In response to abuses that have been perpetuated in the name of religion, attacks on religion are common today. However, I believe a more constructive response is to contribute to the reconceptualization and renewal of religion.
For instance, one thing we can do is move away from the plural notion of competing religions and adopt a singular conception of religion. Religion, in this sense, is as a single, cross-cultural, trans-historical phenomenon that reflects the universal human aspiration for a transcendent meaning, purpose, and direction in life. When this universally shared aspiration degrades into sectarian conflict and competition it is no longer worthy of the name religion.
In this context, it is possible to think of religion as an evolving system of knowledge and practice that, in partnership with science, must strive to become increasing attuned to reality over time. When this evolving system of knowledge and practice degrades into sectarian dogma and doctrinal orthodoxies, it is not worthy of the name religion.
At the core of this evolving system of knowledge and practice lies a commitment to cultivating the latent human potential for cooperation, reciprocity, altruism, and commitment to the common good. Learning how to do this more widely, more systematically, and more effectively is one of the primary challenges facing humanity at this critical juncture in history – when almost 7 billion people must learn how to live together on an increasingly crowded planet. Any belief system that is not contributing to this process of cultivating our higher human nature should not be confused with religion.
Also at the core of this evolving system of knowledge and practice is a commitment to applying spiritual principles – such as the principles of unity, justice, equity, trustworthiness, and compassion – to the betterment of society. Learning how to do this more widely, more systematically, and more effectively is another one of the primary challenges facing humanity at this critical juncture in history. Again, belief systems that are not engaged in this process should not be confused with religion.
Finally, at this critical juncture in history, it seems obvious that religion must serve as a unifying force that empowers humanity to address, in a coordinated and mature manner, the increasingly complex global problems we collectively face. Belief systems that abdicate this responsibility, by dividing people and antagonizing “others” who are different, are surely not worthy of the name religion.
Humanity is one. Reality is one. Religion is one. Perhaps it’s time to agree that any belief system that fails to recognize these simple truths is not true religion – even if it pretends to be.