Sam Harris is a brilliant writer with credible insight into the world of organized religion. He identifies with impressive precision the myriad of flaws contained in the world of religion. The culprit in all of this, according to Harris, is religion itself. This is where I part ways with his manner of thinking. In my experience as a clergyperson with 25 years of ordained ministry behind me, and as a person who has been on a spiritual quest ever since I can remember, the problem with religion is not religion, but rather what the adherents of religion do with their religion.
For better or for worse, religion at its most basic level is like a lump of clay that can be molded in any which way the potter wishes. Once a perceived leader of a religion molds the clay, he or she can get others to follow along whether it makes sense or not. The question needs to be asked, what is it about our species that makes us so gullible? Is it religion, or perhaps our unwillingness to probe deeper into ourselves, and the nature of things? Why do we humans readily follow a leader, be it a Jim Jones or a Hitler? The dynamics that we observe in organized religion can be observed in political ideologies, or any given philosophy as well. Dogmatism is not solely a religious issue; it is rampant in human activity. Entrenched orthodoxy can be found anywhere, even in the world of science.
In the 21st Century industrialized world, religion has taken an enormous hit. Many of the reasons for this are legitimate. Anyone who knows me, or knows anything about me, is aware that I readily acknowledge the murky and shadowy side of the world of religion. As a clergy person I often deal with the aftermath of shadow religion on the lives of people who come to me and share their stories. Most often these people have been abused by religious leaders, or at the very least have been muffled in the free exercise of their imaginations and thinking. For these persons, adherence to dogma often lead to a clash between their inner intuition, and what was expected of them in their religious circles. The damage is real, and it’s no wonder that many people with some intelligence in the 21st century have said goodbye to organized religion. This is one of the reasons houses of worship are being converted into condos, discos, café’s, you name it. The faithful have abandoned the fold. We can add to this the very fact that books bashing religion have become national best sellers. There are a string of writers who have managed a great career by merely bashing religion.
Sam Harris does a dazzling expose of organized religion in his books, and he’s probably the best source at this time pointing towards everything wrong with religion. Those who have given-up on organized religion can take refuge in his writing. While this may be the case, there is an alternative narrative unfolding within the world of religion (and beyond new age spirituality) that mostly goes ignored by the general public, and the media. It doesn’t catch the attention of the media because it doesn’t generate media buzz, and hence a single narrative about religion prevails, the one that says religion stinks, and you better get out while you still have a chance! We post-modern humans seem to go from one extreme to the other, on the one hand often adhering to destructive fundamentalist religion, and on the other hand clinging to an atheism that is also very fundamentalist in its dynamics; but there is a middle way.
I just ordered a used copy of: “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion” by Sam Harris. From listening to the first few pages on Amazon.com, I could recognize the same language being used by Harris, that contemplatives in the Church have used for centuries. How ironic? These contemplatives and mystics are the product of religion; there is no denying that! The spirituality without religion that many seek today has been contained in religion all along; tragically institutional religion itself has failed to share that. The institution of religion is as flawed as any other human institution, but there is a middle way. Religion – in its authentic forms – births spirituality. We don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water. Religion is not the problem, it’s the adherents who don’t seem to get it right, and seemingly become trapped on the shadow side, that generate the conflicts surrounding religion.
Why not wake up to religion in all it’s authenticity, embracing the spirituality that comes with it, and discarding the garbage stuff that takes the form of rigid destructive fundamentalism? Anyone reading the Gospels today will discover a Jesus who was by no means orthodox or fundamentalist; some might argue that he was spiritual but not religious. The truth of the matter is that the man portrayed in the gospels, was very much a Jew who lived the pure essence of his Jewish religion. If we turn to the essence of whatever our religion may be (not in the fundamentalist mode) then waking up spiritual and religious, can be a natural outcome.
In closing, I believe it is not fair to bash religion, generate anti religion sentiments, and then draw from religion itself, to spread spirituality based on religion. I think we should stop kidding ourselves about being spiritual but not religious. Religion births spirituality!
July 22, 2015
Authors note: My photograph above was taken at Saint Brandon’s Beach in Southern Ireland. Saint Brandon was a Celtic Saint also known as Brendan the Voyager. We are all on a voyage on the vessel of LIFE!
3 comments on “Waking Up Spiritual and Religious: Some Initial Thoughts on Sam Harris”
I have to say some of the ways in which you describe religion as “muffling” the voices of its followers resonates with me deeply. Religion is supposed to meet the needs of the oppressed, needy, disadvantaged, and poor. Not perpetuate these conditions by exclusively relying on faith as the answer for everything without encouraging an atmosphere of critical inquiry within the church. Leading thinkers of the secular world shouldn’t believe they hold all the tools to enlightenment, when Christians are the ones with the true “light of life.”
I believe all the major religions of the world contain “the true light of life” as you call it. Being human is no easy task, even when engaging in the search for answers that evade us. Throw the Ego into the mix, and we cook a foul tasting soup. There are tons of critical thinkers in Christianity that go unnoticed by secular humanists and New Agers. In the last few years I’ve become a fan of Richard Rohr’s books. In my own church, John Shelby Spong is as critical as they come. These authors should be read by secular humanists who embrace a wonderful vision for humanity, but remain clueless about post-modern Christianity. Not all of us get brain washed when baptized. Mainline seminaries are graduate schools with rigorous academic standards, many offering Ph.D. degrees. Why throw the baby away with the bath water? There is deep wisdom in the worlds great religions, a wisdom that comes from “the true light of life.” We humans have to come to terms with the fact that our rational thinking minds, will never grasp the great mystery of life we live in. A little humility goes a long way. I’m all for science, but even scientists, especially astronomers are realizing that our universe is beyond comprehension. Yes, let’s keep science alive, let’s keep digging, but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that a species that has 99% of the DNA of a Chimp, can ever be masters of the universe. That kind of thinking is leading us into mass extinction. I remain religious and as a result, spiritual. My religion is all about authentic freedom, it’s what Jesus lived. 🙂
“He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn- and I would heal them.” (John 12:40)
“If anyone among you thinks he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he can become wise. for the wisdom of this world is folly with God.” (1Corinthians 3:18)
I love these two quotes of Scripture because they capture the essence of the “world” that is so enslaved by what they can verify through the senses. All the while, God is telling us that real wisdom isn’t of the kind that we ourselves can discover in our own strength and skill because man’s sinful nature has rendered him inadequate to retrieve an untainted form of truth . Thats why humans must rely on Gods grace for aid, strength, and survival. He was the one who became defiled and disfigured in our place so that we can become spotless in his sight. Thats why I believe no matter how far the sciences venture into discovering the meaning of life or what we know of it, all truth inevitably returns back to being dependent on God. He’s the one granting mankind the gifts to discover what we know of truth in the natural world, and what we know of truth in the spiritual world. Its not a matter of fact with God. Its always been a matter of the heart, which the world does a good job of hardening, and as a result, damage our perception.