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A view of organized religion
Friday, March 15, 2013
Hardly a week goes by without a letter or rant in The Roanoke Times suggesting we're doomed without devotion to God or obedience to his word. What's changed today for some of us information junkies is that other scriptures and teachings from different traditions are available from credible sources. We can find as many interpretations of biblical passages as there are groups calling themselves Christian. Those of us who don't consider the Bible the only divine text admit it's a great work of literature, fueling fierce debate and motivating valuable social movements like civil rights.
Trendy Buddhists also offer contrasting views of what the Buddha said about living a good life and getting a clearer view of what's going on. But it's tempting to accept established dogma. Then, there's a secular view that wants to promote spirituality divorced from religion.
A friend's online posting put it this way: "What is the difference between religion and spirituality? One is an institution and the other is an experience. Religions are institutions built around a particular idea of how things are. When those ideas become hardened and set in stone, they are called dogmas and doctrines."
Yet I sometimes think agnostic and atheist friends don't go far enough. Why stop at organized religion being unnecessary, even harmful? If everything organized or too big to understand threatens to become dogmatic, let's weed them all out and try anarchy. What about organizing of information through the Internet, rules of driving without smashing into each other, politics and big government we rant about, but might feel is necessary so we don't rip each other off? I like enough order through a few armed police and the rule of law so it's less necessary to build fortress walls and collect lethal weapons.
On the other end of the spectrum might be pragmatism, originally a 19th century American doctrine that "the meaning or value of an idea lies only in it's practical consequence." Consequences of living a good Christian life, or mindful Buddhist life, suggest more peace, good karma. Maybe a prosperous, healthy, good life. Free trade and open markets can spread when less time is invested fighting for each other's land, capital and really good stuff. Spiritual practices can also be divorced from belief and faith.
Most of us could name at least a few of the weirder beliefs of any religion, while still finding some of its spiritual practices useful, or enjoying the community of believers.
Less nasty than hardline fundamentalists or militant atheists, many religious believers are not simply brainwashed by dogma or fear. Believers create inspirational choirs and theater, throw great potluck meals, practice compassion and consider big questions lots of us are too busy or practical to ask.
Church-based programs often provide day care and feed some of the most needy among us. Powerful Rome was even impressed by social systems early Christians set up to help care for the poor and needy. Whether right action is based on a belief in following the path of Jesus, compassion of the Buddha, empathy of a mother goddess creator or moral character of an atheist doesn't matter much when relief from suffering is offered, often free.
I think what troubles agnostics, atheists, pragmatists and some of the faithful is the demand and command from on high. Even if not written in stone, it's often assumed among religious followers we're basically messed up and will not, without a stern father or all powerful creator, behave well. But lots of us were wounded by overbearing parents and nasty or unreasonable rules set up by well-meaning, often confused, or evolving, good folks.
Rules, laws, codes, even chiseled in stone, are not always just or suited to time, place or culture. Continuing revelation some traditions believe in can make more sense. Suggested guidelines to help in living a good life might be a better way of offering commandments or divine scriptures. Growing tribes of us rebels, agnostics, atheists, nature lovers and pragmatists are likely to grow. Shouting, anger, guilt and fear are not great teachers. Love, tolerance, openness and a hint of divine play, also known as humor, are usually better.
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