Would you know whence it is that so many false spirits have appeared in the world, who have deceived themselves and others with false fire and false light, laying claim to information, illumination, and openings of the divine Life, particularly to do wonders under extraordinary calls from God? It is this: they have turned to God without turning from themselves…. Now religion in the hands of self, or corrupt nature, serves only to discover vices of a worse kind than in nature left to itself. Hence are all the disorderly passions of religious men, which burn in a worse flame then passions only employed about worldly matters; pride, self-exaltation, hatred and persecution, under a cloak of religious zeal, will sanctify actions which nature, left to itself, would be ashamed to own. – William Law
In virtually all places and times in human history, religion has been a part of the human experience. The first concern of humanity is survival. The second is to attempt to understand the meaning of life. It has never been enough for people to merely live. There has always been a need to understand why life is to be lived, and what gives life meaning. The human desire for meaning will always be present wherever human life exists.
Skeptics say that basic teachings and beliefs of the great religions are merely relative, arbitrary, or superstitious. But an intelligent comparative study reveals that the essential truths of all of the great religions, particularly those taught directly by the great sages and philosophers, are essentially the same. This is a clear indication that there is something universal at the heart of humanity that recognizes these truths to be the existential truths of existence, in all times and places. The great sages such as Jesus and the Buddha did not invent their truths. They were able to articulate what is at the heart of the human experience, and people have always recognized this. This is why their teachings have stood the test of time, which is why these individuals are the most revered sources of truth in human history. Religion is about living life in accordance with an enlightened morality, love and compassion, and harmonizing and aligning one’s life with the highest Power of the universe. That has always been its real intention, at any rate.
An intelligent comparative study of the world’s great religions also reveals a second, less admirable pattern. That pattern is that, despite the universal nature of religious truth, the world’s great religions have done a consistently poor job of living up to the heart and spirit of that truth, throughout the course of history. Often, they have done such a poor job that the most evil and perverse abominations that the imagination can conceive of have been done in the supposed name of God and goodness. No one who really understands the mindset and values of Jesus could imagine him endorsing the Crusades, the Inquisition, or any of the other thousand violent, amoral, nefarious and nasty grabs for power and money that have been perpetrated in his name for the last two thousand years, often initiated by the most important and exalted of “holy” religious figures. These are only a few examples among thousands of offenses that can be tied directly to the world’s great traditional religions, particularly the Western religions.
Religion is also often directly related to the scandals and crimes that dominate the world news in the present. A random sample of stories in a recent world newscast contained reports of a Christian terrorist in Norway perpetrating mass murder in an effort to try to drive Islam and Muslims out of “his” society, Muslim terrorists in the Middle East blowing up secular government forces, Westerners, and even people who happen to belong to a different, “heretical” sect of Islam, Ultra Orthodox Jews building settlements in essential defiance of their own government in order to drive out and oppress Palestinians asking for some form of legal consideration from the world, The Catholic Church paying off the latest in a long line of victims of child sexual abuse by priests, and a Fundamentalist LDS reactionary in America who used his power as the leader of his polygamous religious sect to perpetrate the systematic statutory rape and sexual abuse of girls as young as twelve, which he told them they must submit to in order to please God and Jesus.
In order to understand the problem, it is necessary to understand the psychology and thought process related to religion. When people live solely to satisfy their own selfish desires, they are often miserable, and they often feel small, unless they meet with great worldly success, which tends to make them feel big and full of themselves. But when people undergo religious “conversions” and begin to associate themselves with what is perceived to be good, they tend to become satisfied with themselves. Serving goodness or a good cause can give life meaning and lift an individual out of the sense of existential meaninglessness that is associated with living a purely selfish life. But the balance is delicate. When one serves a cause, it is easy to become puffed up with pride at the fact that one is on the “side” of righteousness, stop examining one’s own faults, and develop a self-righteous hatred of all those who are not on the “side” of what is supposedly good. This hatred often becomes a type of paranoia that is seen in the thinking of every religious maniac, bully, and terrorist in the world. Such people always come to see the world in terms of conspiracies, and imagine that there is some group of evil outsiders that are joined together in a conscious effort to destroy everything good and must be stopped at all costs. No matter how evil, destructive, hateful, grasping, angry, exploitive, lustful, selfish, cruel, or self-aggrandizing their own behavior is, they refuse to consider even for a second the idea that they might be wrong. No, according to their essentially lunatic view of the world, all evil is the result of a conspiracy of outsiders, and everything that they do, no matter how morally indefensible, is justified in the name of stopping the outsiders and building God’s supposed Kingdom on earth.
Even in those who are not militant or paranoid, membership in an “elect” religious group tends to create a sense of entitlement. Those who see themselves as God’s Chosen tend to see themselves as better than the rest of humanity and entitled to do as they wish to outsiders or underlings. As a result of this kind of thinking, many religious people, though they began with good or at least partially good intentions, become self-serving and preoccupied with selfish thinking and values. As God’s supposed “elect”, they imagine that they are deserving of money, power, success, fame, and everything else that they lust after, and that it is God’s chief business to provide these things to them as a “reward.” When they have achieved great wealth and life of luxury and materialism they brag that this is a sign of “God’s favor”, instead of a sign of their own materialistic, competitive, and status-seeking values and personal ambition. Many of them believe that the Bible is the perfect, literal, inspired Word of God. They must also believe that Jesus was only joking when he said that it is impossible to serve both God and Mammon, and that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. They must also believe that the personal example of Jesus, who had no selfish, egotistical ambitions or any desire to build a personal empire of wealth or “success”, but who instead spent his life serving the greater good in a humble way that focused upon charity, means nothing.
In these times, the influence of the Western traditional religions upon the world’s industrialized societies is declining. As education has become more and more universal in ways that it never has before, it has gradually occurred to many people that many of the primitive dogmatic beliefs passed down the generations through religious tradition seem foolish or unbelievable. Tradition is steadily losing its hold on the hearts and minds of humanity. And this is not only because critical thinking shows many of the beliefs and practices of most of the traditional religions to be primitive or nonsensical. It is even more so because critical thinking shows them to be dangerous. Traditional religion has been directly responsible for a great deal of evil throughout human history. People will put up with some primitive or silly customs and traditions if they think the heart of what they are associated with is good, but they will eventually tend to turn away from what they believe to be evil at its very core. This is happening steadily in the present. Even those who retain some ties to the world’s great traditional religions steadily and increasingly live their lives in a way that almost completely ignores religious authority and teaching.
This trend has created a worldwide reactionary trend. Those who are afraid of the decline of public morality due to the decline of traditional religion are increasingly, in groups of various sizes, clinging on to and militantly promoting various fundamentalist and ultra-orthodox religious ways rooted in the past. As a political force, these religious reactionaries are some of the world’s leading sources of backward thinking and the prevention of social progress and opposition toward change for the better. This, again, is no surprise. Though there are some genuinely good and admirable people who are members of the world’s orthodox religious sects, the fact is that ultra-orthodoxy and strict fundamentalism are always associated with rules and legalistic formulas for “salvation”, instead of a focus upon personal moral growth and true inner goodness. The people who associate salvation with legal formulas, and believe, for example, that all they need to do is to believe in Jesus and this automatically qualifies them to be seen as God’s favorites and a free ticket to heaven, are always the people who live, think, and act exactly like the Pharisees in the Gospels. They are always self-satisfied, prideful, intolerant, and preoccupied with forcing the rest of society to comply with the same religious laws and rules that they do. They do little good, and much damage to the world.
As a result of this fact, and the lunacy and criminality often associated with religion, many modern thinkers and social critics have become sworn enemies of religion. They promote atheism as some sort of supposedly noble way of thinking. They imagine that, if the whole world were atheistic, that such things as terrorism and religious lunacy would not exist.
The popular enemies of religion, the secularists and “rationalists”, claim and imagine that the problem of religion will be solved naturally when religion is no longer part of world culture. They are entirely mistaken. The pitfalls of intolerance, paranoia, pride, militancy, and false loyalty are certainly not exclusive to religion. All systems of “True Belief” carry with them this sort of built in trap. Communism was and is a strictly “rational”, atheistic belief system, and the evils associated with it that were committed during the last century were often more extensive and extreme than those associated with religion. Trust in the supposed supreme Truth of Science and pure rationality can become a destructive form of fundamentalism in itself. The problem is pride, not religion. Atheists can easily become just as prideful as religious believers. In some ways, it is even easier for them to become prideful, because there is no reason for them to believe that they owe any moral allegiance to any Higher Power than themselves. Anyone who imagines that atheism is the answer to the ills of humanity does not understand human psychology.
The reason that pride is so often associated with religion is because traditional religion has had a tendency for thousands of years to make its followers more prideful and arrogant instead of humble. Buddhism is the one religion that has been the historical exception to this rule. This is because Buddhism has understood and consistently taught that humility must be at the very foundation of any true religious practice. None of the other major world religions have taught this truth with nearly enough emphasis. Some of them have seldom taught it at all. The solution is to overcome pride. Achieving it, however, is not as easy as understanding the problem.
Though certain social forces are attempting to restore traditional religion to its place of importance and influence in society, their efforts are doomed to fail. In the long run, the traditional Western religions will become less and less influential over the course of time in industrialized societies as people become more educated. This is simply reality. The question is not what can be done to restore traditional religion to its place of prominence in modern society in the name of maintaining belief in God and a public sense of morality in society. The question is what can be learned from the religious past of humanity. How can it be improved upon? How can knowledge of the highest Source of meaning in the universe, moral goodness, and a sense of spiritual purpose to life be maintained even as traditional religion declines? How can the many moral outrages that religion has historically been behind be avoided in the future?
Christianity teaches that only believers in Jesus are “saved”. Judaism teaches that only its followers are God’s “Chosen People”. Islam proclaims that those who do not follow Allah are “infidels”. The historical result of this kind of thinking has been the readiness of billions of religious practitioners to hatefully tear to pieces any supposed enemy who practices a different religion or even a supposedly heretical version of the same religion. Wars, persecutions, ethnic cleansings, and acts of terrorism all have frequently been supposedly justified by the divisions caused by mere differences in dogma and belief.
There have always been religious practitioners who have been wiser than to be taken in by this sort of thinking, committed believers in Christianity, Judaism and Islam who have practiced tolerance and peace, and not fallen prey to pride or the associated temptation to indulge the sense of pride that fuels hatred and paranoia. But taking such a stance is difficult, and requires wisdom, independent thinking, and a level of intelligence that is the exception and not the rule. This is especially true where and when religious or quasi-religious conflicts arise. Even thoughtful religious practitioners committed to goodness often fall prey to paranoia and militancy when they imagine that their sacred ways, dogmas or traditions are supposedly being threatened by non-believers. All of this is a clear indication that the first thing that must be done is to set aside legalism and faith in magic rituals and replace them with something better.
Throughout history, the Western religions have demanded strict loyalty from their followers, and this kind of loyalty has come to be seen as deeply virtuous. This has been one of the most unfortunate and pernicious illusions ever to plague humanity. There is ultimately only one loyalty that human beings should practice, and that is loyalty to serving the greater good of all of creation, without regard to groups, imaginary titles, or dogmatic and culturally biased views of the world. If anyone has any doubt of this, they should study the lives of Jesus and the Buddha, who clearly rejected the legal religious demands and blind loyalties that were expected of them, in the name of serving a higher universal truth. There have been many spiritual and religious teachers throughout history whose teachings deserve respect. These teachings have great value to inspire and to shed light on truths that might otherwise take a great deal of time and experience for individuals to discern for themselves with no direction. But for anyone to blindly and uncritically follow any tradition or any dictatorial leader or group of religious leaders in the name of Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, or anyone else, inevitably leads to moral disaster.
How can pride be overcome as a destructive force in human society? The real tradition of wisdom correctly teaches that it must be overcome personally, one individual at a time. Each of us must lead what Socrates called the “examined life”. Instead of imagining that we can become “saved” through some kind of dogmatic practice, or that we are automatically “good” because we are on the “right” side, we must look closely at all that we do on a personal basis, and be completely honest and truthful about it. We must also look carefully at what the effects upon the world of what we are doing or what we are associated with are. We must be courageous enough to deal with the discomfort that comes from facing the knowledge that we are not “saved” merely by joining the right religious group, and, instead of thinking that we can get our sins forgiven vicariously through dogma, we must consistently face and work to improve on our personal imperfections and get beyond our own pride and fear. This is a process that involves discomfort and some hard work, which makes it much more difficult than the way where dogmatic belief and merely joining the right religious club provide supposed certainty that everything is taken care of as if by magic. The Buddhists are right. To grow toward goodness, one must be humble, and undertake a Path of personal transformation. To admit one’s personal mistakes, prideful imperfections, and patterns of error in thinking isn’t much fun, but it is necessary.
Neither any individual, nor humanity at large, nor the planet itself can be saved by dogma or supposedly magical beliefs. Futile attempts to return society to the ways of the past or idolizing some supposedly infallible book do little or nothing to make either the world or individual people better. The deepest problems of humanity are associated with patterns of behavior and belief that many people mistakenly call “good”. There is no easy way to fix this problem. The process involves practicing love and humility, and, through use of intelligence and understanding, applying them in all ways, as much as possible, to all of life, day by day.
– Joe Turiano