A Steve Jobs of Religion?

Early last month the New York Times published an essay by Eric Weiner on the rise of the religious Nones – as in None of the Above. I’ve been critical of the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, but Weiner appears to be a None who is sincerely searching and not just being spiritually lazy.

The Dallas Morning News’ Texas Faith panel addressed Weiner’s essay this week, in particular his claim that “we need a Steve Jobs of religion.” Their responses ranged from thoughtful to dismissive to wishful thinking that what Weiner describes already exists in their own religions. Here’s Weiner’s last paragraph, which Texas Faith used as their jumping off point:

We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.

EarthRhythmsAmy Martin had two excellent points in her response. The first was “whatever the future of religion is, it will be done bottom-up Wikipedia style, generated from shared concepts rather than the revealed word of a transcendent personality.” And second “what is emerging must be articulated, but not defined.”

Amy’s right. New religions – or new ways of being religious – are a response to the needs of a particular group of people living in a particular place and time. No one or two or five persons have the breadth of experience and depth of intuition to coalesce those needs and responses into a set of beliefs and practices. A new religion will not be created, it will evolve.

While Weiner’s call for a Steve Jobs of religion is off base, his call for an Apple-ish religion is right on target.

First, a new religion for the 21st century will be like Apple because it will be intuitive. More importantly, it won’t be counterintuitive. It will not ask people to believe what their experiences tell them is false. It won’t claim that good people are damned because they can’t accept someone else’s special revelation. It won’t claim that who you love is more important than that you love.

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, it will be a religion that makes your dog and cat – and your neighbor – better for it.

It won’t make claims we wish were true but intuitively know are false: that humans are really perfect but just don’t recognize it. Our experiences of violence, cruelty, and addiction, of guilt and shame tell us we are far from perfect. As William James said over a hundred years ago: “Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! Help! No prophet can claim to bring a final message unless he says things that will have a sound of reality in the ears of victims such as these.”

Instead, it will teach spiritual practices that help us find wholeness and live in integrity according to our highest values.

A new religion will be like Apple because it will be interactive. It will be participative and it will appeal to the body as well as the mind. There is a time to sit and listen but religion isn’t entertainment – it’s something you do. Sing, drum, dance, and feast! A new religion will also be experiential – it will encourage religious experiences by everyone, not just a special few. While it is true that mystical unity with God / Goddess / The Universe comes when it will and cannot be controlled, it can be facilitated with proper training and techniques. The leaders of a new religion must master these techniques so they can be demonstrated to all.

A new religion will be like Apple because it will be expensive. Cheap and easy religion is weak religion. If it is to be any good a new religion will require a significant investment of time: daily meditation, prayer, reading and contemplation. Regular meetings for group study and practice, and periodic intensive retreats. Work to put beliefs into action and make the world a better place. And money to support all of those activities.

Like Apple, there will be those who find it too expensive for their tastes. So be it.

Unlike Apple, though, a new religion for the 21st century will be humble. It will recognize that its religious experiences are unverified personal gnosis – meaningful for those who share them but not binding on those who don’t. It will freely acknowledge that doubts and uncertainty accompany any exploration of the limits of human understanding.

At the same time, it will not be paralyzed by those doubts. In the absence of certainty it will confidently proclaim “this I believe” and move forward boldly. And when some of those beliefs and practices are found to be incorrect or unhelpful, it will change them and try something else.

This religion is evolving even as we speak, but it is unlikely to become a wholly new religion. Instead, these new ways of being religious are being incorporated into existing religions both large and small. People are reinterpreting their sacred stories in new ways to fit our needs here and now.

This new way of being religious doesn’t need an inventor. It needs evangelists.

Lots of them.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.

  • John Russell

    I found that Rabbi Irwin Kula fits the spiritual "Steve Jobs" for me especially in his book "Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life" which has a lot in it that could be applied universally to many kinds of spirituality. It dovetails nicely with the kind of discordianism I practice, strikes the right balance between Eristic and Aneristic principals in a way that is compassionate and free.


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