Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Religion Is A Crutch

I don't mean, by the title, to necessarily say religion is bad. It's funny how, with religion or God-related stuff, any analysis short of perfection is interpreted negatively. If I said, 'don't eat too much ice cream,' Ben & Jerry aren't going to be personally offended or get defensive. We might argue back and forth exactly how much is 'too much,' (with me on the side of more, quite likely), but the notion that there is such a thing as too much of a good things doesn't generally phase people... except with religion (and possibly anything else people are in denial about their dependence on).

It really is the language of dependence and addiction that makes the most sense to me here. I'm not saying that too much of God is a bad thing - that would be difficult to justify, whilst also affirming the notion that God is active and present in all places at all times - but God and religion are not the same thing, no matter how close to interchangeable we make them in our practice.

In technical terms, dependence is when someone needs something in their lives to function normally; addiction is when that dependence hampers normal function. Lots of people are chemically dependent on caffeine; very few are truly addicted to it. You may heard the term "functional alcoholic;" I doubt that's the technical way to say it, but you get the point.

I see often people who have adopted religion as their drug of choice. Usually it is a dependence on the emotionalism of religion where this crops up most often, but it could also be a rational or logical dependence as well - a defense mechanism to avoid dealing with the chaos that otherwise exists in our lives.

For those of you not regularly tuned in to this blog, I think of religion as the practices that stem from our core beliefs, although for this particular issue it might be helpful to expand that definition to include those practices which stem from our explicit religious affiliation; our intentional, religious worship. It really can end up being like a drug.

People use religion to fill some emotional void, rather than adopting beliefs and practices that shape and form a lifestyle. Obviously, every belief and practice shape and form a lifestyle (that's the first definition of religion I gave above), but often people embrace "religion" without intentional evaluation of how it works or what it does to them.

It's almost a preventative commitment, rather than a proactive one. Choosing faith, sometimes very fervently, fills a void of self-doubt or uncertainty - and our often over-emotionalizing of religious experiences just feeds the problem. People attach substantial significance to what are often chemical reactions in the brain.

Now, I don't want to discount emotion. Often a life-changing ecstatic experience does roughly the same thing as, for example, a breakthrough in psychotherapy. Emotions are real and we have them for a reason: they help our mind and body cope with experiences beyond our immediate comprehension. I wonder, though, how many contemporary worship services are really methadone clinics? Yeah, it's better than being strung out on the street, but it's not a place you want to spend your life.

We play up the emotional aspect of the preaching or the worship as a means of escape. We seek to give the parishioners (and maybe ourselves) some hit of euphoria that will get us through the day - largely because we've come to understand that ecstatic experience as God, rather than something with may (or may not) be a result of experiencing God. I can't help but think of Elijah on the mountain, waiting to see God, a God who was not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in a still, small voice.

In a sense, we've created a golden calf called religion and manipulate it in ways that bring us comfort rather than challenge. I hate to through two straight bible references at you, but in the famous story, the Israelites were not constructing a god to replace Yahweh (at least not in their minds), but a representation of Yahweh that they could see, touch, and manipulate. We're far more comfortable with a god like that - an object - than some largely unseen, personal, relational God.

As I said, it happens with nearly every religion and with those religions that leave God out. Rationalism, both within theism and without, operate in similar ways: constructing a world view that is malleable and defined. The practice of religion as such is just as enabling and addictive as any ecstatic worship around the world.

Religious euphoria activates real parts of the brain that can be measured and studied (I haven't seen research on this, but as a pretty rational person, I wonder if rational certainty creates the same kind of euphoria - it makes sense to me anyway) - the same things happens when people take Ayahuasca - in fact the big draw of it is to have a "religious" experience without the religion, to escape the realities of your "you" for a time.

I'm not really opposed to either practice, quite honestly, (worship or ayahuasca) but we have to be sure we're using religion as a means of real personal growth, as a model (community) that makes us better rather than one that just makes us feel better for a time. Are these practices something that shapes and forms us along our understanding of humanity and purpose, or are they a means of manipulating our world for personal comfort?

I think I'm pretty firm in my belief that Jesus Christ did not come to create a religion, but to abolish religion altogether. The things he taught work counter to most religious practice and purpose - and yet religion is our most natural response to encountering truth beyond our comprehension and this we have Christianity.

Perhaps overt religious practice is an inescapable part of humanity (often times I suspect it is), but that doesn't mean it has to be a crutch, enabling us to live lives of our own making. At the very least, we should be aware of the ways in which religion shapes us and perhaps be working each day to be less dependent on these practices that seem comfortable, and more in line with what is often an uncomfortable truth.

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