The Religious Mind
Finding a Faith that Makes Sense
Posted October 8, 2013
Do you want to believe in God but can’t?
Do you believe in God, but wonder if you’re just fooling yourself?
You are not alone. Yet, you may still have a religious mind.
Religion began long ago, in distant memory. We find ritual objects in burial grounds and altars in prehistoric ruins. The ancients, without TV, a smart phone or Facebook, looked up at the stars every night, and saw meaning in the way the stars and planets moved. They felt their insignificance every day.
Death was easy…and yet life was a great blessing.
How Faith Began:
Fertility gods permeated the Fertile Crescent, from Babylon to Egypt, and beyond. People prayed for a good harvest. It was a matter of life and death. Rain meant the gods came through. Drought meant that they did not. Man, in turn, believed that if he pleased the gods, his belly would be full.
- Faith entered history by way of the stomach.
Since ancient times our Western kind of religion has evolved. The Monotheistic faiths started by Abraham (whether mythic or real, he serves as the beginning of a new era), meant that there was one unifying God in the universe, not simply competing deities. Prior to Monotheism, gods where more like supernatural kings, with sovereignty based on location or tribe.
Now, with Monotheism there came a Unified Field Theory of faith - One God for the whole world.
The Church, Synagogue & Mosque:
Institutions rose to represent God and His word. The notion that God gives and God takes remained central, and as shamans evolved to clergy, the fact remains that the Church, Synagogue or Mosque saw its function as helping their flock entice the good from God, and avoid punishment.
- The Church oversaw the invention of the hospital and some of the most sublime art and music ever created. It developed a system of faith that facilitated community and an awareness of the oppressed. There would be no Martin Luther King without his Church.
- The Synagogue focused pious Jews on God’s word, and the Talmud created a moral and legal code that to this day, stands as a bedrock upon which civilization understands right and wrong.
- The Mosque transformed the Middle Ages with its preservation of ancient thinking and with advances in science and the arts. Algebra gets its name from Arabic. And, Rumi’s poetry continues to inspire hundreds of years after his death.
These institutions have earned the right to be taken seriously, even in the modern world.
At their best, organized religion encourages love and community; at their worst, they revert back to tribal animosities, leaning toward my God is better than your God. There is a dark side to organized religion; a very dark side.
Faith Gone Bad:
When children are sexually abused by priests and the Church hides it in order to protect its own self interest, something has gone very wrong. The urge for self preservation comes before justice. This is the cancer of religious institutions. Survival trumps truth.
When a child molester is protected by the leadership of an Hassidic community (or a Jewish University) because of the wish to control what the outside world gets to know, self-preservation, once again trumps justice. This is more common than we would like to think; and it is dark.
And worst of all: When 62 people are killed by gunmen invading a shopping mall in Kenya, claiming God is Great, we are witnessing tribal conflict and a tribal god. No wonder modern people are turned off by religion when they hear about such atrocities in the name of God. Who needs it?
Getting Back to God:
Modern people are often turned off by what they hear about faith. So, let’s take a look at the facts.
- Guilt: If you feel guilty sometimes, it probably means that you’re healthy. Guilt is a human experience. Just because a religion claims that you feel guilty because your soul is out of touch with God, doesn’t mean it’s true.
- Meaning: The need for meaning is built into our DNA. To quote one of my favorite authors, Man is the only animal for whom his own existence is a problem which he has to solve. — Erich Fromm
- Idealization: The tendency to idealize others goes back to our childhood. We idealized our parents at some point; now we tend to idealize actors and celebrities. For centuries people have idealized clergy, who claim a connection to God. In 2013 it's a good idea to idealize carefully. Not everyone deserves it.
- Mentors: We all need mentors. The wish to get direction in a confusing world leads us to self help book, Psychology Today and until recently, to organized religion. Clergy are only now beginning to gain the skills necessary to provide professional pastoral counseling.
- Tragedy: There are moments in life that are filled with fear. And, we need ways to find solace, strength and a course of action. Divorce, cancer, an unhappy child, unemployment all hurt and who can’t identify with the Psalmist who asks for love in the throes of woe.
- Joy: Do you look at the world and find inspiration in a sunset or the sound of a child’s laugh? It’s there, everyday, if you are open to seeing it. You can thank God for your health or your beloved, or you can just be grateful.
- Magical Thinking: We all have vestiges of magical thinking in our minds. It comes from child development. It’s the thought that you can influence the Universe or be influenced in some magical way. Example: I didn’t get on that flight that crashed, there must be a reason. Maybe…or maybe not. This need to believe that the Universe is sending messages to you and you to it, has its source in childhood. It’s not a bad thing…it just is.
- Ritual: You don't have to have OCD to find ritual compelling. It's inherent in human nature. We have bedtime rituals, graduation rituals, wedding rituals, sporting rituals...and many private rituals. Some are inspired by religion, others by a need for meaning. When religious ritual works, it's one of the great human moments. But, understand that ritual has its wellspring in its humanness. God doesn't need ritual, we do.
- Extrasensory Experience: There are those who experience altered states of consciousness that lead them to sensing some knowledge of God. I don’t dismiss this quickly. I just wonder if human beings are capable of out-of-body states, which are then repackaged religiously. In other words, what's interpreted as spiritual, may really be psychological.
Finding Your God:
Religion has a special purpose for human beings; always had and always will. It’s truly meaningful when you own your participation in it, rather than doing it compulsively. The latter is about submitting to power, the former is about joining a great project out of love or respect.
Whatever your background may be, think about individuating from your faith, like a teenager distances from his or her parents. It's a natural part of development to question your upbringing in order to re-embrace it down the line, but this time from a position of maturation.
Or, walk away if it makes no sense. The key is to be active with one’s faith, not passive.
The Religious Mind:
Faith is a dance between the mind, spirit, and experience. As a child psychiatrist, I am intimately aware of the power of the mind and the value of our imagination. Most people think of the imagination as a passive trait, kind of sitting in a person’s skull as they think about painting or art. But, really, it is our interface with the best and the worst of the world.
Imagination opens the door to love. How could we love if we don’t imagine that he or she is special? Or career: our imagination gives us insight into what it might be like to be a teacher or doctor. How can you enjoy a movie if not for imagining that it is somehow real, if only for two hours? What invention—the plane, the car, or the computer—didn’t start with a spark of imagination?
- How can we encounter God, if we don’t open up our imagination to the beauty and complexity of sacred scripture and ritual?
Religion at its worst oppresses the mind towards institutions that need followers. It banks on coercion, guilt and the human need for comfort. Religion at its best understands and elevates the human project, by encouraging healthy values, productive guilt, meaningful solace, and a way to express gratitude for the blessings of this life.
You want faith and a religious community? There are four essential admission tickets.
- Individuation: The first admission ticket is your individuation. You must approach faith as an adult. Leaders are just people who can—and do—make real mistakes. Embrace your religious community with an appreciation for what they’re trying to do, while remaining critical when required.
- Imagination: The second admission ticket is to allow yourself to open up to a richer imagination, without being frightened that you’ll be abandoning your rational self at the same time. Bad religion diminishes the imagination, just telling you what to do and when to do it; or what to think or feel. Great religion sees you as a spiritual being grappling with the complexities of life, including a world in which it’s sometimes tough to perceive a Godly presence.
- Text Study: The third admission ticket is taking spiritual texts seriously. Whether you believe sacred literature originates from the Almighty or from Man, approach these timeless texts like they have something important to say to you today. Our ancestors had their problems and fears...and their take on God. You may agree or disagree, but be part of that conversation.
- Spiritual Practice: The fourth admission ticket is a spiritual practice. It may be going to services, starting a daily mediation or studying sacred texts with a knowledgeable partner. Allow yourself to experience ritual. Many faiths have rituals that reach deep inside our psyches to provide meaning and healing. Commit freely and without guilt. There is a power to showing up.
Wonder if God exists?
It’s your unique journey. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
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