I have written on this topic before, so before I begin this essay I must ask the reader’s indulgence if (s)he feels I’m overstating my case. I DO have new things to say on the subject, so please bear with me! — WKF
When I first left the religious tradition in which I was raised and spent most of my adult life, it was a deliberate act. While some faith traditions continue to refer to former adherents as those who have “fallen away” or “lapsed,” those terms don’t accurately describe those whose departure is decisive and principled. The reasons for my own exodus were twofold: 1) I no longer believed key teachings of the church or found anything spiritually valuable in them, and; 2) I found the racism, sexism and homophobia routinely espoused from the pulpit morally repellent. I entered a humanist head space in which I became quite comfortable with the idea of the universe as a strictly natural phenomenon. Indeed, astrophysics and evolutionary biology strongly suggested that the Big Bang and the subsequent evolution of consciousness were wholly natural phenomena that required no supernatural explanations.
More recently, I have come to understand the difference between the transcendent sense of divinity (god as a being somehow standing outside creation), and immanent divinity (a spiritual force arising naturally within creation). The latter idea suggests that physical phenomena such as the formation of solar systems and the evolution of life and consciousness are imbued with spiritual power that goes by many names. In my view, there are countless incarnations of this view of divinity. In the case of this planet, the earth mother goddess figures prominently.
As a strong proponent of religious and philosophical tolerance and dialogue, I really do want to keep my mind open to a wide array of viewpoints. However, I have to admit my personal prejudice against faiths or thought systems that claim to be the only path to salvation, enlightenment, or full humanity. The fact that some faiths hold sacred writings that are filled with horrifying and pervasive violence is baffling to me. I cannot understand why these writings should continue to be held in any esteem as part of a spiritual path. Consider this excerpt, quoted (admittedly out of context) from the Book of Deuteronomy:
“When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations…then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy.” Deuteronomy 7:1-2, NIV.
I’d like to believe that most adherents of the religions that claim such writings as part of their canon have long since evolved past such archaic abominations, and merely keep the old holy books in use out of respect for tradition. Still, wouldn’t it be preferable to jettison these writings altogether in favor of something more humanity-friendly?
I can find nothing in Holistic Spirituality, Humanism, Buddhism, or Neo Paganism that advocates the harming or killing of other human beings. (Of course, given the universality of human nature–good and bad–perhaps I should add the words “so far” to that statement!) Humanists consider human happiness and fulfillment in this life the greatest possible good, and therefore do not advocate any sort of violence in support of their ideology.
Wiccans believe that their intents come back on them “threefold,” and their most widely accepted maxim is “Harm none.” Generally speaking, they are very reticent to conjure any spells that might harm another.
Thich Nhat Hahn, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and my spiritual mentor, once wrote that if it ever came about that Buddhism had to be defended with violence; Buddhism itself would have to be abandoned. One has to respect anyone who is willing to jettison his own religion, in which he has been thoroughly steeped all his life, should it ever call for violence!
In the interest of keeping myself honest, I feel I must ask the question, “Am I engaging in a ‘my-philosophy/religion-is-better-than-yours’ kind of tribalism with all this? I’m afraid there may be something to that. But is it really possible for a human being not to consider her/his point of view more valid than those (s)he doesn’t share? Nevertheless, I’d like to think we could all evolve past that; because in my experience, alternate points of view can have remarkably eye-opening validity.
I try to enter conversations about such things with an open mind, ready to have my opinion changed if sufficient evidence for another view is convincingly presented. Of course, I’m human, so it’s a constant challenge to remain truly open-minded; especially about faith systems and world views that promote violence and suffering. I don’t think there’s any virtue in being tolerant of intolerance. In my view, the acid test of any religion, philosophy or spiritual practice is whether they cause their adherents to become more compassionate, inclusive and loving human beings. If they fail to achieve that–or worse, cause people to inflict psychic or physical harm on others–they should be abandoned. I’m well aware that there are countless adherents of faiths that still hold sacred the writings I’ve criticized who are wonderful human beings devoted to peace, sister/brotherhood and human fulfillment. I would simply suggest that they jettison or radically reinterpret any premodern texts that are more about tribalism and hate than human spiritual development.