Religious Buyer’s Remorse

Religious Buyer’s Remorse October 15, 2013
a offer is presented: choose

We who are living in 21st century America have more religious options than ever before in the history of the world.  Thanks to legal protections for religious freedom, a free flow of books and other information, and the connections made possible by the internet, if a religion is being practiced or has ever been practiced you can practice it here and now.

That’s a good thing, right?  Isn’t “more choices are always better” a fundamental axiom of American life?  As someone who found the religion of my childhood to be at odds with my core values and who is participating in the re-creation of a tradition that disappeared for over a thousand years, I’m thankful we have this wonderful opportunity.

But these seemingly unlimited options don’t come without cost.  It takes time to investigate the beliefs and practices of a new religion, to learn its history and customs, and to see how well they work in practice.  It takes more time to compare one religion to another, and to make sure you’re making a decision based on religious reasons and not because the Unitarians have good coffee or the Methodists have a great sound system.

Even if you conduct an exhaustive study, how can you be sure you made the right decision?  Let’s ignore the religions that claim exclusivity (which I would do anyway – religious certainty is not possible).  Choosing a sub-optimal religion won’t send you to hell, but it can make your life less rich, less satisfying, and less helpful than choosing a religion to which you are better suited.

So while it is good we have the freedom and ability to find the religious path that best matches our individual needs, interests, and religious experiences, these overwhelming choices can create stress.  There’s a term for this stress – buyer’s remorse.

Wikipedia has a good definition of buyer’s remorse:

Buyer’s remorse is the sense of regret after having made a purchase. It … is thought to stem from cognitive dissonance, specifically post-decision dissonance, that arises when a person must make a difficult decision, such as a heavily invested purchase between two similarly appealing alternatives.

Buyer’s remorse isn’t so much about thinking what you chose was wrong as thinking another choice would have been better.  I’m happy as a Pagan, but I’m envious of the organizational structure of the Catholic church.  On stressful days I think I’d be better off as a Buddhist.  Nadia Bolz-Weber reminds me of the power of the message of Jesus.  My many Feri friends make me wonder if I’d be a better Pagan if I had their training and experiences.  And even within my chosen tradition of Druidry, my hard polytheism would be a better fit in ADF than in OBOD.

In an environment where we are truly free to choose, religious buyer’s remorse is inevitable.  How can we deal with it effectively?

First, a religion isn’t a commodity.  It’s part of what you are, who you are, and whose you are.  Despite what the evil sorcerers of Madison Avenue would like you to believe, the clothes you wear and the car you drive are not.  As much as parts of other religions appeal to me, at my core I’m not a Catholic or a Buddhist or a Feri witch.

In America we tell our children they can be anything they want to be.  It’s a nice thought, but it’s only partially true.  You can play at anything you want to be, you can dress up like anything you want to be, but you can only be who you are.

Who are you?  Whose are you?  What fills your soul with joy and your life with inspiration?  What are you called to do?  Who are you called to serve?

Part of accepting the glorious imperfection that is you is accepting the gloriously imperfect religion to which you are called.  Religious buyer’s remorse may be inevitable, but ultimately it’s irrelevant.  You are what and who and whose you are.

Next, are you sure those things that give you buyer’s remorse can’t be found in your own tradition?  Nobody does structure like the Catholics, but we Druids have some decent structures ourselves – there’s a reason Druid traditions are called orders.  You don’t have to be a Buddhist to meditate.  And while I’ll never learn the secrets of Feri, I’ve learned some pretty strong magic and had some very strong religious experiences.

Conversely, if you’re a Lutheran who really wants to practice magic, there’s a long tradition of Christian esotericism.  Many liberal Christians are embracing the Divine Feminine, through the Marys or through God the Mother or both.  And while I’m a polytheist, there’s a whole branch of Paganism by and for non-theists.

All religions are not the same and not elements can be found in all traditions.  And some things just can’t be combined – you can worship Jesus and Thor, but don’t expect the Baptists to accept you (nor will the Heathens).  But dig just below the surface and you’re likely to find that what you think you’re missing can be found within your own religion.

Nostalgia is not buyer’s remorse.  I had a difficult time growing up in a small Baptist church, but I can still appreciate gospel music (in small quantities, anyway) and I can admire the power and effectiveness of good preaching even if I don’t agree with the sermon content.  And Bach (an addition from my later Christian days) is beautiful by any standards.  I have some fond memories of my previous religion, but they are memories, and the path leads forward, not backward.

Finally, remember that what you get out of a religion is directly proportional to what you put into that religion.  Spiritual maturity does not come by dashing down one path and then back to another, it comes from committing yourself to one path and then following it as far as you can.  There may be some trial and error involved early on, but when you find the place where you belong, when you hear the gods who call to you, when your soul whispers “this is it” then give that path your all.

Just as we need not attack other religions to be committed to our own, neither must we abandon our path when we see something meaningful in another tradition.  Buyer’s remorse may be inevitable in this massive marketplace of religions, but it need not cause us to abandon our calling, our home, and our true will.

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  • kenofken

    I think you hit it on the head. The test should be whether or not the religion or tradition resonates with you on a core level, not whether it has all the options and apps you would have liked to have installed at the factory!

    One should always be cautious what one envies in other faiths because chances are very high you’re coveting an idealized version of something, not the real deal. For my part, I envy nothing of the Catholic Church’s organization. I believe it has done far more as a barrier to spirituality than to facilitate it. The massing and hoarding of unaccountable power created the hideous abuse scandal that has shattered the credibility of the Church as a moral authority on any matter. In a decade, it de-Christianized Ireland to an extent it would have taken us another 100 years to do.

    That vast hierarchy is also a cesspool of Machiavellian politics, agendas, factions, patronage, sinecures and cartel-level money laundering. In the States, the bishops have accomplished nothing in the past quarter century besides fighting the culture war and shilling for the GOP. Lest you think this is all just an outsider’s attack, consider that the new pope spends most of his waking hours doing an end run around the Vatican hierarchy, telling the bishops to stuff their politics and culture war, and getting back to the street level basics of ministry. We pagans get organized to do what really needs doing, and chances are the rest is stuff I don’t want done in my name anyway.

    When we look in other directions, yes, Buddhists seem to have some cool spiritual tech, but I don’t think any of its masters would tell you they have a surefire cure for life’s stress. Much of what they are good at is oriented toward a world view that is fundamentally different from many of ours. One cool thing about many pagan paths is that we’re open-source religions, to varying degrees. That doesn’t mean adopting gods and theologies willy-nilly, but we can certainly adopt certain meditation techniques from a Buddhist or reverse engineer and copy the format of a cool Oktoberfest held by the Catholics, or the structure of some street ministry done by Methodists, or…whatever might work for who WE are.

  • Cat lover

    John, you might be interested in Teo Bishop’s latest posts over at Bishop in the Grove.

  • Sunweaver

    I know these feels, bro.
    I’ll drive by a church that has a sign for “Mother’s day out” or some such thing and there’s that flash of envy or I’ll hear about some monastic order and wish we had something like that. I envy the Catholics their structure, too, and wish I could get paid for being a clergyperson.

    What I do have is both rich and beautiful in its own right. The entirety of our congregation, as it were, is comprised of my best friends and all of our children. Beyond that is a great bunch of people who will rise to any Need. We don’t get paid, but we teach each other and help each other in lots of different ways.

  • What I love about creating my own path is that there is very limited buyers remorse involved – I simply add what I want to! But that said, I do very occasionally wonder about being part of a tradition. Thanks for this, you make some interesting points, and it’s not something I’ve thought about an awful lot, though I do see quite a lot of it amongst Pagans.

  • Northern_Light_27

    You said that some things can’t be combined, but you also said that you are what and whose you are. What if that which you are at your core are things that cannot be combined? What if you actually are called to worship both Jesus and Thor? Deny half of your soul or starve yourself of community? You kind of gloss over this, but it’s where I live.

    I’ve been searching and seeking for an awfully long time now and I’ve never had that “this is it”. I’ve had “this is close except for that integral thing that I just can’t swallow”. There is a path, my first, that I’ve been walking in some way or another for so long I’ve mentally dubbed it my spiritual/philosophical OS– but my definition and method with it is so completely idiosyncratic and opposed to oh, every other practitioner I’ve ever met, that to say “I’m X” would invite massive confusion both external and internal. To make a political comparison, it’s precisely like the Republican who still identifies deeply with the Republican Party, only it’s the ideals of a Republican Party that– if it existed at all outside his own head– existed so long ago and is so completely extinct that it’s pointless to identify himself with them, angers everyone else and is soul-destroying for him. So he tries on other parties and after spending a few years with the others he registers as a Democrat because it -mostly- fits, except for policy positions A and B that are really important to being a Democrat but clash with that inner Republicanism. So in the end he’s really not anything except the political ideas and ideals that he’s home-brewed and kit-bashed together, and he’s given up on the idea that anywhere will ever truly feel like home and not well… it’s close enough that it can be made to work.

    You write a timely essay, Mr. Beckett, because I’ve really been struggling with this lately. I got to a place where I felt I was working pretty well with NewReligion until I just had one too many thing in its software twang against that base OS, and lately I just feel like an impostor.

    • There are beliefs and practices, there is community, and there is identity. These three things usually have considerable overlap – it’s certainly simpler when they do. But it’s not absolutely necessary, and it’s rare that they all three stack neatly on top of each other.

      • Northern_Light_27

        Thank you, that puts it in good perspective. Sorry for going on so, your post brought to the surface things that had been frustrating me for some time. If people in my new religion are being honest, stacking neatly is common. Actually, the assumption that they should stack neatly is something I’ve encountered quite a bit, or I wouldn’t feel quite so strange that mine do not.