The following is an excerpt from Create Your Own Religion: A How-To Book Without Instructions .
The whole notion of creating one’s own religion goes against the claim made by many religions that they alone possess the Only Truth revealed to them by the deity of their choosing. In their eyes, religion is to be followed by human beings, but is never created by them. Countless people have been burned at the stake for simply urging others to challenge religious dogma and question beliefs. While this injunction is no longer followed literally, Jewish scriptures sanction the murder of anyone inviting us to change religious outlook. The Inquisition, which lasted over 600 years, fills the history of Christianity with plenty of mass killings of people whose only crime was holding unconventional opinions in matters of religion. Still today, in some Muslim countries, any Muslim who decides to abandon Islam faces the death penalty for apostasy.
Why such venom and brutality? Because many of those claiming to be speaking for God have little patience for people who want to figure out for themselves what life is about. What is so terrible about it? Because you should not search for what is wise and good. You should listen to what we tell you is wise and good.
In light of these attitudes, it should become clear why a call to “create your own religion” is by its very nature quite radical. But it doesn’t have to be that way. OK, since you are a most pleasant reader, I’ll share a secret with you. Lean toward me so that I may whisper it in your ear. . . . Everyone already creates their own religion. Some people just don’t lie about it.
Did I say something offensive or shocking? It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. At the risk of raising the blood pressure of some modern wannabe inquisitors, let’s look at the ugly truth for what it is. Despite their professed devotion to a text or a teacher or a path, even members of established religions don’t observe literally the dictates of their religion of choice. Many believers claim to be strict followers of their traditions, and some actually believe they are. But the reality is that they all are engaged to some degree in a selective reading of their sacred texts, adopting what suits them and rejecting the rest. It’s a simple process, really. Pick up the sacred books of your religion, look for passages supporting your values, and adapt them a little to your liking. Then highlight their importance in the overall balance of the religion, and conveniently forget all those other unsavory passages that either downright contradict your values or support behaviors and attitudes that don’t fit with your inclinations. Rather than having the guts to admit what they are doing and openly defend their right to pick and choose the passages they want to live their lives by, most people prefer hiding under the fable that their particular take on religion is the only correct one. All other people who put the accent on different messages and values contained in the same scriptures, they claim, are heretics who are twisting the essence of the religion. If this strikes you as intellectually dishonest, it’s because it is.
Hey Bolelli, are you really accusing billions of orthodox believers worldwide of being consummate liars? Not necessarily. Some don’t lie consciously. They just happen to be masters at self-delusion, so skilled at lying to themselves that they can do it without ever becoming aware of it. Why would they do this? you may ask. Because it would be too scary to take responsibility for choosing which values, among so many, to live by. It’s much more reassuring to go on pretending that one’s values are the only true eternal ones that enjoy God’s stamp of approval.
Other believers, on the other hand, don’t lie at all—not even subconsciously. What shields them from facing the contradictions that exist in every religious tradition, including their own, is plain old ignorance. As is the case with many faithful followers, their actual knowledge just doesn’t match their religious passion. Great numbers of Christians have never read the Bible cover to cover. Many Muslims only know the Koran through the passages their preachers decide to share with them. The same goes for the adherents of most religions. In the absence of direct knowledge, most people end up espousing some simplistic fairy tale version of what they believe their religion is about, never bothering to find out that reality is quite a bit more complicated. They are too lazy and unwilling to deal with complexity to want to dig a little deeper. It is easy to avoid facing contradictions if you don’t know about them. And the dealers of second-hand religious fairy tales are very careful to feed their audience only coherent, simple stories that will not require them to ask questions and think for themselves. Still mad about the day when they were told that there is no Santa, masses of people swallow up these stories and gladly ask for more.
Even if ignorance were not so widespread, things would not be much simpler. If you care to lean toward me again, I’ll share with you one more secret: most sacred books revered by various religions are filled with internal contradictions. Since the contradictory character of most scriptures leads believers to pick and choose which passages to follow and which to ignore, it should come as no surprise that the very same sacred books have been used to support drastically opposite ideas. During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln noted that, “Both [Southern and Northern soldiers] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other.”6 It was in this same time period, after all, that Christians used the Bible to argue for the abolition of slavery while just as many Christians found in the Bible the ideological ammunition to support slavery as a divinely ordained institution.
Other time periods tell the same tale. Early Christians were as divided then as modern Christians are today. For example, Saint Paul advocated celibacy and held a very negative view of any type of physical pleasure, whereas second century CE Christian teacher Carpocrates stirred his followers toward juicy sexual orgies. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian and so were the members of the Ku Klux Klan. Protestants and Catholics have slaughtered each other for a couple of hundred years all in the name of Jesus. Even today, you can find Christians who are gay and Christians who consider homosexuality to be the most horrid of sins; Christian feminists and Christians who abhor feminism; anticapitalist Christians who view the accumulation of wealth as a sin, and Christians who believe wealth to be a sign of divine blessing; Christians who are very liberal, and Christians who are very conservative. Naturally, they all believe God supports their point of view.
This same story could be repeated about pretty much any other religion. Each denomination is usually firmly convinced that it is the only one that is faithful to the original message of its tradition and accuse all others of having strayed away. The simple fact that every religion always gives rise to multiple variations (Christianity, for example, has over 30,000 different denominations) is enough to tell us that Truth with a capital t is not exactly self-evident.
Trying to figure out who is right is a hopeless undertaking. We are too far removed from the origins of most religions to establish with any degree of certainty what the founders really meant. Most established religions, in fact, are based on shaky sources. Divine revelations seem to indulge in the very annoying habit of popping up in semiliterate corners of the world at a point in human history long before accurate, modern means of recording information were invented. What results, then, is an endless chain of revelations being told and retold over decades until somebody finally writes them down. Clearly, this is a process that leaves much room for error.
Did you ever play the game “Telephone” as a kid? Yeah, the game in which you whisper something in someone’s ear who then whispers it in somebody else’s ear, and so on down the line until the last person says out loud what he heard and everyone laughs because it usually has nothing to do with the original message. Imagine doing this for a few decades with a few thousand individuals before writing the results down. Then, let a few more decades/centuries go by before a council of “authorities” gets to vote on which versions are accurate and which ones need to be destroyed. As weird as it may sound, this is exactly how the modern versions of most sacred texts were produced. No wonder these texts are littered with contradictions. And it is on the authority of these very dubious, very old documents that followers then fight among themselves regarding the essence of the original message.
Far from being an obstacle, this confusion is a gift that most members of organized religions actually cherish. The fact that their prophets are long dead and little information is known about them makes it easier for followers to project their own ideas, values, and expectations onto their favorite authority figure—something that many believe gives more legitimacy to an ideology. This allows people to create their own religion within a respected, established tradition while keeping the appearance of following the “official” version.
In the midst of these endless arguments, the founders’ original intention is clouded beyond recognition. Organized religions end up killing the insights of the prophets/gods they supposedly revere. Like demented kids hugging a puppy too tight and crushing him to death out of “love,” followers destroy their founders’ teachings with blind devotion. The freshness, beauty, and vital energy of the original message dies a miserable death when the message is turned into dogma. And what followers are left to worship is the dried-up, mummified corpse of what was maybe once a wonderful idea.
What this book invites you to do is to take responsibility for your ideas and, without slavish devotion to dogma, create your own religion. Rather than groping the past to find justification for your values in centuries-old texts, and using revered corpses as a source of authority, it is time to grow the heart and guts to follow your own insights and defend them on their own worth. Don’t believe something because Buddha said it, or Jesus said it, or Muhammad said it. Don’t believe it because I say it. (OK, don’t listen to this last sentence. I just threw it in there to look democratic. Of course if I say it, you should blindly believe it.) Better yet, don’t believe anything at all that is not born out of your own experience. Belief is the habit of those too lazy or too scared to trust in themselves. Let’s try a more courageous path: find out for yourself. If we want to stop wiping each other out over religious dogma, this is the healthiest step we can take.
If rejecting dogma and nourishing the courage and creativity required to make our own choices is a good idea in all times and places, it is a talent that is becoming even more essential in today’s world. This, after all, is the age of globalization, choice, and syncretism. More people on earth have access to more information now than at any other point in human history. We know more about each other than ever before; ideas circle the globe at a speed our ancestors never even imagined. The most learned intellectual from just a couple of centuries ago had access to far less information than anyone alive today who happens to have Internet access. Being exposed to different stimuli and ideas coming to us from every corner of the world means we have more material to play with. It is only natural then that greater numbers of people are mixing the ingredients, making new connections, and revolutionizing traditions.
This explosion in creativity can be seen everywhere. For example, just about any song born today comes from the union of musical traditions that just a few decades ago had never been introduced to each other. “Fusion” seems to be the operative word at the root of everything, from the types of food we eat to the movies we watch—even the diverse ethnic makeup of many people alive here and now.
With every facet of human culture being touched by this rapid exchange of information, it only makes sense that religion would be affected as well. In the days before our globalized, interconnected world, people practiced whatever religion happened to be the dominant one in the country of their birth. Thankfully, the stupidity of the belief that by random luck one is born in the one true religious tradition, while the rest of the world needs to be shown the light, is beginning to become progressively more evident. In the face of increased knowledge and choices, traditional forms of authority are collapsing. Rigid identities—be they national, ideological, or religious—are becoming more obsolete. Prepackaged answers satisfy fewer and fewer people. Solutions and ideas that appeal to a particular place and time reveal themselves to be painfully narrow-minded in a global world. Many of the answers people still turn to were born in a world where one couldn’t see beyond the confines of one’s village—where what existed in the next valley was foreign, exciting, and mysterious. But this will no longer do. Nostalgically holding on to the past is not going to help us face a reality that’s changing at breakneck pace.
Damn, it’s an exciting time to be alive. We are just a few steps away from self-destruction, but we are also a few steps away from creating a better world that could exceed the imagination of the most optimistic prophets from our past. We are dancing on a tightrope stretched on the abyss, the destiny of the world in our hands. The weapons we take into battle are heart, vision, and creativity. What we need are new solutions that reflect the greater degree of knowledge and the radically different experiences that characterize the modern world.
The availability of a much wider range of choices is transforming the face of religion today. Many individuals belonging to several mainstream religions have responded by dramatically reshaping some of their core beliefs. Increasing numbers of people are opening new paths outside of the confines of mainstream religions altogether. Most traditional religions, in fact, change only under duress; otherwise, they resist change and any challenge to their authority with tooth and nail.
The most conservative, fundamentalist branches see the global world as a threat. To them, more choices mean more opportunity to fall in error and stray from the One True Way. In their worldview, choice is the Devil’s tool to lead us away from the truth. Confronted with a world offering greater chances for choosing one’s own way, their answer is to dig deeper trenches and become even more radically rigid. The more freedoms human history offers us, the more fundamentalists will fight them. Despite their mutual hatred for one another, Jerry Falwell and the Taliban are twins separated at birth—modernity makes both of them recoil in horror.
I see the global world as the greatest opportunity humanity has ever had. In my view, it is healthy for traditions to be challenged. If traditional values lose popularity, it’s either because they are poorly communicated or because they are not relevant anymore. No healthy solution was ever born from whining about the good old days. As Nietzsche puts it, “[The sage] does not acknowledge custom or tradition, but only new questions from life and new answers.”7 While it is not necessarily true that newer is always better, it is certainly true that any theory, religion, or philosophy that was born in the midst of intellectual poverty can only be improved upon today. Whatever was good in it will endure, and whatever fails will do so because it belongs to a darker, more ignorant world.
What we will do here then is take aim at all the central questions debated by different religions in order to see what gifts of wisdom the past has to offer us, and how we can use that to come up with our own answers.
Copyright © 2013 by Daniele Bolelli. Reprinted with permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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