Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Spirituality community here.
Many religions teach that to be sanctified and righteous one must worship at certain locations, say specific words, and believe particular tenets. Followers must tithe a certain percentage of their income, seek counsel from men deemed conduits to God, and live under the premise that they were born and will die a sinner. People who differ in their views about spirituality, sexual orientation, reproductive authority, and women's rights are often judged and excluded.
Justification for such rigid division is drawn from holy books—books said to contain the pure word of God—as opposed to the words of men interpreting God. To fervent followers, their book is the only true and sanctified representation of God's word. Punishment, worldly and divine, looms for all who deny it.
The greatest predictor of a person's religion is the religion of the community into which they are born. Authentic attraction and resonance with teachings is a far less common motivator. New converts to an organized religion are often fleeing another religion. For many steeped in religious teachings, being without a religion is terrifying and a new faith is required to feel safe from God's ire.
The fear of God is a powerful motivator and a profound inhibitor of free thinking. It works to repress objective inquiry and it may not even be what the men who wrote the Bible intended, as the word "fear" is derived from scriptural translations of a word bearing no equivalent in our language. Yet, for followers in search of religious perfection, contemplating whether a God of Love would deny millions of people because they don't know about or believe in his son is a blasphemous act risking holy repercussions.
To their credit, religions have served humanity in important ways. They've created civility and structure within communities, codified laws of fair and ethical conduct, instilled some level of conscience in individuals with harmful intentions, and given economic support to its interests. In times of rampant lawlessness and barbaric behavior, religions served to organize cultures and reduce violence within communities. At the same time, religious division is responsible for millions of deaths and the continued persecution of humans worldwide.
Today, the internet and media instantaneously deliver, in graphic detail, the consequences of religious division. We see the hypocrisy inherent in "religions of love" killing God's children. The cancer of men of the cloth molesting children and receiving protection from the church shakes our cores. The conflict between the oneness of humanity and the divisiveness of religion challenges our basic sense of right and wrong. Without fear to quash one's thinking, the question "Is this really God's plan?" is inevitable.
Answering this question from the sacred space of quiet within marks the beginning of one's spiritual journey. It's not an anything goes abdication of righteousness, as religious proponents bent on retaining their flock argue. It's a life of personal discipline, accountability, and honesty with oneself rather than the appearance of it before others.
The foundational tenets and overlapping essence of all religions endure for the spiritual individual: God is love, and treat others the way you wish to be treated. What is lifted is the forced adherence to ideas and perspectives that contravene one's sense of love, peace, compassion, and acceptance. No longer is one praised for thoughtless obedience. Power is returned to one's heart, an organ science has discovered is intelligent. Those who live in coherence with their hearts are healthier and happier, as are their relationships.
Would God design this exquisite heart-centered system with the intention that we violate it?
Will we continue to believe in a Creator who sets us up to fail?
Following the promptings of one's heart leads directly to the Divine—no books, words, clothes, or human conduits required. Here one drinks, firsthand, the waters of love, forgiveness, kindness, and unity. Judgments, divisions, and exclusions are dissolved and focus is redirected to what humanity needs to survive—peace. Time on this path brings clarity and the ability to see religious division and the great suffering it causes to our spiritual siblings. One sees through to the pain masquerading as purity.
This is the next step in humankind's spiritual evolution. We begin to understand the difference between helping and harming and realize there's no need for religious wardens to keep us in line anymore. Needed now are the vital elements of tolerance, compassion, active love for fellow brothers and sisters, and a direct channel to God.
Truth-seekers across the globe are discovering the greatest house of worship: the indestructible cathedral of light within. Wherever they are, they're in church. Every moment is a prayer and they are free to love without division, judgment, or fear. All is seen, and there's no escaping the effects of unloving thoughts and deeds. This is spiritual maturity—no excuses. One reaps what one sows, and in sowing love, reveals heaven on earth.
Have you discovered the cathedral within?