What Is an Existential God?

Posted By on July 24, 2011

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An “Existential God” is a personal and unique understanding of God that makes sense to us based on what we know about our physical world. Let us break down this definition into its component parts. First, it is an understanding of God. This is different from just believing in God. To “understand” God means that we recognize the reality of God on some level of our being, and that God is not just some mystery beyond our cognitive abilities. This is a significant departure from how God is presented to us by organized religions who contend that God is a mystery that we should accept God without question.

This understanding of God is based on what we know about our physical world. Science and faith should not be at odds with each other. Rather, our faith beliefs should be an extension of our scientific beliefs.

An Existential God is a unique understanding of how God exists. This uniqueness comes from what we were taught about our world as well as our experiences from living in this world. Since, no two people view the world in the exact same way, no two people will have the same understanding of God.

Our personal Existential God, then, is our own unique set of beliefs in what God is and how God interacts with us on an individual basis.

Based on Three Themes of Existentialism

The concept of an Existential God is based on the philosophical movement known as “existentialism”. Philosophical existentialism has three main themes. The first theme deals with human freedom. As individuals, we are totally free to make something of ourselves. However, we are also responsible for our actions.

The second theme deals with a sense of individuality. Each of us is unique. We are a product of our heredity and our experiences.

The third theme of existentialism is that we live life passionately. Rather than living our lives based only on reason and rational thought, we actually live our lives based on our beliefs and our values.

Three Themes of an Existential God

An Existential God follows three themes that are very similar to existentialism. First, we have a freedom to come to our own personal understanding of God. While organized religions tell us what we should believe about God, an Existential God is exercising our freedom to come to our own beliefs about God.

The second theme of an Existential God is that our understanding of God is based on our own unique understandings. Just as we each have different genes and different experiences, our personal understanding of God comes as a result of what we are taught about our world and what we personally experience in the world. In order to accept the existence of God, we have to convince ourselves that there is a way that God can coexist with what we know about our physical world.

The third theme of an Existential God is that we live our lives according to our beliefs. Once we have convinced ourselves that there is a God, then we take ownership of that belief and we start to live our lives based on that belief. We are rarely passionate about following what someone else tells us, but we are very passionate about what we have reasoned out for ourselves.

Religious Freedom

Let us talk more regarding the first theme of Existential Gods – the concept of religious freedom. We know that the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees freedom of religion to all citizens. Historically this has meant that we are free to worship God in the way of our choosing without the government endorsing one religion over another.

Now, in addition to freedom from our government dictating what we must believe, I believe there is also a freedom from organized religions dictating what we must believe. It was not that long ago during the Spanish Inquisition where people were burned at the stake because they were branded as heretics by the Roman Catholic Church. Thankfully, the days of the Roman Catholic Church having temporal authority over people has past and we now have a much greater freedom to come to our own understanding of God.

This religious freedom should also extend to our family and friends. While it is the right of parents to raise their children in the religion of the parent’s choosing, that right only extends to the point where children start developing their own beliefs in God. I consider it far more important that children grow up with a sincere belief in God, then forcing a specific religion down their throats.

With Freedom, Comes Responsibility

However, we must be responsible for this freedom from religion. First, we must recognize that no one person, or religion, knows the absolute truth about whom or what God is. Too many religions claim to be the one true religion. The only truth is that the human mind has not yet evolved enough to understand the truth of God.

Since no one knows the absolute truth, then we must respect the beliefs of others just as we expect them to respect our beliefs. For obvious reasons, we will call this the Golden Rule of Existential Gods.

Now, a good technique for developing your personal Existential God is to discuss your beliefs with others. The key word here is “discuss”. These discussions should never degrade into arguments over who is right and who is wrong. There is no right or wrong explanation of God. There are only different opinions.

Our Unique Understanding of God

The second theme of an Existential God deals with our unique understanding of God. For most people, our understanding of God begins with our religious training as a young child. At this point, our brains have not developed enough for us to question our faith. So we readily accept what is taught to us by our parents and organized religions.

However, as we reach our adolescence, our brains mature and we begin to look at God and life in a more philosophical light. Some high school and college age students begin to meditate on what makes sense to them regarding their faith. It is during these adolescent years that we begin to form our initial beliefs of a personal Existential God.

Now, while meditation is important to developing a personal Existential God, we do not truly take ownership of our beliefs until we openly discuss our beliefs with others. Defending your own unique beliefs in a debate with others is a good method to solidify them.

In these philosophical discussions, we become exposed to the ideas and beliefs of others. We should seriously consider the beliefs of others because they are often the product of that person’s own reflective thoughts on the subject. A philosophical discussion has no winners or losers. It is only an exchange of ideas.

As a result of a philosophical discussion, we may affirm our beliefs, or we may even modify our beliefs because something someone else said made sense to us. A personal Existential God is never static. It is constantly changing over our lifetime as a result of our ongoing private meditations and our public philosophical discussions.

What an Existential God Is Not

To help our understanding of what is an Existential God, let us look at what it is not. First, it is not the dogma of organized religions. The problem with dogma is that it doesn’t change. An Existential God must be allowed to change over time as one discovers more about our physical world. One reason people are leaving organized religions is because they can no longer accept the dogma of the religion to be true.

Second, an Existential God is not atheism. By definition, atheists do not believe in the existence of God. The only thing they believe is what they see in the physical world. An Existential God, by definition, requires that there be a fundamental belief in the existence of God.

Third, an Existential God is not agnosticism. Agnostics believe in God, but they also believe the human mind is incapable of understanding God (i.e. God is a mystery and will always be a mystery). An Existential God, on the other hand, is an attempt to understand God. An Existential God is like establishing a scientific theory. It is based on our scientific observations of our physical world and then trying to understand how God is an extension of that science.

Fourth, on the opposite extreme, an Existential God is not science. Science is an attempt to explain the physical laws of the universe. Since God does not conform to these laws, the reality of God must exist outside our physical world – hence, outside of science.

Finally, even though an Existential God is not science, it must not run contrary to our understanding of the physical world. If something new is discovered about our physical world, then it often becomes necessary to modify our beliefs in our Existential God.

What an Existential God Is

So, having identified what an Existential God is not, let us summarize what is an Existential God. First, it is a sincere belief in the reality of God. This God is the same God as all the other monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Second, an Existential God is an extension of our scientific understanding of our universe. Science is what we know about our physical world. Our faith, in the form of an Existential God, is what we have yet to learn.

Third, an Existential God is a set of beliefs unique to each individual. While many personal Existential Gods may be similar to each other, each person’s individual Existential God will have nuances that reflect that person’s unique thoughts and experiences.

Fourth, no one including all the major religions knows the ultimate truth about God. As a result, our personal Existential God is a “best guess” based on what we know. A basic principle of an Existential God is that each person’s best guess is as good as any other person’s best guess.

Finally, as we come to know additional things about our physical world, an Existential God must adapt to the new knowledge. As a result, our personal Existential God is constantly changing as we grow older. There are no unchangeable dogmas in an Existential God outside of the simple fact that God exists.

Benefits of an Existential God

The third theme of an Existential God is that we take ownership of our beliefs and live our lives passionately according to those beliefs. People tend to not take ownership of the dogmas of organized religions because religions dictate that we must believe in these dogmas without any explanation of how the dogma is possible. People take ownership of their beliefs when they have reasoned out their beliefs based on their own knowledge and their experience with the physical world.

Once people have developed their own personal Existential Gods and taken ownership of them, then it is only natural that people live their lives according to their beliefs. Within the context of modern existentialism, these people have a passionate commitment to their beliefs.

A personal Existential God leads to peace of mind. You are no longer caught between a religion that says one thing is true and science that says something quite different is true.  Science and your faith now live in harmony with each other.

Hopefully, personal Existential Gods have additional benefits beyond the individual. Far too many wars have been fought throughout history over the difference in ideologies of organized religions. Once people accept that no one knows the ultimate truth, it becomes easier for people of different ideologies to live in harmony with each other.

The Relationship Between Science and Faith

Posted By on July 23, 2011

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The relationship between science and faith is really quite simple. Science is what we have discovered about the reality of our universe. Faith is what we have yet to learn. So far, mankind’s study of science has been limited to only learning about the reality of our physical universe. But our universe is not necessarily the only reality out there. There could very well be additional realities that have yet to be discovered. As humans continue to evolve, the human brain may one day reach a point where these additional realities can be studied and understood. Many believe that one of these additional realities is the reality of God.

History of Science

Mankind’s study of the physical universe, which we call science, began almost 150 thousand years ago when modern Homo sapiens first evolved and separated from their pre-human ancestors, such as Homo ergaster. Now, Homo ergaster was a pre-human ancestor that existed on the Earth for well over a million years prior to the appearance of Homo sapiens. Anthropologists have discovered that the technology of these pre-human Homo ergasters changed little over those million years of their existence. The reason for this appears to be that Homo ergaster had a significantly smaller brain than modern man. The continued evolution of the brain, with its ability to reason, is what set Homo sapiens apart from their pre-human ancestors.

Now, the brain did not just suddenly get larger. The evolution to a larger brain occurred over thousands of years, and it still continues today. As a result, human discovery of their world and the resulting technological improvements began very slowly. It took thousands of years for Homo sapiens to make the change from hunter-gatherers to an agrarian society. Civilization, itself only began about 6,000 years ago.

Mankind’s knowledge of their world seems to be growing exponentially. When we say something grows “exponentially”, it just means that the rate at which we discover new things is constantly increasing over time – just like an automobile accelerates over time from a stop sign.

We see this exponential growth of knowledge in the fact that ancient mathematicians and scientists began to study our world 4000 years ago. But, the vast majority of what we know about our world today has been discovered in only the past 400 years.

Mankind’s Exponential Growth of Knowledge

Mankind’s exponential growth of knowledge can be demonstrated as a curved line on a graph. The horizontal axis represents the passage of time and the vertical axis represents the knowledge mankind has gained about their universe. The line slopes upward to show that mankind’s acquisition of knowledge is accelerating as time passes. The left end of the line has a starting point around 150 thousand years ago, but the right end of the line has an arrow to show that this acquisition of knowledge will continue indefinitely into the future.

Mankind's Exponetial Growth of Knowledge

As we said, the line starts at a point 150 thousand years ago when Homo sapiens first evolved on the Earth. At this point, they possessed very little knowledge about their physical world. As time passed and we moved to the right on our line, the discovery of new things and new technology was very slow at first. However, as the human brain continued to evolve, mankind’s acquisition of knowledge continued to accelerate. With the dawn of civilization, society could finally start supporting early thinkers who began to build the foundation of our scientific knowledge today. Ancient mathematicians began to recognize relationships in numbers, and ancient engineers began to learn how to build large structures. Then, starting in the seventeenth century, modern scientists began to unlock the mysteries of the universe. As we arrive at the present day, we can mark that point on our line as representing our current level of knowledge.

Faith as an Extension of Science

The part of the line before the present day represents the sum total of knowledge mankind has acquired since the dawn of mankind. This part of the line represents our science. It should be noted that this segment only represents a finite distance along the line. 

Faith As Extension of Knowledge

The part of the line from where mankind currently exists and extending out into the future represents knowledge that mankind has yet to acquire. This part of the line represents our faith. It should be noted that this segment always represents an infinite distance. No matter how far mankind moves out along the line and acquires new additional knowledge, the total of mankind’s knowledge will always be finite and the amount of knowledge yet to be discovered will always be infinite.

From this illustration of the curved line, we can see how our faith is an extension of our science into the future. This extension of our science can include things we have yet to prove about our physical world. For example, we believe that the universe was created as a result of some cosmic Big Bang, but our science does not yet allow us to prove this to be fact.

The extension of our science into the future can also include a belief in other possible realities. For example, many philosophers believe that human consciousness is a reality separate from our physical world. Another distinct reality that forms the basis of many religions is the reality of God.

A key point to always keep in mind is that, at no time, will mankind ever have complete knowledge of all realities. The sum of what we know through science is will always be finite, and what we must believe through our faith will always be infinite.

The Religious Gap

Now, the religions of the world try to fill this faith area of our line with their own dogmas about God. But there is a problem when these dogmas are inflexible to new discoveries. Let us illustrate this by adding another point to our line. This point represents the location where mankind existed at the time a religion was established. When a religion is established, it builds upon the knowledge of mankind at that point in time. So, this new point on the line coincides with mankind’s knowledge at that point in history. 

At Start of Religion - No Religious Gap

 I will use the Roman Catholic Church as an example, although any of the major religions can be used. When the Roman Catholic Church was established in the first centuries after Jesus walked the Earth, concepts such as the devil and the second class nature of women were commonplace.

But, now let us move forward in time. While religions are not completely static in its beliefs, they are very slow in accepting new knowledge that mankind acquires. In our example of the curved line, our new point on the line will also begin to move to the right to represent that part of mankind’s knowledge that is accepted as true by the religion. While this point does move in the same direction as the point representing all of mankind’s knowledge, it does so at a much slower rate.  Over time, the distance between these two points gets larger and larger as the religion’s acceptance of human knowledge lags farther and farther behind what mankind has actually learned. I will call this new segment of the line between these two points, the Religious Gap. 

Religious Gap Widens Over Time

 An example of this religious gap occurred in the seventeenth century when Galileo spent the last years of his life under house arrest by order of the Roman Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church. Galileo was a strong advocate of the work of Copernicus, who showed that the Earth revolved around the Sun, rather than vice-verse, as was previously believed. The Roman Catholic Church, however, found this concept to be contrary to the literal interpretation of sacred scripture and tried to force Galileo to recant his position. Today, the Roman Catholic Church accepts Copernicus’s heliocentric concept as proven fact, and the whole issue of Galileo has become an embarrassment in the annals of Church history.

But even in the present day, there are many issues caused by the Roman Catholic Church’s failure to keep up with mankind’s knowledge. Birth control, stem cell research, women’s equality, as well as gay and lesbian marriages are just a few of the issues that fall within the area of the Religious Gap.

When the Religious Gap was small in the early days of the Church, it was easy for people to accept the teachings of the Church since there was not much difference between what the Church stated to be true and what the people perceived to be true.

But, as the Religious Gap widened over time, it become less easy to accept these differences between religious dogma and the new discoveries of modern science. Conflicts began to arise between scientific fact and religious beliefs. For example, in science class, students are taught about evolution and how mankind evolved from lower life forms. In religious education, students are taught that God created mankind separate from the other animals. Both views cannot be true at the same time.

As this Religious Gap continues to get wider, it becomes natural for some people to think that science is explaining everything, so what is the purpose of organized religions with its archaic concepts. When this happens, people begin to fall away from organized religions because all their frontal lobe reasoning tells them that science gives a much more believable picture of our world than that represented by sacred scripture and religious dogma.

Existential God to the Rescue

Now, this Religious Gap does not need to exist, or at least not be as wide as it is. Under the concepts of the Existential God, people are allowed to re-interpret religious teachings in a manner that makes more sense to them. People may also choose to re-invent the concept of God all together. The key point here is that science and your faith should work in harmony rather than being at odds with each other. One of the fundamental purposes of an Existential God is to allow one to accept both scientific discoveries and principles of faith as different parts of the same quest for knowledge. People should not be forced to choose between scientific knowledge and religious beliefs.

Within the framework of an Existential God, when new scientific discoveries are made, people are free to adjust their personal Existential God to accept this new knowledge while still retaining their belief in God.

As we talked in the first lecture, an Existential God is people exercising their freedom to come to their own unique understanding of God. Each individual’s personal Existential God will be different from every other person’s Existential God because we are all unique individuals. And, because we have each reasoned out our own personal belief in God, we will each live our lives more passionately according to our beliefs because they are our beliefs and not just some set of dogmas dictated to us by an organized religion.

Our Changing View of God

Posted By on July 22, 2011

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In this presentation, I am going to present an overview of how mankind’s view of God has changed over time, and how this changing view is now causing us to rethink our relationship with God.

Evolution of the Genus “Homo”

Biology classifies the human species as Homo sapiens (i.e. our genus is “homo” and our species is “sapiens”). Anthropologists researching our human ancestry believe that the genus “homo” evolved from the lower life forms over three and a half million years ago. The earliest discovered species of this genus was Homo habilus which evolved in Africa.

Over the next two million years, Homo habilus evolved into Homo ergaster. This species spread out across Asia and Europe, but only the group that stayed in Africa survived. The Asian component of Homo ergaster evolved into Homo erectus. The European component evolved into the Neanderthals. But, it was only the Homo ergasters that stayed in Africa that evolved into Homo sapiens, or modern man. This occurred around 150,000 years ago.

These Homo sapiens also spread out to the other continents. The Homo erectus species in Asia, however, became extinct before the Homo sapiens arrived. But, the Homo sapiens that ventured into Europe did meet up with the Neanderthals, and the two species co-existed there until the Neanderthals became extinct around 30,000 years ago.

 As each new species of hominids evolved, it had a larger skull capacity than the species that came before it. This allowed for bigger brains to evolve which led to an increase in higher reasoning skills.

Ancient Hominids Had No Belief in God

There is no evidence, with the possible exception of Neanderthals, that species prior to Homo sapiens had any belief in a God. Anthropologists point to the fact that these ancestor’s of mankind did not bury their dead. If someone died, they were left on the ground where they died while the tribe just moved on. The dead were eaten by scavenger animals just as is done today by all species of animals, except humans.

While there is some evidence to suggest that Neanderthals might have also buried their dead, the earliest confirmed burial site is in a cave in Israel. In this graveyard was discovered the 130,000 year old skeletal remains of Home sapiens along with some grave goods.

This grave site suggests that the need to bury their dead may be the defining attribute that separates Homo sapiens from the earlier hominids.

The Significance of Burying the Dead

One may ask, “What is the significance of burying the dead”? The answer is that this is a ritual not performed by any other life form on earth. It represents a need felt by early man to not let the body just be eaten by scavengers. But, why does the body need to be preserved? The presence of “grave goods” in these early burial sites suggests the beginnings of a belief in an afterlife. With the larger brain of the Homo sapiens, there developed a line of reasoning that one’s existence does not necessarily end with death. As part of the ritual for burying the dead, early mankind placed grave goods in the graves to assist the dead in their journey to an afterlife.

A Logical Path to Belief in Gods

How did a belief in an afterlife transition into a belief in gods? Since we are dealing with the non-physical entity of the human mind, we can only conjecture on a possible path.

The belief in an afterlife may have started out as just wishful thinking. However, the continued finding of “grave goods” at burial sites suggests that early mankind may have felt a deep need to provide the deceased with things they would need in their afterlife. So, even though the deceased were dead to this world, early mankind felt that their ancestors somehow lived on in spirit in another world.

The next step in this emerging view of gods was probably the calling upon the spirits of the deceased to help the living. A typical scenario would be the calling upon the spirit of a fallen warrior to help lead the living warriors to victory over their enemies.

Then, as stories of leaders and warriors were passed by word of mouth from generation to generation, it was only natural for these stories to become embellished with tales of super-human features and abilities. Eventually, these great leaders and warriors became immortalized in the tribe’s folklore. Over time, the key figures in the tribe’s folklore eventually turned into gods. By the time civilization started 6000 thousand years ago, each tribe had their pantheon of gods.

Pleasing the Gods

This pantheon of gods was not revered in the same way that we revere God today. For example, these gods were not worshipped. Also, these gods were not all-everything deities. Rather, the gods served more as protectors of the tribes. Each god in the pantheon protected the tribe in a unique way. For example, one god protected them in battle. Another god brought the spring rains so that crops could grow. A third god would help the deceased in their journey through the afterlife.

These gods had human traits and were very emotional. If tragedy struck a tribe, it was because one of the gods was angry. To keep a god from becoming angry, it was necessary to perform some action that was considered pleasing to the god.

But, how does one please a god? God’s are pleased by the same things that please humans. However, gods exist in another world. The only way early man knew how to get something to the other world was by killing it so that it passed to the other world. Hence, sacrificial offerings to please the gods became a common practice throughout the ancient world.

The Axial Age

The paradigm of pleasing a pantheon of gods began to change during what has come to be known as “The Axial Age”. This period of time between 800 BCE and 200 BCE was a time when men like Socrates in Greece, Confucius in China, and the Buddha on the Indian subcontinent were developing their philosophies. These philosophies were spread and exchanged by a growing number of travelling scholars. It was called the Axial Age because it identified a pivotal time in mankind’s history when philosophies changed. I like to think of it as a time when the human mind evolved to the point where it could reason out a new type of relationship between mankind and God.

One new paradigm that developed at this time was the concept of monotheism. It replaced the pantheon of gods with one almighty God.

This new paradigm also introduced the concept of a soul. The soul was the part of you that continued on after death. Prior to this time, it was believed that all people entered the same afterlife upon their death. What you did during your lifetime had no bearing on what happened to you upon your death. However, a soul can go to different places depending upon what type of person you were during your life.  The concept of the soul now made individuals responsible for our actions.

Salvation of the Soul

We first see the concept of monotheism in the teachings of Zoroaster, who was a Persian prophet that lived prior to the Axial Age. While Zoroastrianism as a religion faded away, it had a profound impact on the Judeo-Christian-Islam culture of a monotheistic God.

A main feature of Zoroastrianism is that there exists one God who represents all things good. God, however, is opposed by a devil that represents all things evil. Our souls are the battleground between God and the devil. God wants our soul to come to heaven upon our death as a result of our leading a virtuous life. The devil, however, tempts us to do evil so that our soul joins the devil in hell upon our death.

Over time, Christianity took this story one step further. In Christianity, there was a need for a savior to save our souls from the devil. As a result, God the Father sends His son, Jesus Christ, to Earth. Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and eventually dies on the cross as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. It is through Jesus Christ’s death on the cross that the devil is defeated and we gain entry into heaven.

Clash of Cultures

The paradigm of monotheism and the soul did not immediately replace the paradigm of the pantheon of gods. At the time when Christianity started to spread out of Judea, the rest of the Roman Empire was still very much entrenched in their pantheon of gods. The persecution of the Christians by the Roman Empire is an example of this clash of cultures.

Eventually, the Roman Empire embraced Christianity and the monotheistic paradigm spread throughout Europe and eventually to the Americas. It is the paradigm to which many people of today subscribe.

As an interesting sideline, the old paradigm of the pantheon of gods has not totally disappeared. Even in Christianity, people pray to individual saints for that saint’s intercession in an area for which the saint has notoriety. So, for example, people pray to St. Anthony to help them find something that is lost.

Scientific Revolution Brings New Challenges

The monotheistic paradigm of the Roman Catholic Church has now lasted for two thousand years. Among the poor and uneducated of the world, the Catholic Church still thrives.

Today, however, we are in the midst of a scientific revolution. Modern scientific discoveries are starting to explain things that use to be in the realm of Christian teachings. The most notable of these is the theory of evolution which has been replacing the Christian teachings of the Book of Genesis. As a result, Christianity is starting to struggle in the more affluent societies. Many people are turning to atheism and agnosticism because they can no longer accept both the Christian view of God and what is being discovered by science.

A New Axial Age?

The core problem, here, is that today’s educated people can no longer accept the paradigm of a cosmic struggle between God and the devil. The traditional concepts of heaven and hell no longer seem feasible. If people no longer believe in a heaven, a hell, and a cosmic struggle, then salvation of the soul is also meaningless to them.

It is time for a new Axial Age, one in which a new paradigm of God arises. This new paradigm must define a new relationship between mankind and God. One concept that has been appearing lately is that each individual should develop their own deep and personal relationship with God.

A second requirement of the new paradigm is that it must be consistent with scientific discoveries. For example, the theory of evolution must be embraced. Natural selection must be accepted as a proven process of evolution. However, this does not necessarily mean that God is not involved in evolution.

The concept of the Existential God provides a framework upon which a new paradigm concerning God can be developed. As individuals develop their own personal Existential Gods and then share those beliefs with others, a new paradigm may arise for the masses. Rather than resorting to atheism and agnosticism, this new paradigm will allow people to both develop a sincere relationship with God as well as accept what science is discovering.

 

In Conclusion

So what lessons do we take away from this discussion? First, mankind’s view of his relationship with God has been evolving, and will continue to evolve, over time. Second, despite what formal religions say, the salvation of the soul is but one paradigm to explain mankind’s relationship with God. It has served mankind for thousands of years.

Today, however, the scientific revolution is requiring us to develop a new paradigm for our relationship with God. Educated people of the world cannot accept both what salvation history tells them and what scientific discoveries are telling them. The failure to develop a new paradigm is causing these educated people to turn towards atheism and agnosticism.

Today, we are free to develop our own paradigms to define our unique personal relationships with God. Developing a personal Existential God is one way to accomplish this task. By sharing our personal Existential Gods with others, a new paradigm may arise that modern educated people can accept.

A New Role for Religion

Posted By on July 21, 2011

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In order to talk about a new role for religion, we need to look at what religion is and how it developed from antiquity. We will start with a definition of “religion”, and then explore how it developed. Next, we will examine what happens when religious leaders are also temporal leaders. We will contrast this with what I call the Great American Experiment where we made separation of Church and State a fundamental part of our culture. Within that context, we will examine how religion has changed in American society and what it is like growing up with an organized religion. Then, we will look at how the religious freedom we have in the United States gives us leeway to develop our own personal Existential God. We will conclude with why being part of an organized religion is still important.

Definition of “Religion”

Rather than going with a dictionary definition, I am going to give you my own definition of religion. To me, a “religion” is a set of spiritual beliefs and rituals developed by a person, or small group of people, that is accepted and practiced by a large group of people. The fact that religion is a “set of spiritual beliefs and rituals” that are “accepted and practiced by a large group of people” pretty well goes along with anybody’s definition of religion. Where my definition may differ from others is in the middle part of the definition where I say that a religion is “developed by a person or small group of people”.

To me, all the great religions started out as someone’s personal Existential God. As these founders preached their beliefs, they developed a following of people that accepted the beliefs of the founders. These people then went out and taught the beliefs to others. These people, in turn, taught still others. As the group of people who accepted the founder’s beliefs grew large, a new religion came into existence.

Before Religion

As we saw in the previous lecture, a belief in something higher is what separates mankind from the rest of life on our planet. Each group of people, or tribe, developed their own folklore regarding their ancestors. Great hunters and leaders were given supernatural powers in this folklore, and rose to the level of being gods. As tribes conquered and assimilated other tribes, the gods of each individual tribe were combined with other tribes to form a type of polytheism.

As we look at what spiritual beliefs developed in different parts of the world, we see quite a diversity of beliefs. For example, in Africa, ancient Greece and Rome, the polytheistic view lead to the concept of offering sacrifices to win the favors of individual gods. Upon death, everyone went to an “underworld”.

In the Middle East, the different gods gave way to the belief in a monotheistic God who was involved in a cosmic struggle with the forces of evil. In this set of beliefs, one goes to Heaven or Hell depending on which force wins your soul.

As we move farther East into India, we find there is not a belief in one all-powerful God. Rather, when people die, they are reincarnated. Depending on the karma they received in their previous life, they may be reincarnated into a higher caste, a lower caste, or possibly a lower life form.

In China, there developed a belief that the universe is balanced and ordered. A good life keeps you in balance with nature. Death was nothing to be feared as it was just a transition into a different reality – from being to non-being.

Beginnings of Religion

Religions did not come into existence until the different beliefs were formalized in some type of written document. The oldest of these was the Tao De Ching which formalized the religion of Taoism in China. It was purported to have been written by Lao Tsu between the 4th and 6th century BCE.

The Vedas was another set of early manuscripts that formed the foundation of the Hindu religion in India. The Vedas were written between 2300 and 1200 BCE by an unknown author, or group of authors.

The Torah, which is the first five books of the Bible, was purportedly written by Moses around 1300 BCE. The Torah, which formed the foundation of Judaism, was believed to be the written result of a set of beliefs imparted to Moses on Mount Sinai by the one monotheistic God.

Religions Attributed to Individuals

The origins on Taoism, Hinduism, and Judaism are shrouded in antiquity. Hence, it is almost impossible to attribute these religions to the personal Existential God of any one person. However, as time passed, additional religions came into existence that can be attributed the Existential Gods of individuals.

Siddhartha Gautama, known to millions as Buddha, lived around 500 BCE. His philosophy builds upon Hinduism. He conceptualized that reincarnation was just suffering begetting more suffering in each new reincarnation. He proposed that we should achieve nirvana which was the cessation of reincarnation and suffering. The followers of Buddha spread this new concept throughout India and Southeast Asia in the form of the religion Buddhism.

Confucius, who lived in China around the same time as Buddha, built his philosophy around Taoism. He developed a complex philosophy which regarded humans as teachable entities that can achieve moral perfection and virtue. Like Taoism, Confucianism does not have a belief in a God or gods. But, his philosophy is one person’s view of life and death. Hence, I would classify it as an Existential God. Confucianism went on to become the state religion of many eastern countries.

Jesus Christ was born into Judaism. His message expanded upon traditional Jewish monotheism. The one true God has three manifestations – God the Father, who was the creator of all things; Jesus, as the Son of God, who became mortal and became the perfect sacrifice to defeat the forces of evil; and God the Holy Spirit, who brings God’s wisdom and grace to the people of earth. The twelve Apostles, who were the followers of Jesus Christ, spread Christianity throughout the far reaches of the Roman Empire and beyond.

Paul, who proclaimed himself to be an Apostle of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, become a very dominant figure of early Christianity. His location in Rome allowed Paul to greatly influence the early Christian Church with his own personal take on the message of Jesus Christ. The followers of the Apostle Paul created the Catholic Church.

Finally, Muhammed, who lived around 600 CE, received revelations from the one, true God. Mohammed developed a system of laws that believers should follow. The followers of Muhammed put his revelations into the Quaran, and his system of laws became the Shariah. Both of these are the basis of the Islamic religion today. Both Islam and Christianity share the idea that, upon one’s death, the believers will go to Heaven or Paradise, and the non-believers will go to the eternal flames of Hell.

The Mixing of Religion with Temporal Authority

As we have seen, the religions of the western world (i.e. Judaism. Christianity, and Islam), those of the Indian subcontinent (i.e. Hinduism and Buddhism), and the religions of the Far East (i.e. Taoism and  Confucianism) differ greatly in their views of God, life, and death. However, each believes their views are the correct and true views.

Some religions, such as Christianity and Islam, have tried to force compliance with their views.

When leaders of these religions are also temporal leaders, then they can wield significant influence. When the Catholic popes became the de facto leaders of the Western Roman Empire, they were able to spread Christianity across Europe. Similarly, Islam spread across the Middle East due to governments following the Shariah.

Individuals were forced to strictly follow the tenets of the religion. Several means were used to keep a religion pure. Persecution of non-believers was common. For example, Christians and Jews were forced to pay a special tax in order to live in a Muslim country. In the Catholic Church, any free thought that contradicted a tenet of the Catholic Church was declared a heresy. Over time, the Catholic Church even engaged in torture and executions of free-thinking individuals through the use of religious tribunals like the Inquisition.

With religious leaders holding power over armies, religion became the cause of many wars throughout history. A prime example was the Crusades where Catholic Europe tried to take control of the Holy Lands from the Islamic Middle East. The repercussions of that conflict are still present today in the distrust that exists between the two religions.

Another great religious conflict was the 30 Years’ War (1618 – 1648) which pit Protestant countries against Catholic countries. By some estimates, almost a quarter of the population of Germany died during that conflict. Even in the present day, hatred between Protestants and Catholics still swells up in places like Northern Ireland.

The Great American Experience

When Europe discovered the Americas, people who were persecuted for their religious beliefs came to the American Colonies to escape their persecution. This started what I like to call the Great American Experiment.

The Church of England was one of the key religious persecutors of the day due to the fact that the King of England had both temporal and religious authority over the Church of England. As a result, when the American Colonies won their independence from England, they created a government that strictly forbade the government from endorsing a specific religion. This separation of Church and State is embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. America eventually became a melting pot of many nationalities and religions, with no one nationality or religion having temporal authority.

The result of this Great American Experiment is that the different religions live in harmony with each other. There has never been a religious war fought within America. People in the United States have religious freedom to worship God in the manner of their choosing.

Religious Freedom

As a result of the success of the Great American Experiment, people in the United States are free to belong to whatever religion they choose. They can switch between religions if they want. People are even free to start their own religions. This newfound sense of religious freedom from the Great American Experiment is now starting to defuse to other parts of the world – most notable Europe.

As the scientific revolution is challenging traditional religious beliefs, people are free to adapt their beliefs to these new discoveries. Because religions lack any temporal authority in America and Europe, people can now adapt their beliefs without fear of retribution.

As a result of the Great American Experiment, we now have a favorable environment to develop our own personal Existential God.

A New Role for Religion

In general, religious preachers in the United States and Europe do not preach hatred toward other religions. Of course, there are those few exceptions to the rule. But, even in these cases, people are still free to go to a different church somewhere else.

The major religions teach us to help others, even if they are of a different faith. As a result, many religious communities have outreach programs to help the needy. This is a major reason why the United States stands ready to help people in other parts of the world who suffer from poverty and natural disasters. The United States provides more aid to people outside of the United States than any other country in the world.

Religious communities provide a good environment in which to raise a family. Births, marriages, and deaths are all celebrated with the rituals of the religion. These communities provide a support network for families and wholesome activities for people of all ages.

Religious education helps bring moral values to our young children. By presenting each church’s individual set of beliefs, children gain a religious foundation upon which they can develop their own personal Existential God as they move into their adolescent years and beyond.

Existential Gods Do Not Replace Religion

Developing your own personal Existential God should not be an excuse for not being part of a religious community. While it is true that Existential Gods are very personal in nature, there is still a need to practice what you believe. Religious communities provide that community aspect of your faith.

The Three Themes of Existential Gods

As we have said in previous presentations, an Existential God follows the three themes of modern existentialism. The first theme is religious freedom. Today’s society, in many parts of the world, gives you the freedom to develop your own personal understanding of God. The second theme is developing a belief that is unique to you. A personal Existential God requires that you take the time to think about and discuss your personal beliefs. The third theme is that you live your life passionately according to your beliefs. A religious community offers you the opportunity to live your faith passionately with others who also have a strong belief in God.

As long as an organized religion is tolerant of your beliefs, there is no reason to leave an organized religion as you develop your own personal Existential God. Also, as long as you do not try to force your beliefs on others, you are not a threat to the organized religion.

Developing Your Personal Existential God

Posted By on July 20, 2011

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In this presentation, I am going to present an overview of how to develop your own personal Existential God.

The Perpetual Two Step Process

Developing your own person Existential God is really quite simple as it involves only two steps. However, it is a lifelong process.

The first step is simple meditation where you reflect on just what it is that you believe. During this step you set aside some time for yourself where you go off by yourself and think about what makes sense to you. The important point is to open your mind to all possibilities and separate out what you truly believe from what other people tell you must believe.

The second step is to discuss your beliefs with others. The reason this step is so important is because others will challenge your beliefs and you will need to defend what you believe. If you can defend your beliefs to your satisfaction, then you truly believe in them. If you have trouble defending your beliefs, then you need to use your meditation sessions to better refine what it is you believe.

The reason this two-step process is called “perpetual” is because it never ends throughout your lifetime. The development of your personal Existential God will never be completed. As you discover new information and new arguments are presented to you, you are free to revise your beliefs based on the new information and arguments.

At some points in your life, you may come to realizations that change your entire set of beliefs. This is OK because, as humans, we are incapable of understanding the true nature of God. So, our belief in God is rather fuzzy, and throughout our lifetime, we continually try to refine our beliefs so that they become ever clearer to us.

Step 1: Meditation

As was stated, the first step in developing your personal Existential God is meditation. The type of meditation that I am talking about is not the relaxation techniques you often hear about in connection with the word “meditation”. Relaxation techniques are used to reduce stress in our lives.

However, there is a similarity between the two types of meditation. That similarity is the emptying of your mind of the thoughts of everyday life. This makes traditional relaxation techniques actually a good starting point for developing your own personal Existential God.

In traditional meditation, the goal is to keep your mind off the stress-related thoughts of everyday life. This is accomplished by directing your mind through a set of procedures such as focusing on relaxing different muscles of your body. Usually, there is someone directing the meditation and your mind follows what the director is telling you to do.

Once you have learned how to clear your mind of thoughts using these traditional relaxation techniques, you are ready to start the type of meditation necessary to develop your personal Existential God. The type of meditation needed here is an undirected meditation. Sitting quietly by yourself in a room is one method of undirected meditation. However, my personal preference is walking meditation. I go outside and walk in a familiar area that is free from distractions – like a quiet neighborhood street.

The type of meditation needed to develop a personal Existential God differs from traditional meditation in that your goal is not to just clear your mind of thoughts. Rather, the goal is to allow new thoughts to enter your mind. As a result, it is important that you do this meditation by yourself. Walking with a friend, or listening to a meditation director, does not allow new thoughts to enter your mind.

This new type of meditation involves three steps. First, you clear mind of thoughts. Next, you allow new thoughts to enter your mind. Then, you think about these new thoughts.

Opening Your Mind

If you truly believe that there is a God, then you need to let God place thoughts into your mind. As mentioned, you start by picking a place that is free from distractions. This allows you to clear your mind of the distractions of everyday life. Try not to focus on anything in particular.

Now, you cannot make yourself have new insights into your faith. It is something that just happens. You may try to prepare your mind by thinking about a particular aspect of your faith. However, there is no guarantee that the thoughts God places in your mind will necessarily relate to that aspect of your faith.

Once a thought enters your mind, dwell on that thought for a while to see where it takes you. If you find the line of reasoning is productive, than go for it. If the new thought takes you nowhere, then clear it from your mind and once again open you mind to whatever thoughts God places there.

Finally, do not become discouraged if you find yourself getting nowhere. Emptying your mind of the issues of the day is not an easy thing to do at times. Also, recognizing productive new thoughts takes some experience. It is like some strange balancing act. You want to keep your mind free of thoughts. But at the same time, you want to recognize new thoughts and dwell on them.

My Personal Meditation Technique

To help understand the process, let me go through my personal technique. I go out for my meditative walk almost every weekday over my lunch hour. There is a quiet neighborhood nearby that has almost no people and no traffic. My route is almost identical every day.

I start by emptying my mind of the morning work and family issues. I pick an area of my faith on which I want to meditate. This area may involve some recent reading I did on the subject, or it may be a discussion I had with someone. I review in my mind the key points of what I read or discussed. Then I try to clear all thoughts from my mind.

The revelations I get at this point fall into four general categories. The first category is no revelations at all. At least I got some fresh air and exercise.

The second category of revelations is a solution to an issue that was bothering me during the morning. Sometime, you just need to step away from an issue in order to see the solution.

The third category of revelations I receive deals with my personal life. It might be a decision to do something that needs to be done regarding my family or personal finances. So far, this walking meditation business seems pretty unproductive for developing a personal Existential God.

However, sometimes I get revelations of the fourth category. This category involves getting a new philosophical insight about my faith. These new philosophical thoughts can be very profound in nature.

As you can see, I do not always receive revelations regarding my faith every time I go out for a walk. My walking meditations, however, generally do provide something of value – even if it is only exercise. However, the occasional new insights regarding my faith do build on themselves. They compound themselves over time to create my personal Existential God.

Hopefully you can see that developing you own personal Existential God is not something you can put on your “to do” list for next week. Rather it is something that builds on itself over months and years as you develop this habit of daily meditations.

Step 2: Discuss your Beliefs

The second major step for developing your personal Existential God is to discuss your beliefs with others. The key word, here, is “discuss”. You could also think of it as a debate. What it should not be is an argument over who is right and who is wrong.

The reason why it is important to discuss your faith with others is that others will challenge what you believe based on their own beliefs. These challenges are important because they force you to defend what you believe. If you can defend your beliefs, then you are well on your way to having your own personal Existential God.

However, it is OK if you cannot defend your beliefs in a discussion with others. All that it means is that you need to reflect a little bit more on just what it is that you do believe. If what the other person said in a discussion makes sense to you, then go ahead and incorporate that person’s ideas into your own set of beliefs.

This refinement of your beliefs occurs in the meditative sessions you have after the discussion. As part of your follow-on meditations, you review the points the other person made during the discussion to see what made sense to you and what did not.

A discussion is nothing more than a sharing of ideas. Hopefully, each person involved in the discussions comes away from it with some new insights that can be reflected upon and incorporated into both people’s Existential God.

Because of the perpetual nature of these personal meditations and public discussions, your personal Existential God will continually be refined over your lifetime. If your philosophical beliefs ever become static, then you have become complacent about your faith rather than letting your faith grow with you.

Rules for Discussing Your Faith

As was said, a discussion of your faith with others should never degrade into an argument over who is right and who is wrong. No one knows the complete truth about God. So, here are some rules to follow when people are having a discussion about their respective Existential Gods.

First, respect the beliefs of each other. This is not a time for your ego to shine through. You both gain from the discussion if you enter the discussion with the view that neither of you knows the truth. You are both seeking what is true, and you are doing nothing more than exchanging ideas.

Second, watch your choice of words. Refrain from stating the words, or even implying that “I am right” or “you are wrong”. This type of verbiage only puts the other person on the defensive and leads to a very unproductive discussion.

Third, never raise your voice to intimidate the other. Raising your voice only leads the other person to either raise they voice – in which case, you have an argument. Or, the other person will stop talking and the discussion becomes fruitless.

The fourth rule is to go ahead and challenge each other’s beliefs. You are actually doing each other a favor by challenging each other’s beliefs. The primary purpose of the discussion is to see how well you can defend your beliefs. Your meditation sessions become a lot more productive if you recently had a discussion where you were forced to defend your beliefs.

Finally, challenging each other’s beliefs does not mean there will be a winner and a loser in the discussion. Neither person should feel like they lost the discussion. All the participants should feel like winners because they either successfully defended themselves, or they gained new insights from the discussion that they can incorporate into their own personal Existential God.

In Review

In review, the process for developing your own personal Existential God is a perpetual two-step process. The first step involves meditation to define your beliefs. The second step involves discussing your beliefs with others to see how well you really do believe what you think you believe.

Meditation must be personal and undirected where you clear your mind of the thoughts of your daily world and open your mind to revelations that come from God. It is in these meditative sessions that your personal Existential God emerges.

Discussing your beliefs with others serves two main purposes. The first purpose is to exchange your ideas with others. The second purpose is to be challenged by others to see how well you can defend your beliefs. There are no losers in these discussions. All parties in the discussion should come away having gained something from it.

Finally, developing your personal Existential God is a life-long process. Through repeated meditation sessions and public discussions, your personal Existential God develops and is continually refined over time. At no point should you declare that the creation of you personal Existential God is completed.