What is the difference between older religions and newer religions?
Ever since I posted the previous essay in this series, Languages of Spirit, I’ve had a surprising number of page hits from people putting this question into Google. I don’t know — maybe some professor somewhere issued this as a question for a take-home test, or something. In any case, since it seems to be on people’s minds, and I’m itching to write about it anyway, here we go!
In this post I’d like to start exploring religion from a different perspective, using language as a metaphor. I’ve been pulling together my thoughts on this for a couple of months now, and I’ve found that looking at religion in this way resolves the fundamental issues I talked about in my last post on this topic, The Search for Truth, and explains a number of other puzzles about religion such as:
- What is the purpose of religion?
- Does it make sense to ask whether a religion is “true”?
- Are some religions “better” than others?
- Is it possible to predict the future development of a religion — whether it will grow, change, or wither away?
- How is the development of a religion changed by contact with other religions?
- In what ways can religions vary? Are they infinitely variable, or are there limits?
- Why are the older religions of humanity (shamanism, paganism, etc.) quite similar all over the world, while the newer religions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, scientific theories) so different from one another?
- Why is it that children seem to be natural born pagans?
- And of course: how do you go about choosing a religion that is best for yourself?
The following story is absolutely true.
God and Terror in the Mountains
A friend of mine once worked for private detective agency. She took the job on a temporary basis, just to make a little extra money on the side. She didn’t sign up for any of the dangerous work; mostly she would just watch houses to see when people left, check legal records, that kind of thing.
One time, however, the situation turned ugly. In a remote area in the Rocky Mountains, she was watching a driveway from a safe distance when she realized that her quarry and his friends were stalking her with rifles. These were desperate men, drug smugglers; and they were skilled veterans of the Vietnam War. Realizing that the way back to her car was blocked, she headed the other direction, up the mountain, into the forest as night was falling.
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.
Why choose a religion?
This post is addressed to agnostics — those who haven’t decided what they believe, or who have decided not to decide. If you believe strongly that there is no God, or that science is the ultimate answer, then I count that as a religion too (see this post for why). But if you base your worldview on the scientific method (which requires a stance of permanent doubt), then you’re agnostic, and this post is for you.
Agnosticism is like riding a bicycle.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of choosing a religion, we have to do some groundwork. Three issues deserve some thought:
1. What is a religion?
2. Why would you want to have one?
3. Pitfalls to avoid before you start looking.
This is the first of a series on how to choose a religion.
It’s a remarkable age we live in. At any time prior to this in human history, your religion was chosen for you. Your religion was simply the common knowledge of your tribe. Everything your tribe thought it knew about the universe was its “religion”. Choosing another religion was practically unthinkable (unless, of course, you joined another tribe).
Nowadays the opposite situation holds. You must choose your religion, if you want to have one. Even if you grow up in a family with strong religious convictions, at some point you have to decide: am I going to keep with the family tradition, or am I going to go my own way?