My Problem with Religion

The following is a guest post from David Gonzales. David met his wife on a research trip to the Amazon and after getting a masters degree in ecology, he started a bank. He can be hard to nail down but delights in great food and conversation, building stuff, and teaching and learning from his 5! beautiful children. Check out his website and follow him on twitter.

I have a problem. Too many people in my life have not experienced immanence in any form. And so they are bitter towards all things religious, because they failed to deliver. Maybe there’s no helping it. Maybe they stalled somewhere on their faith journey. Or maybe they just needed a different context to practice faith. My observation is that it’s usually the latter.


photo by Charles Dyer

I’ve come to see religion as form of hacking human nature to promote civilization and I think religions are important.

I’m sure the anti-religious are mostly poo-pooing the classic organized religions like Christianity or Islam. They often talk about moving away from religion and trying hard to simply embrace spirituality or hold fast to reason. Both are fine perspectives. I’ve vacillated between intuition, induction, and pure deduction throughout my life.

But religion isn’t going away. It’s a natural and worthy outgrowth of the human experience. We are by nature creatures of habit. Our habitual practices, more often than not, are very quickly imbued with extra-rational meaning no matter whether they were habits learned by experience or taught.

These habits, at least my habits, are very prescriptive. And I’ve found that meditation in the morning with the intent of increasing my level of mindfulness is probably the single most useful thing I can do to get to and maintain a high level of energy in my work and in my interactions with others.

When I was a child this was called personal prayer.I grew up in a very orthodox Mormon home. No, not that kind of orthodox. My father only had one wife, as far as I can tell.

But we prayed morning and night and over every meal. We read from the Bible and Book of Mormon almost every day. We didn’t do very much on Sunday except go to our Mormon Church and occasionally during the fall Dad would also attend American Church hosted by the NFL.

All along the way I did my best to keep up and to try hard to understand why we were doing what we did. I was pretty well behaved but the older I got the less I restrained I became with my questioning of many of our regimented practices. I wanted to figure out why and to what end we engaged with so many habitual practices.

Not getting a satisfactory answer I spent a considerable amount of time in the vast sea of emergence and simplicity eschewing religion and spirituality. But eventually I came to understand the power and necessity of habits and the shortcut that prescribed habits can be. In my mind anyone who does not simply embrace 100% emergence believes in the power of “small r” religion even if they do not practice Religion.

They may bristle at calling it that. They may even say that they have outgrown religion. Nevertheless, nearly all my friends and acquaintances strive for a higher level of mindfulness the more ardently they hope to distance themselves from religion. Their goal is almost universally to be more “open” (the implication being their is something greater to be open too).

But from those that embrace religion, I find it almost amusing how sensitive they are to the use of words like mindfulness, being present, and meditation. Why? Well, reflection upon my childhood points to all of the rote habits. These habits were not taught to us or prescribed to us on the basis of some new-agey terms like mindfulness or being present. We were told it was a recipe for getting closer to God.

So in part the tension between these two camps is one of jargon. But it goes deeper than that and I think where things begin to go up, regardless of your religious persuasion, is when we begin to awaken to the possibility that nearly all regimented practice seems to hack our brain for the better.

Where things begin to nose-dive is where shame becomes the primary motive for adherence. And whether you call the immanence that my atheist friends, Hindu friends, Buddhist friends, Christian friends, etc. all describe as God, Allah, Big Mind or something else, friends from all walks of life seem to converge on one central tenet: There is otherness in the universe and it is kind.

What they don’t always cop to is just how important their regimented practices are to maintaining their “access” to this kindness in the universe. But when I meet them and they appear to be in a funk or when I find myself feeling low it is so often the case that we have flagged in our adherence to those regimented practices that found us nearer to God or “god.”

So what is religion? My more cynical self calls it a “Get Wise Quick Scheme.” But I believe that religion, in all its many forms, is actually trying diligently to protect those practices its practitioners believe and hope will:

  • Promote civilization (beneficial and cooperative human interactions)

  • Promote presence*

  • Encourage practitioners to experience immanence

Some religions do a better job than others. But by-and-large I think they all do a pretty decent job: Christianity, Academia, Secular Humanism, Islam, etc. And like most things you get out of it what you’re willing to put into it.

*Most of the classic religions tend to over-emphasize “the future” as an answer to suffering, experiencing and not letting go of pain, but I like to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe that they have just run aground on human nature. In reality, the goal is to be present, and letting “the future” be responsible for things like justice, fairness, etc. should allow us to more fully focus on the now.


3 responses to “My Problem with Religion”

  1. Jared says:

    That was a great read my old friend! You’re a wise man, just like your dad.

  2. My wife and I have a thread going on a fb group and I think some of her questions prompted pertinent clarification of some of my assertions so I’ll include them here for those who care:

    What is the role of religion in a person’s life?
    For me religion or regimented practice ought to be a path from relative thoughtless, mindless, meandering to a more purpose filled existence where one is both mindful (present) and thoughtful (empathetic). What I’ve come to believe is that in every person’s journey through life they eventually want to imbue life with meaning — it’s hard to really want to be a nihilistic secular humanist like Dawkins. In our search for meaning it seems like nihilist or not we invariable stumble upon a the hedonist and altruistic paths. In my life the choice of greater altruism was taken very mindfully and with some pangs of loss at what could have been on the path of hedonism. In the end I feel it’s the better path. But I must be reminded time and time again of just what the choice of altruism/community entails. Going to church is a good habit for me because I’m reminded of just how much variability there is in this world. It would be easy for me to talk about choosing community but really only deal with people who are just as smart as me and just as capable and just as x as me… in the end that starts to converge on something very much like hedonism.

    What role does truth play in any of this if at all?
    For me truth is not really a thing. I feel like truth as it’s used in modern parlance is like a really strong belief. Almost a theory in scientific terms. Because much of our educational system embraces the trapping of empiricism and enlightenment ideals we talk of truth as though we could pick it out of a line-up plain as day. But in reality we are pretty poor judges of objective reality. Religions of all kinds love their truthiness. In part, I’m sure, because it’s self-serving. That same accusation could be rightly held against all individuals. We take our idiosyncratic experience of events and project it upon the world and those around us as a matter of course. Where churches fall down, in my opinion, is that they try and meet people where they are coming from — the quotidian and factual and attempt to make a case on the same basis. The problem is that facts are small things and Truth is always a big thing when people are involved. IF we were to constrain truth to where truth could actually be shared and mutually experienced with near certainty that all parties were on the same page we would have to limit our conversation to only those things that are logical and we’d cart around a truth table in our head right next to the continuous reminder that only the five senses count. That would not likely make many of us very happy. I’ve said and written many times that I’m not all that impressed with what passes for truth. What I probably haven’t said enough is that if one wishes to be happy then get really comfortable with paradox. For everyone that tells me they are uncomfortable, surprised, or offended by so-and-so’s truth claims I would beseech them to remember how often they have told a friend she doesn’t look fat in that dress or that their thinning hair is barely noticeable or that they really did appreciate that gift that totally clashes with ones own personal taste. Ideally, people and churches would limit their discourse to either pure logic or pure emotion but since people won’t do that their communities can’t possibly hope too.

    How does one frame the quest for immanence for children?
    What I like about scripture is that is embarks upon the goal of remembering what worked. The problem is that it’s an impossible mission because what worked for one may not work for another. However, what we see over and over in scripture be it Christian, Islam, or secular is a repetition of themes. At the root of most of these is a call for mindfulness and empathy. I’ve been a rather serious student of scripture at certain times in my life but I don’t know how to do that with young children. And I didn’t/still don’t know how to do that with someone who needs pure truth or pure emotion. Why do I say this? Because scripture is the nearest thing we have to a written Gospel. I think it’s possible to have an almost blissful, undisciplined, and childlike appreciation of the divine. But I don’t think it’s very durable. What seems to work best is a contemplative relationship with goodness coupled with a disciplined, regimented practice of mindfulness. While I will attest that some of the most wonderful experiences of my life have just emerged, unbidden, I cannot say that those happened indiscriminate of my meditative practice. Just the opposite. For me the highest leverage play would be to teach children mindfulness. Everything else can truly build on that. And if mindfulness does not come first everything else will likely be thrown away and picked back up if eventually mindfulness is earned.

  3. […] stated before that my problem with religion is that it doesn’t actually get most practitioners to be present. Effectively that’s the beef I have with purity. By focusing on what is unattainable we drive […]

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