The Place of Religion
Religion in the true sense of the word is probably the most important aspect of human life. After all, it most clearly addresses our eternal concerns, while the other aspects of life are more transient in their outlook. Religion is perhaps the essence of all human culture and striving, our seeking to transcend ourselves to something of enduring and universal value. It represents the highest urges of humanity, our effort s to reach what is holy, perfect and pure, what grants peace, happiness and the end of suffering for all beings.
Religion, properly understood, is a means of linking the individual with the Divine or higher consciousness, whatever one may call it. This is the same definition as Yoga in the context of Indic thought, which refers to linking the individual soul with the Supreme Self or universal soul. Therefore, true religion naturally leads us to spirituality or internal practices to contact the Divine like meditation and self-inquiry. True religious culture creates a wealth of spiritual practices like the many systems of Yoga or the many forms of mysticism worldwide. It causes us to look within to change our consciousness. It shows us the importance of conquering ourselves rather than conquering the world.
Unfortunately, religion has also fallen under the distortions of the human ego and its obstinate demand for power and position. It has become a means of social control used by various vested interests that are more political than truly religious in nature. People have also limited religion to their own circumscribed beliefs. They have confused the religious urge—which is universal—with the calling of a particular faith that is temporally and culturally limited. Instead of emphasizing internal practices to become one with the Divine, they promote external methods, at time coercion, to convert the world to their particular belief, label or institution. This has turned religion—which should be a nectar that unites us—into a poison that separates us into hostile camps. It has led to every sort of violence, war and genocide, which is still going on in the world today in the name of God.
The Natural Religion
There is a certain natural religion that is common to all beings, an internal sense of the Divine, the universal and the eternal, along with an external recognition of the sacred in nature. It includes all human aspiration to find the truth, spirit or totality, not just formal religion but also philosophy, science, art and even personal aspiration of an undefined type. This natural religion develops differently in different cultures, which can enhance or distort it, but can never create or own it. However, we tend to identify our inherent religious urge with that of the religion we are born into, not realizing that the latter must be to some degree limited and cannot represent that religious urge for everyone.
The religious urge belongs to all human beings and is reflected through each individual and their unique life-experience and seeking. It is similar to the artistic urge and our creative tendencies. Those trained in one culture may have difficulty understanding the religious forms of another culture, just as they may have difficulty understanding its art forms. But if they make an effort it is easy to see that the same basic urges can take many forms. Such differences are not a matter of regret but contribute to the richness of our shared human experience.
To create a real harmony between the world’s many cultures we must honor this natural religion above and beyond the organized, formal or institutional religions that have sought to embody it. No historical, codified religion can claim to be the sole representative of the natural religion of humanity. All particular religions can only be forms or facets of it. This is the same as how as no school of art can claim to represent art in humanity as a whole. We must value the religious experience, which is a personal matter, more so than any particular religious structures or dogma.
In this regard, we should look to Hinduism, the great religious tradition of India, which has looked to the concept of Sanatana Dharma—an eternal or universal tradition of truth—not to a particular historical revelation in order to define itself. We need such an inclusive sense of Sanatana Dharma or a universal natural religion for all humanity. Only such a broad, open and synthetic view can do justice to our diverse religious approaches as a species that continue to grow and change along with our culture.
Yet we must also remember the localism that goes along with universalism, as in the ecological adage, “think globally, act locally.” A universal dharma would not impose a single religion, however broad in its scope, on everyone. It would encourage local traditions that embody each culture’s need and ability to contact the universal in harmony with the soil on which it grows. This is the real harmony between the individual and the universe that we must seek.
Religion and Culture
Most cultures have a religious foundation, with aspects of religion pervading them on many different levels, like sacred music and dance. This is particularly true of traditional cultures that have developed out of nature and the spirit, rather than out of science, technology, economics or politics as has modern civilization. Most traditional cultures see the sacred everywhere and are therefore highly religious, even if the people within them do not belong to one of the so-called major religions of the world.
Each culture, however small, has its unique contribution to the human religious experience and our greater connection with the sacred. Even so-called aboriginal cultures have much to offer in terms of earth wisdom that our present dominant world culture—in its present state of isolation from nature and ecological crisis—can benefit from. True religion comes from life and nature; it is not an invention of ideas or ambitions. One could argue that pre-technological people are more spiritual or truly religious than those today who are trained to look at the world with a scientific or commercial vision. Even today we still look to our oldest books, not our latest inventions, for our greatest spiritual guidance.
Religion is the core factor of most cultures. Therefore, to preserve cultural diversity, religious diversity must also be maintained. To show members of all countries taking on the same religious belief is not an example of tolerance or multiculturalism but the domination of one religion over the others. It is a mark of spiritual poverty, an inability to see the richness of the human religious experience and the reduction of it to one line only. It resembles colonialism as a form of cultural conquest, not a true sensitivity to the human experience in all its abundance.
The Parallel Between Cultural Diversity and Biodiversity
Scientists and ecologists all over the world today recognize the importance of biodiversity for the health and well-being of the planet and all the creatures living on it. A rich biodiversity sustains a healthy ecosystem in which the different interdependent species promote the overall evolution of life on the planet.
When the number of species declines, as is the case today, all of nature suffers. First, the particular plant and animal species are lost along with their important genetic information developed over millions of years that cannot be replaced. Second, the whole biosystem suffers, deprived of the unique contribution of the particular species, like a chain with a broken link. The process of natural evolution is halted or reduced.
The same is true with cultural and religious diversity. Each cultural group carries an aspect of our human heritage just as each species contains a certain aspect of nature. Cultures develop over time and carry a wealth of information and wisdom. When a culture is marginalized or destroyed, the process of social evolution is also reduced and halted.
The destruction of biodiversity occurs along with the destruction of natural habitats and ecosystems. Similarly, the destruction of cultural diversity is occurring along with a destruction of cultural habits and social orders. It is not surprising today that cultural and religious diversity is getting reduced along with biodiversity. It reflects the same alienation from nature and lack of contact with a higher consciousness necessary to synthesize the many sides of life. The result is that we are creating an environment for future generations of both a devastated natural environment and a religious and cultural vacuum or uniformity as well.
Culture, Our Mother
Culture is the field in which we are born, take root and develop. A rich culture like a rich soil allows for the full flowering of all individual potentials. Maintaining cultural and religious diversity is essential to social health and to intellectual and spiritual progress for all humanity. A rich cultural field aids in individual growth and is essential for any real global civilization that must accommodate the many different peoples in the world.
The hallmark of true civilization is diversity, having a variety of peoples, ideas, arts, crafts, foods and goods accessible to all. It represents and honors many cultures—this is what is behind being cosmopolitan as opposed to be provincial. Those who are truly civilized can appreciate different foods, languages, art forms and religions. They are not like the proverbial frog in the well that believes that his well is the sea. For real progress, therefore, we must affirm pluralism in culture and religion as a global value, just as we affirm pluralism in dress, languages or styles of art.
Today our cultural soil is as abused and depleted as our farmlands. Our cultural seeds are being destroyed just as are our agricultural seeds. Instead of sharing the richness of culture, the current globalism tries to impose a materialistic and commercial culture on the entire world, to the detriment of older and deeper traditions. It similarly has certain stereotyped and mass produced religious beliefs that it is seeking to impose worldwide.
The Dangers of Monoculture
Today our cultural sphere has been as severely diminished as much as our biosphere. Multinational business, political and religious interests have eliminated much cultural and religious variations in the name of progress and are seeking to eliminate even more as they plan to dominate the world market. Just as the world’s forests are being cut down at an alarming rate, so too cultural forests are being eliminated, not even knowing the wealth that they contain. We are facing not only bleak natural landscapes after deforestation but our social landscapes are also devoid of nature and the spirit. They are similarly turning into urban and technological wastelands. This is causing various social and psychological problems, like the epidemic of depression among all age groups that is currently occurring in the United States. The solution to these problems is not better drugs to treat them but a restoration of our internal and external connections with nature, the universe and our true selves.
The modern world is rapidly moving towards a monoculture. People all over the world are adapting the values and life-style of the western commercial world. We see how blue jeans, Coca-Cola, Barbie dolls and western pop music are everywhere and where they go indigenous forms of food, dress and behavior get marginalized or eliminated. The new commercial religion is the stock market, shopping malls and sports arenas. Such a monoculture sets in motion a process of ‘deculturalization’, in which local cultures are subordinated or destroyed. It is also destroying traditional religions worldwide, because they inherently resist commercialization and standardization.
Missionary monotheism remains the dominant formal religion of the modern monoculture, just as it was the thrust of colonialism. This is not surprising, as the monoculture is simply colonialism in a new form. As a type of monocultural religion, missionary monotheism has one belief, book and savior or prophet for everyone—a similar mass production and franchising as in the business world. It is hostile to indigenous religions that are locally based and represent independent cultural centers and allow independent spiritual experience among their members. Wherever it goes traditional cultures are subordinated or destroyed. At best they are made into tools or ornaments of the church or the faith. At worst they are removed altogether as unholy.
The Danger of Proselytizing
Cultures today are being destroyed in two primary ways. The first is through economic development that promotes western civilization and its sensate values. The second is through religious proselytizing that causes people to give up their native religious culture and take on a mainstream western religious belief instead. We will address more the second cause, as it is a more direct attack. However, the missionary business is formulated and works like a multinational corporation, with global conversion strategies broadcast on the Internet, so that there is an overlap between both factors.
Proselytizing consists of externally approaching others and seeking to change their religious belief, under the conviction that one’s religion is the highest truth and that whatever religion other people may follow is inferior, wrong or unholy. Proselytizing is a weapon of richer cultures to take over poorer cultures. It is often combined with charitable help, material reward, or promises of social advancement or a better life for new converts. It is not an inner quest for spiritual realization but an outer effort to increase the numbers of the faithful, as if outer religious labels were what really counted. Proselytizing is a rejection and denial of pluralism. Once traditional people change their religious practices, their religious and spiritual heritage is lost, and along with it, generally their entire culture.
We must honor pluralism in religion in order to save traditional cultures. Pluralism is arguably the essence of religion that consists of honoring the Divine—which transcends name and form—in all names and forms. How can we even speak of the Divine, the infinite and eternal, if we cannot acknowledge different approaches to it among human beings? Relative to the unlimited, where can limitations be made and who has the authority to impose them on others? Such religion is a form of spiritual materialism that confuses formless inner truth with fixed outer forms.
However, honoring pluralism in religion is not an attempt to end dialogue and debate between religions, which is a great necessity. It does not mean that we must think that all religions are the same, that we cannot have differing views on religion, or that no one should be allowed to change their religion or even live without religion. It means that we should honor freedom of religion as a spiritual as well as a political principle. We must honor the right of others to follow a different path than our own, even if we may not agree with them.
Many of the churches today that claim to honor political freedom do not honor spiritual freedom or diversity of religion. They don’t really believe in spiritual freedom but use political freedom to impose spiritual uniformity on others. They think that theirs is the only path and use a political freedom of religion not to promote spiritual freedom, but to convert the entire world to their particular belief. This freedom to convert is really a form of cultural aggression and prejudice in disguise. It has nothing to do with human rights and all to do with vested interests.
In fact, we need much more discussion between religious groups, but to find the truth, not to allow one group or church to triumph in the outer world. We need an open and free dialogue between religious leaders in order to preserve and develop our spiritual heritage as a species. Proselytizing, on the other hand, targets the poor, weak and uneducated; those who are defenseless on an intellectual or spiritual level, like tribal people in Africa and Asia. It promotes denigration and disinformation about other religious traditions, upholding prejudicial stereotypes of native beliefs as backward, idolatrous or superstitious. It works covertly, in the dark, where it cannot be easily challenged. The missionary comes with a mind made up, not to learn but to teach, not to be converted but only to convert.
The destruction of traditional cultures, whether through religious or military conquest, often leaves devastation in its wake, like a plant that has been uprooted. Traditional people whose culture has been denigrated or destroyed are like individuals who have been abused. They easily fall into negative behavioral patterns, violence, social division, and addiction to alcohol and drugs. The result is that a vibrant traditional society in harmony with its natural environment ends up as a ghetto of alienated people who often even lose the ability to feed themselves. We have seen this on the Native American reservations in the USA but in many other places in the world as well.
Cultural depredation can be economically, politically or socially advantageous to certain groups. It has been used to gain territory, power and wealth in various ways. But even that done in the name of God is a sin against humanity and nature. It is a violation of the natural order that must lead us all to grief over time. To truly honor the Divine is to recognize the Divine in all beings and let them work out their own destiny without our interference, whatever religious approach they may chose to develop.
Cultures are best preserved by keeping them alive and independent, letting their own members develop and adapt their traditional ways to the demands of the modern world. Some efforts at ‘cultural preservation’ consist of turning cultures into museum pieces or shows for the tourists. This is also a subversion of culture, turning entire cultures into sideshows for western civilization.
Missionary religions also try to appear to be more sensitive to traditional cultures by adapting their forms, like Christian forms of traditional Indian dance to show that Christianity is not against Indian culture. This process is called ‘acculturation’ and consists of giving local cultural forms for the missionary belief in order to make it seem less intrusive. It tries to separate native cultures from native religions in order to make conversion easier, which is dishonest because the two are organically and historically inseparable. This is not real cultural respect but another form of cultural depredation, co-opting culture to another agenda like how a franchise takes over a local business in order to aid in its expansion. We can compare it to McDonalds offering vegetarian burgers in India in order to appear more sensitive to the concerns of Hindus who don’t eat meat. It is still the promotion of the same multinational company that wants to make money however and wherever it can. Similarly, the religions that follow such an approach are showing that they are seeking converts in whatever way they can.
The Need for Indigenous Solutions: Modernization without Westernization
Native or traditional cultures are often materially backwards in the modern world for various reasons, mainly economic or technological in nature. There is the idea—developed during the colonial era—that for traditional societies to advance, they must adopt western culture, including western religion. This has been connected to the further thought that their religion and spirituality is the cause of their backwardness. Therefore, a change of religion is proposed to advance traditional societies in civilization. This idea, however, has been disproven in recent decades. Many traditional peoples have become successful in the modern world without giving up their culture or their native religion. Similarly, many countries have changed their religion to those of the West, without gaining a corresponding economic or social advancement through it.
Japan, for example, has become an economic power by adopting strong economic policies not by giving up its Buddhist and Shinto background for Christianity. On the other hand, the Philippines has remained economically backward because of poor economic policies regardless of becoming Christian some centuries ago. The same is true of the many Catholic countries of Central and South America that remain among the poorest and most backward in the world.
Hindus have shown how they can become successful in the modern world without having to lose their religion or culture. In fact they have found it to be a point of strength, with Hindu family and educational values aiding in a high level of achievement among Hindu students. Hindus in UK, USA and India are successful in every field including modern science and the computer world and yet have remained spiritual and philosophical Hindus. India today is beginning to develop economically by taking up sound economic policies and giving up the old socialist model that kept it down the same way socialist policies kept down the economies of eastern Europe. India’s current economic revival has nothing to do with a change of religion but in fact is coinciding with a revival of Hinduism in the country.
In addition, many traditional spiritual teachings are becoming popular in the western world to fill the spiritual vacuum created by modern materialistic civilization. There is now an entire western counterculture of Yoga, Buddhism, Shamanism, traditional medicine and native practices of all types done not by primitive people but by the elite of the western world. It appears that the western world is looking to such native traditions for a spirituality in harmony with the coming planetary age, not at its own older religious traditions that are often more historically or culturally limited. The very traditions previously considered backward are not looked at as possessing the keys to the future.
Therefore, we must emphasize ‘indigenous solutions’ to the problems of traditional societies today, including for economic or social advancement. Traditional cultures can become modern without losing their religion or culture. In fact, they can experience a renaissance in the modern world by sharing their spiritual traditions and more organic culture with the world as a whole.
The tendency to equate the advances in science and technology with western culture and religion is clearly wrong. People of various cultures and religions are successful today in science and technology. Modern science is not necessarily out of harmony with eastern or native beliefs, nor is something that belongs to the religions of the West, which in fact have often historically opposed it. Religions like Hinduism that recognize consciousness as the ground of a universe and date the universe as many billions of years old are more in harmony with modern science than orthodox religious views that the universe was created by God some few thousand years ago. Many modern physicists have found inspiration in such eastern teachings.
One could argue that native societies have better preserved the spiritual traditions of humanity, just as the West has better developed our material capacities. What we need at this juncture of history is to combine the two in a complementary way. Traditional spirituality can be a source for new ideas in science, culture and religion such as the entire world needs for the dawning planetary age.
The ecological movement is another example of a modern trend that borrows much from indigenous cultures. The emphasis on the Earth as our mother is a common theme in traditional societies from America to India. Ecologists look to tribal societies for ways of living in harmony with nature. They stress the need for organic social systems that include unity and diversity and that sustain ways of interacting with nature with reverence and sustainability.
Religious Exclusivism, Colonialism and Racism
Religious pluralism accepts that the fact that there are many ways to God or Truth and that ultimately spirituality is an individual affair. It cannot accept any single belief, tradition or ritual or prayer as best for everyone. The idea that only one religion is true and that only its members are entitled to salvation is a prejudice akin to racism and colonialism, with which it was associated in the nineteenth century. While globally we have rejected racism and colonialism as prejudices we are still allowing religious exclusivism to go on unchallenged, or even honored as somehow holy or capable of uniting humanity.
Religious exclusivism, in spite of all of its talk of One God, divides humanity into the believers and the non-believers, with the latter and all their spiritual and religious traditions made unholy. This exclusive and social division sows the seeds of violence. As long as it continues, peace and understanding cannot be possible between the members of different religions. As a species we must recognize the danger of religious exclusivism and no longer seek to promote it. The whole idea of one religion as the only truth is contrary to the very meaning of religion, which is meant to connect us with the universal, nameless, formless and infinite. Religious exclusivism is an attempt by one culture to create a monopoly of religion for itself. Yet religion is the spiritual or immaterial side of our culture that cannot be owned, dispensed or controlled by anyone.
Place and Limitation of Secularism
Religious and spiritual freedom is as important as political freedom. There should be no state control, no authoritarian institution or dogma about spiritual truth any more than about scientific truth. Therefore, it is good that modern society has reduced the power of religious institutions, particularly in terms of politics and education. But secularism should not result in banishing the sacred from life or the commercialization of everything.
We need to avoid the control of society by particular religious institutions and beliefs, but at the same time we should cultivate a spiritual approach to life, honoring the religious experience in all of its forms, rather than seeking to impose one form of it on everyone. Then we can create a society that is both free and also spiritual. We should remember that as human beings we are part of the greater universe. A secular humanism that destroys the natural world is inhumane and species wise a form of arrogance. A sacred universalism is the real need of the times.
The Way Forward
- We must aim at preserving religious diversity just as preserving biodiversity.
- We must expose the forces attacking religious diversity and make them accountable, just as we are challenging the forces damaging our natural environment.
- We must challenge disinformation in religion that stereotypes certain religions as pagan, heathen and idolatrous, just as we challenge disinformation about race or ethnicity.
- Leaders of all religions should affirm that there are many paths to the infinite and that no one path is the only one or the best for all.
- Religious leaders should emphasize seeking the Divine directly within ourselves through meditation, not looking externally to an institution or a book, or projecting a need to convert the world to a single religion.
The triumph that we must seek is the victory of truth, not that of one set of ideas, beliefs or another. It is not one religion or another that will save humanity from its present crisis but an honoring of the spiritual life in all of its forms, particularly in our daily lives and personal interactions. We must restore our harmony both with the world of nature on the outside and the world of nature, the Divine Self within. We must restore our natural and spiritual order with the sacred in order to go forwards as a species. All religions can contribute to this, if they go back to the real intention of religion to connect with the infinite and give up their fixation on outer names and forms.