The Limitations of Atheism and Extremists

I was participating in a discussion group a few years ago about the question of faith and belief in God. Although most people, including me, do believe in a higher power, in this particular group, I was in the minority. One member asked me in an incredulous tone, “How can a person as intelligent as you, believe in a superstition?”

I was reminded of that conversation this morning as I was reading a host of year-in-review articles.  Because of the extremist religious groups in politics, and throughout the world, a belief in God has come to be equated with ignorance and superstition.  I disagree. While there are a number of ignorant and superstitious people who hide behind religion to promote bigotry and hate, it has been my experience that a belief in God has broadened my mind.

My friend in that discussion group listed the many sins committed in the name of God as a reason for his disbelief. I agree with him. I don’t believe in a vengeful or punitive god, either, but I still believe God exists.

I certainly don’t believe in a God that favors a particular religion, and then penalizes people for not being members. The great spiritual teachers of history used their teachings to empower their followers to end suffering, heal the sick, and care for the poor and the elderly.  These teachings were later interpreted by their followers and evolved into religions. Whether you are Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu the mission to end suffering is the same. The cultures that created these religions are varied, but the individuals genuinely practicing these belief systems are sincere in their desire to know God and help others.

Extremists do not negate the good religion does in the world, nor do they prove God is a superstition. They only prove they don’t understand the words they spout.

Atheists often demand scientific evidence of God’s existence and claim there is none. Some of the greatest scientists the world has known were men of deep faith. It was their faith that opened their minds and led them to the discoveries they made. There is no conflict between science and faith, but there is sometimes a conflict in the rigid interpretation of religious teachings and science.

The information I hold in my head is only a small fraction of the world’s base of data, discovery, interpretations and conclusions. How ridiculous is it to say that knowledge doesn’t exist because I am unaware of it. That’s the argument made by all extremists denouncing science.

It is also the argument made by atheism. It is just as ridiculous to say that if I do not understand God, God cannot exist. If God cannot fit into a set of facts I can understand, God does not exist.

There are many things I didn’t understand when I was in my 20’s. Thirty years later, things are much clearer. My knowledge of the world increased along with my understanding and competence.

A belief in God keeps my mind open to possibilities I am not yet able to see or know or comprehend. How limiting would it be to shut down any possibility, including God’s existence because I’m not ready to fully understand? It is just as limiting as demanding that God fit into the teachings of my culture and my religion. Both extremes are too limiting for me.

The beginning of a new year is when most people set goals for better health and fitness habits. The end of January is when most people give up on those goals! How can you make this one the year of change?

 The Challenge: Small Steps for Big Changes

Start by setting goals you can keep. Instead of diving in with an intense work-out plan, try setting the smaller goal of walking 30 minutes every day.  You’ll feel better and increase your chances of success. Once you have the habit firmly established, start adding a few more small steps such as a stretching break instead of a coffee break. Or, add 5 sit-ups and 5 push-ups first thing in the morning. As you meet end goal and keep the routine for 2 weeks, add a little more.

 Replace a Bad Habit with a Good One

The substantial changes we want to make to our diet, fitness level or overall wellness start with an ending – the end of a bad habit. When it comes to bad habits, the best strategy is to replace to eliminate. Replacing a bad habit with a healthy habit will not only increase your chances of success, it will help you break the bad habit in a matter of weeks, and sometimes, just a few days.  Here’s how you swap out the bad with the healthy:

Identify your triggers – Habits are behavior patterns you practiced often because they helped you feel better. Each of these patterns formed for a good reason, usually to combat stress. Once the stress is gone, the bad habit remained.

Identify one behavior that you want to change, such as snacking while you watch TV. Look for the “triggers” that signal it is time to engage your habit. Your trigger may be feeling stressed. It might be you have programmed yourself to grab a snack whenever you watch TV.

Choose a healthier behavior habit – Once you know your triggers, choose a new healthier habit you can substitute for the one you want to eliminate. Whenever you would normally engage the old habit, make a plan to use the replacement behavior. Choose a new habit that is interesting or exciting to you. Make it something you can look forward to doing, or something you can enjoy eating.

Visualize success – Remember who and what you were before you picked up your bad habit. Recall all of the things you used to enjoy and imagine yourself doing those things again.

Bad habits are behavior imprints that have been used often. Your behavior is the result of your thoughts. When you visualize, you prepare your brain for a shift in your behavior. The desire to use the bad habit lessens with thoughts of more enjoyable activities.

Plan for failure – If the stress that started the habit pops back up in your life, you will be tempted to return to your old habit. After all, you started that habit because it felt good. Expect that you may have a slip or two. When it happens, remember that failure is the starting point for a new opportunity to succeed. Avoid negative self-talk about your failure and just start over the next day.

Find a support team – Find a new group of buddies who have a similar goal and support your new healthier lifestyle with like-minded friends.  Many fitness programs also offer support services with on-line forums or social gatherings to help you stay focused on your new healthy habit.

The Happiness of Non-Human Friendships

I lost a very special friend over the Thanksgiving holiday. He and I had a 16-year relationship and we spent time every day cuddling, and sharing meals and walks. He was someone with whom I could share my deepest fears and secrets. He was there for me whenever I needed him. I learned so much from my friend about courage, generosity and strength. I loved him dearly.

My husband was not the least bit jealous or threatened by this relationship because my dear friend was my cat, Mistoffolese.  For over thirty years, Gary and I have shared our home with cats. All were at one time strays or kittens of a stray, or shelter cats. We’ve also had a few dogs, fish tanks, hamsters, gerbils and two praying mantis named Ramsesses and Moses. However many of these creatures lived with us, cats have always been big part of our life together.

Pets are good for your health and happiness. Researchers tell us that pet owners live a few years longer and visit the doctor less often. People who share their lives with a dog or cat have lower blood pressure and higher levels of serotonin. Dog owners in particular tend to be more active because of the demands of daily walks. (Although, I’ve had a few cats who insisted on having a daily walk, too.)

People who have animals in their life recover faster when they are sick and have longer survival rates after a serious diagnosis such as cancer or heart disease. Even something like a fish tank or a bird can help people feel more relaxed.

For all of these benefits and more, I choose to have stains on my carpets and tiny pricks in my grass weave wallpaper. I don’t even mind the claw marks on my kitchen cabinets. And when I put the tree up next weekend, I know there will be a few of the younger members of our household who will be sure to climb it and chase a few ornaments. I don’t care.  What I have, I share with the ones I love most and that includes my furrier friends.

My animal relationships aren’t limited to the indoors. I have friendships with some of the creatures that share the property I call mine. They were here long before this house was built. Perhaps they are the ones who share with me, so I try to be a good neighbor to them.

I plant extra herbs for the caterpillars and butterfly bushes for after the metamorphous.  I have blueberry bushes, but the squirrels and birds usually beat me to the berries every spring. I know when I plant the tomatoes and other vegetables; the raccoons and deer will probably get most of the fruits of my labors.  I have made peace with this. I can go to the grocery for more. They cannot. The relationship I have formed with the animals matters more to me than a tomato no matter how red and delicious.

I never look at these non-human creatures as my pets. They are my friends and guides to a deeper and truer love. They have taught me how to connect without words and how to sense the world around me. They have shown me how to see the world from a different perspective. (purrspective?) Each relationship has given me more than I gave in return.

This was especially true of my friend Mistoffolese. I have known very few people who knew how to love as completely as this very special cat.  I will miss him and all that he brought to my life.

This holiday season consider opening your home to a shelter animal. So many dogs and cats need a loving home and many shelters offer specials at this time of year on adoption and vet fees.

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