Religion is a complex topic, and the perfect definition of a “mixed bag”. Spiritual ideals speak of unconditional and infinite love, compassion, forgiveness and grace, and aim towards sustaining deep joy and peace, whilst encouraging a healthy and whole life. At the same time religion creates vast divides between people, often causing hatred and violence, it has condoned and mandated slavery, the subjection and degradation of women, the persecution of homosexuals and others, and has taught fear of horrendous torment in the afterlife for those that reject it’s doctrines.
There is a very pressing need for us to reform religion and separate the spiritual wheat from the religious chaff. Religion needs to evolve along with every other field of human interest, allowing the timeless perennial teachings to find expression in the language and symbolism of today, whilst separating timeless and universal truths from the countless superstitions and harmful dogmas that weigh down religion. Spirituality needs to be freed from its association with hate, violence, bigotry, subjugation and denigration, and allowed to unify and heal, rather than divide and scar. If we do not evolve religion then we run the risk of having the baby thrown out with the bathwater, as critics of religion give us more and more legitimate reasons to turn from the faiths of old, along with some perhaps less legitimate criticisms of general religion and spirituality as a whole.
Followers of the world’s faiths need to be willing to see both the strengths and weaknesses of their own faiths, and must thus be willing to reform them from the inside out, as religious devotees often don’t take kindly to criticism from outsiders. Likewise, they need to be able to see the legitimate strengths in other traditions, without succumbing to a pure relativism that (wrongly) teaches that all beliefs are equal. We need to find a healthy middle ground whereby we attempt to heal the divide between followers of diverse traditions, without throwing out logic and reason at the same time in our attempt at attaining interfaith harmony.
I propose that there is room for significant diversity in religion without the need to see the followers of other faiths as ones enemy. We can acknowledge the core ideals to which most of us strive, whilst finding the middle ground between reforming and evolving our faiths, and accepting the infinite potential for diversity amongst world religion. I personally believe that spirituality is objectively real and offers much to both the individual and society as a whole. When reformed correctly individual religions can potentially become great vehicles for healing and progress on planet earth, rather then the confused can of worms that they are at present, and have been throughout human history.
Religion is and has been throughout history a mixed bag, or as I like to say, a “poison apple”. There is much to it, which is sweet, and healthy, yet it often achieves the opposite end to which it aspires. Many people today like to attempt to separate spirituality from religion, defining spirituality as ones personal relationship with God and ones individual path to peace, joy and wisdom. Alternatively religion often gets defined solely in negative terms, as the stale outward form of false ideas, or the epitome of human corruption. Still, there are many who view religion and spirituality as inseparable, and insist that one must seek spirituality within the context of a tried and tested “faith community” (usually their own).
The questions then are why is it that religion so often attains opposite goals of that to which it seeks to aim, and whether it is possible to reform the religious landscape in such a way as to keep the good and be done with the bad? Conservative follows of various faiths tend to argue that their faith alone is perfect, and the problems that we see with religion are the result of the natural flaws in other faiths, and human error in interpreting and applying their own tradition. Those on the liberal end however tend to argue that all faiths are equally true and/or false depending on how we approach them. They frequently claim that the founders of the world’s faiths were all enlightened sages who taught the same truths, and that it is merely our flawed human nature that misinterprets their teachings and creates the can of worms that is religion.
We should of course note that those that are critical of religion as a whole (i.e. atheists) argue that all religions are merely the result of delusion and fraud, and that the way to separate the good from the bad is to adopt a secular, naturalistic philosophy that celebrates basic moral and ethical ideals without any belief in supernatural beings and/or realms, or life before and after death. In cases of dispute we often find that the truth is somewhere in the middle of the different sides, and whilst this is not always the case, I will suggest that it indeed true here, though I will suggest that there is one camp that is much closer to the truth than the others.
As I see it, there is indeed a universal spiritual philosophy, which can be known as the “Perennial Philosophy”, that is found to varying degrees in most (but not all) world religions. For example, all forms of Buddhism, mystical forms of Hinduism (Kashmir Shaivism, Advaita Vedanta, Tantra etc.), the Sikh and Jain faiths, various forms of mystical Greek philosophy (Platonism, Pythagoreanism, Hermeticism etc.), various indigenous worldviews and even mystical forms of the Abrahamic faiths (such as Sufi Islam) etc. contain a whole series of common beliefs and practices, to the point that one can easily see the followers of these different religions all being ultimately part of one tradition, despite the variation in the outward expression of their path. However, this does not necessarily mean that all religions are equal or identical; rather the opposite is true. Most religions are different in significant ways, and some clearly better then others, though often it is the case that different faiths have their own strengths and weaknesses.
Religious conservatives fail to acknowledge the failings in their own faiths, and in doing so prevent growth and transformation. Simultaneously they overemphasize the flaws in other faiths and go to great lengths to twist their doctrines to make it appear as if there are problem when in truth there are none. Whilst they may be correct in noting that all religions cannot be equally true in their truth claims and in highlighting legitimate flaws in the relativism of those on the progressive side, they also have been guilty of fighting progress and evolution, and defending the indefensible.
Religious liberals on the other hand have to their credit been seeking to bridge the gap between the world’s faiths, and bring their followers together into one spiritual family. Unfortunately this has often been at the expense of reason and truth, as liberals have tried to deny that the flaws we see in various world religions are indicative of core problems with the texts and doctrines of such faiths, and/or with their founders. Rather the dogma of the liberal left on religion has been that it has merely been human imperfection that has misinterpreted the teachings and concepts of the various religions that has caused the many problems that we see. In making this erroneous claim they have unfortunately prevented rational discussion as to the very real problems inherent in religion, and given fuel to those who do, and attempt to steer people clear of particular faiths or even religion as a whole.
Critics of religion as a whole have many legitimate reasons to dislike religion. They are indeed correct in identifying that some of the worlds religious texts in truth are pretty awful in their content, retaining primitive and barbaric conceptions of divinity, and condoning and mandating slavery, the status of women as property under the ownership of men, denying freedom of religion and political association, persecution of LGBT and other groups, and have promoted horrendous concepts of eternal torment in the afterlife and so forth.
Making matters worse for religion as a whole, there has been very little acknowledgment of this reality by religious followers themselves. In response the conservative right frequently attempts to deny the flaws within its own faith, often going to outright ridiculous lengths to deny and twist reality to avoid cognitive dissonance. As one example, just check out the circus contortions performed by Christian apologists in attempting to defend the doctrines of orthodox Christianity and the content of the Bible (see Dr. W.L. Craig, J.P. Holding, Dr. P. Copan and more); it just has to be seen to be believed.
Likewise the pretentious posturing of the liberal left in attempting to excuse Islam of fault in subjugating women and preventing religious freedom in Islamic countries, and condoning and encouraging hatred and violence against the secular (and/or Christian) West is just as disturbing, and potentially just as dangerous. There is a very real need for those of us that are spiritually inclined to integrate into our understanding of this vast topic the issues which our atheist brethren have raised. Whilst I disagree with many of the more general statements and conclusions on religion expressed by prominent atheists such as Dr. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late great Christopher Hitchens (surely one of the greatest minds to have graced this planet in the past century), we simply must acknowledge acknowledge the reality of religions many flaws, and reform accordingly. Ultimately we need all religious followers (regardless of whether they lean left or right) to acknowledge that the founders and other major figures of the world’s faiths weren’t all liberated saints. In truth, religion is a field in which fraud, ignorance and delusion have been allowed to flourish and be seen as sacred, particularly when we have canonized ancient texts and refused to take a critical eye to their content.
As for whether religion and spirituality are separate, and whether it is still ideal to ground our spirituality in an ancient tradition, I personally have mixed feelings. I tend to agree that in some forms religion can be so dry as to almost be void of spirituality. We certainly all know people that are very religious, but almost totally lacking in real spiritual and psychological growth. Likewise there are many wonderful people alive today that are deeply spiritual but have rejected practically all forms of organized religion, in favour of a personal and individual path. In this respect spirituality can exist completely outside of and distinct from religion.
As a whole though I believe that for most people the two are deeply intertwined, and perhaps it will always be that way. The majority of religions inspire greatness alongside its repression, and there is a very real degree to which the personality of the individual determines which of its poles manifests at any one time. For example, even the early church fathers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian (who from their heresiological works come across to me as ranting fundamentalists) had moments of deep contemplation, speaking of divine love and peace. Islam simultaneously produces hateful fanatics and blissful mystics, whilst the religious traditions of India are rich with both profound truths and backwards superstitions. However we define the process of evolving our spirituality the goal is ultimately the same, of keeping the good and leaving the bad.
I am personally of the opinion that there is a great deal of good to be achieved by following in the footsteps of those who have walked the path before us, as long as we are careful to choose the right teachers, and maintain a healthy level of critical thinking. I have met many people that have told me that they don’t need any guidance from others or have no need for a spiritual community, however I have yet to be impressed (spiritually) by anybody making such claims. I do not doubt that it is possible for someone to be their own guide and commune directly with the divine without the assistance of others; it is only that I am yet to really meet anybody that has succeeded in doing so.
Those that have impressed me most are those that have dedicated themselves to years of study and practice under the tutelage of a particular school or path, but have remained open to the world’s traditions, and sought to avoid religious nationalism and bigotry. Spirituality will always be a somewhat personal journey, but there are many who have walked the path before us, and many of those have travelled quite some distance in their journey. The hard part is choosing the right community, teacher, text and practice to immerse oneself in, in order to go beyond a mere surface experimentation and penetrate deeply into reality. In this regard I can only suggest a healthy balance between the old and the new, between tried and tested ancient traditions and newer paths and practices, which may suit our age better.
From personal experience I can attest that spirituality is not merely something that has vague psychological benefits to some, but rather spirituality offers us the chance to find a truly healthy and balanced way of living and being, both individually and collectively. Meditation brings deep inner peace that can change us internally for the better, especially when we then cultivate mindfulness in the various day to day tasks of our lives, making even the seemingly mundane take on a deep satisfaction. The combination of movement, breath and attention as found in Hatha Yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong has tremendous health benefits that go far beyond mere exercise, allowing many of its practitioners to retain health well beyond their years, as well as facilitating advanced spiritual development.
Spiritual philosophy offers deep answers to deep questions, and can guide one in moving through life with wisdom, grace, strength, humour and passion. Ideally, when spiritual virtues are integrated into various fields of human endeavour free from the dross of backwards religious dogmas, humanity will flourish and discover a hint of our true potential, both internally and a species. There are a handful of faiths, which can already be viewed as perfect expressions of a universal spiritual tradition. For the majority of religions however there is need for significant reform and growth if we are to be able to see one another as on the same side (or path), despite our differences. For some reform might mean that they are almost unrecognizable from their orthodox form, and in such cases it may simply be the case that it is best for them to be disbanded and abandoned. Ideally, religion and formalized spirituality with texts and teachers has the potential to guide humanity towards enlightened living, balancing our passion for this beautiful world and its many pleasures with knowledge of our eternal nature as Spirit, and the transcendent peace that is found in that reality.
In conclusion, we are still finding our way through the maze of comparative religion, attempting to find the best way to make sense of the light and shade. We need a redefined, refined model of pluralism that allows us to transcend our flaws and evolve our imperfect systems of belief into pure vehicles for divine truths. Of course such change cannot be expected to take place instantly, and we should not be discouraged by opposition when we encounter it. Rather, the things that really matter in life are worth standing up for, and future generations will surely be grateful for preparing the road for them. The above is obviously merely a quick summary of my views on this vast topic. I have in fact completed a comprehensive work on the topic (titled “The Web Unwoven”), covering various sub-topics in great detail along the way. I will certainly be advertising here on this page when it becomes available to purchase or download, one way or another.