Religion vs. Spirituality
Dogma is a Danger to Us All
by Ruth Broyde Sharone
“Religion is dead.”
I winced as if I had experienced a body blow when I heard these words, delivered by one of the keynote speakers at an interspiritual conference on the East Coast three years ago.
The keynote speaker happened to be a friend of mine, a cable show producer who for decades has extoled and promoted the “spiritual-but-not-religious” movement, a growing phenomena that has challenged the value and significance of traditional religions in our times.
Many in the interspiritual movement believe humanity has outgrown religion and that we are collectively and inexorably moving toward the next evolution in our human development – which they predict will ultimately erase the barriers between us. A fascinating book about this development is The Coming Interspiritual Age (2012) by Kurt Johnson and David Robert Ord. Among other great benefits to humanity, they believe the new interspiritual movement will curb the spread of religious violence across our world; once individual religious boundaries are dropped, we will recognize that we are all spiritually connected and equal members of the human family. If that were achieved, it would indeed be a defining moment in our history.
But my friend’s declaration unnerved me and I felt compelled to speak out. After he finished his presentation to enthusiastic applause, I raised my hand and protested.
The Temptation to Dismiss ‘the Other’
“With all due respect,” I said, “as a representative of the interfaith community here today in this audience, I highly recommend you don’t use that statement to initiate much-needed dialogue between the spiritual and faith communities. Religion is dead is not the best opening line if you are eager to establish trust between the traditionally religious communities and your own community.”
My friend responded by saying he didn’t mean it literally, only figuratively, but several people in the audience came up to me that day to thank me for speaking up. They had similar fears that those who believed spirituality was superior to religion might end up replicating the elitist attitude of religious individuals who view non-believers in a derogatory light. That judgment echoes what many atheists I have known in the past have said, sharing the sense of being on the outside of society because they were not religious, a recipe for estrangement and alienation.
It would not only be ironic, but tragic, if the spiritual but not religious community began to behave in the same way as the people they have so sorely criticized. I could sense a clear and present danger of their becoming as dogmatic in their beliefs as the very individuals they had demonized for being dogmatic. We have witnessed that phenomenon often, especially in politics.
A comment from another good friend a year later also set me on edge.
“How can you be so evolved if you are still practicing Judaism?” she queried.
The implication was that the more evolved we become, the less relevant individual religions become. By inference – if not by declaration – she was claiming hierarchical superiority for those who belong to the interspiritual community because she believed the interspiritual community was light years beyond those who still clung to formal religion, replete with its dogma, ritual, and strict boundaries for behavior. As religious people become more “awakened,” she explained, they themselves will naturally choose to leave their home religions.
Religious Identity in the Future and the Art of Respect
That left me with the uneasy question: Will our current religions become artifacts of the past as we evolve?
As an interfaith activist for 30 years – someone who has crossed many borders in search of mutual understanding and appreciation of people of all beliefs – I personally find great value in the interspiritual movement. I am watching with keen interest as it spreads and grows across America.
The Pew Research Foundation has noted that today more than 40 percent of college campus youth consider themselves in that category. And we know for a fact that the rest of the adult population has also moved significantly away from formal religious affiliation – even more so in Europe, where most of the churches are now tourist sites, not communities of worship.
The religious landscape is changing so rapidly that those of us who are sensitive to the changes are a priori preparing for unexpected developments. That being said, it will be horribly counter-productive to our collective evolution if the adherents of the “spiritual but not religious” community begin to adopt a “holier than thou” attitude that they have decried among religious folk.
I noticed I was feeling defensive when my friend posed her question. Should I be classified as a “dinosaur” (an anthropological synonym for unevolved) for continuing to attend synagogue every Saturday morning, followed by 3-4 hours of Torah study? Or by religiously (pun intended) following the cycle of Jewish holidays which I consider to be, along with the seasons, the major markers of the year and a handy guide to assessing my own spiritual growth?
For me religious and spiritual practice are integrated partners. I don’t distinguish between the two because each Jewish holiday I celebrate has its own spiritual component, one that helps me carry out the religious part with greater understanding and enthusiasm.
But I have to admit it is indeed a tantalizing question to conjecture what the world will look like religiously 100 years from now, given the current spread of religious violence and growing intolerance coupled by the increased rise of nationalism with a parallel growth of globalization. This simultaneous expansion and contraction are making us all wonder "what's next?"
Today most people seem to be customizing their own religion or spiritual path rather than automatically continuing the religion of their parents. In some cases they are practicing two different religions simultaneously. You may have heard about ‘Jew-Bu’s,’ or, as a Japanese priest said, “That’s actually Bu-Jews.” The older generation is often confounded by this new practice, but a younger generation sees it as a true expression of who they are in the 21st century and as a natural evolution.
However the future turns out, I sincerely hope our interfaith activists and grassroots workers lead the way by modeling the art of respect, the practice of compassion, and the joy of celebrating our diversity.
Header Photo: Eddi van W., C.c. 2.0 nc nd