Saturday, December 6, 2008

Why Religion? A Cynic's Evolution

I haven't written a post in ages - mostly because I originally started this blog to write about work.  However, work really hasn't been my focus recently.  Instead, I have been spending more time focused on family, relationships, and how I can learn to have a spiritually fulfilling life.  So, to the four people out there who read this blog (Hi Mom!), I am going to switch gears a bit and write about some of my thoughts on spirituality and its importance - be forewarned the oxygen gets a little thin in these parts.  Now with that aside...

I'm sure lots of folks out there share my background.  As with many folks with Asian backgrounds, I was raised to appreciate the power and beauty of math and science.   My parents raised my brothers and I with a profound appreciation for rational thought and a healthy skepticism of all things religious.  My parents were always concerned about the demagoguery and idolization that occurs in some religions and I grew up harboring a great deal of suspicion of all spiritual pursuits. All religions and all spiritual beliefs were superstition.  I didn't necessarily think they were bad, and the fact that they offered hope to so many people was a good thing.  It just wasn't for me.  I didn't need an artificial, cosmic source of hope and I certainly didn't need any help learning right from wrong.  I was a good person and would continue to be a good person without religion.  

Unfortunately, I kept running into very well-educated, intelligent, individuals with Faith and a passion for improving themselves and those around them that seemed perfectly sane.  They didn't seem to notice that their mere existence disrupted my world view (quite inconsiderate of them). As I came to know these people better, I could see the tangible positive influence that religion had in their lives.  Largely influenced by these encounters, I decided that I didn't know the first thing about religion and wanted to understand myself what makes religion tick before I passed further judgement.  As you might expect, it has been an incredibly interesting journey and I thought I'd share a bit of my evolution.  

Why Not Religion? The Danger of Religion Without Spirituality

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Spirituality as anything related to or affecting the spirit.  Spirit, in turn, is defined as an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms.  In essense, without spirit we have no life. 

Spirituality is the recognition of the inherent value of life and the interconnectedness of all life. 

Religion without Spirituality is Religion without an appreciation for life and the interconnectdness of life.  It is the dangerous and hateful cause of much violence and pain all in the name of "religion". Unfortunately all too many examples of religion without spirituality exist in today's world - ranging from the abuse of power within Catholic churches to terrorist bombings.  As a non-religious person growing up - these stories are what I associated with "religion" of any sort.

However, these stories also avoided the fact that the majority of people in the world practice a given faith.  A lot of them are well-educated, a lot of them are smart, a lot of them are doing great things.  There had to be something different about religion and specifically religion practiced with a strong spiritual center that had a real tangible affect on people's lives.  Today I thought I'd cover three tangible benefits that I believe have had a meaningful impact on my own life. 

Why Religion #1: Religion Provides a Forum for Deeper Relationships
I think the very first thing that struck me was how many of the relationships and friendships that these folks developed within their religious circles were much deeper and richer than my own. My own experience with friends and relationships sees the growth and development of rich relationships more as a product of chance than one of intention.  My closest friends were those with whom I had shared specific life experiences and rites of passage (whether it be fraternity life, business school, or even playing competitive sports).  But those life experiences and rites of passage never provided the right forum for discussing deeper issues of life and learning without some sort of catalyst.  It's unfortunate, but deep friendships among men alway seem to require an extreme catalyst for individuals to relate to one another.  Those catalysts can be positive, overcoming adversity to achieve in sports or in business for example, but more often than not, these catalysts unfortunately are most effective in negative contexts whether it be the tragedies of war and sickness to the no less tragic trials of failed relationships and broken families. 

Religion, and its constructs of church, small groups, studies, and fellowship provide a forum and a framework from which individuals can build deep relationships in a positive context.  Those same constructs are there to support when tragedy does strike, but religion provides a positive catalyst in its own right.

This is significant because I believe that if you grow up without Church and without some designated forum to discuss matters of the soul, it tends not to be discussed at all.  Without a catalyst, I personally found it awkward to try to deepen relationships built solely upon upon shared life experiences (school, work, sports) - particularly in the context of a culture that values the idea of the "self-made" and "self-sufficient" man.  

Why Religion #2: Humility and the Fallacy of the Self-sufficient Man

FYI: I personally have the most experience with Christianity at this point, so I'll write mainly from that perspective.  

One of the most powerful things an individual can do for another individual is meet them where they are and hear their story without judgement.  

It is funny how much we all fear being judged by others and how much we feel hurt from the judgement of others despite all of our mythology around being independent and self-sufficient.  Having been married for a few years now, I can tell from experience that some of the deepest hurts a spouse can inflict on the other are from judging the others action.  The fear of judgement is a the heart of many a wounded ego and many an argument.

Christianity teaches that all of us are flawed.  This is such a simple idea, but it is incredibly powerful.  Whether or not you believe it to be true, the power it carries for someone that does believes can be astounding.  Accepting that everyone has flaws (including yourself) allows two things: 1) the strength to ask others for help, and 2) the humility to not judge those that ask for help.  Religion, in this specific case Christianity, provides a context and a framework for individuals to engage with one another without loss of face.  It allows those that believe to confront issues with a transparency that is often lacking in a more material world where "appearances" matter.

Why Religion #3: Religion as a Framework for Spirituality

Religion enables the conversation about spirituality, but it also provides a framework for how to live spiritually.  Part of the beauty of the "we're all flawed" belief is that it enables one to acknowledge that we can all be better people.  This took a bit of adjustment for me as I used to believe that if you could be better that meant that you weren't good now.  The reality is that we are all on a continuum and though there is evil and evil people in the world the majority of us are somewhere on the continuum of "good" people - but, that doesn't mean we couldn't be better.

We all want to be better.  We want to be better at work, better at sports, and better at making lattice-like latte art in our coffee cups (ok, that last one might just be me - we just got a new espresso machine).

If we compared the time we spent improving our skills vs. improving our selves where would the percentages end up?  If folks are like me, their time spent improving is probably similar to what my split used to be: 30% Skills. 69% Slacking and 1% Self (Slacking requires practice - and I was/am a Master!). The world rewards us for skills but not necessarily for self (Sports salaries and our hero worship there are prime examples).  The result is that the spiritual side of ourselves - the side of ourselves that has to do with life and our fulfillment with life is sometimes ignored.  When it comes to our Selves, everyone generally thinks they are Good, but not everyone thinks they could be Better. 

Its more difficult than one might think to acknowledge that you could be a better person.  The tendency for most people is to feel like they are being judged, just as they would judge someone else who could be better. ("Why can't they be more neat?" "Why can't they exercise more?" "Why are they so lazy?")  When you see an area of improvement for someone else - it is very, very difficult not to judge.  So, when someone points out areas of improvement for you - it is very, very difficult to not feel as if you are being judged.  Religion provides a framework for self-improvement that withholds that judgement.  Within a religious framework, acknowledging that you could be a better person, does not imply you are a bad person now. 

Early in my life I was fortunate enough to have a mentor who would constantly challenge me to be a better person.  Everytime I went over his house, he would share with me specific ideas that he was working on about how he intended to improve himself as a person.  His focus, however, was wholly on being a better person in the interactions with those around him - whether it be being a better boss, a better husband, or a better father.  Throughout these interactions I could never help feeling like he was passing judgement on me.  I would think "Why is he friends with me if he thinks I'm such a terrible person?".  Over time going over his house sort of ended up being a drag - it began to feel like an exercise in inadequacy each time I went over ("Barry, here's how you suck at being you").  Now I believe that without a religious framework I simply had no way of processing his advice and criticism in a way that did not bruise my ego.  He took a great risk telling me what I needed to hear, but I simply wasn't equipped to absorb it.

This is because the criticisms are true are the ones that sting the most.  Unfortunately, though, I do not believe that people can come to understand and acknowledge criticisms on their own terms and in their own time unless they have a framework for ingestion that religion can provide.  

Very few people have the ability to absorb direct criticism without inflicting some mental stress upon themselves.  In the few instances where I have followed through on criticism it has usually been the result of "I'll show them!", rather than "This is what I want".  Religion allows us to confront those criticisms in a way that reaffirms us.  For non-believers, it seems ridiculous to think that the fact that a super-powerful, cosmic entity loves you for who you are is reaffirming, but again, the power of that affirmation for those that do believe can be amazing.  The belief that God loves them for who they are gives them the strength to want to change.

Does It Matter if Its Real?

The cynic in me sometimes wonders though whether it really matters if its real.  The belief structure of religion is in itself so beneficial that I'm not sure if it matters.  Simply believing has positive benefits on how you live and how you interact with the world.  If that's the case, why does it matter if God is real or not?  This is the question I had on my mind about three years ago when I was deciding whether or not to become a Christian.  It seemed like a Catch-22 in my mind, how does a non-believer believe when he's a non-believer?  How do you ask for guidance and help from a God that you don't believe in?  How does a God that only appears to believers appear for a non-believer in order to make the non-believer a believer?  I'm fairly certain that I drove my Pastor crazy with these questions - I find them awfully humorous today though because as odd as it may seem, I found my answer.  Or, I suppose, I should say more accurately that I'm finding the answer still.  At the end of the day I believe that people have to find their own way and their own answers.  The first step is want to find the answer.  At the very least I hope I can at least convince some people that the journey is worth doing even if they decide in the end that it's not real.  In the meantime, feel free to ask me questions, criticize me, or offer me suggestions on how I can be better - I promise I won't judge ;)