It’s a reasonable question. Considering the role that religion so often plays in fueling conflicts abroad and inspiring bigotry at home, it is not always so easy to defend the value of religion in society. And, in a world in which reason and religion seem to be moving further apart, it is certainly understandable why so many people view religious faith as the hallmark of an irrational mind.
Of course, as someone who has spent the better part of the last two decades studying the world’s religions — and having recently crisscrossed the globe for my new spiritual adventure series “Believer,
” where I immerse myself in religious traditions both familiar and downright bizarre — I know better than to take the truth claims of any religion (including my own) too seriously.
But I also know this: Religion and faith are not the same thing.
Faith is mysterious and ineffable. It is an emotional, not necessarily a rational, experience.
Religion is a fairly recent human invention. But faith, as I have elsewhere argued, is embedded in our very evolution as human beings.
And yet, in the end, faith is nothing more or less than a choice. You either believe there is something beyond the physical world (as I do), or you don’t. You either believe you are more than the sum of your material parts (as I do), or you don’t. You either believe in the existence of a soul (as I do), or you don’t.
No one can prove or disprove these things, not any more than anyone can prove or disprove love or fear or any other human emotion. Religion, on the other hand, is the language we use to express faith. It is a language made up of symbols and metaphors that allows people to express to each other (and to themselves) what is, almost by definition, inexpressible.
After all, if there is a God, then that God is utterly beyond human comprehension. How would one talk about — or even think about — something so completely foreign? We would need some kind of language to help us make sense of it, a set of symbols and metaphors we can all agree upon to help us define what is fundamentally indefinable.
That’s where religion comes in. Beyond the doctrines and dogma, the do’s and the don’t’s, religion is simply a framework for thinking about the existential questions we all struggle with as human beings.
It is, as the Sufi mystics say, a “signpost to God.”
Can you have faith without religion? Of course! But as the Buddha said, if you want to strike water, you don’t dig six 1-foot wells; you dig one 6-foot well. In other words, if you want to have a deep and meaningful faith experience, it helps — though it is by no means necessary — to have a language with which to do so.
So then, pick a well.