Drawing on the essential teachings of the great spiritual teachers, philosophers and freethinkers throughout time, Dharmacharya Gurudas Sunyatananda (retired Archbishop Francis-Maria Salvato, O.C.) has been regarded as a provocative, revolutionary “voice of reason” within the field of religion and spirituality, since 1983. Having the distinction of being one of the few openly non-theistic, openly-gay and post-denominational thinkers ever to serve as Bishop-Exarch and spiritual leader of the autocephalic Eastern Catholic Franciscans in North America, Gurudas is the author of more than 600 articles, eight books and currently serves as the spiritual advisor for a non-theistic, intentional spiritual community, The Spiritus Project. He can be reached at: http://dharmadudeunplugged.com
Spirituality and religion. Far too often, I would suggest, we accept the notion that these two phenomena are both complementary and necessary for the other to exist.
Spirituality concerns itself with the individual. Spirituality, in and of itself, has nothing to do with gods or goddesses, or any religious beliefs and practices. Spirituality, in its simplest and purest of senses, is the individual’s quest for meaning, peace and growth. Therefore, it is possible for a person, such as myself, who finds no particular need to adopt theistic concepts or irrational superstitious “beliefs” in this god(dess) or that, to still consider myself deeply and richly spiritual.
In humanity’s quest for answers, both individually (spiritually) and anthropologically, the primitive cultures relied on myths and legends to explain those things that were not yet explained by science and reasoning. Thus, melting of polar icecaps became the legend of the Deluge. Thunder became the anger of the god(s). The seasonal changes became the result of Persephone’s quest for her daughter, and so on.
As these legends became intertwined and more widespread, they gave rise to the phenomena known as religion. Today, thousands of years later, there are still adherents who cling to these same superstitious and irrational explanations for things that might otherwise be explained through science and reasoning. But perhaps the most unfortunate part of the phenomena is that many people seem to have selective blindness with regard to religious superstition.
As a Christian literalist what they think of the great gods of the Roman or Norse legend, and they will tell you that those are myths. Ask them about Mithra, the famous hero-son of the Persian god, or Horus, the great Egyptian Sun-God and they will tell you the same thing. But when those same story-lines are overlaid upon the narratives of the historic and revolutionary Rav Yeshua – the Nazarene therapeute, called Jesus – their response incredibly changes. Suddenly, these otherwise intelligent people revert to the primitive and irrationally superstitious cults of almost seventeen hundred years ago, when Emperor Constantine succeeded at introducing the myths and legends of Sol Invictus into the traditions of a peaceful Jesus Movement. Of course, these interpolations were occurring elsewhere, for about 150 years prior to Constantine’s conquest, as often occurs with religious mythos, but the emperor “stepped up the game” considerably.
As someone once noted, “Faith doesn’t provide any answers; it simply discourages you from asking questions.” Religion attempts to explain the unknown by obfuscation. As David Brooks writes, in The Necessity of Atheism, “To explain the unknown by the known is a logical procedure; to explain the known by the unknown is a form of theological lunacy.”
It is unfortunate that many people, when making the mature and logical choice to disengage from religion, seem to think that they have to abandon their spiritual quest simultaneously. Perhaps that occurs, because their spiritual quests were never really personal… never really about themselves… but all about the external legends, saviours and myths. In such a case, these individuals never engaged in a mature quest for spiritual growth, but were captives of fear.
I would suggest that the wounds, both emotional and spiritual, caused by religion, can only be healed by reinvigorating one’s spiritual quest, and discovering that spirituality never had anything to do with religion – that religion often attempts to co-opt spirituality, and nothing more. Thomas Paine described religions best, I think, when he said, “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”
While religions can metaphorically be seen as ideological tumours, for which we must continue to hope for a cure; spirituality offers the greatest opportunity for humanity to reclaim its potential, and awaken.
Spirituality seeks answers to the important things… not who created the world, or whether the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa… but how can I avoid suffering, and what can I do to prevent others from suffering? At the foundation of spirituality is compassion and a desire for peace.
Spirituality is a facet of human nature; while religion is an invention of human design. Idealistically, religion intends to help one advance on their spiritual quest, as we can see in the intentionality of many of the spiritual leaders of the past two or three thousand years. But once a religious tradition seems to go from the organic stages of midrashic teaching, to the dreaded “organisational” stage, it seems that all hope for good is often lost.
I would suggest that there are relatively few religions today, in which the good has been maintained and perhaps even outweighed the drawbacks of institutionalism. Among the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) this might be true, save the minor unfortunate schisms and divisions that have occurred over the role of the bible or the tendency for some to overlay the common Christian myth of a saviour into an otherwise sound and balanced spiritual approach to life. For Hindus, the tendency toward institutionalisation has largely been avoided, and their spiritual traditions have remained organic and unfettered by hierarchy and its machinations.
Among Druids, Wiccan and Celtic practitioners of the “Old Religion”, descendants (as are the Jews and Muslims) of the old shammanite spiritual path, we find relative freedom from dogmatism, censorship and the tendency not shared with shammanite offshoots in the Jewish and Muslim sects, toward non-violence.
Some would tend to want to include Buddhism in this list, yet I will refrain from doing so, as a Buddhist monk, because I believe that among those for whom Buddhism has retained its authentic and pure essence – that is as a philosophy and way of life – the Dharma is not a religion. And among many who have corrupted the tradition, superimposing their cultural and religious superstitions, myths and legends upon it, and those who adhere to rigid literalism in their interpretation of the Buddhist canon, then those folks have created a religion like any other, and have unfortunately used and abused their religion as a means of controlling people, extorting from those in their control, and as a means of justifying violence and intolerance, even on the most subtle levels.
In Buddhism, we teach that the object of Buddhism is not to create Buddhists, but to create Buddhas. In this spirit, Sri Chinmoy, the Bengali guru and spiritual leader, wrote:
“The essence of religion:
Fear God and obey God.
The quintessence of spirituality:
Love God and become another God.”
Spirituality is not concerned with the past. It regards the past as part of our personal heritage, and allows the experiences of the past to inform us and remind us, but it recognises the only moment we have in which to grow is right now. Where fear is the domain of religion, love is the domain of spirituality. Where worship is the feature and expression of religion, spirituality is about respect and interior renewal.
If we want to learn the path of integrating a healthier approach to (and use of) religion, we can turn our attention to the great saints and mystics of the historical narrative – Buddha, Rav Yeshua, Rav Hillel, Francis d’Assisi, Teresa d’Avila, Ernest Holmes, Catherine Ponder, Rumi, Hafiz, Shirdi Sai Baba, Gandhi, Emma Curtis Hopkins and Mother Teresa of Calcutta – and find in them, the potential that exists for adherents to religious traditions to integrate such practices into an holistic and healthy approach to spirituality.
Religions, it has been said, are founded upon the fear of the many and the guile of the few. H.L. Menken observed that “religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind–that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.”
I am inclined to agree, and offer the simple, unremarkable lives of the Contemplative Order of Monks of the Eightfold Path and its non-monastic equivalent, The Spiritus Project, as evidence that those seeking fellowship and support on their personal spiritual quests can do so without religion, without gods or goddesses, and without hierarchy or dogma.