Saturday, September 5, 2015

God, Religion and Me

By Roy Ortega

I know my occasional musings about God and religion may give the impression that I hold anti-religion or anti-God sentiments. Or worse, that I have become an atheist.

You should know that I am not an atheist. I consider myself a Secular Humanist who believes, like many people, that we have a connection to something "out there." But unlike my religious friends and family, I do not believe in the existence of an invisible, father-like figure in the sky who controls everything in our lives. Humanists believe that the human perspective, not divine providence, is the only way to view and understand our existence.

As a person with a deep love of science and discovery, I know that our physical presence on Earth has a true and objectively verifiable connection to the rest of the universe. In the words of one of my heroes, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, "The atoms in our bodies are traceable to the stars that manufactured them in their ingredients across our galaxy billions of years ago. We are chemically connected to all molecules in the Universe." The most simplistic way that I can put it is to say that my "God" takes a much different form than the God you were probably taught to believe in.

So, let's talk religion.

I happen to be faith neutral. Being faith neutral does not mean I am anti-religion. I will admit I am critical of many religious people, but I am not anti-religion.

There is no question that there are countless of good and honest religious people on Earth who use their religion for the greater good of humanity. I count my late cousin Jesse O. Mireles, a Christian pastor, and some members of my mother's family including Pedro and Velia Garcia, among those who have humbly devoted their lives to spreading the good word of their God to others. I have a deep and infinite respect for good religious people in this world. But I do not believe you need religion to be a good person.

For reasons that are my own, I no longer ascribe to the tenets of Christianity. In my older age, I have found it almost impossible to intellectualize religion. I believe religion is an invention of man - and nothing else. However, my spiritual core, my ability to love and my compassion are perfectly intact without religion. I love the teachings of Jesus, the same way I love and respect many of the teachings of the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and my own beloved and dearly departed mother Rebecca.

Unless a person wantonly casts judgment against me or someone I love, I have no interest in casting judgment against anyone. I believe people should be free to believe what they want as long as they don't use their religion to harm others or discriminate against them. Unfortunately, our world is filled with people who defy the basic teachings of their own religion in order to justify their political agendas and hatred of others.
I will admit that I am put-off by religious zealotry and extreme religiosity. When religion begins to inject itself into the lives of people who do not welcome it, the calm and peace of the world invariably suffers. I strongly believe in the concept of separation of church and state because no single religion should have authority over government policy. That's a dangerous and slippery slope that has proven historically to be contrary to the benefit of mankind. We should forever guard against religious tyranny of every stripe.

In these contemporary times, issues such as abortion and homosexuality have unnecessarily ignited strong emotions that have often led to hate and violence. For the record, I am strongly anti-abortion. But a woman should consult her doctor and ultimately her own conscience - not religion or government - to make decisions about her own body. Regarding homosexuality, it is a natural part of human sexuality and always has been. There is no reason - biblical or otherwise - to condemn my gay son simply because he happens to love another person of the same sex.

The most reliable estimates show that there are more than 4,200 recognized religions in our world. Each has its own "holy" book and its own distinct set of beliefs. So, the obvious question is, "why would someone believe that their religion is the only true and chosen religion, and not the others?" Not all religions are good and not all believe in a good God. Many religions, especially the ancient ones, are characterized by occasional periods of unspeakable violence and intolerance toward others who do not share their beliefs. The historical record is absolutely clear about that. More humans have died over religious differences than perhaps any other reason.

As a logical, rational-thinking and pragmatic person, I find many religious beliefs and customs to be truly bizarre. The biblical story that Jesus turned water into wine or that Moses parted the Red Sea with a wave of his hand are examples of man's capacity to concoct crazy notions and disguise them as religious dogma. Creationism to me is as goofy as a Looney Tunes cartoon. Sure, many will argue that these biblical stories amount to mere metaphors and symbols that explain larger, more meaningful messages. Beyond that, I find many harsh religious customs especially those that subjugate women or enslave humans to be cruel and inhuman. Even innocuous religious customs such as meatless Fridays seem trivial and stupid to me.

Although I cannot fathom the myriad of earth-bound religions that humans have historically created for themselves, I actually understand why they exist. Clearly, many humans have a need to express their spirituality through religion. My own spirituality has been shaped by two things: Witnessing the births of my three sons and witnessing the deaths of my parents. Understanding the biology behind conception, birth, life and death is one thing. But the spiritual meaning behind those things falls into a separate category of understanding.

This is where humans tend to step into the realm of "faith". Faith is something that humans embark upon  when life occurrences cannot be explained nor understood by any earthly rationale such as illness and death.

Nearly everyone reaches this point in their lives. Throughout my own life, I have pondered questions such as "how is it possible for life to exist one moment when it did not exist the moment before?" or, "once life exists, how is it possible for it not to exist the next moment?"

I do not believe we need religion to find answers to those kinds of questions. I believe we need a greater empirical understanding of ourselves, of the Universe and of our place in the Universe. That's where all the answers lie.

Roy Ortega