When I speak with groups of parents or educators about the "self-esteem trap"—about kids' obsessive self-concern, unreadiness to engage in adult life, restless dissatisfaction, and desire for celebrity and wealth—several recurrent themes appear. First are worries about the absence of meaning and purpose in their children's lives. Usually, they say something like "I don't know how to convey spirituality to my kids." Or, "It seems as though our children have lost a feeling for moral integrity; they don't know why they shouldn't lie or cheat or steal if those actions are not immediately harmful to someone they personally know."
Why should we be surprised that children feel this way? Many of their parents—especially the best educated ones—live their lives without a sense of mystery or awe about how and why we happen to be here on this planet spinning in space. And they raise their children with the same attitude. Some are nominally involved in a church or synagogue. Usually they say, "Even though I don't really believe in my religion anymore, I think I should take my kids to church/temple so they can make their own choice when they grow up." When I see young adults in psychotherapy who came of age amid such ambivalent or tepid religious practices, I find they are not impressed with their parents' "open-mindedness." In most cases, the parents either have no clear religious beliefs, or they're exploring Eastern religions and New Age spirituality without the daily time-consuming activities of devotion or contemplation or meditation that sincere religious practice requires. Many educated parents don't give priority to such activities.
In fact, in most privileged American communities, the shopping mall is the only unifying "religious institution." Malls are where families and children gather to refresh their sense of wonder at what life has to offer and to buy the things that best express who they are and what they value. However little we may intend it, we bring up our children to worship at the altar of consumerism—whether they learn how to buy things, how to game the system so they can live with very little, or how to get what they want for less. Regardless, the roots of their values seem to be materialistic or just vaguely spiritual.
For centuries, religions played an integral role in human life. They were a source of rules to live by, guides to the discovery of meaning and purpose, and a shared context for the practice of reverence. For all they did wrong or badly—and there was plenty—they encouraged us to regard our lives with reverence and to ask: "Why are we here? What is human life about? What is our role in the cosmos?" By contrast, secular materialism seems to encourage us to feel we have things "all wrapped up."
When religion is alive and healthy, children grow up in a social environment that inculcates respect for human existence and the mystery of life—for a fascination or freshness that never leaves our side. In the absence of religion, there is little to challenge our children about the meaning of their lives. Comfortable and secure, they seem to believe that their lives are supposed to be about themselves alone: about having a good time, achieving, raising a family of their own, and making money. Becoming a celebrity may be their most exalted goal. Children of previous generations, on the other hand, were taught that life was not theirs to squander. It had to have a larger purpose. And you had to find that purpose in order to be okay. Fame for its own sake simply made no sense.
Before you tune out and look for something happier or sexier to read, please hear me out. I am not overlooking the significant presence of religious fundamentalism in our era (or its dogmatic positions on marriage, birth control, abortion and immigration); nor am I demeaning the scientific, philosophical or ethical developments of the last half-century or more. I have a great respect for science and scientific research, and draw liberally on its findings in all of the work I do, but I regard science as a method of investigation—not as a set of guiding principles for living. Indeed, I believe we have to look beyond science in order to connect with that which makes our lives purposeful and deeply meaningful. Although educated people may hope that science will eventually settle the debates about how we can best find meaning in our lives, the aims and practices of science are only distorted if we demand they provide the kind of personal meaning and guidance that traditionally have come from religion.
By the same token, the general shift away from organized religion towards a freer-styled "spirituality" has left some equally large and disturbing gaps. They include, but are not limited to (1) diminished emphasis on shared notions of virtue and conscience; (2) lack of a larger, social sense of purpose and meaning; (3) confusion and anxiety about how to face and embrace our aging, diminishment, and death; and (4) a lack of reverence for life itself. These same gaps create large-scale distress in family functioning, parenting, and character development.
Instead of relying on science or spirituality to resolve our problems, we might fare better if we focused freshly on religion and religious attitudes. Some of you may have long since rejected religion, especially in its organized forms, because of the divisiveness it has brought to individuals and the world. Historically—-and today as well—religions have sometimes positioned their ideals in a way that encouraged adherents to measure themselves and judge others by standards that undermine our common humanity. When religion, intentionally or unintentionally, reduces our compassion for and connection with others, it leads to destructive outcomes (of which we have countless examples from the past and present alike). Perhaps this has been one of the attractions of New Age spirituality, with its less rigorous and insistent attitude toward consensus and shared beliefs. But again: Is it not possible to practice religion while avoiding its negative effects?
I first read the psychoanalyst Carl Jung's lectures on religion and psychology in the early 1980s. In these lectures, delivered at Yale University in 1937, Jung shows why religious seeking is a natural condition of human beings. He asks the question "What is the original religious experience?" and answers by expanding on the definition of the Latin root religio, which he defines as:
"A careful consideration and observation of certain dynamic factors, understood to be ‘powers,' spirits, demons, gods, laws, ideas, ideals, or whatever name man has given to such factors as he has found. . .powerful, dangerous...or helpful enough to be taken into careful consideration, or grand, beautiful...and meaningful enough to be devoutly adored and loved" (1938: 5).
Jung's account is inclusive, encompassing any practice that stems from awe or reverence and to which we give careful consideration and study—that which is grand and beautiful in such a way that we take it seriously. Wanting to know what is real at a deeper level motivates human beings to turn to religion. Like science, religion answers questions about power, meaning and the connections that underpin our lives. But it also focuses us on the ethical, moral, relational and devotional practices that people have used to explore the spiritual depths of their everyday lives—and to understand how to live, be of service, know the truth, and sustain hope in the midst of the ordinary and extraordinary adversity and misery of life.
While I do not know what specific steps we might take to renew religion and its core practices, I believe we need it in some form or another. For centuries, human beings have practiced religion by devoting themselves to the everyday business of living productively and happily with themselves and with their communities, and in so doing staying in contact with reverence and awe in ways that are shared and transformative. How can we refresh these practices in ways that decrease their destructive potentials? Perhaps we can begin with the recognition that we need religion for our spiritual development and that religion requires compassionate, connected spiritual development to exist in its truest form.
For my own part, practicing Buddhism (especially Western Buddhism in the forms of Zen and Vipassana) since 1971 has brought me a framework of reverence for life and death, as well as an enthusiastic ability to live my everyday life with its suffering and happiness. You may regard Buddhism as something other than religion, but it is, in fact, a religion—one new to Western cultures and thus less laden with our own political and cultural baggage. I'm not here to proselytize, only to point out the virtues of truly religious practices, one of which—perhaps confusing for those who understand little about meditation or Buddhism—is that its practitioners are never bored and seldom without a deep sense of wonder. I sometimes find myself comparing engaged, mindful living, as cultivated in practices of concentration and relaxation, with the tendency of many of today's young adults and children to say quickly and regularly, "I'm bored" when not staring at a screen, large or small. We seem to be facing some cultural dilemmas about our collective experience of deeper purpose and meaning in our lives. Obviously, my subtitle refers to the 1991 REM song, "Losing My Religion." I want to leave you with a stanza from that classic song and an invitation to think about the future of religion.
That's me in the corner
That's me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep a view
And I don't know if I can do it
Oh no, I've said too much
I haven't said enough.