I recognize that some of my beliefs are pretty out there, on the fringe, but I try not to get crazy about it.
– Laura (my sister), discussing her conversion to Veganism
Though some definitions of religion necessitate a deity of some type (which would exclude Buddhism and many other regular choices on a typical “Put a check next to your religion” survey), I think a more fitting definition which encompasses the diversity of modern faith while keeping true to the spirit of the word is found on wiktionary:
- 1. A collection of practices, based on beliefs and teachings that are highly valued or sacred.
- 2. Any practice that someone or some group is seriously devoted to.
- 3. Any ongoing spiritual practice one engages in, in order to shape their character or improve traits of their personality.
- 4. An ideological and traditional heritage.
Religion, the beliefs and actions a person finds fundamental to the outlook of their daily life, comes folded into all kinds of different philosophies – many of which do not involve a god or a church.
Anyone who’s said a word about God or gods in front of a devout atheist has seen the zeal in their eyes as they quote Dawkins or Hitchens like apostles. (The major figures of New Atheism are even ironically called “The Four Horsemen” by adherents. I call that a double irony; they may mean it satirically, but they’re unintentionally creating a heroic mythology for their faith.) We’ve all known health “enthusiasts” who punish their bodies like penitents at the gym and watch what they eat with a fastidiousness that rivals any kosher or halal diet. We know people who alter their lives to keep good faith with a cause – from vegans who sacrifice comfort and choice out of devotion to animal equality, to politicians who sacrifice personal ideals to adhere to the dogma of party line, to artists who sacrifice money, family, and health on a spiritual quest to perfect their craft, inspire people, and leave a legacy for future generations.
Every one one of these people is filled with passion. They also have a culture to support their belief system: texts (or websites 😉 ) which they hold sacred, leaders “preaching the word” whom they turn to for advice, and fellow adherents who help support their worldview and commiserate about bearing their worldly crosses. Giving up their faith is heresy because they believe they are doing the right thing.
They have a religion.
I’m not implying this is a bad thing. Far from it, I contend that people need religion. We need something to believe in, something to feel self-righteous about. Some code we can hang on to when everything else changes on us, when the truths about our lives which we thought were self-evident begin to crumble. No matter what befalls, we can still have our gods, whatever sacred or secular names we may call them.
What I do find dangerous – in theistic or atheist religious belief – is unthinking adherence to our own dogma or bigotry towards other viewpoints. What I find even more dangerous, is a failure to recognize our various religions as religions. A person who comforts himself saying that because he has no “invisible people in the sky” he therefore has no knee-jerk reactions of faith (because he’s too rational for that) is deluding himself. Know which gods you follow. Money? Power? Relationships? Food? Mine may be invisible sky people (who are real, thank you very much), but they encourage me to be loyal, honest, generous, and strong. A lot of the gods we choose to follow aren’t so noble.
A person who is religiously enlightened appears to me to be one who has, to the best of his ability, liberated himself from the fetters of his selfish desires and is preoccupied with thoughts, feelings, and aspirations to which he clings because of their super-personal value. It seems to me that what is important is the force of this super-personal content and the depth of the conviction concerning its overpowering meaningfulness, regardless of whether any attempt is made to unite this content with a divine Being.
– Albert Einstein, from “Science and Religion”
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion.
– Karl Marx, from Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
I find myself agreeing with both of these quotes. Einstein speaks of religion’s ability to inspire us to be better humans, to seek good for ourselves and others and lift up the world. Marx speaks of religion’s power to control and appease, the way a shelter can become a trap when we thoughtlessly shut ourselves in and let others define the reality outside.*
No matter what a group holds sacred, that religion can be used for good or for oppression. It can enlighten us, bring us joy, and give us strength to pursue goodness in a sometimes hostile world. Or it can lock our thinking into place – atrophying us at a certain point in our lives.
I exhort us all to choose our religions carefully – and to acknowledge the ones we have already chosen. We must recognize the dogma and the prejudices inherent in the culture of our faith and be on guard against them. We must use religion, not to condemn others or slow progress, but to better ourselves and better the world.
Going back to the beginning of the article, when my sister said she was on the fringe but not crazy, she was speaking of some vegan tenets she doesn’t adhere to because she thought them through and decided she didn’t agree with them. (Specifically, I was telling her about feeding my cats raw meat and when I asked if she was offended, she said she thought it was unethical to feed a carnivore a vegetable-based diet, despite many vegans doing just that). Laura also volunteered to take me to the supermarket when I visit her so I can pick up what I need to adhere to my own diet while I’m staying at her house. She has always been that way, steadfast in her own faith and yet thoughtful, open-minded and open-hearted. It’s one of the many things I love about her, and one of her traits which I try to emulate.
Though I don’t think Laura would call veganism a religion, it does work like one – with books and gurus, converts and propaganda, and a deep-seated faith that makes people radically change the way they live their lives. But my sister understands that you can’t force your private practices and faith onto other people. By setting an example of living with strength and love, a person (like my sister) can eschew the Marxist version of oppressive, numbing religion and become Einstein’s liberated religious adherent who’s engaged with the world in an uplifting way.
As I head off to visit her (on Wednesday! W00t!) that is my deep thought for the week. I wish you joy on whatever religious fringe you live – just don’t be crazy about it. The world will be a better place for your faith.
* To be fair to Marx, I’m pretty sure he would not agree with my final assessment; his writings indicate a belief that religion always oppresses and denies self-actualization. I personally feel that Marx, while good at defining problems (such as “religion is being used to sedate people into compliance with an unjust status quo”), had a misunderstanding of human nature that made his solutions not viable (such as “so we should get rid of religion”). To me that’s like saying, “fire burns down houses so we should never use fire again.” That won’t work. People love fire; fire, while dangerous, is also useful, fun, an integral part of our development as a species, and sometimes necessary for survival. Don’t give it up. Use it responsibly.
++ Featured image by: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos and used under Creative Commons Licensing