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Awareness and religion: Your path or someone else's

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Awareness and religion: Your path or someone else's

Stephen H. Provost

What’s the difference between religion and spirituality – or, more specifically, between doctrine and awareness? A lot of people have tried to answer this question over the years, but I’ve decided to offer my own perspective.

Religious groups often appoint a priesthood or hierarchy to administer their rituals and oversee dogma. Hence the term “organized religion.” But without that dogma and without those rituals, the hierarchy simply wouldn’t be necessary.

It’s not the priesthood that defines religion, in my view, it’s the rulebook ... which the priesthood uses to remain in power.

Spark of awareness

Religions often coalesce around a spark of awareness – a basic idea that’s powerful enough to gain a foothold in the imaginations of more than a few people. That idea isn’t the problem; it’s the “coalescing” factor. It tends to produce a rigid us-versus-them mentality that’s fortified by an ever-growing list of dos and don’ts.

These rules serve to separate people into two categories: the faithful and the heathen. They define who’s “accepted” and who’s not, but they don’t really do much else ... except to justify the existence of a priesthood (whose members benefit by being in power) – and to dim the spark of awareness that started fire in the first place.

From time to time, a reformer will come along and try to peel away the layers of dogma that have buried the original idea – and they’re usually castigated for it. Jesus the Galilean, for instance, said all the law and the prophetic utterances in Israel could be distilled into two simple principles: love God and love your neighbor. Martin Luther argued that Christian believers could have direct access to the divine, with no need of a priestly middleman.

The existing religious hierarchy, perceiving a threat to its power structure, did its best to silence them both.

The fact is, if you boil all the dogmatic dos and don’ts down into one or two simple principles that apply to everyone, two things happen. You discover you don’t need a hierarchy. And you focus on commonality, building bridges rather than walls. The priests obviously don’t like the first of these two repercussions. But they don’t like the second much, either, because they thrive off false us-versus-them distinctions – the kind of distinctions that leave the impression that “we’re better than they are.”

The priests can then lead the faithful into battle and claim credit for waging “spiritual warfare” against evil.

Ironically, these complex, Byzantine rules and restrictions create a simplistic, black-and-white dichotomy that pits the saints against the sinners, the chosen against the damned, the clean against the unclean. Such false simple-minded distinctions make the “in” group feel superior to those on the outside – who become dehumanized in the process. The entire process is akin to offering snake oil as a treatment for personal insecurity.

The spark remains

None of this means there’s no value in religion. Most religions, after all, are based on that positive spark of awareness that’s still there under all the dogma. And that spark can motivate people to do wonderful things in spite of all the spiritual red tape inherent in hierarchies and commandments.

But wouldn’t it be a lot easier to cut through that red tape to the heart of the matter?

That’s the idea behind Empyreanism. It’s based on two simple principles: awareness of self and awareness of the world outside. One leads to the other. There’s no map on how to get there, though, no set of prescribed rituals to follow or approved commandments to keep. Some people might use moral codes as guides. Others might make use of meditation. Or nature walks. Or conversations with close friends. Or being of service to others. Or some combination of the above and other tools not mentioned.

Some of these guides, or tools, will be of more help to one person than another, and that’s fine, because our paths are all different and our journeys uniquely our own. Guides can accompany us on those journeys, but they cannot walk the path for us. If we think they can, we doom ourselves to go no further and instead be diverted onto a path someone else has chosen – a path that is theirs, not ours.

Religion is someone else’s path, but awareness is uniquely our own. That’s the difference.

Everything else is just red tape.