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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Good and Evil of Religion: Dogmatic vs. Spiritual Religion

Arguments over religion continue to rage in America, a land founded on religious freedom and a country established "under God." People are quick to anger about their religious views. Some claim America is going to hell because citizens are not adhering to established religious values and teachings. Others blame religion for yoking the populace with Puritan beliefs, and these people fight the insistent demand that government recognize religious tenants.

Steve Taylor, popular author and senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University in the U.K., gives some food for thought about religion and whether it is a force for good or a force for evil. He says ...

"It’s important to make a distinction between ‘dogmatic’ and ‘spiritual’ religion.

"Dogmatic religion... props up the fragile ego. Dogmatically religious people think that they’re right and everyone else is wrong. For them, religion isn’t about self-development or experiencing the transcendent, but about adhering to a set of rigid beliefs and following the rules laid down by religious authorities. It’s about defending their beliefs against anyone who questions them, asserting their ‘truth’ over other people’s, and spreading those beliefs to others. For them, the fact that other people have different beliefs is an affront, since it implies the possibility that their own beliefs may not be true. They need to convince other people that they’re wrong to prove to themselves that they’re right.

‘Spiritual’ religion is very different. It promotes the higher attributes of human nature, like altruism and compassion, and fosters a sense of the sacred and sublime. ‘Spiritually religious’ people don’t feel any animosity to other religious groups – in fact, they’re happy to investigate other beliefs, and may even go to other groups’ temples and services. They usually aren’t evangelical – their attitude is that different religions are suited to different people, and that all religions are different manifestations or expressions of the same essential truths.

"In other words, whereas the purpose of dogmatic religion
is to strengthen the ego, through beliefs, labels and group
identity, the purpose of spiritual religion is the complete
opposite of this -- to transcend the ego, through compassion,
altruism and spiritual practice."

(Steve Taylor Ph.D. "The Psychology of Religion: A Force For Good or Evil?"
Psychology Today. June 12, 2012.)

Although I realize Dr. Taylor is being personally judgmental in his evaluation of religion, I associate with his words. I understand one must never simplify the nature or the role of religion in American life. To diminish the positive impact of all its positive beliefs would be shortsighted. Religion has served to bolster billions of people's sense of self and group identity.

Religion can help people make sense of the world, provide motivation, and bind them together. It is a wonderful rock for so many. "In God we trust" is much more than a hollow statement of faith for the majority of those in the U.S. The affirmation is deeply rooted in government affairs.

At the same time, religion has caused many unnecessary conflicts, deaths, and even warfare. Yes, history shows this to be true -- even in this land of the free, people have chosen to use religion to justify governmental objectives.

Everyone knows the story of the witches of Salem.  The Salem witch trials involved a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. The trials resulted in the executions of twenty people, most of them women. Eventually, the colony admitted the trials were a mistake and compensated the families of those convicted.

And, many fewer are aware of Mary Dyer, a Quaker woman who was hanged on Boston Common in 1660 for the crime of religious nonconformity. For holding religious views that were just slightly unaligned with those of her Boston neighbors, Dyer was strung up and killed along with several others, becoming a permanent symbol of America's rich "religious heritage."

Then, of course, there was a bloody Civil War that ripped the nation apart. This terrible conflict had Confederates who justified slavery by citing both Old and New Testament passages -- preachers and slaveowners insisting that God was on their side as they subjected their fellow humans to the ultimate inhumanity.

Many insist the Founding Fathers intended the United States to be established as a Christian nation with laws obeying biblical rules and commandments.

David Niose, an attorney who has served as president of two Washington-based humanist advocacy groups -- the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America -- puts a clear perspective on the intentions of the Founding Fathers and religion. He says ...

"Because the framers were so secular, religious conservatives give great weight to the Declaration of Independence reference to 'nature's God' and men being 'endowed by their Creator' with rights. These phrases, they insist, are evidence that America is a Christian nation.

"This is ironic, because the Declaration is notable for its intentional omission of any mention of Christianity or Jesus. 'Creator' and 'nature's God' are common deistic references, obviously an intentional effort to avoid Christian rhetoric.

"Thus, almost a century before Darwin's discoveries, in an era when outright atheism was still a crime, the framers took careful steps to avoid validating Christianity. In fact, when they finally drafted the Constitution the resulting text was entirely god-free. Religion is mentioned in the original Constitution only once, and that is in the negative: to ensure that there is no religious test for holding office."

(David Niose. "The Truth About America's Religious Heritage."
Psychology Today. February 27, 2012.)

No doubt, arguments over whether religion should have a major influence on government and court decisions will continue. Both sides of the issue seem polarized and ready to stand their ground. Recent fights over same-sex marriage and abortion continue to focus on rulings by the Supreme Court. Will dogmatic believers or spiritual believers have their way in a nation that constantly judges separation of church and state?

Steve Taylor contends, "As long as human beings experience ‘ego-separation’, dogmatic religion will always persist. And as long as we experience an impulse to transcend our ‘ego-separation,' so will spiritual religion."

I tire of hearing dogmatic stances in relation to decisions of equality -- both stances for religion and anti-religion. Isn't it telling that militant atheism is very similar to dogmatic religion? Taylor says that militant atheists are obeying the same impulse for identity and certainty -- the same desire to possess ‘the truth’ as fundamentalist Christians. They display the same antagonism to those with different belief system, and have the same drive to ‘convert’ the ignorant to their way of thinking.

I believe a comparison of militant atheists and dogmatic Christians is very revealing in that both groups refuse any compromise of their beliefs while insisting the other is dead wrong. This hardheaded abstinence also belittles those whose faith falls somewhere between that of Bible-thumping Christians and diety-denying atheists. I am not an atheist but neither am I a single-minded evangelist. I tire of groups judging me according to their beliefs. I believe a person should be free to believe what he likes without facing condemnation or embarrassment.

To me, spiritual religion is a lifelong journey that requires the traveler to find basic truths. It allows not only for religious discovery but also for religious interpretation and growth beyond the English text of one holy book. To limit people's knowledge by standing on one view and confronting them with it as the absolute truth keeps many interested souls from even considering strong belief.

I am fully aware that after reading the last paragraph, dogmatic Christians are now considering me "a heathen headed for hell" who chooses to make his faith an unfounded smorgasbord of meaningless belief. To the dogmatist, there is only one Word and one Way to believe. He believes the Bible -- and in the singular manner in which he interprets this text -- to be the sole key to the Kingdom.

Dogma can divide; it can push belief into a small, compartmentalized boundary; and, it can resist progressive change necessary to keep religion alive. I think that the curious, religious traveler must often go off the boundaries that define the map of dogma and seek goodness in new climates.

Attaining altruism through spiritual religion is a huge order. Still, I believe most ministers, preachers, priests, and rabbis find that, in the real world, their desire to attain selfless concern for the well-being of others leads them to open their minds. After all, only selfless helping is considered altruism, and dogmatic behavior often feeds the ego that keeps religious officials from becoming caring servants. Serving others requires constantly interpreting "the good" as the end of a moral action.
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