BEYOND BELIEF

The title page of On the Origin of Species, fi...

The title page of On the Origin of Species, first published in 1859 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The problem with religion — any religion — is not in whatever spirituality, if any, it might contain; the problem is dogma.

Look for the root of any religious controversy, or of religious controversy that has escalated into violence, and there you will find adherence to dogma — to rigid beliefs in this, rigid beliefs in that, believing this story or that, this bit of nonsense or that.

Leo Tolstoy, in his own wordy way, recognized this in the Russia of his time.  He could see that dogma separates, while what he called “love” unites.  The Russian Orthodox Church of his time did not agree, and has never forgiven him for pointing out that the Emperor (in the form of Church and State) had no clothes.

But if one takes dogma out of religion, what is left?  If there is no spirituality in it, nothing is left but outworn creeds and rites and rituals and old stories.  It has simply moved from the blind leading the blind to the bland leading the bland.

That is why there is such an increasing abandonment of traditional religion in Europe and in America.  But if there is spirituality in it, then once the weeds and briars of dogma are cut away, the light may shine in,  and that spirituality is allowed, at last, to grow and be a positive force both inside and outside the individual.  And if there is no genuine spirituality there, then when all the brush of dogma is removed, that absence will be revealed.

It all comes down to experience and practice in contrast to belief.  The Quakers — the Society of Friends — discovered this in the West, though at times even their practice was too overlaid with belief to adequately deliver on its promise.  But to the extent that Quakers dropped the baggage of belief, to that extent the light of spirituality — that which Quakers called the “Inward Light,” was allowed to shine.

When this happens — when “belief” is dropped and experiential practice is the important thing — then the boundaries of religion, of “us and them” — drop away as well.  That is when the fences between “religions” fall and spirituality unites.

The problem with religion, then, is dogmatic belief.  The cure for that problem is open and honest investigation — experiential spirituality.

If spirituality is the most important aspect of religion, then all the rest is not really necessary.  There is no need to insist on the perpetuation of outworn medieval dogmas that pretend to be moral or ethical when they are not, dogmas that keep females in the category of second-rate humans, dogmas that prevent those with same-gender attraction from having the same rights and freedoms as others, dogmas that insist on the unquestioned authority of a religious hierarchy or of a religious “holy book.”

In the final analysis, all “holy books” are written by humans, and humans are fallible.  To pretend that any such book is an infallible divine revelation that one may not question is to restrict the investigation of truth.

That failure to question and to educate is why even now, in the beginning of the 21st century, we have such abysmal ignorance among Americans that some 46% of them still hold belief in creationism over the reality of evolution.  Why?  Because creationism is promoted as a dogma by a number of religious groups who frown on placing the actual facts of scientific discovery above the completely factually-unsupported beliefs promoted by literalistic readings of this or that “sacred” book.

Fundamental to a free and progressive society is the ability to question and refuse religious authority, whether it is based on a “sacred” book or in a religious hierarchy.  There can be no restrictions placed on the right to publicly investigate and to publicly criticize any religion or belief, any dogma.  One cannot limit such investigation and public criticism (which includes satire) on the premise that it is “offensive” to a religion.  Truth is always going to be “offensive” to dogmatists, because it shows where they have gone astray and reveals them for what they are.  That is why it is so crucially important that freedom of speech in the examination and criticism of dogma continues to exist unhindered.

That means a truly intellectually free society has no “blasphemy” laws; it has no laws requiring one not to “offend” or satirize a particular religion or belief system.  Religion should never be segregated from the free marketplace of ideas as a “holy ground” upon which one may not tread in one’s investigations.

We recall the words of Alfred Tennyson, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”  All religious belief should be subject to honest doubt, honest investigation, honest criticism.  That is why, paradoxically, an atheist may be a more spiritual person that the most rigid, unquestioning believer in dogma.  That is because the one is looking for truth, the other for a mere end to questioning.  And to find the truth, one must go beyond belief.

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