Category Archives: religion

Is Hell the Answer?


Some people think Hell provides an answer to the problem of evil. The parents who tortured their 5-year old child will be punished with eternal damnation for their crime. Does that make it right? What is hell? It is only divine vengeance? Some people believe in vengeance. Ivan didn’t. Neither do I. Even if the vengeance is levied by God. Vengeance brings no justice. It heals nothing. It makes nothing right.

As Ivan asks of the hideously cruel parents who made their 5-year-old girl stay in the freezing cold stinking outhouse all night, begging gentle Jesus for help, what good does it to do put them in hell. Ivan asks this question: “What good would it do to send the monsters to hell after they have inflicted their suffering on children? How can their being in hell put things right?” That’s not the help the little girl was praying for from gentle Jesus. She wanted Jesus to stop the pain. And he failed at that.

Ivan asks another good question

 “Besides, what sort of harmony can there be as long as there is a hell? To me harmony means forgiving and embracing everybody and I don’t want anyone to suffer any more. And if the suffering of little children is needed to complete the sum total of suffering to pay for the truth, I don’t want that truth, and I declare in advance that all the truth in the world is not worth the price!…No I want no part of any harmony; I don’t want it. I don’t want it out of love for mankind. I prefer to remain with my unavenged suffering and my unappeased anger—even if I happen to be wrong.


That is the truly amazing part of Ivan’s rebellion. Even if he is wrong and God provides a satisfactory answer for why he permitted children to suffer so cruelly, Ivan wants no part of that, even if he is wrong!

Unlike all the modern terrorists, or revolutionaries, he does not look for some harmony in the future to justify the pain. Nothing justifies the pain of that 5-year-old girl. “Such harmony is rather overpriced,” says Ivan.

Ivan tells his brother Alyosha that he is returning the ticket from God. Echoing, Albert Camus, Alyosha says “that is rebellion. Ivan finishes this discussion by asking Alyosha another question:

“…let’s assume that you were called upon to build the edifice of human destiny so that men would finally be happy and would find peace and tranquility. If you knew that in order to attain this, you would have to torture one single little creature, let’s say the little girl who beat her chest so desperately in the outhouse, and that on her unavenged tears you could have built that edifice  would you agree to it?”


And Alyosha replied, “No I would not.” Even the one truly deeply religious and most saintly of the Karamazovs would not accept such a price.

As moral philosophers would say,  that end does not justify that means!

And of course, neither Alyosha nor Ivan is like God—all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. God should have been able to find a better way. Why didn’t he?

None of the Karamazovs are able to answer that question.



From a Distance


Julie Gold in her magnificent song, “From a Distance” was engaged in her own modern religious quest. Here are the lyrics to that song:


“From a distance the world looks blue and green
And the snow-capped mountains white
From a distance the ocean meets the stream
And the eagle takes to flight

From a distance there is harmony
And it echoes thru the land
It’s the voice of hope
It’s the voice of peace
It’s the voice of every man

From a distance we all have enough
And no one is in need
There are no guns, no bombs, no diseases
No hungry mouths to feed

From a distance we are instruments
Marching in a common band
Playing songs of hope
Playing songs of peace
They’re the songs of every man

God is watching us
God is watching us
God is watching us, from a distance”


Ivan Karamazov in the novel The Brothers Karamazov asked a very important question: Can any future good justify the tears of that 5-year-old girl freezing in the outhouse in which her mother locked her for some minor offence,  all night begging gentle Jesus for help? You tell me.


Will it make sense in some day in the future when the mystery is revealed to us and we understand what God understands?  Will that answer provide the answers we need?


Dostoevsky, of course never heard Julie’s song but he did consider such an answer. This is what Ivan said in the book:

“I want to be here when everybody understands why the world has been arranged the way it is. It is on that craving for understanding that all human religions are founded. So I am a believer.”


I think Ivan, who is always referred to as an atheist, claims, claims to believe in God. He says he has faith. Faith that an answer will be provided?


Yet even Ivan, after saying he is a believer, asks, “What about the children?” Ivan says any answer they will get that is powerful enough for all creatures on earth to shout hosanna, will still not be good enough for him. That is the day of universal harmony when the answer to his questions will be revealed and universal harmony restored to the world. Then we will learn everything that will prove to us that it was all worthwhile. The evil and suffering in the world will be justified by the end obtained. The problem of evil will be solved on that day we now can see only from a distance.


But Ivan cannot accept even that. As he says, “that’s just the hurdle I can’t get over, because I cannot agree that it makes everything right. Ivan says,

“I have no wish to be a part of their universal harmony. It’s not worth one single little tear of that martyred little girl who beat her breast with her tiny little fist, shedding her tear and praying to sweet Jesus to rescue her in the stinking outhouse. It’s not worth it because that will have remained unatoned for. And those tears must be atoned for; otherwise, there can be no harmony.”


At least for Ivan Karmamazov, Julie Gold is wrong. There is no harmony.




The Great Rebellion


One of the great themes in the novel The Brothers Karamazov is the problem of evil. In other words, is the fact that evil exists in the world proof that God does not exist. If God is all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful, as most believe, how could God allow evil to exist? Sice evil exists, it is argued, God cannot exist.


In the novel, Ivan Karamazov says “I’m not properly equipped to deal with matters that are not of this world.” In other words, he cannot fathom how this world makes sense and finds no solace in saying it is mysterious and will all make sense when we are in the world that follows. To him that is no answer to the problem of evil. It is not good enough to say we will learn in the next world why evil was necessary. Yet, amazingly, he accepts that it makes sense, even though it does not appear that way. This is hard to untangle. As Ivan tells his brother, Alyosha,

“I would advise you too Alyosha never to worry about these matters, least of all whether He exists or not. All such problems are quite unsuitable for a mind created to conceive only three dimensions. And so not only do I readily accept God, but I also accept his wisdom and his purpose, of which we really know absolutely nothing, the divine order of things, the meaning of life, and the eternal harmony into which we are all to be refused.”


Even though we don’t know these things we must accept them. Ivan says, “I believe in his Word.”  In other words, he has faith. I think that is what he means. What else could he mean?  Yet, there is something he does not accept.  As Ivan says,

“I do not accept this God-made world, although I know that it exists. I absolutely refuse to admit its existence. I want you to understand that it is not God that I refuse to accept, but the world that he has created.—what I do not accept and cannot accept is the God-created world.”


What Ivan cannot accept is a world in which children suffer. How could a loving God create such a world?  And if it is necessary for a child to suffer—even just one child—Ivan cannot accept that. Yet Ivan, despite that,  amazingly has faith. Or at least that is what I call it. Dostoevsky does not use that word. He uses a different word, “trust.” That might be a better word. As Ivan says,

“…let me make it clear that, like a babe, I trust that the wounds will heal, and the scars will vanish, that the sorry and ridiculous spectacle of man’s disagreements and clashes will disappear like a pitiful mirage, like the sordid invention of a puny,  microscopic, Euclidian, human brain, and that in the end, in the universal finale, at the moment universal harmony is achieved, something so magnificent will take place that it will satisfy every human heart, allay all indignation, pay for all human crimes, for all the blood shed by men, and justify everything that has happened to men.  Well that day may come to pass—but I personally still do not accept this world. I refuse to accept it!”


That is the great rebellion of Ivan Karamazov. Nothing can make him accept a world in which a child must spend an entire night freezing in a shed at night until he dies.  Nothing can justify that in Ivan’s eyes. Even if it is a miracle. This is the magnificent rebellion of Ivan Karamazov. The only rebellion that compares to it is the rebellion of Huck Finn who will go to hell rather than give up his friend Jim. These, I think are the two most astounding rebellions in all of English literature and they are what makes this novel and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the two greatest novels ever! Both novels embody magnificent rebellions against what they find on their religious quest.

The Problem of Evil: Tortured Children


One of the greatest problems in the history of religious thought is the problem of evil.  In its simplest form it goes like this: How can God exist if evil exists? If evil exists that means there is no God. Dostoevsky deals with that problem in The Brothers Karamazov in a remarkable way.

In a lengthy discussion with his highly religious brother Alyosha ,  Ivan Karamazov—the man of reason—considers the problem through a number of case in which parents torture their young children. These adults “have a passion for inflicting pain on children.” These people are kind and gentle to adults, but enjoy torturing children. Ivan says,

 “They even love the children because of the tortures they inflict upon them. What excites them is the utter helplessness of the little creatures. The angelic trustfulness of the child who has nowhere to turn for help—yes that’s what sets the vicious blood of the torturer afire.”

What could be more evil than such a parent? How is this possible? It seems incomprehensible. No, it is incomprehensible. But Ivan has collected stories of this phenomenon. He even claims “many people have this trait.”

Ivan described the actions of the little girl’s parents this way in horrible detail:

“…these refined parent parents subjected their five-year-old girl to all kinds of torture. They beat her, kicked her, flogged her, for no reason that they themselves knew of. The child’s whole body was covered with bruises. Eventually they devised a new refinement. Under the pretext that the child dirtied her bed (as though a five-year-old deep in angelic sleep could be punished for that), they forced her to eat excrement, smearing it all over her face. And it was the mother who did it! And then that woman would lock her little daughter up in the outhouse until morning, and she did so even on the coldest nights, when it was freezing. Just imagine the woman being able to sleep with the child’s cries coming from that infamous outhouse! Imagine the little creature unable to understand what is happening to her, beating her sore little chest with her tiny fist, weeping hot, unresentful, meek tears and begging ‘gentle Jesus’ to help her and all this happening in that icy, dark stinking place! Do you understand this nonsensical thing, my dear friend, my brother you novice who is so eager to spend his life in service  of God? Tell me, do you understand the purpose of that absurdity? Who needs it and why was it created? They say that man could not do without it on earth, for otherwise he would not be able to learn the difference between good and evil. But I say I’d rather not know about their damned good and evil than pay such a terrible price for it.  I feel that all universal knowledge is not worth that child’s tears  when she was begging ‘gentle Jesus’ to help her! I’m not even talking about the suffering of adults: they at least have eaten their apple of knowledge, so the hell with them. But its different when it comes to children.”


I feel that Dostoevsky has put the problem of evil as strongly as it could be put. What in this world could possible make those tears of that freezing child worth it? Ivan suggests nothing could. Do you disagree? Who could possibly disagree. How could a loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God permit that to happen? Even truth is not worth it. Even freedom is not worth it? The entire world is not worth it.

Ivan also says there is no way out. He says no remote future harmony is good enough either to justify it.

 Ivan asked his angelic brother Alyosha what he thought of this mystery.  His answer, “I want to suffer too.” Is that an answer? It is not a rational answer as far as I can see. Yet, compassion, fellow feeling is the only possible response that makes any sense. It can’t possibly justify what happened.  But no logic can provide a satisfactory answer. No reason can provide an answer. It would only be what Ivan calls “Euclidian gibberish.” What faith could provide a justification? What retribution could provide a solution? Personally, I see no way out.

Using Artificial Intelligence to Amplify the worst of religion


Somewhere on this trip to the southern USA I also learned  that in India spiritual guides are giving advice to truth seekers.  Nothing really unusual about that, in the most religious country in the world. India, not the United States has earned that designation. But this time there is a difference. The spiritual guides are AI Chatbots! Spiritual advice is being given online by machines without human intervention. Apparently, thousands of people have signed up for the spiritual advice from the Bhagavad Gita an epic scripture that has the answers to all our problems.  Many Indians in the past have got spiritual advice from that source but not with the twist of AI to tailor the advice to you!


According to Salimah Shivji of the CBC, people are now fearful that some will use religion online to spike up political violence?  This is not impossible. We have all seen what happened in the US in earlier elections. As well, look at some of the things American televangelists have done. Much of it does not inspire confidence. After all, the internet is quite capable of amplifying the worst of religion, just as it currently does with politics!


Christian Radio Blues


Traveling through the USA by car is an amazing experience. This is a country that is full of surprises. And they never end. On the second day of our trip,  I marvelled at the radio stations in South Dakota. Mainly Christian stations. Preachers preaching. Choirs singing. Holiness on the march.  Dull, dull, dull in other words. To me the stations seem sad. Boringly sad. Selling fantasies for cheap. To me these Christian radio stations are about as interesting as muzak in elevators.  I know others will disagree with me on this so I hope we can just agree  to disagree, From my perspective I was thankful there were a few National Public Radio stations to break up the monotony with some genuine conversation.

Chief Seattle: An Old Attitude to nature can provide a New Attitude to Nature


A few years ago, in New Zealand I purchased a poster containing the complete text of the response by Chief Seattle to the President of United States to his offer to purchase land from his tribe, which I posted about yesterday.  I had only read part of it before.  It was one of the most eloquent statements I have ever heard about a genuine approach to nature that was, to some extent, the position of  many North American indigenous people.  It was radically different from the approach of the arriving Europeans.

I recognize that there is controversy over the extent to which this version or any other version accurately records what Chief Seattle said to the President, but I believe the general tenor of the letter records a profound philosophy which I am content to ascribe to Chief Seattle as I don’t know who better deserves the credit for it. I certainly think the thoughts deserve our attention.

The renowned English philosopher A. N. Whitehead once said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” I think the same things can be said about Chief Seattle. At least as far as environmental philosophy goes. And to think I learned absolutely nothing of it in 4 years of university studying philosophy, proving how deficient my education was at that time, nearly 50 years ago.

Chief Seattle was a Suquamish and Duwamish chief in what we now call western North America. The city of Seattle, in the U.S. state of Washington, was named after him.

As Chief Seattle said,


“We are part of the earth and it is part of us.

The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers.

The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man—all belong to the same family.”


Another way of saying is to say we are all kin. All people and all creatures of the natural world are kin. This basic premise has profound philosophical consequences. For if we recognize that we are all kin we ought to treat each other, and other creatures too, with respect.  I will get to Darwin later, for he gave the scientific basis for this view. I cherish the idea that indigenous philosophy and western science are deeply interwoven. Realizing that also has profound consequences.

To many of the First Nations of North America, they saw themselves as a part of their world.  Their philosophies vary from tribe to tribe, but a common thread, is the recognition that the Earth is our Mother and we are all together. We are all connected. We are all part of Mother Earth. Earth is not separate and apart from us. We are woven together.  This is profound fellow feeling. This philosophy recognizes that what we do to nature we do to ourselves. That is what I call affinity.


This idea also has profound significance in the history of religious thought.  The Indo-European word “religio , which is the root of the word religion, means “linkage” or “connection” and is in my view the basis of all major religions. In fact, it is the core of all religions. More on this later.

I never learned any indigenous philosophy while I pursued a 4 year Honours Arts program in philosophy and English literature. I never even heard of indigenous philosophy. I did not even think such a thing was possible.

This philosophy echoes or even sums up much of what I have learned over the years, starting with German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s concept of being-in-the-world.  Only Chief Seattle was much more clear and easier to understand, without being any less profound than Martin Heidegger.  The natives of North America often felt a deep connection to the land.  They felt that they were a part of it.  To the Europeans on the other hand, nature was a resource ready to be exploited.  And from these two disparate attitudes springs much that is wrong with western society.

This is an old attitude to nature, which I am proposing as a new attitude to nature. It owuld be a worthy replacement for the old western attitude,.

Chief Seattle’s statement is a stunning statement about humans and nature, and all the more amazing because a “savage” (as he was wrongly called made it in 1854. Who was the savage?


Ancestral Spirituality

Great House

Like many other Indigenous people of North America in a number of other places, the Great House of the Ancestral People of the Sonoran Desert was carefully aligned with the sun. In fact, 17 different astronomical observations could be made from the Great House.  First of all, the house was carefully aligned between North and South.


There was also a round hole “window” that once each year lined up perfectly with the sun on the day of the summer solstice. Another rectangular hole carefully marked the spring and fall equinoxes.


As well one square window lined up with the Lunar Standstill that occurred every 18.6 years. What is the Lunar Standstill? For the first half of each year, the moon rises during the day in phases from near-full to a mere thin crescent, rising earlier each month from early afternoon to early morning. In July, the moon rises between the rocks as a nearly invisible new moon around dawn. From August through November, the waxing moon rising between the rocks, ranges from crescent to nearly full. Moonrise continues to come earlier each month, from just before dawn to just before sunset. Finally, the full moon rises between the rocks at sunset near the Winter Solstice in December. The duration of the moon’s passing between the spires was different for each rising but generally lasted from five to fifteen minutes.


The moon’s orbit of Earth oscillates or wobbles, gradually causing the moon to rise at different points on the horizon over the years.  Actually, I never learned that the orbit of the moon around the earth is not as perfect as I thought. The entire cycle of the wobbling moon takes 18.6 years, and apparently the Ancestral people of the Sonoran Desert understood these imperfections, because they had observed. Even though I have never observed them. Have you?


At the termination of each of the swings of the moon, the moon seems to pause for about 3 years! There was such an apparent pause in 2021 and one in 2004.


At each end of its swing, the moon appears to pause for about three years, rising at the same point on the horizon before beginning to move. The cycle is complicated. That apparent pause is called the Lunar Standstill. There are places in North and South America where the indigenous people noticed these movements and sometimes built structures to take these movements into account. They paid a lot of attention to how these movements aligned with local landmarks such as rocks rising above the horizon.


No one is sure exactly why these alignments were produced, but they do show the sophisticated knowledge of astronomy that the Ancestral People had. I have my own theory.  Religion at its foundation is about connecting people to each other, other creatures, and the world. These alignments help establish these connections.



When we get the glorious opportunity to visit a place like Casa Grande or one of the other sacred sites of North America we can’t help but wonder who were these amazing people who built these astounding canals and structures and then watched the sky so intently. What were they looking for in the sky? Those first Spanish missionaries asked the locals here why that was the case, but the indigenous people had a difficult time explaining it to the newcomers. Perhaps they thought the new arrivals were too ignorant to understand.


To indigenous people of the American Southwest, as in so many other places around the world, the fundamental notion of spirituality and religion came from the notion of connection. That was always, at least until recently, the basis of religion around the world. In India the original meaning of the word “religion” comes from the Indo-European word “religio, which means connection or linkage. Religion is what connects us. It connects us to other people, and it connects us to the world.


In many North American languages, the name for the tribe means “the people”.  In other words, we are the people. Many North and South American people saw the connection between them and the world in how the stars or other celestial bodies aligned with the lives of people. It connected them to each other. It was the same with the ancestral people of the Sonoran Desert.


Unfortunately, adherents to some of the monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam forget the importance of connection and instead concentrate on what divides us from other people or the world. They see religion as something that makes them superior to others. In my opinion when this happens religion has gone off the rails, and in fact, in some cases is not actually religion at all, but its opposite.  Religion can become sacrilegious!


These odd alignments are all part of the mystery about the purpose behind the Great House.  It took an astonishing amount of human labor to create the house, but it was abandoned within about 75 years, even though the Ancestral People inhabited the area for more than 1,000 years. According to Rose Houk,


Modern archeologists have observed such an alignment of the sun through a “window” in an upper room of Casa Grande, marking the summer solstice. They have suggested that the “great house” may have been used as an astronomical observatory, one of several ideas about this enigmatic, imposing structure that stands out in the desert of central Arizona. Others have seen the four-story building as a fort, a granary, or a silo.  Whatever the truth, the Casa Grande’s significance was recognized early on when it became the nation’s first archaeological preserve in 1892.

The indigenous people here who consider themselves the descendants of the Ancient Ancestral Sonoran Desert people call this sacred place Siwan Wa’a Ki. To them it is a place to come and sing songs to the Huhugam Spirts. The non-O’odham call this sacred place Casa Grande Ruin. It was well known to their people and was mentioned in the O’odham legends.

What is clear is that this is a place Great Spirit.

The Land of true believers


When we were in Texas, Chris remarked that there the churches are built to look like shopping malls. Is that done to attract and maintain the interest of people? Or is because to the believers of Texas, commerce was sacred and shopping is prayer?


Chris let out a bit of rant in a small town in New Mexico where we dined for lunch. A small family at the next table conspicuously prayed before dining. There is nothing wrong with that of course, but she immediately felt they were fanatics! This was not a fair evaluation, but we believe it was her reaction to zealotry.  Zealotry is all around us these days, nowhere more so than America. Often it is in the form of fanaticism. It is often not attractive.


Seeing these adherents felt like it we were back in the company of the Convoy protesters back home continually bearing Canadian flags on both side of the hoods of their vehicles. That experience has poisoned the Canadian flag for us. This is an insignificant fact, but it reveals something important. The cost of fanaticism is high. And these feelings came from a woman who not that long ago counted herself as a good Catholic. Zealots can ruin some pretty good stuff.

Religion in America is always interesting, but not always attractive.


Group Thinks v. Long Thinks


In the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck encounters a number of deep moral dilemmas. The biggest of course is whether or not he should help Jim a slave escape from his “rightful owner” a woman who had never done him any harm. Huck “knows” what he should do. His conscience tells him that. He should not help a slave to escape. That would be wrong. But Huck stops and makes “a long think.” He must think critically.


Huck is also challenged by religion. He was taught that ever since he was born. Religion, together with the notion of white supremacy, is the ideology of his life. He “knows” it is right yet is challenged about it. Both of these are ideologies. They are both born from group think. We believe what we are taught by our team.

When Huck was having difficulties falling into the group think, Miss Watson would take him into the closet and pray with him.

“But nothing come of it. She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for hooks there or four times., but somehow I couldn’t make it work. By and by, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why. And couldn’t make it out no way. ”


As a result, Huck did what he should do.  He “set down one time back in the woods, and had a long think.” He thought about it critically with all his faculties. His reasoning would not be considered very sophisticated. As he said,

“I said to myself, if a body can get anything they pray for why don’t Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork?  Why can’t the widow her snuff-box that was stole? Why can’t Miss Watson fat up? No, I says to myself, there ain’t nothing in it. I went and told the widow about it and she said, the thing a body could get by praying for it was “spiritual gifts.” This was too many for me, but she told me what she meant—I must help other people, and do everything I could for others, and look out for them all the time and never think about myself…I went out in the woods and turned it over in my mind a long time, but I couldn’t see no advantage about it—except for the other people, so I reckoned I wouldn’t worry about it anymore, but just let it go.”


Ironically this is exactly what Huck later did. He followed her advice when it came to helping Jim. He neglected in the extreme what was good for himself—namely avoiding hell, but helped Jim anyway. And this is really what religion is all about. It is not about praying for fishhooks. It is about felling empathy for others, like Huck did to Jim. In Huck’s case it was his critically thinking, not his religious ideology that led him to do the right thing. His religious ideology taught him to do the wrong thing, namely worry about eternal heaven at the cost of his friend’s freedom. His ideology misfired. He said he would listen to this ideology but could not do it. He rejected the group think and did the right thing, thanks to a long think.

A long think combined with fellow feeling is a most powerful force!

I think that is what the religious quest in the modern age is all about.

Shouldn’t we all make more long thinks?