Liberation of the Mind and Rejection of Religious Dogma

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In “Create Your Own Religion” author Daniele Bolelli examines how different religions have answered the key questions of human existence—from the existence of God and attitudes about sex, to beliefs about the afterlife, “moral” behavior and gender roles. Bolelli shows how one’s most deeply held beliefs must be questioned in order to achieve liberation of the mind.
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Buddha himself argued that his teachings were but a means to an end. On his deathbed, Buddha told his followers, “Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept tradition, do not accept a statement because it is found in our books, nor because it is in accord with your belief, nor because it is the saying of your teacher...Be lamps onto yourselves...”

Create Your Own Religion(Disinfo Books, 2013) is a call to arms–an open
invitation to question all the values, beliefs, and worldviews that humanity
has so far held as sacred in order to find the answers we need to the very
practical problems facing us. Writer, philosopher, and professor of comparative
religion, Daniele Bolelli, leads the reader through three thousand years of
mythology, misogyny, misinformation, and the flat-out lies about “revealed
truth” that continue to muddle our ability to live a peaceful life, free
of guilt and shame and the ultimate fear of death. The following excerpt comes
from chapter 2, “A Call to Arms: The Sequel.”

Countless peoples have an
irrational fear of questioning what they hold most sacred. Because they think
that certain beliefs are desir­able, they come up with contorted
rationalizations to justify them against any possible attack, rather than
taking an honest look at them. They are terrified by the thought that if they
begin doubting their certainties or looking at them with a critical eye, the
entire castle of values upon which they have based their lives will come
tumbling down. For this reason, they try their hardest to avoid fac­ing any
facts that would force them to revise their ideals. Taking this course of
action (actually non-action) may feel safe and reassuring; however, indulging
in this paranoid phobia can only hurt us in the long run. Testing our most
sacred values against different options will only strengthen us. We really have
nothing to lose by being open-minded. It’s a win-win situation.

Let’s look at it this way.
If we test our most sacred values against all kinds of different options, two
things can happen. In one case, we find out that all the other alternatives are
not as effective as what we already believed in the first place. This is
clearly a win, since it will increase our self-confidence by reinforcing the
feeling that we are on the right track. Moreover, when we engage in discussions
with oth­ers who swear by different ideas, our arguments will be stronger and
more effective because we have already explored all possible counter­arguments
and discovered their weaknesses.

If instead we find out that
our ideals were not as good as we thought they were, and there are better
alternatives available, this is just as good a result. We win again because we
have a chance to cor­rect our mistakes, stop living according to flawed ideas,
and discover a better path. In either scenario, we can only gain by testing and
questioning. We truly have nothing to lose but our prejudices.

Untested beliefs are not a
treasure to conserve but rather a cage to escape. They keep us prisoners of our
opinions and prevent us from facing reality for what it is. As Nietzsche puts
it, “[I am] a man who wishes nothing more than daily to lose some reassuring
belief, who seeks and finds his happiness in this daily greater liberation of
the mind.”

Here we reverse the
traditional attitude. Instead of thinking, “It must be good because I
believe it,” we can switch to “I believe it because it is good.” Whatever
conclusion we end up embracing will not be born from fear of change, excessive
attachment to one’s pre­conceived opinions, or a scarcity of alternate
viewpoints. It will be the result of testing what works and what doesn’t, and
picking the best option among many at our disposal.

Only those who are scared of
the truth are hostile to question­ing. No one would refuse evidence if it
confirms and gives greater credibility to their ideas. The centuries-long
persecution of sci­ence by religious authorities cannot be explained unless
religious authorities already knew they were frauds and were afraid of some­body
exposing them. Unless you are a liar or are pathologically at­tached to your
opinions, you should not be afraid of the truth.

Heretic
and Proud

Although I have tried to be
reassuring and nonthreatening in the preceding paragraphs, I have no illusions.
This book is a declaration of war against all those traditions that want to
limit our choices, stifle our growth, and restrict our freedom. This is a
battle between the heaviness of tradition and the daring to create, between the
conforming crowd and the individual shaping his/her own destiny. Most, but not
all, forms of organized religions stand firmly on the conformity side of the
battle line. They don’t want you to think for yourself, or they would go out of
business. Their clergy is always threatened by direct individual experience
because it makes them obsolete and takes away their source of authority. Dogma
is safe only when individuals give away their power to religious institu­tions,
stop questioning the world around them, and gladly accept pre-packaged answers.
Thomas Paine saw this clearly when he wrote:

I do not believe in the
creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church,
by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know
of. My own mind is my own church. All national in­stitutions of churches . . .
appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave
mankind, and monopo­lize power and profit.

What we are engaged in here
is, by its very nature, a heretical project. Forget the virgin-sacrificing,
devil-worshipping, religion-destroying image that centuries of inquisitions and
authoritarian brainwashing have attached to the word “heresy.” What we mean
here goes back to the original Greek meaning of the word, which is translated
literally as “to choose,” or “to go one’s own way.” This meaning points to the
sacred word at the roots of this enterprise: choice. The choice to go one’s own
way; the courage to explore life’s mysteries for oneself rather than accepting
second-hand answers; and the refusal to bow to the dogma of existing dominant
theo­ries–these are the things that make this quest a heretical one. In the
eyes of many established religions, in fact, choosing your own way rather than
blindly following theirs is a horrendous crime and grounds for persecution. The
history of both Christianity and Islam is stained with the blood of those
tortured and killed because they committed the unforgivable sin of questioning
the answers provided by religious authorities.

What is bizarre in all of
this is that many of the religions that try to squash independent inquiry today
were founded by supposed heretics and dangerous outlaws: Jesus was crucified
for blasphemy, and Muhammad was chased out of Mecca by assassins. Think of the irony. These
men were all about questioning tradition and estab­lished forms of authority,
which is exactly what the fundamentalists claiming to follow them hate. All
religions were born because some­one departed from an existing tradition and
created their own. But instead of honoring their example, most of their
followers turn their insights into one more dried-up dogma used to repress
individual freedom.

This book, on the other
hand, invites you to honor their pio­neering spirit by doing exactly what they
did: create your own path. As William Blake beautifully said, “I must invent my
own systems or else be enslaved by other men’s.” If we are successful, things
may turn out the way Walt Whitman predicted, “There will soon be no more
priests. Their work is done . . . A new order shall arise . . . and every man
shall be his own priest.”

Some hardcore atheists, in
an effort to attack anything that goes under the heading of “religion,” lump
together all religious tradi­tions as equally evil. In doing so, they
completely miss the fact that within every religion, even the ones with a long
history of intoler­ance, there are branches that are more than willing to make
room for individual exploration.

In yet other religions, in
fact, respect for independent inquiry is not present only in some heretical
faction, but is at the very founda­tion of their ideas. While plenty of things
about Buddhism turn me off, here is a tradition that allows and encourages
freedom. Consider this. Lin Chi, a Chinese Buddhist teacher, once said, “If you
encoun­ter the Buddha, kill him.” Kill the Buddha?!? Buddhists certainly seem to
have a weird way to revere their founder. What’s this crazy Chinese talking
about? Far from being a blasphemous statement, Lin Chi’s words are a
metaphorical rejection of the dogmatism that inevitably results once we’ve put
our teacher on a pedestal. Precisely because Lin Chi loved Buddha, he warned
people against turning him into an object of worship (a warning that has gone
unheeded by many Buddhists throughout history). Can you imagine a Christian
inviting people to “kill Jesus,” or a Muslim to “kill Muhammad”? No matter how
well intended the metaphor, the odds are that who­ever spoke the words would
have to run far and fast to escape being lynched. In Buddhism, on the other
hand, this kind of iconoclastic statement would hardly raise an eyebrow. This is
why Lin Chi could say what he said, or why the Japanese Zen monk Ikky? could
write:

Without a bridge
Clouds climb effortlessly
To heaven;
No need to rely on
Anything Gotama Buddha
taught.

Buddha himself argued that
his teachings were but a means to an end. On his deathbed, Buddha told his
followers, “Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept tradition, do
not accept a statement because it is found in our books, nor because it is in
ac­cord with your belief, nor because it is the saying of your teacher . . . Be
lamps onto yourselves. . . .”

In a similar vein, one of
the pillars of Taoism, Chuang Tzu, wrote, “The torch of chaos and doubt–this is
what the sage steers by.” Here we are 180 degrees away from what you hear from
many other religious leaders who threaten hellish punishments unless we obey
their every command. Fixed certitudes, comfy reassurances, never-changing
rules; the entire baggage usually fed as religious dogma . . . Chuang Tzu will
give you none of that. Instead, what he brings forth to light the path is
doubt–what Alan Watts called “the wisdom of insecurity”–the force that invites
us to constantly test our most cherished ideas. This is a clear example that
not all religious traditions shove dogma down our throats. Rather, some
encourage us to embrace doubt, question all conclusions we are offered, and
experiment on our own.

This excerpt has been
reprinted with permission from
Create Your Own Religion: A How-To Book Without Instructions, published by Disinfo Books,
2013.

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