Yeah, I hear it all the time. “I consider myself a spiritual person, but I can’t stand religion.” On one level, it makes me cringe every time I hear it; on another level, who can blame them? After all, the worst enemies of religion are most definitely its defenders. The same thing goes for the “defenders” of God — they’re exactly the people to run farthest away from. If we really understood what ‘religion’ means, we’d all want to be known as religious people. As for the “defenders” of God: well, God needs neither defense nor promotion and with friends like that, who needs enemies?
Languages change and meaning changes. Sometimes, perfectly good words acquire meanings in popular usage that they were never meant to have. That’s why, when there are questions, I always go back to dig up the original meanings of words — at least to restore to them some modicum of self-respect. The word ‘religion’ was a particular eye-opener for me. I took lots of Latin in school, so I assumed that ‘religion’ was related to the Latin verb, ligo which means ‘to bind.’ I was surprised, when I finally looked it up, that it’s actually a cognate of the Greek, ‘ligo’ (λιγω) which meant ‘to attend to’ or ‘pay attention to’. It forms the basis of such English words as ‘diligent’ and ‘negligent.’ ‘Religion’, therefore, really means ‘to be mindful.’
In my first article, “Why Faith?“, I pointed out that Faith relates to a personal experience that derives from a spiritual awakening. That awakening is directly related to spiritual mindfulness or awareness. This mindfulness also translates into a mystical experience. This is not “woo-woo;” this is spiritual consciousness come alive. For many, what they call “faith” is all between their ears: it involves learning passages of scripture, arguing about points of teaching, and going on about points of doctrinal law. True Faith — because it is grounded in an awakening to a spiritual experience — involves a mystical mindfulness, or an awareness of the Presence of the Transcendent. I can’t translate that into words. I can’t teach someone else how to have that experience.
‘Religion’, in the truest sense, then, refers to the habit of living in the awareness of the Divine. It involves being mindful of who I am in God’s eyes, and acting accordingly (which is St. Theresa of Avila’s definition of ‘humility’). It means recognizing that my fellows are, indeed, “another self” and worthy of the same respect and consideration that I claim for myself. Furthermore, that mindfulness allows me to recognize the Divine within the human. My God has skin. ‘Religion’ — properly understood — provides me with the capacity to treat my world and all the creatures within it as sacred. Anything else is not truly ‘religion’, but power politics using religious language for its own selfish, destructive purposes.
I’ll repeat so that it’s perfectly clear: throughout the ages, power politics has preempted religious language and structures to promote its own selfish and destructive agenda. The crusades, the Inquisition, the “troubles” in northern Ireland, the Islamic State, and every other power play that has adopted the banner of God and religion has done so only for economic or political ends. That people continue to blame religion for these abuses only proves how successful they’ve been in diverting people’s attention from their true motives. And, incidentally, in the same way that democracy, by its very nature, is vulnerable to exploitation from ruthless people from within, so too, there is no religious truth, teaching, or institution that is not exploitable from within by the unscrupulous.
There’s also a discipline within theology called ‘apologetics’, which deals with demonstrating the existence of God and the so-called truth of religious teachings. I say “so-called” truth, because apologetics assumes both “objective” truth (“out-there” is identical to what I know “in-here”) and common (identical) understanding of language. Yet, we know that, even though there’s most definitely something “out-there” that’s common to us all, there’s no such thing as knowledge without context, perspective, and interpretation. Next, we have to consider the additional level of complexity caused by the communications paradigm, where our understanding needs to be encoded into language, transmitted, received, and decoded in and by what amounts to an alien environment (the receiver). Finally, because all this language and communication is dealing with the Transcendent, it’s entirely analogical. So much for “God said it; I believe it; that’s good enough for me!”
Beating other people up (or taking them out) in the name of God and religion is, in my book, the worst kind of abomination. You cannot teach, argue, convince, threaten, punish, or force another to experience a spiritual awakening, any more than you can “get” someone else to quit smoking, drinking, overeating or indulging in any other of half a million kinds of self-destructive behavior. The spiritual realm is foreign to all human power and manipulation. It spreads only by infection — the attraction that occurs when someone in pain sees in us Something (or SomeOne) that resonates with them and that they desire to share from their depths.
So, I’m not religious? I guess I’m not nearly religious enough!