I had the good fortune to be raised in a household where the determination of what to believe about the great questions of life was largely left up to me—save for during one perplexing summer. When I was in the fifth grade or so I was made to attend a Presbyterian “Summer Bible School.” This was rather confusing to me, as we had never attended any church before. I knew that my cousins were Catholics, and I had always wondered what it was that kept them so long on Christmas Eve. Why couldn’t they just get over to our house so we could open our presents already? Never mind the fact that I never asked about the meaning of Christmas itself. To a little kid, any holiday graced by tons of food and wrapped presents from your relatives was not to be messed with or questioned. My parents, not being at all religious, had not shared with me any of the stories of the holiday’s origin (save for letting me watch the Rankin Bass “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” every year). So imagine my confusion as a child raised in what could only be described as a secular home suddenly being required to go to school (in the summer, no less!) at a church, of all places. Whatever. Not one to question authority (at that time of my life), I went along with it.
I spent a week going to classes for four hours a day, listening to a church representative of some sort tell us nonsensical stories about God and Jesus, and then we did some sort of art project that may or may not have been related to the stories themselves. I don’t remember exactly. See how much of an impression this week made on me? Well, the content of the classes themselves didn’t stick, but one nagging question did, and that was why, if my parents saw some value in sending me to this special Summer Bible School they had discovered, they never themselves went to church? Why did we not all go if this was such a big deal? Why would no one tell me WHY it was a big deal? So, one day after the summer class ended, I asked my father outright: “Daddy, why don’t we go to church?”
My father looked at me quizzically for a moment, and then said, “You want to go to church? Okay, let’s go to church.” Alright then. We attended a Sunday morning service at the same Presbyterian church where the Summer Bible School had been held. I only remember sitting in the great big room with dozens and dozens of not-so-comfortable chairs set up in endless rows, where we listened to a man in a robe drone on for an hour or so about some guys in the Bible. When it was over and my mother, father, and I walked out, I felt my dad’s hand touch my shoulder. I looked at him, and he laughed as he said, “There. Do you feel holier now?” Suffice it to say we didn’t go to church again.
Years later when I was a teenager and my father and I were having a conversation about the mysteries of the world and universe, I brought up the Summer Bible School thing once more, asking why it was I had been sent there. “Son,” he said, “our job was to introduce you to God. You have to do the rest.”
“Don’t you ever feel like going to a church for real, though? Like Don, Tom, Joe, and aunt Charlotte do?” I asked.
He shook his head. “When I go outside, I am in church,” he said. Sounds like a Spiritual Naturalist! We never spoke of it again.
When I moved away from my childhood home and came to the town where I still to this day live, I was asked by an older co-worker if I wanted to go to church with her and her husband, who also worked with me. “Sure,” I said, “why not?” I was new in town, and needed to forge some community connections. I was also pretty neutral about the whole church thing. I attended their church, a Lutheran one, for several months, getting a feel for the rituals and getting to know the people. I was invited by the minister there to attend an evening class where the fundamental beliefs of the church would be conveyed to the attendees as a sort of requirement prior to joining the church. Again, why not? The church itself was only a block or so away from where I was living, and the co-worker who had first invited me said she was going to go as well, just for a “refresher” course. She had been so welcoming to me, helping me assimilate into the community, and it made me more comfortable knowing she would be attending too.
The “classes” turned out to be monotone lectures, read from handwritten notes scrawled on the pages of a seemingly bottomless stack of yellow notepads. Some of these classes were particularly difficult when I was the only “candidate” to attend. It’s tough to sit and listen to an old man read to you for two hours from his pads o’ wisdom.
However, still the person who never really challenged authority, I went along with it—until the night came when I could no longer sit in silence.
There were four or five of us in class that night. The minister had just finished one of his allegorical stories from the wisdom pads, and I had heard enough. “Hold on,” I said, “are you telling me that if a man lives, say, out in the country far from the rest of civilization, leads a good and virtuous life, never harms another soul, and dies never having been accepted into the church because there was no church anywhere around for him to attend…you’re telling me that he’s going to go to hell?”
The minister didn’t even bat an eye. “Well, yes. Of course.”
Walking home that night, I was thankful that I had not yet gone through some formal ceremony that would count me among the members of that church. I could never believe in a system, or a God, that would condemn an innocent soul who had done nothing at all to deserve it. I was just straight-up wrong. I desired to be a part of a community, but if believing all I had been told for the last several weeks was the price I would have to pay for belonging to that community, then I just didn’t have enough spiritual currency for it.
I went over to the church to see the minister a few days later, and he welcomed me warmly, thinking that I had come to go over some of the finer points of the ceremony in which I would be participating that would formally make me a member of the church. I asked him, a little hesitantly, if it was possible to go through the ceremony without really joining the church itself. He said not really, but why would I want to? I explained my feelings and doubts to him, and I think he was both shocked and disappointed. We parted on good terms after I told him that I just couldn’t go through with it, but I had the strong sense that he felt he had just failed to save a soul from damnation. When I told my co-worker that I would not be joining the church after all, she just smiled and nodded, saying “You’re having doubts, then.” I said yes. A few days later, her husband brought me a gift: a self-study Bible. Twenty three years later, they are still my friends, and both beautiful people, though I can’t help believing that they too feel I am a soul that got away.
That was a long time ago. My journey of discovery has come a long way since then, and my beliefs have evolved with the passage of time, the reading of books, and the multiplicity of experiences that all lives encounter. So what do I believe? When asked this question, most would assume it refers to spiritual or religious belief unless qualified by something, such as “What do you believe about (fill in this space with an issue of choice). Let me start by briefly exploring what I would like to believe.
I would like to believe that the life force of the Earth is comprised of one expansive and interconnected energy field, not unlike the “Force” from “Star Wars”, or the Great Link from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” I would like to believe that when any living thing dies, its energy is simply re-assimilated into that energy field, where the raw materials of the physical form of the being that has died are reclaimed by the Earth to further nourish the living entities that still possess a form in need of such sustenance. I would also like to think that the energy that is “me” would be reassigned and reborn—reincarnated, if you will—into a new physical form of some type. Someday. Perhaps first, my “essence” would be allowed to inter-mingle with the essences of all beings that have come before me, knowing their minds, being able to somehow commune with them and share in their wisdom and experiences. Then, I would like to believe that I could choose when to return to physical form, and what form that would be. Now, here’s the problem. I don’t believe any of that. I said I would like to believe it—but I can’t.
That fantasy, existing as some disembodied energy being that could exist on some other plane and become one with the other entities, spirits, or essences—those that form the collective life force or “life field” of the Earth—is nothing but wishful thinking. I have no evidence—none whatsoever—that it is or could be true. I cannot, I will not allow myself to believe in something that cannot be supported by verifiable evidence. Now, should evidence one day be discovered that proves beyond doubt that our souls, essences, or whatever me might wish to call them survive the deaths of our bodies, then I will be the first to jump on the believer bandwagon. I would want to see someone’s raw essence as it appears outside of a body, and be able to communicate with it. I would want to be able to summon other essences that were once living beings with bodies like our own, and communicate with them. I would like to be taught how to leave my body behind and take “day trips” into the plane where the souls/essences exist, and explore what it is like to exist as pure energy of spirit. THEN I will believe. Until then, I have to settle for what my rational mind will allow, which is not what many others believe. No gods, no superstition…no wishful thinking.
Beyond the issue of what may or may not follow our earthly lives, there are many things my experiences in life have led me to currently believe. I believe in the power of reason and rationality. I believe that all human beings must call into question what they know and have learned, and be willing to alter their beliefs accordingly when more convincing arguments than those supporting their current beliefs present themselves. I believe in expressing awe for all of the wonders of the truly magnificent universe in which we exist. I believe it is okay to say, “I don’t know—yet,” without feeling I have to fill in the gaps in my understanding with wishful thinking or the fantasy of preference. I believe that we make our lives meaningful, but not that they have a predetermined meaning of their own. I believe in the power of love to improve human relations. I believe that we all have a sacred duty to serve as stewards for this unique and beautiful world of which we are but a small part…
This list could go on for quite some time, but what it boils down to is that I feel it is irresponsible, if not dangerous, to believe in things that are simply insupportable. This may seem harmless on a personal level, and I concede that I am unlikely to be harmed by another person’s wishful thinking about what happens to our “essences” once our bodies fail to function as designed. At the same time, when those beliefs begin to shape laws and policies that affect others and the world, that is when the danger creeps in. To prevent the wishful thinkers from imposing their fantasies on the rest of us, we must relentlessly promote rigorous questioning and discussion of any and all beliefs as our understanding of the world and universe in which we live expands. I begrudge no one their beliefs; if they are comforted by them, inspired by them, and do not attempt to impose them on me or on the greater society by force, then I wish them well. However, to quote Sam Harris: “The only thing that permits human beings to collaborate with one another in a truly open-ended way is their willingness to have their beliefs modified by new facts. Only openness to evidence and argument will secure a common world for us” (Brainyquote.com). Yes. That. If when presented with overwhelming evidence that your beliefs are not true, you must be willing to modify them. You must.
Today, I do belong to a church community. It is a small Unitarian Universalist congregation full of free thinkers who are on their own individual journeys to discover the truth as it works for them. We are not bound by a creed or do not subscribe to a specific dogma. We listen to one another, discuss issues with one another, and revel in one another’s diversity. Nothing and no one tells any one of us what to believe; we explore different beliefs, looking for common wisdom across philosophies that speak to our shared values of dignity and justice. Over the years, my conversations with members of this remarkable community have helped my beliefs to evolve and change as I listened to their stories and perspectives. Above all, I have learned that my beliefs are never and can never be set in stone. There is always something new to be learned that could fundamentally alter what I currently believe. I am always open to considering different perspectives and listening for that argument that makes me go “Wow. I had never looked at it like that before. I’ll meditate on that, and adjust my belief accordingly.” As Andre Gide once said, “Trust those who seek the truth, but doubt those who say they have found it.” Exactly.
So…what do you believe?
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.