How to Choose a Religion IV: Common Pitfalls: Community, Fear

If you read the summary of this series available at Shift Your Spirits, you saw the list of ways you should not choose your religion:

DON’T choose your religion based on details like food.

A ritual is participatory drama. If the drama speaks to you, resonates with you, it’s a good ritual. If it provides yummy calories, that’s completely incidental.

DON’T choose your religion based on convenience.

Life isn’t supposed to be “convenient”, and a convenient religion is one that doesn’t challenge you enough.

DON’T choose your religion based soley on your community.

If you’re becoming a Christian (or Satanist, or Buddhist) to make your parents happy, you’re just doing it for them, not for you.

DON’T choose your religion based on spite.

If you are becoming a Satanist (or Christian, or Buddhist) to make your parents angry, you’re still doing it for them, not for you.

DON’T choose your religion based on fear.

“If you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re going to hell!”
“If you don’t believe in Santa Claus, you won’t get any presents!”
Grow up, people.

DON’T choose your religion based on guilt.

You can’t reach the kingdom of heaven if you’re standing there kicking yourself.


Don’t choose your religion based on the search for “truth.”

It’s a noble purpose, but it’s a red herring.

In this post I’m going to look at a couple of these in a little more depth.



Don’t get me wrong — community is one of the great reasons to join a religion, as I pointed out before. Community is an integral part of any religion. But choosing a religion in order to join that religion’s community is not a good idea.

It’s very common for a husband or wife to switch religions in order to please their spouse. This is a terrible idea — unless the person who is switching isn’t particularly attached to their original religion. In this case, the person isn’t really switching religions so much as switching labels. There’s nothing wrong with that, except insofar as you are saying you are religious when you’re really not. If you were really religious, you would be unable to switch just to please someone else.

People descended from European colonizers frequently find themselves attracted to indigenous religions. (I’m one of those myself.) One must be careful not to confuse the desire to adopt a belief with the desire to be adopted by a community of believers. Descendents of colonists may find themselves respulsed by the actions of their ancestors (with good reason), and feel shame themselves (perhaps with reason), and hope (consciously or not) that by joining a community of indigenous people, they can assauge their guilt. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.


I am amazed at how powerful the fear of hell is. I have had full-grown, thoughtful adults tell me in all seriousness that their belief in Christianity is completely logical, with this reasoning:

1. If Christianity is wrong, and you believe anyway, then when you die, at worst you feel a little embarrassed. If you don’t believe, then nothing bad happens in any case.
2. If Christianity is right, and you don’t believe it, then you go to hell. But if you do believe it, you go to heaven.


This reasoning betrays a complete misunderstanding not only of religion, but of Christianity itself. Christianity, in its best form, is about love and selflessness; if you are a true Christian, I venture to say, you would love God and Jesus even if your reward were eternal punishment. The love itself is its own heaven on Earth, or wherever else you happen to be. Choice of religion is not like picking a stock or an investment; it isn’t a decision you make just with your head.

There are other fears that can drive one to a religion — fear of being rejected by a community or a loved one (see above), fear of the alternatives (what if all the others are worse?), and simply the fear of being wrong (this can be what drives people to atheism or, worse, agnosticism).

Any decision based on fear is one that will eventually have very unpleasant consequences. Make your choice from a position of strength and courage.

The Search for Truth.

Arguments about Christianity (and, to a lesser extent, other religions) often revolve around whether the religion is true or not. Is it true that Jesus was the son of God? Is it true that his was a virgin birth? Is it true that the universe came into being about 6000 years ago? Is it true that Jesus conspired with Judas to orchestrate his own death (as it states in the newly-unearthed Gospel of Judas)? Is it true that you’ll go to hell if you don’t believe these things? Is it true that all earthly life is essentially bound up with suffering? Is it true that you are sent straight to heaven if you die fighting infidels? Is it true that the first man was formed by a rabbit playing with a blood clot?

The answer to these questions is, of course, yes. But this post is already too long, so I’ll have to explain myself in the next post.

Links to other Posts in this series: How to Choose a Religion I: Intro

36 responses to “How to Choose a Religion IV: Common Pitfalls: Community, Fear”

  1. I would have to agree that you shouldn’t join a religion just because you want to be a part of that particular community. The “sense” of community takes time to foster and grows as you come to understand it through learning its teachings, getting involved and meeting those already involved. A community of people, no matter what religion, looks great when looking in from the outside, because the connection between members shines brightly.

    If someone were to see those connections and decide to join without learning anything about a particular group, it would be like diving head first into murky waters and not knowing what you were going to hit on the bottom. As we can imagine, it would not end as a pleasant experience.

    I have been enjoying this series of posts. Thank you for them and I look forward to your next one.


  2. Thanks, Sojourner. The issue of community is definitely a huge one, and it deserves a lot more space than I devoted to it here. Part of the problem these days is that so many people lack a sense of community with those around them, and they look to religious groups to provide that. But in many cases, of course, the religion itself is not a good fit for the person. I’m currently in the process of joining a religious community myself (for the right reasons, I hope), so I’m sure you’ll see more on that topic here in the future.


  3. I, too, am in the process of joining a religious community, which is why I found this topic so interesting. You brought up some good points and made me think more deeply about my decision.

    Am I joining because of the sense of community?
    Would I fit better in another church or religious community?
    What do I like/dislike about the church that I am joining?

    I would like to say that I am making the right deccision of joining this particular community, but that is why I am taking it slow and getting to know the people and the philosophies of the church. I want to make the final decision with my whole understanding.


  4. Did I read correctly on your site that you’re attending a Universalist Unitarian church? I have visited only a few of those, but they have all been very welcoming and warm. I remember one gathering in particular, in which the youth group of the church performed a series of skits from Python’s “Life of Brian” and sang songs for the congregation, one of which was a version of “Old Time Religion” which you can find here:
    All great fun.
    I suspect that the makeup and character of UU congregations will be different in different towns. The one up in Peterborough, NH is very heavily Wiccan, but I doubt that was the case in the congregation I visited 20 years ago in Greensboro, NC.
    Here’s a question for you, if I may: since the UU philosophy is very simple and vague (this is not a criticism — it has to simple and vague, to be sufficiently all-emcompassing), and you already agree with the few tenets that exist, are you really choosing a religion? Or are you choosing a congregation?


  5. Good questions. I would say that I am choosing neither. I don’t really see UUism as a religion but more of a philosophy and I’m not choosing it because of the congregation. It is a philosophy that can be incorporated into my current beliefs, similar to how the philosophies of the AODA can be incorporated into other belief systems. (I spent a few hours on their site and found out that while many people incorporate Druidry into their religious systems, some practice it more as an Art. That was my paraphrasing of something I saw on their website. Unfortunately, I don’t remember what page.)

    The reason why I say that it is not because of the congregation, is that I tend to learn and read a lot about something before I commit myself to anything. I tend to participate in activities of different groups before I am an official member. And I don’t join anything because certain people are a part of said group/activities. If I like what I learn in the end, and I feel that there is benefit for both the group and myself by my participation, then I will join. This goes for any group that I have joined.

    I am currently in the process of trying to decide if joining the UU community is something that I want to commit myself to. Will the sense of community sway my decision to join? Maybe, but because there are so many other things that will play into my decision that I will not be able to say (for sure) “this is *the* reason that I joined.” However, I will be able to say, “These are the reasons that I joined.”

    As to the make-up of the churches – While I can only mention what I have noticed by attending 5 different locations (across three different states, scattered out over about 10 years), each one seems to be a different mix of philosophies depending on the congragation. The one I attended in the south, was more Christian based and the ones that I have been to in WI and MN were more a mix of traditions. I have noticed that UUs are not afraid about mixing pop culture into their services, such as your example of MP.

    I realize that this is getting rather long, so I will stop my answer here. But feel free to ask more questions if I didn’t quite answer your question or if you have more.

    However, I would like to ask one thing before I end. Would you be willing to explain more about your choice of Driudry and the AODA? Is it because of religious choice or sense of community?


  6. From what I can tell, you’re certainly right about Druidry being practiced both as a religion and as an Art. There are even a reasonable number of Christian druids, who practice something not too far distant from the religion of the recently-converted peoples of the British Isles in the early Middle Ages.

    The difference between a religion and a philosophy is extremely slippery. Everyone agrees that Christianity is a religion, and everyone agrees that existentialism is a philosophy, but when you start talking about Zen Buddhism and Pythagoras things get tricky. All of them are “systems of belief” in the sense of “a set of interrelated propositions that you believe”; and you may have various reasons for believing these propositions (you may have personal experience, you may have read about scientific experiments, they may simply “feel right”, etc.). For the purpose of this series of articles, I’ve chosen to call all systems of belief “religions” — even scientific theories. But these are just labels, anyway.

    Personally I think you’d be nuts if the sense of community in the UU congregation did NOT sway your decision. (Did that sentence make sense?) Let me put it another way: I think you are absolutely right in allowing the sense of community to sway your decision. If there were no sense of community there, or an unhealthy one, it would be bad to join, no matter what their beliefs are. (You could still adopt the philosophy, though.) And a great community should sway your decision positively. But as you say, it should not be the ONLY factor, or, I think, the most important one.

    As for why I chose druidry, I think that will become clear as these “How to Choose a Religion” posts go on. Part of the answer appears in the posts on “The Mist-Filled Path” ( Since I didn’t personally know any druids at the time I made the choice, it was not a choice based on community. 🙂 The short answer is that I picked up John Michael Greer’s book on Druidry and knew immediately that it was what I’d been looking for without knowing I was even on a search. The AODA is Greer’s organization, but there are no members that live near me. I have just recently joined another druid order, which does have members nearby, and I’ll be writing about that soon.


  7. I agree that there is the fine line between some definitions of religion and philosophy, as you implied. (Buddhism was one of the things that I thought about when I wrote my last reply.)

    Having looked at the AODA website, I must say that it intrigues me. I was thinking about picking up JMG’s book to learn more about the training process.

    Looking forward to what you have to say in future posts.


  8. One more thing – thanks for the Gastblogschaft.


  9. High praise! Your are quite the Gastblogschaftler yourself!


  10. I’m very sad that I was so late in joining this conversation! First, I really enjoyed the post – I was particularly impressed with your expression of Pascal’s Wager. In regards to Truth, if I might borrow a bit from Eastern perspectives, I think the Way is more important to search for. Many argue that the Truth doesn’t even exist, while others argue that all religions are simply different paths to the same Truth…the only thing I think can be said without argument is that there are many Ways, or paths. If you are looking to join a community, or even adopt a new religious perspective, it should be the path itself, rather than the perceived destination that guides the decision.

    Jeff, I also agree with your decision to consider belief systems as religions, and that you include scientific theories in this is particularly perceptive. Science, with its foundation in mathematics, is at its core every bit as abstract as religion. Even the ability to reproduce consistent results, which is supposed to set science above belief, starts to fail at the quantum level. Language seems to be about the greatest separation between the two, when all is said and done, and even that barrier is starting to fall in places.

    As for community, I have not joined a community in the religious sense. I have been thus far content with my general, local community…my beliefs guide how I interact with my community, which makes that interaction as religious as I need it to be. The rest of my religious life (excepting my blog, of course) and perspectives are private and public at the same time. When I dedicated myself to the service of Njord, I was in full view of the public on the coast of the North Sea…yet my guess is that none of them had a clue as to the meaning or reason behind anything I did there. I’ve made sacrifices of mead to gods, wights and ancestors on the banks of the Weser river, also in plain view of the public…my guess is that all they could tell was that I was pouring perfectly good mead into the river. Same goes for my burying of eggs for Eostre, etc.

    For me to change this would require a belief that doing so would be a better way for me, or for my community.


  11. Bernulf,

    Regarding Truth vs. Ways: I couldn’t agree more. There is a Chinese saying: one should be Confucian when times are good, Buddhist when times are bad, and Taoist when one is old. Climbing the mountain of spirit, different religions will do better over different terrain.

    Regarding Science vs. Religion: I think the “failure” of science (i.e. its failure to be more reliable than religion as a method to find truth) is even more basic. Science does, in fact, produce extremely consistent results at the quantum level; the probabilities can be predicted with great precision. The problem is in the definition of “reproducible”. In order for science to work, a given experiment has to be reproduced multiple times across a community of scientists. But why is a community of people any more or less reliable than an individual in the search for truth? As Sting said, “Men go crazy in congregations, but they only get better one by one.” Of course, Sting was talking about religion, not science; but it’s true of both.

    Regarding Community: It sounds like you don’t have a community of people nearby who share your beliefs. If there were, would you join it? Despite what I say above, not everyone is called to a community of believers; they find it’s easier to listen to Spirit when they’re far away from other voices. Are you public enough that the people in your general, local community know about your beliefs? In general, I think that increasing public religious diversity is good for everyone, but your circumstances may preclude that.


  12. I like the Chinese saying you employ here 🙂

    Regarding the failure of consistency at the quantum level, it’s the lack of consistency (the Uncertainty Principle, which trumped Laplace’s scientific determinism) that led Heisenberg, Dirac and Schroedinger to create quantum mechanics. I’ll quote part of Stephen Hawking’s description of quantum mechanics, from his book, “A Briefer History of Time:” “One of the revolutionary properties of quantum mechanics is that it does not predict a single definite result for an observation. Instead, it predicts a number of different possible outcomes and tells us how likely each of these is.” [1] I agree fully with your assessment of reliability – the reliability of a community can be no greater than the absolute reliability of any one of its members, while its potential for unreliability increases perpetually with the sum of its members.

    Regarding people living nearby who share my beliefs, I can’t say I’ve gone out of my way to look much past my wife. Sharing my beliefs, however, is not one of my criteria for what I’m willing to call ‘community’, any more than I would use that as criteria for determining ‘family’. For me at least, where I’m best able to attune to my gods and ancestors plays no part in my definition of community – it’s like Nature, which can be found in the darkest heart of any sprawling metropolis by those who are close enough to Nature to recognize it when they see it. As for how public I am, I’d say I’m public enough that if anyone came up and asked me about my beliefs, I’d be more than willing to discuss them – but one of the things about living in Germany is that the chances of someone approaching you and asking you about your religious beliefs are pretty slim. I’ve lived here for nearly three years, and I’ve been asked once. My wife has lived here for all but six years of her life, and she’s shocked that I was asked at all. I wear some pretty obvious symbols of my faith, along with tattoos that mark me as the non-Christian variety, people around here (even if curious) are simply too reserved to ask as it’s seen as being rude and intrusive. Quite a change from living in the American Midwest 😉


  13. Sorry for forgetting to add the footnote in my previous comment:

    [1] Hawking, Stephen, “A Briefer History of Time” (London: Bantam Press, 2005) 92


  14. Hi Bernulf,

    Regarding quantum mechanics: I think we’re in agreement about the way quantum mechanics works, but we might be in disagreement about whether that constitutes a failure for science. Certainly for a given experiment on a small number of particles at the quantum level, the results are unpredictable. In that sense, the scientific method has failed. But over a large enough set of experiments, or a large enough set of particles, the results are predictable; so in that sense, science has succeeded. Personally I don’t regard it as a failure for science, but I can certainly see the other viewpoint.

    Regarding publicity: I grew up in the American South, in a community where anyone who wasn’t Baptist was a little suspicious. I was essentially raised Zen, so I’ve spent most of my life in communities where my beliefs are not shared. After I left home I’ve spent most of my time in the cities along the eastern seaboard, where things are more like your description of Germany. It’s been a nice change, but now that I have children, something is telling me that joining a religious community will be valuable for them.


  15. I can understand your call to a community – having children can change a lot of things in someone’s life. And after reading your last comment, I think our disagreement is more a matter of misunderstanding: I’m not suggesting that quantum mechanics represents the failure of science, or even that science has failed. In my original comment, I was trying to point out that the consistent reproduction of results was one of the things that was supposed to set science above belief, and that this has failed at the quantum level, not science itself. I’m actually pro-science (it would be stupid of me to hang out on the Internet and not be); but I don’t consider science to be more reliable than religion, despite the scientific method. What I was trying to express was that the two are not separated by a matter of consistent reproducibility, as many tend to think, but more by language. Does that make more sense?


  16. Yes, I think so. When you say “separated by langauge”, do you mean that the similarities between the two disciplines are hidden by differing terminology?


  17. Yes – I tend to think so. Science focuses itself on fact, where religion is centered more on finding ways to the (or a) Truth…the differences just between fact and truth are a pretty narrow matter, when looking their meanings up in a dictionary, yet the perceived distances between them can be pretty staggering. It was once my belief that science and religion were in diametric opposition, each trying to get to the center; but the more I studied modern physics along with cosmology in Heathen lore, the more I started to notice that there were some real similarities, the only differences being modes of expression. Here is something you might find interesting, stanza 38 of one of our poems, Grimnismol, over a thousand years old:

    “In front of the sun | does Svalin stand,
    The shield for the shining god;
    Mountains and sea | would be set in flames
    If it fell from before the sun.”

    Science tells us about what is essentially the same thing, but called the upper atmosphere.

    I think that differing terminology plays a big part in concealing any similarities between religion and science…I think the other big part is played by scientists and religious leaders who have in many cases been too proud, and too sure of their approach, to admit to any similarities. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy reading about particle physics so much – where we are told that everything is nothing more than an arrangement of energy, and that this energy can be changed, but never destroyed. It’s where I think science and religion start to overcome their differences the most.

    Your perspective on this, as a linguist, a religious man, and a man who is obviously familiar with modern science, would be most interesting 🙂


  18. Your comment put me in mind of Poul Anderson’s essay, “Uncleftish Beholding”, an attempt to describe atomic theory in an “alternate English” — i.e. without using roots of Greek or Latin origin. Have you seen it? Instead of limiting himself to Germanic English words, he “translates” the Greek or Latin words into new English words which employ the same underlying metaphor. For example, instead of saying “hydrogen”, he calls it “waterstuff”. (You’ll notice the similarity to modern German there.) For me, the effect of this is to lay bare the metaphorical nature of scientific discourse. Science, like religion, like almost any human enterprise, is dependent on a stack of interrelated metaphors that give (the illusion of?) understanding. See what you think.

    Here’s a place I found it online:

    And here’s the first few paragraphs, for a taste:

    For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made
    of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began
    to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that
    watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life.

    The underlying kinds of stuff are the *firststuffs*, which link
    together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly we
    knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and
    barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such
    as aegirstuff and helstuff.

    The firststuffs have their being as motes called *unclefts*.
    These are mightly small; one seedweight of waterstuff holds a
    tale of them like unto two followed by twenty-two naughts. Most
    unclefts link together to make what are called *bulkbits*. Thus,
    the waterstuff bulkbit bestands of two waterstuff unclefts, the
    sourstuff bulkbit of two sourstuff unclefts, and so on. (Some
    kinds, such as sunstuff, keep alone; others, such as iron, cling
    together in ices when in the fast standing; and there are yet
    more yokeways.) When unlike clefts link in a bulkbit, they make
    *bindings*. Thus, water is a binding of two waterstuff unclefts
    with one sourstuff uncleft, while a bulkbit of one of the
    forestuffs making up flesh may have a thousand thousand or more
    unclefts of these two firststuffs together with coalstuff and


  19. Jeff, thank you so much for providing a link to that essay!! I haven’t read it, but the ‘teaser’ you were kind enough to provide guarantees that I will do so soon. And the similarity to German is definitely to be seen. What you said about the tendency toward metaphoric expression reminded me that in a number of religions around the world, tremendous influence has been placed on the power of words and the ability to create them. Writing, poetry – communication – these are holy things, not to be taken for granted. You’ve given me quite a bit to think about, and for that I thank you 🙂


  20. Choosing a religion may resemble choosing a mate: in that the chosen one doesn’t necessarily “choose” you back!

    About twenty years ago (as I recall) the NEW YORK TIMES Sunday magazine had an article about a man in New Jersey who (through a gradual of religion-exploration) eventually became convinced that Zoroastrian was *the* religion for him. However, it seems that Zoroastrianism has two denominations, only one of which allows people to convert to it … and the convert-accepting group practiced a Zoroastrianism that he couldn’t agree with (very “modernized, Americanized” and so on, I believe the article said: the things in Zoroastrianism that spoke most deeply and clearly to his spirit, the convert-accepting group regarded as regrettable outworn superstitions, corruptions, ridiculously “old-country,” and what-not).

    One supposes that, with traditional Zoroastrianism irresistably calling to him (yet barring the gates when he arrived!), he could have either practiced it on his own or started up a third group (which would have agreed entirely with the traditionalists except on the matter of conversion). However, he did not believe that his spiritual call allowed for either of these choices. He believed very strongly that his spirit needed him to convert to traditional Zoroastrianism under the auspices of a traditional group, and to practice his faith within and as part of that community, instead of starting some other group or doing it all on his own. And I have known people in similar situations with regard to other religions better known in the USA: e.g., within those Christian and Jewish groups that do not ordain women as clerics, some women believe very firmly that God has called them to become clerics and that he has told them very specifically to become ordained clerics within the sect they belong to — not necessarily the sect they grew up in! — rather than conveniently switching to some other sect that ordains women. (Some of the Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox Jewish, or other women in this situation have stated that, when they asked God the obvious question — “So just how do I become a cleric of Religion XYZ when Religion XYZ forbids women to become clerics?” — God has answered along the lines of “That’s your problem. Make it happen.”)

    I have seen similar problems (of believing that the spirit requires a particular religious choice that the real world does not make possible) in other situations, too: in some recent cases, devout Catholics (born so or converted) have left the Catholic Church because it turned out that they and/or their children had severe celiac disease of an intensity which forbids the consumption of even minuscule amounts of wheat products (a problem for Catholics because Church law requires making the Eucharist out of wheat). The people who have left Catholicism because of severe celiac disease include at least one priest: who apparently believes that Catholicism is true, Catholicism is necessary, and (for him) Catholicism is inaccessible.


  21. Kate, those are sad cases! In my experience, though, Spirit doesn’t just issue a command and say “Deal with it.” Working with Spirit, meeting it halfway, you’ll find that doors start to open and walls start to crack. Again, though — that’s just my experience.


  22. I don’t know whether the people who get messages like “Become a female cleric in a no-female-clerics religion” do or don’t find “walls starting to crack”: I’ll assume that at least some of them do (because a couple of the Jewish and Christian groups that used to have no female clerics now do have female clerics.) However, I know from personal experience/friendships that at least a few people who get “Do this! How? That’s your problem” messages (not necessarily about the same issue, but in any case from some inner/intuitive source that they have seen very good reasons to trust) and who try their darnedest to “work with it … meet it halfway” as you said, do (in at least some cases) find the demands non-negotiable and leaving them “stuck.”

    Hypothetical example — so as not to mess with anyone’s privacy by giving real details of real examples: a person we’ll call “Suzy Seeker” has a strong, compelling “experience with spirit” in which Suzy perceives the entity as /a/ giving her much unexpected advice which proves very, very sound in the real world, /b/ making several requests which Suzy finds she can and does meet … BUT, /c/ among other unexpected requests, the spirit drops in this one, definitely not fulfillable in our own place and time century: ” … and at least once every year you must obtain a half-pound of mammoth-meat and [burn it to ashes /give it to the poor / eat it yourself] … ”

    — just what extinct/unavailable item, just what to do with the extinct item, how often, etc. doesn’t matter [so I’ve disguised details] , given the non-existence or other absolute non-availability of this item —

    ” … yes, Suzy, I know it no longer exists but it’s non-negotiable for you, because if you don’t do this, you’ll be sorry … “:

    NOT said/perceived in any vindictive sense (no “well, FIND some mammoth-burgers or Thou Art Damned!” vibe, etc.),

    but coming across “more like a prescription or tech-support,” (as “Suzy” put it) — where you don’t get to make substitutions because the substitutions/equivalents wouldn’t work: “To cure scurvy, we’ll need a source of Vitamin C” … “To get this computer onto the Internet, we’ll need to install ________ ” — that sort of thing: if you call a doctor and the doctor says you need Vitamin C, you look like a fool (and insult your doctor) if you try to negotiate for permission to add some other vitamin instead, or to just meditate on a picture of a Vitamin C source if for some reason you can’t get to the real thing.


  23. There is a saying in the psychic community; it goes something like this: “Just because your Aunt Mabel is dead, doesn’t mean she’s suddenly a financial expert.” In other words, not all spirit entities are reliable in all circumstances. Don’t ask your passed-on Aunt for stock market advice…

    All I can say is that if a guide of mine gave me a message like that, I’d head over to another guide for a second opinion. 🙂 (For example, Loki called me an idiot, but I didn’t believe him.)


  24. I entirely agree with you that, if I got a “message from the Great Beyond” (or some such) commanding me to do the physically impossible … or even the VERY seriously questionable and destructive …

    (“Attention, Kate: This is Odin. Prove your courage and worth by robbing three banks … “)

    … I certainly would ask for other opinions from any supernatural sources I might have the good fortune to know (and 99.9999999% certainly also from human folks who matter to me).

    Of course, not everybody HAS the good fortune to have reliable contact with a supernatural guide s/he can contact (I, for one, cannot claim to have succeeded in contacting any), so the person who gets “out of the blue” an impossible or otherwise very questionable message may not have gotten a message before, and may have no expectation of getting a message ever again just because she seeks a second opinion. (When Loki called you an idiot, you had others of his kind to talk it over with. What if none but Loki — or none but a mammothburger-demanding “whatever” — had EVER talked to you from the “Great Beyond”?)


  25. Then I hope I’d have enough sense to ignore him! 🙂


  26. Of course … and if only one non-human entity has ever talked to you, and its messages definitely demand “the good sense to ignore them” (as you say), this may practically force you to believe either /a/ that “no non-human intelligence exists — it’s just my own imagination” or /b/ “non-human intelligence exists, but I’d better not listen to it” …



  27. Unfortunately, Kate, I think both (a) and (b) will tend to make it less likely that one would ever get a constructive message from Beyond. 🙂 If you aren’t listening, you definitely won’t hear anything… except of course what you think is coming from your own head.

    Have you read any Terry Pratchett? I think you’d like his stuff a lot. I’m reminded of one of his characters, Gaspode, a talking dog. Everyone knows dogs can’t talk, so whenever he says anything, people think his words are their own thoughts. He tends to say a lot of things like “What a sweet little doggie! I think he’d like a nice sausage!!”


  28. I have indeed read some Terry Pratchett (not the one with Gaspode, yet) and intend to read more.

    Gaspode’s experiences, by the way, tend to often occur to people with visible physical disabilities (e.g., blind folks or wheelchair-users). Someone blind, or someone in a wheelchair, who tries to buy things in a store, order in a restaurant, etc., often gets ignored as the staffer turns to the nearest able-bodied person and asks “What would HE like?”(pointing to the person ignored) — when the wheelchair-user/blind person responds by saying “I would like your Deli Salad Special,” or whatever, the staffer then asks someone else: “So would he like it with the fries or with the potato salad?”…
    and on and on, throughout the time in the restaurant or wherever (the staffer hears the customer talking, but responds from a firm if unacknowledged subconscious belief that “cripples/blind people can’t talk” … if you don’t believe me, ask anyone who has spent much time in a wheelchair/with a cane or Seeing Eye Dog.

    In fact, I have sometimes seen staffers, when dealing with blind folks, bend down and address THE SEEING EYE DOG … and continue to do so, even after the owner, not the dog of course, responds. This might vastly amuse and interest Gaspode or his creator, whom I do not know how to reach.)

    Although I have no visible physical disability, I do get similar responses (or non-responses) from some folks who know that I have a neurological disability. About two years ago, when a mother phoned me about possibly working with her daughter, during the phone conversation the caller said: “While we’re talking here, I’ve been reading your web-site and I see you mention you have a couple of neurological disabilities. I need to know if you are able to talk.”

    “Excuse me?” I responded (thinking perhaps that she needed me to speak at some sort of event in addition to working with her child).

    She responded: “Well, you know — talk, speak: communicate by making sounds with your mouth. So that you can communicate with my daughter when you meet her … are you physically and mentally able to use language and talk and so forth.”

    Stunned, I replied only: “We’ve _been_ talking.” She acted flustered, accused me of “rudeness” in response to a “simple and obvious question,” hung up the phone, and never called back … so I lost that client (and I have lost a couple of others).

    In a similar vein: not too long ago, I had an e-mail pal who for physical/neurological reasons cannot utter sounds. At one point, his parents hired a psychic to accompany him and “please tell us what our dear boy is thinking” … since he couldn’t speak, he couldn’t tell his parents that the psychic had it all wrong! (He didn’t get free from the psychic until the money ran out.)

    Back to topic: how would someone know for sure whether s/he communicated with an actual spiritual entity (beyond him/herself) or only with what s/he THOUGHT such an entity might say? (E.g., if you or I started receiving what sounded like messages from the Greek goddess Athena, how would we know whether this didn’t just represent some part of our own minds, impersonating a Greek goddess: in effect an “Athena sock-puppet” operated by our own subconscious?)


  29. Re religion and community: some spiritual/religious paths very definitely call a person to a community — for reasons difficult to discuss except between people actually *on* those paths.

    Among other things, a community of people who share some aspects of a given commitment *can* help people stay on the path (or at least notice when they drift off it) — rather as a guitarist may practice & play more regularly, and with more care/commitment, when s/he knows that s/he will perform with and/or before other people (as compared with a guitarist who merely plunks away in the utter privacy of his/her own room).

    Also, some religious/spiritual paths require a given number of people to enact ritual roles (or for other reasons: e.g., in Judaism, you cannot licitly perform certain important rituals on your own, and in many cases not unless you have at least ten adults present: in Orthodox Judaism, ten adult males.) So someone who felt spiritually very powerfully drawn to some form of Judaism would pretty well *need* to have a Jewish community handy (for the same reason that someone who wants to play football had better find a football club: you can’t play the game solo.)


  30. Kate, re: Gaspode etc.: A great introduction to Gaspode is in Moving Pictures.

    The stories you tell of people ignoring and/or underestimating the handicapped totally amaze me. I don’t understand how anyone could reach adulthood and still act that way. Heck, children usually don’t act that badly.

    As for the question at the end of your penultimate comment: this is the great question of religion, isn’t it? How did Moses and Abraham know that they really heard the voice of the Lord? (That burning bush could have been a hallucination, too.) But you can push the question even further: how do you know that everything you see and hear isn’t the product of your imagination? Maybe all of your reality is just a projection of your brain in some way. Logically, is there any way to argue against it?

    I address this a little here. The answers I got there continue to satisfy me, but obviously opinions can differ.


  31. Re: religious community. You know, Kate, with your questions and observations, you’re really getting me to think more about what part of religion is “ours” and which part really belongs to Spirit. Some people say that Spirit doesn’t really care how you worship, as long as you’re… I don’t know what, listening or believing or Having Faith or something. Others believe that the rituals and sacraments you observe are just as important as what goes on in your heart; they are an outward reflection of inner commitment, and if you can’t or won’t observe them, then your inner commitment must not be strong enough.

    The indications I’ve gotten from my own guides is that both versions are wrong/incomplete. A religious observance is more like a dialogue between the individual and Spirit. Both sides contribute ideas, both sides have their needs and so forth. If Spirit makes a demand that is very difficult to fulfill (because the required community is lacking, for example), the believer can “push back” and say: “Either show me how to do what you’re asking, or ask me to do something different.” Interestingly enough, the path toward fulfilling Spirit’s “demands” can be a powerful religious observance itself.


  32. Your message today (August 2nd) — particularly the last paragraph — resonates very strongly with me (NOT that I’ve ever had much luck in my own “pushing back” efforts, which had to begin at a painfully early age [enumerable as a single digit, and not a very large digit at that]!) I hope one day soon we can talk (*off*-blog) about the details (if only because you may find them useful blog-fodder).


  33. Re:

    “The stories you tell of people ignoring and/or underestimating the handicapped totally amaze me. I don’t understand how anyone could reach adulthood and still act that way. Heck, children usually don’t act that badly.”

    A partial answer: I have seen adults *train* their children to “act that badly” towards the handicapped: just as part of enculturating the next generation, I suppose.
    Typical instance —

    The scene: a bus stop. A woman in a wheelchair (who has in her lap a cat-carry box with a cat inside) sits near another woman who has a small child.

    CHILD [pointing to wheelchair-using cat-owner]: Mommy, that lady has a kitty! Can I ask her if I can pet it?

    MOM: No, honey … she’s a wheelchair person. Remember, she probably isn’t able to see, hear, or think like we do.

    CAT OWNER IN WHEELCHAIR [gesturing at the cat and ignoring the mom’s stupid remarks]: Oh, you want to see Snowface? If your mom says “Yes,” you can come pet him through the holes [in the cat-carrier].

    CHILD: The kitty lady said I can pet her kitty! Can I? He’s so cute!

    MOM: I told you, we don’t bother wheelchair people. If you want to pet the wheelchair lady’s kitty, you’ll need to ask somebody next to the wheelchair lady. How many times have I told you it’s not nice to talk to wheelchair people?

    CHILD: Oh, sorry, I forgot. [Turning away from the cat owner, to a man sitting near the cat owner]. Mister, can I pet the wheelchair lady’s kitty?

    MAN : [just shrugs — child goes over and pets the cat, without a word to the cat owner. Child returns to mother]

    MOTHER [smiling] That’s right. It’s good to be nice to wheelchair people.

    Having seen things like this, I certainly will read MOVING PICTURES and get to know Gaspode and his similar experiences.


    “As for the question at the end of your penultimate comment: this is the great question of religion, isn’t it? How did Moses and Abraham know that they really heard the voice of the Lord? (That burning bush could have been a hallucination, too.)”

    Yes — and, just as obviously, Abraham could have hallucinated a divine voice telling him to kill and roast his favorite son: today, we call the hearers of such voices “psycho serial killers” instead of “great religious leaders” (And I’d really like to know what Abraham’s neighbors called Abraham, after word of the event got out … the Bible doesn’t say: but — as you probably know — many rabbis figure that, by attempting human sacrifice, Abraham actually *failed* God’s test instead of passing it.)

    Whatever standard can discern between “inner voice worth following” and “inner voice NOT worth following,” a big part of that standard presumably must involve /1/ “what happens when you follow this inner voice?”, /2/ “does this inner voice conflict with other known/demonstrably valid-and-important information?”, and /3/ “does this voice tell me verifiable facts that I didn’t already know, useful ideas I couldn’t have come up with, etc. — or does it just confirm what I already believed or what I would already want to believe?
    (For example: suppose that a person with severe diabetes — who misses fudge and ice cream — hears a “divine voice” commanding: “Throw away your insulin, and eat fudge and ice cream three times a day: make sure you eat only the kind made with real sugar.” The recipient of this particular message would have excellent reason to attribute it to no other source but his/her own craving.)


    “How do you know that everything you see and hear isn’t the product of your imagination? Maybe all of your reality is just a projection of your brain in some way. Logically, is there any way to argue against it?”

    I see only one way out — a way that others have seen too:
    if we assume that everything I call reality merely originates within my brain (as a sort of very complex, very convincing hallucination, then at least that proves the existence of my brain (or of whatever else the hallucination originates within. Conceivably, what I regard as “my brain” — even my entire self and all its perceptions of the world — might in fact exist only as an artificial-intelligence software subroutine on some computer somewhere … in which case, the software and the computer at least would exist. If so, I would rather find out the facts than continue to dwell within the hallucination.)


  34. Re:

    “If there were no sense of community there, or an unhealthy one, it would be bad to join, no matter what their beliefs are. (You could still adopt the philosophy, though.)”

    This may cause problems if a core element of “the philosophy”/the beliefs involves (or otherwise requires) place very high importance on joining and functioning within a community/congregation: the philosophy/beliefs may focus on/”live themselves through” participation in group events, and may even strongly prohibit “going it alone.”

    For example — from what I know of Mormonism, a faith I believe you’ve had some contact with — a person who converted to (or grew up in) Mormonism, but who could not or (even for some strong/compelling reason) did not meet with other Mormons for worship or other purposes, would have effectively “zilch” Mormon life. (His/her “solo” version of Mormonism might somewhat resemble joining a football team, never attending practices or games, but working out alone in one’s room with a football and calling this “solo football.”)

    Re the very important distinction between joining a belief-system and joining a congregation — C. S. Lewis’ SCREWTAPE LETTERS have some (in my opinion) very interesting and thought-provoking things to say about the difference and why it matters.
    As you recall: early in Screwtape Letter Sixteen, we see the professional soul-warper Screwtape advising his younger colleague Wormwood about how to make sure that the soul in Wormwood’s charge does *not* stand the least chance of learning anything true or important from the church he attends. Here, Screwtape considers it of prime importance (for successful soul-warping) to encourage his victim to go “congregation shopping” as we might say, in order to find a congregation that perfectly fits, that perfectly pleases, but that (by the same token) does not in any way challenge his present self.

    Screwtape advisest that, if the soul-warper can’t cure a churchgoer of looking for God, then “the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches. … The congregational principle
    [of joining a congregation
    because you like the congregation,
    rather than the “parochial principle”
    which Lewis favored — joining a church,
    finding a nearby congregation of that church
    and sticking to it ]
    makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction … [and] makes the man a critic where the Enemy
    [the enemy of soul-warping:
    God, or Spirit as you would say]
    wants him to be a pupil.”

    Further down in the same Letter, ofof course, Lewis *does* address the fact that “congregation shopping” (instead of just sticking with whatever you can find nearby) may become necessary even though Lewis plainly doesn’t like the necessity:
    Screwtape notes to Wormwood that, of the two churches nearest Wormwood’s current victim, the first has a cleric who sees his job as protecting the congregation from all inconvenient truths, and the second has a cleric who runs his church on hate, often preaching “some kind of theocratic Fascism.”

    (One could even go further: I suspect that Lewis would have heartily approved a bit of “congregation shopping” if the pulpits of nearby churches proved to house thieves, terrorists, or child-molesters.)


  35. Kate, re: hallucination vs. unpleasant reality brain-in-a-jar: I’d also much rather know the truth.

    Re: choosing congregations: I think you’re right; there may certainly be sad cases where you cannot find a good congregation for the belief system that fits you best, and a good congregation is really necessary. But again, I think this is a place where Seeker and Spirit need to have some give and take. It may be the case that in this single life, it is part of the Seeker’s journey to walk a difficult path alone. It is a worthwhile thing to learn…


  36. […] How to Choose a Religion V: Common Pitfalls: Community, Fear […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: