THE BLOG
12/17/2010 11:35 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Supreme Purpose in All Religions (and Their Shared Failure), Part 2

While all religions share the same essential purpose, they also seem to share the same essential problem. Though they start out right they soon end up obsessed with matters of lesser importance. Observe:

Instead of a bridge to God, religion is often a barrier to God.

Instead of freeing people from their burdens, religion itself is the burden.

Instead of knowing God, religion is obsessed with knowing about God.

Instead of divine acceptance, religion is preoccupied with guilt and failure, and the depiction of God as a deity displeased about both.

Instead of bringing unity to humanity, religion is the principle cause of most disunity, with its endlessly expanding hard-drive of beliefs, dogmas and doctrines around which little egos collect to argue, debate and ultimately divide.

Instead of peace and tranquility, religion is, for many its practitioners, a circus of endless activity, programs and meetings all of which are time-consuming and exhausting.

Since I know other religions only as an outsider, I'll reserve my observations to what I know best as an insider to Christianity. I'm certain, however, many of the same problems could be found in other faith traditions as well.

To begin, it is not a little ironic to me that the literal meaning of the word religion is "to return to bondage." It comes from two words, the prefix re meaning, "to return" and the root legare meaning, "to bind." Since everyone wants freedom and happiness and many turn to religion to find it, the regrettable consequence is that too often the only thing they get is greater enslavement.

Here's are a few random observations of mine:

Many churches and church leaders seem obsessed with achieving the status of being the biggest church with the largest crowds and the most elaborate campuses. In the last 10 years alone, for example, churches have spent more than $100 billion on buildings and facilities while 400 million people starved to death somewhere in the world during that same period. Something is horribly wrong with this picture. Church leaders measure spiritual progress in terms of the number of attendees, the size of their annual income and the square footage of their facilities. Furthermore, virtually every Christian leadership conference lauds the largest of these churches and their leaders as if they were role models for all other churches.

Additionally, churches and church leaders saddle their followers with a catalogue of "dos" and "don'ts" as onerous as the proverbial Sears catalogue. They are told what to think, how to believe, and the way they are supposed to live. Furthermore, many Christian leaders disregard the fact that Jesus himself repudiated the religious leaders in his day for doing this very thing to the followers of Judaism (Matt. 23:4).

And, what of the "circus of endless activity?" Have you been in a church lately? Were it not for the cross at the top of the building, you might think you had just stepped inside the big tent at a Barnum-and-Bailey circus. It's not only a wheel of perpetual and often pointless activity in many churches, but leaders seem to take pride in the fact that their church has become a 24/7 operation. All that really means is that the members have no time or energy to be "salt and light" in their communities because they're incarcerated in a church with its plethora of activities.

Churches are neurotically preoccupied with peripheral matters of faith, too. They argue theology and debate over the Bible almost incessantly. Their beliefs and dogmas are imposed on believing and unbelieving people alike. In the throes of this kind of madness, it is not surprising that millions of believers are leaving the church in greater numbers today than ever before in the history of the Christian church.

Replacing members they are losing, as well as the equally difficult task of keeping the ones they have, are among the most important priorities facing ministers today. Whether they wish to or not, they are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time looking for the latest gimmick to attract people through the front door, just to counter their mounting losses out the back. If they succeed in getting people to come, then the rest of their time is spent trying to get them to stay. Churches actually compete with each other the way Las Vegas hotels compete for the best show in town. Since the mega churches can afford the more expensive talent, they have a manifest and unfair advantage over almost all other churches. The churches in America that are growing numerically, and there are only a scant few anymore, are finding that their growth comes largely from the disgruntled, disenfranchised or burned-out members who've left other churches. Mega churches are filled with people who desire a spiritual connect to God but want nothing to do with the madness of busy-ness that is most churches today.

Rather than mutually respecting and affirming the one and only thing all religions share in common, which is their diverse ways of knowing peace and Presence, religious leaders become preoccupied with what distinguishes them in terms of their beliefs, doctrines, viewpoints and so on. Whenever they do, which is most of the time, it isn't long before they begin insisting that their beliefs are right and by implication the beliefs of others are wrong. The inevitable consequence is disagreement, division and even destruction. Unless this madness ends, and soon, religious people will end up destroying the very world their religion has evolved to redeem.

I feel more strongly today than ever before that the future of humanity is at stake. Unless there are profound changes in human consciousness -- changes in how we understand ourselves and this universe, how we look at each other, as well as how we treat each other -- I sometimes wonder if there is much hope for humanity's survival. The Dalai Lama is right, "Until there is peace between religions, there can be no peace in the world."

Here's what I think must happen:

First, accept the fact that there will always be many religions. No one religion will ever convert the whole world to its way of believing. How do I know this? Followers within the same religion can't even agree on everything and so have divided into an almost endless number of sects and denominations. In Christianity, for example, there are more denominations than there are flavors of Baskin-Robbins ice cream.

Noted historian, Huston Smith, once observed: "...if we were to find ourselves with a single religion tomorrow, it is likely that there would be two the day after." So, what does this mean? Just what John Coats said recently in a HuffPost article, "Your place at this table is a given." In other words, we must make room, not only for all Christians, churches and their denominations, but for all religions as well.

Second, religious leaders must continually remind themselves of the supreme purpose of their religion -- to bring followers into a meaningful relationship with the Divine -- and stick to this purpose. Everything else is secondary. However, if secondary matters -- things like your understanding of the Divine, your beliefs or your group's beliefs, and so forth -- are given a place of preeminence, the eventual consequence is a feeling of superiority. That feeling quickly gets ugly and, when it does -- and it always does -- no good thing will ever come of it.

So again, there must be room at this table for everyone. How? The only way to accomplish this is to grow up. Your ego (and the arrogance around it), as well as the collective ego of your group, must die, which is what Jesus meant when he said "Deny yourself," (Mark 10:37) or the Buddha meant when he referred to "anata," or "no self."

Just call it maturity if these concepts don't work for you: the capacity to cherish your individual beliefs while making room for the differing beliefs of others. F. Scott Fitzgerald put it something like this, "The mark of maturity is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still be at peace." Religious people who continually debate, defend and then demand their way of believing is the "right" way or, worse, the "only" way are only revealing their immaturity, as well as inability, to live with paradox, ambiguity and, most important, to live by grace and with grace.

Third, I would suggest you make the effort to forgive your faith tradition for its failures. There is so much anger and well-deserved rage toward the church, particularly from those who've been damaged or disenfranchised by it. I was one of these persons myself but, since I describe that story in detail in The Enoch Factor, it isn't necessary to go into it here. Suffice to say, forgiveness will be no small task for many of people. The injury inflicted on them by the church is not only inexcusable, it is in countless instances so inconceivable, even horrific in nature, it borders on being unforgivable. I admit there are times I fight the impulse to walk away from it myself. I still find it incomprehensible, for example, even reprehensible, how the church could expect gays and lesbians to return to the proverbial closet, as someone so eloquently put it, while hiding, as well as protecting, clergy pedophiles in its own closets. If you haven't forgiven your religious tradition for its insanity, or simply cannot just yet, know that I completely understand. For myself, however, I've chosen to forgive and, of course, that's what forgiveness really is: a choice.

Finally, the fighting must end, too. And, this statement isn't directed just to Islamic fundamentalists but to Christian fundamentalists, too. The former use weapons to destroy people who don't agree with them. The latter use a little belief system they call the Rapture against those who don't agree with them. This system has no Biblical basis as any scholar knows but it postulates that Jesus will return to earth, hover in the clouds while Christians are zapped from the earth, leaving behind all disbelievers.

It's a belief system straight out of the comic books, which is the irony because, if Christians actually knew where the idea of the Rapture came -- which of course they do not -- they would reject it outright. Meanwhile, however, belief in the Rapture serves as a convenient way to take revenge on disbelievers or all of those whom Christians have failed to convert to Christianity.

Thinking Christians know that, whatever was meant by the words of Jesus' return to earth, the New Testament passages that speak of this all suggest it will only occur when people least expect it. Since fundamentalist Christians are all looking for Jesus' return, they do not realize but they are likely responsible for his delay.

Again, just as it is outlandish to believe your religion is going to convert the world to its way of thinking, it is equally outlandish to develop a belief system that would leave behind the world you can't convert. We've got to learn to get along. "No tree has branches so foolish as to fight among themselves" (Native American wisdom).