I was having a conversation with Bill Maher the other day -- in my own mind, that is. I was admitting that I agree with a lot of what he criticizes about religion, or more precisely the ludicrous nature of some religious "beliefs."
Since I consider Bill, at least, a fairly honest man who speaks truth to power and helps us to laugh at the hypocrisies and absurdities of what passes for normal in the United States today, I was reflecting on what is salvageable from his criticisms of religion, or "religulousness," as he calls it. And, beyond that, whether there's something at the heart of religion that humanity cannot afford to lose.
What is religion, essentially? Is it immature wish-fulfillment, a denial of our mortality, an abrogation of our human responsibilities, a sentimental lullaby for those unwilling to face harsh realities? Is religion a collection of imaginary and absurd beliefs that contribute to prejudice, intolerance and violence?
Of the great religions of mankind -- Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaeo-Christianity and Islam -- each has a core message, typically sourced in the original message of its founder(s), or, in the case of Hinduism, in its ancient texts. That original message then gets interpreted, commented upon, theologized, possibly dogmatized, until it becomes a secondary body of teachings, beliefs, rites and, very likely, a power structure, as well. Much of this secondary accumulation is teachings about that message or originating texts, i.e. less about how to live and more about what to believe.
To completely dismiss religion as corrupt nonsense presumes that one is in possession of a truth and practical wisdom that is uncorrupted by the human tendencies that express themselves in religion. Is there such an uncorrupted truth or perspective underlying Richard Dawkins', Christopher Hitchens' or Bill Maher's critiques of religion? Is there a contemporary secular rationalism that we can trust to save us from what is ridiculous in some religious beliefs?
Unfortunately, wherever we look in the contemporary world, we will see examples of toxic opinions, absurd beliefs, self-serving rationalizations and malicious mind-control -- in other words, what sometimes corrupts religion also corrupts so many human activities. In one form or another, we see these tendencies in politics, science, finance and even the arts.
It makes as much or as little sense to completely dismiss religion because of its excesses as to dismiss banking because of the breathtaking corruption at the top and the debacle it has brought upon us. Banking may need to be reformed or reinvented, but very few people would suggest that it should be altogether eliminated. It may be that there are "high priests" of banking that do not want the masses to question the fundamentals of today's banking orthodoxy, but that illustrates the problem we face in so many areas of human life: self-serving power elites who rely on the credulity of the majority to continue to control and exploit a situation for their own gain and self-importance.
Now we arrive at the heart of the matter: what can free us from those corrupting, exploitive and dishonest tendencies that seem to pervade so much of human activity? What if the essence of religion was the uncovering of egoism in ourselves, of all the ways we distort reality and justify our own arrogance, selfishness or privilege? What if religion were the key to cleansing ourselves of neurotic fear, accepting things as they are and having the courage to work to make them better?
Well, every so often a human being comes along who has attained a degree of freedom from the many negative, selfish pathologies of the human will. Whether these people are called avatars, saints, prophets, they are people who have attained a quality of humanness that removes the distorting lens of human egoism, charges them with a moral magnetism, and illuminates them with a humane wisdom that ripples through the centuries, or may even create a new civilization.
These liberated and relatively complete human beings seem to have arrived at certain convictions:
Reason alone is inadequate. The rational faculty is not the supreme human faculty and can be misleading. Reason, which has been exalted in the secular Western world, is, in fact, a very limited tool. Even if it has produced the accomplishments of science and technology, it does little to satisfy the needs of human beings.
Higher faculties. We have other faculties of perception. The human being exists on a threshold between two realms: one physical and the other a realm of value and inner experience.
Transformation through inner experience. The material, space-time universe is not the whole of reality. Our most valued experiences involve the perception of a realm of value. Material existence alone cannot satisfy us; we long for and require friendship, shared experience, emotional intimacy, personal integrity, love and an experience of the transcendent unity of existence. This last element, which may seem the most questionable to some, is, in fact, the most significant of all, because when it is experienced it has the power to transform a person's sense of self.
The most highly developed human beings are not politicians, businessmen, scientists, religious clerics or artists, but those who have penetrated reality with their consciousness and have come back as transformed human beings. Their insights, which were meant to guide us toward the realization of our full humanness, have too often been turned into belief systems, dogmatic thinking or worse.
Man-invented beliefs have been imposed upon these original insights. Religion degenerates as it move from the insights of the original exemplars to beliefs about the original messenger or revelation, leading to subservience to human institutions and man-made dogmas. What causes us to cling to "correct" beliefs, exclusive "truths" and "infallible" authority?
Nevertheless, the original insights into the nature of human possibilities are not completely obscured, nor are they inaccessible. In some cases, there may even be living traditions of human transformation that remain true to the original wisdom. And these "Ways" of spiritual development are based not on beliefs, but on an empirical process of verification and experience guided by the original insights of those human beings who have penetrated to the heart of reality. And this is where the interesting and essential question lies. What do these insights tell us about the nature of reality and the vital needs of the human heart? How can we be true to these insights and, possibly, restore them to their proper role in the guidance of our religious communities, our politics, our educational structures and human life in general?