Tag Archives: Church

The religious pulse of the planet

I’ve just finished watching an excellent documentary series on TV called Around the World in 80 Faiths. Anglican minister Peter Owen Jones took a year off from his parish to travel around the world and to, as he puts is, “Take the religious pulse of the planet.”

If I were still a Christian, I would have been shocked by his willingness to participate in some of the rituals. He did everything from drinking ayahuasca in a Brazilian rainforest to joining in naked at an urban witchcraft ceremony. As an ex-Christian, I have no judgement whatsoever to make on the man. In fact, his willingness to participate made it all the more fascinating.

The documentary looked at the major religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, various branches of these, cults, and other little known faiths.

I came away from the series with the realisation that you could end up as anything, depending on nothing more than where you were lucky or unlucky enough to be born. I finally started to appreciate what people mean when they dismiss Christianity with words like “Everybody has their own beliefs.” When you have an appreciation of the sheer diversity of religions on Earth, and the sheer commitment that all these people have to their own way being the true way, you start to see how incredibly tiny your own religious experience is in comparison to the experiences of others.

I feel a sense of sadness that the world is in this state of diversity, because if the idea of objective truth has any validity, then something somewhere is true. Of course, as soon as I say that, all of those religions are raising their hands claiming, “It’s us!”

Sadly, religions seem happy to survive and advance by presenting only a single version of reality to the young (indoctrination) and encouraging the herd mentality in all (social conditioning). Some also back that up with terror tactics – viewing life in an alternative way results in immediate damnation. Rarely does the subject of evidence come up.

If I’ve learned one thing from the mammoth task of finding the real truth in the haystack of religion, it’s the sheer improbability of finding it. And that, for me, means that I simply cannot take religion seriously.

You pick your religion (although usually it’s picked for you) and you bet your life on it. You hope that your way is the true way, and that your faith will see you safely through the mystery of death into the arms of God (or to your next life, or whatever).

I refuse to be indoctrinated and conditioned. I refuse to assume that the religion of my birthplace is the one true way. I cannot take seriously any threats of judgement without some serious weight of evidence to back it up.

The cure for religious indoctrination and conditioning is to reclaim your right to think your own thoughts – to always ask the question “Why?” when you don’t understand or don’t agree, and to never let yourself be guided by so-called “truths” dictated by nothing more than strength of numbers. Only then will your thoughts and decisions be your own, and only then will you have a hope in hell of discovering any genuine truth.

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Overcoming the fear of hell

I still feel disturbed by that meeting I had two days ago [see previous post]. It’s like a dark cloud hanging over me. I’m trying to get a handle on why, so that I can move past it.

The man I was talking with is actually the previous pastor of my church, under whose ministry I sat for years upon years of my life. And I wasn’t just a church-goer. I was in this guy’s life as a close friend and confidante for a long time. He was also like a mentor to me. We did grow apart to some extent at one point, because I stopped seeing life in quite the same way as him, even as a Christian. Although he stayed a part of my life even then, because I was friends with his son.

It was a hard experience having him speak angrily to me and condemn me. Hard because there’s still that suspicion in the back of my mind that he’s much older and wiser than me. Those memories are powerful. And combined with his reaction to me, the effect is a sort of irrational dread that tries to creep over me.

The easy thing to do would be to give in to it. To say, “I don’t want to go to hell! I believe! I believe!” I have to remind myself that all I’ve done for the past few months is I’ve followed what I believed to be true. The thing that some Christians can’t seem to understand is that sometimes people learn things that change them. This is true when you become a Christian in the first place, when you make the transition to turn from your sins and believe the Bible. For most people, this change is once only, and forever. I expected it to be that way with me, too, in the beginning. But it has been a rocky road, primarily because I have always been a thinker.

For instance, it doesn’t sit easy with me that the Old Testament God commanded his people at one time, “Thou shalt not kill,” then at another time, “Make sure you kill every, man, woman, child and infant of the Amalekites” (paraphrased from 1 Samuel 15). I use this example a lot when talking to Christians because it is the strongest example I know of the way they refuse to ackowledge serious problems in the Bible. The first hoop they usually jump through is to say, “God has the right to do whatever he wants.” That was never in question. I’m concerned that he appears to contradict his own law, on the most disturbing level. I mean, if I had to spend an afternoon putting a sword through little babies, just because God told me to, I imagine I would probably want to kill myself. Another hoop is to point out, “The Amalekites were an evil people, and God was using his people to judge them.” Those babies were thoroughly evil, huh? People are not evil because of the race into which they are born. All people are born the same. It’s our experience that determines what we become. Still another hoop is, “You’re judging the ancient world, which was a very different culture, by modern standards.” That might explain why the people dutifully accepted commiting this atrocity, but what we’re dealing with here is the law of God, and God is absolutely righteous and unchanging; culture doesn’t come into it. Finally, the Christian may concede and say, “We just don’t understand these things.” But I decided to say, “Hold on a minute. It just isn’t right to keep ignoring what this is actually saying forever.” And can you really condemn me for that?

We’ve got the more heartwarming story of Abraham and his son Isaac, where God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to him on an altar. At the last minute, while Abraham is literally holding the knife over his son, God intervenes and tells him to stop. Abraham’s obedience is tested to the ultimate standard, and the readers think, “We knew you weren’t really going to do it, Lord. We know you’re a loving God.” But we’re all too quick to put out of mind the harrowing story of 1 Samuel 15.

Am I against God? No, no, no! My point is, this isn’t the true God; it’s an illusion. The ancient world is filled with stories of cultures sacrificing animals (or people) to so-called gods. I don’t think the God of the Old Testament is any different. I mean, when you read the early books of the Bible, you learn that this religion demands the constant flow of animal blood. What on earth does the infinite, eternal, all-knowing, transcendent God need with the endless slaughter of animals, day in and day out, all year round? “A pleasing aroma to the Lord,” the Bible says. I’ve heard the usual Christian defence of this, of course, that it was a prophetic picture of the death of Christ, sacrificing his life for the sins of man. But that just doesn’t make sense. Millions upon millions of animals had to die over thousands of years for a mere metaphor?

I refuse to ignore these things any more. It’s like I said before. When you dare to deconstruct your belief system and re-examine it without any emotional attachment to it, it all starts to look very different. I can choose to bravely face the implications of this new awareness, or I can cower away because I’m afraid of what people will think of me if I step away from the herd. Likewise, I can be afraid of some eternal punishment on the shaky grounds thats it might be true. It’s one thing to warn someone of an actual, real threat, but another to manufacture the reality of a threat by using a warning.

The pressure to conform never hit me so strongly as it did two days ago, when I was confronted by the pastor and his wife. But I see it for what it is: manipulation through fear. We’re not allowed to make our own minds up. In essence, it’s like a voice in my head saying, “Forget what you’ve learned, Darryl. Forget all your objections and be afraid. Believe what they tell you, because you might be wrong. And if you’re wrong, you’ll end up in hell. Believe in Christianity, Darryl. It doesn’t matter about all that horrific stuff that doesn’t make sense. Don’t think. Just be safe and snug. Take the easy way out and believe.”

I have no doubt that the pastor and his wife would be delighted if I did exactly that. How many Christians actually care why a person believes, just as long as he believes? And they say Christianity isn’t mind-control. Am I going too far? Well, let’s look at how Christianity advances. We have a society today that, in general, doesn’t believe in Christianity, and hasn’t got much of a clue about the Bible. So we assert that the Bible is the word of God, and we present its message, which is essentially, “You didn’t realise this, but God actually holds all your ‘sins’ against you. You are condemned to go to hell when you die. But there is a way out. Turn from your sinful ways and believe that Jesus sacrificed his life to pay the penalty for your sins.” We tell this to our children from a young age, rarely encouraging them to question its validity. This is how Christian families are perpetuated from one generation to the next. “The Bible is the word of God” – that’s the great assumption of our lives, and the starting point we want our children to cling to. Let’s face it, few of us are scholars. I once read a portion of a book on the reliability of these 2,000-year-old manuscripts that we call the New Testament, and the whole topic got so complex that I didn’t know what to think. You’ve either got to assume you’re dealing with the word of God, or not. But if it’s all based on an assumption, how can you condemn someone for choosing a different assumption? Or how do you spread the Christian message to the world when people in general no longer assume the Bible is the word of God? Answer: you use fear. You tell them that the consequences of not believing you are so dire that they must believe. Forget the question of whether it’s true or not – just believe. I ask you, does that sound reasonable?

I hear this all the time from Christians: “I believe the Bible is the word of God.” Well, why do you believe the Bible is the word of God? I don’t believe the Bible is the word of God. And I’ve got reasons for not believing, some of which I mentioned earlier. I actually don’t have a problem with anyone who wants to believe in the Bible. They’re free to believe anything they want to believe. You won’t hear me shouting threats at people, or hanging them out to dry, because they want to believe something different from me. Unfortunately, Christians not only say, “I believe the Bible is the word of God.” They add, “And you too must believe.” In my experience, some Christians will respect a person enough to try and find out where he’s coming from, and to coach him with reasonable arguments towards what they believe. Others don’t care what you believe and just want to metaphorically slap you across the face with “Turn or burn!” My stance is, if all you’ve got behind this is an assumption, you can’t expect the rest of the world to fall into line and see reality as you do. And yet some of my Christian friends will insist on condemning me and holding our friendship to ransom on the condition that I see life in the same way.

This matter of “assumptions” is equally true of me with my belief that we are all one consiousness. I can’t prove it to anyone. And I only “feel” it to be true intuitively. I talk about it because it’s a way of looking at life that helped me be more compassionate to others. And I’m hoping this may be interesting to others who are open to the idea of intuitive knowledge – knowledge that comes from within, from a higher aspect of our consiousness, rather than from our observations on the world around us.

The experience two days ago was actually slightly scary to behold. I realised that the minds of these people had been utterly absorbed by a complex and rigid belief system that was in total control of their actions. And their belief system is just one of countless factions of Christianity – which is why I’m experiencing more tolerant reactions from other Christians. The experience scared me, because I realised I was looking at something that wasn’t so different, in principle, from the religious extremism of the Middle East. I saw that these people would do whatever the word of God (or their interpretation of the word of God) told them to do, no matter what the consequences to those around them. In this instance, the consequence was their denial of me as a friend. I can’t help but wonder what would happen if their own son ever decided to change his worldview. Would they break their own hearts and insist that he move out of the house on principle? I had the scary realisation, “I really don’t know what these people are capable of.” And I’ll never forget that.

As for me, I intend to continue being the open-minded, caring, spiritual person that I am, open to new information, wary of manipulation, always searching for the truth about life. All I can say to the Christians who now find me unacceptable is, “I’m doing what I believe to be right. This is me. Take it or leave it.”

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Salvation, damnation, and alternative information – the rewrite

The pen is mightier than the sword, they say. Words certainly do have power. And that power has to be wielded carefully. I discovered that when my original version of this post (and to some extent the whole direction of my blog over the past few months) cost me the friendship of someone I’ve been close to for about fifteen years. With that in mind, let me attempt a more personal and respectful rewrite of some of what I was trying to convey …

When you’re in a situation like I’ve been in for the past few months, where you sense your Christian faith changing into something else, there’s a certain degree of nervousness about the experience, because part of you is wondering if you’re damning your soul to hell. The Christian message is pretty clear. Entrance to heaven requires faith in Jesus. Ultimately, though, I feel I need to take a deep breath and remember that fear is not a particularly healthy motivator. When I first became a Christian, aged seventeen, there was a certain amount of fear that spurred me into the necessity of taking action, but in fairness my decision to become a Christian was really grounded in the idea that God is all wise and his way is therefore the right way, regardless of what I might want to do with my life. I have to say, to the credit of my Christian friends who are debating with me out of great concern at the moment, none of them have tried to scare me back into believing with a “big stick.” Instead, they have sought to reason with me. Jesus, too, when he was on earth, did not use a kind of all-encompassing fear-mongering; if you read the Gospels carefully, you will see a great variety of actions that Jesus used, depending on whom he was talking to.

So, taking all this into account, I think it’s important for me not to give into fear. If I should return to Christianity in time, it should be because I have become convinced of its validity, and for that reason alone. So, my reaction to my current situation is: take a deep breath, don’t be scared, be wary of those who would control by fear, and above all keep thinking.

One reason why it’s very difficult for me to believe in hell is because my parents aren’t/weren’t Christians. I lost my mother to cancer three years ago. She made no claim to being a Christian during her life, and I only worked up the courage to talk to her about it when she was on her death-bed, drifting in and out of consciousness on morphine. I only got a couple of minutes of lucidity from her while I was talking and she gave me a vaguely positive reaction, but nothing that I could hang my hat on and say, “My mother is saved.” You would think this uncertainty would have played on my mind. It didn’t – at all. The bottom line in all this is that I am psychologically incapable of believing my mother is in hell. That is evidenced by how easily I can talk about it. The idea of hell just doesn’t compute – that this precious person who loved me so completely throughout her life is now suffering in eternal torment. We are connected to people we love in ways that make facing a reality like this so utterly horrible that it becomes simply unreal. And I will face the same thing again with my dad in the not too distant future.

I have to admit to feeling a certain amount of relief that, with my current mindset, I don’t feel I need to warn my dad about that he is (hypothetically) facing fire and brimstone. I’ve always been uncomfortable, as a Christian, with the idea that I should impose the way I see life upon others, with warnings of a dire future, when I’ve never really been one hundred percent certain that Christianity is the true way and that any such grim reality truly insists. I have memories of taking part in missionary activities and feeling uncomfortable about what I was doing in a way that I think goes beyond mere nerves.

Let me be clear about what I’m not saying. I haven’t stepped back from Christianity because I don’t like the idea of hell. I’ve stepped back from it because I see major problems with it. Letting go of the belief in hell is just a major plus for me emotionally, as a result.

In the absense of Christianity, I’ve been looking to a different view of life; considering evil not as a thing to be punished but as an imbalance to be balanced; seeing forgiveness not as something which we should withhold until certain conditions are met, but something which can be given freely by just letting go of any requirement to make the offender pay, whether that requirement is as simple as “Say you’re sorry!” or as drastic as “You should be made the pay for what you did! They should lock you up and throw away the key!” It’s a breath of fresh air for me to realise that I don’t have to embrace the vengeful negativity that I’ve been conditioned to think is normal.

I believe we are all aspects of infinite consciousness. We are all connected to each other, part of the whole that is Creation or God. And the only motivation that makes any sense at all in this view of life is love.

Let’s use a radical example. Someone murders your brother. You feel that he should pay. The police catch him and he is convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. You’re satisfied that he got what he deserved. This is the view that is typical of us when we see ourselves as disconnected from each other. But if you can believe that we’re not disconnected from each other, that we are all unique parts of the same whole, the situation looks radically different. When you understand that from a wider perspective he is you and you are him, the only reaction that makes any sense is love.

Am I saying that all criminals should be let out of the prisons to run amok? Of course not. What I’m saying is that it’s one thing to incarcerate a person for the protection of society and it’s another thing to do it to punish him. Ideas like punishment and retribution make no sense when you are motivated by the desire to help everybody. Yes, even the scum of the earth. The Christian ideal also agrees with the sentiment I’m proposing: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.” But what I’m suggesting is that I’ve found an underlying understanding that makes this kind of love possible.

I don’t believe I need to find salvation. I don’t think there is anything to be saved from. I believe the answer is to transform our understanding, then we’ll start realising our potential for goodness and love. For instance, the person who understands that he is infinite consciousness won’t be trapped in materialism, will not be greedy for wealth, and is very unlikely to end up a thief. This life is just a tiny little ride on the vast plain of eternity. When you understand that, so many negative motivations lose their hold over you. On the flipside, a person who lives with the understanding that death is the end is so much more susceptible to this negativity. I don’t think evil is caused by a sinful nature; I think how we choose behave is a direct reflection of our view of life. And I’ve found that the answer to my own personal evil inclinations and urges is the transformation of my understanding.

Too simple? Too idealistic? But I see evidence of it all the time in the school where I work. The kids who struggle the most with bad behaviour are those who have the hardest things to put up with at home. They grow up in a destructive home environment, imbibe an imbalanced outlook on life where they see a bleak future for themselves, and they become “bad.” The answer to these kids is not punishment for bad behaviour; it’s love and compassion. They are no more outside “the grace of God” than more fortunate kids who grow up in a loving Christian home and to whom becoming a Christian is as easy and expected as putting on your seatbelt. The idea of evil coming from a sinful nature is too simplistic to me, and is not a true reflection of what you see in the world.

This alternative view is there for the taking or leaving. If you ask me to prove it, I can’t. All I can say is I am a more loving person for having embraced it. It is simply the intuitive knowledge that everything is consciousness and you and I are aspects of that consciousness. And we are all one.

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I am the one and only

“Eek! Has Darryl Sloan got a messiah complex?” you cry. Nope. “I aaaam the one and onlyyyy … Nobody I’d rather be!” Good ol’ Chesney Hawkes, eh? You can’t beat ‘im. I’m serious, actually. I love that song. If you can get around the 80s cheese factor and listen to the lyrics, it’s actually carrying a really positive message championing individuality.

Individuality is claiming the freedom to think for yourself, to form and hold your own opinions. And the enemy of individuality is anything which denies you that freedom.

In the previous post I stated that our freedom to think for ourselves is “taken away by Popes, pastors, and every other religious authority that insists it has a right to your mind.” Let me clarify and expand on what I mean by that.

Our freedom to think for ourselves is only taken away because we give it away willingly, and are encouraged to do so. This is illustrated by the way that most Catholics don’t become Protestants; most Protestants don’t become Catholics; the majority of adult Christians are those brought up in Christian homes, rather than people who converted to it from here, there and everywhere. Churchgoers generally aren’t moving towards greater awareness of “the truth,” despite listening to countless sermons week after week. They are buzzing around merrily in their own cliques. That is not my opinion; it is observable reality in all the countless church factions. In my personal case, it is illustrated by the imbalanced state of mind I went through in my earlier years as a Christian – the days when I took at face value what I was told about what it is to be a good Christian. Only by taking back my freedom to think, by slowly realising that I was being fed error on some levels, was I able to say, “No. The way you people want me to think is not right.” And to step away. It was very hard to do, and took a long time. The scope of the problem is illustrated by how many people choose to blindly tow the line of whatever their individual church scene says is right. Churches are not teeming with people who embrace their individuality, nor are they encouraged to be individuals. Paradoxically, all the factions in the church were no doubt created by certain people expressing their individuality and rebelling, but this does not negate the point that the only way to escape the prison of a particular church faction that is in error is to start thinking for yourself and to stop giving up that responsibility to your minister.

The Bible itself, as an authority, is also a problem because when you become a Christian you have to accept all its precepts en masse. If your own intelligence leads you in a different direction on some points, you have to agree with what the Bible says regardless of what you think, because it’s the word of God. Take homosexuality for instance. I believe it’s not natural, okay? I did as a Christian; I still do. But if I allow myself the luxury of disregarding that the Bible calls it an “abomination,” I suddenly find myself able to empathise with other Christians who have been dealing with homosexual urges all their lives, with no evil intent (two of whom I’ve known as close friends, incidentally, and one of whom was responsible for leading me to Christ). And yet, typically, if I’m sitting with another Christian and a homosexual comes on TV, the Christian will happily pass a remark about “that queer.” There is the general feeling among Christians that homosexuality is a great evil, with Bible verses to back that up. My personal individual view is that there’s something very unbalanced about that attitude. So, do I believe what the Bible says, or do I believe what my experience of knowing homosexual Christians tells me? When your indivuality conflicts with a belief system, you’re in trouble. And that’s the problem with belief systems. For me right now, rejecting the belief system and embracing my right to have my own view, it is so refreshing to be able to look at somebody and say, “It doesn’t matter to me what you are,” instead of regarding them with suspicion as if they must be some kind of deviant. If I’m honest, I haven’t looked upon homosexuality as “evil” in a long time; “not normal” is as far as I can reasonably go. So, I’m guilty perhaps of covertly reclaiming a little of my individuality that was not strictly permitted for me.

I’m not just Bible-blasting here. This giving away of one’s freedom to think is equally true of people who vegetate in front of soap operas, and base their moral outlook on the behaviour of what they see there. On the topic of homosexuality, it’s interesting to note how society’s view of it has become gradually more tolerant over the past couple of decades. Is this because people have suddenly become more enlightened? Could be, but (the rights and wrongs of homosexuality aside) I’m more inclined to think the change came about by the bombardment of the population by positive depictions of homosexuality on TV dramas and movies. It’s covert manipulation, folks, made possible only by our willingness to accept what we’re told without thinking for ourselves. True, attitudes to homosexuality really were in the dark ages a couple of decades ago, and social consciousness has probably been moved to a better place, where we’re less likely to kick the crap out of a couple of “queers” in a dark alley, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the means of delivering this better understanding was a manipulative one. I mean, these days a guy like me can hardly raise a single objection to homosexuality on purely rational grounds without being immediately branded homophobic.

The big problem is that we can so easily sacrifice our ability to think for ourselves without realising we’ve done it. Another manipulation I fell prey to at a point in my life is the idea that the scientific view of reality is the only one that holds any water. You get an impression from society – and that’s all it is, just an impression, with no actual substance – that scientists are the truly smart people. Before you know it, you’re beleiving in an axiom like “Nothing is true until I can smell it, taste it, touch it, measure it, or quantify its substance by some means or other.” A man who opens his mind to the possibilty that there may be a God, and who chooses to pray to this God, is seen as backward by comparison. But the wider possibility that science won’t acknowledge is that a whole lot of stuff might be true that we just haven’t discovered with our microscopes and telecopes, etc. It’s no surprise, really, that a great many scientists have an athiestic perspective. They have decided that if they can’t find it, it mustn’t be real. To only have room in your heart for scientific thinking is a great pity. Once you ackowledge that it’s possible to discover truth beyond the narrow constraints of scientific investigation, you realise that the scientific mindset is a prison for your mind – useful within its own capacity, but inadequte as an exclusive principle to live by. The problem is, the wool is pulled over our eyes without us realising it.

Yet another aspect of this lack of freedom to think is what goes on with friendships during our school days. The more I look back on my youth, the more grateful I am to have been a geek – an outcast from the popular crowd. It was painful at times, sure, but the most beautiful gift of this is that peer pressure has absolutely no power over you. Since the popular crowd have already made you an outcast, there is absolutely no benefit to you in doing anything that would please them. You grow into a true individual, making your own decisions, and thinking your own thoughts, without any great feeling that you ought to conform. It’s no surprise that I finished school having never smoked a cigarette or consumed any alcohol.

The ultimate expression of indivuality is when you just don’t give a damn what anybody else thinks of you. That’s largely what’s motivating the direction of many of my posts in recent months. It’s easily mistaken for arrogance, but it’s really just the detemination to live up to a standard that I’ve set for myself: to speak out about what I care about, to be unafraid of rebuttal or ridicule.

It’s an interesting experiment to observe others, keeping your ears peeled for evidence of the fear of what others think – various expressions of the old “What would the neighbours think?” attitude. Even more challenging to look for it in yourself. As ol’ Chesney says, “You are the one and only you.”

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