Spirituality vs. Religion: When God Becomes a Weapon

Paris. Colorado Springs. Myanmar. San Bernardino. Beirut. Egypt. Uganda. Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Different religions used in different locations as justification for mass killing. How can anyone commit acts of terror in the name of God?

The answer is not simple. It seems that each incident involves factors in addition to religion:

  • Mental illness
  • Occupation of a homeland by foreigners
  • Loss of hope/opportunity
  • Workplace discord
  • Retaliation for military strikes
  • Racism
  • No confidence in Western democracies
  • Homophobia

While these factors contribute to the violence, religion is also in the mix of motivations to slaughter. How is this possible?

One reality is that the world's religions are a reflection of humanity. Since humans have a shadowy penchant for violence, it is not surprising that religious texts and the history of religious communities are rife with violence.

Religion is a reflection of the human psyche and its ongoing struggle to evolve and awaken. At its best, religion transforms humanity's violent tendencies into compassion and right action for the common good. At its worst, religion foments unrest, hatred, and vengeance.

Perhaps more telling is the dichotomy between religion and spirituality. Spirituality is tending one's inner life, which includes observing, accepting and seeking to transform one's violent proclivities, rather than projecting them on to some other group of people. Religion is the container and communal support for doing this inner work.

The primary reason so many in this country now identify as "spiritual but not religious" is that, by and large, religion has failed to nurture the inner life. [There are notable exceptions. For instance, the Civil Rights Movement was largely fueled by religious institutions.]

Religion has failed to be an agent of personal and societal transformation. It has been hijacked by institutional, economic, and political agendas that reflect the smallness of the human heart. These violent acts are being committed by those who got some religion but lost spirituality.

As we look across the globe and witness political instability, climate change, economic and racial injustice, it is up to each of us to tend our inner world. Where do we find hatred and fear of "the other"? How are we grasping the status quo to the detriment of those less privileged? Where do we find our own hearts shrinking and harboring "against-ness", judgment and vengeance?

There, in the violence of our own hearts, is where we need the Spirit behind, beyond and within all True Religion. No matter our religion or lack thereof, the work is to notice, accept, and transcend the ego's grasping, selfish, fearful programming.

As we tend our own inner demons, we cultivate understanding, and then a compassion for our flawed humanity, which cant's help but spill over into our relations with others. That's the Spirit, the God Essence to catch, and it's at the heart of all True Religion. Anything else is neither spiritual nor truly religious.

The origin of the word "religion" is most likely from the Latin religare, which means to fasten or bind. The sense was the religion is that which binds and connects us with the divine and each other. Such a binding requires spiritual work of self-reflection, compassion, and right action. Without spirituality, religion degenerates into the vilest tendencies of the ego.

In the wake of violence inspired by religion, we need to re-bind religion and spirituality. In such a reunion, religion is an agent of transformation rather than a weapon. During this Season of Light, tending to our darkness and our light, our violence and our compassion, our religions and our spirituality, is our best hope for peace.