Many people adopt whatever religion (or lack thereof) they are born into. It’s very understandable and natural. We adopt the religion we are born into because it’s familiar, because there is something of value in it (as there is in just about all of them), and for social reasons (to have a community, to fit in, for support).
And yet, if we say that the religion we happen to be born into is the “only true religion”, then there is some lack of intellectual honesty. How can we know? How can we know unless we seriously explore and experience all of them? How can we know even then?
Of course, if we say it’s the only true one, that’s OK as well. It comes from conditioning. That too is natural and understandable. I do the same in many areas of life, including in ways I am not aware of (yet). And it does come with some inherent discomfort and suffering. It can create discomfort for ourselves since we know – somewhere – we can’t know for sure, and when we see things of value in other traditions. And it can create discomfort and suffering for those around us who do not belong to our particular religion.
I became an atheist in elementary school on my own accord, partly for this reason. It didn’t make any sense to me that people happened to be born into this traditionally Christian culture, adopted that religion without questioning it much, and then saw it as the only true religion and the only path to salvation. To me, even at that age, it smacked of intellectual dishonesty.
I am still an atheist in a conventional sense. I don’t “believe” in any religion, and I don’t “believe in God” in a usual sense.
For me, “God” is a name for reality, life, existence. I don’t pretend I know exactly what that is. I have my own experience, and I am familiar with maps and frameworks that make sense to me based on my own experience and intellectually. And I know very well that those maps are just maps. They are questions about life, myself, and reality. And as maps, they are very much provisional.
I also appreciate the wisdom and guidance offered by the major religions. They often start from real insights and realizations, and individuals through the ages infuse the religions with fresh impulses from their own insights and awakenings.
At the same time, I know that religions…..
- Are structures that at best initially came from real insights. Have other functions than guiding people to spiritual insights and realizations, and that these are often more important. These may include social regulation, comfort, and a sense of community and fellowship.
- Have as their main purpose to perpetuate themselves. Although individuals within the traditions may have other priorities, including functioning as experienced spiritual guides for those interested in that approach.
- Use a “lowest common denominator” approach and at best recommend what tends to work for most people. The suggested practices and paths are often not so much tailored to the individual unless you find a more flexible and experienced guide.
The reality is that few people are interested in a spiritual path, and that’s fine. And that’s also reflected in how most or all religions are set up and function, including Buddhism. There is nothing at all wrong with this.
But it does mean that if we are seriously interested in a spiritual path, we may need to find free spirits within the traditions, or guides who function outside of them.
That’s why I – from the start in my teens – have sought out people like Jes Bertelsen (Danish spiritual teacher), Ken Wilber (for the framework), and later Adyashanti (who does have a solid grounding in one of the traditions).