Look Around and Look Within

The Science and Art of Human Behavior

The changing face of religion

perhaps religions will become more hybrid in nature and flexible in narrative.


Our relationship to the stories we tell change all the time. Take Santa Claus and the relationship you may have had with him at 5 years of age vs. 15 years vs. 50 years. Another example is the Book of Genesis. At one point in time, creation - as described in Genesis - was accepted as truth by the Christian majority; today, although still believed as fact by a few, for most Christians, the story in Genesis is interpreted as more myth -a symbolic reflection of a source, God, as a creator of life with scientific based explanations - the Big Bang and evolution - providing explanation for how life emerges and changes with time.

Whether this Biblical myth is one you ascribe to or not, the point I'm trying to make is that the meaning of narratives change for people all the time - sometimes from fact (physical-world reality) to myth (a sort of ‘psychic' -world reality, one based in the mind). Joseph Campbell wrote at length on the value of myth in our lives, and the need for myth in culture.

Myths can play a powerful role in helping us define our relationships - to ourselves, to others, and to ‘something larger than ourselves'. And science has shown that these relationships - self to self, self to others, and self to ‘something larger than self' are keys to authentic happiness. The last construct is one most associated with spiritual or religious orientations and for atheists or agnostics, that last part often gets pushed aside. Yet even this relationship can be realized in the ongoing processes of which we are a part as shown by science - evolution (physical and cultural) or the continuing expansion of knowledge itself (and the vast ‘unknown' yet to be discovered).

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The more enhanced these relationships, the happier we are, and the more ‘aware human beings' we become.

I think that narratives or myths that enhance these relationships are likely ones that increase in frequency over time (and have done so through history). Religious narratives have always played a prominent role in doing so, particularly in enhancing the relationship of ‘self to something larger than oneself'. But with science now showing our expansive interconnections - through genomics, ecology, and psychology for example, and through our ability to ‘see ourselves' in relation to a whole from different perspectives (such as a the recent picture of the origin of the universe), it is likely that transcendent experiences can be interpreted without reference to religious doctrines. ‘Sensing or feeling' that connection from a first person perspective can be experienced in meditation, contemplation, or many other sorts of activities - like yoga, tai chi, or walking in Nature, again without reference to religion. This doesn't mean that religion need be obsolete; it is the resistance to change that needs to be revisited.

As the 21st century unfolds, perhaps religions will undergo a radical shift: to become more hybrid in nature and flexible in narrative. In a previous post I noted that many people today seem to be ‘picking and choosing' from a variety of sources (religions as well as psychological frameworks) to enhance transcendent relationships and to develop an individual process of personal growth that cuts across specific organized systems (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/susan-smalley/stress-month-a-patchw...). The narratives that are told within religions (to survive) must be flexible and dynamic to change in time. An ancient Taoist teaching reveals the value of such flexibility in survival:

Green plants are tender and filled with sap. 
At their death they are withered and dry. Therefore the stiff and unbending is the way of death. 
The gentle and yielding is the way of life.

In our country - a largely Christian nation - it means examining the Bible with flexible open-minds, allowing fact to move to fiction but not throwing out the essence of a teaching. As I was pondering such a shift, someone gave me a book by Edward Edinger called Ego and Archetype. Edinger - a Jungian scholar - reframes Jesus Christ and his teachings from a Jungian perspective, shifting literal/physical interpretations to ones of a symbolism of the psyche. It is a simple yet elegant re-rendering of often purported ‘facts' (expressed in many church doctrines today) to fiction. But the key of the teachings remains intact and possibly strengthened. Another book I happened to read was Jesus for the non-religious by John Shelby Spong. Again, the teachings embodied by Jesus are elucidated for a 21st century mind without the rigid doctrine of traditional Christianity.

If we can be open to change in the narratives we tell then we will likely see the essence of religious teachings (be kind, treat others as you would yourself, etc.) grow and spread even more widely.

Most importantly, we may be able to enhance our own relationships (self to self, self to other, and self to ‘something larger than the self) in the process.

And that may lead to us to become increasingly wiser as individuals and as a species.


Susan L. Smalley, Ph.D., is a professor and behavior geneticist at UCLA Semel Institute and Founding Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).


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