Sunday, January 18, 2009

Finding My Religion

In light of the concerns outlined in my previous essay, I do not see a place for me in any one of today’s major religions. I could only belong to a religion that is based on rational ideas, is all-inclusive and is so lacking in structure that it borders on anarchy.

At the heart of the today’s major religions there are mystical ideas that supposedly defy rational understanding. The inability of believers to grasp these core concepts without the assistance of intermediaries generally leads to the formation of religious hierarchies that often exploit those at the bottom for the selfish purposes of some at the top.

In today’s information rich environment, a religion based on rationality is less likely to form exploitive hierarchies of intermediaries to “the Truth” (though as long as its interpretation of the fundamental truth is incomplete, it would still prone to the formation of potentially divisive schools of thought). To see why this is, note that in non-religious, but rational, academic philosophy there are probably as many schools of thought as there are “great” philosophers. Yet an expert in a given school is not in a position to block a relative neophyte’s path to increased understanding in lieu of some selfish ransom.

Rational systems of thought provide intelligent, motivated seekers with a degree of autonomy in their efforts to realize a deeper level of understanding. This self-sufficiency tends to preclude the formation of exploitable hierarchies of dependency.

Recall that all religions characterize an ultimate state of spirituality and describe a means of reaching it. What distinguishes an all-inclusive religion is that it sees all paths as eventually leading to the same destiny. As a result, instead of promoting a single path to our final spiritual fate, such a religion endorses all paths.

Membership in an all-inclusive religion is based on whether or not an individual is advancing towards the ultimate spiritual state, which the religion insists everyone is. Such a religion ascribes to the precept that since we are all eventually going to reach this state, there is no justifiable motive for abusing and sometimes even killing people based on their belief in how best to get there. Though simple, non-religious compassion compels us to mitigate the negative impact of any inhumane practices that a spiritual path may promote.

An all-inclusive religion does not distinguish believers from non-believers in terms of better and worse. As a result, it decreases the likelihood of the former committing atrocities against the latter in the name of the religion.

Those who do not choose to follow any of an all-inclusive religion’s current prescriptions for spiritual growth are still considered members. They are simply viewed as exploring different paths to the same ultimate destiny. On significant occasions, individuals on such alternate paths uncover the most extraordinary spiritual insights. These ideas are sometimes needed to extricate a religion from the cycle of dogmatic stagnation that typically manifests when divergent voices are not heard. As a result, these irregular members are valued as a crucial factor in the continued advancement of the religion.

At first glance a religion with no hierarchy whatsoever, in which everyone is free to do whatever makes sense to them, seems anarchic. But there is more to such a religion then meets the eye if it follows what has come to be called the open source model. In such a system there is virtually no central governing authority and everyone is free to contribute in whatever way they can; though no one is obliged to do so. The members of such a group are united by a shared vision and enriched lives, not by executive edicts and taxing obligations.

Such a religion would be more accurately characterized as socialistically egalitarian. It is worth noting that socialism is based on a selflessness that is consistent with the core tenets of every worthwhile spiritual perspective. As a result, a religion based on this principle represents a step up from the totalitarian oligarchies that predominate these days.

Ironically, many of us on what we regard as non-religious paths to deeper spirituality are already members of what could be characterized as a religion that is rational (it makes sense to us), inclusive (we accept everyone else’s the right to pursue their own path to our common ultimate destiny) and egalitarian (we do not require intermediaries and so, there is no dependency hierarchy). Such a religion might not be embraced by those who prefer mysticism, exclusivity and/or structure. But for those of us who favor rationality, inclusiveness and freedom, this irreligious religion is less likely to divide, exploit and abuse humanity.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Problem of Religion

I am an example of what has become a contemporary cliché in that I regard myself as spiritual but not religious. I define religion as a prescribed set of rites, rituals and beliefs that are supposed to provide moral guidelines to their practitioners, while deepening their spirituality. Though I appreciate the idea of religion in the abstract, I am not a big fan of how it is typically practiced today. The primary benefit I see in our major religions is that they sometimes give comfort to worthwhile people who would otherwise feel spiritually lost.

For me personally, the potential spiritual benefits of today’s major religions are simply not worth their secular costs. Since I am not a paragon of morality and spirituality, I have needs that the right religion could conceivably address. But my needs in this area are not great enough to force me to endure or worse, contribute to the difficulties that often manifest in and through religions.

As I see it, the problem with today’s religions is that they are generally divisive belief systems that are easily perverted for exploitive and sometimes even more appalling purposes. The divisiveness of religions is based on the manner in which they distinguish true believers from the rest of us. When religions regard infidels and heretics as inherently inferior, the religious capacity for atrocity emerges. This is because once a religion draws the line separating the sacred from the profane (or at best the mundane) between true believers and all others, it implicitly sanctions the former to treat the latter horrifically. Only in a religious context could the oxymoron ‘sanctified atrocity’ make sense.

The exploitive nature of religions manifests when they begin to develop hierarchical organizations. Such structures typically emerge when a religion’s core precepts represent arcana that require mystical interpretation. In such belief systems, the deeper your understanding of the founding principles (as subjectively assessed by other profound believers) the higher you are in its hierarchy. This dynamic generally leads to a perception that advancing your position in the religious hierarchy is synonymous with spiritual growth.

Once this view becomes commonplace in an organization that distinguishes itself from the secular world (in which spiritual growth is objectively demonstrated), the religion has essentially transformed itself from a spiritual vehicle to a political one. This invariably leads to increasing numbers of people of dubious morality and spirituality rising to leadership positions in the religion. Such leadership can, and with distressing regularity does, selfishly exploit its followers under the guise of promoting their spiritual growth.

Be that as it may, I do not subscribe to the cynical belief that religion is the source all human problems in the world. I maintain that it is the perversion of our basic survival instinct into excessive self-centeredness that is the culprit here. I do believe that the nature of religion makes it arguably the greatest mechanism available to us for amplifying the negative impact of our self-centeredness. Ultimately, it is not the existence of religion, but the manner in which it is often structured and practiced that makes it to such a destructive force in our world today.
Powered by WebRing.