Most people today understand the distinction between spirituality and religion, and many make it frequently when attempting to identify their own position. An increasing number of people want to be associated with the positive attributes of spirituality but not with the negative connotations of the major institutions of religion. One reason why is that major religions are responsible for some of the greatest atrocities in history and continue to be cultural wedges between people around the world. Spirituality, on the other hand, improves one’s personal well-being, enhances a feeling of connectedness to others and to the divine, and helps us understand ourselves better. Spirituality emphasizes the similarities and connectedness between all people, while religion emphasizes the differences. Spirituality pursues harmony while religion pursues conflict. At least that is what many people feel about the major religious institutions.
All of the world’s major religions are based on ancient texts which are, for the most part, static. Many of these ancient texts included highly divisive beliefs and prejudices against certain groups and initially demanded extreme punishments for what today is considered acceptable behavior in many places. This poses a dilemma for religion because it prevents these text-based religions from adapting to the cultural environment and evolving with society. Instead, they remain static while society evolves. This creates a tension between the doctrine of the texts and the laws of society, thereby requiring believers in the doctrine to choose between expressing the tenets of their religion and conforming to the laws of civil society. As society continues to evolve toward greater equality and social justice for all, believers in ancient doctrines are further alienated. If they adhere to the laws of civil society they are further alienated from their religion, and if they adhere to the beliefs of their religion they are alienated from civil society.
The institutions of the major religions are in a position to either exacerbate this conflict or ameliorate it. If they exacerbate it, we will see increased division in society likely leading to civil unrest and tragedy. If they choose to ameliorate it we will see increased harmony. I predict that the survival of religious institutions rests on their choice of the latter.
I believe the survival of the major religions requires that they move away from a literal and dogmatic reading of their ancient texts to an interpretative approach where the institutions of religion can teach their beliefs in a way which embraces modern cultural norms. This new approach would have at its core a much higher element of tolerance for those who do not follow the same beliefs. Stoning homosexuals and burning witches are no longer acceptable ideas to preach in any religion. Any religion which still embraces such ideas is doomed to be crushed by the revolution of equality that is occurring before our eyes.
Without enlightened leadership in today’s religious institutions, people will read the words off the page and are likely to accept a literal meaning of the ancient texts. Only enlightened leadership can bridge the gap between the ancient texts and modern society. If that leadership does not emerge, this gap will widen increasing stress on individuals and society and forcing choices. These decision points can be dangerous and violent. Individuals and groups who commit atrocities in the name of religion are examples of the danger in ignoring the “disconnect” between outdated religious dogma and the realities of modern society.
The new purpose of religious institutions needs to be as Mediator or Reconciler-in-Chief, interpreting religious doctrine in a way which fosters acceptance, tolerance and respect for others who may differ with a particular religion’s basic tenets. This can only happen if institutions of religion bring their interpretations up-to-date for life as it exists for people in the 21st Century and beyond.
Institutions of religion are facing a crisis of faith among believers largely due to scandals that for centuries went unexposed. The recent scandals and cover-ups have weakened the religious institutions to the point of irrelevance. As some people leave the institutions of religion, those who stay behind are at greater risk, without enlightened leadership, of interpreting dangerously outdated ancient texts literally. It is not in the best interest of anyone to see the complete demise of institutions of religion. Instead, what we must support is a move toward adapting core beliefs to the present day with a commitment to tolerance.
If the institutions of religion can produce leaders who are enlightened and committed to adapting the ancient and sacred texts to today’s world, infusing those texts with spirituality and building community around beliefs, we will take a huge step toward world peace and harmony. Now is the time for them to make this change. To make religious institutions relevant again, they must offer believers hope and faith not only in spiritual beliefs, but in the value and purpose of civil society. The value of every single person’s life must be exalted, even those of other faiths or of no faith at all. When we as human beings manage to achieve that within our institutions of religion and as individuals with no particular affiliation other than to the human family, global peace is well within our grasp.