True liberation of the mind begins with calling into question one’s most sacred values and beliefs.
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.
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 Ikkyū could write:
Without a bridge
Clouds climb effortlessly
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.