09/01/2010 10:54 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Does Religion Cause War?

Did you ever wonder: what is wrong with us? I mean. . . as a species. As much as we love, and give, and aspire, we also lie, hate, and kill. These are pretty basic questions. What would it take to better ourselves morally, in ways that really matter?

It may sound like a simplistic cliché to some, but spirituality is transformation. If we could understand and apply this principle, our lives would change dramatically. Transformation is how grapes become wine. Transformation is how wheat becomes bread. But what is the nature of this transformation for human beings? How does a schmuck become a saint, or at least a decent human being?

Most of us are stuck most of the time. Most of us fear real change because our egos are in control. The ego, or false self, is a defense mechanism, but not necessarily a healthy or very effective one. The ego that is overbearing, self-centered, and manipulative, is actually full of self-doubt, insecurity, and fear. A psychological mechanism that developed to help guarantee survival has lost its evolutionary value and is now a vestigial illusion that brings misery and stupidity -- not to mention exploitation, tyranny, and war.

When we live primarily from the false self, when the ego is in control, we tyrannize others and our own hearts. When we are preoccupied with the false self, we do not actually see things as they are; we see them from the distorted perspective of this insecure false self. You know all the problems this causes. I needn't bore you.

People who meditate, or who have some practice that awakens presence, begin to experience a separation between their awareness and their egoistic selves. They begin to feel that it's possible to attain some balance with the ego, the heart, and an underlying awareness.

Spirituality sees the ego as an instrument. It's not who we are but how we express what we are. The ego is like the saxophone of the soul. Play it well or not, it's out there on stage doing its thing.

The wise harness their egos to their hearts. The lower self bows to the higher self. To use the language of religion, the ego can become "a servant of God."

But maybe we need a new language to express primordial truths. Many people seem not to find the old language of religion very convincing. It has bad associations. Religion, in many people's minds today, is associated with close-mindedness, intolerance, and even violence. But if you look at the record, religion is not primarily to blame. A closer look reveals that human egos are responsible for all this madness.

Take religion completely out of the picture and set about reforming the world, and, so far, what we have seen is Stalin or Mao. Modern secular ideological movements are actually responsible for much greater and more indiscriminate violence than any religion ever has been. Maybe that's because they mobilized greater powers than religion was able to do in the modern age. The case still stands.

Some will say, "But _________ism is just another form of religion." No it's not. It's an ideology, an "ism." It may even be a distinct reaction against religion. The essence of religion opens us to something beyond immediate appearances, beyond mere things. Religion (and, of course, spirituality) opens us to realms of value beyond both the senses and the intellect. There is something within us that connects, that can relate, that can sense value, and, ultimately, that opens us to our innate capacity to love purely.

This innate capacity is not so far-fetched or remotely transcendent and unverifiable as it at first sounds. The key to this spiritual sense, this perception of value, is described by the word "sacred." We don't need an explicit theology to let the sacred into our lives. Almost any human being can acknowledge that there is something sacred in the birth of a child, in nature, in an individual human life, in free will. This sense of the sacred, however, has become quite scarce in contemporary life and that may be one of our biggest problems.

Most people have this capacity for empathy and relationship. Because this capacity is innate, believers have no monopoly on it and even atheists are not without it. It is in our nature as human beings.

But are we too busy to allow this sense of the sacred into our consciousness? Is it that our consciousness is too filled with the trivialities and banalities of modern life? Worse yet, are we filled with fear or hatred for "the other." Are we so freaked out by the state of our own personal lives, by the economy, by the wars, that we are continually in a negative state, reacting from our egos rather than allowing our egos to be transformed by that sense of the sacred and the values it entails: compassion, patience, generosity, forgiveness, and courage?

Spirituality, simply seen, is allowing ourselves to be transformed by all the challenges, sufferings, and joys of life. It is in the nature of our lives as human beings to emerge from states of limited consciousness into states of greater maturity and wisdom. We can change from being people obsessed with threats from a perceived "other," who need to parade with placards of hate, who even rationalize violence in a vain attempt to solve our problems and achieve our ends. What is needed today can better be achieved by cooperation, compassion, generosity, forgiveness, and love.

Beyond all the labels we apply to ourselves (Democrat, Republican, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, secular, atheist, or none of the above), we cannot afford to let the false self run our lives, or forget that all of humanity is one, and that some things are truly sacred.