The Triple Path approach
If the previous approaches don’t work, then how can we preserve, honor, and practice the valuable traditions, morals, and stories of our culture? The problem is that the symbolic and archetypal value of our religious traditions and stories are tied too closely to their theology. The discredited theology pulls down everything else, like concrete shoes dragging us underwater.
Much of what was once in the realm of superstition is now understood. This has caused ever-greater divergences between many traditional religious teachings and our understanding of reality. We need a fresh start to reset these divergences, using the good things from the past to build a new religion unburdened by the discredited ideas. We need something that can integrate our modern understanding of the universe into the traditions and morals of the past—something conservative and traditional, but that is able, when needed, to change in response to new discoveries.
With a new theological foundation not reliant on legendary and mythological stories, we can maintain the useful traditions and morals of the past, and also more successfully apply the symbolic approach to continue cherishing and respecting the legendary and mythological stories.
There isn’t anything out there that does this, so I created it. It’s called the Triple Path.
The Triple Path is a new monotheistic religion. At its most basic, its creed is to seek wisdom, practice virtue, and labor with hope.
Seeking wisdom means searching for the truth—not just to learn it, but also to figure out how to learn it. It means having the humility to acknowledge human limitations and to accept truth wherever you find it. It means developing good judgment and character. It means developing a calm and still mind, unmoved by the distractions of life and opinion. And it means doing what you can to improve your ability to understand God. Practicing virtue means living morally, doing good, desiring to do good, and doing it for the right reasons. Laboring with hope is an extension of doing good; it means actively working to improve things for coming generations, starting first with yourself and your family.
A longer creed is set out in the seventh chapter of the full book (on page 144 of the PDF of the current draft, here). Or, even better, you can take an afternoon to read the rest of this book and get an even better understanding of the Triple Path. Its moral and ethical foundations are built on the wisdom of Christianity and Stoicism, seasoned with bits from other schools of classical philosophy, Buddhism, Daoism, and other philosophical and religious traditions. It is a religion focused less on supernatural beliefs and more on developing moral character and wisdom. Its cosmological foundations, such as they are, are therefore ambiguous, in harmony with modern science, and adaptable to future discoveries. It makes no claims about an afterlife. Its theology is an unobtrusive, non-dogmatic theistic rationalism, colored a little by deism. Its rituals are based on the Anglican tradition, with strong influences also from Mormonism. Its organizational structure is a decentralized, congregational evolution of Mormonism. And it is unapologetically traditional, supporting time-honored morals and gender roles.
The Triple Path is a real religion, with rules to bind adherents. A thriving religion must make demands of its adherents. There are several reasons for this: to give adherents a sense of meaning and of belonging; to generate a feeling of group identity; to make the religion a valued part of daily life (we do not value things that are easy or free); to learn the importance of sacrifice through lived experience; and to provide a signaling mechanism within the community that adherents can use to demonstrate their devotion to the religion’s principles and to evaluate others’ devotion.
Religions develop their own unique rituals, traditions, and norms that set them apart from other groups. Many of these rituals, traditions, and norms do not have a strong moral component, but instead help ensure conformity with community standards and create a feeling of unity and us-ness. These “norms of cohesion” are rules or expectations that are based less on fundamental principles of morality and more on rules of behavior which help members of a community establish their separate identity. These practices serve an important unifying purpose—because these norms of cohesion impose costs in time and foregone benefits, following them provides a way to signal to other group members one’s commitment to the group and to its moral principles. Having such outward signals of commitment makes it easier for group members to spot potential freeriders (who, not being committed to the group or to its moral teachings, will be less willing to follow norms of cohesion that impose costs) and to judge whom is worthy of trust and inclusion in the group. The evidence shows that having demanding norms of cohesion strengthen a group, and thus also strengthen cooperation and relationships between members of the group. For example, religious communes that have more demanding norms of cohesion last longer than those that do not.
Most of the demands the Triple Path makes of its adherents are standard moral rules you would find in almost any religion. But it also has some unique rules that have the specific intent of setting adherents apart, just as in many other strong, cohesive religions (such as the Jewish prohibition on Pork, the Mormon prohibition on alcohol and coffee, and the Catholic prohibition of meat on Fridays). Because the Triple Path’s demands for supernatural beliefs are light (the only requirement is that practitioners believe in God, however they choose to define him), its demands for lifestyle changes are a bit heavier. Number 10 through 13 of the Triple Path Creed (found on pages 144 to 145 of the PDF of the current draft of the full book), list the practices and rites that adherents are expected to follow.
Religious rules fall along a spectrum between serving a moral purpose and a cohesion purpose. The most cohesion-targeted rule listed in the Creed is a prohibition on eating gluten. Its purpose is only for signaling and group cohesion. The rule is easy enough that anyone determined to follow it can do so without much disruption, but hard enough that few people will follow it unless they have a real commitment to the religion.
Other major, specific rules are more obviously moral, the best example being the requirement for celibacy before marriage and fidelity afterwards. Other rules listed in the Creed fall somewhere between the two poles of strictly moral- and strictly cohesion-based rules. Some of these rules are maintaining Sunday as a day of rest, free from work and spending of money; completely abstaining from tobacco; drinking alcohol only in moderation; eating many fruits and vegetables; not eating the flesh of animals wastefully and avoiding excessive consumption of refined sugar or caffeine; and participating in the religion’s rites (which are set out starting on page 148 of the PDF of the current draft of the full book).
The conservative approach inherent in the Triple Path—of creating a new religion that also preserves as much of our religious traditions as possible—is because it can be hard to discern right away which parts of a religion are valuable. Often, traditions, rules, practices, and beliefs develop and last, even though no one would have consciously created them, because they confer some benefit that is not readily ascertainable. If something is not demonstrably untrue or harmful, then we should be very slow to discard it, even if it appears to serve no purpose. It may have a value or purpose that is not immediately discernible. The Triple Path most assiduously tries to follow this when it comes to practices, rites, and rules, and less so with cosmological and supernatural claims (for reasons we’ve talked about earlier in this chapter).
The Triple Path worries less about unanswerable metaphysical questions like the existence of the soul, our fate after death, or future eternal rewards or punishments. In Matthew, Jesus says “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Triple Path adherents take Jesus at his word. We care more about the here and now than we do about abstract, indistinct, and indiscernible futures.
Virtually every religion has a core of moral requirements that it expects of its followers. Religions generally guarantee future rewards in the afterlife for following their core moral requirements. We approach moral questions by considering an action’s effects within our current sphere of existence, rather than concerning ourselves with how that act will effect some future reward after death.
Conveniently, an approach to morality that is only concerned with our current mortal existence results in a moral code virtually indistinguishable from the core moral precepts the major religions teach as being required to achieve a beneficial outcome after death. Living morally thus will make your life better now, and virtually every religion teaches that it will also lead to a good outcome after death too. We thus concern ourselves less with the afterlife, since the benefits of moral behavior will come whether or not it exists.
Some people might claim that good behavior is not enough, that you have to perform the sacred rites of a particular religion, or accept Jesus into your heart, or adhere to some other religion’s rites and beliefs. That may be true, but how can we prove it? Even if we could, how can we know which religion’s practices are right? The potential salvific value of most religions’ practices and sacred rites are usually thought to be exclusive—you have to practice that religion, and only that religion to be saved. If only the rituals of a certain religion provide salvation, then we are faced with the nearly impossible task of trying to sort through the thousands of religions in the world to figure out which one is right. It is far more sensible to focus on moral living and seeking a direct connection to God. If salvific rites, membership in a certain religion, or having the right beliefs were what God really required of us to receive salvation in the afterlife, I can’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t have made it clearer and easier to figure out which were the right ones. It makes far more sense that all of these are inventions of men in our quest to get closer to God and understand our place in the universe.
The Triple Path teaches that we should be humble about what we know, or what we think we know. We should retain as much as we can of our traditions, but we should also never be afraid to change our beliefs in the face of new evidence, proven discoveries and better information.
At the same time, even in our modern age, we need not limit religion to being just an empirically-based, scientific undertaking. Finding beauty and meaning in life are important too. One of the main values of religion is cultivating a sense of wonder and peace, an understanding of our human frailties and imperfections, and a respect for the mysteries of the universe.
Human reason and rationality are responsible for the amazing advances in our culture, knowledge, and standards of living. But our brains are finite and surprisingly predisposed to irrationality. What this means is that all of us–even the smartest and most rational among us–have hidden biases and predispositions that we cannot perceive. This human trait affects the brains of both religious believers and non-believers alike.
Following the Triple Path means trying to clarify your thinking and act more rationally, but also means having humility about your conclusions and beliefs and not losing sight of the importance of feelings and human relationships.
Current scientific models give us tremendous insight into how the universe began, how it works, and into the origins of humankind. These models, however, also have significant gaps and cannot explain the root cause of many scientific observations. Why did the Big Bang happen? How and why do the fundamental forces work? How and why do the elementary particles exist? How did consciousness evolve? What is consciousness? We at best have only incomplete answers to these questions.
These gaps and unanswered questions leave room for belief in things that exist beyond the material world we perceive. Moreover, the inherent limitations of our senses, our scientific instruments, and our brains leave open the possibility that there are realities that exist outside what we can perceive and measure—things that we are incapable of even understanding.
But within the realm of our perception and experience, materialism and the scientific method are clearly the superior way of understanding the world. Where claims derived from religious belief and from materialism have clashed, the evidence has almost always overwhelmingly resolved the contradiction against the religious claim. In spite of all of the questions still unanswered by science, the scientific method has time and again conclusively refuted and contradicted many previous cosmological “truths” espoused by the world’s religions.
Our perceptions, actions, and thoughts all seem to take place in a material world, and no one has provided any credible, conclusive evidence to contradict this.
The unanswered questions of science I referred to above are “known unknowns”—they are things that we know that we do not know. These known unknowns leave room open for the possibility of belief. But it would be wise to have the epistemological humility to also recognize the possibility of “unknown unknowns”—things that we do not even know that we do not know.
All of this leaves room, even for the most rationally minded person, to believe in the existence of God. If there is a God, though, we must acknowledge that He does not seem to communicate in very clear terms. All of the world’s major religions have glaring internal inconsistencies and deviate from our modern, materialist understandings of how the world works. And believers in different, mutually contradictory belief systems claim the same sorts of spiritual, divine feelings as confirmation of the truth of their beliefs.
So what does this mean? The first possibility is that there is at least one religion that avoids these problems with consistency, accuracy, and clarity. This would mean that there is a God who communicates clearly with humankind and there exists somewhere a religion or teacher who consistently and accurately understands what God is saying and clearly communicates it to the rest of us. This possibility is unlikely. At least, I have not yet found a religion or religious teacher who shows this to be a possibility.
At the other end of the spectrum, the second possibility is that there is no God.
The Triple Path favors a third possibility: that there is a God, but that we can infer from the lack of any religion that avoids the problems of consistency, accuracy, and clarity that no religious belief system correctly represents the perfect truths of God or describes existence as it really is. This could be because we human beings are not very good at understanding communications from God (and indeed Paul acknowledges this in 1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV): “For now we see through a glass, darkly.”) or it could be because God is not going to give us the truth and wants us to figure things our for ourselves.
It is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God as he is described by the monotheistic faiths: an invisible, all-powerful, all-knowing being who is present everywhere. No one has yet figured out a way to falsify these claims. Furthermore, conceptions and definitions of God are almost as varied as the number of individuals holding them (religious, agnostic, and atheist alike), leading to an assortment of contrasting and contradictory assumptions about the nature and very concept of God—all of them unproved, and unprovable. How can we meaningfully discuss the question of God’s existence and His characteristics if we do not even have a coherent definition of what He is?
Because of these problems, the Triple Path’s creed affirms the existence of God, but that it is impossible to fully define Him with words. We thus hold that is each individual’s right and responsibility to come to a personal understanding of God for themself. We do not attempt to define God with much precision, instead leaving it to each person to define God for themself.
Much like William James, our theism is rooted largely in pragmatic concerns. Just as there is a relationship between well-being and religiosity, there is also a relationship between belief in God and well-being (both physical and mental).
Based on what we can measure about belief in God, deciding on theism makes sense. Observable results show that theists are happier, healthier, and more moral. If the question of God’s existence is fundamentally unprovable, but belief in Him brings such positive results, then the rational response is to believe in God.
Our belief in God is best described as Theistic Rationalism. We believe that rationalism and religion can be compatible. We believe that God set the universe in motion and that it functions in conformity with natural laws and principles of cause and effect. We differ from Deism in that we accept the possibility that God can take an active role to intervene in human events (but operating in accord with natural laws). We believe that he has given us (or allowed us to develop) the ability to love and to observe, learn, and reason and to use these things to figure things out for ourselves. We believe God is a higher power with whom we can commune and communicate, but who puts us in total control of our actions and who, at least usually, does not act to change the course of our lives. We thus pray to God to express our gratitude, goals, and desires, but not for miracles. We believe that the outcomes of our life are usually the result of our actions, natural laws, random chance, and the choices of others. We thus believe that bad things happen for the same reasons.
We leave as an open question, subject to individual judgment, more specific conclusions about God’s nature (such as personal or impersonal; physical or incorporeal; existing inside or outside of time and space; or whether He is the sum total of all that exists in the universe, thus making each of us a part of God).
Our simple belief in God leaves open many questions about life, existence, and the supernatural. Those questions are important. But no one appears to have found any good, definitive answers to them yet. The lack of those certain answers is not a reason to reject the good that comes from theism and religion. I think the Buddha’s parable in the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta is highly relevant:
It is just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends and companions, kinsmen and relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, “I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.” He would say, “I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name and clan name of the man who wounded me . . . until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short. . . until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored. . . until I know his home village, town, or city. . . until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow. . . until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark. . . until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated . . . until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird. . . until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.” He would say, “I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.” The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.
Rationalism, empiricism, and pragmatic concerns are important. But so are the subjective and emotional side of things. Religion, theism, and tradition add color and meaning to life. They can bring happiness and a feeling of connection to something greater than yourself.
Our time on this earth is limited. Even if we do not understand what they mean or how they work, it makes little sense to reject religion, theism, and the traditions of our forefathers if they can help us to act more morally and be healthier and happier. Do not worry so much about first getting the answers to all of life’s questions—there are more important things to focus on first. Instead, worry about removing the arrows of selfishness, hypocrisy, ignorance, foolishness, evil, and despair from your life. The evidence shows that religion and theism can help you do that. And that is good enough.
So, read on and learn about the Triple Path. Try following it. Test its fruits for yourself. Come back to real religion.
1. Richard Sosis and Candace Alcorta, “Signaling, solidarity, and the sacred: the evolution of religious behavior,” Evolutionary Anthropology, Vol. 12, No. 6, Nov. 2003, pp. 266-68, http://dx.doi.org/10.1002%2Fevan.10120, http://www.anth.uconn.edu/faculty/sosis/publications/sosisandalcortaEA.pdf.
2. Adherents of each of these religions would probably say they follow these rules because God commanded it, not because of some utilitarian purpose related to signaling or group identity, but most adherents to these religions would probably also acknowledge that these rules are not universal moral laws binding on people outside their faith (for example, Mormons who own food service businesses often serve coffee and alcohol, including in the City Creek Center mall in downtown Salt Lake City, which is directly owned by the Mormon Church). This is a strong sign that the rules’ principle roles are not moral, but have something to do with group identity and membership itself.
3. Matthew 6:34 (NRSV)
4. See Appendix I, on page 252 of the PDF of the current draft of the book for a summary of this research.
5. Cula Malunkyovada Sutta, The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, http://buddhasutra.com/files/cula_malunkyovada_sutta.htm.