Last month my family and I attended my nephew’s First Communion. It was the first time I had experienced a full Catholic mass in a long time, and I took note of one interesting change since my early church-going days. When the priest invited family and friends to receive communion, he also welcomed non-Catholics to approach as well. While it wouldn’t be appropriate for a non-Catholic to receive communion, we were told that we could receive a blessing from the priest – and indicate that wish by crossing our arms across our chest. After a few moments of reflection, I decided to participate.
It was after that ceremony that I had an epiphany of sorts regarding religion, belief systems, and my past approach to spirituality. I realized for the first time that it is a mistake to search for absolute truths within spiritual belief systems!
All my life I had felt that there was a truth out there waiting to be found, and for several years I thought I had found that truth within the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some 12 years later, after seeking truth within other spiritual traditions, I watched this Catholic ritual and it hit me that the validity of the ceremony had nothing to do with whether Catholic beliefs could be backed up scientifically. What really mattered was whether the Catholic faith contributed to the elevation of its believers to a higher standard of human behavior. Regarding religion, his Holiness the Dalai Lama said it well:
… fundamentally, all spiritual traditions perform the same function, which is to help us tame our mental state, overcome our negativities and perfect our inner potential.
The Two Mistakes
There are two critical errors – two big spiritual mistakes – that many people and religious organizations make:
- The view that spiritual explanations reflect scientific truths.
- Attachment to ideas, including spiritual ideas, resulting in people mistaking their identity with the ideas.
The consequences of these errors have turned so many people away from religion, and caused them to hate religion and view it with contempt. All the harm that has been caused in the name of religion, all the lives lost, could have been avoided if not for the above two mistakes.
Consequences of the Two Mistakes
To this day we see the struggle between religious beliefs and scientific discoveries. Believers want Creationism (or “intelligent design”) taught in US public schools alongside evolution. Moral “truths” are imposed on society as we witness the struggle for gay rights. Some religious refuse to accept modern medicine’s discoveries regarding the causes of many diseases.
And we are all too familiar with the harm caused when religions seek to impose their beliefs on others. We see open warfare such as the Christian Crusades or the modern day Islamic jihads. We’ve seen families divided and even destroyed because of religious differences. All because people will defend their beliefs as if they are defending their own lives – as if their very life were at stake. They have grown so attached to the belief that it is everything they are, and if the belief is threatened in any way then they will rise to defend it.
How to Avoid These Mistakes
We must keep in mind that while many beliefs- such as the existence of God or the afterlife – are impossible to disprove, they also have yet to be proven scientifically. If they were, then they would no longer be beliefs, but established facts. If any one religion were really true and all others false, then that should have easily been established by now. Yes, belief is important in order to obtain the most that the spiritual teachings have to offer, but we must find a way to hold onto beliefs without labeling everything else as false.
And we must find a way to discard beliefs that science has proven to be untrue. Let’s not forget that many beliefs have had to be discarded under the increased light of science. An excellent example of this was highlighted by the recent action by the Catholic church to give the astronomer Copernicus a decent burial. Copernicus had been considered a heretic by the Church for his ideas that the earth was not the center of the universe, but revolved around the sun. The initial position taken by the Church was the result of the same flawed thinking that plague many sincere believers of any religious tradition.
Ironically, it’s a spiritual practice that can actually help with the second part of this problem. This is the practice of non-attachment. Usually, this applies to not being attached to material possessions, but it also applies to not being attached to ideas, and it’s one of the most difficult things to achieve. We all are subject to pride and ego, and we wrap ourselves with external “things” that we use to define ourselves – our possessions, our job or career, our family … and our beliefs. An attack on those things is perceived as an attack on ourselves.
But even though we may not achieve that state of non-attachment, perhaps understanding the role attachment plays in our lives can help us to understand the actions of others, particularly with respect to their religious beliefs. I can add that the same applies to the skeptic and his beliefs.
You might be wondering, then, that perhaps the best approach is to not have any spiritual beliefs at all. After all, does it really make sense to believe something that has not been verified as scientific truth?
A later post will answer that question.