Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Column from Vancouver Sun

Has 'religion' outlived its usefulness?
Despite the arguments that spirituality is somehow better, both seek to bring people together
Douglas Todd
Vancouver Sun

Eckhart Tolle is a New Age teacher who blends elements of Buddhism and Hinduism into his philosophy.
CREDIT: Steve Bosch, Vancouver Sun, Files
Eckhart Tolle is a New Age teacher who blends elements of Buddhism and Hinduism into his philosophy.

'Many people are already aware of the difference between spirituality and religion. They realize that having a belief system -- a set of thoughts that you regard as the absolute truth -- does not make you spiritual no matter what the nature of those beliefs is."

That's the influential opinion of one of the world's most famous living spiritual teachers. Vancouver-based Eckhart Tolle, promoted by Oprah Winfrey, has sold millions of copies of his books, including The Power of Now.

His repeated message is "religion" is bad (oppressive) and "spirituality" is good (liberating).

As Tolle writes in his latest mega-seller, A New Earth: Awakening to Life's Purpose, religious people are convinced "unless you believe exactly as they do, you are wrong in their eyes, and in the not-too-distant past, they would have felt justified in killing you for that. And some still do, even now."

Tolle is promoting what is fast becoming conventional wisdom in the western world: "Religion" is institutional, almost always authoritarian. "Religion" is equated with the Crusades, terrorism and judgmental U.S. televangelists.

"Religion," in the mind of Tolle and those who read his books in more than 30 languages, is rigid and divisive and absolutistic.

This same anti-religion message is being advanced by spiritual authors such as Neale Donald Walsch, author of the best-selling Conversations with God, and a host of other New Age teachers. To them "religion" is "fundamentalism."

In contrast, Tolle prefers the term "spiritual," which he describes as "the transformation of consciousness" -- to a state of "awakening."

In line with Tolle, many people in Canada, perhaps even most, now find it necessary to tell anyone who cares to listen: "I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual."

The conviction that "religion" is essentially evil is now so pervasive in our culture that I am having even observant evangelical Christians, Jews and Muslims also tell me: "I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual."

How did western society get to this point, where religion has become a dirty word?

Much of it has to do with shifting definitions.

What, after all, is "spiritual?"

What is "religious?"

Unless these important words are defined, people can spend a lot of time going round in conversational circles.

Let's start with "religion."

The Oxford Dictionary defines "religion" as "the belief in and worship of a superhuman power, esp. a personal God or gods." Oxford adds that religion is "a particular system of faith and worship." Most interesting is that the Latin root of "religion" is "to bind together."

Even though I quibble with this Oxford definition of religion, I accept it's relatively straightforward compared to the ever-evolving meanings of the amazingly popular and vague word, "spiritual."

American philosopher Ken Wilber is highly aware of the problems that occur when people don't nail down what they mean by "spiritual." He cites several usages.

One common understanding of "spiritual" is that it's a state of consciousness, such as those achieved through meditation, he says. Another definition of "spiritual" refers to embodying an attitude, such as love or wisdom.

A third use of "spiritual" restricts it to higher states of consciousness or maturity. I'll add a fourth definition of "spiritual" -- how a person finds ultimate meaning.

Although it's hard to tell with Tolle, since he's not overly systematic, he seems to basically define "spiritual" in line with Wilber's first definition -- as a state of mind, as the state of being detached from one's ego.

Mark Shibley, of Southern Oregon University, suggests there are two major types of alternative spiritualities (as distinct from organized religions) operating in North America, which often overlap.

The first type most fits Tolle and Walsch. Shibley calls what they promote "self-spirituality."

They focus on the self as sacred. Tolle and Walsch, both of whom live in the Pacific Northwest, or Cascadia, where self-spirituality is commonplace, emphasize private psychological practice over doctrine.

The second major spiritual group adheres to Earth reverence. They stress that nature is divine. They tend to have mystical moments not in churches or temples, but in the wilderness.

Now that we've fleshed out the terms, religious and spiritual, let's get down to the big question.

Which is better?

Spiritual or religious?

If you define "religion" as Tolle and Walsch do -- as rigidly institutional, fundamentalist and self-righteous -- you would have to opt for "spiritual." After all, personal "transformation" seems more authentic than this harsh, top-down religion.

But if you keep in mind the dictionary definition of "religion" -- that it's a "system of faith" that may serve to "bind together" humans with each other, the world and a transcendent reality -- the rivalry between the two becomes not so clear-cut.

Is it not possible to be "spiritual," to practise inner transformation, at the same time one is "religious," that is, working to bond with a higher power and wider community through shared beliefs?

The great sociologist, Robert Bellah, in a recent article in the Buddhist magazine, Tricycle, writes that making a sharp distinction between religion and spirituality creates a false dichotomy. And that's what Tolle does.

The author of ground-breaking books, such as Habits of the Heart, helpfully broadens the definition of religion to, "the many ways humans have sought to find meaning, to make sense of their lives."

I find Bellah's definition better than even the one supplied by the Oxford Dictionary, since it can include religions that posit no God or gods, such as forms of Buddhism.

It's also close to the definition I tend to use most for "spiritual." And, in many ways, the definitions are interchangeable.

Bellah also persuasively maintains that trying to rid the world of religion -- since it's often corrupted -- would be absurd.

It would be like saying, "Let's get rid of the economy," because it often does harmful things.

"Religion meets a human need, and if you get rid of it in one form, it will come back in another," Bellah says.

That, indeed, is what is happening with contemporary "spirituality."

Even though Tolle's promoters always stress that he is "not aligned with any particular religion or tradition," his teachings are dependent on ideas that have emerged over the millennia from Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and western philosophy.

And try as Tolle and many others might to emphasize that "spirituality" is only an inner, private experience, the hundreds of spiritual groups that are forming around Tolle's work, at his encouragement, are developing their own shared beliefs, thoughts, practices, orthodoxies and sense of community.

Just like a religion.

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Read Douglas Todd's blog at www.vancouversun.com/


Next week: What it takes for "religion" and "spirituality" to be healthy.

© The Vancouver Sun 2009

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