Towards a New World Religious Philosophy

A Brief Specification Of A New World Spirituality

An essay in hypertext by Scott Bidstrup

"Love does not dominate; it cultivates." --Goethe




There is a serious problem in the world.

The problem is religion.

Of all the world's religions, none seem to adequately consider the problems posed by the modern world. Among these are the rise of the materialism created by the world economy, the alliance of government with economic interests to the exclusion of the interests of the people government was intended to serve, the increasing the plurality of cultures and lifestyles living side by side, the rapid spread of telecommunications-based popular culture, the reasonableness and predictiveness of scientific explanations for the origins of man, of the world and of the universe. But mostly, world religions, particularly the more conservative religions, have resolutely refused to acknowledge the realities of scientific discoveries and their significance for the religion-based moral codes and values that conflict with what is now known to be reality. Darwin has taught us something deeply significant about ourselves. The fact that most religions denigrate, or at best ignore his insights, tells us how deeply flawed they are, and how hopelessly out of touch with the modern reality they have become..

That the world's religions have failed to address these problems is clearly evident in such matters as the conflict over the teaching of creationism in the public schools, the rigorous opposition of conservative religions to the establishment of basic civil rights for homosexuals, and the increasingly strident, if irrelevant voices of the fundamentalists in world politics, where their influence has an undesirable, even dangerous impact.

In Algeria, Muslim extremists murder an average of several dozen innocent people every day. The government there is powerless to stop it. In America, Christian fundamentalists bomb family planning clinics and taverns frequented by gays and lesbians, and they're cheered on by people who would be horrified if such a thing were done to churches.

In public fora throughout the industrialized world, increasingly strident Christians decry the establishment of civil rights laws designed to protect minorities they despise. Yet they fail utterly to recognize that doing so is a violation of the very precepts they claim to preach, nor do they accept that those same minorities are equal before the law (or at least ought to be), and therefore have the same right to self determination the Christians do. The Christians increasingly seek to inject their views into the legal system, totally disregarding the injustices that doing so creates.

The fact that these and other religions of the world have failed utterly to address the problems of the modern world are dismissed by these religionists as being merely an example of how disregard of their value systems causes problems for the rest of us. Yet such religionists don't consider the problems that their value systems ignore or even exacerbate. In recognition of this problem, this essay is intended to address the specifications that a new world religious philosophy must have if it is to address current world problems at the same time it seeks to meet the spiritual needs of its followers. Therefore, in consideration of what features such a religious philosophy must exhibit, here is my idea of such a specification.

Humility

The first, most absolute prerequisite of any spiritual growth is humility.

There is no hope for any spiritual growth by the religionist, nor any hope for justice in a religion's relations with the rest of the world, without humility. That is absolutely basic.

Yet it is seldom a feature of major religions. The reason why is simple. People simply don't like to be asked to be humble enough to accept that they may be wrong, that others may have more rights than they may think appropriate, or that they or their religious leaders can be wandering in the wilderness of error. Yet such a reality is basic to any religion that seeks to have any hope of improving the spirituality of its members or of the civility of the world in which it finds itself.

Why this is necessary is that as truth marches on, the seeker inevitably finds himself in the position of being wrong. Being able to admit it without embarrassment is fundamental to being able to accept the new truth. And without truth, religion is nothing more than an exercise in self delusion.

Assumption of absolute knowledge

The most noxious feature of any religion or cult is the assumption which too many of them share, that of absolute knowledge. It is the doctrine that the leadership or the scripture, or both, are infallible.

This feature is especially destructive, because it forecloses any critical thought, analysis, introspection or dissent. Such a situation is not only an invitation to totalitarianism, but it is also highly destructive to the individual in that it precludes the introspection that is so essential to spiritual progress. It denies the opportunity to learn by experience; if one can only rely on the 'experience' of the founder, one gains no knowledge from making one's own decisions. This isn't spirituality; it is cult dependency.

Therefore, a useful new world religious philosophy must take this into account, and recognize that not only is it not perfect, but it can never be made perfect. Nor can any of its leaders or followers have any kind of monopoly on truth or wisdom.

Egalitarianism

The recognition and acceptance that others are equal to oneself, and have the same moral priority and the same right to moral as well as civil rights, whether they are members of the same religion or not, is of course the only way that conflict between the religionist and his neighbors can be avoided. The notion that anyone, regardless of the reasons, would or should have any civil or religious rights to the exclusion of someone else contravenes the basic requirement of humility as elucidated above.

The major world religions have largely rejected this basic requirement of egalitarianism for two reasons: First, telling someone he is no better than anyone else is hardly a way to attract him into your congregation. The notion that you're somehow one of God's chosen people is very appealing to the congregant's ego. This appeal has much usefulness to a religion in attracting new members. Second, it denies the right of religious leaders to claim the right to lead. Since few religions choose their leaders through purely democratic means, leaders have to justify their leadership, and the claim to moral or knowledge-based superiority is how this is done. Yet a true acceptance of egalitarianism, with its full implications, denies them this right. That is why they reject it.

Yet a useful religious philosophy must accept that all are morally equal, and no one has any moral priority over anyone else. No one has the right to dictate the behavior of someone else. So no religious hierarchy is possible; to do so would be to abrogate the neccessary moral requirement that all be held morally equal

Spiritual growth

For a religion to be useful, it must have a purpose. The stated purpose of most religions is personal spiritual growth, but because of the disregard of the importance of humility which is the foundation of spiritual growth, it is rarely achieved.

Recognition that its members are not growing spiritually would be the fundamental test of whether or not the religion is being successful. The practitioner must self examine, and the leadership must examine both themselves and the religion they are leading. Again, humility is required for the self-assessment, both by the individual and by the leadership of the religion.

Borrowing a page from science, the proof is in the results. If the new religious philosophy has not led to an improved life for its members, it has not succeeded. Of course it must recognize and accept that fact. And it must be willing to accept its error and change itself to make useful changes possible.

Refusal to make metaphysical speculations

Alone among the world's great religions, Zen Buddhism refuses to speculate on the existence or nature of God. Zen states, with some justification in my opinion, that the practitioner who spends his time speculating on the existence of God is worried about the wrong things, and needs to get back to the goal of self improvement.

I personally harbor a great deal of sympathy with this point of view. It is my view that someone sufficiently humble for spiritual growth will recognize that he doesn't have the answers, can't have the answers, and is wasting his time speculating on the matter.

Adoption of a position with regards to the existence and nature of God contravenes the first principle of spirituality; i.e. humility. It is tempting to believe that one has had an original insight, but with the billions of people who have lived before and are living now, such an original insight is quite unlikely. And whether or not such an insight is a reflection of reality is of course impossible to test.

A healthy skepticism

It is quite true that of all of the methods of seeking truth, the scientific method has been demonstrably the most reliable in ferreting out the truth from the welter of theories and ideas that constitutes the dreamings of human civilization.

One of the features of the scientific method is that it considers the theory as most reliable which makes the most reliably successful predictions. When Galileo first discovered the moons of Saturn, he recognized that their existence fundamentally confirmed the theories of Copernicus versus the theories of the Catholic Church. The Copernican model had proven to be fundamentally more predictive than the church's model, and has since been accepted as true by the world. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, even though it has admitted that it erred in persecuting Galileo, has still not admitted that he was right! In failing to do so, it has violated that most fundamental prerequisite of spiritual growth: humility.

If the theories of religionists regarding the nature of man and the universe he inhabits were true, they would be more predictive than the theories of science. Yet the predictions of science prove true, time and time again. All the while, the theories of the religionists are proven wrong, time and time again. To the humble seeker of truth and spirituality, that can mean only one thing. Yet it is surprising how few religionists are willing to accept that fact.

Willingness to do the hard work

It is surprising how few people who claim to be spiritual are in fact introspective. Self examination, as painful as it may be, is necessary for spiritual growth, because it provides the road map the seeker must travel.

So without that introspection, spiritual growth is stunted and slow, if it happens at all. Therefore, our new world religion must consider the need for introspection and the hard work that it charts.

A few words about faith

Up to this point, I have not said much about this fundamental aspect of existing religions. This is because I have a rather narrow view of faith.

I personally regard faith as being too often an excuse for believing in what one wants to believe in, rather than in a search for the truth.

While there is nothing wrong with exercising faith in matters for which there is no evidence for or against specific ideas, it is quite another matter to use it as an excuse for believing in something merely because you want to believe. Such is not spirituality, it is self deception, pure and simple. It is a trap into which vast numbers, if not the majority, of religionists fall.

Faith is an essential aspect of spiritual growth, in that you must believe in what you are doing. But at the same time, it is vitally necessary to keep your mind open to the fact that you may be wrong and pursuing the wrong path. Otherwise, it merely becomes a sort of mental masturbation, because it is impossible to learn whether you are wrong or right if you are unwilling to consider alternatives.

Conclusions

A new world religious philosophy is needed. Of that, there can be little doubt, considering how miserably existing religions have failed.

If one considers the ideas here as useful specifications for a new world religion, it is immediately apparent that such a religion would be radically different from those which have gone before.

Because of the radical differences, I am not sanguine about whether or not such a religion could ever be established and gain acceptance. I doubt that any organization could make the moral investments I have called for here, and still survive as an organization.

I would hope that I am wrong. Yet I remain skeptical, if open to being disproven.


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Copyright 1997, by Scott Bidstrup. All rights reserved
revised 10/9/97