I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit.
— Kahlil Gibran
Someone recently told me that they don’t believe that any good has ever come from religion, but that spirituality was different. That comment rendered me speechless, because I can see where they’re coming from. Yet I have a very different perspective on this subject.
Let’s start by examining the difference between religion and spirituality. For this discussion, we’ll use part of Merriam-Webster’s definition of religion as being an “institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” As for spirituality, the two following definitions are pertinent: “sensitivity or attachment to religious values” and “the quality or state of being spiritual.”
I’m sure that theologians would zealously chastise me for oversimplification, but for our purposes, let’s agree that that “institutionalization” is the key differentiation between religion and spirituality. Religion is taught in a systematic manner to children and adult practitioners by an “authority” such as a rabbi, priest or minister, usually in a building dedicated to that purpose such as a synagogue, church or cathedral. Historically, the authorities have been male, though this is changing in more liberal religions.
Religion begins with indoctrination. This often entails rituals that involve infants: think baptisms and brisses. While adults attend services, children are often placed in Sunday School (or their equivalent), where they learn the basic beliefs of their religion through storytelling, games and songs. Young minds are malleable, and they tend to absorb what is presented unquestioningly, as naturally as they learn their ABC’s and arithmetic in secular classrooms.
Herein, according to some, lies the problem with indoctrinating children into religion. Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft summed up the objection quite eloquently:
“We all know that any emotional bias — irrespective of truth or falsity — can be implanted by suggestion in the emotions of the young, hence the inherited traditions of an orthodox community are absolutely without evidential value…. If religion were true, its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into an artificial conformity; but would merely insist on their unbending quest for truth, irrespective of artificial backgrounds or practical consequences. With such an honest and inflexible openness to evidence, they could not fail to receive any real truth which might be manifesting itself around them. The fact that religionists do not follow this honourable course, but cheat at their game by invoking juvenile quasi-hypnosis, is enough to destroy their pretensions in my eyes even if their absurdity were not manifest in every other direction.”
― H.P. Lovecraft, Against Religion: The Atheist Writings of H.P. Lovecraft
I disagree with Lovecraft’s central premise that, “If religion were true, its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into an artificial conformity; but would merely insist on their unbending quest for truth, irrespective of artificial backgrounds or practical consequences.” I believe that most people indoctrinate their children into their religion because they believe that their faith is true. They love their children, and they want to share “the truth,” as they understand it, with their offspring. Having said that, in an ideal world, people would encourage older children to seek truth that resonates for them. Sadly, for the most part, parents do not do this. They fear for their children’s souls when they seek spiritual “truth” that differs from the family’s religion. They may insist that young Seekers continue to attend religious services. They may shut down spiritual investigation. In worse cases they may stage interventions that lead to incarceration at wilderness camps that force the youth to embrace — or pretend to embrace — their family’s religion. Finally, they may be threatened with being ostracized from their families.
While I understand that the Amish concept of Rumspringa is often depicted inaccurately by the media, the general concept appeals to me. In a nutshell, Amish youth are allowed a certain amount of freedom to explore the world outside their faith and community from 16 years old until they are baptized in the church, which generally occurs between 18 and 22. Generally, the Amish community is more concerned about adults leaving the community because they want to taste forbidden fruits than they are about allowing their young to sample the wider world. And the gambit generally pays off: According to this excellent NPR “Talk of the Nation” article,
…more than 80 percent of Amish youth do eventually become Amish church members. In some areas, the “retention rate” exceeds 90 percent.
Aside from indoctrination, which can been perceived as “force feeding” religion and removing free choice, there are plenty of other reasons to label religion as “bad.” Wars have been fought under many of God’s names. People have been persecuted, tortured and executed because of their faith. Today, terrorism is being practiced under Allah’s name, though the majority of Muslims are peace loving and the Quran does not condone violence.
Why, then, am I pro-religion?
Because I believe that, without it, many of those who are not Seekers would never form a moral code. For all of the negativity around indoctrination, I believe that teaching children the Ten Commandments — or whatever the equivalent is in any given religion — is crucial. Codified morality, including guidelines on theft and murder, is essential. Can’t these spiritual guidelines be taught by parents? Absolutely. The question is whether they will be. Those who are indoctrinated into a religion have a better chance of learning what’s acceptable from a moral standpoint, and that’s imperative, both for the individual and for society.
Those of us who are Seekers realize that “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is echoed in every major religion. We don’t have to fear each other’s belief systems because, at the root, they just aren’t that different. We Seekers may decide to pick and choose, to “Take what we like and leave the rest,” from multiple religions and other spiritual belief systems, and that’s OK. This is the very essence of Eclectic Spirituality, which I define as, “A highly individualized spiritual belief system composed of selected elements drawn from various doctrines.”
I respect my right — and the right of all Seekers — to be spiritual in this educated, decisive manner. And I also respect the right of those who are religious to do so within the context of their respective institutions.