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!