Sunday, July 30, 2006

Spirituality and Religion: A Personal Approach

A few weeks ago Mark Isaac, on The Panda's Thumb wrote a piece entitled, The Larger Issue of Bad Religion. It created quite a stir. I was tempted to comment, but I needed time to think about it. By the time I got my thoughts together, the comments had gone south. They devolved into insult, and the last comment on the blog just repeated the phrase, “religion sucks!” more times than I want to count.

It occurred to me that identifying “religion” as “good” or “bad” is useless, because “religion” is a very broad concept. There is no single set of “religious” practices or beliefs. If you don't believe me, just compare Catholicism to Pentecostalism to Orthodox Judaism to Reform Judaism to Unitarianism. It's all religion, but it sure ain't the same. To make decisions about what is good and bad about religion, we need to be more specific.

If “religion” is a brand (e. g., Christianity, Judaism, Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism), then “spirituality” refers to their component beliefs and practices. We can evaluate each individual component itself, and can then decide for ourselves what kinds of spiritual practices work for each of us individually. This is not a new thought for me. I'm an individualist, and refuse to let others make my spiritual decisions for me. But, it was a new and direct approach to doing it. I got really excited and started listing spiritual practices in bipolar form. Then, two problems jumped out at me.

First, on what scale do I evaluate these components: “Good vs. bad,” “healthy vs. unhealthy,” “toxic vs. nourishing,” or something else? Second, as I wrote out my list, I suddenly realized that I wasn't evaluating religion or spirituality. I was describing my own beliefs.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about my beliefs, and have been struggling with an ethical will. So, if I'm describing my beliefs, it's narcissistic for me to say, “These beliefs are good, and these beliefs are bad.” That was the solution to both problems.

Below, I've generated a list of spiritual beliefs and practices that I either embrace or reject. You may agree or disagree with me; I don't care. I do think there are some truly toxic beliefs; I've discussed them before. But, this list is more than just a discussion of toxic spirituality.

I embrace spirituality: That helps me find meaning in life.

I reject spirituality: That imposes meaning on me.

I embrace spirituality: That encourages me to find faith through reason.

I reject spirituality:
That encourages me to "just believe."

I embrace spirituality: That inspires me to be more ethical.

I reject spirituality: That uses fear and shame to motivate me.

I embrace spirituality: That teaches respect for others.

I reject spirituality: That teaches God likes you better because you're one of us.

I embrace spirituality: Where nonmembers are taught about one's beliefs.

I reject spirituality: Where nonmembers are told, “Our beliefs are better than yours.”

I embrace spirituality: That encourages involvement with the larger community.

I reject spirituality: That encourages withdrawal from the larger community.

I embrace spirituality: That sees pleasure as a legitimate part of life.

I reject spirituality: That encourages self-denial and elevates suffering.

I embrace spirituality: That comforts people cope suffering from misfortune.

I reject spirituality: That blames people for their misfortunes.

I embrace spirituality: That accepts human fallibility.

I reject spirituality: That demands perfection from humanity.

I embrace spirituality: That encourages people to make the world a better place.

I reject spirituality: That encourages people to tolerate things as they are.

I embrace spirituality: That uses ritual to reinforce beliefs or connect with the past.

I reject spirituality: That uses ritual to please God.

This list is far from exhaustive. I'll probably spend the rest of my life populating and revising it. Generate your own list. It's a great experience.

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