Spiritual Conundrums

Rejecting God and religion is a popular sport in contemporary times. But it’s ironic that millions of people who openly reject religion also profess to live spiritual lives, or at least to entertain spiritual ideals. These are the good people who call themselves spiritual but not religious. This apparent contradiction of terms serves as a prime example of the confusion surrounding spirituality, religion, and God.

From old habit, unconsciously, he thanked God that he no longer believed in him.

– W. S. Maugham

The basic distinction drawn between religion and spirituality is that religion refers to organized, institutional, or traditional beliefs while spirituality alludes to almost any kind of belief in the supernatural, embracing a wide range of spiritual disciplines and practices.

Despite this apparent distinction, almost all spiritual practices and concepts have deep roots in established religions of every genre. In the West, Judeo-Christian ideals are the most familiar, but many of these ideals were constructed on a foundation of much older Middle Eastern beliefs, some originating in ancient Sumerian and Persian religions. And later, Western Judaism absorbed much of Greek philosophy, particularly through the writings of Philo of Alexandria. These ideas and ideals were eventually passed on to emerging Christianity and European culture.

This age-long mixing and matching of religious creeds resulted in a syncretism of various beliefs, philosophies, cosmologies, and myths that have subsequently become strongly embedded in Western culture to the point where they have an unconscious influence on our worldviews, belief systems, and social behavior. A few examples include notions of sacrifice, atonement, confession, prophecy, salvation, purification, life after death, worship, and original sin.

A number of Western religious ideas can be traced to ancient Greek and Roman cults. The Christian doctrines about original sin, hereditary guilt, and the need for atonement have deep roots in Mithraism, a religion first originating as a Persian mystery cult and, centuries later in modified form, it became extremely popular throughout the Roman Empire. It reached a peak of popularity at the same time that Paul of Tarsus preached his new religion about Jesus, a cult subsequently recognized as Christianity.

Paul never met Jesus, except perhaps in his epiphany on the road to Damascus. But he was a brilliant man who won thousands of converts to his new religion, not just because he delivered a spiritually inspiring message, but also because he was a great religious compromiser who managed to attract new followers by integrating some of their beliefs into his Christian theology, including Mithraic beliefs.

In addition to the teachings of Jesus and the strong influence of Judaism and Mithraism, Paul’s personal opinions about the resurrection, atonement, original sin, women, and homosexuality had a tremendous impact on the emerging doctrines of Christianity.

The thrust of all this, is that none of us are entirely free of deeply embedded ideas. As much as we laud freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and freedom of religion, we are all very much constrained in our views by thousands of years of social, cultural, and religious history.

The Faults of Religion

It’s time to break from the past and rethink religion, to strip it of its pompous ritual, mechanical prayers, and austere doctrines—to reveal it for what it really is—a sincere human attempt to connect and identify with the spiritual phase of reality.

Religion is not science, nor is it philosophy, and it should not pretend to be either. But like science and philosophy, it should at least be an open and honest search for truth.

As authoritative institutions, religions falter for a number of reasons. The most obvious is their tendency to place a greater emphasis on rules of behavior, rules of thought, social issues, or political power rather than advocating spiritual progress for the individual. It’s also troublesome that so much religious teaching remains narrow-minded and spiritually unattractive. Indeed, a fatal shortcoming is that so little of it has any genuine, emotional appeal to the vibrant, spiritual longings of the average person.

In almost every nation, religious authorities appear to be more concerned about reproductive rights, sexual orientation, race relations, political influence, or social policies instead of encouraging more advanced concepts of morality and higher ideals of spiritual living.

Organized religions of all stripes (East and West) fail us whenever they refuse to uphold the moral principles they so proudly flaunt, or when they find themselves at odds with the facts of science and the reasoning of philosophy. And they go astray whenever they cling desperately to dogmatic versions of the truth, even though much of this ‘truth’ has been either socially constructed or politically compromised to suit the agendas of influential figures, past and present.

Throughout history, it’s not unusual to come across powerful leaders, both men and women, who perverted lofty religious ideals in order to justify their overcontrol of the populace or to further their opportunistic schemes for power and wealth—a shameful prostitution of religion that continues to this day.

And many religious leaders, intolerant of alternative ideas about God and the universe, have committed crimes inconceivably cruel and duplicitous when compared to the messages of love and mercy given to us by more enlightened sages and prophets.

Those who fervently believe their religion is the only true religion will have little success introducing others to a loving and merciful God. Teachers of truth should be wise, tolerant, flexible, and adaptable to the numerous ways in which different people experience spirituality.

And those who promote blood-soaked, draconian laws and then attempt to disguise them as God’s laws, appear to lack any personal knowledge of the loving and compassionate nature of a Universal Creator God.

It’s not reasonable to assume that God would constrain our spiritual experiences with harsh laws and doctrines, ones often loosely based on the culturally conditioned views of people who lived in the distant past. It may be true that some people, societies, and religions are cruel, angry, vengeful, and barbaric, but we cannot assume they represent God or divine ideals in any way.

We make laws for God and impose limitations upon him and ask him to act accordingly. We make dogmas and creeds and want God to sanction them.

– A. K. Mozumdar

Recently, we have observed the glaring insincerity of so-called religious men and women who claim to espouse God’s love and mercy while abusing those entrusted to their care. Such a devastating betrayal of trust can hardly be considered spiritual in nature.

It’s not difficult to understand why spiritually minded people become disillusioned and disappointed when so many individuals associated with religious organizations fail to live up to the noble ideals they openly profess. And it’s a serious mistake to think that younger generations cannot see this long trend of immorality and hypocrisy, one that continues to permeate religious institutions as well as many avenues of society and business.

Despite all this trouble with religion, most Christians today believe God is all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful (Pew Research). This positive trend is commendable and authentic but, for all those who exist outside these dwindling Christian communities, ongoing religious troubles have only served to undermine their views of God and religion.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that tyrannical depictions of God still persist—a stereotype perhaps best summed by the humanist and author, Walt Whitman (1819-1892), “God is a mean-spirited, pugnacious bully bent on revenge against His children for failing to live up to His impossible standards.”

Whitman, who was a deist (God is revealed through nature, not revelation) directed his satirical portrayal of God at church authority in an effort to underscore the dismal failure of religious teachings—for it is not God who is the pugnacious bully but rather the church leaders who forcefully propagate such immature and misleading ideas about God. And what is truly dispiriting is how these unwarranted impressions continue to circulate in contemporary society.

What many devotees at religious institutions fail to see is that their gloomy views, unreasonable fears, and outbursts of intolerance appear increasingly parochial, selfish, and ignorant in the modern era. It’s unrealistic to expect people of the 21st century to succumb to the bondage of medieval religious thought and primitive fears. Such backward views only serve to stifle civilization and progress.

Overall, it comes as no surprise that those who search for truth are reluctant to identify with any institutional religion. Not only do they tire of others dictating what they must believe, they also disagree with many of the outdated and irrelevant teachings presented to them. They can no longer abide immutable, yet conflicting doctrines about such things as the nature of God, origins of the world, sacrificial atonement, or transmigration.

It is far better to have a religion without a church than a church without religion. 99:6.1

– The Urantia Book

We simply cannot expect a new generation to accept unreasonable religious beliefs that are not only inconsistent with scientific and historical facts but also remarkably out of touch with more progressive ideals of truth and goodness.

The Promise of Religion

Admittedly, the foregoing generalizations about institutional religions do not necessarily hold true for all religions or for all people of all religions, most of whom are completely dedicated to a greater good and a spiritual life. Like any topic of interest, we should look at all sides.

No doubt, religious people have made a lot of mistakes, just as people have done in all occupations and all institutions—social, economic, or political. But despite the present faults of religious institutions and a prevailing trend to reject religion, we cannot deny that, over the millennia, religion has served as a powerful moral force, a refuge for the poor and unfortunate, and an advocate of education and civilized society.

In the past, some religions were remarkably progressive, contributing much to the early formation of scientific research, philosophy, human rights, education, law, and medicine. Albeit, from a modern perspective, these achievements were far from perfect, but relative to the time, they far surpassed anything that had gone before.

It is, therefore, lamentable that today we still find devotees of organized religions who either persist in backward views or have succumbed to nothing more than a secular humanism, refusing to seek deeper spiritual insights or even to keep pace with enlightened ideas and new scientific discoveries.

With improving education and an increasing sense of globalization, it’s difficult to enslave religious followers to rigid dogma or primitive ritual. We can no longer expect people to accept outdated doctrines originating thousands of years ago in the fanciful myths and fear-ridden traditions of ancient patriarchal and pastoral societies. If current leaders of religious organizations persist in this antiquated approach, their misguided efforts are doomed to fail.

Religion should welcome science and philosophy with open arms, for science dispels superstition while philosophy teaches us to think clearly and logically, not only about our societies and destinies, but about religion itself.

Religion without science is superstition. Science without religion is materialism.

– Baha’u’llah

Indeed, there is absolutely no logical reason to assume that an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God would oppose the advancement of science, technological achievements, or the philosophical exploration of the cosmos.

Religions should broaden their horizons, giving equal weight to scientific facts, philosophical concepts, and spiritual experiences. And rather than dictating behavior, they should emphasize the positive and thoughtful growth of moral character.

There is no reason to presume that religion cannot be progressive in every way. We applaud innovative ideas in science and philosophy and yet, for some unknown reason, resist doing the same for religion. It’s time for religious people to underscore new ideals of living, ones built on a foundation of progressive truth and notions of divine goodness.

If indeed religion is a search for truth, as it should be, then it cannot remain fixed on outdated and irrelevant ideas and then go about proclaiming them as the only truth. This would be akin to stopping all scientific research because, in our arrogance and conceit, we conclude we know all there is to know. To succeed and survive, religions and their adherents must be willing to continually expand their spiritual horizons and open their established ideas to critical examination.

Fortunately, we do not need to look too far to find truly spiritual people who manage to extract the highest insights and the most admirable ideals from the most meager of information. And the reason for this, as we will see, is that they have actively embraced spiritual meanings, spiritual values, and spiritual living. This is the God experience.

As a reality in human spiritual experience, God is not a mystery. 1:4.7

– The Urantia Book

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