Crisis of Uncertain Divinity
Humans are not rational animals, but rather ones occasionally capable of reason.
Firmly held beliefs were simultaneously strengthened and shattered by the events of the last three months. Across the globe, few would contest that the course of human history has been permanently and shockingly altered.
While the magnitude of the events is rarely in dispute, their meaning surely is. Religious belief is a fascinatingly mind-boggling concept. To some it is almost as central as gender in defining themselves. But to an outsider, someone with a very different belief system, or none at all, this centrality may seem quaint at best or dangerous at worst.
She did the best she could, but will it be enough? Is the world prepared to heed her clear-headed wisdom and advice? For all our sakes, let’s hope so.
Before the chaos
To set the stage, some brief background is needed to understand the landscape as it stood before the chaos. The role of religion in people’s lives was both simple and complicated. Most of Europe had moved beyond religion in a public sense, although some still held a degree of personal faith. The population of most Asian nations still found calm in their deity-free faith traditions. In the US, struggles between those who believe in separation of church and state and those that insist it is a Christian nation were ongoing. “Culture Wars”, “The War on Christmas” and related themes stoked the fires.
In the Middle East, Muslims were finally beginning to speak out against the extremist factions that had for years taken their religion hostage. But years of silence made that hill steep. To their east and west, judgment already had been passed on Islam. Fittingly, it all began in the Middle East.
It was to be the last major speech of the outgoing Prime Minister’s term. Following his eight years leading Israel, his coalition had now crumbled. His more liberal successor had been particularly forceful with his attacks on the outgoing Prime Minister’s hawkish positions on Jewish settlements, regional relations and the ever present conundrum that was Palestine. The politically divided nation was keen to hear the speech. Was there to be a reconciliatory tone or would he strike back with his trademark nationalist rants. As luck would have it, his speech would forever be overshadowed; it was over before it began.
Before he finished the niceties that politicians of every kind the world over use to begin speeches, the lights in the Knesset chamber suddenly went dark. A strange turquoise light engulfed the ceiling. While Knesset members and guests stood in disbelief, a voice was heard. It was obviously not that of the Prime Minister.
People of Israel — here and afar — your wait for a Messiah will now end. It’s great that the stonings have ended, but are you really being kind to your neighbors?
It should be kept in mind that this was a major speech; the room was overflowing with people. Israeli television was broadcasting live. International media was present too, some of which were steaming the live Israeli television feed. For the first time in modern history, there was a message from God. A public one. This was no talking bush or solitary man transcribing what he says God told him. So the world came together, held hands and lived forever in peace! Yeah, no.
However, the grid lit up as it never had before. The world was so interconnected that those in sleeping time zones were Tweeted, Weiboed, Instagramed and called by family and friends that were awake. It’s safe to say that within six hours or so the entire connected world was informed. The consensus was: hoax.
This conclusion was popular even for those present. Remember, if the Israelis are good at anything it’s security. An immediate investigation was launched. What they did is a story in and of itself, but their investigation and findings were remarkably transparent, with teams from numerous nations (and the UN) making follow-up visits. If it was a hoax, it was so well-planned and thought-out that it fooled the best tech geeks in the world.
In parallel to the hi-tech witch-hunt, some serious theological discussions began to take place. A little monotheism 101:
a) Those of the Jewish faith believe that the messiah has yet to appear … they are still waiting for him,
b) Those of the Christian faith believe that Jesus was the messiah for which the Jews were looking. AND his return signals the end of the world as we know it,
c) Those of the Muslim faith believe that Jesus was a prophet, but simply a human. However, he will one day return which will also signify the end of the world as we know it.
As one might expect, there was a range of opinions on the meaning of the message that was given that day in the Knesset, largely following entrenched religious inclinations. Jews from around the world were inclined to accept the message as divine, albeit cheeky. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Animists, Shintos, Sikhs, etc. were a bit more skeptical. These skeptics were joined of course by the atheists, agnostics and “spiritual but not religious” types.
The debate was heated, with every news channel milking it with practically 24 hour coverage. Theologians of every religious flavor had their 15-plus minutes of fame, ten times over.
In the midst of the debate, the sudden death of Pope Pedro I, incidentally, the first Pope to use the Spanish version of a name, added to the chaos. Even in normal times, Papal elections are momentous. Catholics were the largest sect in Christianity and the election of a new Pope was a joyous occasion. But these were not ordinary times, the anticipation was electrifying. After about a week of deliberations, white smoke appeared over the roof of the Sistine Chapel indicating that the College of Cardinals had elected a new Pope.
Word spread quickly, and crowds began to assemble in Saint Peter’s Square to get a glimpse of the man who would lead the Church in these times of uncertainty. Would he be a conservative, a Pope that would preach the unerring truth of Catholicism? Or would he be more liberal, opening a door in such a way to bring all religious people closer together? As night fell on the Square, and he appeared on that familiar balcony, that question was soon forgotten.
As he stepped out, while the crowds were roaring with cheers and excitement, the lights in the Square went dark and an ominous turquoise light filled the dark night sky. The thousands of faithful in the Square, along with the millions watching the event live from home, soon heard the voice they instantly recalled from that day about a month ago in Israel. But this time it said:
People of Christ — here and afar — your wait for Jesus’ return will now end. It’s great that people are no longer being conquered, but is birth control really that wrong?
After the initial shock and surprise wore off, the world again went into a media-driven frenzy. The hoax squads were once again called in to investigate. The results were the same. No one could credibly explain how it happened — again. Even some of the naysayers that held firm in their skeptical convictions about what happened in Israel were now scratching their heads.
Crisis of theology
The theological debates intensified, with new battlefronts emerging. In the United States, the bible-based Evangelicals were perplexed that if this was really the voice of God, why would it be revealed to a Christian sect that openly views the bible as guidance and not the literal word from God. Ministers reported that attendance was up, but donations were down. They were getting questions for which they had no answers. Across the Muslim world, even more dire questions were being discussed. The message in Italy was clearer than the one in Israel. It was not just a messiah that was coming, it was Jesus. How does a message to Jews and Christians fit into their theology? The leader of North Korea was the first to suggest that the messages were of alien origin; an idea that was more widely embraced than one might imagine.
In the middle of this global theological scrum, an unlikely group was increasingly sought for clarity. Since the dawn of organized religion, atheists and agnostics (A&As) were distrusted, despised and seen as outliers in a predominantly religious world. The bickering and arrogance of many religious leaders tended to reinforce the reasonableness of most A&As. While some in the A&A ranks led the endless investigations into the various hoax theories, most abided by their “we live by proof and evidence” mantra that they had been proclaiming for eons. The events in Israel and Italy certainly qualified as some form of proof.
Their well-worn “would you ask a BMW salesman which is the best car to buy” theme rang true with all but the most ardent of the faithful. They had no horse in this race to defend. People became aware that many of these A&As were well-informed about ALL world religions and did not let a particular world-view skew their judgment. In a world that was in the midst of a major spiritual crisis, one particular A&A became somewhat of a superstar.
Crisis of non-theists
Dr. Claudia Sanchez was up to the challenge. Her background in the emerging science of Social Psychology gave her a unique insight into how people interact. She was a highly sought after talking-head for the media and her reasonable approach to thinking through these messages was appreciated by all factions.
Claudia never claimed to have answers. Her insistence that “anyone professing absolute certainty of how, why and to whom these revelations had been made should enlighten the rest of us with supporting facts and details” was a humble and refreshing perspective in a sea of arrogance. Her plea for open-minded evaluation actually provided support to the competing extraterrestrial origin theories.
She was, however, internally conflicted. Like most A&As, she was quite certain that the concept of God, as defined by organized religion (all powerful, created everything, watches over us, listens and responds to prayers, etc.) was pure myth handed down from generation to generation.
She understood that the social aspect of organized religion held much of its power, and how it had evolved as ancient humans shifted from nomadic hunter/gatherer societies to more stationary, agriculturally focused cultures. Life was all about the group after that transition, not the individual. Stronger groups outlived weaker groups. Common goals and taboos created cohesion. Those that did not follow were shunned. Acts that were commonly called “evil” were remnants of a time when self-preservation was the solitary, self-centered goal of life. Claudia’s stance on this issue was controversial early in her career and caused her to be reviled by all but the most liberal religious leaders.
She had been convinced for decades that science explained most of the universe. This was in addition to the obvious lack of any meaningful proof of, or reason to believe in, any kind deity. It was just a matter of time before human understanding of the world became close to complete — or complete enough — for our limited minds. These and similar aspects of her personal and professional life are what drove her internal conflict. She spent considerable time trying to decipher how these revelations fit into her world view; or did she have to radically change her concept of God?
In the midst of all the excitement of the prior month, Claudia had almost forgotten that she had agreed to act as the keynote speaker at the annual International Association of Brights in London. The Bright moniker recently had been adopted by the A&A crowd in an attempt to assume a name that did not carry a negative stigma. It was not as successful as they hoped, but they stuck with it anyway.
In the prior year, she had developed what in her opinion was a succinct but meaningful list of Four Points that she thought would make the world more harmonious and significantly less dangerous. Her plan was to reveal this list at the conference; she knew it would be controversial. In light of the events in Israel and Italy, this concern was magnified. Her hope was that after the initial outrage wore off, people would see the value in her concepts. And all religious groups would probably hate her equally, so at least she had that going for her.
She had been socializing her Four Points to trusted friends — religious types, A&As and those in between. The results were as one might expect, but with proper reflection, they did tend to soften. Time would tell. As it happens, she was at the home of one such person when she got the call. Her friend was a Mormon Elder and if not for the respect he had for Dr. Sanchez, would have kicked her out of his house after she unveiled the Points to him. The call was from a colleague telling her that she should turn on the TV, any channel, and watch.
There is a ten hour time difference between Utah (where she was) and Makkah, Saudi Arabia (where the news was breaking). Millions of observant Muslims had descended on Makkah for the annual Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam. At least once in their lives, each Muslim is called to partake in this ritual to commemorate the life and trials of the Prophet Mohammed. The two of them watched the replay on the television as throngs of pilgrims made the ceremonial walk around the Kaaba. The lights in and around the Grand Mosque went dim and the now familiar turquoise light filled the sky.
People of Islam — here and afar — your wait for Jesus’ return will now end. It’s great that some modernization has occurred, but why are women still not treated as equal with men in all ways.
The voice was obviously the same as that heard in Israel and Italy. A quick note about language is probably overdue. While the voice was the same in each of the three revelations, the language was local each time. It frustrated the English speaking, as there were of course slight translation variations. But this was all nuance — the messages were perfectly clear and understood by all.
Claudia and her host watched as the replay was followed by a typical panel of experts who now made a living on cable news networks. To her, some were reasonable and some were fanatical. She understood of course that extreme perspectives drove ratings; cable news networks are businesses like all others. Any reluctance she had about the Brights conference in London all but vanished that evening. Her “voice of reason” status would be needed now more than ever. She just wished she had more answers.
As one might expect, people’s reactions to the three revelations were wide and varied. Some members of religions that received a direct message simply ignored the other messages and became more steadfast in their belief. Others totally lost faith and could now be categorized as A&A, becoming alienated from the “truth” they had been taught since before they were even school age.
For the Evangelical Christians in the United States, it would not be an understatement to use the word crisis. Some of the most zealous preachers went as far as to predict days, times and content of the next revelation, always, of course, supporting their particular world view. Churches were overflowing at the appointed times, but people often left disappointed and less faithful. Even in more liberal churches there were more questions than answers.
It was in these liberal churches, however, where a powerful movement would soon begin to grow. One that Dr. Claudia Sanchez would later harness: was there really one true path?
The Hajj revelation sent shockwaves through the world of Islam. For the third time, hoax investigations ensued and again concluded without any reasonable explanations. Recall that followers of Islam view themselves as the successors to Christianity, who in turn view themselves as the successors to Judaism. The fact that Jews and Christians do not see it this way was and always has been inconvenient to the Christians and Muslims.
In the decades leading up to the revelations, Islam had developed what could be called a public relations problem. Small factions used the more militant verses of the Quran to justify violence, hatred and destruction. Some of these hostilities were truly horrendous. Despite pleas of peace from the peaceful Muslim majority, such verses certainly are contained in the ancient text. That’s the fundamental problem posed by a literal interpretation of holy books — it necessitates some mental gymnastics to ignore the negative aspects when one wants to emphasize only the positive ones. The fact that the whole book is considered divine magnifies and complicates this task. Jews and Christians have the exact same problem. For some reason, however, most of their adherents simply forgot, overlooked or ignored the Torah/Bible verses that were untenable in modern society. Well, for the most part.
Needless to say, that day in Makkah, individuals from every faction of Islam were present. Since religions have no earthly judge, the vast minority that believed violence is divinely justified assumed that God was talking to them. And who could say they were wrong? Then of course there were the debates between Shiites and the Sunnis, the two major sects within Islam. Unlike the message received in Italy, where a particular Christian sect was “chosen”, Muslims of both major faith traditions were present and free to claim that the message was intended for them. It bears repeating, there is no judge to say which group, if either (or any), is correct. Quietly, many wondered whether another clarifying message would materialize.
Europe had already become largely secular. In many ways, their incredulity was in line with the A&A crowd. However, as in many other parts of the world, Europe was becoming more diverse and was now home to an array of faith traditions that were rarely in alignment about the meaning of the messages. But the revelation in Italy was said to awaken some latent Christian undercurrents around Europe. So while Europe was not a hotbed of reaction, its population would play an important role as events unfolded.
Governments of China, Japan, Korea and other Asian nations were initially remarkably quiet. Mysteriously, the messages were revealed to the three major monotheistic belief systems. While these faiths had adherents throughout Asia, compared with western cultures, no nation in that region had a long history of monotheism. Contrasted to official silence from Asia, individuals were hyper engaged. Various Asian social media sites were home to some of the most well informed speculation about what the messages meant, their origin and if more were likely to come. It could be said that advances in fast and accurate live translation was a byproduct of the world’s active engagement. Language barriers fell.
Twenty-four hours a day, social media was filled with discussion. The theories were endless, but tended to be grouped into one of four categories:
1) Hoax — By an individual, group or corporation with financial gain, notoriety or fame as the motivation
2) Hoax — By a Government with financial or political motivation
3) Real — The voice of some God warning humans that the end is near
4) Real — The voice of some God warning humans to just get on with their lives and behave better
The entire connected world — those that were not cowering in fear about what could happen at any moment — was captivated. Based on what they knew or thought, each person could use an ingenious, cross platform widget embedded into social media to indicate their opinion. Designed by a Chinese student, this simple tool allows anyone to express his/her thoughts in a weighted manner. For example, if today someone felt 80 percent “Hoax 1”, 10 percent “Hoax 2” and 10 percent something else, they could enter that data into the widget. When billions of other did the same the results became quite powerful and meaningful. While it may sound extreme, the global public consensus was checked often, like one might monitor the price of a stock throughout the day.
It is worth noting that the extraterrestrial origin theory of the messages was always the fifth largest category — albeit moderately less popular than the top four. Proponents of this explanation included some the world’s top scientists, who felt that the likelihood of communication from vastly intelligent life somewhere in the universe was more probable than a message from a God or Gods. This group was also the most well-informed about the incredible sophistication that would have been required to effectuate a hoax at this magnitude. Not once, but three times, and all in tightly controlled and highly secured environments. They were frequently ridiculed and ostracized, as great thinkers with unconventional and controversial ideas have been throughout history.
The messages in Israel, Italy and Saudi Arabia all occurred within 40 days. And yes that number was not lost on the pious as that is the timeframe of the flood legend in their holy books. In the weeks following the most recent revelation, people began to focus more seriously on the actual content of the messages, not simply the fact that something seemingly supernatural occurred. To recap, the three messages were as follows:
· In Israel: People of Israel — here and afar — your wait for a Messiah will now end. It’s great that the stonings have ended, but are you really being kind to your neighbors?
· In Italy: People of Christ — here and afar — your wait for Jesus’ return will now end. It’s great that people are no longer being conquered, but is birth control really that wrong?
· In Saudi Arabia: People of Islam — here and afar — your wait for Jesus’ return will now end. It’s great that some modernization has occurred, but why are women still not treated as equal with men in all ways.
Central to the discussion was the critical nature of each message. While the messages gave each group of believers hope that what they were waiting for “will now end”, each also contained some form of rebuke, like a parent scolding a child for doing something wrong. Did the original prophets/messiahs get God’s rules wrong? Did God change his (or her?) mind about rules over the years? Were some of God’s rules, as taught in texts and by humans, not really God’s rules at all?
The message to the Jews was clear to most. The situation with Palestine had reached a peak, decades of peace talks consistently went from promising to elusive. Most of the world realized what a colossal mistake it had been to create a nation by ceding land to one group of people that was already inhabited by another group of people, further fanning cultural flames that had been smoldering for centuries between both groups. A vast over-simplification to be sure, but it was a recipe for eventual disaster. Even many Christians, who share the section of the bible with the Jews about the Jewish “Promised Land”, had by this time come to the conclusion that it had been a mistake. But the State had indeed been created, a reality not easily reversed. Maybe a chastisement from God would make the fighting stop. Maybe.
It was noted earlier how the message to the Christians, delivered at a major Catholic ceremony, really rankled many other Christian groups. Catholic theology, through the Popes, had evolved over the years to take a more figurative approach to the biblical narrative. This as opposed to the more literal view held by most other Christian sects. They did have some common threads, sexuality was one of them. Most Christians still clung to the ancient view that sex was a gift from God and should only take place between married men and women. Even between these couples, mainly (only?) for procreation. Was God telling them this perspective is misguided? Many also wondered if this specific point alluded to other common Christian views about sexuality, traditional gender roles and natural attraction.
No such speculation was required to decipher the message addressed to Muslims. The role of women in Islam had long baffled the non-Islamic world. The modest clothing, limitations on freedom of movement (in some cultures) and other “less than men” narratives unequivocally found in their holy book had made women around the world cringe. Of all the messages, this one seemed to most directly contradict the words followers believed came directly from God. Should women truly be treated as equal with men? If this aspect of the Quran is no longer true, could other aspects be questioned as well?
Then of course, the big question followed. It’s rare that adherents of a specific religion accept others’ beliefs as equally true. With all the theological, scientific and technological investigations into the three revelations, it was quite obvious that the source was the same. If it was God, how could followers of these religions justify that similar messages were sent to the others? And what did it mean for followers of faiths that had not yet had messages delivered? Were they all right? All wrong? These questions lead back to Dr. Claudia Sanchez.
In an attempt to keep her schedule from spiraling out of control, she hired an assistant to manage her media appearances. She was able to pick and choose those that maximized her exposure to the broadest possible audiences. While she did travel, whenever possible she preferred videoconferencing. The interview themes were highly consistent, as were her positions. Was it God or someone (something?) else?: “I don’t know but we cannot rule anything out”; Do you still consider yourself an atheist?: “Still an agnostic, and a couple of steps further away from a complete atheist”; Why now?: “Maybe God or the Aliens decided that after thousands of years humans had waited long enough for a bit of evidence”; Is God happy or mad at us?: “If it is God, I think the jury is still out”; Will there be more messages?: “I have no idea, but I hope so”; What do we tell our children?: “Tell them the truth, that they are living in an extraordinary time and that they should look at life with an open mind”.
She had to use particular caution when the topic turned in a more apocalyptic direction. A small but growing number of people took the messages as sure signs of the end time as prophesized in the holy books. Governments were actively doing their best to contain these fears, but sporadic economic and political stresses were evident all over the world. There was a rise in both charitable giving as well as looting. Global financial markets fluctuated widely. Such contradictions appeared in all aspects of life. Claudia tried her best to allay these fears by emphasizing the positive aspects of the messages. But she understood that nothing she or anyone else could say would be of sufficient power to overcome the blind faith held by the most fervent believers. It was her biggest fear. Unfortunately, the most reverent of each religion were becoming increasingly convinced that the world could end at any moment.
She was restless on her way to the Brights Conference in London. She had done her best to both promote and downplay her looming appearance during media engagements in the weeks leading up to the conference. Managing expectations was something of a specialty of hers. While she developed the concept of her Four Points long before the revelations, she had come to believe that the messages might actually create a more receptive atmosphere. She could not help but wonder if events unfolded as they had for a reason. Perhaps it’s the Hindu concept of karma, being dished out in more monotheistic portions.
Privately, and amongst close family, friends and colleagues, she still believed that the concept of God was myth. More specifically, the kind of God that organized religions worship. In many past discussions with Christian Americans, she found herself consistently amazed and frustrated about their opinions on how Christian that country’s founding fathers were.
It is true that most of these men belonged to some Christian denomination. However, after a close examination of their writing, most certainly the forming documents of the United States, one would be hard pressed to label their thoughts as anything other than Deist. That was still a time in human history when people were expected to have religion. To not follow some form of organized religion would be social and political suicide. In the United States, this reality never changed. Generally, Deism can be described as a belief in the concept of God (or Gods), but simply in the form of a supernatural entity that created the universe. A deist is free to pray and be thankful to God, but does not expect an answer. God had done his or her work and has since moved along to other activities; simple as that. Some Deists equate God with nature. Deists often described themselves as “spiritual but not religious”.
Claudia found Deists to be less arrogant than the members of organized religions who thought that their God and belief system was the one and only true God or belief system. While she was closer to becoming a Deist than before the revelations, she was not there yet. But she saw potential power in Deism to bring people together, to diminish hostilities and bring a little more peace into the world. Even much of the A&A crowd could embrace Deism, though some might have to cringe a bit while doing it.
As a Social Psychologist, Claudia fully understood the allure of religion’s cohesive advantages. Apart from the various creeds, texts and mysticisms, she saw great good in the power of religion to bring people together. She firmly believed that it was exactly for these reasons that societies with a common religion eventually surpassed those without. The social bond that something as strong as religion conveys could not be stressed enough in her view. But how could society harness this beneficial aspect of religion while moving past all the selfish “our way is the only true and right way” mentality that had evolved alongside most faiths? As her flight touched down in London, she hoped beyond hope that the next day would be the first step in that direction.
With God on my side — — -oh wait, never mind
It’s a funny thing about being on airplanes; it leaves all but the most neurotic people out of touch with the world for a while. As the flight taxied toward the Heathrow terminal, Claudia powered on her phone and it lit up with missed calls, texts and notifications. An organized group of Armageddon-oriented Christians had set off a series of bombs during a rally of similarly oriented Muslims in southern Spain. From what she could gather, initial reports had the death-toll in the high hundreds. While there had been some violence since the revelations first began, this disaster was at a whole new level. Her calm and optimistic feelings were replaced with anxiety and fear of retaliation and escalation. History is filled with hostilities in the name of a God or Gods. And despite history’s lessons (there are always losers of battles and wars, despite their Gods) Claudia could not help but worry that the world could be on the brink of a devastating holy war. This iteration, however, would be fueled by tangible evidence. She feared that some groups would attempt to bolster their claims of divine support by carrying out spectacularly violent attacks. Claudia did her best to control her thoughts about the ramifications.
The news headlines on the day of the conference quite accurately reflected the range of emotions felt around the world. Coverage of the catastrophe in Spain was balanced with news and photos of a Buddhist-led interdenominational gathering in Thailand. Despite nerves, Claudia had to laugh at the number of people in the Thailand photos wearing swimwear and holding cocktails. The more fun-loving side of her wanted to return to the airport and catch a non-stop to Bangkok and join them. But she knew that such a dalliance would have to wait for another day. She also knew that if she could compellingly communicate her message, it might be a critical first step toward ensuring that the world would not spiral out of control.
Claudia had planned to spend the day attending a couple of speaker sessions in which she was interested. Her plans abruptly changed as the British Secretary of State for the Home Department cornered her at breakfast. He practically demanded that she give him a personal briefing with her perspective on the situation in Spain and its likely repercussions. Her insistence that she was far from an expert on such matters did not dissuade him. He knew that the Brights Conference was the world’s high profile event of the day and was trying to err on the side of caution by getting her professional opinions. She briefed him as best she could, holding nothing back.
The Four Points — A call for reason
While Dr. Sanchez had rewritten her speech several times in the prior weeks, her meeting with the Minister compelled her to abandon her planned schedule and focus on one last edit. Her words needed to sound strong yet compassionate, hopeful yet realistic, calm yet vigilant, professional yet approachable, succinct but complete. This would not be her run-of-the-mill keynote speech. She retracted the advance copy she gave to the conference organizers before breakfast and returned to her room. Hours later, she rewarded herself by opening a bottle of red wine that was sent to her room the night before from an old friend who would be in attendance that night. The note accompanying the wine simply said “I know this will come in handy — enjoy. W.” As she savored her favorite Rioja, she read one last time:
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, my name is Dr. Claudia Sanchez and I am honored to join you tonight. We live in a time of more questions than answers. Is this unique, or have the questions suddenly become more imperative? Humanity, to our combined credit, has never eschewed hard questions. We find answers and solve problems most effectively when we work together. This is not always easy, but history gives us strong evidence of what we can do when we collaborate.
The events in Israel, Italy and Saudi Arabia have shocked the world. To some they have given hope, for others they have brought fear. I think it’s fair to say that they have caused a great many of us to question our beliefs. From the most pious person to the most convinced atheist, no world view held two months ago is now immune from scrutiny. Each and every one. If anyone claims otherwise, they are not being honest with us or themselves.
I have studied world religions for the majority of my professional life. There is so much good to be found in each one. Sadly, most believers have never taken the time to learn about other religions. If each person of faith enrolled in a comparative religion course, these common traits would be evident. We all want to be good people, but sometimes we get lost in the ancient tribal ‘us versus them’ mentality. This may sound harsh, but it’s time we grow up and embrace what we have in common as opposed to focusing on our differences.
To the agnostics and atheists here, and I know there are many of you, myself included, we have said for decades that we follow science, proof, reasonableness and evidence. Unless you know something I don’t, we were just clobbered with three doses of evidence. Yes, we are not yet sure of their origins or true meaning, but be adults and admit that your word view may be wrong.
To the Hindus, Buddhists, Shintos and members of other religions around this wide world, stop waiting, wondering, feeling left out and sorry for yourselves. This advice equally applies to the Mormons, Baptists, Lutherans and all other Christian denominations that detest that Italy and Catholicism was the location of the message addressed to Christians. Will there be more revelations? Maybe. And maybe not. I don’t know, you don’t know and anyone that says he or she does is peddling baseless hope. Focus your goodness and your energies on sharing the best parts of your belief systems with others. Your messages are so sorely needed right now.
Finally, to the followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam — something truly awesome happened in your midst. Thousands of years of waiting and now these messages. Many say your faith has been rewarded. Maybe it has. I was enjoying a glass of Tempranillo from Spain earlier this evening and my thoughts went out to those that just lost their lives in that country. Pointless killing done by people who think they have answers. I say not so fast.
If these messages were from the God in which you believe, it seems to me that that the messages contained rebuke. Perhaps you have been focusing on the wrong aspects of your belief systems for too long. Perhaps you have forgotten the central messages of your common prophets.
World languages experts agree that each message contained the concept of a wait being over. It is certainly reasonable to assume this means that what you have been waiting for will now soon happen — the appearance of a messiah and/or the return of Jesus Christ. However, it is also perfectly reasonable to assume the core message is that you should just simply stop waiting. That it’s not going to happen, maybe it was never going to happen. Now I understand that this idea may be difficult to accept. The key concept is that we just don’t know. Maybe we will hear more tonight, or tomorrow, or next year. Maybe we won’t. If we learned anything these past weeks, it’s that no one has a monopoly on truth. These three great and honorable world-views have so many common themes and beliefs. The time has come to focus on these elements and let the differences fade to history.
Even if these messages have extraterrestrial and not divine origins, we all must acknowledge where they have led us. We can choose to revert to our tribal histories and protect our individual worldviews by whatever means necessary. Or we can use this point in history to become more enlightened, to come together in way we never have before. Yes, I know it sounds a bit corny, but let’s call it what it is.
We need to strike a balance. We need to be more respectful. We need to be more open minded. The time has come to subordinate your beliefs in favor of a greater good. Some say the world may depend on it, and I’m not sure I disagree.
In this direction, tonight, I would like to propose something I call the Four Points. These ideas were developed with input from people across the theological spectrum, scholars and laypeople alike. They have caused controversy, and my presenting them here tonight will only fan the flames. I can handle it, and my hope is that all of you can too, for the greater good.
Let me preface The Points by clearly stating that neither I nor anyone else has the right to insist that you change what you believe — whatever those beliefs may be. Such debates have been held for thousands of years and may rage on for thousands more. Tonight, my plea is for you to open your minds. Extraordinary events led us here; let’s respond with an extraordinary reaction.
Point 1: All religions should be considered equally valid. One’s religion is no more ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ than someone else’s. No one world view can claim to have the sole truth, including those that have no divine beliefs. The concept of blasphemy must also be retired to history; there is nothing more abhorrent than someone losing his or her life for expressing their thoughts. I understand that, for many of you, this may be difficult to accept. I implore you to reflect on the messages and where they were delivered. If this was not a wake-up call, I don’t know what is.
Point 2: Religion should be primarily private. In order to peacefully coexist with people holding other or no beliefs, society should be neutral. I am a Social Psychologist, and I fully appreciate the power and importance of the social aspect of religion. In many respects and in many religions, it serves as its core purpose. With all due respect to dogmas and texts, I fully support community as one of the primary benefits of all religions. Which is exactly my point here, all religions. I firmly believe that if we all kept our beliefs a bit more private, between ourselves and our God or Gods, it would have a positive effect on society and ease tensions that are obviously growing.
Point 3: No purely religious law, rule or text should be used as a basis for international, national or local laws. If your world view dictates that you should follow religious rules or laws that are stricter than those that society has established, then you should feel free to act as such. But you should not expect, or especially require, others to abide by the same rules. The world has become so small, cities and nations are home to people with every imaginable religious belief as well as growing numbers who have no beliefs at all. Rules and laws should reflect our modern, interconnected world. All should feel welcome and free to enjoy life while following reasonable, fair and just rules set by society.
Point 4: Religion should not be taught to children as fact; it is only an opinion or belief. Of the four, this Point is easily the most difficult for many to accept. People have implored me to rethink this, making a plea that without religious education at a very young age we would lose the moral foundation of society. I firmly dismiss this notion. Teach them the good messages of Mohammad, of Jesus, of Buddha. There is so much wisdom, so why limit guidance to one world view. Teach them also the wisdom of Confucius and Gandhi, the Greek, Roman and Persian philosophers. The list of possibilities is endless. Keep your traditions; tell your children what you believe. But let’s take this opportunity to draw a clear line between facts and opinions, between truth and belief. Teach your children to find their own path, wherever on the spiritual spectrum that their open minds may lead them.
I offer these Four Points as an opening volley for further discussion. Perhaps one or all four needs to be fine-tuned; perhaps there are additional points that should be considered. My sincere wish tonight, ladies and gentlemen, is that those here in attendance as well as those listening from around the world take my proposal seriously. I implore you to open your minds. In the last few weeks we have received messages that have in some way affected us all. The entire world is now paying attention. While we would love to have answers, let’s not overlook this unique opportunity to respond in a meaningful way, without regard to whether or not answers come. I fear that we may not get another chance.
Thank you for your time and attention. I wish you all peace, happiness, joy and freedom. Good night.”
Is it enough?
Not surprisingly, considering the typical Brights conference attendees, Claudia’s speech was well-received. Those in the audience spent almost two whole minutes on their feet applauding her ideas and how they were delivered. Unfortunately, their time may have been better spent in Hatton Garden buying gold. Stock indexes in Asia took a beating; they opened a couple of hours after her speech. The major Euro-zone markets decided to give it a go a few hours later, but trading was halted at noon. Wall Street never opened. The futures markets were quite clear; uncertainty had finally reached the tipping point. The looming sell-off was wide and deep. Demand for gold, silver and other safe havens soared.
In that small window of time between the end of Claudia’s speech and mid-day trading in Asia, Israel had launched a surprise air assault against Palestine. Death tolls were unknown, but the footage told the story. The newly emboldened military powers in the Middle East moved beyond rhetoric. Troop and equipment deployment preparations were unambiguous and highly visible; as was the vocal outrage. Israel, as it has done countless times in the past, cited three specific Palestinian terrorist attacks that the Government said justified a dramatic response. But the scale of this retaliation was shockingly severe. The reaction from even the most historically strong allies was silence.
Calls for calm and peace came from all directions the following day. The group in Thailand redoubled their efforts, calling for reason. Highlights from Dr. Sanchez’s speech also received much media attention, to mixed results. Many people of faith accused her of being a typical “militant atheist” trying to take their religion away, apparently ignoring the part of her speech, and following media interviews, where she directly and clearly stated that this was not the case. That section of her speech was widely translated and repeatedly played. Sadly, defense of this moderate position cost the President of Lebanon his life, further escalating global tensions. The United Nations was in session around the clock, but ideas to ease fears and anxiety were few and far between.
With its generally non-religious population, China was the leading voice in pushing for calm. Politically, such strong statements were impossible in the United States and difficult even in much of Europe, Russia and South America. Across these areas, evangelical Christians were obsessed with prayer vigils, begging for another message. None came.
There was one sign of hope. An alliance had begun to form among the more liberal sects of many religions. For hundreds of years, their voices were usurped by the more conservative, vocal and self-righteous among their faiths. This was exactly the audience whose hearts Claudia wanted to touch with her speech. Connected to each other through social media, while also using old-fashioned local fellowship, they organized remarkably fast and demanded a voice. A good number of A&As eagerly joined their ranks.
After finishing the last interview of a grueling day, Claudia sat on the balcony of her hotel room. She could not help but wonder how her view could look so peaceful with all the chaos enveloping the world. Still, more questions than answers filled her mind. Always the perfectionist, she wondered if she could have crafted her speech differently, raising its ability to instill a greater sense of urgency around the world. Should she have talked more about the universal and pliable concepts of morality? Should she have pointed out how so called “near death experiences” always followed the plotline of the regional religion and never another faith? Should she have illustrated how critical geography is to the continuance and spread of religion? While she was typically a more “live in the present” kind of woman, she still pondered if the addition or subtraction of something would have been more motivational.
Internally, like everyone else, she also wondered if the mysterious voice would speak again. And if so, what would the next message contain and where and to whom would it be delivered? The realist in her, however, pushed these thoughts aside. If it happens, it happens and the world would deal with that in due course. At that moment, she must assume that the wake-up calls had come and gone. It was up to us to figure out how to deal with it ourselves. She channeled her best Descartes and recalled “Humans are not rational animals, but rather ones occasionally capable of reason”. As she shut down her array of electronics for the night, she hoped that this capability of reason would now surface and usher humanity into its next phase. For all our sakes, let’s hope so.