Updating Religion: A Fundamental Need Of Our Time

I am writing this two days after the most recent mass shooting in the United States, in Orlando, Florida, where Omar Mateen killed 50 people and injured over 50 more in a popular gay night club. The exact motives for this tragic attack on the LGBT community, and the degree to it was inspired by religious ideology, are still being investigated. That said, the fact that the so-called Islamic State terrorist organisation have released a statement identifying Omar Mateen as one of their fighters (whether he was explicitly connected to them or not) highlights clearly the association between extremist religious ideology and violence towards those seen as rightful targets.

Of course this is not a unique case, either in the United States or the world as a whole. Nor, of course, is the violence that often flows from extremist ideology limited to being directed at the LGBT community. There are countless other examples of different groups becoming targets of violence – one race against another, one religious group against another, men against women, and so on and so on…

These occurrences are heart breaking, both in their nature and frequency. It makes a lot of sense that because they so often seem to be motivated by religious ideology, religion itself often becomes the bad guy, tarnished with a brush that paints it as irrational, dogmatic, dangerous, and fanatical. Sometimes this perspective is directed at religion as a whole (such as within the new atheism movement), and sometimes it is directed towards a particular religious tradition (which today is most prominently Islam).

Over the last decade and a half since 9/11, when the sparks generated by the marriage of extreme religious ideology and terrorism caught fire to a new degree, there have been many political, social and religious campaigns calling for us to clearly differentiate extremist from moderate religious ideology. These campaigns are important, and have done good work. The point at which they stumble, however, is the degree to which it is even true that the core texts of many of the world’s religious traditions do or do not condone violence against others.

This is the debate that is all over our TV, laptop and mobile screens today, and has been increasingly for the last years. One side of the argument says that these terrible acts are not representative of the religious traditions they come from – that the Koran or the Bible, for examples, are books of peace and connection to the sacred dimension of life that are grossly misinterpreted by some extremist groups (a position taken by the USA and UK governments after the 9/11 and 7/7 bombings, respectively). The other side says no, there are clearly examples in the core texts of the religious traditions that condone and even direct their followers toward violence against others (an argument used by proponents of the new atheist movement). This position states that religion as a whole, or particular religion(s), are relics from humanity’s dark ages, and should be jettisoned as soon as possible to clear the decks for a more humane society.

Reconciling these perspectives in a coherent way isn’t easy, and doesn’t often happen. I’d suggest that the difficulty lies in the fact that both are right, partially. The religious traditions that so often are associated with these atrocities truly do have profound messages of peace and the revelation of the sacred at their core, and most of their followers are indeed moderate, peaceful people. And yet it is also true that there are clear examples in their texts (particularly those of the Abrahamic religions) where violence toward non-believers or particular sub-groups of society is sanctioned.

How do we reconcile this? How can religion play a healthy role in our societies? Is that even possible?

I believe that these points can be reconciled, and that religion can play a healthy role in our society. Indeed, I believe that if the religious traditions are willing to make particular updates to themselves, they can play an utterly crucial role that no other domain of society can play.

In order to understand how this could be possible though, a few points need to be considered. It is clear that these points are not a silver bullet that would immediately bring an end to the current global issues we face. These issues are highly complex, involving the interrelation of many different factors (e.g. the various histories of different cultures; the histories of their relationships; the relative levels of education, economic prosperity, social mobility, and access to resources in their respective nations; their position in the global minefield of geopolitics; their prevalent ideologies, etc.). What an understanding and implementation of the points I will make here would do though, I believe, is substantially clear up the role that religion is playing in our current global situation, and contribute to actualising its deeper potential for the benefit of humanity.

1) Every healthy religious tradition has both an exoteric and esoteric dimension to it. Exoteric means “outer”, and refers to the outer layer of a religious tradition that generally includes teachings on what people should believe and how they can live a good and moral life. Esoteric means “inner”, and the esoteric core of a religious tradition focuses on the transformation of the practitioners’ consciousness, life and being, and on their ever-deeper connection to the divine. As the lives of the great saints and sages of the different traditions show, this process of growth and transformation is usually associated with the development of profound levels of well-being, compassion, wisdom, and moral action in service of all beings.

Examples of the esoteric aspect of the different traditions can be seen in the paths of meditation, insight and awakening in Buddhism; for Hinduism, core esoteric teachings are found in Vedanta and Kashmir Shaivism; for Islam it is Sufism; for Judaism there is Kabbalah; in Christianity it is found in the pathways of the Christian mystics; in indigenous communities it is found in the training and development of shamans.

Now, these two aspects of every healthy religious tradition (the word healthy is used because not every tradition has maintained a balanced appreciation of both), have different roles. The exoteric aspect, through its communication of a basic worldview, or interpretive lens, helps people make sense of the world and how to live what is described as a moral life (e.g. the Christian creation story, or the Muslim understanding of Sharia Law). The esoteric aspect is very different. This aspect of a religious tradition includes extraordinary technologies of awakening, divine communion and the actualisation of our deepest essence. Esoteric practice is about the fundamental transformation of the individual so that their sense of separateness from the divine and the whole world is progressively dissolved and a state of awakened unity as well as wisdom and compassion for all beings is progressively revealed.

Both of these are deeply important. Every human being needs some interpretive lens to understand the world. And it is only through an esoterically informed practice that an individual can move their sense of religion out of the realms simply of belief, and into authentic experience and thus true spiritual growth.

2) Every religious text or teaching will be expressed through an interpretive lens that is an expression of both it’s and the interpreters’ human maturity. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about politics, economics, golf, postmodernism, sex, or religion – developmental psychology has clearly demonstrated that every human being has the possibility to grow in life, and that the pattern of that growth is characterised by increasingly inclusive perspectives and worldviews. These are the metaphorical glasses that we each wear as we interpret our experience of the world. In the most simple way, we could say that these perspectives and worldviews develop from being egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric. That is, an individual or culture has the opportunity to grow from being concerned only with its own needs (egocentric) to extending its circle of care to those others who are part of its same group (ethnocentric – this could be a religious, political, economic or another kind of group), to where its circle of concern extends to all beings, regardless of race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, level of education, financial status of any other apparent division (worldcentric).

Certain anthropologists and social theorists have described how this is the case for both individuals, cultures and societies as a whole. While all individuals and cultures start off egocentric, not all make it into more inclusive stages of growth. This can be owing to many different reasons, such as economic factors, health factors, the lack of developmental guides, environmental issues, internal motivations, etc. The important point here is that there is a difference between the essential communication of particular religious traditions and the interpretive lens that that message is expressed through or interpreted in.

This could be, for example, the difference between one of the core communications of Christ, which is love and the redemption of all beings, and the interpretive lens through which it is described or understood in Christianity. Or it could be the difference between one of the core communications of Islam, which is surrender into the mercy, goodness and greatness of God, and the interpretive lens through which it is described or understood in Islam. In our current world, most of the violence comes from a pathological expression of the egocentric or ethnocentric interpretations of religion. When an individual or culture is operating from a worldcentric stage of growth, they have no interest in hurting other beings.

These points are highly important for us being able to navigate the current tension around religion in the world. They are also extremely relevant for the religions themselves, and point to the updates that need to happen.

Firstly, both the religious traditions and global culture need to understand Point 1 above. For too long certain religious traditions (mostly, but not limited to the Abrahamic traditions) have been actively hostile toward their esoteric communities of mystical practitioners, accusing them of heresy, whilst remaining static in an ethnocentric interpretive lens of themselves and the world. The history of the persecution of the Sufi’s in Islam is a good example here, as is the persecution of various communities of Gnostic Christians in Christianity.

With this being the case, it is no wonder that we have begun to see the decline of religion in the postmodern world. Today, with the rise of the scientific worldview that encompasses physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, evolutionary studies, social studies and humanitarian values, humanity has developed more sophisticated, rational and inclusive interpretive lenses for understanding ourselves and the world. Rather than being based on mythical and magical worldviews that are impossible of being tested or proved, these new worldviews are grounded in replicable research, empirical evidence and worldcentric humanitarian values.

The thing is though, as much as these fields have redefined the way we view the world (leading to all kinds of conflict with religious communities seeking to maintain their worldviews), it remains the case that there are no other domains of society and culture apart from the religious traditions that play their esoteric role. That is, when it comes to supporting human beings so pass through profoundly transformational processes of development and awakening so as to realise the sacred nature of all reality, the religious traditions are holding wisdom that no other domain of society has ever even come close to. This needs to be recognised by today’s global culture and within the religious traditions themselves. As grounded in research as the scientific worldview is, it is often bereft of a sense of the sacred. This is something that human beings by and large yearn for, and the religious traditions would be much better off finding their core communication to society in the esoteric dimension of what they offer, rather than by trying to convert people to their ethnocentric worldviews (chosen people/chosen religion). This is an over simplistic way to depict the situation, but it is often an accurate one.

The take home message from Point 2 above is that rather than seeing religious teachings or their interpretation in a one-dimensional light, we can see that human beings always communicate and interpret information through an interpretive lens. It is unavoidable. These interpretive lenses are an expression of our depth of development as human beings, as psychological research has shown. As a result, global culture and the religions themselves need to recognise that there can be egocentric, ethnocentric and worldcentric expressions of every religious text and tradition. That means that there can be an egocentric Islam or Christianity (e.g. “The Prophet or Christ came for me”), an ethnocentric Islam or Christianity (e.g. “The Prophet or Christ came for Muslims or Christians, but not others”), and a worldcetric Islam or Christianity (e.g. “The Prophet or Christ came for all beings without exception”).

Additionally, while we need to recognise that every one of these stages is needed in the overall trajectory of growth, there can be more healthy or pathological forms of each of them. Most of the violence that stems from religion in our world today comes from pathological forms of the ethnocentric stage (expressed as “Kill all who are not part of what my tradition says is right” rather than a healthy expression of the ethnocentric stage: “I choose to be part of this one tradition I think is right, and others can make their own choice”).

What global culture and the religions themselves need to do is to develop an awareness of these different levels of interpretation and engagement with religion, and give a platform to those most mature, worldcentric, and inclusive expressions and representatives of the traditions. This could be incredibly healing for humanity as a whole. For instance, look at the examples of the impact that such figures as the Dalai Lama or Pope Francis are having today with their worldcentric expressions of Tibetan Buddhism and Catholic Christianity.

As I said earlier in this piece, the causes behind such tragic events as this most recent shooting in Florida are more complex than could ever be solved simply by the points I have made on religion here. Additionally, I recognise that it would be no easy thing for the large numbers of people who heavily identify with egocentric to ethnocentric interpretations of their religious tradition to update their understanding to worldcentric levels. There is also the matter of when there are explicitly ethnocentric teachings given in the various texts of the different traditions. Without doubt, updating the way we relate to religion in the contemporary world will be an ongoing and long process. It will take religious, cultural, psychological, political and social sensitivity and insight.

For the religious traditions to excavate themselves from being increasingly associated only with ethnocentric worldviews that clash with the more rational and humanitarian worldviews of our time, there are crucial steps that need to be taken. They must be willing to recognise the more or less inclusive expressions of their particular doctrines, and give a platform to those representatives who are embodying the most worldcentric ways of being in the world. Global media must do the same. And the religious traditions must recognise the treasure they already hold in their hands in the form of their esoteric pathways for transformation and awakening to/connection with the divine. No other domain of society can cater for this. Again, global media must do the same.

If the religious traditions are willing to make these updates, then could will see them transform into their most noble and wise forms as conveyor belts of development and awakening for human beings, each with their own unique characteristics. For the sake of those who have died and who continue to die in religiously motivated conflicts around the world, may that be so, and may it be as soon as humanly possible.