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Where religion goes wrong (as I see it… humbly)

Unfortunately, it’s easy for people to get turned off from spirituality and faith because of religion. Religion, we must remember, is a purely human invention. At its best, religion can be an aid in helping us learn our spiritual lessons. At its worst, religion can be used by unscrupulous people to push an agenda of violence and hatred. This agenda is clearly directly in contradiction with the spiritual reality in which we are all connected.

It is amazing to think how many wars have been waged in the name of religion. From the Crusades to the modern unrest in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, people have killed each other in the name of their God. People have genuinely believed that they were pleasing God by killing infidels. This despite the fact that every spiritual leader and sacred text is clear on one thing: killing is wrong. I’m not going to go into a litany of the reasons why murder is a sin. What I am going to point out, however, is that under our understanding of God, if we are all connected, when we kill another person, we are killing a part of God. We are also killing a living being that we are connected to. For that reason, killing another is particularly abhorrent to the almighty.

At least in many of these cases, the people involved in the war truly believed that they were doing what God wanted. There is the example during the Crusades, for one, where thousands of young people marched south to free the Holy Land. These young people were totally unprepared for even the hardships of the march, much less than the challenge of war. As a result, thousands died simply walking across the Alps, and of the few survivors who made it to the port of Marseilles, most of them ended up in slavery. This tragedy of the thirteenth century, often referred to as the Children’s Crusade, does have a lesson to teach us, however. Nobody can doubt that there were any selfish motives in the effort of the young people to free the Holy Land. They were driven by faith — perhaps a misplaced faith, but faith nonetheless.

This tragedy is far different from some of the other outrages committed in the name of religion. Scholars generally agree, for example, that the Spanish Inquisition, although purportedly a religious movement, was actually an effort by King Ferdinand to steal the wealth of Spain’s Jews to fund his military campaign to push the Moors out of Spain. This cynical use of religion for purely earthly aims has been seen again and again throughout history. From the persecution of the Jews in the Middle Ages to the terrorism of Al Quaeda nowadays, religion is often misused as a political or economic tool rather than the spiritual guide that it can be.

When we talk about faith in this book and in most contexts, we are talking about faith in God. We are talking about faith in the almighty, the knowledge of our connection to all living beings. Unfortunately, faith can also be misplaced. People can have faith in religion, and that faith can then be misused by unscrupulous individuals. We should not have faith in religion. Instead, we should use religion to help us develop our faith.

Religion is not inherently bad. For every example of an outrage committed in the name of religion, we can find examples of the good it can do. In the name of religion, education, health care and charity are provided throughout the world. We honor the memories of great religious leaders who showed us the path to faith and selflessness, people like St. Francis of Asisi and Mother Theresa, to name just two. Though they were in fact religious leaders, they provided us with guidance on our spiritual quest.

Those are examples of religion at its best. Neither St. Francis nor Mother Theresa were acting from a selfish interest. Neither of them were driven by ego or pride. Neither of them sought for others to have faith in them personally. Nor did they impose their vision of God on others. They, like so many others in religious history, showed us what true faith in God is all about, and in so doing, they gave us an example to follow.

Jesus himself was quite clear on this point, actually. His struggles throughout his ministry against the Pharisees and the other Jewish religious leaders of his day were focused on taking religion out of the human realm and placing it back into the spiritual realm. It doesn’t take much to imagine Jesus’s response to some of the outrages committed in his name. He was quite clear that his mission was to encourage faith in God and not to build a new church. The church came later, created by his followers such as Paul of Tarsus.

The concept that faith is of the spiritual realm and not the human one, however, does not mean that you should separate yourself from the world. This is another example of religions gone wrong. Given that God is the connection between all living beings, and that faith is the knowledge of that connection, and that our purpose here on earth is to seek opportunities to learn faith, if we hide from the world we will miss out on the opportunities for learning. Even monks sworn to silence must still face challenges and manage their relationships with their fellow monks. It is in fact this engagement that presents us with the opportunities for spiritual growth. Some of those opportunities, though certainly not all, can come through religion. It falls upon us then to learn the spiritual lessons religion can offer us while avoiding a faith in religion itself that can be so destructive when put in the wrong hands.

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