Theologian Karen Armstrong describes the major religions as having, at their root, the principles of the "Golden Rule, compassion, and loving-kindness." Yet, most followers of these major religions fail to measure up to these qualities having "fallen prey to exclusivity, cruelty, superstition, and even atrocity." (In The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions) Many religious persons today have lost sight of these simple principles. A look at modern events, the divided state of our nation, and the so-called "culture wars" confirms Armstrong's argument. Acknowledging that some individuals, religious and non-religious, actually do live mostly according to the above principles (and are usually the people who aren't telling the whole world how holy they are), Armstrong describes the true test for "religiosity":
"If people's beliefs-secular or religious- make them belligerent, intolerant, and unkind about other people's faith, they are not 'skillful.' If, however, their convictions impel them to act compassionately, and honor the stranger, then they are good, helpful, and sound. This is the true test of religiosity in every single one of the major traditions." (Ibid.)
We can see how fundamentalist Christianity fails each prong of this test: belligerence, intolerance, unkindness about the faith of others? Check, check, and check.
And thanks but no thanks.
Yet those of us who reject formalized religion walk in this world with the "atheist," "agnostic" or "secular" label on us, knowing that many religious people see us as immoral or amoral. Religious persons declare that we are going to Hell and that we have "nothing to live by or for." While they base these claims on the fact that we do not accept "Jesus Christ" as our "personal Lord and Savior," these claims are really an attempt to scare us or guilt us into accepting the intolerant and belligerent set of beliefs that go along with accepting their personal savior (who I have a hunch would not appreciate what they are promoting in his name).
And, because their religion dictates their moral beliefs, or so they believe, on issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and equality of the sexes, they are uncomfortable with our non-set of such beliefs. Where they crave certainty, we are okay with uncertainty. They believe that we just make it all up as we go along. They sometimes believe that we label as moral whatever is convenient to our wants and needs.
That being said, I would rather have people declare that I don't have anything to live "by or for" than be forced to adhere to an intolerant, bigoted, sexist, homophobic creed. I am okay with that.
Instead, I strive to live in the following way...
I want to live making a conscious effort to do as little harm to others as possible. I've been reading a bit of Buddhism (I know, how yuppie and New-Agey), and even though I don't consider myself a Buddhist, in the simple principle of "do no harm" (which is similar to the Golden Rule and compassion) I found something that resonated with me more than any holier-than-thou religious proclamation ever has. I found this especially true when I imagined what the world would be like if everyone adhered to the simple principles- the Golden Rule, compassion, and loving-kindness- that are at the root of the major religions and stopped caring about which religion was the True one, which God was the real one, and which believers were damned.
Yet in this simplicity, however, I think I have found something that will be difficult... yet rewarding.
I anticipate some of the more difficult times to adhere to these simple principles will be when talking about and engaging in dialogue with people whose views and assumptions regarding the world are very different than my own. Especially when they resort to dishonest, abusive, and generally mean tactics- which, it seems, they inevitably do.
I will try to stop myself and ask whether I want to contribute to the aggression present in the world. Knowing that I am human, I will fail often, I am sure. Just as I have many times in the past.
Anyway, I sincerely hope that I am not coming off as self-righteous. Because, knowing that I am human, I am sure to often fail at my resolution, and that I will be tempted to fall into old habits of reacting to aggression with aggression.
But I did read something recently that I think many of you can appreciate:
"When one understands that one's enemies are held under a powerful influence of their own ignorance and aggression, that they are trapped by their habits, it is easier to forgive them for their irritating behavior and actions." -Dzongsar Khyentse
And with this post and yesterday's, I suppose I'm "coming out" as one who rejects formal religion. While I am not, per se, an atheist, I am going to proudly place this label on my blog as one who accepts a higher being than myself yet who rejects man-made institutionalized conceptions of it:
Do the same if you feel the same way. In my opinion, we do have something to live by and for: countering a religion that embodies the worst of humanity while refusing to be demonized for doing so.