08/27/2010 05:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Can Religion Save the World?

In psychology, desensitization (also called inurement) is a process for mitigating the harmful effects of phobias or other disorders. It also occurs when an emotional response is repeatedly evoked in situations in which the action tendency that is associated with the emotion proves irrelevant or unnecessary. Agoraphobics, who fear open spaces and social gatherings outside their own home, may be gradually led to increase their interaction with the outside world by putting them in situations that are uncomfortable but not panic-provoking for them. Mastering their anxiety in very small doses can allow them to take greater steps to self-reliance. Desensitization can be an alternative or a supplement to anxiety-reducing medication.

-From Wikipedia

One of my top ten favorite coming-of-age films is the 1985 film The Breakfast Club, a story about five very different teenagers who have to attend the dreaded Saturday detention for very different reasons. At the beginning they are themselves, dedicated to their own individualism, but at the end they all come to embrace one another as a sort of dysfunctional amalgamation of family. Over the years our television screens have been riddled with coming-of-age stories. But why?

Maybe coming of age isn't about them but about us. It's about our journey not only as a nation but also as a globe, as the human race. We want to believe that things as they are now will some day change, that things aren't necessarily as they are meant to be.

Karl Marx once said that religion is an opiate for the masses. Sadly, he was right then and he is right now. Religion has become stale, overused, abused and tired. But maybe religion has been participating in its own coming-of-age story. Maybe it, too, hasn't finished growing, changing, maturing into something it has meant to be. Now, some might automatically want to react in disdain toward the word "religion." I don't blame you.

But what if religion were something better than it is? Could it save the world? Could it make it a better place? I am not proposing a one-world religion, but I am speaking of religion itself, the institution of religion.

Let's go back to the coming-of-age analogy. As you get older, you begin changing and growing. As you grow older, your clothes began getting too small and you need ones that fit. Part of the coming-of-age story is some sort of act of hopeful defiance, where there is a breaking away from what was before, or the institutions that have been in place. There is the idea that the frameworks in place impede the process of self-discovery. Imagine a plant that was meant to be big and beautiful but is forced into a house planter: it will break out of the planter. Religion was meant to be a beautiful addition to society.

I think a step in the right direction is inurement or desensitization, a breaking away from what was and a walking into what could be. What it means for all of us is a place or platform where we dream out loud of a world where religion doesn't have to be forced to the margins or where religion can participate in the global conversation. So let me clear up what I mean when I use the word "religion."

I do not mean religion as an oppressive ideology. I'm not referring to a globalized or nationalized religion. I'm not referring to religion as something that forces itself onto society. (This list could go on...)

I'm in favor of religion that is for mutual understanding. A religion that is open to creative and relevant collaboration. A religion that embraces harmonious diversity. A religion whose adherents intentionally choose to work with others toward making the world a better place. A religion where the belief system is based on love. (This list could also go on...)

Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan speaks of a person as the Subject. Part of the development of the Subject is what he calls the mirror stage, a stage I think we are in now as a society. Wikipedia describes his theory:

The mirror stage describes the formation of the Ego via the process of identification, the Ego being the result of identifying with one's own specular image. At six months the baby still lacks coordination (see Louis Bolk); however, it can recognize itself in the mirror before attaining control over its bodily movements. The child sees its image as a whole, and the synthesis of this image produces a sense of contrast with the uncoordination of the body, which is perceived as a fragmented body. This contrast is first felt by the infant as a rivalry with its own image, because the wholeness of the image threatens it with fragmentation, and thus the mirror stage gives rise to an aggressive tension between the subject and the image. To resolve this aggressive tension, the subject identifies with the image: this primary identification with the counterpart is what forms the Ego. (Dylan Evans, op.cit) The moment of identification is to Lacan a moment of jubilation since it leads to an imaginary sense of mastery.

The fragmentation or tension that Lacan speaks of here is where we've been for thousands of years. Now, we are entering into a new era where we are looking back onto ourselves and realizing that the idea of humanity as fragmented parts was an incorrect assumption, and we are beginning to accept the reality that we are all integrated into one another, that we can't do it alone. We are in a formational time in terms of religious cohesion and rebirth. I think part of the first step is realigning ourselves with what religion could be and divorcing ourselves from what religion once was. Religion can help make the world a better place, we just have to believe it.

Religions as immobile institutions are sadly but necessarily dying. (I think this goes for any religion; for me it's Christianity.) It is ushering in a much-needed space for many important religious voices to add their insight regarding the future of religion. There are people in many religions asking questions that are difficult but necessary. Others are reaching out from one expression to the next, learning weird and wonderful things and seeing the world anew. I am encouraged by the words of the Jewish rabbi from Nazareth who once said, "You must be born again." One interpretation is that Jesus is referring to personal salvation, but what if his words had wider implications? What if he meant that the world is supposed to be in a state of perpetual rebirth, A state of perpetual return?

The ancient Eastern religions saw time as an event. They believed that when events happened, that was time occurring, that when things occur to us and when we perpetuate events, we are participating in time. What this means is that we can look into our history not as something solid but as something that we get to create together. We make history now, and we are now living history. History isn't a construct we are bound to or something we have to regret; it comprises events we can still learn from and then use to create the greatest coming-of-age story the world has ever seen. I understand that this article is incredibly anemic and can only deal with so much, but I share because I want you as the reader to participate in dreaming up what religion at its best can do to benefit the world.

This perpetual return inspires us to consistently ask the hard questions about the future(s) of religion. The perpetual return sparks the internal changes that are necessary to rekindle the gift of compassion that almost all religions subscribe to. It's the belief that the world can be saved, the world can be made better, that we can work together as a global humanity to discover creative, relevant, dynamic ways to participate in what some Jews deem as Tikkun Olam, a healing of the world. To me, this is religion at its best: religion that believes in humanity, religion that is still willing to hold to its own creeds yet embrace the ideas of others.

What are some ways that religion can be reborn? Should we use a different word? How could your religious expression be reborn? Dream out loud with me.