I was talking to my friend the other day and he was telling me about his ex-wife and how they had divorced because she “got religion”. It wasn’t the first time I had heard of that as a reason for a marriage to end. It’s mentioned in almost the same way as one would say that a spouse “got addicted to drugs” and it frequently has the same effect on the relationship. A difference in religious beliefs between married people can often cause problems, but it is exacerbated when one partner uses it as a method of controlling their spouse, or even for total control of the marriage itself. A prime example of this is men who quote the Bible as a reason for denying their wife her individuality or freedom of choice because she is to be “submissive unto her husband”. They forget that the other part of that verse is that the man is to “love his wife” which if followed (excuse me) religiously would not let him grind her under his heel. The other side of that seems to be a woman who uses her (usually newfound) religion to deny her husband his marriage rights or to use up their resources (read “money”) without his knowledge.
As we talked about this, I began to wonder why this should happen so often. It does seem that faith in a higher spiritual being too often leads to human beings becoming less than spiritual themselves, and a lot more intolerant of those who do not follow their beliefs. So I struggle with the idea that religion for many people is a merely a way to wield power over others, to be divisive and to justify evil behavior done to the “unbelievers”. I have pondered about religion in general, what it seems to be, how it’s used to manipulate others into behaving the way we want them to–regardless of the morality of that behavior, and what religion really should be, and this is what my musings have produced.
So much has been done in the name of religion, and so much of it negative, that I don’t even like the very word “religion” any more. When I speak about my spiritual views, I prefer to use the term “belief system”. I know that it is just semantics. It doesn’t matter what word or words are used, only that the actions behind the chosen word are positive, energetic and beneficial. In the long run, the words themselves do not matter, because only our actions will prove what kind of person we were.
So what exactly is religion? It may be easier to define it by what it is NOT.
Religion is not the “opiate of the masses”, no matter what Karl Marx said. Opiates dull the senses and cause lethargy. There has been far too much (negative) energy expended in the name of religion for it to be something that sedates. It should be considered more like a hypnotic amphetamine, something that creates unquestioning obedience with decisive, even frenetic, action. Some examples that immediately come to mind are the Inquisition and the spread of Islam at sword point. In our own time, we have the Al Qaeda terrorists with their jihad (which means “holy war”. A holy war? There’s an oxymoron if ever there was one), the struggle between Irish Catholic and Irish Protestant, and the ancient, continuing conflict between Jews and Arabs.
Religion should not force adherence to a belief, either to convert those who do not believe as you do, or to keep your own group under control. It is not an absolute thing, unquestionable because you are only to have “faith”—faith in what the church’s leaders tell you to believe, or in a mindless pattern of worship, or in your innate superiority because you are one of the chosen. Blind faith leads only to self-destruction. Religion should encourage questions and seeking, not forbid any thoughts that do not come from the priest/pastor/ shaman/whatever word you like for Divinity’s human representative. Religion is not a memorized list of “do” and “do not” that governs every aspect of your life. Religion is not driven by fear, threats, fashion, convenience, showmanship, or even tradition. While it is a good thing to share your beliefs with your offspring, following a particular religion just because “my whole family/Mom and Dad/everybody I know has always been (insert religion name here)” is not.
Religion is not the food you eat or the food you won’t eat. It’s not where you live, but how you live. Religion is not a way to make your spouse do the household chores, or force your children to improve their grades. It’s not a way to prevent other people from living their lives in their own way just because you don’t agree with them. Religion is not your Divine-given right to choose a religion for everyone else. Nor is it your right to censor reading material, television shows or music—or anything else that you do not agree with. “Just because you are against something doesn’t give you the right to decide for everybody else.” (Jill Turner) Religion is not some mantle of moral superiority that sets you apart from the rest of the human race. Religion does not make you perfect.
Religion is not a fence to keep others out—or to keep your own IN. It is not a cattle prod to goad others into joining your herd—or to keep your herd from wandering off. Religion is not special clothing, something that you only wear on rare occasions, but keep most of the time in mothballs up in the attic. It is not slavish devotion to particular traditions, like prayer by rote or gender-based clergy. It is not a holy, ordained right to persecute others who do not worship the way that you do. Religion is not a particular building or event that only those who have an admittance ticket may attend. It is not a spotlight, casting its luminescence on a select group. It is not ritual, ceremony, or “magic” words (Note: prayer is a form of magic words, even if Christians do not call it such. It is a focused, conscious attempt to change events through mental effort). Religion is not even good works, charity or martyrdom. You are not a religious person just because you die for your beliefs. Religion is about living for your beliefs—and more than that, religion is about living your beliefs! As Mom always told you, actions speak louder than words.
Whether you say belief system, spiritual beliefs, or just religion, what you are talking about is nothing more than each person’s intimate and personal connection to the Supreme Being, and to everyone and everything else because of that connection. Everything we do, all that we are, THAT is our religion. We use words and rituals to give outward signs of this connection to the Divine, but our true religion should be as basic as the air we breathe, as essential as the blood that flows through us. It should be an integral, almost involuntary part of us, existing without conscious thought, like digestion or our heartbeat. Because we are part of the Divine, we are our own Divinity. Our words and actions are a reflection of this, not the cause of it.
We behave morally not as a mandate of our beliefs or from the fear of punishment or eternal damnation, but as an acknowledgement of that Divinity within us. There is, quite simply, no other way to act! Good actions are not a means of redemption or a path to Heaven; they are a natural response to our Divine being and our connection to the entire Universe. Awareness of that Divinity within us leads naturally to the awareness of Divinity in every other person, regardless of his or her behavior. It is the moral thing to do, to treat everyone as if they were a part of our own being—since on the Universal scale, they are!
Religion should be a process, an ongoing quest for improving our Divine being while learning life’s lessons. It should grow all of our lives, becoming more and more a habitual part of everyday routine. Being more spiritual should give us an aura that those around us will respond to, their spark of Divinity reaching out to ours. Religion should be a continual, dynamic relationship with the Divine, a holy friendship. You could even consider it as the most perfect marriage; it is something that we should cherish and care for, as we do with any precious thing.
Regardless of your personal beliefs, religion should be first and foremost very personal, applicable only to you, controlling only your actions. It is not something that you impose on others, rules for their behavior or threats to make them obedient to your will. True spiritual lives are solo journeys. You alone walk on your chosen path, and you alone take the necessary steps to reach whatever final destination there is. If others choose to join you, or if you happen to walk upon a path that is well traveled, then enjoy the companionship of the road. Just remember that no one can make the actual journey for you, nor can you make another’s journey for him, either by choice or by force. Trying to do so only leads to unhappiness and the eventual loss of your connection to the Divine. If religion is connection, then the loss of that Divine union is the loss of religion, and indeed, it is the loss of your very soul.