As a child I stopped believing in God shortly after I stopped believing in Santa Claus. In my 8-year-old mind there was hardly much difference between an invisible fat man who delivers candy and presents on Christmas Eve and an invisible man in the sky who controlled my fate and wanted my love. What was I supposed to do with Him? Pray? I never felt comfortable in church.
Flash forward to high school and I remember talking with a friend on the bus to a track meet. We were talking about God. She still believed, I still didn’t. But I was constantly questioning, so I asked her, what is it like? When you pray, can you actually hear God? And what is that like? She replied, almost matter-of-factly, “well, after a certain point, you do hear God!” As an atheist this didn’t make any sense to me.
Keep going to now, and I’m still a non-believer, at least in the eyes of any devout Christian, Jew, or Muslim. But I’ve been practicing Zen Buddhism for the past 5 years and what I’ve found is that the more I practice, the more I connect with what my friend was telling me. In fact, I’ve found that she’s absolutely right, if you ignore the word and just focus on the experience. Don’t attach to the word “God,” and then whatever you call it, it’s the same thing, no matter whether you prefer “Buddha,” “Allah,” “Elohim,” or even just “the Universe.” Really, love and compassion and wisdom appear no matter what you call it.
A recent NPR series on the human connection with the Divine, or at least, our perception of that connection (akin to “This is your brain on God”), shed some light on this for me. After thousands and thousands of hours of prayer or meditation, one’s brain can actually be rewired to have a religious experience. As my friend said, you do “hear” God–or the universe, or substitute your own word.
These days I spend a lot of my time reading up on different religious scriptures, talking to friends of different faiths, having discussions about morality and God and life and death. My tutor and I were having a conversation about love and forgiveness–I was reading St. Paul’s letter to the Romans–and at one point she said, “You know, Mike, you make religion accesible.”
I guess that is my goal. To take the “religion” out of religion. At the time, we had been talking and a man next to us who had been eavesdropping asked to join in, and after my tutor left we continued our conversation. He was a Christian, and thought that what I was doing–taking bits and pieces of the Bible and keeping what speaks to me–was “incorrect.” He thought that I had to read the whole thing, and in terms of belief it had to be all or nothing. Either Jesus is who he said he is, and we have to believe everything, or you’re not getting into heaven. But I asked him, does that then mean that Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists and Jains and Sikhs and the 7 billion humans who aren’t Christians are wrong, even if they do good things? He said, yes, because they don’t believe in Jesus. Through Jesus is salvation, and that is the only way.
Naturally, I took issue with this. Mind you, I would have taken issue with it if it was a Jew or a Muslim, or even a Buddhist carrying such a narrow view. Because it’s about “my”, “me,” “I,” “mine.” My view is the only way. The right way to God is mine. That’s a very narrow, small-minded view. But I aim to take the “religion” out of religion because then what you get is this wide-open view. Then, the labels don’t matter, and instead of “only my way is right, and everyone has to follow me,” you get, “everyone wins”.
Think about it. Over 7 billion people in this world (and counting), with some projections saying that by 2050 there will be between 9 and 11 billion human beings. If everyone were in it for themselves and no one else, then that’s a lot of war and conflict. That’s a lot of people thinking that their way is right. In fact, that means over 7 billion different opinions on right and wrong.
Why does religion have to have a monopoly on morality? Can’t I, as a human being among 7 billion, take a vested interested in our shared existence? Does that have to be with “God?” I put that in quotation marks because I ask if it has to be that specific word. Can I, as a human being among many, simply recognized the necessity of having the mindset that we are all in this together?
That’s the mindset that is going to help us get through the next century. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Far from being the pious injuction of a Utopian dreamer, love is an absolute necessity for our survival.”
If God (or Allah, Jehovah, the Universe, etc.) did speak to me, I’m sure HE/SHE/the ONE would say the same thing. Love, love, love everyone you meet, enemy and friend, no matter what. Fill the world with shining, purifying light. With compassion. Peace starts one small action at a time. Start with yourself, then move to your family, then your block, your neighborhood, your city, your state, your country, your continent, until your intention of love washes like pure water over the whole world. Rinse, and repeat.