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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Contributing columnist Brik McDill.

How strange and what a pity that the one universal thing that drives us all (the quest for higher meaning) is the force that divides, pits men against men, and can become the darkest and most murderous force of all: religion. Man has been pursuing meaning, inspiration, enlightenment, understanding, comfort, self-transcendence, the ground of all being from time immemorial. Then, once finding it, man begins estranging (unfriending) himself from his extended family of others on the basis of his supposed ultimate truth.

Truth is a strange thing that comes in many forms, namely: 1) objective truth: the stuff of hard science; 2) subjective truth: the stuff of emotions and feelings; 3) religious truth: the metaphysical stuff above and beyond the material world we believe to be true on the basis of faith; 4) mystical truth: understandings about the worlds above, below, and around us that sweep in from the realm of the mysterious, rapturous, apotheotic, inexpressible; 5) interpersonal truth: people connections we make or miss on the basis of feelings of good fit, one with another; 6) intuitive truth: the stuff we believe because it's so believably believable; and 7) ultimate truth: the stuff we stake our religions and our lives on.

Bad religion tends to jumble them all up, disfiguring them into often hideous forms -- circumstances made worse when their adherents stake their all upon them. Trouble starts when I take my truth to be better than your truth. And real trouble starts when religion commingles with politics.

Evangelical traditions (and we're talking not only about evangelical (small "e") Christianity, but about all proselytizing revealed faiths that set out to remake the world into a single unitary community of believers by persuasion via the Word or the Sword.

So how can we get a measure of the truth of any faith? There is a way. Put most simply: by its fruit.

Quite surprisingly all faiths describe a universal kind of person whose conduct represents its highest ideals. When I had the good fortune of developing and teaching a university course on the psychology of religion we spent a great deal of time looking deeply into the psychological origins of religion itself, and then we took a look at the psychology of each of the world's great religious traditions. Unexpectedly a picture emerged of a person whose faith had lifted and taken them to the peaks of that tradition's most highly developed moral form. Regardless of the content of the confession's doctrine, the kind of person each described as emblematic of its most highly refined seemed the clone of the most highly refined of the next confession. Doctrine and dogma, so important to the confessional faiths, seemed to be unrelated to the moral development of the kind of person their religion described as the ideal. The systematic theology of this or that faith seemed quite irrelevant, as their codes of moral/ethical conduct converged upon each other. They were all describing the same type of person, like a virtual community of the saintly and like-minded joined together and spanning across cultures and the ages living out the same ancient truth.

The Axial Age (that period of human thought when the major religions took form) seemed to be breathing out primeval truths. The most highly developed disciples -- whatever their faith -- rose to display patience, humility, sacrificial generosity, protective brotherly love, kindness, concern for the welfare of others, gentleness of spirit and conduct, tenderness of heart, bigness of soul, reach of loving embrace, absence of pride of self, and altruistic other-centeredness.

Using the above behavioral template as a measure of truth we break away from seeking truth in any one system of beliefs. We can begin to think that the truth of a faith lies not within its systematic doctrine, but in the person in the pursuit of highest truth. Many faith adherents name, claim, and proclaim proper faith tenets while living out their unrighteous opposites. And many cling to the idea that goodness of behavior comes from religious faith, and that without faith we would descend into moral bankruptcy and chaos.

Now get ready for a paradigm shift: We can see around us that the inner truth that leads to right thinking and conduct is not necessarily tethered to any systematic faith or theology, any particular religion, or even to religion at all. The idea that right conduct comes from religion commits the mistake of false attribution (coming up with the wrong cause for something).

Countless numbers of the nonreligious among us commit themselves to living out rock solid moral truth and goodness for its own sake. Just because that's who they are. Studies of social systems begun mid-16th century and continuing confirm that right thinking and conduct come from deep places within the person irrespective of their religion and are constant across cultures.

As importantly, non-religious legal codes arising de novo in the earliest of civilizations (Egypt and Sumeria) codify long lists of social and interpersonal wrongs that can and will not be tolerated. We see further that in the nonreligious formation of these early legal codes the notions of right and wrong sprang in part from an experientially derived pre-religion sense of what works best for tribal and clan living.

Moreover, the idea that our system of laws is of Judeo-Christian origin forgets that written Egyptian and Sumerian codes antedated Moses and his famous descent from the mount by nearly a thousand years -- no fewer than 40 generations. From primitive pre-religious (non-religious) simple nomadic tribal arrangements to the plethora of complex social arrangements we find today certain modes of moral/ethical conduct kept showing up like a musical theme or motif in a simply begun symphonic piece repeating and echoing through its movements.

So we look to the heart of the person, not listen to his religious words, nor delve into his, or any, systematic theology, as the source of their lived-out truth. Words can deceive, confuse, beguile, obscure, but our actions reveal our truth.

Email contributing columnist Brik McDill, Ph.D. , at His work appears here every third Thursday; the views expressed are his own.