I have recently been reminded of an excellent song by the band Kansas entitled, “Dust in the Wind.” It is a song I remember hearing and enjoying as a child, as it came out in January of 1978 when I was just five years old. While I didn’t comprehend the meaning of the song then, as an adult I hear it now with a new appreciation. It is an excellent and poignant song which within its beautiful melodic singing passages and acoustic guitar accompaniment, speak honestly about the impermanence of everything – a sentiment related throughout the Old Testament in the Bible, especially in Genesis, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah.
Genesis 3:19, “…for dust you are and to dust you shall return.”
Ecclesiastes 3:20 “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.”
Isaiah 40:6, “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades…”
As I have mentioned before in this book, the message of everything’s impermanence was drastically altered with Jesus’ message in the New Testament of “eternal life” – a blatant contradiction to his father’s Old Testament message of impermanence, and even more puzzling with what Jesus states in Matthew 5:17-18.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
As stated previously in this book, this passage makes it clear Jesus is not saying the Old Testament “no longer applies” with his message of the New Testament, as many believers, apologists and theologians have incorrectly stated, but rather, is still in effect. He is therefore saying he was to fulfill the same Law that included God’s advocacy or allowance of slavery, genocide, and polygamy. It is also the same Law in which there is no afterlife, yet Jesus claimed there is an afterlife – in direct contradiction to the Old Testament Jesus himself said is still in effect. So which is it Jesus? It cannot be both. It was for Paul, who never met Jesus as a flesh-and-blood person to claim the Old Testament Law is no longer applicable to those “of faith,” which is in direct contradiction to James, the brother of Jesus’ teachings that adhered strictly to Old Testament messianic beliefs as well as those of the Dead Sea Scrolls about a warrior messiah who would militarily crush his enemies, not one such as Jesus of the New Testament who advocated paying taxes to Caesar and to “turn the other cheek.” Paul’s message is also in direct contradiction to Jesus’ words as recorded in Matthew 5:17-18, which Paul must not have read, or more likely, as we learned in the last chapter, was not yet written when Paul was writing his epistles.
Regardless of what the Bible says or does not say, whether it is a fiction, fraud, or just poetic metaphors for living, it is certain from our observations of the universe and from sound reasoning that all things are impermanent, and that death, decay, flux, and change, are forever a part of this dance of existence in the only reality we can empirically verify and therefore know for certain is actually real – this one. While I have spent a great deal of time in this book focusing on why religious belief is incorrect and not a reliable basis for knowing what is actually true, I wanted to finally reflect, in the afterword of this book, a bit on the positives of a non-theistic viewpoint. All too often non-believers readily describe what is wrong with religious belief without providing any positive alternative viewpoint, or the benefits of non-belief. This is in my opinion perhaps the biggest failing of atheism, which while providing a corrective to the problems of religious dogmatism and belief, does not offer much in terms of another positive pathway to living. This is something I myself have often been guilty of, and I must confess have not in my opinion adequately dealt with in this book or otherwise. There are many emotional, psychological, and cultural implications when embracing rationality and sound reasoning which need to be addressed if we are to find a measure of genuine joy, acceptance, and peace of mind in this life. In other words, there is a cost to embracing rationality, sound reasoning, and an evidence-based view of reality. To paraphrase Sam Harris, believing in Santa Claus and his helpful elves at the North Pole is more fun than visualizing your parents wrapping presents on Christmas Eve in their pajamas, and maxing out their credit cards to purchase these presents. There is no guarantee a changed worldview will bring pleasant realizations. It may not. Nevertheless, while the lyrics of the song “Dust in the Wind” and the Old Testament scripture passages quoted previously may seem “depressing” to many of us, they don’t necessarily have to be. It can instead be quite liberating to know we need not necessarily remain enslaved to the illusory ego.
Providing a pathway out of religious dogmatism and attachment to religious faith claims, and instead showing a way towards secular humanism and spirituality without religion could perhaps be the focus of another book or podcast series, but for the time being I am quite content referring others to the benefits of secular humanism and spirituality without religion in the great work of Sam Harris who hosts the newly to be re-titled “Making Sense” podcast. His new “Waking Up” app featuring guided meditations and lessons is in my view quite eye-opening and enlightening for exploring the nature of consciousness and the human mind. Sam Harris is the only atheist I know who strongly advocates the spiritual life yet is still able to separate the “wheat” from the “chaff” as it were between religious superstition and dogmatism from the genuine quest to decrease our suffering of ourselves and other creatures, and to make the world a better place by utilizing such tools as mindfulness meditation which requires no belief in any metaphysical claims about the nature of reality and the universe. This is the key important difference between something such as mindfulness meditation and religious dogmatism. Religious dogmatism requires we adopt metaphysical claims unsupported by evidence or at least good evidence and sound reasoning, while mindfulness meditation only requires we take the time to experience for ourselves the actual nature of our own mind and how easily distracted we almost always are by an almost constant identification with thought. Through mindfulness medication, one can recognize for themselves the free and open nature of consciousness unencumbered by the ego and all of the illusions and corresponding suffering which come with constant identification with thought, which is the experience of ego itself, as I have explored throughout this book. I find the work of Sam Harris to be genuinely unique and important because I do not know of any other atheist who does this kind of work – who gives credibility to the genuine quest for a “spiritual” aspect of life as he brilliantly illustrates in his book, “Waking Up,” while still maintaining a razor-sharp critical thinking mind which can call out religious dogmatism and belief for the unnecessary and irrational practices they are. In short, Sam Harris gives a path to spirituality without religion, which is actually the subtitle to his book, “Waking Up.” I believe this is a good part of what the world needs in this rapidly changing environment of scientific inquiry and freethinking rationality – a pathway to a “spiritual” life which can decrease our suffering and increase our genuine joy and compassion without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality, by accepting the impermanence of all things, and finding a way to deal with the reality of our almost constantly distracted minds by thought and the suffering that so often goes with it. While I admire the work and writings of the Indian philosopher and often considered mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti, I find his approach as a teacher in his writings to often be very difficult and sometimes frustrating to comprehend, depending on where one is in their awareness. When I first read the work of Krishnamurti, I found myself constantly frustrated and it took some time for me to begin to comprehend what he was saying. While I can now understand his uncompromising “truth is a pathless land” paradigm, and can see how this would be perfectly clear and make sense for a mystic who is more often than not, clear about consciousness and what the mind actually does, I do not find this approach very helpful for one such as myself so distracted by thought and seemingly held captive to an almost constant identification with thought, my ego. Sam Harris, while he does not consider himself qualified as a genuine guru, nevertheless provides a pathway to remind oneself of the nature of the mind and consciousness I find quite helpful.
I can remember one time talking with my best college friend Dave, who said he can remember sitting quietly free of all care and being genuinely happy. He was truly in the “present moment.” His voice then changed dramatically as he said with great gravity… “And then… the thoughts came.” This is a profound insight for me as I now look back on it within the context of how much I have already learned in a short time from Sam Harris’ “Waking Up” course, and the realization of how much our identification with thought itself is the root cause for so much of our suffering. The “Waking Up” course is one such pathway to help practice the recognition of how distracted we are, and how to “pull back” as it were and observe our thoughts as they choicelessly arise rather than remaining enslaved to identification with each arising thought and the suffering that so often comes with it. This practice is a stark contrast to another meditation technique I tried several years ago, shortly after I graduated from college when I was desperately seeing a genuine spiritual pathway out of religious dogmatism. While this technique did not require I believe or have faith in any metaphysical claims for it to “work,” which used a series of “attunements” and hands on work in which through an elaborate “attunement” process from a qualified teacher one’s hands are “activated” to be “radiant hands” which can provide “radiant transcendental energy” to others through touch, they were obviously making non-falsifiable metaphysical claims and had no qualms in charging ever-increasing fees for each “degree” of the practice. I went as far as the third degree, and paid $5,000 for that “degree” alone. Looking back, I see this as pure fraud, no different than religious dogmatism, or paying a psychic healer or a tarot card reader for their services, whom I would also call frauds, yet can still somehow hang a neon sign on their window, charge a fee for these “services,” and not be arrested. Nevertheless, I still learned a valuable lesson from this experience, even $5,000 later, and am most grateful after over twenty years later for finally discovering what I had been looking for all my life but could not quite articulate back then – a genuine pathway to discovering the true nature of the mind and consciousness, and how to therefore limit suffering, increase compassion, and therefore improve my relationships with friends and family, and those whom I do not even know. This is for me, the authentic “spiritual” path as it were.
I acknowledge how scary a life without the apparent certainties of religious convictions can be because as stated previously in this book, I used to be a true believer myself. Nevertheless, I have often been puzzled how one could call an existence without an afterlife “meaningless,” as so many religious apologists and believers tend to do. For it is precisely because all things are impermanent – including our lives that give them so much meaning and can compel us towards finding a sense of purpose. Ironically enough, the price for a life of meaning and purpose we so cherish is death. For it is death that gives meaning and gravity to the stories of our lives, the value of our limited time, the tragedies of Shakespeare, indeed the very concepts of value and purpose themselves which permeate all we hold dear and cherish are only possible with death. Yet many of us live as if we are going to live forever. Little else explains why so many of us live lives with little urgency, wasting our time on things that if we thought about it from the perspective of the fact we are not permanent, that our days are numbered, we would waste precious little time on these trivialities because you cannot ever get time back. At least when you waste money, you can earn it back, but when you waste time that time is gone, never to return again. There are a finite number of days in each of our lives. Why would we waste any time at all if we truly knew and understood this? That is why Jiddu Krishnamurti said we must truly embrace and live with the reality of death every day – that we must truly learn how to die each day, instead of avoiding and denying this reality by rationalizing how death is an “illusion,” and how if we believe in or do the “right things,” we will one day get an “eternal reward” of Heaven after we die. Where is the meaning and purpose in an “eternal existence?” And if that was the “purpose” of God’s Heaven, why then did God not just create Heaven from word go and avoid all of this unnecessary nonsense, death, and unimaginable suffering? The “free will” argument many apologists try to use here doesn’t work – ultimately because there truly is no “free-will,” as stated previously in this book. Yet even if there was “free-will” on Earth, there is obviously no “free-will” in Heaven since we cannot choose to “sin” while in Heaven, so why not give us no “free-will” on Earth from word go and avoid this entire unnecessary debacle?
If death were taken away, then “meaning” and “purpose” would cease to exist. For it is rarity which enables meaning. If things are “forever,” they can then be taken for granted because they will always be there since there will always “be tomorrow.” How could anything have any value if it is guaranteed? For without a literal “deadline,” we would languish in truly meaningless lives that stretch on for a purposeless infinity, instead of ones that are filled with immense meaning and purpose precisely because there are limits to our lives which can compel us to therefore find value in what we want to spend our limited time on. That is why the idea of Heaven would in reality be Hell – for even pleasure that goes on and on and on and on would eventually become unpleasant because it is precisely the contrasts and limits of existence which allow us the very experience of pleasure in the first place. Pleasure and any other value has no meaning when a contrast or opposite does not exist, which is why an “only pleasant” existence would not ultimately be pleasant at all. While we tend to think the “limitless” is the only which has meaning or purpose, it is actually quite the opposite. The problem is, if we live “forever,” then meaning and purpose cease to exist, and if we don’t live forever, then we have meaning and purpose, but as we have discovered before, and discover once again – we cannot have it both ways.
So what are some of the positives of religious non-belief and genuine acceptance of reality, despite our difficulties in accepting it?
- Ownership and accountability for oneself and acceptance of the real world in which we live without the reliance on “divine intervention” or “spiritual realms of existence” – discourages the “blame-game”
- Realizing the immense value of things in awareness of the impermanence of all things
- Openness to the truth above one’s personal opinions or beliefs
- The realization our egos are just a part of ONE WHOLE, which has always been and will forever be, and in this realization, understanding there is no beginning or end to ALL
- Increased compassion for all in the realization we are all doing what we have no “free choice” to do, and the fact we are all “in the same boat” together
- Decreased fear when one realizes the illusion of ego, and the fact there is nothing – including no “self” to lose, hold on to, or to justify
- Peace and true freedom for all when we no longer have agendas or self-interests to defend, and instead strive to honestly, truthfully, and courageously know the truth at all costs – even at cost to our egos and their cherished beliefs and ideologies
From the Kansas song “Dust in the Wind,” it states “all we are is dust in the wind… nothing lasts forever but the Earth and sky,” yet even these will one day pass, just like everything else. The only which is unchanging and timeless – without beginning and without end, is All and the two principles of Oneness, consciousness and change, as stated previously in this book. While we tend to worship self to the point of projecting our self-concept onto the concept of an “external” God and other external, invisible “selves” or “beings,” it is amazing how few seem to contemplate the benefits of letting go of the illusory self in the first place, instead of endlessly trying to defend and validate it with our ego-based conceptual projections of “souls,” the afterlife, and “God.” The self is taken for granted as being “reality” by virtually everyone. It is this very belief which drives our concepts of God, spirits, angels, and every other “spiritual being” we can imagine. Even Rene Descartes believed the self is reality by virtue of his famous saying, “I think, therefore I am.” However, he had it backwards because in truth, “Think I, therefore I am not.” In other words, it is thought itself which is the “me,” the “self,” the “I,” because thought itself “produces” if you will, the very concept of the “me,” the “self,” the “I” in the first place, for convenience of speaking – not some “real I” who is “doing” the thinking. This backwards thinking such as that illustrated by Descartes is the fundamental problem with all theistic thought, including that of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and is the reason why all such theistic thinking is incorrect and therefore false. Since the self or the “thinker” is nothing more than thought itself, it is therefore one and the same with thought and is therefore an illusion – still real as a dream is real, but still not reality, as a dream is not reality.
Why would we want to let go of our religious beliefs and afterlife theories, especially if they provide us much comfort? Because comforting or not, they are based not on reality, but on the illusion of ego – the illusion of self in the first place; and ironically enough, there is everything to gain by losing our attachment to ego, and everything to lose by holding on to ego’s illusion. By believing in “eternal life” and “immortal souls,” “God,” or whatever other illusory beings or conceptions we wish to create to comfort and hold on to our egos, the fear never ends because these lies merely attempt to shield this illusion from being seen for what it is, rather than expose the truth of the illusion of self, and with it, all concepts of “beings,” “souls,” or any other ego-based notions. Even believers understand deep down the illusion of God, the self, and the afterlife, which is why many of those who claim to be “religious” are still very much disturbed by and afraid of the reality of death. I have always found it puzzling why believers would be disturbed and afraid of death, especially since death is supposed to provide the believer with everything and more they could possibly want after death. You would think believers would be jumping off bridges, taking lethal over-dosages of drugs, and encouraging their friends to not get treatment for their deadly illnesses to expedite their entrance into Heaven if they really believed what they claim to believe, especially in light of how terrible life on Earth can be. The behavior of believers, who almost always do the exact opposite of trying to expedite their passing as well as the passing of others clearly illustrates the internal contradiction between what they know is true, and what they want to believe is true. The belief in God and the afterlife is merely an attempt at resolving believers’ cognitive dissonance between the two. That is why believers tend to get defensive and even angry when these beliefs are threatened in the face of genuine evidence and sound reasoning, since these beliefs are their “answer” to “resolving” this cognitive dissonance – an “answer” they therefore do not wish to have taken away. But like drugs, these so-called “answers” are no answers at all, and merely covers over the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, but never resolves it. The defensiveness of believers who are confronted with the contradictions and therefore falsehood of their beliefs illustrate this fact clearly. If what they believed was true, then genuine evidence or at least sound reasoning would support it. Since there is no genuine, good evidence nor sound reasoning to support their beliefs, and they know it, they therefore get defensive when the truth contradicts the conclusions they wish to defend.
While it may be difficult to let go of our egotistical attachments, and the many implications they have on several areas of our lives – emotional, cultural, psychological, or otherwise, perhaps we need to consider the price we pay for not letting go. Despite the so-called “comfort” of religious belief, we pay the price of a continuous cycle of fear, until the self is finally seen and accepted for the illusion it is, because since the self is an illusion, and most people are never internally comfortable with contradictions and falsehood as evidenced by the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, then holding on to this illusory idea will only produce further conflict, fear, anxiety, and war. That is why the only answer to bringing true peace and joy in our lives is to detach from the illusory ego and embrace the fact of impermanence, which mindfulness meditation can help awaken in its practitioners, instead of endlessly trying to defend, grasp for, justify, and preserve the illusion of ego, as all ego-based theologies attempt to do, such as those of Christianity and Islam. This to me is the best reason of all to detach from religious belief. Once we can get to the point of true acceptance of our impermanence rather than explaining it away with afterlife and religious theories, and realize the fact there is a much larger picture than ourselves, then we will finally be in a position to genuinely decrease our fear, enslavement, and selfishness, while therefore genuinely increasing our compassion, freedom, selflessness, and joy. If we can instead be grateful for what we do have, instead of selfishly focusing on what we may not have or do not have, perhaps then we can find that true peace we so often elusively seek that passes all understanding.