When we gaze up at the stars, we feel very small by comparison. If we ignore this smallness it creeps into our dreams. To increase our horizons we need to somehow integrate ourselves into the larger universe. Religion offers a transcendent vantage point that transports us beyond the limitations of our small self. And in order to find our relationship to the cosmos, religion helps us plumb the depths of our soul. Religion also serves more down to earth functions, providing rules to live by, structuring our time through rituals and holidays, and helping us define our social identity.
Different religions celebrate different holidays, their buildings have different architecture and their clergy wear different clothes. Yet, every religion provides a common message. They teach that a conscious, benevolent force runs the universe and that, despite our problems and limitations, the world makes sense.
Values that bind society
Government laws regulate our collective behavior, but laws by themselves cannot bind together the complex daily workings of society. There are too many of us, each with our own individual desires. If the only thing that orchestrated our behavior were fear of the law, society would quickly degenerate into chaos.
Between the crevices of the law lie vast areas of behavior ruled by the moral sensibilities that we learned directly or indirectly from our religious systems. Religion gives us respect for the values behind the rules, and helps us contribute to an orderly, harmonious society. When we recognize a collective purpose higher than our own individual desires, society flourishes, and we give each other a safe, healthy environment.
As we raise our children, we try to convey to them the rules and nuances of living in society. One of the most effective ways we do this is to pass on to them the teachings of our religion. From the stories and regulations of religion they learn more about the wider universe than we can teach them on our own.
As children adopt the notion of a higher authority, they internalize the rules of society, giving them a conscience they carry with them even when there is no one watching.
Group and clan
We often identify ourselves with the groups we belong to; our country, our city, our alma mater, even our favorite sports team. We especially identify with our religion, especially if we were raised deep within its cultural embrace. We are drawn to others of our religion who share our beliefs, our rituals and holidays. We also want our children to be involved with others of our faith.
Rites of passage
Our weekly cycle of work-days and weekends is anchored around the Sabbath, the day of God. Our year is defined and punctuated by religious holidays, and our life journey is marked by the milestones of religious rituals, from birth to adulthood to marriage. Rituals and the myths that go with them give us a narrative that ties together the individual events of our lives and helps us make sense of our time on this earth.
Death takes us to the heart of religion. As we approach our final transition, belief in a reality that transcends our individual life becomes a key ingredient in our emotional health, as well as the health of the loved ones who survive our absence.
Learn about self and religion
Our religious learning started in childhood, when we experienced religious rituals and our family’s attitudes and beliefs about them. Religion’s rules also were used to help us understand the difference of right and wrong. And as children, open to the magic of life, religious stories gave us a sense of wonder. As we grew older, we continued to build our ideas on the foundation of these early experiences.
As adults, we now own a set of beliefs built layer upon layer, starting from childhood. To get a better understanding of the roots of our belief system we need to explore the environment in which they were formed. Especially powerful were the emotions that surrounded our family beliefs. Was our family attitude towards religion a joy or an obligation? Did religion make our parents feel empowered or confined, comforted or threatened, trusting or suspicious? And how did their religious beliefs translate into messages at home? Did they communicate that God is a wrathful figure, or a protective one who guides us with compassionate intelligence? These emotions behind our beliefs often lay hidden from thought, but profoundly affect the way we feel.
Some of us have rejected our childhood religion. Perhaps religious convictions were harsh, and became associated in our minds with coldness or other negative emotions. As we grew older, we didn’t want to have anything to do with these unpleasant memories. Having been exposed to strong religious convictions when we were vulnerable children, we now find ourselves angrily fighting against part of our own experience. Cutting ourselves off from parts of ourselves and our past contributes to depression, cynicism, anxiety and other painful states of mind. And sadly, we can’t turn to religion to relieve our sense of isolation. Burned out by our religion we feel isolated from, and even angry with the universe, and disconnected from our religious heritage and group identity. Healing from religious burnout can have far reaching positive mental health benefits.
On the other extreme, we may have never had much involvement with religion. Our parents may have been disengaged from religion, or if they had two different religions, our religious training may have fallen through the tracks. We have little knowledge of the explanations religion offers, and little connection with a community or set of rituals. For much of our life, especially when things are going well, this doesn’t seem like much of a problem. But if we feel spiritually empty and disturbed by the mysteries of life and death, we could find relief by investigate and explore religious beliefs to move towards. By actively opening ourselves up to the transcendent dimension, we may find many benefits for our psychological health.
Atheism, Agnosticism, Science
As we grew up through our teen years, we searched for explanations of the world that would help us become effective adults. We may have concluded that the metaphor of religion seemed childish next to the precision of science. During this teenage period, we also needed to become our own person, no longer mere extensions of our parents. While we worked hard to separate from them, we had to deal with the annoying problem that God could see everything we did. Science allowed us to ignore the eye of our all-seeing conscience, and gave us the freedom to develop along whatever lines we chose.
As healthy, normal teenagers, we developing our own beliefs about the world by first gaining distance from the ideas of our parents. However, once we reject the ideas of religion, we may not realize how much we have thrown away, and never find the time or interest to revisit those adolescent choices. As we grow, we learn discover our own long-term emotional needs. The needs in later adulthood differ from those of our younger years, and we find ourselves increasingly in need of principles to help us bring order to life and death. Science cannot provide answers to our questions about values, transcendent purpose or death.
If these unanswered questions gnaw at us, and we realize we want deeper answers, we may want to revisit the choice we made to ignore that all-seeing eye. It turns out that by seeking the freedom from a higher power, we also threw away its comforts.
We live in an age when science is glorified as the ultimate authority. By giving this much power and glory to the analytical tools of science, our culture has cut itself off from the divine aspect of humans, leaving us as very limited and isolated beings. To regain our connection with each other and with the universe, we need to compromise with our purely scientific beliefs.
We may resist the idea of a higher power because we fear that we would give up our own responsibility, becoming lazy and blaming our higher power for all our problems. But this fear is not born out by observing people with faith, who often use their belief system to support a high-energy commitment to value based service.
When we suffer, we should look at our religious dimension to find out if it’s part of the problem, and how it could provide a solution. If we reject religion, we are missing out on a valuable set of tools. On the other hand, if we are enraptured by religion, we may be trying to split off important parts of ourselves, and drying up the well springs of compassion, humor, or creativity. We are in danger of being out of balance if our attitudes and behavior push loved ones away.
We are tempted to believe the group we belong to is better than others. We may even feel competitive and threatened by other groups. In our darker moments, we blame others for our failures, and think we can boost ourselves up by hurting or crushing them. When these group attitudes become more intense, they lead to mob hysteria. This abuse of group identity has caused misery through history, and continues into the present, as people use the banner of their group to conduct war and persecution. These tendencies seem an indelible stain on the human spirit. While we can’t change history, we can monitor our own attitudes and weed out any tendency we might have to reject and judge others. This is especially important around our children, who seem fascinated by our prejudices and embrace them with surprising intensity. We should challenge ourselves to remain honest to our own thirst for a higher perspective without being pushed away or pulled in by the bigotry of others.
Belief in a Higher Power may seem hard to grasp. It’s so abstract and relies so much on the teachings and insights of others. And everyone’s idea seems to be different. But to find a connection with a Higher Power, we don’t need to limit ourselves to any one particular format. The Twelve Step programs provide an example of how people can use this idea without any particular religious system. They encourage members to develop their own relationship to a Higher Power so they can let go of their own isolation and self-reliance. Even such an unshaped idea has helped people break free from behaviors that had completely consumed their lives. The Twelve Step programs prove that faith provides emotional support.
As we seek a deeper understanding of our transcendent dimension, we are not alone. Through the millennia and across the continents, people have asked these same questions, and we can learn so much from their perspectives. By digging deeper into the teachings of our own religion or seeking answers in others, we can find fresh invigorating insights into our place in the world, and our relationship to a transcending reality.
Because religion has played such a pervasive role in our lives, it can become invisible, like the wallpaper that we’ve been looking at for so many years. But when we use religion consciously and well, it can be an ideal tool to improve poise, and provide a foundation to stand upon especially when we’re facing issues too large to comprehend on our own. Religion gives us a guidance system to steer through the complexities of life, strengthens our sense of mission and motivates us to excel.
And religion can provide a bridge between people. By seeing that at heart we all long for the same universal truth, just as we all share one sun and moon, religion breaks down the walls that separate us from each other, and gives a social context that extends beyond any group or country boundaries.
Perhaps the most important payoff of religion is the comfort it gives us as we age. As we begin to realize we aren’t on this earth forever, religion enables us to feel that the time we are here makes sense and is worthwhile.
See also: Beliefs, Death, Prayer, Ritual, Sin, Spirituality, Values
Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore
The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck
The World’s Religions by Huston Smith
Waking up just in time, a therapist shows how to use the Twelve Steps approach to life’s ups and downs by Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.
Science of the Soul by Gary Zukav
Alcoholics Anonymous (“The Big Book”)