by Tom King (c) 2011
"Religion is about controlling behavior. Spirituality is about development and liberation of consciousness — becoming consciousness itself."
Excuse me? A friend posted this on facebook. It took me by surprise a bit because he usually makes at least some sense when he posts.
Webster's defines religion as (1) The service and worship of God or the supernatural and (2) A cause, principle or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith. These are the two definitions that I use when I talk about religion. There are other more pejorative definitions of religion in Webster's that use words like 'institutionalized' and 'conformity' that refer to religion in general. The problem when we talk about religion is that often the two sides are using two different definitions. One is using religion meaning “belief system” and the other is using it to mean “church denomination” or “religious institution”.
Very often those who talk knowingly about the evils of “religion” are people who have never cracked open a Bible and read it with anything remotely like an open mind. A good share of them just remember a Sunday School teacher they didn't like or they dislike wearing ties and having their Sunday morning disrupted or they didn't like the penance some priest handed them or the knuckle rapping they got from some nun in Catholic school and so, they find it in their interest to look down on and discount all religious practice that occurs within a formal church.
This shotgun approach damns all expressions of religion within an organized church, embracing the term “spiritual” in place of “religious”. “Spiritual” is most often a term meaning “I like to think about peace, love and stuff without actually having to get up out of bed and go to services.” Spiritual is sufficiently vague a term that it can have little impact on your behavior and certainly won't interfere with your boozing. In fact, as in the quote above, most “spiritual” people object to religion because they see it as an attempt to control their behavior.
Is religion about behavior control? YES. I want to control my behavior. I'm sick and tired of doing bad things that I don't want to do. I want to be a consistently good bloke, so I am actively pursuing a relationship with God because he promises to help me with that. I joined up with a church because the people in that church want the same things for themselves that I do, so we help each other, encourage each other and work together to help others who need our help. I love my church. It helps me practice my religion more effectively. I am a spiritual person too and because I am, it drives me to incorporate that spirituality into my daily life. My religion, on the other hand, serves as a paradigm against which I make sense of the world.
The process of constructing such mental frameworks is like figure/ground perception in human visual processing in the brain. The brain's ability to discriminate figures against a background is whhat makes those “Magic” 3D pictures work. It is a process whereby the brain identifies what is background and screens it out so it can perceive what is happening in the foreground of its field of view. Without the ability to screen out the background, the world would be completely confusing. Religion is an attempt to select one's mental background deliberately. The proponents of “spirituality” seem to be attempting to passively allow that background to form. Some call it a search for truth and argue that a passive “natural” data collection process like that is the only way to discover truth.
The problem with such a passive search for truth is that, in adopting passivitity, you become the passive receiver of whatever crap happens to comes along in your life. You become the slave to your experiences that B.F. Skinner claims we all are, with no real will of our own, only a collection of responses programmed into us by random chance. I prefer a more deliberate approach that incorporates the power of free will and a pro-active search for truth.
Religion allows us to cooperatively create shared rituals, music, institutions and places of worship that inform and support each adherent's personal search for truth. It's why there are so many different denominations or “flavors” of Christianity. People start where they are. They choose churches that best match what they believe so far and all their lives they try to move toward the greater truth. Many will leave churches they started out with because those churches no longer fit their beliefs and don't support their ongoing search for truth. Their religion has not changed one whit – only the immediate company of believers with whom they choose to share the journey.
To draw on the Magic 3D pictures metaphor, religion is very much like learning to deliberate focus your eyes on a point beyond the surface of the paper in order to make the picture appears. Spirituality is like staring at the page hoping something will jump out at you eventually. My eye focusing trick is not conformity by any means. It is simply using a tool that works to achieve the result I want.
Religion is, therefore, not such a bad word after all – rightly understood and applied. I've certainly found it an imminently useful thing.