Lent us upon us, and I´ve been thinking about religion. In particular I´ve been going over how so many of our prophets were enlightened in the wilderness. It seems to me that is something all religions share, how their founders went out alone into the desert, or climbed a mountain, and were there inspired. I´m not an expert, but I cannot recall a single case of someone “hearing the call” while at a temple, or during a ceremony.
It may seem odd for a biologist and environmentalist to offer up his opinion on matters transcendent. And frankly I hesitated on sharing these thoughts out of fear of offending someone. If I manage to do so, please know that is not my intent. But the truth is that all naturalists have been inspired by the spiritual comforts they found in nature. That is sort of the whole point of conservation. That we tend to overlook, or deliberately ignore, the spiritual lives of scientists is one of the problems I have with how Science is practiced.
The problem I have with Religion is that it tries to offer intellectual answers to questions whose only admissible answer is Love.
I must admit that many times I have thought the opposite, that the greatest weakness of the religious is a rejection of reason in favor of blind faith. However, “Because the Bible (or Torah, or Koran) says so!”, is still a reason. It is not a very good one. In fact its a terrible one, perhaps the worst there is. But it is still an effort to explain the inexplicable, the unknowable. And I´m starting to think that the problem isn’t that Religion’s reasoning is faulty, but rather that it attempts to reason at all.
Science is good at what it does because it knows its limits. It measures and predicts that which is measurable and predictable. However, increased knowledge does not make us happy. Hell, it doesn’t even make us smarter. We know more about our world than we ever have before, and yet we are destroying it in ways which would have been not only inconceivable but more importantly, unacceptable to our more “ignorant” ancestors.
And so science, which is great at telling us how things work, is at a loss when it comes to telling us how to Live. When faced with such unmeasurable realities as Doubt, Fear, Heartache, Anger, Loss, Greed, Envy and Grief, what we need is not more facts (or pills), it is more wisdom: more humility, more compassion, more generosity, more empathy. In a word, more Love.
Religion remains popular, in my opinion, not so much because of its effectiveness at dealing with these issues, but because we don´t know where else to turn. But religion is actually pretty terrible at what it does. From everyday shaming, through corruption and abuse, to flat out wars, religion consistently delivers the opposite of what it promises.
Perhaps this is why more and more people identify as “spiritual, but not religious”. They long to acknowledge their thirst for “something more”, but also to expose the fraud by which they’ve been victimised.
Because religion which does not comfort, does not elevate, does not free us, does not unite us, is useless. And when it actually pits us against each other, it is worse than worthless. It is evil.
And I think the problem lies with trying to explain the unknowable, and organize the intangible. Religion attempts this through stories, rules and rituals which, for the most part, divide us. But however baffling these tools are, they are still intellectual answers to spiritual questions. And trying to address the needs of the spirit with reason is like trying to solve hunger by talking about food.
Because if we are honest, none of us know the will of God, or even know what God is. In fact, I doubt we could even agree on what Life is; let alone whether it serves a purpose or has a meaning. So why not embrace that uncertainty? For it unites us all: true believers, heretics and atheists.
Let us remember that all humanity, in all its glory and horror, is still just a minuscule fraction of Creation itself. And at best our understanding can only glimpse for an instant at tiny fragments that hint of the whole, but never reveal it. And so all our rituals & ceremonies are but poor symbolic representations of a Universe that we gaze upon with myopic eyes. Our dogmas are bad translations of snippets overheard in a language that we’ve only just begun to study.
And so I propose religion surrender the realm of knowledge to science once and for all. And instead let religion reclaim Mystery. Let her embrace those Truths which are meant to be experienced, rather than explained. Give up any pretence of religious “facts”, and while we´re at it, let religion give up her opinions as well. And let religion instead deal in Hope, Joy & Peace.
Amid tragedy, let religion refrain from seeking answers (leave that to science!) or casting blame (leave that to law enforcement), and instead offer unconditional comfort.
Before doubt and troubles, let her abstain from spouting hollow answers, and offer up instead the simple empathy of an ear to bend and a shoulder to cry on.
And instead of relying on temples & sacraments, rituals & ceremonies, let religion return to Nature, for surely the work of God holds greater lessons for us than the hands of man.
In our increasingly noisy and busy world, let religion resurrect the lost art of being still, of keeping quiet in silent contemplation.
And let her worry not so much about where we are headed, but rather about where we are, and whether it is a place of Love.
David Nuñez is a biologist, photographer and author of several books on the Wildlife of the Mexican Caribbean, as well as a founding member of Mexiconservación.