We have religion all wrong


I think we have religion all wrong. I am not saying that what we call religion isn’t what we think it is, only that things we think aren’t religion are essentially the same thing as well. 

The error we make is in assuming that religions must involve some idea of God. In fact, God is an idea, a signifier, of some sense of ultimate being and cause. It is a seminal theory of everything – at its most fundamental level. To the materialist there is evolution and the Big Bang to signify being and cause. 

God is a big idea, but also vague, filled out by metaphysical imagination. The idea doesn’t have to resolve in any kind of personhood, but it may do so for some. When we survey the spectrum of big God ideas they vary greatly. Incidentally, I am using ‘God’ to denote a principal deity, not just the highly personalized Christian idea. All traditions have a singular overarching sense of deity. This includes the God of monotheists, the God of deists, the indescribable and unimaginable deity of mystic traditions, and various chief gods of the variety of polytheistic traditions.

The sense of The One or The All in its various renderings isn’t God in the same sense. Its more a unified pervasive consciousness (which raises the question of what we mean by consciousness) that’s closer to the mystical sense of indescribable and unimaginable deity – and may differ in name only. The word ‘God’ (with a capital G) can be employed to cover a spectrum of ideas but denotes a personal association with them. Whatever we mean by ‘God’ we include a personal association.

The materialist imagines Nature that is driven by evolution and bounded by laws. To the materialist reality is an ‘it’ and any ‘thous’ that exist arise directly from ‘it’. To the ‘religious’ ‘it’ has arisen from a primary ‘Thou’.

This ‘it’/’Thou’ distinction is a handy shorthand for some complex ideas that can overwhelm our ability to think clearly.

Whether we think reality is fundamentally a thou-generating-it (materialistic) or an it-generating-Thou(religious) essentially depends on our circumstances. If we are raised in a culture where religious faith is valued, we are more likely to assume an it-generating-Thou. Intense religious practice or experience will confirm the habit of thought. Rational aversions to religious practice, culture, or dogma may trigger a preference for a thou-generating-it explanation. Consciousness, in this view, can only ever be epi-phenomenal. 

The animistic perspective might be called a thou-generating-Thou. But let’s be also clear that the religious perspective is an ‘it and thou generating Thou.

To the extent we can exert intentional rational choice over what we believe, we make what I call a ‘metaphysical guess’ on which option is chosen and what detail we prefer. For most of us that guess is sufficient until something motivates a desire or need to change. That is to say that we can’t ‘know’ the truth in any objective sense, we can only decide what is true for us.

Does it matter?

To us as individuals or communities it does matter, because so much of our subjective psychology, as individuals, or shared cultures of meaning and value are constructed upon these choices/guesses.

But on a rational scale, in terms of what is true or false, it does not. This is because, absent a genuine fearless passion for truth-finding, people will inhabit a subjective zone of belief until it loses any value or utility. Truth finders will assert it does matter to them. But imposing the same values upon others is unwise. Their position is indistinguishable from any other subjective position to anybody else. Consequently, claiming nothing is often a good move. That is to say that silence can be the wiser option.

The Truth is likely more than we can presently believe. This suggests that all we can assert at any time is that we are truth seeking in the best way we can. This isn’t a competitive activity. It is not a zero-sum game. It a matter of belief – one held among many. It is the best opinion we can presently craft.

Our current high standard of truth seeking involves disciplined rational inquiry. We don’t value disciplined self-awareness to the same extent. But we can see from past traditions in many cultures that these 2 forms of discipline have been highly valued together. In fact, they have been an essential union.

Ardent truth seeking via faith, belief, and personalized subjective spiritual experience, as popular as it is, is inherently unreliable. It eschews rational and subjective discipline in favour obedience to unchallenged norms and conformity with unexamined ‘truths’. At best this approach is entry level. It is discarded as people become more reflective and critical. The entry level paths will not disappear any time soon.

It is a mark of our times (over the past 200 years for instance) that we have been undergoing a revolution in both rational inquiry (as exemplified by science) and self-inquiry (as exemplified by religious and spiritual, philosophical, and psychological inquiry). This revolution has by no means run its course. There are, I believe, a few centuries to go yet, at least. 

Do please note that both rational and subjective inquiry have been highly energetic. The pity is that it is uncommon to find both so energetically pursued in the same individual.

We are witnessing a steady transition away from traditional religion into alternative forms of thought, belief, and practice, and into atheism and materialism as this revolution progresses. In essence, our expression of our religious impulse is evolving and diversifying.

Truth matters, of course. But assuming one knows it is another thing. Of greater concern is whether our individual passions for ‘truth’ are cooperative, collaborate or collegiate rather than contested and combative. Whether we are good neighbors and community members or whether we want to pick fights and foster division is what matters in our mundane lives. 

What we believe has become more important than how we behave. This might be a post-Enlightenment legacy, but we can see the seeds being sown in early Christianity. Now we can condemn good people because we disagree with their beliefs, even though they have no adverse impact on us as individuals or the community as a whole.

This is changing as theological or faith-based dogma is being asserted as objective fact, absent any rational foundation. But this isn’t an abuse of ‘religion’ itself, just the manifestation of social expressions of fear and anxiety communicated through a particular community’s culture.

It is interesting that in our recoded history concerns about character have remained constant. All else may have changed – the cultural, political, economic, technological, or scientific – but the problem of character remains. We still haven’t figured that how we behave matters more than what we believe. What we believe influences how we behave, but this is often because we believe that what we believe matters more than how we behave.

How we manage our belief/behaviour is critical to our welfare. But this is linked also to identity at a cultural and individual existential level.

Is religion inherent in our nature?

In my early research into animism, I concluded that we had a shared psychological architecture that was animistic at its core. If we aren’t explicitly animistic, we are implicitly so. 

It is true that some people assert they are flat out materialistic and won’t have a bar of any idea they are in any way animistic. But have you ever heard a materialist talking about evolution? They cannot avoid ascribing agency to it, while defending their words by insisting it’s just a matter of language. Maybe.

I have come to see that we are also inherently ‘religious’. We all have a theory of everything. Now this is mostly entirely vague and not at all thought through – and extends no more than our need it to ‘explain’ our situation to ourselves. It doesn’t need to be objectively true, just subjectively coherent. It is an existential dialogue, not a rational one.

Our traditional idea of religion has served us well in doing this for most of human history. We mustn’t misunderstand it now.

This idea has two utterly imprecise, but related, ideas behind it. The first is – ‘as above, so below’. The second is allied – a sense of holographic reality in which any small thing models what is large. 

Even from a purely organic perspective we need to develop some theory of being and behaviour made up from the best ideas we can come up with. This is how we survive in the physical world. We don’t live in a fog of question marks. Our brains routinely fill in the gaps. In short, no matter who we are, we have the best theory of everything we can develop.

This extends beyond the organic to the psychological where our theory of everything blends our experience of organic being with whatever subjective awareness we can have.

As organic beings we have a most remarkable organ – the brain – whose function it is to receive and process input from our reality, regulate our own bodies and stimulate behaviour in response to the input. Neuroscience suggests our brains may be inherently holistic. Yet while we may possess an innate potential for holistic awareness we are limited by our sense of identity and relationship. If you like, our egos constrain how our potential for identity and relationship may express – as an individual, as a community member – how we think, feel and act.

Our cultures have an innate overriding theory of everything. This may be fused with religious traditions, philosophical traditions or other intellectual traditions depending on how complex and pluralistic the culture may be.

The term ‘religion’ isn’t always used in a spiritual context. The idea of a secular religion has been around for ages. If we understand it is in our nature to develop holistic notions about reality, no matter how vague they are, we may see that ‘religion’ is a universal form of encountering our reality.

There’s nothing about spiritual religious practice or belief that isn’t replicable in an entirely secular context. There’s nothing in our psychology that is distinctly spiritual as a separate attribute. Rather we are inherently spiritual – and this has a secular expression too.

Between spiritual and secular ‘religion’ we must distinguish between a common form and singular content in important ways. For example, the difference between French and Chinese cuisine is pronounced. You would be unlikely to mistake the two. But both are obedient to the same rules of chemistry and physics. Both serve nutritional and social needs. 

We could argue that Chinese food traditions and methods are not a cuisine because that word is French and Chinese food is cooked differently. But that would be pointless in terms of understanding food and the people who prepare and eat it. 

Cuisine and religion, as terms, are similar. If you define either in a narrow way the differences can seem to be about nature and not form. 

If religion is defined in a way that describes Christianity, then Buddhism seems less like a valid religion and materialism not at all. But if we define religion in terms of process rather than belief the distinctions cease to be so patently evident. 

The need for ToEs

The term Theory of Everything (ToE) has become popular from a scientific perspective in relatively recent times. A ToE is an effort to develop an integrated theory that ‘explains’ reality. We all have our modest versions of a ToE to ‘explain’ our lived experience, not to describe how reality works. It’s a personal thing. Our brain doesn’t do question marks. When we don’t know for sure, our mind thinks “There be dragons.” For dragons, substitute any number of other ‘fill in the gaps’ notions. These dragons can be hopes or fears.

Our self-consciousness is a small light which merges with reality as the known, the unknown and the unknowable via knowledge and emotions employing rational ideas, myths, metaphors, rituals, and symbols. Our options are to engage with it the best way we can and be content, or aspire to a deeper, more complex, and better-balanced engagement.

We are always crafting our holistic ToE to help us be conscious of the part of our reality we are aware of. It just happens to be mostly vague and often wrong.

Terms like ‘sacred’ and ‘enlightenment’ have spiritual and secular applications, and neither negates the other. While we do need language to distinguish ideas, we must move beyond the imagined antagonisms that pit science and religion, and spiritual and secular against each other.

We create conflict when we see members of the same spectrum as distinct and adversarial. This conflict happens when things are insufficiently thought through, and we activate our subjective impulse to be competitive. Then we are centred in our organic being, triggering all the primate mechanisms which sit ill at ease with our ‘spiritual’ nature.

Belief is a powerful tool, but also a stronger prison. Our ToEs can be compasses or confusions.


You will note that while there are endless scholarly books written about religion, you’d struggle to find many about materialism or atheism. There are plenty of books on both themes but not many as disciplined inquiries. We just haven’t thought things through in a balanced way yet.

We are on the verge of huge breakthroughs in understanding. Our past ideas about religion and spirituality don’t serve us well because they are polarised in a misguided contest that marks the early stages of revolution of thought. Time to let them go.

Our reality is complex and multi-layered. No single ToE will explain it (yet), but any of many may serve the needs of an individual or a community as part of an evolutionary progression. Spiritual religions, as ToEs, serve multiple primarily existential subjective needs. Secular ToEs may meet both subjective and rational needs. Intellectual ToEs may serve what seem essentially rational needs but can’t be separated from subjective and cultural needs. Of course, any of the 3 can be blended in any measure to meet singular personal or communal needs. We are doing this now.

So, have I lost something vital in all this? I hope only the narrow focus upon, and privileging of, poorly thought through claims and arguments. Our western culture has not championed self-awareness. We have debased emotions as weak and irrational. We have celebrated isolated rationalism in religious and intellectual pursuits for so long the trend toward deeper self-awareness is an unfamiliar and uncomfortable thing. One the one hand we have hyper intellectual materialists attacking religion and on the other purveyors of fundamentalist religious dogma attacking reason and science. Neither are psychologically healthy – and by that, I mean neither emotionally nor spiritually.

There are extraordinary dimensions to discover if we give ourselves permission. Religion is what made us who we are. It has been a healthy fusion of intellectual and scientific inquiry, psychology, philosophy over many millennia. Mind and emotions were honoured together. But like anything else human, it has cycles of expression. It soars and then plummets. It reaches a point where what has served to stimulate growth becomes a sea-anchor. 

Our love of stability is balanced by a spirit of curiosity and a love novelty. But we resist positive changes and pursue adverse ones because we are dominated by our organic nature and are hence captive to its often maladaptive and irrational reactions to novel situations.

We have a lot to rethink about ourselves and the reality we live in.

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