This is the final post in the series of six arguments against religion, and it is subtle and very counterintuitive to most people. I’m going to use a couple of analogies to introduce it, which I hope will help me explain it.
A few years ago, my fictional friend Bob left England, where he’d lived his whole life, and came to the United States. Of course, here in the US we speak a different dialect of English. He could understand everyone ok, but he began to wonder whether he’d been speaking incorrectly all this time. He worked hard and eventually managed to change his speech, so that he sounded just like an American. But when he talked to his parents back home, they were sad that he’d abandoned his native dialect. They entreated him to talk properly again. He was torn! How could he decide which way to speak?…
I have another fictional friend, Terry, who is a pianist, a master of European classical music. He lived in the early 18th century. When he was well established in his career and famous throughout Europe, he heard a Turkish military band and was amazed to hear, for the first time, rhythms and chords unknown in the west. He began incorporating Turkish patterns into his compositions. Some called his music barbaric, or not music at all. He himself wondered if it was really music, or just noise; but he could not deny its compelling power, and the way, as he composed and played, it transported him out of his body into regions of light he had never felt before.
Language, Art, and Spirit
In both of these analogies, you might be wondering what the big deal is for Bob and Terry. Why is it so difficult for Bob and his family to handle the realities of a single language with multiple dialects, and for Bob to change his speech to match the people around him? And why is Terry’s musical community so committed to one style of music, and so dismissive of his need to draw from more than one artistic tradition?
Well, why is it so hard for people to get a grip on the idea that more than one religion has value? That more than one religion might be a True Path? That multiple religious traditions might serve as inspiration for a life’s journey?
Some messages depend crucially on their medium. Haiku, or Hamlet, cannot be translated without losing an essential part of their message. You cannot play Beethoven’s Ode to Joy on bagpipes without losing something (and, perhaps, gaining something else).
This applies to religions and cultures as much as to language and music. Handel’s Messiah is music that sings most powerfully within the context of a messianic religion; its exultation simply cannot be translated into Zen Buddhism. And Zen’s simple koans, which open the doors of perception and enlightenment, are nothing but nonsense in Catholicism. Should Catholicism be abandoned because it doesn’t have koans? Should Zen be abandoned because it doesn’t have the Messiah? Is there a way to learn both, live both, embody both?
A religion is a lot more than a set of beliefs. A religion — especially an old religion — carries with it a wealth of culture and feeling that should not be lightly cast aside. At the same time, remaining in just one religion, subscribing to it alone and refusing to open your mind and heart to others, is incredibly limiting. This applies not just to the appreciation of beauty, but to the perception of universal truths.
And universal truths are not just simple statements like “love thy neighbor” or “life is suffering”; there is weight behind these words. The development of the concept of “love” in European culture over the past 2000 years is a cultural achievement that is worth learning, as is the Buddhist concept of dukkha and the Chinese concept of the Tao.
The argument here is not against religion in general, nor against any particular religion, or even against any particular belief system like atheism or agnosticism. It is against having just one religion, or just one belief system.
Synthesis and Genesis
Among my circle of friends, there are a lot of folks who have synthesized their own religions. This applies not only to my pagan friends, but also my Christian ones. After all, in modern America, there are at least a dozen popular competing versions of Christianity, and individual Christians synthesize new versions all the time — piecing together their own spiritualities from things they’ve heard here and there, their own experiences, and Spirit whispering in their ears.
Nevertheless, most of my friends have not given up the idea that there is One Truth out there, One Reality, and even One Path to salvation or enlightenment.
Bah! How can there be One Truth when I know people who have seen fairies, played with the animal spirits of the land, danced the Lakota Sun Dance with their ancestors, traveled the astral plane, felt the presence of One God, Two Gods, and Many, spoken in tongues, and followed glowing crosses out of the woods at night?
When you release your need to know the One Truth, you are free to view your religious calling as a work in progress. You need not ever reach a final state. You can look on it as an artistic endeavor — or as a set of artistic works, with multiple unrelated religious projects in progress at once. Your religion becomes a set of dialogues between yourself and Spirit.
There is no call to blindly accept the religion your parents gave you. And there is no call to find the perfect religion, the one better than all the others, and place it forever under glass and defend it unto death. It is not even necessary to retreat to your garage and build the perfect religion from scratch, one which will stand the test of time and be Eternal Truth.
Go out into the meadows of the world, and gather religions like wildflowers.