– by B. T. Newberg
What makes for “real” religion? How do you know that what you’re doing isn’t just playing dress-up, a shallow parody of religion?
Well, maybe you “just know.” But aren’t there times when you doubt whether all your beliefs and practices mean anything? Don’t you ever say to yourself, with Luke Skywalker on Dagobah, “Aw, what am I doing here?”
This question may be especially pertinent for those walking a naturalistic path. Who are we to strike off the well-trodden trail of traditional theism? How do we know we’re not headed toward a muddy dead-end?
I struggled with this question. For a long time I was seeking something, I wasn’t sure what. Something that would make this alien and hostile world feel like a home. So I passed through Christianity to Agnosticism to Buddhism to Paganism. Each gave me something special, but was I really practicing religion? Or was I just play-acting, trying on different costumes?
“Religion” may not be the best term for what I mean here, so replace it with “spirituality” if it makes more sense to you. But I don’t want to debate semantics. I want to get to where the rubber meets the road.
How do you know whether your religious practice is genuine?
A litmus test
One test I’ve found is whether you turn to your religion in times of trouble. When beset by hardship, does it give you strength, comfort, or solace?
If you find yourself riddled with stress, anxiety, or depression, and the farthest thing from your mind is your religion, it may not have really taken root yet.
On the other hand, if you find yourself going back to your rituals, meditations, walks in nature, or whatever it is that you do, and feeling buoyed up by them, there may be something deeper going on. When your ego is drowning, and then here comes the lifeguard to keep you afloat, that’s real religion.
As a young Christian, I never found myself praying to God when under stress, except when I was too little to know what I was doing. After high school, when I became agnostic, there was a certain confidence in myself that was of benefit, but ultimately agnosticism alone was too vague to provide real support. Eventually I found Buddhist meditation, and that got me through my college and post-college years. The ability to calmly and mindfully observe a situation was powerful. Yet Buddhism, with its notions of karma, rebirth, and enlightenment, just didn’t work for me. It still felt alien. Not till I discovered Paganism did I find something that was truly my culture, something that felt like home.
Encountering the gods of myth through ritual and prayer proved surprisingly therapeutic. Something about reaching out to them, with words on your lips and a gift in your hands, activated something deep inside me. It may be what Martin Buber calls the I-Thou relationship. Or, it may be the human instinct for communication responding to the gods as supernormal stimuli, larger-than-life parental figures. In any case, it worked. I could talk to them, especially to the one with whom I’d become close, Isis. In times of stress, kneeling before her altar, I would pour my heart out. And then some insight would flash through my mind, or a feeling of release would come over me, and with it would be the strength to carry on.
Yet there was still something missing.
Real naturalism, real religion
As much as Paganism relieved stress, it also produced it. The idea that there were gods “out there” with whom I could communicate went against everything I felt to be true about the universe. So, why was it working for me?
It wasn’t until I realized where the power was coming from that I felt truly supported. The gods weren’t “out there”, they were in here. The therapy I was experiencing was coming from the mind’s ability to project its inner reaches onto the images of the gods. In this way, I was able to make contact with that part of me that possessed the strength to carry on, the “big self.” Meanwhile, the conscious ego, or “small self”, the one that frets and worries, felt a part of something larger.
I still regularly kneel before my statue of Isis, ring the bell and offer her a cup of life-giving water. I chant a traditional hymn, then tell her what’s bothering me. All the while I know I’m talking to myself, but it doesn’t matter because, well, it works. By the end I feel release and a sense of strength.
That’s how I know what I’m doing is real religion.
So that’s me, but now I’d like to hear from others. What about you? Is there something that convinces you that your spirituality is genuine?