The news media continue to stretch the boundaries of religion far beyond the usual parameters in the American popular imagination. Is belief in climate change a religion, as Rep. Steve King asserts? Did Steve Jobs create a new iReligion with all his visionary iProducts? Has Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead achieved the status of a spiritual icon?
Look on the pages of HuffPost, follow the religion headlines in Google news, read through the posts at Patheos, and you will see that religion is no longer simply a matter of faith in God. Instead, it is … anything and everything imaginable. The truth about religion is that there is no one Truth but rather multiple versions of many possible truths.
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, called religion a neurosis and claimed that it was, at bottom, an illusion; Karl Marx, who called for the workers of the world to unite, famously stated that religion was the opiate of the masses; William James, American pragmatist and innovative psychologist, defined religion as the feelings, acts, and experiences of individuals in their solitude as it relates to their apprehension of the divine; 20th century theologian Paul Tillich asserted that religion is an expression of ultimate concern.
The great religious traditions all provide very different teachings about religious truth: no god and impermanence in Buddhism; multiple gods and one underlying cosmic reality in Hinduism; one God who created the cosmos and humans in the three monotheistic religions; and among indigenous religious cultures throughout the world, an understanding that sacred powers permeate the cosmos with a variety of spiritual truths tied to these powers.
Who is right? Where can one locate the ultimate authority on these matters? Is it the Bible? The Koran? The Rig Veda? Science? Fox News? In our increasingly pluralistic and religiously diverse world, is there only one arbiter of truth, reality, the meaning of life in these sacred matters?
We have fundamentalist atheists on one side of the spectrum wanting to get rid of religion and all of its toxicity; on the other side are religious fundamentalists looking to purify the world of all the false religions. The rest of us in the middle — Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Nones — are learning to live with the unavoidable fact that multiple religious perspectives and communities must learn to live together if not harmoniously than at least with a minimum amount of respect and toleration.
I was pleased to see the announcement recently of a new office for Faith-Based Community Initiatives in the U.S. Department of State and to hear Secretary of State John Kerry proclaim that if he went back to college today he would probably major in comparative religions. Given the radical diversity of religions in our world today, and the pervasive and powerful force of religious commitments in all spheres of social life, Kerry is certainly on to something. And I say that not as a professor and chair in a religion department looking to increase the number of our majors, but as a global citizen who both appreciates and celebrates the confounding, confusing, and constant presence of religion in human history.
What are the truths about religion? Here are a few:
1. Religion is a constant, and will not go away. It is built into our DNA, so to speak, even for Nones like me who don’t attend church, believe in God, or follow a particular creed. The sacred is always embedded in social life and elemental to our notions of right and wrong, experiences of transcendence, and understanding of the purpose and meaning of life.
2. Even though religion is a constant, it is never the same around the world and through time. There is no one essence — not “God” or “Spirit” or “Mana” — but instead the religious life manifests in a myriad of forms, rituals, beliefs, myths, and moral systems. It can be associated with just about anything: gods or surfing; movies or sacred texts; rock and roll or UFOs.
3. No one has a monopoly on religious truth. What’s sacred for someone is profane to someone else. In this sense, religion is messy, conflicted, and highly contested — conditions anyone familiar with the history of religions can identify.
4. Religion is a force of good in the world and, paradoxically, one of the most destructive forces motivating horrible bloodshed and hatred throughout history, in the present, and into the future. The powers of religion cannot be generalized nor made universal. It is not either good or evil, but has the capacity for both.
5. Religion is not simply about revelation or spiritual truth; it is most at home in the physical body as it experiences suffering and aging, sex and ecstasy, the mundane and altered states of consciousness, birth and death — universal characteristics of human life we all share.