Religion: What’s the Point?

I live in one of the least religious cities in America, Portland, Oregon. We are progressive freethinkers who are generally a “spiritual but not religious” people.  Yet this religiously independent attitude, one that I am guilty of as well, keeps us spiritually stunted. 

Karen Armstrong, one of our great contemporary religious scholars, has convinced me in her book, The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts that religion is worth saving, and the reason many of us have turned away from religion is because we have forgotten how to do it.  We have become too literal with our scriptures and too logical when analyzing our sacred myths. We have applied the scientific method to something that was never meant to be clear-cut and certain.  

Religion is an art-form, not a science.  It is the art of finding meaning and purpose in this life.  It is the art of describing existence and suffering and death. Most of all, religion is the art of life.  How does one live in a good way?  “What should we do with this one chance at life?

What I love most about religion, that I find lacking in the spiritually independent, is that it calls you to radically transform yourself and sacrifice for your community.

Religion “is not simply to comfort or save the individual: it always demands ethical and emphatic action.” It “ weans us from our craving for easy, self-serving answers.” It forces us to transcend our small selves and seek our utmost potential. 

In this post-modern, cherry-picking of our favorite parts of religion, we are not pushed far enough.  “Instead of [practicing religion] to achieve transformation, we use it to confirm our own views.” The parts of religion that are too hard or inconvenient, we simply disregard.  We adopt the parts of religion that make us feel good, that are easy, that allow us to stay comfortable.

This has resulted in a widespread watering down of and even full-on rejection of religion. Because as much as we think we want religion to be easy and comfortable, deep down, we don’t. Deep down, we want to transform, transcend and feel that life is sacred. 

When religion allows us to continue the status quo, it has lost its power.  Religion was never meant to be easy.  

Many of us think we have evolved away from religion, that religion keeps us complacent, teaches us not to strive for success, and weaves fantasies around heaven and gods, angels, and demons. But remember, religion is an art.  It “belongs to the realm of mythos…which looks back to primordial time to discover what is constant and essential to human life.” As much as we like to think that we can rely on our reason and logic to live a good life, we are hopelessly, meaning-seeking creatures.  Religion or not, we will find something to worship, and without the well-worn religious paths leading to personal transformation, we end up devoting ourselves to those time immemorial earthly pleasures: wealth, power, sex, food, alcohol, drugs, fame.  

It’s easy to point the finger, but I am just as guilty with rampant materialism as anyone else.  I too want to buy a bigger house, go on nice vacations and pad my ego with exciting stories about myself. I too have kept my spiritual life light and easy, arrogantly shunning the deeper message and hard work of an authentic religious life.   

But in a way it isn’t entirely our fault.  Armstrong takes us through the history of religion and how the intuitive grasp of religion turned into a quest for certainty and undeniable truth. As we made more scientific progress, religion began to be more scrutinized.  In the seventeenth century, Sir Issac Newton claimed that scientific rationalism “was the original religion of humankind, but it had been corrupted by ‘monstrous Legends, false miracles, veneration of reliques, charms, ye doctrine of Ghosts or Daemons.’” 

In response to the groundbreaking, scientific progress taking place in the world, we began to see the rise in the literal interpretation and rational approach to religion.  Religion once “an art form originally designed to be interpreted imaginatively, had now to be as rational as science if it was to be taken seriously” 

Additionally, religious communities who had suffered humiliating colonialism, the fall of their centuries-old empires, and brutal religious prejudice from a dominant religious group were even more likely to double-down on extreme forms of approaching their scripture and religious doctrines as “absolutely errorless and binding for faith and obedience.” Otherwise, they faced complete annihilation. 

But certainty and clear-cut answers to the mystery of life was never the intent of religion.  Religion is the art of self development and compassion for our neighbors. All the religious teachers called on us to take ourselves out of the center of our world. They told us to strive for sagehood, enlightenment, saintliness, and a mystical relationship with God.  

The spiritual quest was not meant to be a private search for personal enlightenment achieved easily through Sunday morning church attendance or a yoga class. Rather it took years of careful cultivation of compassion and transformative ego dismantling.  And then “a visionary must always ‘return to the marketplace.’  He or she must revert to normality and transmit these mystical insights in a form that ordinary people can understand.”  

This is why the great religious leaders of the world were always teachers.  They understood that religion demanded full participation in one’s community.  “You did not postpone your engagement with the mess of human affairs until after you had gained nirvana.  True self-realization and spiritual freedom were attained in the practical performance of our service to others.”

My independent religious lifestyle leaves me lacking in the objectives of religion.  I am still very attached to my ego, and I have no religious community steering me toward compassionate action in my community. Sure, I do nice things sometimes, but nothing ongoing with devotion.  Armstrong makes the powerful point that collectively in the US, we ignore the suffering of the world around us. 

In the modern West, most of us never see the laborers who manufacture the goods we are pressured to buy, and who are slaving in substandard conditions for low wages in impoverished countries.  We have become adept in blocking off such inconvenient truths and no longer allow ourselves to feel moral responsibility for others. This attitude has lead to the greatest waning of political engagement and concern for social equity since the 1960’s….We have become expert in refusing to allow the suffering of the world to impinge on our cocooned existence. 

It is my hope that we remember how to do religion.  We remember how to live in the mystery of life and settle into the awe and wonder of the great unknown. We remember how to cultivate ourselves through spiritual insights and practices, so we can transcend the culturally conditioned desires for things that only boost our egos.  And we remember to devote ourselves to the wellbeing of our neighbors at home and around the globe.  


Featured Image by Chad Greiter