One of the things scientists have learned about humans is how much we love stories.
People are bothered by uncertainty, doubt, not-knowing. Our brains are hardwired by evolution to jump to intuitive conclusions that seem oh-so-right, even when the evidence supporting those conclusions is oh-so-limited.
Stories fill in the gaps in our ignorance, producing a pleasing thematic arc: introductory first act, dramatic second act, tying it all together third act. For example, Christianity tells us a story of how God created a perfect world, humans screwed things up by sinning, and Jesus was sent to save us.
Of course, there are some glitches in the factual foundation of this "greatest story ever told."
For example, Jesus hasn't returned to perform his Second Coming role. But Christians explain this away through various strategems, such as this attempt which thoroughly confused me upon a quick reading (I don't have much patience for tortured theological arguments).
Here's a basic lesson about religious stories: if they seem too wonderful to be true, that's because they're almost certainly false.
By contrast, scientific "stories," a.k.a. theories or laws of nature, have no inherent connection with what we human beings want to be true. Scientists seek knowledge of how the cosmos is, not how it ideally would be if people could wave a magic wand and change it however they like.
I'd prefer to never die, grow old, or become infirm. I'd prefer to be happy all the time, never suffering any disappointments. At least, I think I would. Maybe perfection would come to seem imperfect after I'd experienced enough of it. Regardless, I'd like to give it a try.
And that's exactly what religions promise -- perfection. It's no wonder they're so successful at attracting most of the world's population into their dogmatic clutches. The stories religions offer are amazingly attractive.
Who doesn't want to spend eternity in heaven or paradise? Who doesn't want everlasting bliss, peace, and perfect knowledge? Who doesn't want to surrender a fear of death and embrace a promise of dying being a gateway to a much better form of existence?
For more than three decades I bought into an Eastern version of Christan salvation, the teachings of Radha Soami Satsang Beas.
Instead of Jesus, I believed that a guru was the "son of God" and had been sent by the Almighty to rescue my soul. Instead of having my sins forgiven, I believed that my store of karmas was being wiped out by meditation and the guru's grace, cleansing my soul of impurities that prevented it from ascending to a heavenly realm.
This story was firmly rooted in Indian philosophy, but I didn't view it in that fashion. To me, this was living, breathing truth. I could see the guru, listen to his words, understand his teachings as an infallible guide for living the good life both now and after my bodily death.
Best of all, there were no chinks in this story-armor, no "I don't know" blank spots that could foster doubts about the marvelous journey back to God I'd embarked on and was guaranteed to complete.
Eventually I began to see the light -- through cracks around the edges of trusted religious teachings that I'd ignored for many years because I didn't want to see these flaws in what I wanted to believe was Perfect Truth.
Why didn't the guru appear to be godlike, rather than a normal human being? The supposed reason: because God wanted it this way. A deal had been made with the "devil"; perfect gurus weren't allowed to manifest their perfection through obvious miracles, because otherwise the poor devil would lose all of his own devotees, causing the soul-population of this physical creation to plummet.
Does that sound crazy? Sure. But what's even crazier is how many disciples of the guru, including me, accepted this story. Along with equally implausible plot lines.
Why isn't there demonstrable evidence of disciples returning to heavenly realms, as promised? The supposed reason: because if any disciple revealed details about his or her spiritual progress, the progress would stop; also, talking about mystical experiences in meditation would feed the initiate's ego, so this was forbidden.
It also conveniently fostered a blackout of shared information about whether the guru's prescribed meditative practice led to the claimed results. So every disciple thought that he or she was one of the rare people who weren't having visions of God.
Eventually, though, I realized that whenever I talked honestly with fellow disciples, we all were in the same ungodly boat: nobody was living out the god-realization story that the guru promised, yet each of us figured that everybody else was -- just not us.
Many additional examples of unbelievable story lines in the RSSB teachings could be given. I'll share just one more.
Why aren't disciples of the guru experiencing the divine lights, sounds, and such that accompany the soul's experiencing of higher realms of reality? The supposed reason: because the spiritual path is like digging a tunnel through a mountain; until you reach the other side, it's dark in the tunnel. Progress is being made, but you can't discern it.
Again, this came to strike me as too cute, too convenient, too accommodating of blind faith in the guru even when no evidence of the truthfulness of his teachings was apparent.
Everybody loves a good story.
But when the story is too good, don't trust it, especially when the purveyor is a religion. Religions control people by telling stories we all want to hear -- stories with marvelously happy endings, stories where we are the heroes and heroines, whose plot focus is all about us.
Don't believe them. Choose reality. Choose the truth. Even when the resulting story has imperfections, downsides, disappointments. Don't live your one and only life as a fantasy. Make it real.