Tag Archives: expansive religion

Buddhism: A Better Way


I recommend a wonderful little book written by Karen Armstrong called Buddha.  I love good small books.

I find Buddhism in many ways to be a surprisingly congenial religion.  Partly this is because it is very different from most other religions, especially the three severe monotheistic religions that were born in the Middle East.

For one thing, Buddha, unlike most religious leaders always wanted the members to think for themselves rather than relying on a charismatic leader. He expected his followers to exercise their own critical judgment. That is unlike almost all religious leaders.

Buddha believed that he became enlightened when he awoke to the truth that he had found embedded in the deepest structure of existence itself. He found that truth in himself, and believed that anyone could do the same.  In fact, he believed it was necessary for each individual to experience that himself or herself, or the experience would not be genuine.  That is why, again unlike other religions, the Buddha did not try to elicit faith. He did not want faith.  He wanted each of us to experience the truth ourselves.  He would be willing to help or guide us to this experience, but he could not tell us the truth.  He could not tell us how to find it. That was our job.

Only then would each of us could become a Buddha.  That is what enlightenment is.  One becomes a Buddha.  For the same reason one should not revere the man, the Buddha, it was rather his teaching, the dhamma (or sometimes dharma)that was important.  The word is used in multiple Indian religions. In Buddhism, dharma means something like  “cosmic law and order” but is also applied to the teachings of the Buddha.  Reverence for the man would just interfere with one’s ability to experience the truth.

Similarly, one would not be able to get any help from the gods. Unlike other religious groups again, the Buddhist cannot expect any supernatural help to achieve enlightenment. Buddha believed that these truths embedded in existence were entirely naturalto human beings and could be experienced by any genuine seeker free from distraction.  Buddha therefore refused to make belief in a Supreme Being part of the creed.  One could believe in that if one chose, but it was not a necessary part of the enlightenment.

One of the beautiful aspects of Buddhism that really attracts me is this expansiveness or inclusiveness.  It is willing to accept that there is more than one way to enlightenment.  To someone brought up in the Christian religion that seems impossible. The Buddha just says how heachieved it. There might be other ways.  It is up to each of us to achieve and experience the way on our own.  If belief in a Supreme Being helps us to experience enlightenment so much the better for us.  If it is not necessary that is all right too.

What the seeker sought was peace free from all the travails of life. As a result “the new religion sought inner depth rather than magical control. The Absolute could be found in everything, including oneself.  Buddha was within each of us, all we had to do was find it in ourselves.  As a result, again, unlike many less congenial religions there was therefore no need for a priestly elite.  We are expected to experience the enlightenment directly, without an intermediary.  In fact, that is the onlyway one can experience it.

Prior to Buddha the religions of India were generally extremely ascetic.  One was expected to renounce all pleasure and desire.  In fact according to some sects one was expected to seek out suffering and pain to help achieve enlightenment.  While Buddha realized that often in life we were distracted by our desires and our search for personal pleasures, he did not preach asceticism.  That too could become a distraction.  Instead he advocated a middle way between the two extremes.  We must be free from domination in order to find enlightenment. We have to be truly free.

What the enlightened one would have to achieve would be a genuine compassion for others.  Complete fellow feeling for all creatures of the earth, not just humans. Selfishness would have to be overcome. Concern for others required in other words a complete subjection to the Golden rule.  “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”  This is exactly what I have been saying about religions.Especially for laymen who had not experienced yoga training one could not expect that they lay aside all concern for themselves. I would suggest it is impossible in event and not desirable.   However they would be expected not to be imprisoned by self interest.  One would be expected to have genuine fellow feeling for others.  One would have to have the ability to empathize and sympathize with the plight of all other creatures.

To me this is a very congenial religion.

Darwin: The Greatest Religious Thinker?


Charles Darwin is reviled by many evangelical Christians. Some of them have suggested that Darwin’s theory of evolution is a godless philosophy that removes the sacred from the world.  I disagree. Not only that, I turn this around 180º. Darwin’s theory of evolution is a theory of great and profound beauty.  In fact, I think it is profoundly religious.

To Darwin, all life is one. All organisms are different branches of the same tree of life. This is a deeply marvellous idea that all of lifeincluding human life, is united on this planet.  There is solidarity to all of life.  I do not find this notion anti-religious.  In fact I would say this goes back to the original root of the word religion from its Indio origin, which was ‘connection.’  This is the original meaning of “religious”.  In fact I would go so far as to say that any so-called religion, which leads to separation of humans from each other, or from all of life, is deeply un-religious.

Typically fundamentalists around the world, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or whatever, try from time to time to usurp the meaning of religious to their own narrow purposes. When they try to expropriate the meaning of the world “religious” for their own restrictive and exclusive purposes they ought to be resisted strongly.

The most extreme versions of these religious beliefs have in the past turned to murderous doctrines.  Some famous examples include the Christian crusaders, Muslim terrorists, and Sikh assassins, to name only a few from a vast legion of candidates.  To these people I would suggest that as the button my wife Chris owned  said, ‘When religion turns to hate, it is no longer religion.’  Religion that does not help us to connect with others, or connect with the world, is no religion worth having. It is actually sacrilegious.

Darwin’s views in this sense are fundamentally religious.  In Darwin’s day the claim that humans and chimpanzees had a lot in common was a radical claim.  Remember there was no science of genetics or DNA at that time. Since then of course a lot of confirming evidence has been gathered.  First, there has been substantial fossil evidence which suggests that chimpanzees and humans had a common ancestor as Darwin claimed, and as many have been loath to admit ever since.  Remember Elmer Gantry, played by Burt Lancaster in the movie about the travelling evangelical preacher who had a chimp on stage and said to the crowd, ‘this may be your uncle, but he sure ain’t mine.’

In the late twentieth century scientists started gathering convincing evidence from DNA, which has led to the same conclusion.  Scientists have found that all living things have DNA.  For example organisms as diverse as frogs, bacteria, and humans all have DNA and the DNA evidence has been used to show how close the various species are to each other.  The DNA of humans and chimps is very similar.  DNA sequences which are read letter by letter indicate that humans and chimpanzees are in fact a stunning 98% identical.  They are basically the same.  Cut from the same cloth.  Scientists in fact now generally believe that the DNA evidence indicates that humans and chimpanzees did in fact have a common ancestor only a few million years ago.  This is very recently on the evolutionary time scale.  This could be compared with humans and rats who also had a common ancestor, but this was more like 80 – 100 million years ago.  This shows that greater changes occur over a greater period of time, but also shows that even humans and rats, which do not feel much fellow feeling for each, once had a common ancestor.

There is even growing evidence that humans and chimpanzees think and act in similar ways.  This is further evidence of their commonality, or close relationship. Researchers have found that chimps can gain complex cognition and even have the ability to count.  They don’t learn to count in the wild, because it is not necessary for their survival, but they can learn to count.  Chimps can even grasp complex notions like the concept of zero. Such evidence too suggests that chimps have a great deal of commonality with humans.  Humans and chimps even share the same blood types.

Many scientists now believe that this evidence points to the fact that chimps and humans did in fact have common ancestor as Darwin suggested.

For some reason the line of development or evolution, which led to humans led to an explosive development of mental capacity.  Natural selection favoured the evolution of organisms that could communicate, manipulate symbols, and construct language.  These were obviously evolutionary advantages for this species.

Some see this view of Darwin’s as basically irreligious since it seems to remove the concept of a divine creator from the world.  It actually doesn’t. Darwin himself believed in God. However, this does not make these views irreligious.  As I have said, I think these views instead demonstrate a fine sense of true religion in its original Indio sense of connection.  Darwin himself said in his monumental Origin of the Species, “there is a grandeur in this view of life with its several powers having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one, and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the 6th law of gravity from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.”  Darwin did not remove God, but he did naturalize creation.

In my view the thought of Darwin is deeply religious.  Much more than the views of murderous fundamentalists or noisy evangelicals who so often seem to hog the stage.  Even though many people hold that Darwin removed God from science, he found an elemental connection between man and all living things.  I cannot think of anything more religious than that.  And that is what religion is ultimately about.  Connection.  It is not about what narrow beliefs one has about what to eat on what days, or whether the world was created exactly 4004 years ago.  No, religion is about a lot more important things than that, no matter what narrow-minded people think and preach.

Darwin’s view that we are all connected on the tree of life, is contrasted starkly by the views of Christian fundamentalists, and extremists of all religions, that they are superior to all others.  They want to be separate and apart from heathens, to say nothing of all life. They believe that they will go to everlasting pleasure in heaven while others will go to everlasting pain in hell. Such fanatics see an unbridgeable gap between them and other humans, to say nothing of them and other organisms. These are the most profoundly irreligious views imaginable.  Nothing could be more sacrilegious than that. I much prefer Darwin. In fact, I think he was one of the greatest of religious thinkers.

A Better way: Expansive religion

I have been critical of evangelical religion. That is what I am surrounded by here in Steinbach. Some of my friends have suggested that I have criticized a straw man—i.e. a religion that is easy to attack and no one subscribes to any longer.  I disagree.

In North America it a very large religious sector. That is particularly true in the United States, but in other pockets, like Steinbach, as well. It is also rapidly growing. A lot faster than the many more liberal Christian sects. It is also very influential.  Evangelicals were a major source of support for Donald Trump in the 2016 American presidential elections, as odd as that sounds. Evangelicals are by no means a “straw man”.

Because I have been critical I don’t want people to think that I believe everything is bad about religion. Far from it. I don’t want to be a nattering nabob of negativity to quote Spiro Agnew. In fact, I think there is a better way. I refer to it as expansive religion, rather than exclusive religion. It is religion that has jettisoned the old beliefs in invincible superiority of our religion over all others. Instead it sees what is held in common by religions.

Religions are so many and so varied it is very difficult (but not impossible) to find what they have in common. Some religions have dogma; others have none. Some religions believe in an afterlife; others don’t. Some religions have a God; others subsist without one. Some religions have beliefs and those that do have beliefs, they  vary widely, if not extravagantly. What then do religions have in common? I think you have to go back to the original meaning of the word “religious” for an answer.

Religion is based on an Indio-Asian word  “religio” which basically meant connection or linkage.  In other words, religion is what connects us or links us.  To what you might ask?  I think that what religion tries to link us to is first of all other people, but also other creatures, and even, ultimately, all life itself.  What connects us is religious; what severs that connection is blasphemy. That is my fundamental religious belief.

My wife once had a pendant  which she wore that said something to the effect that “if religion leads to hate it’s not religion.”  I have likely mangled the exact wording.  Yet the thought I think is clear and very important.  It goes back to that original concept of the word “religion.”

So religion is closely allied to the concept of fellow feeling or empathy.  If we have fellow feeling for others, or other creatures, or other life forms, we are acting religiously.  If we don’t, we are acting irreligiously. That is because without fellow feeling or empathy we are no longer connecting we are dividing  from each other. That is the opposite of religion.

Thus religion is based on fellow feeling.  The most important part of religion is the golden rule.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  In fact, it’s interesting that almost all religions endorse that principle as a fundamental principle.  I think it is the fundamental principle of religion.  All religions!  It is what connects us to others.  Do unto them, as you would have them do unto you. If you do you are acting religiously; if you don’t you are acting irreligiously.

I am not a religious person in any traditional sense of the word “religious.” However, I feel that the so-called “religious people” have hijacked this word for their own purposes.  I want to reclaim the word.  I feel that many people have tarnished the word “religion.” They use it to divide people rather than connect people. In  my opinion, they are sacrilegious no matter how many pious words they use.  In fact, I think it is them that are not religious, not I.

I think these things are important.  I resent those who in the name of religion try to disconnect us from others.  I resent those who try to claim that religion is a matter of us against them.  I particularly resent those that think that religion is a means of saying we’re better than them because our religion is better than their religion. That is the original sin. Worst of all are those who say those who believe like me are going to heaven forever, and those who don’t, are going to hell where they will suffer torment forever. That’s not religion at all. That’s the opposite of religion.

I intend to expand on these thoughts.