We are a spiritually promiscuous nation. Nearly one out of three Americans will change their religious affiliation over the course of their lifetime. And why not? We are blessed with more religious and spiritual choices than ever before in human history. Everything from Sufism to Buddhism to Unitarian Universalism is available, often only a mouse click away. But how to choose? There is no Consumer Reports for world religions. That's a shame.
After a health scare, I embarked on a worldwide search for a faith that fits. I spent the past three years diving waist-deep into several of the world's major religions -- and a few minor ones as well. I explored a variety pack of faiths: monotheistic, polytheistic and even atheistic ones. I journeyed to the source of each religion, traveling to Kathmandu for Buddhism to Israel for Kabbalah, to China for Taoism. Along the way, I reached some conclusions about the appeal, and drawbacks, that each religion offers. Here is my informal guide to five of my favorite faiths. Not exactly a Consumer Reports, but close.
Buddhism is an atheistic religion. Buddhists don't believe in a supreme being. Buddhism doesn't say "believe" but, rather, "experience." There is no concept of original sin in Buddhism, and for someone like myself, wracked with guilt, that came as a huge relief. Buddhism is almost medical in its approach to spiritual development. The Buddha diagnosed the human condition ("All is suffering") then offered a very specific cure (The elimination of desire). At the heart of Buddhist practice is a demanding regime of meditation and contemplation.
Advantages: No original sin. No complex or binding liturgy. A strong emphasis on personal experience and experimentation.
Challenges. Meditation is not easy, as anyone who has tried to sit still and watch their breath can attest. Some find Buddhist doctrines -- like those of sunyata, or emptiness -- cold and not exactly comforting. To those raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the lack of a supreme being, and therefore of unconditional forgiveness, is disappointing.
Who it is likely to appeal to: Pragmatists, skeptics and those not naturally drawn to organized religion.
Sufis are the mystical followers of Islam. They are sometimes known as the "drunkards of Islam," owing to their ecstatic love of Allah. The best known Sufi was Rumi, the 13th century poet and mystic, whose lyrical writing continues to inspire today. Sufis place great emphasis on the "knowing heart," the concept that everyone possesses an internal wisdom that can be accessed through consistent spiritual practice. The most important of these practices is dhikr, or remembrance, which usually involves the repetition, silently or aloud, of God's 99 names.
Advantages: Sufis are all heart. They don't get hung up on liturgy, and focus almost exclusively on a direct experience of the divine. "He who tastes, knows," is a common Sufi saying.
Challenges: Though there are some Sufi orders that do not consider themselves Muslims, most do. That means adhering to the five precepts of Islam, which some might find overly demanding and restrictive.
Who it is most likely to appeal to: Closeted emotive types, and anyone who feels the need to get out of their head and into their heart. Dancers, and those who are musically inclined.
The Franciscans pride themselves on leading a spiritual life that is both contemplative and active. They pray regularly but also live among the poor of the world, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and, in general, following the teachings of both Jesus and Saint Francis. Friars take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but there is nothing dour about them. They are the "merry pranksters" of Christianity, living proof that levity and piety are perfectly compatible.
Advantages: A forgiving God. A definitive, clearly delineated belief system. A strong sense of social action. Highly elaborate rituals.
Challenges: Relatively inflexible theology. A rigid clerical hierarchy. The elaborate ritual that some find appealing, others might find exhausting.
Who it is most likely to appeal to: Those with a strong social conscience. Those who find the promise of unconditional love, and forgiveness, attractive.
The mystical path of Judaism is tough to pin down. It is not so much a distinct religious tradition as a series of spiritual techniques amassed over the centuries. In many ways, Kabbalah runs counter to my conception of Judaism--as a largely head-based religion that places book knowledge above personal experience. Kabbalists, like their Sufi counterparts in Islam, aim to experience God directly, not merely read about Him. Some engage in meditation, which often involves concentrating on certain Hebrew letters and words. Kabbalists believe that our actions in this world have repercussions in the divine realm, and place particular emphasis on the Jewish concept of "tikkun ha olam," or repair of the world. As one scholar of Kabbalah put it: "God needs us."
Advantages: More "heart-based" than mainstream Judaism. Combines both book learning and personal experience of the divine.
Challenges: Some might find Kabbalistic concepts, such as that of the sefirot, or divine emanations, complex and confusing. Some forms of Kabbalah devolve into raw superstition.
Who it is most likely to appeal to: Those disillusioned with the occasionally arid nature of mainstream Judaism. Those who believe in the power of words, and numbers.
Taoism is as much a philosophy as a religion. It is a great faith for those who savor slowness, and brevity. The Tao Te Ching, the closest thing to a Taoist holy text, is only 5,000 words. You can read it in 45 minutes, or a lifetime. It can be read many ways, which probably explains why, after the Bible, it is the most translated holy book. An appealing, though elusive, Taoist concept is that of wu-wei, or effortless action. Taoists thrive on ambiguity, and are able to hold onto two seemingly contradictory concepts at the same time. Taoist practices such as qi gong and tai-chi aim to cultivate one's chi, or vital energy.
Advantages: Unstructured, with few rules, plenty of theological slack and a high degree of ambiguity.
Challenges: Unstructured, with few rules, plenty of theological slack and a high degree of ambiguity.
Who it is most likely to appeal to: Free thinkers, those who are physically inclined (or wish to be) and those who thrive on contradictions.
Every religion arrives with a certain amount of baggage, but perhaps none more so than Wicca, part of the broader neo-pagan movement. It is not what you think. Modern-day witches do not fly on broomsticks. They do not worship Satan, Satan being a Christian invention. Many witches do perform magic, though it is not the hocus-pocus variety. No rabbits popping out of hats. This magic is, as Aleister Crowley said in his famous definition: "The Science and Art of causing change to occur in conformity with Will." Wiccans believe that our actions have consequences, that whatever we do -- good or bad -- comes back to us threefold. It's karma plus. Wiccans have no central authority but rather rely on the creative energies of each coven to develop new rituals and liturgy. Indeed, Wicca ritual is an amazing thing to behold: fresh, theatrical and highly participatory.
Advantages: Accepting of people from all backgrounds. Guilt-free. (No original sin.) Highly creative ritual. Diffused clergy structure.
Challenges: Some might find the free-wheeling nature of Wicca off-putting, and the myriad of deities confusing.
Who it is most likely to appeal to: Introverts, self-starters and those who never felt like they fit in elsewhere. Also those with a strong creative impulse, and a theatrical streak.
Eric Weiner is author of Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine.