Choice is our birthright. It’s one we fear to claim.
Exactly where this fear comes from is a bit of a riddle. Perhaps it’s a fruit of childhood dependence, on the habit of deferring to parents to make decisions. As we mature, we take on the task of choosing in more and more things, but by the time that happens we have become so accustomed to letting others make our choices that we still look for reassurance from parents or parent-substitutes, someone or something to tell us that we have made the right decision. Maybe that’s it or maybe it’s something more cosmic for which the process of biological and cultural maturation is a microcosmic metaphor.
Regardless of where it comes from, though, it certainly happens. We believe things not because the evidence tells us they are so, but because some authority — a doctor, a professor of science, the president, a minister, a movement leader — says they are so.
This is more true in the area of religion and spirituality than any other area of life. (It’s equally a mistake, equally a sad abandonment of our birthright, in any area.) Spiritual experience is murky, difficult to understand, and impossible to put into words in any straightforward fashion. It’s also possibly the most compelling experience possible to a human mind. That combination makes it a great opportunity for the power-hungry to deceive the innocent.
Every body of religious doctrine consists of two parts. One part is an affirmation of spiritual experience and an attempt to put it into an intellectual framework that can be accepted and believed. A religious says to a person who has stood before the face of the cosmos, “No, you aren’t crazy. It really happened. And it means this.” The ability to provide this service is the reason why religions have believers. It’s the reason why the remainder of the body of religious doctrine is able to deceive and enslave.
The other part is an assertion of power. It’s an attempt to make the religious believer surrender his birthright and accept the religious organization, its teachings, and its scripture as the decision-maker. To do this, the religious organization uses doctrinal tricks such as a claim that its sacred writings are divinely inspired and infallible, that its own organization and hierarchy are sacred and established by divine authority, and that unbelievers will be punished by God or the Gods or the cosmic principles in some way, while believers in good standing will be rewarded. These being imaginary punishments and rewards, they can be made extravagant far beyond the materially possible: cruel torment going on forever and ever, or unending perfect bliss. At the same time, though, when given the power to do so religious organizations have not proven shy about using the resources of the state to dispense temporal punishments and rewards which, while lesser in scope, are more immediately effective.
Religion, like government, always attracts those who are interested in exerting power over others. In the past, and in some places to this day, religion and government have been partners. At other times they have been rivals. But the secular authority and the high priesthood have always recognized one another as kin, whether they strove together or against one another, and rightly so.
On a collective level the only way to reduce the danger posed by religion is to separate it from the state, so that no religion can be favored by the state and no religion can make use of the state’s authority. That goes a long way towards de-fanging the serpent. It leaves religion in possession of its more fundamental power, though, which is at root a power to persuade and deceive. If there’s a collective solution to that, it lies in making sure the playing field is crowded: that each religion must seek adherents in competition with many others, so that no one is isolated with only one doctrinal message available.
On an individual level, the answer lies in remembering who has the real final authority: we do. Each of us does. And remember as well, that we contend not with the sacred ones, but with ordinary human beings who want to convince us that they have the answers, and that we should follow them.
Remember that in questioning a scripture, we are not asserting our own judgment over that of God, but asserting it over the claims of mere mortals about what they say is God’s word. (Or, as I put it more sarcastically once in a discussion with a Bible absolutist, “No, I don’t think I’m smarter than God. I just think I’m smarter than you.”) It is in the end our own judgment, and that is our duty as well as our right.
Do I trust a council of bishops called by an emperor for political purposes to be able to tell divine inspiration when they see it? No, I don’t. And therefore I feel no compulsion to accept their claim that certain early Christian writings out of all the hundreds that were generated between the crucifixion and the Council of Nicaea are divinely inspired.
Do I believe that a prophet who was also a political leader, motivated to unite a collection of fractious, backward tribes and bring them into civilization, always exercised pure judgment in what he presented to them as the word of God? No, I don’t. And therefore I feel no compulsion in regard to the Quran any more than the Bible.
But those are only two instances of a general rule. In the end, the deferral of judgment to outside authority is a cop-out and the claim of it is a lie. In the end, each of us has the right to make that judgment for ourselves. In the end, the good that is found in each body of doctrine must be separated from the bad; the valid metaphors and models for religious experience and the profound expressions of myth must be separated from the assertions of power and authority.
In the end, the only true religion is the one you craft for yourself, helped by many, but dictated by none.