Religion as Pearls and Ashes

Finding the truly transformative aspects of religion isn’t this hard, but it does take a significant effort!

We humans have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize parts of our lives: to simultaneously hold conflicting sets of worldviews or perspectives.  This is useful because the world Is a complex place.  We need multiple tools and approaches for coping with life and pursuing wholeness.  But this kind of compartmentalization can be extremely frustrating when it comes to discussing and analyzing the relationship between, say, science and religion.  One example is Francis Collins, an atheist/agnostic turned Christian apologist, head of the National Institutes for Health, and a highly regarded scientist in the human genome project.

Collins is a prolific writer on science and religion, with titles like The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.  But according to his own words, what ultimately resolved his search is that he was hiking and saw a really striking three-part waterfall.  It reminded him of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (God = God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit).  Boom, his searching, wondering, and struggle was done.  He was a Christian.

I’d never knock this story as forming part of someone’s spiritual journey.  I recognize he went through a long process of figuring out what he believes and why.  But if you’re then going to become an apologist and make it your point to argue in the public sphere why Christianity is right (and for him, implicitly why other religions are “wrong”) then that story really doesn’t cut it, especially running with the scientist angle!  I completely sympathize when atheists get flummoxed by such a subjective explanation of religious belief.

Some of my own views on religion align with those of two prominent personalities: Leo Tolstoy (not many seem to know he wrote extensively on religion!), and the American physicist Richard Feynman.  Tolstoy described religions using a metaphor – they are each like a sack containing pearls of infinite worth mixed up with and often hidden by a lot of ashes.  In other words, religion comes with its own baggage: all sorts of corruption, in-fighting, violence in the process of creating doctrine, hypocrisy, and forms of “idolatry” that infiltrate scriptures, such as nationalism, tribalism, and sexism.

My own journey resonates with this.  When I read that Jesus says to “knock and the door shall be opened to you” and “search and you shall find” I think of this metaphor.  It makes sense that there’s a lot of sifting and sorting to do.  There are pearls to find, but it’s an ongoing process, not a quick journey that’s over all at once.  Through a lot of searching over a decade or so (questioning my beliefs, exploring contemplative Christianity, living in a couple of monasteries, learning about other religions, being involved in interfaith groups), I came to see some of the pearls within Christianity, and to understand its limitations and the problem areas: the ashes.

During part of Richard Feynman’s career, he was a professor and mentor of graduate students.  Some of his students struggled the conflicts between their religious Christian upbringing and the science they were learning.  Feynman ultimately came to describe the challenge of the science vs. religion debate as one of being able to distinguish and preserve the wonderful moral teachings and inspiration of religion while being able to challenge specific worldviews or claims about objective, scientific reality that they make.  I think this is an especially important point for prominent atheists to engage in.  I think much more progress will be made extending the conversation to the pearls of religion and the many internal tools and teachings they contain to weed out the good from the bad and point to the dangers of hypocrisy and power.  Many atheists are motivated by a humanist desire to decrease suffering related to religious belief, so this could be a fertile ground of exploration.

I believe Sam Harris, despite my disagreements with him on some topics, is one of these.  I love his metaphor of the Moral Landscape, in which he envisions a 3-D map with many different peaks and valleys, where the peaks correspond to different ways of human flourishing and the valleys correspond to the many ways we can make ourselves and others suffer.  He could contribute to the transformation of religion by focusing more on the peaks of well-being specifically within religious traditions.

As Feynman’s viewpoint alludes to, religion often makes claims about the world or universe that it isn’t qualified to and doesn’t need to make such as the idea that Earth is the center of universe, back in Galileo’s day.  That was (taken to be) an important theological idea then, but come on, it’s not actually essential to Christianity.  Something similar today happens over topics like evolution.

My own experience in the interfaith group Religions for Peace, exposure to monastic interfaith religious dialogue, and love for food has led me to my own metaphor.  Each religion (with exceptions like Scientism) is like a culinary tradition from a nation or region of the world.  Each has many things beautiful, tasty, and wonderful to offer.  While foods are clearly different across the world, they are also the same in many fundamental ways (nutrition, chemistry, aesthetics and creative pursuits, etc) as well.

Each cuisine of the world also has its own types of junk food.  I think the discourse on religion, science, atheism, and ethics will improve as we increasingly recognize that the world’s religions have tremendous and wonderful commonalities, and when we are also keenly aware of and open to talking about their limitations – most especially the ways that they can be and are used (or abused/warped) in ways that cause tremendous pain and suffering.  It’s especially important to have a deep understanding of a religion in order to understand if negative actions or beliefs ascribed to the religion are an integral part of it or are instead a parasite, addition, or perversion of the original teachings and spirit of the religion.

On its own, I recognize that many people will find my food metaphor too simple.  I look forward to getting into more depth on all of this!

As always, I welcome your thoughts and questions!

Father Coyne: Jesuit priest and scientist extraordinaire!

fr_coyneYesterday I was honored and thrilled to meet Father Coyne, a Jesuit priest, Ph.D. in Astronomy specializing in astrophysics, and retired head of the Vatican’s research observatory located at the University of Arizona in my hometown – Tucson, AZ.   (I realized the Tucson connection when I saw he had a 520 area code for his cell phone).  I met him at his residence at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school right here in Syracuse.

A friend of mine at school told me about a series of lectures on religion at Le Moyne and looking at its website I quickly found Fr. Coyne.  He was on Bill Maher’s movie “Religulous” – one of its few rational religious voices.  He was also interviewed by famous New Atheist Richard Dawkins for a TV show about Darwin, and the full interview is on youtube.  Check it out!

dawkins_coyneFr. Coyne is an ardent and passionate voice for both the (potential) depth of religion and the validity of science, including evolution.  I thoroughly (that’s an understatement!) enjoyed my time with him and I wished we had videotaped our conversation so we could put it on youtube!!  (He did say we might do this another time.)

We talked about a lot of things, but we touched on how earnest many atheists are in their critique of religion and that they have many good points based on ethical and scientific grounds.  We agreed that absent from debates on science and religion are Jesus’ own very anti-establishment and anti-religion views/teachings and his focus on experience and common sense.

We agreed that there is no dualism between the spiritual and the material.  That is, the spiritual is in the material and vice versa.  There’s not separate realms or realities, although it can be useful or inspiring to envision such things.  Here’s my little phrase that sums it up:  “We don’t need the supernatural.  The natural is super enough!”

I tried out a few of my newest thoughts and ideas on him – like my pithy saying above – which were very well-received.  For instance, we talked about faith.  St. Paul says faith is hope in that which is unseen.  For me, that includes the power of love, the depth of the human spirit, and our search for the transcendent or the divine (in a symbolic way but one that can be experienced).  He agreed, and I said I felt a lot of sympathy for those who only know of the word “faith” as belief in doctrine or dogma and criticize it as such.

But along the lines of St. Paul, there’s a huge difference between belief in what’s unseen (we believe in many things that are unseen) and belief in things that scientific evidence is strongly against.

For example, I don’t believe in the virgin birth (of Jesus).

From a scientific perspective it’s just so highly unlikely.  But adding to this, virgin births are  present in the stories and myths of other religions and cultures.  Is Christianity’s virgin birth true while all other cultures’ and religions’ virgin births aren’t?

What I conclude is that virgin births are a very dramatic element that mean “Hey!!  Listen up!!!  This person is very important!!”  And I do believe that Jesus was and is very important.  Hopefully there can be more depth and public discussion of why.  What did he teach?  How is that different from Christianity?

This was just a bit of what we talked about.  It was amazing, though, to talk with someone who thoroughly understood where I was coming from from both a religious and scientific standpoint.  Each of us experience awe, inspiration, and transcendence through both science and religion.

I look forward to getting to know Fr. Coyne more and am amazed and thankful that our paths that unknowingly overlapped for so long in Tucson now “knowingly” overlap in Syracuse, NY of all places!


Learning from our “enemies”

This is an article I wrote that was just published in The Mennonite magazine, about the need for Mennonites – and Christians in general – to engage and be open to the messages of the New Atheists.

Writing for different audiences is an interesting process for me.  This article is specifically written for a religious audience and so my language reflects that.  Even though I don’t believe in any literal sort of God or a personified God, I still find the concept of God and all the good things it can represent to be useful, powerful, and inspiring.  So I hope you enjoy the article, and I think it’s a good example of the kind of approach I take when trying to gently nudge religious people to question their tradition and doctrines a bit more.  After this I will resume the “M&M” series I previously started, wrapping up with the third “M” about Mennonites (aka Anabaptists) since I do mention them a lot!


Over the last ten years there has been a resurgence of atheist critique of Christianity and religion in general spurred by the “New Atheists.” This refers especially to four prominent and bestselling authors: Sam Harris (End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great), and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon).

I first heard about them in 2007 when I picked up Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation. It’s a strong critique of American Christianity that highlights its inconsistencies and moral shortcomings.  I was impressed and moved by his obvious passion for ethics, morals, and his willingness to engage the scriptures and topics of spirituality.

Here’s a passage of his that stood out to me as very reasonable and inviting of dialogue:

“It is important to realize that the distinction between science and religion is not a matter of excluding our ethical intuitions and spiritual experiences from our conversation about the world; it is a matter of our being honest about what we can reasonably conclude on their basis. There are good reasons to believe that people like Jesus and the Buddha weren’t talking nonsense when they spoke about our capacity as human beings to transform our lives in rare and beautiful ways. But any genuine exploration of ethics or the contemplative life demands the same standards of reasonableness and self-criticism that animate all intellectual discourse.” (Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)

I’ve personally experienced the frustration of arguments that rely purely on dogma or a particular teaching lacking any apparent understanding or context, so I empathize with Harris and also desire a straightforward conversation about religion, its strengths, and its flaws.

In other parts of his book, Harris quoted and interpreted some of Jesus’ words as support for the violence of the Old Testament, something that went against my own understanding of Jesus, the scriptures, and Anabaptist understandings of the gospel.  From this, I saw the possibility for an exchange between atheists and religious people in which each could learn from the other and recognize validity in the other’s viewpoints.

As I read more of the New Atheists, I had to recognize that some of their points were correct. I was inclined to learn from them and engage their ideas instead of just fight or oppose them.

Isn’t this what Jesus did? He intentionally spent time with people different from himself, both the religious leaders and those considered outcasts or heathens by traditional religion (like atheists today).

Anabaptists emphasize loving one’s enemies, and one good way to do this is to deeply understand them and be open to the possibility that they bring something important to the table. Many atheists have good, noble motivations even though some can be angry or inflammatory.

And it goes the other way, too: Harris has certainly gotten his fair share of angry and unloving responses from Christians. We need to be honest and admit there’s a lot to be angry about when it comes to the violence, hypocrisy, judgment, and worldliness of religion.

Anabaptists are used to having minority views that challenge the status quo of the Christian majority. As a result, perhaps it can be a bit easier for us to engage in dialog with atheists.

It’s important to show outsiders that there are people within religion who care about the practical effects of their beliefs and are able to critically and rationally analyze those beliefs. Atheists are doing a good job critiquing religion, and unless religious people step up and synthesize their critiques then nothing will move forward.

The spirit blows where it will and we often see it blowing free from human rules and sin that creep into religious institutions. Certainly the spirit is active in many of the atheists who critique religion for the right reasons, and it’s interesting to think of God using atheists to correct and edify Christians.

The late Christopher Hitchens was sometimes known as one of the angrier voices of the New Atheists, but he could also write very beautifully about the bible and praise those who have sought reform from within Christianity.

In his article When the King Saved God, Hitchens expressed praise and respect for the reformers and scholars who created the King James Bible, the first bible in the English language. It was a monumental development as it let the masses finally read the bible in their own language. Previously all services and bibles were in Latin, keeping the powers of the church and interpretation in the hands of the clergy.

Perhaps surprisingly, Hitchens (as well as other atheists like Dawkins) support the teaching of the bible in public schools because they want people to read and think critically about the bible and not merely be told what it means in church.

In the article, Hitchens also gave some examples of how translating between languages can inherently involve interpretation; a specific translation could have a big impact on meaning. One of these was the Greek word ecclesia, which best translated means an independent church body, or one that can make its own rules and interpretations.  This translation was favored by some in the King James commission as opposed to an interpretation of “The Church,” a single or at least highly centralized authoritative body that hands down and enforces its rules.

The latter won out, but Anabaptists have a history of the decentralized approach, following their own consciences, and searching the bible for its teachings and application in daily life and culture.

Most strikingly, at his father’s funeral, Hitchens chose to use what he called a “non-sermonizing” verse from Paul in the New Testament: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

He was struck by the beauty and universality of this verse, as well as the critical thinking implied by it. He felt that there have been Christians including Paul who think seriously about what is truly good and bad, beautiful and virtuous, and base their approach on that.

In his view, many Christian doctrines are not true to this, and I would point out that many were formed for political reasons supporting control, violence, and empire building. As Jesus-centered Anabaptists we should be able to ask if some parts of Christian doctrinal formation were carried out against Jesus’ command and example not to rule with power and coercion, but to lead by humble service and example.

Since some prominent atheists are willing to learn from and even be inspired by elements of Chrristianity, should we not be open to learning more about their insights, wisdom, concern for justice, and the beauty they find in life, the universe, and in their fellow human beings?

To be sure we’re not missing out on how the spirit is moving today, we need to be in touch with and understand our “enemies,” getting past rhetoric or argument by engaging in serious self-reflection and by listening to their finer points and critiques.

So perhaps you have a friend who’s an atheist. You could ask them what they really think about Christianity and why. What good do they see and what troubles them about it? Make a special effort to understand an outside viewpoint and a fresh perspective. Or, pick up one of the books by the New Atheists from the library and give it a shot.

Ultimately, we want to be informed about current thought on religion because many people rightfully have beef against it. It’s better to be engaged in the process of understanding, growing, and transformation this can bring rather than be passive bystanders oblivious to the possibility of prophetic voices coming from outside of Christianity.

M&M’s: Mormons and Muslims (Part 1)


The relationship between the Mormon religion and Christianity is complex and in many ways fascinating. Both have strong conservative tendencies; Mormon and Christian politicians have often found it convenient to cooperate on shared issues, but even so many evangelicals didn’t support Mitt Romney because of his Mormon faith. Dialog on the topic has produced some useful examples of how to have a civil, sincere, and deep conversation between differing religious viewpoints.

I recently read an article about a new documentary called Unresolvable? The Kingdom of God on Earth that focuses on the hatred many (conservative or evangelical) Christians feel towards Mormonism. The creator of the movie, Bryan Hall, is a devout Mormon who initially had a burning anger toward Christians who preached that Mormonism is not Christianity and that it is the work of the devil. Given his motivation to make these people look ridiculous, he wondered about Jesus’ saying to “love your enemies” and also why these Christians did not seem to be loving their enemies, the Mormons.

Hall initially found these people unapproachable; their passion for their message prevented any real communication. His breakthrough was to meet them one-on-one for lunch instead of approaching them in the middle of their public spiels. At lunch, they acted like normal people and he could joke and have fun with them. He even came to respect some of them and think they were good people. He came away with much less fear and anger toward anti-Mormon Christians, and an understanding of how spending time with one’s “enemies” can lead toward some understanding and civility.


An Atheist’s Approach Toward Both

New Atheist Sam Harris has written extensively about the problems of conservative and liberal Christianity. He has also spoken about Mormonism on occasion, for instance saying that it is objectively more likely for Mormonism to be false (to have a set of doctrines or beliefs that are false) than Christianity. Perhaps this language is confusing to some people. What does he mean by this?

The key here is that he’s coming at it from a purely logical, analytical framework. Say that two people each have a set of statements with important implications about life and how we should live it. The entire set is “false” if any of the individual statements are false. In this case, whichever set has fewer statements has fewer chances to be false. Therefore, as an educated guess or reasonable gamble, you could surmise that the larger set is more likely to be false. This is what Harris means, although of course he would recognize the possibility that both sets could be false or that the larger set is true.

Harris seems to (and I also see) Mormonism essentially as Christianity other beliefs and statements. Mormonism builds on the Christian religion, with added or modified beliefs, scriptures, stories, and claims that are meant to be taken factually. For instance, official Mormon doctrine states that a Hebrew prophet named Nehi settled in the Americas around 600 BC and that Native Americans were descended from an off-shoot of Nehi’s people, the Lamanites. DNA evidence has quite disproved this, and besides that, there is no plausible means for people from Israel to have reached the Americas in 600 BC. Unlike Christians, Mormons have secret rituals and certain locations in their temples that are off-limits to non-Mormons. They also have other doctrines that depart from traditional Christian views. One is that God is essentially a human being who went to heaven and was rewarded with the planet Earth and the opportunity to populate it through procreation. Mormons who lead exemplary lives of righteousness will have a similar fate with other planets in the universe (perhaps favoring males or requiring a woman to be married to a man in order to share in this, as many texts say “if a man marry a wife according to my law…”). Generally, Mormonism is more restrictive towards women than Christianity, as Mormonism usually encourages women to have many (5+) children, implicitly defining the role of women more strictly as mothers compared to modern trends.

My intention here is not to be negative but to point out some major differences. I acknowledge that I was not raised in the Mormon religion and that many finer details of what I just wrote could be debated or may even be contentious within some Mormon circles. I am an equal-opportunity critic of religions. In my book and in other blog posts I will focus on plenty of problems within Christianity. In this post I won’t continue to focus on specific details of Mormon doctrine because I imagine they are far removed from the daily life of most Mormons. Religions all have human leaders and the tendency to add and change rules as time goes on.

These differences bring up the question of whether Mormons are Christian or not, a contentious topic that stirs up a lot of frustration and anger. To me, the answer is no because Christians have a fairly well-defined set of beliefs and doctrines. Mormons share some of them, but add and revise others to a greater degree than typical Christian denominations. The Mormon view of the bible is one example: Mormon doctrine states that the bible has errors and is less trustworthy because it’s older and was written in different languages than the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is only a few hundred years old and was translated by Joseph Smith directly from an angel (or gold plates, etc.), so its original language was English. It is more reliable and a better vessel of God’s message for humanity. As Christianity tends to view the Bible as the pinnacle of God’s Word and Revelation, it’s easy to understand why many Christians feel the Book of Mormon puts Mormons squarely in the category of a different religion.

It seems that many Mormons take great offense at being told they aren’t Christian – it’s almost like a slur. Part of this might be because some Mormon groups downplay their differences to seem more mainstream or to help gain the cultural acceptance/tolerance granted to Christianity in our culture. On the other hand, offense might be taken by Mormons because they admire and love Jesus, his teachings, and example. These Mormons may therefore consider themselves Christians because they follow Jesus Christ, and all other details are secondary to them. I understand this personal view, but it differs from the definitions both religions have made. In some ways I can consider myself a Christian because I can say honestly say that I love Jesus (although I don’t usually phrase it that way, it’s quite religious sounding) and find tremendous meaning and inspiration in his teachings and example. I always have to balance this with the fact that I don’t believe in Christian doctrines which Christian rulers, councils, and Church Fathers have proclaimed with the supposed authority of God and the Holy Spirit. There are enough problems with Christianity that I feel I’m being more honest with myself by not calling myself Christian. I also believe creating some separation of identity challenges doctrinal and other issues of Christianity more effectively and clearly.

So if Mormons think of themselves as Christians because of what they see in Jesus and a commitment to be his follower, then in my mind this is a subtle statement that their church’s doctrines and differences aren’t that important – they are secondary or even lower in priority. This would represent a quiet but profound critique of religion. I applaud that, but for things to change, a little more volume is needed from people within religious communities!

Conclusion: Ask Mormon Girl

At the beginning of this (hopefully not too lengthy) post, I mentioned that the subject of Mormonism and Christianity has provided some avenues for good discussion and questioning. The documentary I cited is one, and another is a blog called Ask Mormon Girl, written by Joanna Brooks. She started the blog to field questions about Mormonism when it hit the spotlight due to Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency.

I find Joanna fascinating because she’s a liberal professor (and also a woman of course) who loves and cherishes Mormonism while at the same time being extremely upset and frustrated by some of its teachings and culture. She’s married to another professor who is Jewish, and they’re raising their children in both faiths. This is surprising and bound to be confusing to some, but this is one aspect of interspirituality: taking the best from different religions and traditions without passing on the baggage. I can only imagine that this is what they’re doing!

In her posts, Brooks reflects on Mormon beliefs, their fallacies, the positive sides of her faith, and she answers readers’ questions. Many people from different faiths leave comments and ask salient questions. Many know that their religion and its leaders do not always (or even mostly!) teach the truth and that their leaders have upheld racist, sexist, or other destructive views. Some of these readers disagree with the exclusivity of their church (i.e. believing that their church/religion is the only way to salvation or a fulfilled life). Many have left their church, but many have stayed because they still desire aspects of the community and social life, focus on prayer and internal growth, and so on.

So I wonder if her blog is not doing more good than, or certainly in addition to, atheist critiques of religion. Her blog is a place where people can be real, ask questions without fear of judgment, and get advice from others who are similarly attracted to religion and spirituality but are wary of its problems, hypocrisy, and doctrines. Thank you, Joanna, for the service to the world and the safe space you are providing.

An in-your-face atheism works for some people and can even be profoundly liberating. But a more balanced approach is needed for others who have spiritual and religious inclinations. If questioning and searching is encouraged without resorting solely to cold, hard atheist facts (which are usually at least mostly right by the way!), people may have the seeds planted inside them that will later mature into an open-minded, life-affirming spirituality. We need to be aware that questioning religious beliefs is difficult, requires support, and that for different people there are different ways of encouraging it in a compassionate way.