On Religion

Fundamentalists are those who become extremely overconfident in the truthfulness of their radically oversimplified views of life.  A fundamentalist is someone who is totally sure he or she knows exactly what’s going on in human existence.  This typically includes knowing what we’re all here for, who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s good and who’s evil, where good and evil come from, and what precisely needs to be done to rid the world of evil and establish a good and just society.  Their knowledge is held with extreme confidence that leaves no room for any real openness, questions, inquiry, or uncertainty.  Their underlying motive is not so much authentic faith or hope as it is a dogged desperation to defend a total lifesystem they’ve become excessively and exclusively invested in.  Like a gambler who’s bet too much, now they’re all in.  So uncertainty becomes anathema.  Doubt becomes sin.  A psychoemotional upside of fundamentalism is that fundamentalists don’t need to honestly face the existential discomforts of living with uncertainties.  They can rest easy because they have all the answers.  The appeal of this shouldn’t be underestimated.

As far as I can tell, fundamentalists and ideologues both share the same tendencies towards becoming overconfident in oversimplifications.  They are different labels for representing what seems to be essentially the same thing.  Both tend to arrogantly and uncritically dismiss the views of others before giving them an honest hearing, let alone thoughtful consideration.  Presently it is common for some to react to the inadequacies of one fundamentalism by creating or allying with a different fundamentalism.  This drives a great deal of our culture wars, whether their garbs are religious, scientific, political, social, economic, or some combination thereof.  An individual raised in a fundamentalist religious community may react to his upbringing by embracing some simplistic secular fundamentalism with the same level of overconfidence and zeal he previously possessed.  This is just one possible conversion story in one possible context.  It could just as easily be told in the other direction or in a different setting.  The point is simply that sometimes individuals trade one fundamentalism for another fundamentalism, instead of moving beyond the narrow norms and mindsets that characterize fundamentalism itself.  It is also a mistake to see the fundamentalist impulse described here as strictly a religious phenomenon.  It is a human phenomenon.

I wonder if fundamentalism is a developmental stage in the process of growing up, like adolescence.  I wonder if it is a stage that ideally should be journeyed through and beyond.  I wonder if fundamentalism is a stage that some unfortunately get stuck in.  An individual’s psychology and knowledge develops from simplicity to ever-greater complexity in the journey from infancy to adulthood.  It is common for individuals to experience crises at major transitions of development that challenge established knowledge, meaning, identities, and lifestyles.  These destabilizing, decentering experiences cause us to rethink and reform.  This reforming process can be so scary and discomforting that some choose to avoid it.  Growth would cause too much upheaval.  So they remain desperately attached to whatever knowledge, meaning, identities, and lifestyles they have already formed as a result.  This is sad whenever it occurs for many reasons.  Such individuals have put a ceiling on their development.  Their past development has become an anchor to their future development.  If fundamentalism is indeed a common developmental stage then a lifelong fundamentalist would have a similar problem as an adult who never moves beyond her teenage psychology: arrested development.


On Religion

Everything and everyone in human life has a shadow side.  Our tendency is to ignore and deny our shadows.  It can be uncomfortable acknowledging darkness wherever it may lurk, let alone attempting to address it.  Willful ignorance has its appeal.  Our treatment of religion is one huge exception to this.  It has become popular to reduce religion only to its shadow and selectively shine a light only on the worst horrors of religious history.  To many these days religion is all evil, and perhaps even the source of all evil. History shows religion does have a long and dark shadow, no question about that.  So there’s plenty to draw from. Portraying religion as only evil requires presenting an extremely imbalanced story though, which can only lead to further misconceptions and mistakes.

It can be psychologically tempting to blame all of our shadows on religion and assume that everything else would be just peachy apart from its existence.  Life becomes simple.  Thine enemy is known.  We can form a mental map of where the shadows are that helps us sleep at night.  Willfully ignoring and displacing some of our shadows doesn’t make their presence magically disappear though.  We’re still discomforted by some mysterious sense and feel compelled to blame the darkness—vague and obscure and dissociated as it is—on something or someone.  Groupthink develops as people rally together reinforcing common enemies and illusions.  Habitually blaming some simplistic external target can become a convenient strategy for eluding any personal responsibility for the shadows too.  Hence “religion” become just such a target for most if not all of the blame.

Every single human affair inevitably has its shadow side, from religion to politics to economics to business to science to education to healthcare to medicine to families to relationships to sex, and the list goes on and on.  To not see this is to have partial vision. Every human endeavour inevitably has the potential to cause good or evil, because every human being carries both light and darkness, as well as some degree of power to choose their own motives, actions, and ends.  Seeing our shadows doesn’t have to be bleak either, as some might cry out with cynicism.  At first it can be startling and uncomfortable.  But it’s also realistic.  We need to see our shadows if we truly desire to see all of what is real. And we need sober optimism, clear vision, and perseverance in the face of reality.  For some this begins with developing a clearer and more balanced view of religion.

On Religion

Religion is what we make of it.  Religious traditions, broadly speaking, are not all bad, nor are they all good.  Those who reduce religion to being either all bad or all good make the mistake of thinking in all-or-nothing terms.  Only a partial picture can result from all-or-nothing thinking, which means either the bad caused by religion becomes ignored or the good caused by religion becomes ignored, both potentially leading to serious misconceptions about religion in general.  Blaming religion for evil in the world is also a misguided commonplace.  Religion, in and of itself, is somewhat like a tool.  Take a hammer, for instance.  A hammer can be used to build a shelter that keeps someone safe and warm or it can be used to murder someone and cause great harm.  But a hammer itself is not inherently good or bad.  Blaming the hammer for any evils caused by it wouldn’t make sense either.  Ethics enters the picture depending upon how and for what purpose some person makes use of the hammer.  So it is with religion.

At their worst, religious traditions are entirely humanmade creations that are used for oppressive purposes.  At their best, religious traditions are co-creations of humans working in partnership with Divine Inspiration, always and necessarily, which are used to support and enhance human spiritual flourishing.  Either way, people always have a part in making religion.  This fairly obvious observation shouldn’t be a threat to Christians either, though some might perceive it to be.  It really is only a threat to the notion that my religion somehow dropped down to earth from heaven as it were.  But the whole narrative movement of the biblical story surrounds God’s desire to live in loving partnership with human beings, which is mostly powerfully displayed in the climactic event of the Incarnation of God.  The God of Judeo-Christianity wants to live and work with people in history, even when it comes to developing religious traditions.  This God is willing to get involved in the messy and changing particularities of human life, meeting us wherever we’re at, for the sake of supporting us in moving forward towards a better future.  And human life and culture are full of particularities, which means that every humanmade religious tradition will be enculturated necessarily, with no exceptions.  So as time passes and cultures evolve, religions will always need reforming.  For what may have once been very relatable and helpful for one group in one culture in one time can become alien and perplexing to another.  But at their best, our religious traditions contain timeless wisdom and truths that simply need repackaging, not reforming.


On Religion

What would you say if someone were to tell you that they think science is dangerous and worthless because of all the destruction that has been caused by it?  Because we got things like the atom bomb thanks to advancements in science.  What would you say if someone were to tell you that they despise science entirely because of the evils that were caused through research and testing in eugenics?

Speaking for myself, I would want to say a couple of things.  Hating everything to do with science for these reasons requires a lot of sloppy all-or-nothing thinking.  This is pretty plain.  I mean, sure, scientific knowledge and progress has been used to cause some immense harm over history.  But it has also been the source of amazing progresses in medicine, in technology, in our understanding of the natural world, among other things.  Another important nuance that should be thrown into the mix is that pseudoscience is possible and real.  Eugenics is widely considered to have been pseudoscientific work because its main principles were not well supported by empirical evidence.  And yet it flourished for a time.

I think most would readily see the holes in this sort of blanket attack on science.  Yet the same kind of all-or-nothing thinking can be frequently found in contemporary polemics against religion.  Many anti-relgion critics will attack religion, wholesale, with the most shockingly narrow tunnel vision in some instances.  Either because of intention or ignorance (it’s impossible for me to know which, but I’m not sure which is worse), many polemicists narrowly restrict their focus to the dark side of religious history, firing fury and vitriol at outrageously selective targets.  Now don’t get me wrong: an honest, thorough reading of history shows that every major religious tradition has blood on its hands.  And this is a sobering reality that deserves to be faced by everyone with a religious commitment.  But, when we pull the camera back for a panoramic view of human history, one thing that becomes painfully obvious is it’s possible to use almost anything—from religion to politics to science to business to technology to friendship to sex—for good or for evil.  We’d be terribly negligent to not recognize this.  Accordingly, we’d be terribly negligent to not recognize and respect the many ways that religion has motivated people to actively work for good and human flourishing throughout history.

There is another necessary nuance that is often absent from the attacks of anti-religion polemicists.  Just as science can be co-opted by pseudoscience, religion can be co-opted by pseudoreligious motives and ends.  And yes, I know, different people will have different opinions about what true religion really is—we live in a world where there isn’t complete, unanimous consensus about what the truest religion is within the community of those who identify as ‘religious’ (and the same goes for science, though many wish to ignore it).  Just as the work of eugenicists gained influence for a time because it was validated with the powerful brand name of ‘science,’ people have committed atrocities ‘in the name of God’ by backing their violent interests with some stamp-of-religious-approval.

Carefully comparing the claims, conduct, and character of a religion’s followers with the claims, conduct, and character of a religion’s founder is crucial when it comes to wading through the messy matters of separating religion from pseudoreligion.  For instance, if the founder taught love and a follower is teaching hate, or if the founder taught peace and a follower is teaching violence, then there’s good reason to think that there’s something fishy going on.  In other words, there’s good reason to hold out the possibility that the follower’s religion is not the same as the founder’s religion; that the follower has used the founder’s ‘brand’ to back their own pseudoreligious aspirations.  Sometimes these sort of inconsistencies are painfully apparent.  Sometimes serious study is needed to see them.  Either way, this work is essential and worthwhile if we are to take religion seriously.

On Religion

God is not religion.  This notion is obvious to most.  Yet God’s being (his ontological reality) is frequently conflated with religious traditions (our systems of rules, rituals, and dogmas).  But this thinking leads to a host of misunderstandings.  Even if you don’t believe in a higher power, work with me for a bit for the sake of speculation: if we assume there is a God, isn’t his self-existence different than our religious traditions?  Isn’t the phenomena of religion our human reaction to the phenomena of God and the supernatural?

Confusing God and religion is like confusing actual people and events with the newspapers that cover them.  It’s like confusing celebrities with the work of the paparazzi and the worship of their fans.  It’s like confusing nature with the work of biologists.  Now, obviously these are analogies, and they’ll become bizarre if pressed too far.  But the point is, the reality of an object of study is different from the act, work, and traditions that emerge from studying, itself.

Many distinguish between religion and spirituality because they do not think they need a particular religious tradition, with it’s particular systems and labels, to mediate their connection with God; they think they can have a real, unmediated spiritual connection with God apart from adhering to a specific tradition.  I think there’s some truth to this.  In a similar way, a person does not need to be a professional scientist to observe and experience nature.  They do not need to be abreast with all the academic literature, they do not need a PhD in biology, in order to observe and encounter a natural reality which scientists have extensively studied and documented.  I can admire, touch, and breathe in the beautiful reality of a flower without being a Floriculturist.  And so, if God is not religion, then I think it’s conceivable—at the very least—that his presence could be experienced inside and outside of the boundaries of particular religious traditions.

Now here’s where this gets complicated: even though God is not religion, I would not suggest that religious traditions and their particular rules, rituals, and dogmas are useless junk that we can toss aside now that we’ve discovered how to have an unmediated, spiritual connection with God.  This strikes me as the height of anti-historical arrogance.  Plus religious traditions are complex and diverse, so assuming they are all good or all bad is careless, all-or-nothing thinking.  Much could be said about this, but suffice to say that traditions should be studied more thoroughly and thoughtfully than they often are.

Distinguishing the phenomenon God from the phenomena of religion is also important because religion is not all good.  On the contrary, religious traditions and movements are a mix of good things, bad things, and downright ugly things.  And it’s common for people to blame God for all of the terrible shit that’s been caused by religious zealots ‘in the name of God.’  But it’s crucial that we take some responsibility, that admit our ownership over our ideas and actions—we need to own our part in religion and not just sluff it all off onto God if it’s ugly.

But back to my main idea: I bet we’d agree that nature is not biology.  That celebrities are not the tabloids.  That you are not the sum total of what your friends or enemies think about you.  In the same way, God is God and religion is a reaction to God.  Confusing the phenomenon of God with the phenomena of religion leads to fuzzy thinking.  And confusing religion with spirituality can lead to sloppy misunderstandings.

On Religion

My opinions about religions offend everyone.  Well, I’m exaggerating.  Let me be more specific: my opinions about the relationship between different religious traditions tend to unsettle the majority of people, both religious and nonreligious, that I chat with.

One type of person is usually offended as soon as I mention that I think different religious traditions have significant similarities; that there are real areas of overlap that should be acknowledged and affirmed.  Often I’m immediately thought to be an uncritical religious pluralist who thinks all religions are entirely and essentially the same, and that they are equally effective paths to reaching the divine.  I’m given the impression that I must be the sort of person that thoughtlessly equates Pentecostalism with Buddhism, and Catholicism with Satanism.  What I need is a healthy helping of the rule of non-contradiction, of course.

Another type of person is usually offended as soon as I mention that I think different religious traditions have significant differences; that there are real points of distinction should be acknowledged and affirmed.  I’m immediately thought to be an ignorant fundamentalist, a narrow-minded exclusivist who thinks all religions are entirely and essentially different—at least different from the tradition that I have embraced!  I must think that people who follow my religion have exclusive access to God’s presence, and everyone else is totally isolated and disconnected from God.  My views may even be potentially dangerous since such religious exclusivism can create serious conflict.

Neither of these partisan pigeonholes come remotely close to representing my opinions about the relationship between religions.  This is because I think there are significant similarities and significant differences among the major religious traditions.  This doesn’t strike me as a novel or inconsistent opinion to hold, yet it does nonetheless confound many of people that I delve into the matter with on frequent occasion.  Affirming both seems to me to be the most honest, sensible thing to do though.  Sure, it’s general affirmation that can be detailed in various ways (and something I intend to explore further in future reflections).  But it’s an important truth to begin with that avoids overly simplified extremes.

Unfortunately, like many controversial issues these days, most opinions concerning the relationship between religions have become extremely polarized.  Discussions have consequently become extremely heated, that is if they are not shutdown before they begin.  And for myself, occupying a position between the poles means that I’m treated with suspicion at best or contempt at worst by people from both sides.

We are collectively more aware of our plurality now in the 21st century.  We are aware that we will encounter people who have embraced different religions and people who have not embraced any religion in our increasingly diverse communities.  Personally, I think our diversity is a good thing, something that can be a source of enrichment instead of division if we allow it to be.  My main hope is that the divide between the so-called ‘pluralists’ and ‘exclusivists’ will shrink in the years to come.  I hope that conversations on the matter will increasingly press further and expand beyond the two partisan positions that commonly dominate the field of discussion.  Hopefully the polarized, often heated treatment of the matter is just a growing pain in a process that will lead to more nuanced, respectful dialogue.  May we all have the courage to converse with each other out of an attitude of genuine curiosity and acceptance, knowing that accepting one another need not require us to always agree with one another.

On Religion

Religion is a powerful force. Its power extends into virtually every corner of human life and is expressed in a variety of ways. Sometimes its expressions are beautiful; sometimes they are ugly. Ideas and doctrines, rituals and practices, communities and experiences are all threads that are woven through the fabric of religions.

Much of the power that religion holds is explanatory power; religious worldviews and lifestyles offer guidance in the face of life’s deepest and daunting questions—questions like: What is the meaning and purpose of life? What is the nature of reality? Why is life filled with so much wonder and suffering, so much pleasure and pain? What is the source and nature of evil? How is evil overcome? What is the ideal way to live and form community? What is our ultimate destiny? Questions like these represent the tip of life’s iceberg of issues and curiosities. While religious traditions are diverse and differ greatly on many significant points, they all address difficult matters like these to some degree. This common concern—the pursuit of meaning, understanding, and truth—is an essential, unifying thrust.

I personally have immense respect for anyone who asks these sort of questions with sincerity. Though I do not agree with every person’s answers, I cannot help but respect someone who has honestly asked and considered the questions. I cannot help but admire a person who has pursued meaning, understanding, and truth with genuine curiosity and vulnerability. I cannot help but desire to honour their freedom in deciding what they believe for themselves, since I consider my own freedom to honestly seek truth to be a deeply valuable privilege.