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Unhealthy Religion - Can We Do Better?

The religious impulse to idealize – time to give it up

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts. -Bertrand Russell

To start, I have no beef with religion. I believe in beautiful prayers and good deeds. I believe that people benefit from a religious community that binds them in common service. Religious life offers wonderful leaders, but, what about those who fail us?

A cover up here, a sexual abuse scandal there; should we be surprised?

And, what about fundamentalists who can sometimes justify the horrific as holy? Without doubt, there's something profoundly gratifying - and destructive - about these faith experiences.

Some recent scandals:

  • In 2011, a spiritual teacher named Swami Prakashanand Saraswati was apparantly convicted of child molestation. It's reported that he skipped bail and fled the country.
  • In 2012, Nechemya Weberman, a respected Hasidic religious leader was found guilty of child sexual abuse. Many in his community still cannot believe that he's guilty.

What can we learn from so many falls from grace?

The Greatness of Religion:

Religious thinking has its inspiration in a connection to God or to the greatness of the universe. At its most basic, the religious impulse asks us to deal kindly with others, overcome our selfishness and create just communities.

Religious spirituality requires a fealty to God or the good, and not to self aggrandizement. The world is broken. Human beings assert power because that is what people do. But religion, in its purest form, asks that we do better.

  • The Bible tells us to take care of the poor and the widow. It demands that we reach out beyond our kin and take care of those in need. That’s revolutionary.
  • The Buddha tells us to center our minds – and that so much pain is a result of our own creation.
  • And, the ancient teaching of the Kabbalah claims that the world is a broken place, filled with sparks of Divine presence. According to this teaching, it’s up to each of us – each moment – to heal this place we inhabit.

These are teachings that raise us to greatness; a greatness that is available to each person.

The Danger of Idealization:

Our inspired teachers and prophets left a legacy to students and followers. In turn, some of these followers created religious institutions that were meant to advance many of the teachings we so greatly value.

But, here’s the rub. Whether it’s Catholicism, Judaism or Islam or even Buddhism, these institutions often become more important than the religion itself. We idealize our leaders and thinkers; and we pay a price.

We elevate priests, rabbis, pastors and our ancestors in a way that undermines the best that religion has to offer. We turn them into brighter, more holy, more pure, more insightful versions of human beings. And, by elevating our leaders, we are reassured that the institution they represent, is powerful too.

We idealize, and in turn, feel protected. We idealize, and in turn, feel safe.

At its best, idealization makes us feel protected.

And, at its worst, idealization can lead to the seduction of blind fundamentalism.

How Idealization Works:

It starts when we are babies – yes babies. We are so small and helpless and our parents are so big and powerful. We idealize their greatness and feel protected in turn. This is a natural part of child development.

When we hit adolescence, we see that our parents (and other adults) have clay feet. Some of us get cynical and annoyed. Yet, as we mature, we recognize that no one is perfect, but that we can learn from many.

Greatness by Proxy:

Unfortunately, we take childhood's idealization into adult life because it feels good. Think of it as greatness by proxy.

We look up to celebrities, athletes, rock stars and, sometimes the rich and famous. By taking interest in our local sports hero, we enjoy his success by proxy. His greatness becomes our greatness.

Religious institutions capitalize on this idealizing impulse. They can’t help it. The priest, the rabbi, the pastor, and the saint all become elevated, and in turn, we feel elevated by proxy. It feels good. All the feelings of being protected come back.

This protection comes with a price. As we elevate others, we actually belittle ourselves.

Religious development is like human development; where idealization has limited value and can be dangerous. It can deprive you of your own wrestling with God; or make you vulnerable to weak, and even fundamentalist leadership.

Bottom line: Consider developing faith as an adult, and not just as a dependent child.

Religious Leaders are People Too:

Each human being has a potential for greatness. It’s not in loud or famous actions. Rather, it’s in the small things that we do to repair a broken world.

We should admire people who do important things on a big stage; but remember that we too can change the human condition. Bring the power of change back home. It is a spiritual good.

Healthy Faith:

Religion is not a bad thing. Many intellectuals will tell you that terrible things have happened in the name of religion; and therefore it’s to be rejected. I beg to differ.

We need to grow past a middle school faith that depends exclusively on idealization. It gives power to institutions that are better off without it. Adult faith recognizes that we are all on a journey of faith. We are all challenged by human selfishness and greed. And, our leaders are peers on a journey to healing just like us.

  • Don’t reject religion. Reject an infantile religion; one that denies your adulthood..
  • Our religious leaders do good things in this world - and, they’re all too human.
  • Religion is not meant to close down the independent thinking power of your mind. That's a version of fundamentalism; and it's not healthy.

Allow yourself the adult honor of finding your greatness in the world. See how you can make the world a better

place; even if no one knows.

Greatness is there for all of us – however imperfect.

As I see it, a flawed saint is the only saint that I can really understand.


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