THE BLOG

Religion As A State Of Mind

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA

"Our religion is an attitude of mind, not a dogma" said Ohiyesa (Charles Alexander Eastman) a member of the Sioux nation born in Minnesota in 1858.


Having rejected religion because of its dogma at the age of 8, I've lived most of my life professing agnosticism or atheism. Yet an 'attitude of mind' similar to what Ohiyesa described as religion of the Native American seems close to what I've discovered through my own inward investigation of mind as an adult. I now see that religion serves a valuable role, if it can be redefined as an attitude of mind and not by dogma or rigid beliefs.

Religion - defined this way - is a means of connecting or relating to what the Sioux called the "Great Mystery". I can think of the Great Mystery as that which is Unknown. Using science, we chip away at the unknown using 3rd person investigation but a vast - and likely infinite unknown always looms beyond the border of such discovery. A first person experience of the magnitude of this unknown may arise through experiences of transcending oneself or sensing something larger than oneself, whether that something is the evolutionary process, Nature, or a personal God. It is that intuitive awareness of the unknown that religion may be used to understand, experience, or connect.

Organized religions, however, often lose touch with that purpose, getting caught up in the doctrine or beliefs surrounding it. Alan Watts distinguishes the ideas of 'belief' and 'faith' - with faith closely resembling the Ohiyesa definition of religion. He wrote, "The believer will open his mind to the truth on the condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith on the other hand is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth whatever it may turn out to be....Belief clings, but faith lets go" (The Wisdom of Insecurity, 1951). While religions may be designed as a vehicle for faith, often 'beliefs' take precedence for their members and leaders.

James Carse illustrates the difference between belief and faith in his book, "The religious case against belief" (2008). He argues that knowledge always has, as its complement, ignorance (for we don't know what we don't know) and religion provides a method of experiencing the vastness of the unknown or this ignorance (what Carse calls 'higher ignorance'). When a dogma or belief system is fixed as the explanation for this unknown, there is a closing off, a blocking off of experimentation to discover or relate to it. It is the dogma or belief within religions that limits the function or capacity of religion itself (note 'belief systems' can narrow the mind in secular settings as well).

The Sioux describe their religion as an attitude of mind - an attitude that arises and changes through experimentation and investigation requiring solitude, silence and time in Nature. Nurturing this open and curious attitude of mind arises from these and other things like:

  • living with simplicity
  • poverty (the letting go of attachment to material things)
  • appreciation for the beauty of Nature
  • prayer (daily recognition of the Unknown in connection to food, water, or Nature)
  • and seeing the extraordinary in ordinary things.

Perhaps it is time to investigate the function of our individual religions and to strip off the dogmas and beliefs that narrow the mind. As we increase our awareness of the diversity of dogmas or beliefs, we can better understand their 'man-made' nature and realize the core process that religion is meant to enhance - what the Sioux called 'an attitude of mind'.

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