you can’t change human nature.

It hasn’t even taken one generation for this process of re-religionization of secular people to already start happening. Among the “nones” who claim no religious affiliation, you can see a lot of quasi-religious behaviors about taboos and orthodoxies and sacralization of values. This haphazard, unconscious re-religionization of their lives often leads to suboptimal results. More often than not, they invent bizarre values to make sacred and barren orthodoxies devoid of much content and that fail to provide any deep, long-lasting meaning to their lives.

On the other hand, my book—The Triple Path—methodically and consciously sifts out the best parts of the world’s religions and puts them together into something new that provides a coherent, credible response to the secularizing pressures of our modern age, something that can allow religion to thrive again in our modern era. It’s a free download. Go read it.Front cover_smallest-EBOOK

Feb 18 2016

The Empty Crypt

A long time ago, a young man who had heard legends of a magic crypt that contained the secret of immortality decided to search for it. After searching for many years, he found it. It was in the Holy Land, hidden underground among some old Roman ruins. He entered the crypt, but it was empty. He saw no secrets written inside about immortality, and no magic elixir or fountain of youth. There was not even a coffin or a sarcophagus. The underground crypt just had an empty recessed area cut into the stone wall where a corpse or a coffin would have been placed. He lay down in the bare alcove, confused.

Suddenly, he felt like he was outside of himself, looking at where he sat. Time seemed to pass swiftly. Watching helplessly, he saw himself quickly age and die. He witnessed his corpse and clothes rot away until there was nothing left. The crypt was empty again.

Time continued to race by for him—years seemed to pass in minutes. Eventually, he saw a husband and wife approach the crypt. They build an enclosure over the crypt’s entrance, then entered and carved on the wall their names and a short account of their discovery of the crypt. They lay down in the same alcove. In nearly an instant their bodies aged and rotted away, just as his had. After a few years, their children came to the crypt looking for their parents. They found the enclosure built by their parents and their writings carved on the wall. Every few years, the children returned to visit the crypt. Their numbers grew over time as they brought their spouses and children, then grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Each time they came, they would build onto the protective enclosure at the crypt’s entrance, gradually turning it into a grand building. They would also add to their ancestors’ writings on the stone wall, turning them into a grand epic.

The man awoke from his vision, young again, lying on the bare alcove of the crypt. He urgently made the long journey back home. He married; had children; lived well; built; and wrote. For, in the crypt that day, he learned the secret of immortality.

Aug 02 2015

The Community of the Sighted

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Ethics,Evil,goodness,Morals,religionJames @ 7:57 pm

(A continuation of The Teacher to the Blind and The Healer of the Half Blind)

One of the disciples of the healer of the half blind grew dissatisfied with the secret teachings of the healer. The disciple recognized that he could see many things he couldn’t see before. He was grateful for the half-sight he had received, but it felt like there was also much that was missing from the healer’s cure and from his teachings. The disciple started noticing how much he still couldn’t see. Objects were blurry. He couldn’t see detail. He couldn’t tell the difference between similar shades He couldn’t see far away. And he couldn’t see well in the dark. He also began to suspect that there were other things to see that he wasn’t even aware of. He resolved to journey to the healer’s original community and see if he could discover more about the cure that had been preached by its original teacher.

After a long and difficult journey, he found his way back to the original community of the blind. They were still blind, and they were still divided into groups that clung to different beliefs about the teacher. He studied the teachings of the different groups of followers of the teacher. He noticed some things in common between almost all of the different groups, some of which were absent from the healer’s cure. He tried those things, and noticed that his eyesight got better. Next, he tried the unique teachings and practices of each group. (Some of them came from the teacher, and some were new. The new ones had mostly developed slowly over time as the groups diverged from each other and came up with new practices and teachings not from the original teacher.) Most of these unique teachings and practices had little value and had no effect on his eyesight. But occasionally some of them would make his eyesight even better. He paid careful attention to what was successful and compiled a list of what worked and what didn’t. Combined together, the things that worked had great positive effect. Eventually, he re-discovered a complete cure to his blindness. With the new additions, the cure was even better than the teacher’s original cure.

He wanted to share this cure with everyone. But he know that the members of the community had rejected such cures in the past. He thus avoided forcefully promoting his cure. Instead, he sought out those who felt their blindness, even though they didn’t know what it was like to see—those who yearned for a real cure, as he had. He taught first in the community of the blind, then he returned to his home in the community of the half-blind. Finally, he started traveling and teaching throughout the country. He discovered that everyone in the country was blind and needed to be cured. The followers of the teacher and the healer had also started teaching throughout the country, though, and there were many who chose to follow their useless or only partially successful cures.

Those who applied the real cure to heal themselves began to form a group focused on the cure, not on the healer or the teacher of the cure. And they tried out new approaches to improve the cure; some worked, some didn’t. They kept the ones that worked and discarded the ones that didn’t. The cure got better and better as more people tried it out and worked on improving it. They did not try to be secret or covert about what they were doing, but they were discreet. They knew that many weren’t emotionally prepared to accept this new approach or for the sensory overload of complete sight. Their group of cure-followers grew. It was not as large as the others, but it attracted wise and practical people who could tell the difference between falsehood and truth, between that which is relevant and irrelevant. They became leaders in their communities, helping the rest to see the way. Eventually, many were healed of their blindness.

Jul 26 2015

The Healer of the Half Blind

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Ethics,Evil,goodness,Morals,religionJames @ 7:21 pm

(A continuation from The Teacher to the Blind)

Long after the teacher left, one of the blind who had heard the teacher’s original instructions finally heeded them and cured himself of his blindness. He declared himself a follower of the teacher and a healer of the blind. He tried to spread the teacher’s original message. The members of the community had known the follower since he was a boy. They knew all of his weaknesses and imperfections. Among all the conflict about different beliefs in the teacher, they refused to believe that the follower’s simple message had any relevance. They mocked him and refused to listen to him. They cast him out.

The follower spent time in contemplation and meditation alone in the wilderness. He finally realized that the cure he was preaching was so easy and simple that no one believed it would work. After wandering alone in the wilderness, he found his way to another community of the blind. He preached to the community members, saying that he had a great hidden secret to cure their blindness. He refused to reveal it to them at first. He said the cure was a grand and sacred secret, and that he would only reveal it to those who had been initiated in its mysteries. When he did reveal the cure to new initiates, he added many unnecessary steps and false explanations about how the cure worked, making the cure a much longer and more onerous process. Worse still, he had forgotten several necessary, easy steps and failed to teach them to his followers.

His followers were only partially cured of their blindness, but even this partial cure appeared miraculous to them. The follower was hailed as a visionary, and acclaimed as a great healer. He drew many disciples to himself. They were never fully cured of their blindness, though, and the cure they did receive came after much unnecessary pain and effort.

Jul 19 2015

The Teacher to the Blind

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Ethics,Evil,goodness,Morals,religionJames @ 7:21 pm

A wise teacher came among a community of the blind. He taught the people what they needed to do to cure their own blindness. The people whom he taught were so in awe of his wisdom and compassion that they wanted to know more about who he was. Being blind, they used their hands to feel him to understand his features. Each person touched a differ­ent part of him. Only being able to become acquainted with a small part of the teacher, they each concluded different things about his nature and traits. Each person was so self-assured about his or her limited perception of the teacher, though, that each presum­ed to understand the full truth about him.

The teacher was only with the people a short time. Almost as soon as he left, the people began ar­guing about who and what he was. News of his vi­sit, as well as news of the disagreements about his nature, passed quickly through the community. Each person who had encountered him in person told a di­f­ferent story about his visit and gave a different interpretation of his nature. As the stories spread, the details were slightly changed with each re­tell­ing, and each person formed an opinion about the teacher based on which story they had first heard or based on which story made them feel best. None of them acknowledged the teacher’s imperfections—they could not idolize an im­perfect being.

The people began to divide into groups based on which opinions about the teacher they believed. There was great disagreement between the different groups, and the people spent much time debating the mi­nute details of all aspects of the teacher’s superficial na­ture. Almost all of their opinions were either wrong or misleading because they were taken out of context. The people were so obsessed with validating their faulty perceptions and opinions about the teacher that they ended up ignoring most of his teachings about how to heal their blindness. Each group remem­bered only small remnants of the teacher’s original cure, remnants that were usually ineffectual on their own or which gave only the barest inklings of sight. Some people realized that the cures promised by the different groups didn’t work. They became disillusioned, and spent their time attacking the groups and the teacher, rather than seeking out a real cure. They relished every opportunity to point out the mistakes and foibles of the teacher and the leaders of the groups. The members of the community of the blind lived out their lives in un­necessary darkness, clinging to false, misleading, tri­vial, and petty beliefs about the teacher, rather than searching for a cure to heal themselves.

Jan 15 2015

Screencast: What is the spirit?

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,goodness,religionJames @ 9:52 am

This is a screencast called “What is the spirit?” It is based on a talk that I gave at the Phoenix Mormon Stories Conference in February 2012. It discusses the Mormon practice of trying to discover truth by relying on feeling the spirit, and how Mormons’ experience with feeling the spirit compares with the experiences of those in other religions.

I have written more on this subject (but with a more general, less Mormon-centric approach) in my book, The Triple Path. See Chapter Five of the book and more specifically, pages 223 through 244. You can download the book for free here (PDF). You can also download the book in EPUB or Amazon Kindle formats here.

Dec 11 2014

The Travelers and the Dry Well

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Ethics,Evil,goodness,Morals,religionJames @ 9:36 am

Long ago, two men in a far-off desert land were traveling on foot down an empty road through desolate country. They had drunk the last of their water. Feeling thirsty and nearing one of the infrequent wells along the route, they stopped to refill their waterskins and to refresh themselves. When they dipped the bucket into the well, though, it came up dry. They tried again, and again it came up dry.

The first traveler, a wise, practical man, decid­ed to set off again on his journey to search for a well further along the road with water in it. The second traveler, a fool, disagreed. He said to the wise traveler, “you fool—you do not know how long it will be until you reach the next well. You do not know if that well will be dry too. I will stay here instead and keep trying to draw water from this well.”

The wise traveler replied, “you are right, I do not know how far it is to the next well, and I do not know whether it will have water. But I do know that this well is empty, and it would be foolish to continue seeking water from a dry well. If I wish to complete my journey, I must seek water where it can be found, not where it is convenient for me to look for it.” Moved with compassion for his foolish friend, though, he add­ed, “If I do find water, I will try to bring some to back to you.” And with that, he got up and left.

The foolish traveler remained, dipping the bucket again and again into the dry well. It always came up empty. By the time the wise traveler returned with water, it was too late. The foolish traveler had already died, weak and thirsty, full of regret for his foolish choice.

**Inspired by Gospel of Thomas 74.

Dec 04 2014

The Pelican and the Fisherman

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Ethics,Evil,goodness,Morals,religionJames @ 9:35 am

A poor fisherman would go out to sea each day to catch what he could to support his family. A lazy pelican that lived nearby hated the effort of flying over the water, searching for fish, and diving to catch them. One day, it was flying over the poor fisherman’s boat, and saw his catch of fish for the day—a small pile—stacked up in his boat. Sensing an opportunity for an easy meal, the pelican dived down and stole a fish out of the pile. The fisherman shooed the pelican away. The pelican flew up into the air, waited until the fish­erman was not looking, and then dived down again to steal another fish. Over and over again, the pelican stole more and more of the fish. The fisherman’s catch had been meager to begin with, and the pelican’s thefts depleted so much of it that the fisherman did not have enough to both feed his family and sell fish at the market for money to buy other necessities.

The fisherman kept a lifelike wood carving of a fish in his boat as a sort of good luck charm. He knew that the wooden fish did not really bring luck—that his success really depended mostly on his own hard work—but his father and grandfather had carried the wooden fish with them every day when out to sea, and so he brought it with him to continue the tradition (especially because his aged father lived at the fisherman’s house with his family, and seeing his son carry on the tradition brought him comfort). Seeking solace, the fisherman picked up his wooden fish and despaired the meager remnants of his catch following the pelican’s thefts. The fisherman then set down the wooden fish and started to row to shore.

The pelican, still circling overhead, saw the wooden fish. The fish looked real to the pelican and it was larger than the rest. Greedily, he swoop­ed down, plucked it up, and swallowed it. As he tried to fly back up into the air, the fish caught in his throat, and the pelican fell back down to the water’s surface, struggling to get the fish out. He expended much effort try­ing—far more than he would have spent just working to find and catch his own fish. He had swallowed the wooden fish so enthusiastically, though, that it was firmly lodged in his throat. No matter what he did, he could not get it out. The pelican flailed around on the surface of the ocean, and soon choked to death. The fisherman used his net to catch the pelican, and rowed in to shore—with his wooden fish (retrieved from the pelican’s throat), a small pile of fish to sell, and a pelican for his family to eat for dinner.

When he entered his home with the dead pelican, the man’s father smiled knowingly and asked one question, “the wooden fish?” The fisherman nodded.

The pelican died because it failed to learn the simple lesson that each must work for his own sustenance, rather than living off the labors of others. The fisherman and his family did not go hungry that night because the fisherman had learned to value tra­dition, even though he could not initially recognize its purpose.

Nov 27 2014

The Prayer Dog and the Eastern Wall

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Ethics,Evil,goodness,Morals,religionJames @ 9:33 am

A spiritual teacher would meet with others for prayers at his home once a week. His dog, though, would always cause a commotion and distract them from their prayers. The teacher thus began tying up his dog outside each week at the start of their meet­ing, and would then release the dog after they had finished their prayers. The teacher eventually died, but a spiritual community had grown around his teach­ings, and they continued to meet and pray together weekly at his house. Every week, they would tie up the dog before prayers and then release him afterward. Eventually the dog also died. As a way of remembering the quirks of their beloved teacher, the community adopted a new dog to tie up before their prayers and release at their completion. After many years had passed, the original reason for this practice—to remove distractions from their prayers—was eventually forgotten, and also it was forgotten that the second dog had been adopted in remembrance of their teacher. The practice became a tradition, though, and continued through the years as a part of the community’s weekly prayer ritual.

Many decades later, after all who had known the teacher had died, some members of the community began to question the need for tying up the dog, and whether it served any real purpose. The commun­ity’s leaders were horrified to hear such talk, and considered this questioning to be blasphemy. The learned members of the community took for grant­ed the necessity of their ritual of tying up the dog. In response to the questioning, they offered long discourses and wrote complicated treatises, justifying the importance of their dog-tying ritual and its spir­itual symbolism.

The questioners eventually left the community and started a new one with no dogs. They would meet in a building with a noisy street to the east. Eventually, they filled in the windows and doors on the east of their building to block out the sound and create greater peace and serenity during their meetings. When that building grew too old and fell into disrepair, they tore it down and built a new one with no windows or doors on the east. Many decades later, they moved to a new location surrounded by quiet peaceful streets. So much time had passed that the original members of the communiy had died. The re­maining members did not know the purpose of having no windows and doors on the east. It felt improp­er and irreverent to most of them, though, to construct a new building that was not faithful to their previous one, so they built it with no windows and doors to the east.

Some members of the community began to ques­tion this decision. The leaders saw this questioning as blasphemy, and their learned members offered long discourses and wrote complicated treatises explaining the spiritual symbolism of this practice. . . .

**Inspired by an old Buddhist story, source unknown.

Nov 20 2014

The Banquet and the Spider

One day a hardened and greedy man was walking through the forest when a poisonous spider bit him. He fell to the ground, unconscious and dreaming. He felt as if transported to hell. He saw a banquet room, with an endlessly long table piled high with delicious foods. The people sitting at the table, however, groaned in misery. Their arms were tied with splints so that they could not bend their elbows, and they thus could not lift food to their mouths. Worse still, they were tied to their chairs and the food was piled in the middle of the table, so they could not bend forward to eat with their mouths. They would try over and over to feed themselves by picking up food, throwing it into the air, and catching whatever they could in their mouths. Without being able to bend their arms, though, their throws were clumsy, and most of the food landed elsewhere. The banquet hall was a chaotic mess, with food flying in the air and food spilled and rotting all over the ground and the diners. The hall was filled with the diners’ moans of hunger and angry shouts at one another.

The man was suddenly carried away into heav­en. He was puzzled, though, for heaven was set up identically to hell. Once again, there was an endless­ly long banquet table, with guests tied to their chairs, their arms tied to splints. But here, the banquet room was clean. The only sounds were the sounds of happy conversation between the guests. One thing caused this marked difference: in heaven, since it was not pos­sible to feed oneself, each person would pick up food and feed it to that person’s neighbors. Invariably, the person receiving food would thank the one feeding, and then offer food back to that person in return.

The man found himself again back in hell. Puzz­led that those in hell had not figured out how to feed each other, the man approached the nearest suffering diner, leaned down and whispered, “You fool! There is no need for you to go hungry. Feed one of your neighbors, and certainly he will return your kindness and feed you.

“You expect me to feed him?” the diner said, looking with disapproval at his neighbor. “I’d rather starve than give him the satisfaction of eating!”

The man returned to himself, laying on the ground in the forest, but he soon everything faded again and he found himself in a hell nearly identical to that of his first dream, except that now there was no ceiling to the room. Far off in the distance, he could see heaven up above him. He now believed he was truly dead, in hell. Somehow a thread from a spider web hung down from heaven, extending all the way to him in hell. He figured that the thread must be compensation to him for his untimely death from the spider’s bite.

The man had not yet been strapped to a chair. Not wanting to spend eternity in hunger with such selfish companions, he began climbing the thread, eager to reach the banquets of heaven.

The climb out of hell is a long one, and the man eventually grew tired. He stopped halfway up the thread to rest. He saw how far he had come, and laughed lightheartedly as he realized that he might escape. To his dismay, however, he saw others climbing up after him. They were also new arrivals to hell who had not yet been tied down and had seen him escaping. They had begun climbing to escape as well. Fearing that the thread may break from the weight of so many other climbers, he shouted down to the others, demanding that they get off the thread, that it was his and his alone. At that moment, the thread broke. The man fell down into hell, and was strapped into a chair for all eternity. His table companions were those who had also been climbing the thread. He was so angry with them for breaking the thread that he refused to feed them.

With regret he called out to heaven, “please warn those who are still living—I did not learn, but if I had seen what I see now, I would have learned.”

A voice replied, “you did see when you were still living, unconscious on the forest floor, and many times before that, yet you never learned. Even now, you still refuse to learn. The living have teachers enough. Those with ears to hear and hearts that feel have what they need to learn and do to become worthy of heaven. Those without ears to hear and hearts that feel will never learn, no matter how many times they are taught, unless they choose to open their ears and hearts.” With that, the man’s dream ended and he died from the effects of the spider bite.

Now, to you reading this story, this man like­ly seems foolish and selfish. But, it is easy to see the fool­ishness and selfishness of others, to correct them and offer advice. It is much harder to see your own foolish­ness and selfishness. Focus on shedding your own fool­ishness and selfishness, and you will build heaven a­round you.

**Inspired by an old story, known as “The Allegory of the Long Spoons,” “The Par­able of the Long Chopsticks,” or “The Parable of the Banquet,” attributed as an old Buddhist, Chinese, Chri­stian, Hindu, or Jewish parable, also attributed to Rab­bi Haim of Romshishok; Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “The Spider’s Thread,” 1918; Luke 16:19-31.

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