Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Thoughts on Religion and Spirituality

A few weeks ago I wrote a post in which I expressed a lot of anger at the Catholic Church over the excommunication of a nun who approved an abortion at a Catholic hospital, which saved the mother’s life. There were a few comments, which inspired me to write a follow up post, explaining my perspectives on organized religion, so that readers might better understand the place from which my criticism comes. I may write future posts with critiques of actions by various religious groups, including my own, but for now here is the background from which I critique any and all institutionalized religions.

Allow me to start by stating that I am not, in fact, an atheist. I am not even completely anti-religion. Religion offers a number of benefits to society. First off, it provides Community. Community provides its members with support and hope during tough times, and celebration during good times. Along with Community, comes Charity. There are innumerable charitable organizations providing vital services to underprivileged sectors of society, from the elderly to the homeless. The main purpose, as I would idealistically like to believe, of religion is Spirituality. It is to raise the spiritual consciousness of all individuals in order to bring about a more peaceful, compassionate, and empathetic society.

A few notes on my own experience of spirituality. I do not do acts of charity, nor do I refrain from stealing, robbing, or otherwise hurting other people because I have any hope or expectation of reward in any kind of afterlife. Nor do I do so out of fear of punishment in any kind of afterlife. I do so because I feel a spiritual connection to all life on this planet. When I cause pain to another living entity, I put more negative energy into the world. When I hurt another person, I therefore also necessarily hurt myself in the process, because I have contributed to making the world a more negative place in which to live. That is why I try to protect the environment the best I can. That is why I do not eat animals. That is why I try to practice gentle discipline with my child. That is why I try to treat people with respect and empathy – because I share the same spiritual energy with them and am therefore spiritually connected to all of them.

Now back to religion. All religions have basic, fundamental spiritual teachings. And they are all valuable. In Judaism, we have the golden rule of empathy – treat others as you want to be treated. In Islam, there is the teaching – first try to understand; then try to be understood. In Catholicism, as my anonymous commenter pointed out, there is a consistent teaching of not being a direct cause of death of any person. To quote him/her: “They aren't too fond of war, the death penalty, abortion, fairly equally.”

When people come together and pray or meditate or chant or whatever each group does, and everyone’s spiritual consciousness raises, it can be an amazing thing. Even I have experienced leaving a service high as a kite, such was the spiritual energy surging throughout the room and the congregation.

But here is where I start to have issues. When lots of people come together regularly, Institutions start to form. Leaders begin to emerge, and start to accumulate power and frequently wealth. What do people with power and wealth want? First, to retain their power and wealth; and second, more power and wealth. Ideals start to go out the window, while the people in power start to figure out ways to control their followers. They point to writings and say “If you do not interpret it my way and behave the way I say then you are BAD”. They point to writings and say “See, God wants us to have this, so it’s ok if we conquer, kill, banish, or otherwise hurt people (contrary to the spiritual values we’ve been espousing) because God wants it so”.

Jews do it when they think they have a God-given right to the land in and around Israel (I'll talk about my own relationship with Israel in a future post). Muslims do it every time they strap bombs to their chests and set them off in populated areas. I have personally met way too many Christians who use their religion as validation to be racist, homophobic, holier-than-thou, judgmental assholes. Which is not to say that all Jews, Muslims, or Christians are bad people. I believe that the Institution of Religion (whichever their personal religion happens to be) has failed them, and moreover has failed all of us and society as a whole in the process. Consequently we have MORE war, MORE lack of compassion and empathy, MORE xenophobia and othering than we should in the world.

If everyone threw out their holy books, told their religious leaders to piss off, threw their dogma and rules out the window, and focused on living life according to the true spiritual values, what an amazingly different world we would live in.

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