Why Question Religion?

by Margaret Placentra Johnston

It seems many religious leaders these days aim to discourage people from questioning their faith.  They imply we should just accept everything we are taught about religion at face value.  They say: “leave the driving to us!”

I am sorry, but this is just plain wrong so far as I can tell.  If you are a professional in any field, you know that being a professional requires taking the concepts you were taught in school and applying them at a higher level.  The “rules” you learned in school are too simple and do not work for every situation you encounter.  You have to use the rules and basic concepts as a basis, apply your own analysis and take the concept to a deeper level.  If such analysis were not required of you, they could just use a computer to do all your work!

It is a similar situation with religion.  People who are content to remain “technicians” in religion can be satisfied with just following the rules and swallowing all the beliefs handed to them by their preacher.  But those desiring to become “professional” must move beyond that. They must learn to use the rules and religious concepts they were taught, apply their own analysis and form their own decisions.

One wonders then, why is it so many religious leaders want to discourage this.  It turns out there is significant risk when one starts probing around with an open mind about religion.  There is a good chance the person will discard his faith.  When subjected to rational analysis, many of the concepts in religion do not hold up very well.  Where, exactly “up in the sky” would heaven be – that astronomers have not yet discovered?  Where, exactly “down under the earth” would hell be – that geologists have no clue about?  If only those who accept Jesus are “saved,” what kind of God would exclude people who live in jungles for example who will never have the chance to hear about Jesus?  Seriously, one could go on and on about the many totally illogical things the institutional religions try to make us believe.

Why is it so many of us just unquestioningly accept all this?  Because we are discouraged from applying our own brainpower!  It turns out many people who are willing to look at these religious concepts rationally wind up reasoning themselves out of their faith.  But others, it seems, find yet a deeper, more mature way to believe.  They realize that a lot of the “facts” the preachers tell us cannot be really true, in their literal sense.  But, rather than throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, they find a way to interpret all these concepts in a different way.  They see God as a force for Goodness, but not someone who would cruelly punish those who never have a chance to hear his Word told a certain way.  They realize there is no such “place” as heaven or hell.  But they see possibility in a state of existence, either while here on earth or in the hereafter, that is either joyful or not, depending on how the person lived their life.

Gordon Allport was a brilliant American psychologist who wrote heavily about religion.  One of his major works was “The Individual and His Religion.”*  In this book, he outlined his opinion on the difference between mature faith and immature faith.   The general gist of this is that immature religion is unreflective, second-hand and literal-minded.

To have mature faith, according to Allport, the person must have taken the risk involved in reflecting critically on what he could believe and what he could not.  He must have done the very hard work of forming a first-hand belief system that does not simply mirror what was handed to him at birth or by a chance encounter with some preacher or another.  Lastly, he must have gone beyond the literal understandings to see the metaphorical suggestions the Biblical texts were meant to imply.

Allport was by no means the only theorist to imply that going beyond the questioning stage was imperative to a mature faith stance.  The same idea can be fleshed out of the works of such varied writers as Walter Clark, Paul Ricoeur, James Fowler, Adolphe Tanquerey, Ken Wilber and Fritz Oser and even Saint Teresa of Avila.

It is unfortunate that so many religious leaders are not willing to risk losing the occasional follower to doubt in favor of allowing growth to mature faith in a majority of their congregation.

*Allport, Gordon W. The Individual and His Religion. New York, The Macmillan Company, 1950. (ninth printing, 1969.)

Margaret Placentra Johnston is writing a book of individual stories about spiritual development and melding the general spiritual development process delineated by fourteen notables from various fields and different centuries.  Visit her blog here.

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