How To Actually Be Better at Your Religion
I hope that everyone reading this blog has found something that they believe, whatever it is, that helps keep them warm at night and dedicated in the day. Unfortunately, I know most have not. I have become so saddened recently at seeing how few people believe in something truly great, let it into them, let it transform them. But the beautiful thing is that there are so many options for us to embrace. Taoism, Buddhism, Sikhism, existentialism, humanism… there are wonderful philosophies and moral teachings that we can let into our souls and change who we are. (And “soul” could be a real thing or a metaphor for our deepest mind; I have no idea).
Of course, this isn’t anyone’s fault. Finding a truly great belief system requires testing that belief system against reality and against our minds. It requires really hard work. We have to have both the confidence to try something new and the humility to change it in response to evidence. That’s a difficult balance, and no one, myself certainly included, does it correctly.
Yet, no matter what you believe, no matter what God you do or don’t worship, there are some values, some beliefs, some norms, we can reject. Here’s some of them.
#1: Don’t pretend that your philosophical or religious tradition is the untapped wisdom of the entire cosmos.
If you believe that your religion or philosophy has all the answers to the complexities of life, you are insulting the hard work of everyone who is trying to find those answers. The Bible does not have answers to quantum physics. Taoism does not provide clear solutions to ethical dilemmas in medicine. The Hippocratic Oath doesn’t help us in our marriage. This world is so big and so complicated that we will always have to find answers. I get that that’s scary, but pretending otherwise is irresponsible.
If there were some wisdom out there that truly was infallible and applied to all contexts, we would have a perfect world right now. It’s not a controversial empirical fact to say that we still understand so little about human psychology, let alone the universe. This isn’t to say that scientific progress has been worthless. In fact, scientific progress is part of the noble part of human nature. To understand this world is to understand that which matters.
#2: Don’t let your religion stop you from fighting evil.
It’s all right to believe in an apocalypse. But if you wouldn’t fight tooth and nail to stop that Armageddon, then you are an asshole. I know that sounds harsh, but there’s no two ways about it. Perhaps one can accept that there is prophecy that says that non-believers would be cast to lakes of fire, but that prophecy says nothing about you.
Too many people I have spoken to are willing to smile at nuclear proliferation or biological weapons or global warming because it’s just the prelude to Rapture or something else. What God would want someone in their heaven that would so callously dismiss suffering?
#3: Don’t let your religion make you not look from side to side when you cross the road, as Gregory House put it.
Perhaps there is an interventionist God who will protect you. That doesn’t mean that you should test that. Your brain is a functioning organ. You have fear instincts for a reason.
It’s rather like the joke about the man who keeps turning away aid from drowning, saying that God will come help him. God did, through normal and natural means.
Get regular physicals. Exercise. (Again, I myself need to do all of this). Make sure to protect the material environment. Don’t be stupid. Have you ever had a friend that would do stupid things because you would bail them out? I don’t imagine that any supreme entities would take that any better than we would.
#4: Don’t let it lead you to not alter your diet or lifestyle, or believe some celestial force will handle things for you.
A friend of mine told me about a story where a Christian Scientist refused to change her diet because if God wanted her to die she would.
It’s one thing to think that truly unnatural things like breathing machines or chemotherapy are against God’s will. Maybe we can even admit that the production of insulin can be a little odd.
But changing your diet? There’s nothing in the Bible that says that God wants you to eat cheeseburgers and drink soda.
We all would, in moments of weakness, love some parent to take care of us for the rest of our lives. But clearly that wasn’t what was meant to happen, because we grow up and die. We have to take our turns at being the parent, the responsible actor.
#5: Don’t think about your religion like an unchanging system.
The great philosophies of the world evolved in response to new challenges. From Buddhism to Christianity, they adapted to new cultures and new situations. Judaism’s tradition of rabbinical analysis kept updating the ideas of the past to today’s needs.
Great moral wisdom is perennial. Turning the other cheek is just as skillful today as it was in 30 CE. Meditation is empirically a useful exercise.
But we have to adapt and update ideas too.
The Dalai Lama has said that, if quantum physics challenged some tenet of Buddhism, Buddhism would have to change.
Moral teaching doesn’t have to change in response to science, necessarily. There’s a difference between empirical and normative claims. It’s one thing to say what the world is and another thing entirely to say what you should do about it. But moral teaching should adjust too when we discover new ways of thinking.
#6: Don’t use your religion as a substitute for challenging your fear, or your arrogance, or anything else.
Your religion should make you want to be better. It should not be a cover for weakness or an excuse to remain the same.
It’s easy to be scared that this world is beyond our control, and want to have someone come to our aid to protect us at all times. But this is the fear of a child. It is not actual faith.
#7: Be able to recognize that your neighbors don’t live the way you do.
Everyone is special. No two people have taken the same paths in life.
When we live in a multi-faith world, our government has to respect everyone’s way of thinking too.
That’s why government should be secular. It’s not because secularism is necessarily superior. It’s because it’s the only way everyone can get along.
#8: Don’t pretend that this world doesn’t matter.
There may be a world beyond this one. Maybe it’ll even be better. The fields of Aaru, the Elysian plains, the kingdom of Heaven… who knows what waits us beyond that veil. Or perhaps we will reincarnate. Perhaps karma will determine how we reincarnate. I have no idea.
But this world utterly and absolutely matters.
Others have the same brain as us. They suffer as we do. They bleed as we do.
Taking care of them, and allowing them to take care of us, is how we survive.
#9: Don’t pretend that there’s no perspective that can improve you.
Virtually every religious tradition agrees on this score: Human beings are flawed in the sense that we falter, change and adapt. We are perfectly designed as humans, but what that means takes some humility to explore.
If you read the Bible and it resonates with your experience of live and love, great. But don’t shut out someone else’s wisdom as a result.
I have meditated since I was in the third grade. But I always learned from everyone I’ve met. I’ve vowed to try to take something away from every interaction. I can say with certainty that that has been a policy that I have never regretted. From Kant to Kierkegaard, from Hume to humanism, from Captain America to Camus, I’ve learned from everything I can.
If you really believe in a God, all of these are contributions that are a part of the universe that It created.
#10: Don’t prey on the weak.
A corollary of #1, #7 and #9 is that we need to respect that everyone else is special.
It’s one thing to offer wisdom and insight. It’s another thing to try to turn others into ideological clones.
It’s terrifying to admit, but sometimes what is good for someone else is for them to believe something different from us.
Do you love them enough, and believe in what you believe in enough, to avoid brainwashing?
We are all diminished when someone lives life in any way but their own.
#11: Don’t let your religion eclipse your own intuition.
If you are getting a bad feeling about a group, run.
Trust your instincts. They’re there for a reason.
#12: Don’t let it make you believe in bullshit miracles.
I have heard of cases where people were convinced that an uncurable venereal disease had been cured by God. They even had tests to prove it!
Understand concepts like “false positives”. Have enough scientific acumen to be willing to explore what you say.
#13: Above all, don’t let your religion make you a suckier person.
Your faith should make you more humble, more loving, more confident, more willing to engage, more determined to change the world, more determined to be a better neighbor. If it isn’t, then something is very wrong.
Incidentally, there’s one behavior I don’t want to add to that list.
If your belief makes you share your faith, respectfully and with attentiveness to other peoples’ space and needs, without a predatory mindset, that’s fine.
We react to door-to-door evangelists, people excited about something they want to share, with such annoyance. How dare a human being interrupt the flow of my day for ten minutes!
We should want to share with each other. We should have the confidence to give someone else a different perspective.
I get that all of these elements are hard. It can be hard to tell when we are seeing some momentary fad or aberration that shouldn’t force us to adapt ethically versus when we are seeing some trend that is sticking around. It can be hard to tell where we should draw the line as to what we want to let others do versus what we simply have to speak up about.
Neither I nor anyone else will get any of this right. That’s part of the curse and blessing of humanity: Fallibility. I am sure I have missed important principles. I am sure I have overstated some aspects and understated others. I hope that others will comment and add their ideas.
But I do know that when I follow these tenets, I feel my capability to aid others and actually live the path my faith makes me live grow.