I grew up in a Catholic home – both of my parents were born and raised in the Roman Catholic tradition. We went to church every Sunday and on every holy day of obligation. We said grace before meals. My sisters and I went to catechism classes.
In some ways, I am deeply grateful for this upbringing. Before I could analyze it or adopt skepticism as an outlook, I believed in God. And because we lived in the country and my father and I spent a lot of time outdoors – hiking, fishing, working with animals – I associated God with nature.
John Denver helped, too. My mother listened to him all the time (I just barely resisted writing that “his albums were on the hi fi all the time); his songs – especially the old ones from his first Greatest Hits album – are like the soundtrack to my childhood.
And that’s cool! Because John Denver got it. He loved God and he believed that everybody could be joyful and peaceful. I know that he lacks the irony and the poetry of Dylan, who I also love, but there’s real grace in simplicity. There is a spiritual authenticity in John Denver songs that really resonated with me as a child.
It was a great antidote to church, in other words. Mass was stiff and confining. It was uninspiring. But a walk in the woods could bring you face to face with angels every few steps. You could lay on your back and look at the clouds and see the face of Christ smiling back at you.
So I’m really grateful for my childhood – my parents impressed upon me the importance of a relationship with God, and they gave me tools – sometimes unwittingly – to help me maintain a conscious contact with the creative powers of the universe.
Notice the transition in that preceding paragraph. We went from “God” to “Creative Powers of the Universe.”
There aren’t many Catholics who are going to be cool with that.
As an adult – after years of prayer and meditation and study – I have more or less come around to John Lennon’s point of view. I like to imagine there’s no religion. Organized religion, that is. It seems to me that as soon as you identify as a member of a church, then you have automatically created “us” and “them.” Doesn’t matter how loving you feel or how super-positive your intentions are. There’s you and there’s the other.
And more than that, you now have a position to defend. You chose this religion – its history, its community, its practices, its mythology. Why? Why does it work for you?
That’s a terrible place to be if your goal is to be fully conscious as a loving and creative human being. While I know that religion does some good – I only have to look so far as my mother and father for proof – the reality is that it stifles us as human beings. It boxes us up and promotes a mindset that is alternately passive and destructive.
We can do better than that.
I can think of at least three good reasons to avoid joining (or walking away from) an organized religion:
Religion is the Graveyard of Spirituality
As I alluded to above, when you join or embrace a religion, you are effectively subscribing to a whole range of rules and laws and obligations. You are told what to believe. I don’t care if your minister or priest or rabbi encourages free thought or tells you that it’s normal to doubt. The truth is, there are certain ideological stances that separate “this” church from “that” one.
It’s hard to think for yourself when a big part of your so-called spiritual community is thinking for you. I stopped regularly attending Catholic mass around the time the Massachusetts bishops went whole-hog trying to kill gay marriage. I volunteered at a local food shelter and I knew that people were hungry and needed help and this was where my church wanted to focus its energies?
I don’t believe that Jesus would have stepped over a starving baby to tell a couple of men to stop holding hands.
Spiritual growth is dependent on our ability to think for ourselves. We have to be able to ask hard questions. We have to allow for the possibility of surprising and difficult answers. The evolution of consciousness takes us away from systems (religious, political, economic) and into the sphere of the personal. It is a deeply personal journey and you can’t make much progress when you’re wearing the ball and chain of an organized church.
Religion wants to control you, cut you down to size, make you manageable. The creative powers of the universe want you to wake up, get large and radiate the joy and love that is your natural inheritance.
You can’t have it both ways. Which way do you really want it?
Resist Your Cultural Defaults
Earlier I pointed out that I was raised Catholic. That’s very consistent with my Massachusetts Irish roots. In fact, virtually every stereotype you can associate with that cultural staple pertains to me or members of my family.
But what if I’d been born in Mississippi? Or Tel Aviv?
There’d be a whole other sack of cultural baggage. Maybe I’d be a devout Lutheran. Or an Orthodox Jew.
The possibilities are – literally – endless.
We are human beings. We aren’t the labels that we accept as a result of where we land at birth. Those are negotiable. They just are. I don’t care what your therapist tells you or your doctor or your teacher. You can recreate yourself in any way, shape or form that you want. That’s your divine right. It’s your sacred potential.
But try telling that to the priest who baptized you.
Does it make much sense to stick with the religious and cultural labels that we defaulted into? Aren’t there better alternatives?
What would happen if we rejected all our labels?
John Denver once wrote a song called “Rhymes and Reasons” which I consider a sort of adjunct to “Imagine.” At the end he sings, “the song that I am singing is a prayer to nonbelievers – come and stand beside us. We can find a better way.”
Beyond “us and them” is an identity that is unfractured and wholly loving. Religion knows it’s there, but they don’t want you to find it. Or they do, but they’ve created a system that ensures you won’t.
Turn the Other Cheek – I Want To Be Sure I Hit Them Both
Where there’s war, there’s religion. So much of the violence that is perpetrated in the world is the result of rigid (religious) belief structures. People are shot and tortured and raped and systematically wiped out because they don’t believe what their killers believe.
The holocaust. The crusades. Witch burnings. September 11th. Israel and Palestine.
Yes, it’s complicated. Yes you can end up in moral and ethical mazes that would confound even the most lucid of minotaurs. If you could go back in time and strangle Hitler in his crib, would you? If you’re attacked by terrorists, don’t you have a right of self-defense?
Meanwhile, Jesus weeps. Buddha rubs his forehead sadly. Shiva turns up the volume on the kirtan.
When you’re in organized religion, you’re in it. I supported gay marriage – I wrote about it, argued about it, carried signs for it. And every Sunday I took my kids to an institution that preached it was wrong.
The disconnect was ridiculous. And that’s just a small example.
Conflict is an inevitable – in fact, it’s a necessary – result of “us and them” mentality, which is the default state of any organized religion. If you’re in a church, then you’re promoting conflict. And somewhere, someone is in anguish because of it. Someone is dying. Someone is hefting a sword and saying “this is for your own good.”
Don’t let them lift that sword in your name.
Spirituality sees the world as a dream, an illusion through which only brothers and sisters pass. It’s one big mind having one big dream. When you get that, everything falls into place. It simplifies. What you do to another, you do to yourself.
Religion wants to parcel off the dream, declare it real, exclude the unfaithful. That’s malicious and hurtful and – quite frankly – murderous.
I have received some emails in regards to this post: people want to know about my personal beliefs. They point out that for a guy who knocks religion, I seem awfully high on Jesus.
It’s a fair question that deserves to be answered.
Jesus is a powerful symbol of love and peace and joy to me. He is a powerful symbol of right thinking. I consider him an ascended master (though I acknowledge that can be a troubling phrase), a spiritual presence that I use to facilitate my own spiritual growth. The mode in which this is most effective for me is A Course in Miracles. But I can’t emphasize enough that these, to me, are simply symbols. They’re like the knife and fork that I use to eat dinner – they aren’t the only tools available and they certainly aren’t the meal itself. The closest thing to church for me is my morning walk with my dogs – it’s quiet, it’s clear, it’s beautiful. My brain stops chattering and labeling, stops segmenting time and dividing space.
If I could convert people to anything it would be that – a few moments of quiet in a peaceful world. If you can get there regularly, a light will begin to shine. And you will never be alone again.