To better understand religion, you can read The Bible, The Koran and, literally, millions of other publications. Keep in mind that the temporal (time) scale is amorphous and events metaphorical (symbolic). The problem is that religion usually insists on precise interpretations even though definitions have changed over the past few millennia. Here is Michelangelo's The Last Judgement.
There is the series, Conversations with God (Books 1-3), by Neale Donald Walsch, and scads of similar drivel. All these books I have read purporting to have any kind of connection with God and the Afterlife are, by my standards, works of fiction. If they say their tome is creative writing, fine. But, as in religion itself, the immorality is in the reality. How can any person or church promise a heavenly afterlife without a shred of proof?
As you don’t have time to read them all, to ease the burden, for the afterlife is at least a potential measurable parameter, let me recommend the following to satisfy your need to at least try:
o J. Lewis, The Death and Afterlife Book [TDAAB], Visible Ink Press, Detroit Michigan, 2001. An encyclopedia, from Adventism to Zoroastrianism, it comes with a complete index. I found surprising inner peace when I read the paragraph on “Anatta,” which comes from the Buddhist scriptures, but has a Sanskrit counterpart, anatman, a clue that they, and most religious writings, had a common source. To interpret, life is full of tension and pain. When you die, you only gain pleasure and attain eternal bliss. “Yes,” I thought, “it’s all in how you approach the end, for this sure sounds a lot better than eternal gloom.” There is no proof of an afterlife here, but the terms soothe the psyche.
o F. Tipler, The Physics of Immortality [TPOI], Pan Books, New York, 1994. In the forward, it is reported that Frank Tipler is a Professor of Mathematical Physics at Tulane University. He has published in Nature, Physical Review and the Astrophysical Journal. He indicated that he began as an atheist, but reasoned that: “There is a God. There is a Heaven. We are all immortal.” Tipler cites a Gallup Poll of 1989 showing that from 1944 to 1988, from 94 to 97 percent of Americans believed in the existence of God or a universal spirit. This figure is somewhat high, but it is all in whom you ask and the exact nature of the question. Two other tidbits are that our Sun will engulf the Earth in 7 billion (7x109) years and neutron stars will cool to 100 degrees K in 1019 years, for he is into last things, the study of eschatology, the interface of science and religion, for this is where the matter of the afterlife can be investigated. While the book uses some geometry, there is a lot of logic. Plus, the final 40% is devoted to notes, all the equations you will ever need to prove the afterlife, with good references. I could not understand the mathematics, and, yes, I merely flipped through the pages, at least a few of them. Five pages.
o G. Schwartz, The Afterlife Experiments [TAE], Atria Books, New York, 2001.There is a foreword by Deepak Chopra (who himself has written several books with God in the title) and the usual encomiums, one by Rustum Roy, Evan Pugh Professor of the Solid State and professor of geochemistry, Pennsylvania State University: “[A] painstakingly assembled hypothesis followed by rigorous experimentation. Dr. Schwartz has made his case—compellingly, in my view.” Dr. Roy is from India, a country where the citizens have a very, very high expectation of some afterlife. As a former materials science colleague of his, I’ll need to talk to him about the afterlife. I value his opinion, so, maybe he might be able to set me straight. When you think of it, if there is an afterlife, what media of information exchange are there? This book essentially focuses on one: cold readings. Clairvoyants, mystics, telepaths and mediums—all the same—are supposedly gifted with a special sensitivity to that other world, and can serve as the conduit. Great pains are taken to separate those quacks that give the field a bad name from the laboratory experiments of the author and his partners. The basic message seemed to be that the best mediums are at least as good as the 40-45% excellence achieved by Ted Williams and Michael Jordan, who were the best in their game. The difference, though, is that mediums have the skills to take the intelligent guess, the positive response, anything vaguely relevant, from their pigeon, also known as patient, and through their refined sense of recognizing body language and other factors, control the dialogue such that the subject is cleverly zoned to largely recall the intended purpose. This book attempts to make a science of this phenomenon, for, as the supposition went, if there can be any kind of successful communication, then there must be an afterlife.
o B. Toropov and L. Buckles, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the World’s Religions [IDIOT], Alpha Books, New York, 1997. This could well have been my first and favorite book on religion. I was brought up a Buddhist, attended a neighborhood Christian church because it had a fun summer school program, went through a few months of Catechism in high school, joined a Nisei Methodist Church because that was socially convenient, participated in Presbyterian rituals at Stanford University, went back to Buddhism during my sugar plantation work period because of social pressures and gravitated towards active intellectual searches later in life. But I never took that early religious stuff seriously, and was able to synthesize a knowledge of religion for the very first time because the Idiot series is written for people like me.
o R. Dawkins, The God Delusion [TGD], Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2006. Richard, as I called him when we had a small chat in Honolulu in 2007, is my favorite writer on the subject of religion. I revere him, mainly, I think, for his courage. I honor him later with a special section. Professor Dawkins very clearly argues that there is no God. I changed the tenor of this chapter after our talk.
o S. Harris, The End of Faith [TEOF], W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2004. A follow-up book called Letter to a Christian Nation was written as a rejoinder to the criticisms the first effort engendered, but, I thumbed through it and saw how thin it was and superficial it read for the price quoted, so I passed. TEOF, though, was beefy, with a lot of good quotes and analyses. Harris subscribes to faith as Paul Tillich defined, “act of knowledge that has a low degree of evidence,” or, more specifically when applied to religion, as “unjustified belief in matters of ultimate concern.” While not at the heart of the matter, he goes on to suggest that oil has made the Islamic terrorist what he is, and, perhaps the most peaceful way we have of diffusing the problem is to initiate a Manhattan Project for alternative energy. We hear more from him during a later treatment on faith. Harris is not a heathen, and suggests that understanding of the sacred dimension might well be our highest purpose. You all should follow his future, for last I heard, he was in medical school, with a special interest in neuro-something to relate brain waves to reality.
o C. Hitchens, God is Not Great [GING], Twelve, New York, 2007. A noted British journalist, who is a visiting professor in the U.S., provides an angry and vitriolic treatment of religion, maybe even sensational. He already indicts religion with his subtitle: How Religion Poisons Everything.
o Tim Leedom and Maria Murdy, Editors, The Book Your Church* Doesn’t Want you to Read [TBYCDWYTR], 2nd Edition, Cambridge House Press, New York, 2007. This is an anthology mostly by contemporaries, but also including Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and Bertrand Russell, commenting on aspects of all religions. The content is obvious.
o Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell [BTS], Penguin Books, 2006, New York, 2006. A non-dogmatic, well-referenced, indexed effort by a Tufts philosophy professor that could well change the ingrained views of many faithful readers away from religion.
o Victor Stenger, God, the Failed Hypothesis, Prometheus Books, Amherst, 2007. A colleague of mine from the Physics Department of the University of Hawaii, his subtitle provides the clue: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist. Stenger mentions that there has never been any verification of the Israelites and Moses in Egypt and that the empires of David and Solomon never existed. He also reports that Christians make up 80% of the prison population, while atheists represent only 0.2%. There was a Calabash (point, counterpoint) page from Honolulu, the magazine, providing Professor Stenger’s belief, as contrasted by the past dean of the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Hawaii, and former chairman of the Physics Department, Charles Hayes. Chuck is of the Francis Collins’ school of faith, to be discussed again.
o Tom Flynn, The New Encyclopedia of UNBELIEF, Prometheus Books, with articles by a who’s who of atheism, including a foreword by Richard Dawkins. Interesting that this publication costs more used than new on Amazon.com when I last checked, although the cheapest price is still greater than $100.
There are others, such as 55 Questions to Life After Death, Life after Death in World Religions and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, but the above list of books should provide more detail that you will ever need to understand and inquire with intelligence. So, armed now with the basic info—and the summary I have provided above actually allows you to already proceed—let us first look closer at religious beliefs, starting with an analogy.
I like to use the Santa Claus paradigm where all children believe in Santa Claus (or his equivalent), then, as maturity and reality set in, the truth becomes self-evident. In religion, with family upbringing and culture overriding education, the concept of a God always remains an undying belief for most. Why?
Oh, well, it was a nice run, but the Dow Jones Industrials sunk 120 to 10, 428, world markets were mixed, and the Japan Nikkei ended up at 10,546, thereby winning my challenge. Gold remained steady at $1096/toz and crude oil is just under $80/barrel.