Religion: Who Needs It?
by Elena Greco
August 30, 2016
I’m going to have to say something once again that I know will not be very popular. It’s about this religion thing.
It’s not about being intolerant; I’m not. For me, it’s not about which religion is being practiced, either; they all have the same issues. It’s about the wreaking of havoc throughout societies all over the world, killing people, having a professed purpose of suppressing others’ freedom, forcing others how to believe and behave, and creating a chaotic, fearful society—all in the name of religion. I am not for this.
When you get right down to it, what’s the purpose of religion? You know, back in medieval times, when they didn’t have hot showers, tasty food and Netflix, I can see why they might have needed a reason to go on. They needed to believe in a better future, so there was, you know, a “life after death” that was better than this one. It was a pretty rough existence, so they needed to believe that someone cared about them, so, presto, there was a god, a big person in the sky, who loved them unconditionally. And there were hooligans and thieves and thugs who created general mayhem and committed barbaric and frightening acts, so getting them to believe in a god who would punish them after death and keep them forever out of “heaven” if they didn’t behave was a useful deterrent. I totally get it. They needed religion and they needed a god.
But what about now? Do we need a god now?
Well, sometimes I do need a god. Sometimes life is tough, and things aren’t going right, or I don’t have enough money, or I feel lonely, or I don’t think I’m up to par, and I really, really would like to believe that there’s a big person in the sky who thinks I’m fine the way I am, someone who will protect me, and someone who will welcome me into a heaven filled with clouds and angels and no worries when this often beautiful but also sometimes crappy life is over.
I am one of the fortunate ones. I did not grow up with parents who took me to church or synagogue or mosque or temple every week. I was not indoctrinated with religious dogma from the age of two so that it infiltrated my mind and morals before my mind was developed enough to reason, i.e., before I had a real choice in whether to believe the dogma or not. (The human brain is not capable of reasoning and discernment until the age of eighteen.) I was fortunate that by the time I was old enough to think things through, I didn’t have to start with a whole set of baggage comprised of rigid do’s and don’ts about behavior and thoughts that were calculated to win favor with god and get me into heaven, and the guilt that comes with those rules because, as a human, I didn’t always measure up to the code I had been coerced to believe was truth.
I became interested in religion when I was thirteen. My curiosity, along with a difficult childhood that led me to search for some relief, took me to the library, where I read every book I could find about every religion I had ever heard of, and some more that I found along the way. I had had some exposure to the Christian religion through my mother’s parents—unfortunately, a fundamentalist version of that religion—so that seemed a good place to start. I knew I didn’t like their brand of Christianity, but I also knew there were other brands. I learned that there are many, many faiths in the Christian religion, each with a staggeringly different perspective, going from one end of the spectrum to the other. I thought the Episcopals seemed to have a good thing going.
I also researched Judaism (I liked the feeling of community and consideration for others that I found in their teachings, at least the non-extremist ones), Buddhism (made perfect sense to me, but seemed a little dry at the time) and Hinduism. There are thousands of Hindu faiths, and I read about the major factions. Aside from the thousands of gods thing, I really liked the foundation of Hinduism, which is that we’re all one, that “god” is a universal spirit that can take different forms, and that god is actually right inside us, no traveling required.
But none of these religions, or the faiths within them, felt quite right to me. They didn’t seem natural somehow. I just knew that there was something more.
I noticed eventually that I was attracted to the mystical branches of the various religions. I wanted to feel my religion. It was important to me that religion wasn’t a dogma or a to-do or not-to-do list, but a genuine experience. An experience of god is what I was after, not a paper description of an experience of god.
I first tried a group called Ananda Marga in college. This was a Hindu sect (in the American sense, that is; I believe the Europeans use that word to describe what we in the US call a cult), one which emphasized meditation, chanting and service. The fact that I was in love with a certain Piano major was responsible for this “choice.” I must have mentioned something about meditation to him, and he (having no idea that I was besotted) mentioned that he attended a meditation group, and invited me, as a fellow musician (whose playing he had complemented!), to try it. I could go with him to the next meeting. (Be still, my heart!)
The meeting felt peaceful and comforting to me. The very first time I meditated, I saw (with closed eyes) a brilliant blue light that affected me deeply. I couldn’t stop thinking of it for days. At the next meeting, the givers of mantra (divine names or phrases that were used as a focus for meditation), the people who were authorized to give out mantras to beginners, happened to be in town, so I lined up to receive mine. (It was a secret, so I can’t tell you what it was.)
Once I moved away to change schools, I didn’t think of looking up Ananda Marga again. Looking back, I’m not sure why, because I had really enjoyed it. But I had my plate full for about five years after that, and my search for the perfect religion, for my religion, fell by the wayside. But once I began a new phase of my life, that yearning for the mystical, the unseen, for that which was greater than my small, driven self, began stirring again.
I looked into several mystically-inclined sects of Tibetan Buddhism, and while I was attracted to them, none felt exactly right. Then I happened to mention to an acquaintance that I was looking for a place to meditate, that I wanted to experience what I had experienced in college when I had meditated, and he recommended his meditation practice, which met close to where I was living. It was a Hindu sect whose basis was kundalini yoga, right up my mystical alley. I fell totally in love with it.
I practiced that brand of Hinduism for thirteen years. I went to weekly meetings and to a special scriptural chant on the weekends. Every other weekend I took a two-hour bus ride out of New York City to an ashram, where I did seva (selfless service), and chanted and meditated. At home, I meditated and chanted daily. I immersed myself in the practices.
Unfortunately, I also became hooked on it. Hooked, as in “addicted.” The group I had immersed myself in had cultish qualities. (See my paper The Use of Persuasion in Cults: Are We Free to Choose for more information about how to tell if an organization is a cult.) When the organization turned out not to be exactly clean, I was left without a practice. I hardly knew what to do. I had invested myself completely in something that wasn’t what I thought it was. I had spent more than a decade of my life on this.
In the year prior to the breaking away, I had come to ponder a question. It was this: I am doing selfless service at an ashram … but how about the people around me, in my building, in my neighborhood, at my job, in my community? How does serving at an ashram serve them? I began to want to make a difference in the “real” world, not just offer my service an isolated ashram. I wanted my spirituality to be practical. I loved being in the ashram and could not imagine giving that experience up. But it bothered me that my “in-the-world” life did not seem to be much affected by my service at the ashram. You might say that the meditating and chanting affected me, and that by doing so, affected those around me, and I would say that that is entirely correct. But I felt that there was a piece missing. I also knew, mostly subconsciously, as I could not bear to contemplate this at the time, that in putting all my energy into the yogic practices and trips to the ashram, I was burying my creativity and not living up to my potential. We had been taught that there was nothing higher than serving the guru, and I believed that then, at least partially. But the seeds of discontent were stirring.
Once I finally broke away from that practice, I had some healing and recovery to do. Once that was done, I began to feel my old creative self crawling out of hibernation. It was time to be in the world again. It was time to start contributing to those around me. It was time to be creative again. I began to recover the self that had been stifled for thirteen years.
I don’t mean to say that I got nothing from that experience or that it was totally negative. Quite the contrary; I have some fond memories of my experience with that group. I had my first experience of love there—not romantic love, but the real thing, the love that makes you expand until you can’t expand any more. That was important in my life.
And I learned practical things, things like the importance of taking breaks (taking breaks was something new for me!). Also, I discovered true meditation, something that has great value in my life today and something I can—and do—pass on to others. And I experienced what some people call “enlightenment” a number of times (it is almost never a permanent “state,” no matter what some would have you believe, but rather a continuum, leading to an increasingly expanded state over time), and so developed a clarity about the nature of that experience and how to foster it in myself and others.
So what do I practice now? What is my religion? I practice being. You might gather from the italics, that I don’t mean just hanging out. There is an art to being that brings a very different quality and potential to life. And I use the word “practice,” because I am not established in being every moment, but it is my intention to bring that quality into my life on an increasingly lasting basis. I meditate daily; this affects my experience of life significantly. And I practice activism, which is my way of contributing to society—my service now. My particular form of activism is writing about the things I see, whether in the realms of politics, health or creativity, with the intention that my writing make a difference for others, that it somehow makes society and our planet better in some way.
Because what I found is that religion is in me, not outside of me. There is no organization, no ashram, no temple, no mosque that contains religion. Those are man-made constructs that purportedly provide a place for people to come together to enhance their experience of religion. Unfortunately, what happens once a religion becomes an organization is that it no longer brings an experience of the divine, but becomes a vehicle of what men (and I use the masculine noun intentionally, as men are almost always in charge of these organizations) have decided it should be, usually in terms of what is allowed and what is not allowed, in totally arbitrary and ego-driven terms. For those who have experienced the divine, it is clear that such edicts prohibit the experience of the purported intention of the organization (enlightenment, redemption, morality) and instead support the opposite, which is a total lack of the experience of the divine and a suppression of our most divine qualities.
I found that what is important is service, service to others, service to a higher purpose. Also important are creative expression and the expression of our highest potential, of course. But if we all serve each other, there is no need for god, no need for religion. Because there is no need to search for comfort, approval and security—the primary motivators of religion-seeking—if we support each other and our communities. And mystical experience, for those who seek it, can be found within at any time—no need for caves and monasteries and rules and odd clothing, because these have nothing whatsoever to do with enlightenment or with god, and serve man’s ego, not the pursuit of spiritual growth.
Every scriptural text of every religion was written by men. If you believe otherwise, I respect your right to have your belief. But I ask that you do a little research about the origins of any particular scriptural text and see where it came from and where it started. It is not wise to accept dogma without questioning and discernment.
I would hate to tell you that there is no Santa Claus … so I’m not going to. Santa Claus does exist. But his essence is in you, not in a man in a red suit who slides down the chimney into your living room once a year to bring happiness to children. The spirit and nature of Santa Claus is you. At least metaphorically. And the same is true for god.
If you want to worship in an organization with other people who are committed to living spiritual, moral lives, and creating community for themselves, I totally understand. And you might even find me there! I enjoy that camaraderie around a common purpose at times. But I would hope that more people will begin to wake up to the fact that whatever scripture you believe and whatever organization you belong to, what you are seeking is not in those things and does not depend on them. And once that becomes clear, judging others negatively because of their beliefs (which might have been forced down their throats when they were babes and had no means of discerning truth or making a rational decision, i.e., they were programmed) or trying to force your religious beliefs on others (who might have had early brainwashing just as intense as yours, but in a different direction) makes no sense. Is your childhood programming better than someone else’s childhood programming?
On the same note, it makes no sense to me to tolerate or condone violence or suppression of the freedom of others by those who have made a choice to use their chosen religious scripture as a justification for their own egotistical needs. That has been done for centuries. How many people have been killed in the name of “religion”? Think about that. People have been killed because their killers had different religious views and wanted to destroy those who had different views—just because they had different views. Is that rational? Or acceptable? Should we be “polite” and not discuss that?
And are less deadly “religious rules”—rules which are just as devastating to our quality of life, and ultimately to our spirituality—such as prohibiting all people from making music or dancing or expressing themselves or dressing a certain way, any more acceptable? Or rational?
I think we really need to talk about religion more. Our country prides itself on religious freedom and on tolerance of cultural differences. That seems to have made us reluctant to discuss important issues that involve religion. I think it’s high time we did.