To these perennial questions, I offer some answers — not to close a conversation but to broaden one. I do not claim to know anything you don’t know, but if I can help you remember what you already do know, I am blessed.
My wife and I come from different religious backgrounds and are about to have our first child. Our parents are competing to determine the religious identity of our child, but we don’t follow any religion and don’t want our child to be labeled at birth. What should we do?
I believe there is only one way to raise a child — with the truth as best as you and your wife can discern it and with the values you see arising from that truth. Tell your parents that you plan to raise a just, loving, and courageous child who thinks critically and acts righteously. Assure them that whenever their religions share those values, you will share those religious teachings as well.
But make it clear that you do not believe truth belongs to any one religion, and you do not want your child to be limited to any one religion. You want to raise a spiritually mature child, rather than a religiously loyal one.
A lot of my friends are leaving our church for a more liberal one. Our pastor says they are putting their souls in jeopardy. Why are they willing to risk eternity in hell?
I suspect your friends are no longer motivated by fear and are looking for a church rooted in love. When a church threatens people who leave, it is not a church but a cult. The question isn’t why your friends are leaving, but why are you staying?
I’m a spiritual seeker. My husband says I’m just lazy and that I am setting a poor example for our six-year-old daughter. He doesn’t care about religion and just wants me to settle on one and bring our daughter into it. Any thoughts?
Several, actually. First, you should ask yourself where else your husband is shirking the tough work of parenting and passing the burden on to you. Second, you should know that you are not alone in your seeking: the Pew Research Center reports that 50 percent of Americans have changed religions at least once in their lives. And third, you might consider joining a Unitarian Universalist fellowship that roots community in exploring shared questions rather than demanding shared answers.
I often think of religion as a library. Libraries preserve the past, offer a place where people can gather to explore it, and are staffed by people expert in sifting through it. Isn’t this what organized religion is like?
I appreciate your analogy and wish that religions were more like libraries. For example, libraries house many conflicting opinions without insisting one is right and the others wrong; libraries are open to all people without asking them to conform to any one type; and librarians are trained to help people find what they are searching for rather than what any specific librarian thinks they ought to be searching for. So, yes, religion is like a library, just not enough like it for my taste.
I’m not really religious, but I am spiritual, which some friends find odd. Do I have to be religious in order to be spiritual?
Not at all. Being religious means belonging to a specific faith and conforming to its teachings and practices. Being spiritual means living your life in a manner that cultivates universal justice, gratitude, and compassion. Being religious and being spiritual are not mutually exclusive, and there are religions that promote both. Unfortunately, there are also religions that promote an “us versus them” attitude that limits justice, gratitude, and compassion to the in-group only. Celebrate the former; beware the latter.
How do I find a religion where I can feel really comfortable?
Why would you want to? In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “Don’t stop searching until you find, and when you find you will be troubled, and when you’re troubled you will reign over all.” Religion should trouble you; it should upset conventional thinking and push you beyond self and selfishness, fear and violence, so that you reign over them, rather than they over you. Choosing a religion based on comfort turns religion into just another consumer-driven enterprise that promises to feed your ego rather than transform it.
I admit to being anti-religion. I just don’t see what organized religion provides. Am I missing something?
Yes, three somethings, as a matter of fact: transcendent purpose, community, and support. Transcendent purpose roots your life in something greater than itself. Your life matters not only to you but to the world. This sense of transcendent purpose arises from the story the religion tells and the rituals it uses to tell it. Community arises from gathering with others to share that story, to participate in those rituals, and to live the values of both in the public square. And support comes from the willingness of that community to stand with you in times of personal hardship and trial. The quality of a religion depends on the values its story and rituals transmit. If they are values rooted in love, the religion is a boon to the world; if they are rooted in fear, the religion can only bring the world closer to disaster.
What are your thoughts/beliefs about the coming Rapture in May 2011 and the end of the world in October 2011?
This is the teaching of Christian Evangelical Harold Camping, whose study of the Bible leads him to the notion that all right-believing Christians will be Raptured to heaven on May 21, 2011, and the world will come to an end five months later. Mr. Camping made a similar prediction regarding September 6, 1994. Admitting to a mathematical error on September 7, Mr. Camping has recalculated and set a new date. What interests me about Rapture-obsessed believers is their glee over being saved while most of humanity burns. Rather than gather together to plead with God to save humanity, they excitedly await the moment when everyone who believes differently from themselves will be destroyed. Religions that find comfort in death and a God who demands it reflect the dark side of humanity. Religions that focus on life reflect the best. I am unconcerned with the end of the world and focus instead on how we live until then.