Real religion?

Woman lighting candle

How do you know what you’re doing is not a shallow parody of religion?

– 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?

Malinowski was the first to suggest that religion functions to manage anxiety.  Burkert and Armstrong agree.  But let’s leave scholarship aside today and just look at personal experience.

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.

My journey

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?

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33 Comments on “Real religion?

  1. What a wonderful question. Thank you for sharing this. I’ve been looking at it from the opposite view: Religion is what I turn to when I want to express and share the joy of life. But I’ve been wondering about how this will function in “times of trouble.” I guess I’ve had a pretty easy run of things lately. The test will come in time.

  2. Genuine… That’s a hard one for me to answer. I like how you mentioned your early concern over whether or not you were merely trying on different costumes while you were exploring your spirituality.

    I more look at that as searching for the right key, and eventually you found it within the mythological representation of the goddess Isis.

    It was similar for me. I went through a very rough time before I found what works for me. For whatever reason, it has a deep psychological effect on me… it’s the right “key”. But I find it hard to describe how it is genuine in a more concrete manner. Maybe I need to think on this some more, it is a good question.

  3. I just do what feels right to me, after many years of trying to fit myself into other religions. I do a mix of paganism, Buddhism, Christianity, yoga, some indigenous stuff, works for me. It doesn’t feel shallow, so I’m guessing it ain’t.

    Your query made me think about it some, and here’s my little checklist for the “Lynnish Tradition” — that’s what I call my brand of spirituality, cause my name is Lynn, get it? Here goes:

    Does it give me a sense of the sacred? Check.
    How about feelings of joy and connectedness with others? Check.
    Moral precepts, and strength? Check.
    Does it help me to be kind, to humans as well as other creatures? Check.
    How about humility, patience and overall appreciation of life? Check.
    Comfort in hard times? Check.
    Plays well with science? Check.

    • Great checklist, Lynn!

      An interesting thing is that all those except perhaps “sense of the sacred” could also be fulfilled by non-religious activities for some people. It suggests how much overlap there is, how much more we have in common with the non-religious than what sets us apart.

      • This is where I am interested. The fact that there can be such overlap makes me wonder if there should be a religious distinction. ‘Religion’ seems to set things apart instead of drawing them together. I have a tendency to prefer the word ‘path’ as we are all treading the same earth, possibly taking different routes, but appear to be going to the same destination. I don’t know if it is a better word in any way, it is just something that makes more sense to me.

    • I like this checklist Lynn. I also like the name of your tradition 🙂
      I’ve done something similar with a patchwork of different paths, the foundation of this tradition I coined as Ehoah where each person can expand from there. Where I personally have my own ‘branch off’ so to speak, and others would too.

      I’m glad I could check off everything on your list as well, as I agree with it very much.

  4. “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?”

    For me, I know it is not a shallow parody of religion because, when I do not practice, I feel a longing for more meaning and depth and connection in my life, and when I do practice, I do not feel this longing.

    I don”t turn to the gods to help me with the mundane difficulties in my life. I feel capable of handling these on my own. But I turn to them for the more existential issues: when I feel a need for more meaning in my life, when I am struggling with the reality of death, or I am seeking a spiritual transformation.

  5. I think you really get at the essence of naturalistic spirituality here. I would just like to add one criteria. In addition to turning to spirituality “when beset by hardship,” I also turn to it in thanksgiving when everything is going well. Hey, I guess that is kind of a timely idea!

    • “In addition to turning to spirituality “when beset by hardship,” I also turn to it in thanksgiving when everything is going well. Hey, I guess that is kind of a timely idea!”

      That is kind of timely, and made me remember that my southern neighbours are soon to celebrate when us northerners have had it come and gone for a while already.

  6. Wow, much of what you say makes sense as I’ve been through similar circumstances. My first thought to myself is, “Why Religion?”

    This thought stems from my history; from being raised in a fundamentalist pentecostal christian household that isolated me from all other information by living in the fairly remote country side to ‘protect me’ (no internet and only 5 channels to boot); to finding Reformed Druidism and therefore Paganism in my collage life; to agnosticism on to atheism in my late to post collage years; then to naturalism as my current stance.

    From the time I could get information on all that was out there I skimmed through all the philosophies and religions I could with relish. I pondered and thought a lot on each as they came up. What bits I found to be true I pocketed. I had found that I was starting to make a unique paths as time went on and started to live to those values. As time went on I found that there was no supernatural, only the natural and found that to be far more fulfilling and beautiful than all the religions I’ve come to pass. I find that living by my values is what I do, so I don’t really think in terms of having a religion. For me, there is no need for that distinction, because it seems like a separation from ‘normal life’ and that isn’t the case for me.

    I don’t believe there is spirituality, all I know of this world is either through experience and what science has to teach, and each I value highly. Through these means I’ve found what is true to me. What convinces me of it is that I witness it and it can be proven through scientific rigor. Leaving my doubt behind and satisfaction in something sound and solid ahead.

    • “I don’t believe there is spirituality…”

      Rua, I think you’ll find most here, certainly all naturalists who use the word, do not mean anything supernatural when they use the word ‘spirituality’. Spirituality, rather, is based on the root word ‘spiritus’ meaning ‘breath’ or ‘wind’. It means the ‘essence’ of something (as in ‘the spirit of the law, or ‘school spirit’ etc). As such, a spiritual life, a spiritual path, and a spirituality is about basing one’s life practice on those things that are ‘essential’ and foundational to what is most important (sacred) rather than living a mundane life focused on transitory pleasures or shallow concerns. This is what the Spiritual Naturalist means by ‘spirituality’. It is only happenstance that the major religions of late have confounded it with spooks and specters – a superstition which I would not even count as *genuine* spirituality, but instead a distraction from it.

      • I don’t disagree with this, as what naturalists mean by saying spirituality is different. Then if it is different why not say something different. The word spirituality denotes a belief in a spirit, and naturalistic folk don’t believe spirit(s) exist. When naturalists use the ‘spiritual’, psychological is what is usually meant so it then should be said in place of it. If not psychological then say what you intend to mean. There is no need to be bound to a misleading word when other words work better.

        • I think you are mistaking spiritualism for spirituality. The word spirituality has a long history of referring to a broad range of beliefs and practices, many of which do not refer to spirits.

        • Ask a hundred strangers on the street what spirit is and I guarantee that you’ll get a supernatural or at least incorporeal related answer.

          The understanding of the majority is what makes a definition a definition.

          Any belief or practice that uses the word spirituality likely would be more accurately described differently. There seems to be a overwhelming attachment to the word that is completely unnecessary.

          What beliefs and practices have a long history that associate with spirituality? As I don’t know of any.

        • Any belief or practice that uses the word spirituality that doesn’t believe in the incorporeal that is.

        • I don’t consider the Wikipedia authoritative, but I think it gets it right where it states: “Spirituality can refer to (1) an ultimate or an alleged immaterial reality; (2) an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being; or (3) the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.” (I have added the numbering.)

          None of these refer to spirits. As to the first, a mathematical theory is a form of immaterial reality — e.g. where is the material reality of the square root of minus one? Yet this immaterial concept is extremely important to how scientist think about many aspect of the natural world.

          But I think most people who talk of naturalist spirituality refer more to the second and third uses of the term. When I use the word, I am using it primarily in the second sense provided.

          Questions: “What beliefs and practices have a long history that associate with spirituality? As I don’t know of any.”

          Answer: Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Neo-Platonism, in fact all forms of what has been called the Perennial Philosophy.

        • Reverence for ancestor spirits and immortals is common in popular Taoism.

          Perennial philosophy is the philosophical concept, which states that each of the world’s religious traditions share a single truth. That includes incorporeal concepts.

          Neo-Platonism is saturated with incorporeal concepts, such as the human soul, the solar deity, and world-soul.

          Zen asserts that all sentient beings have Buddha-nature (Skt. Buddhadhātu, Tathāgatagarbha), the universal nature of transcendent wisdom (Skt. prajñā). Transcendence is incorporeal.

          Aside from that Zen Buddhism focuses mostly on the mind, in which would be more accurately described as psychological.

          “a mathematical theory is a form of immaterial reality — e.g. where is the material reality of the square root of minus one?”

          Again, this is through a process of thought, therefore the mind, therefore psychology. You cannot have any thoughts or concepts of anything without the physical mind to conceive of it. Nothing is separate from the physical.

        • “I don’t consider the Wikipedia authoritative, but I think it gets it right where it states: “Spirituality can refer to (1) an ultimate or an alleged immaterial reality; (2) an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being; or (3) the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.””

          I already addressed (1) in my previous post.

          For (2), I don’t know what is meant by “essence of his/her being” other than ‘soul’?

          I was hoping that the (3) point would of been addressed in your last response as this is something that I didn’t touch on. I like the idea of exploring the “deepest values and meanings by which people live” and is where I think ‘religion’ can have a place.

          As when a philosophy (which explores values and meanings by which people live) creates a culture and community around it, it becomes a religion.

          Is this something we can agree on?

        • http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/spirit

          spirit /ˈspɪɹɪt/

          Nounplural spirits

          -The undying essence of a human. The soul.

          -A supernatural being, often but not exclusively without physical form; ghost, fairy, angel.

          -enthusiasm

          -The manner or style of something.

          -usually plural A volatile liquid, such as alcohol. The plural form spirits is a generic term for distilled alcoholic beverages.

          -Energy.

          Verbspirits / spiriting / spirited

          -To carry off, especially in haste, secrecy, or mystery.

      • ‘Essence’ is one such intended meaning, and ‘vitality’ may be another word that is meant by saying ‘spirit’. There really is no limitation.

  7. ‘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?’

    Maybe what people in other religions are doing is a shallow parody of me.

    I’m having difficulty articulating this, but I’m feeling irate at the whole question. Is a religion “real” because it fits some dictionary definition of religion? Because the Parliament of World Religions deigns to validate it? Because it “looks like” other religions?

    Ultimately, *all* religions are made up. Regardless of your beliefs about deity or other forces, religions themselves are the work of humans, same as a building or a hat or a play. None of them are “real”; all of them are “real”. Claiming that some religions are real and others aren’t makes as much sense as claiming that a bowler is a real hat but a fedora isn’t.

    • I don’t think it is correct to say that all religions are “made up.” I think it is more correct to say that they evolve. All the major religions have roots going back to pre-historic times.

      While I would agree that it is ridiculous to call a religion “real” or “unreal,” I think it is sensible to think of them as relatively deep or relatively shallow. It takes time to become deep, which is the problem with something like Scientology.

      Religions evolve around the actual conditions of life; they solve real problems for societies and individuals. But while religions clearly solved problems of small societies and even early civilizations, it is harder to see that they solve problems of the kind of complex, global society we currently live in. Religion as social phenomenon may be more problem than solution.

      But as Brandon describes in his post, religion (spirituality?) continues to solve real problems for individuals. So in this sense we can also speak of a religion as being effective or ineffective, but ultimately only an individual can make this judgment of effectiveness for him or her self.

      While we should not use the word “real,” we can speak of a “deep, effective religion,” which is much the same as saying an authentic religion. But again, we can only legitimately speak of what we find authentic, not about what “really” is authentic.

      Occasionally we find, while speaking with another, that we both have come to a common conclusion about what we find authentic; and that is a rather special discovery.

      • “So in this sense we can also speak of a religion as being effective or ineffective, but ultimately only an individual can make this judgment of effectiveness for him or her self.”

        Yes, that would be a better way of putting it.

        “Occasionally we find, while speaking with another, that we both have come to a common conclusion about what we find authentic; and that is a rather special discovery.”

        Could these commonalities be summed up in any way? Would Lynn’s list be part of that?

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