This name is meant to sound silly, because along with Reinhold Niebuhr, I believe that "laughter is the beginning of prayer." But when it comes to religion, I can be as serious as typhoid. Born into an intensely religious tradition I would later leave, I've studied and pondered the subject intensely. I've come to believe Marx's dictum, "Religion...is the opium of the people." Or, at least, part of it. Marx wasn't wrong—but he didn't know that opiates aren't purely negative. They can drug us or poison us or sustain us. In fact, we naturally produce the "endogenous opioids" necessary for happiness. So a quest for truth isn't about being a glazed-over religion addict or cold-turkey atheist. It's about learning which opiates are healthy and testing each new idea before we take it into our systems.
Flying High on Faith
My friend Drew never thought much about spirituality until a college friend took him to hear a charismatic preacher. Drew was immediately hooked. Listening to Preacher X, he remembers feeling "high as a kite. I would have walked on fire, juggled rattlesnakes, done anything the guy said." Drew embarked on a religious journey that now makes him blush. "I'd always questioned authority, but when I met Preacher X, that way of thinking sort of zoned out. I was like an addict—I felt stoned on being part of the group and on thinking we had the Truth. You know, no questions or uncertainty."
Drew dropped out of college and moved into a commune with other followers of Preacher X. "I was euphoric for more than a year," he says. "Then problems started coming up, some from inside my mind, some from outside." Drew found himself questioning Preacher X's insistence that he alone knew the mind of God. Soon after, a 17-year-old friend told Drew she and Preacher X were sleeping together. This major buzz kill finally jolted Drew out of his religious "high."
Drew regrets this whole uncharacteristic episode, but he was following deep-rooted patterns of human behavior. The great sociologist Max Weber hypothesized that every cultural movement began when a charismatic leader gathered a group of followers. The word charismatic is important: Though we use it to describe charming or impressive people, charisma also means the ability to connect with the divine. People follow charismatics because they purport to speak for God, providing compelling truth claims that help people feel guided, protected, and united.
This psychological pattern is the reason people attach passionately to value-based groups, from teenage gangs to political parties. It's why reasonable people may become irrationally loyal to such groups. We're wired to experience euphoria when we belong to a band of people championing common values. It literally intoxicates us.
One regrettable consequence of this is that onlookers often conclude that religion causes the violence done in its name. Many well-meaning atheists believe that getting rid of religion would eliminate ideological discrimination and violence. Some believe this so strongly that they become angry, even violent, and...oh, hello! Here we are, back at holy war! If you doubt that doctrinaire atheism is as dangerous as doctrinaire religion, study the history of communism in the 20th century. You'll find the same charismatic leaders claiming to know the Truth, the same us-versus-them psychology, the same intoxicated evangelism, the same unfortunate habit of slaughtering people by the millions to improve their lives.
In short, absolutism is the opiate that turns the masses into ideology-addicted murderers, whether religious or irreligious. Doctrinaire atheism keeps the bathwater aspects of religion and forcibly ejects the baby—the one thing religion has that atheism lacks: spirituality.
Make Your Own Opiate
Remember those natural endogenous opioids produced by healthy bodies—the ones Marx never knew existed? As a depressed teenager, I became addicted to them. I exercised maniacally, triggering surges of feel-good chemicals like endorphins, until my body basically fell apart. I developed a chronic pain condition that left me too crippled to do much besides lie still and breathe. Since it was one of the few things I could actually do, I began meditating. I hated meditation, but only for about 10 years. That's how long it took me to realize that this practice could "turn on" the same natural opiates I'd once gotten from exercise. Unlike the rush-and-crash of my physical fitness addiction, however, meditation seemed to slowly fill a calm reservoir of joy that pervaded my life. I'd become my own source of connection to the divine. Literally and figuratively, I was making my own opiates.
The following is my recipe for Home-Brewed Charisma:
The most powerful protection from the inherent dangers of spiritual seeking is to accept that human knowledge can never be absolute. I mean, you could be dreaming right now—of course, you aren't...but if you were, how would you know?
René Descartes, one of the fathers of modern science, dwelled on this question until he felt, by his own description, "dazed." Ultimately, he decided that the only thing he was sure of was that he wasn't sure. Most people know Descartes's famous statement "Cogito, ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"). But he actually wrote "Dubito...cogito, ergo sum." "I doubt...I think, therefore I am." Though we like to ignore it, uncertainty, not certainty, is the philosophical foundation of science.
You'll be vulnerable to "bad drug" religion until you can repeat these words without freaking out: "Nobody's absolutely sure of anything, and that's okay." This frees you to do consciously what most people do unconsciously—make your best subjective judgment about the veracity or fallacy of any truth claim.
The embrace of uncertainty replaces absolutism—the source of ideological toxicity—with a simple, open question: Since no truth claim is absolute, does this make sense?
That was the seditious thought pattern that made my friend Drew question Preacher X's ranting. It's what led Copernicus to dispute the religious "truth" that the Earth was the center of the universe. It's what led the American founding fathers away from theocracy and toward democracy.
Asking if something "makes sense" has multiple meanings. It asks us to test a claim with both our common sense and our senses. Modern science owes its incredible advances to focusing on data perceived by our physical bodies. But other advances, like the "self-evident" truth of individual equality, resonate with a subtler, inner sort of knowing. Drew's problems with his cult came from inside and outside his mind because our observations come from obvious physical experiences and intuitive ones.
We frequently reference physical sensations when discussing metaphysical ideas, calling on all five senses to describe something that ostensibly can't be sensed: "I can see how that might be true," we might say. "It sounds right." Or, "Something about it feels weird. I smell a rat. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth." Some spiritual traditions refer casually to the five subtle senses, in addition to the five physical ones, and suggest we use all of them to decide whether we want to accept an idea into our belief system. That's why I chose, as my own religious hymn, the song "This Smells Funny, and I'm Not Gonna Eat It." If you get a queasy feeling from any of your 10 senses, back away. Don't swallow it.
Notice Whether an Idea Unifies or Divides
The word religion derives from the Latin religare, which means "to bind together." I finally fell in love with meditation when I felt it reconnecting me with my real self, with humanity, nature, the entire universe. This experience of oneness, at-one-ment, lies at the charismatic core of every religious tradition. So as you go along your spiritual search, observe the long-term effect of every doctrine and practice that comes your way. If it breaks, shatters, or destroys, it's not religion—its absolutism. That drug'll kill you. Real religion, by definition, makes things whole again. It heals.
"The problem for me," Drew says of his youthful religious experiment, "wasn't that I got high on religion. The problem was that the high was artificial. What I really wanted wasn't just groupthink, it was love. Real love—the kind that takes time, testing, solitude, service, stillness, effort, the whole spectrum of religious practice."
In other words, Do-Be-Do-Be.
So it seems Drew and I enjoy the same natural opiates, that we're following the same basic religious path. We sometimes walk together and enjoy the other's company, but we don't need to be in lockstep. We trust our souls to the embrace of uncertainty, to the reliability of our senses, and to the grand, mysterious impulse that has always led human beings to create religion. Imperfect, foolish, and fallible as we are, each of us seems to be designed—and maybe even guided—to find our own Way.
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