Religion 21st Century

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Thirty Propositions

The following thirty propositions have been chosen from the book, Religion for the 21st Century, as essential truths for the understanding of religion, human nature and how the world works.

1. Membership in a political or religious organization is a social commitment that has little to do with truth or understanding how humans and the universe work.

2. Human societies began with small groups that were more or less self-regulating entities. Group myths and rules provided common ground for group members.

3. Stories become formalized and repeated as literature, religion and history. Myths are fantasies--imaginative, explanatory stories that address the big issues such as the origin and purpose of the group, the source of moral authority and the fate of individuals when they die.

4. Numerous spirits have been invented for thousands of years that occupy a nebulous parallel universe that intersects with the human world in curious ways. The soul, for example, may be portrayed as a miniature person that lives within and can escape.

5. Each person acquires cognitive containers that permit learning but also limit what is learned and understood. Religious beliefs are collected in a cognitive container that resists change. As soon as you are inside one group you are preoccupied with the group’s claims and arguments.

6. Humans get into trouble when they read myths as factual and historical or as replacements for real understanding of how the world works.

7. There are three fundamental limitations of human cognition: that information and cognitive abilities are unevenly distributed; that each person will display some understanding of some issues but will be otherwise ignorant; that each person acts from a narcissistic assumption that only I am right.

8. Civilizations always featured Kings, Queens, and Emperors who were supported by aristocratic classes of priests.

9. A typical society is ruled by a small elite group that controls a large peasant group. Poor people have always been uneducated, obedient and available to work for or fight for the elite classes.

10. The hierarchical organization of human and other primate groups is the root of hero and god worship.

11. At best, the idea of religion implies more coherence than can be found in the real world.

12. Groups, referred to as religions, continue to generate conflict rather than agreement. If there is progress toward a sustainable and agreeable life for expanding populations of humans, then religions have to become what they are not -- expressions of unity and cooperation.

13. Religious beliefs are local, idiosyncratic and relative to the members of the local group. The social and political benefits of belonging to a religious organization override the inclination to new learning, self-determination and freedom.

14. Some argue that retiring religious beliefs is a prerequisite for progress toward a rational and humane future.

15. The problem is that beliefs are fixed and enduring attributes of local groups that will only change through progress within these groups.

16. Morality is a collection of animal attributes that have evolved over hundreds of millions of years. Human morality is an expression of old social cognitions and motivations that have emerged as a less than perfect version of primate tendencies such as caring for others while seeking dominance. In primates, there is an innate sense of justice that forms the deep foundation of morality.

17. If altruism means anything, it means helping others. Altruism tends to be reciprocal. Helping another is attached to the expectation of being helped.

18. There are hazards built into the aspiration to be a good person. One hazard is the tendency to act like a good person without becoming a good person. Another hazard is self-righteousness, the tendency to turn good deeds into reasons to feel superior.

19. Ethics are about rules of conduct or, more precisely, ethicists attempt to decide what good and reasonable behavior is.

20. If you take a planet view of ethics, the landscape is uneven. In some locations such as my community, ethical issues often involve fine points and disputes of minor significance. In other places on the planet, atrocities are common place; the most deplorable acts are accepted or ignored.

21. A secular state is based on rational humanism and the conviction that individual humans and human societies are capable of self-regulation. Secularity, democracy and freedom are the three pillars of self-regulating, free states.

22. Civility refers to the ability of individuals to behave in a polite and considerate manner; to control the destructive expressions of anger and to cooperate with others in the pursuit of a common good. Civil societies develop rules of conduct and cooperative infrastructures.

23. Freedom means that individuals make choices and decide their fate, not the government or a religious organization.

24. Whatever we value about civilized human existence - culture, knowledge, social justice, respect for human rights and dignity must be learned and practiced. Success at humanitarian efforts within a society reveals that portion of human attitudes, beliefs and behavior that can be modified and/or are supported by innate tendencies.

25. Failure of moral authority reveals the extent to which innate negative tendencies prevail no matter how diligent the effort to modify or suppress them.

26. Human action is often un-necessary, wasteful and destructive. Why make hydrogen bombs when you could be sipping tea in a Zen garden?

27. Desires are often unattainable. Criticism and hate are invented and harmful. Ownership of things and people brings worry, frustration and ultimate loss. Why strive for all this stuff when happiness is your goal and sitting quietly by a stream brings happiness?

28. The emergence of new forms of thought and experience require spaciousness in mind. Cluttered minds are not very creative. So do nothing, empty the mind, be quiet and appreciate the natural world.

29. The value of emptiness is the movement it permits.

30. To know that we are one is to transcend human nature. Although different teachings have suggested that transcendence is the goal and offer practices to achieve the goal, the task is formidable and seldom, if ever achieved.


  • Religion for the 21st Century is available as an eBook download. The book is intended for a well-educated smart reader who is interested in a world view of religious expressions past, present and future. The main theme is that each religious group has its own claims and stories and will tend to reject others. A reader committed to one point of view may not accept the egalitarian review presented here. Innate tendencies are expressed as religions and in the past have created conflicts that hinder progress towards the real and true. The book examines paths for religious renewal in the 21st century.

    The author is Stephen Gislason

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