Experience, Belief, and Practice

Over the past few years, I’ve done a fair amount of reading on history, anthropology, and psychology – all with the goal of trying to understand how religion began. I suppose that’s the universalist in me: I do think the many varied religions of our world began through the same process, although obviously their details were very different.

The exact origins of religion are lost in pre-history, but much can be deduced. For me, what’s important is that every religion began with a religious experience. A person had a dream or a vision, or a transcendent experience in nature, or perhaps a visit from a goddess or god. And that experience was so powerful it changed the person forever.

In an attempt to understand the experience and communicate it to others, the person then developed beliefs about what it meant. And then out of those beliefs grew practices designed to re-create the experience, or commemorate it, or carry out its instructions.

Fortunately for those of us who aren’t looking to start a totally new religion, we can begin at any point in the process and we can move in either direction. And that’s important because while true religious experiences come in their own time, and our beliefs can be influenced by much that’s out of our control (like what the church we grew up in pounded into our heads), we can always choose to alter our religious practices.

For example, we can begin a meditation practice. Eventually, that will lead to an experience of peace and tranquility, which in turn will lead to the belief that our happiness doesn’t depend on having this or that.

Or we can begin to practice magic, even though we’ve been told it doesn’t exist. By repetition, we begin to believe that it’s real. And then with the blinders of modern Western culture removed, we can recognize the magical experiences that happen all the time. Of course, some times it goes the other way – you try the magic, it works, and you’re forced to believe in it.

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