24 December 2008: Dogmatic people of faith shackled by fear of heresy

We all have our myths and superstitions to explain the inexplicable

In his column last week “I don’t trust you people,” Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi takes to task those who believe in what he calls “conspiracy theories, peculiar beliefs, and harebrained philosophies.” This he does while admitting to believing in his own mythological constructs.

Now, I am not talking about myths rightwingers like Harsanyi promulgate like our so-called free enterprise system and the munificence of limited government.

I am talking about esoteric matters such as extraterrestrial life, the occult, and astrology.

Harsanyi and I are polar opposites politically, but we share two commonalities: a libertarian outlook on peoples’ private lives and being fellow Aquarians.

While I readily own up to being An Aquarian, so “tolerant, opinionated, farsighted and revolutionary,” his admission is tongue-in-cheek so to denigrate astrology.

I am coining the term “dominant mythological construct”: a belief shared by the most people in a society—thus, quite democratic—but lacking any shred of empirical evidence. A DMC would include miracles, Satan, and hell. Most Americans, including Harsanyi, subscribe to them most likely for one reason: their parents told them to. Besides, there is safety in numbers.

Harsanyi bemoans the idea that people, like the third of Americans who believe the September 11th attacks were an inside job, hold onto conspiracy theories. On that we agree. The August 6, 2001 PDB did warn President Bush of an imminent attack, but that does not mean he was behind the plot.

But there is a vast difference between conspiracy theories and holding non-traditional metaphysical beliefs.

I tell the story of two young Mormons who knocked on my door proselytizing. Inviting them in as I had some time, one of the young men and I became engaged in an uplifting exchange on Mormonism, about whether Mormonism can be considered part of historical Christianity, and other esoteric matters.

The silent one, though, finally had heard enough of my natural world spirituality—I often refer to myself as a Buddhist pagan—and challenged me directly.

“If I understand you correctly,” he said, “when you talk to a tree, it talks back to you.”

“That is correct,” I responded, seeing that he was failing to grasp the difference between literal and metaphor.

“OK,” he said, “let’s go outside. I want to hear the tree talk to you.”

Pausing for a second, I said, “Before we do that, you need to answer my questions in the same honest spirit I answered yours.”

“Do you pray?” I asked

“Yes,” he replied.

“What is prayer?” I followed up.

“It is talking to God.”

“Does he answer you?”

“Of course.”

About flying from my chair, I challenged him: “Do it! I want to hear the voice of God speaking to you right now!”

Understanding only special folks like George Bush, James Dobson and Pat Robertson are privileged to hear the Booming Voice, I knew the poor chap was trapped.

The point is not whether my challenger was being disrespectful and violating my hospitality by denigrating my ideas or if I went over the top in my retort, but of the key point made above: his inability to distinguish between literal and metaphor. And that is common among those of deep faith.

In The End of Faith, Sam Harris notes that “Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not.”

He writes, “The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discourse.”

Simply put, true mystics acknowledge they might very well be wrong. Dogmatic people of faith cannot admit such. Otherwise, they would need to be burned as heretics.

Tomorrow is Christmas, a cultural holiday and a religious holyday. The refrain “Merry Christmas” will emanate from those of faith and those of not.

Biblical exegesis shows Jesus was not born on December 25th. The celebration of that date can be traced, as I have in my column in 2005, back to the ancients when they began to look to the sky for answers to the same mysteries we are still pondering today. December 25th is usually the first day after the Solstice in which the day—the light of the sun—can perceptibly be observed as lengthening, so it became significant for them.

In time Christians co-opted the pagan holyday from the cults of Mithras and Saturnalia and re-named it for their “light.”

There are those who believe in the literal virgin birth of Jesus. Others hearken back to the Gnostics, an early Christian sect, who rejected the idea but who also said how he came into the world is not nearly as important as is his message.

It is nice to think the reason we wish one another a merry Christmas is that it suggests a wonderment of the mystery of life and our commonality as a species and culture regardless of faith or spirituality.

So, in that spirit and being it is in the end about peace on earth, have a Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, or, if a Buddhist pagan, an Enlightening Solstice.

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