Religion has three faces. The first is personal and is often referred to as spirituality. The second is interpersonal and is usually referred to as morality. The third is political/systemic and appears in a few varieties. All three faces include both positive and negative aspects. However, I believe that while the first two have the potential to provide personal purpose, meaning, and a moral path towards peace, the third one is a gauntlet that must be approached with great care. Allow me to clarify.
The Personal Face of Religion
Personal spirituality gives an individual access to a variety of religious practices, ranging from meditation and prayer to contemplation and service, that he or she can use to either establish a personal connection with a chosen deity—God, Jesus, Buddha Nature, Brahman—or work towards a certain spiritual goal—peace of mind, love without need for reward, altruistic service, or deep spiritual understanding, to name a few.
In short, a person who is cultivating an internal spiritual relationship and is working towards becoming a better version of him- or herself is likely to be a positive force in the world—although not always guaranteed.
The Interpersonal Face of Religion
Interpersonal refers to morality, which includes the taming of residual animal instincts and working towards peaceful co-existence. It is central to social cohesion. Most famous among moral axioms is “do unto others, as you would have them do unto you” or the Golden Rule, which exists in some form in all religions.
Cultivating the Golden Rule starts with internal love and then spreads outward, which is why a person who thinks he or she not worth much can easily harm others. As the saying goes, “hurt people hurt people” and, as such, he Golden Rule is best practiced from the inside out.
However, trying to be good can inadvertently create a repulsion of the opposite of whatever one perceives as good. This is a side effect that needs to be vigilantly monitored or else it may lead to ugliness within a spiritual society.
- Wanting peace of mind may lead to hate of any fun-loving activity that causes a ruckus.
- The promotion of a strong family unit may cause the marginalization of people who choose a different lifestyle.
- The need for a clean body can spur hatred for sugary products and the people who consume them.
- The choice to live sober can transform a person into an anti-drug crusader.
- … and so on.
While it is true that religion can provide a moral structure to help build character, compassion, and peace within a society, it is equally true that when religion forgets to be vigilant against the forces of repulsion, it can quickly degenerate into bigotry and condemnation.
On average though, I think that religion does well in the arena of interpersonal relations when it promotes the Golden Rule, works towards social cohesion, provides people with positive interactions and role models, and guards against extremes.
The Political Face of Religion
The third face has the potential to be both positive and acutely negative. It depends on the level of infallibility preached within the religion.
For example, if a religion is open-minded and respects religious freedom, its political face can indeed have a positive affect. An interpersonal moral compass, attained through religious belief and practice, drove both the abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. Gandhi’s work in India, both towards independence and elimination of the caste system, was also religiously motivated. Thusly, when religious inspiration transcends the limits of religious dogma, and when moral authority is attained through personal practices, the effects can be quite remarkable.
Unfortunately, the positive political effects of religion are as rare as the negative effects are common, especially when a religion preaches infallibility. The political face of an infallible religion first works towards having a strong voice, then towards dominance—which is not okay, especially since dominance was the European model that early Americans fled from—and finally wishes for theocracy, based on a persistent thought: “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone believed the way we do?”
For anyone who believes in religious freedom and freedom of speech, as I do, the political face of a religion that believes itself to be infallible can never lead to a good outcome for those who don’t agree with the religious infallibility claim.
However, I am not ascribing immoral or negative intentions to every religiously motivated political force that preaches infallibility, although their desired outcomes more often than not don’t rhyme with my beliefs. No, when I talk to my liberal friends, they are often astounded by the fact that particular religious groups are working so hard to achieve their political goals. I have to remind them that these people truly believe that the world would be a better place if everyone believed the way they do.
In their mind, they are trying to make the world a better place.
That doesn’t make it right, but it should create some understanding.
My Formula for Discerning
To make my life simpler, I have devised a simple formula to discern between the desirable and undesirable aspects when I am faced with religiously or spiritually motivated politics.
- If the objective is to further universal rights, promote freedom of religion (to practice, not to discriminate against others), defend freedom of speech, relieve oppression, lend a helping hand to the sick and the poor, increase compassion, work towards peaceful relations, or something along those notes, count me in, no matter the name of the religion.
- If, however, the objective is to institute chosen pieces of religious orthodoxy or scripture into law, to claim dominance (my religion is better than yours), or establish theocracy (a government based solely on scripture), then count me out—again, no matter the name of the religion.
As an Interfaith Minister, it is difficult for me to write about the upsides and downsides of religion, but I think it is a conversation we must have.
My Relationship with the Three Faces of Religion
When I think about the three faces of religion, I connect most strongly with the personal face. I have always been drawn the to the experiential elements of religion and spirituality.
I respect the interpersonal or moral face of religion, and yet, I have seen it do both, create people of empathy and strong character, and, on the other side, create struggle and bigotry. The best version of a religious moral compass creates decent people while the worst version… well… you’ve probably seen what it does.
When it comes to the political face of religion, I am torn. I believe in advocating for the political objectives that I detailed above and even think that doing so from a spiritual standpoint is politically viable.
However—and this is a biggie—there are so many bad examples of what can happen when theology is used to make public policy—from outright dictatorial theocracy, to the marginalization of certain types of people, to the insistence that one religion is more important than others, to moral rules of one religion being established as law for all of society—and that is why I hesitate.
And yet, at the end of these musings, I understand that the only way to work within the realm of religion is to accept it as is, all of it. These are the three faces of religion; always have been, always will be. Therefore, I will put my best foot forward in each of these categories and try to avoid known pitfalls.
Author & Interfaith Minister
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