August 3, 2012

When Good Religion Goes Bad.

“Leaning at Esalen” by D. Patrick Miller

Religion is such a controversial and divisive topic because its positive elements can so easily turn negative.

What are the attractive elements of conventional religion? From the most positive point of view, they include:
  • >> A social network of like-minded people providing reassurance and support for one’s chosen way of life
  • >> A broad cultural identity extending beyond one’s local church, temple, or mosque
  • >> A fixed set of answers to the major mysteries of life and the cosmos, and
  • >> A clear and reliable set of rules for social and moral behavior

At its best, religion provides a means of comfort, identification, and surety in a world that might otherwise seem lonely, chaotic, and hopelessly perplexing. Yet, the history of religion has shown that every one of its attractive factors can and often does turn negative:

  • >> A religious social network can become the locus of cultism and mutually supported delusions.
  • >> A religious cultural identity can lead to discrimination and/or outright hostility toward other religions, or toward the non-religious.
  • >> The answers provided by religion are generally mythic rather than scientific, yet are too often taught and taken literally while not being open to challenge and revision.
  • >> The social rules and moral commandments of a religion may well prove too restrictive or even destructive to its followers.

More and more people are identifying themselves as SBNR (“spiritual but not religious”) largely because the negative side of religion is widely perceived as more powerful than the positive side. But many people still long for something ineffable that religion can provide, something that lies at the root of all religious experience. In fact, most of the world’s major religious traditions were founded in the visions of rogue prophets who were breaking with the social and/or religious cultures of their day. The Buddha, Jesus Christ, Confucius and Mohammed were not out to found religions that millions of people could unblinkingly follow. Instead, each was an original truth-seeker trying to explore the nature of existence independently. And each came up with a unique set of answers that would, over time, paradoxically become a religious dogma and tradition ­ providing rigid answers to life’s challenges and mysteries rather than a life-changing discipline.

The modern SBNR phenomenon represents, at its best, a groundswell of passionate interest in regaining the direct spiritual experience of the greatest prophets and teachers. But can we all become prophets unto ourselves? Without the guidance of traditional religious rules and principles, will most seekers find authentic inner growth, or just end up messing around with spiritual fads and fancies?

In upcoming editions of Sense & Spirituality, I’ll explore seven “directions for spiritual growth” that can be usefully pursued inside or outside the bounds of conventional religion ­ and that lead to authentic change rather than self-serving delusions.



Editor: Brianna Bemel


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