Step One: the charismatic being
Most religions can be traced back to a teacher, usually with great charisma, who either appears or claims to have answers to the deeper questions. Often they claim that G-d spoke directly to them and expect their followers to believe it.
Step Two: he attracts followers
The charismatic one comes to the attention of a wider public. He (it is usually a ‘he’) attracts followers.
This can have drawbacks for the teacher. Many have been ridiculed, persecuted or even put to death (including Yeshua and Socrates). Gandhi was scathingly referred to as the ‘half-naked fakir’ by Winston Churchill and eventually assassinated; the Dalai Lama is in exile from the Chinese government; Sai Baba, L. Ron Hubbard and Bagwan Shree Rajneesh/Osho are frequently accused of being frauds; and David Icke is widely considered to be mad (author’s comment – ‘no comment’).
Step Three: they document his teachings
When the charismatic one dies, his followers want his ideas to live on. This is where distortions and exaggerations start to creep in.
Sometimes it is not so difficult to know what he stood for because he leaves behind an authentic body of written work. Modern gurus such as Osho, Yogananda, Mary Baker Eddy and L. Ron Hubbard made sure their teachings would survive by committing them to paper. Some make extensive audio and video recordings.
But nobody knows who wrote the key Christian Scriptures although we can be certain they weren’t actually called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and scholars only have a vague idea who wrote the Jewish Torah except it couldn’t have been Moses. Similarly the authors of the great Hindu texts are unknown, and approximately half of the New Testament letters weren’t written by the person to whom they are attributed.
There are many examples of teachings being passed down by word of mouth and written down decades later. As far as we know Socrates never wrote a word; we know of his pronouncements second hand through the writings of Plato.
Similarly our knowledge of Yeshua comes primarily from stories that were transmitted orally and written down years later by people who were neither witnesses to the events they describe nor known to people who were. These writings were not even in Yeshua’s native language, Aramaic, but in Greek. They were then added to, edited and re-edited, translated and mistranslated (including into Latin), then copied and re-copied many times while being declared ‘gospel’.
Distortions and deletions are easily spotted by the experts, yet many people believe that every word of the Gospels is literally true despite incontrovertible evidence that many passages cannot possibly be true.
Step Four: the mythology grows
As time passes, the charismatic one’s followers feel the need to organise and structure his teachings. They fill in the gaps with their own interpretations and enlarge on the details.Fantastical stories begin to circulate about, for instance, his birth, his extraordinary accomplishments, great revelations, miracles and so on. The original teachings get lost beneath a welter of exaggerations and contradictions.
This accounts for the apparent deification of such religious icons as L. Ron Hubbard, Rev Moon, Emperor Haile Selassie, Rajneesh and many others. Indeed, the latter has even undergone a change of name since his passing and is now promoted worldwide as ‘Osho’. And Prophet Mohammed is portrayed in Islam as the final once and for all religious teacher as if spiritual wisdom can never progress beyond what was revealed to him in the deserts of Arabia fifteen centuries ago.
Step Five: dogma and conformity
At some stage the organisation becomes more important than the ‘truth’ it is supposed to represent. Ritual has become divorced from, and more important than, the pursuit of genuine spirituality. Free discussion is stifled.
Anyone who is not part of the group is to be pitied or condemned – they simply don’t ‘get it’. An ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality develops, and ‘they’ are labelled misguided, sinful or just plain wrong. They could be ‘saved’, but only if they ‘see the light’ and join the group.
In these circumstances the patently ridiculous can easily become accepted as the ‘truth’, for example, that bread and wine are literally transmuted into flesh and blood, and yet the more you believe it, the stronger your ‘faith’ and the more admirable you are!
Many religions share a common thread – sacrifice life’s pleasures now and enjoy everlasting rewards later. On the very day I am writing this, a senior member of Northern Ireland’s Free Presbyterian Church is on the radio supporting an edict to its members that they should not participate in line dancing – yes, line dancing – because this ‘immoral practice’ is an ‘invitation to lust’!
Step Six: power games
In some religions, believers are expected to hand over control of every aspect of their lives. Strict rules are applied to the processes of birth, maturation, marriage and death. The penalties and sanctions for non-conformity can be severe, and the rule makers don’t let go lightly, not even in the 21st Century.
Enforcing the ‘rules’ can easily interfere with compassion for the individual when the rules are believed to come from a dead, disincarnate or supreme being.
In some countries (e.g. Iran) the head of government is the religious leader. In the United Kingdom, the Church of England is the established church. From time to time it is suggested that the C of E should lose its preferential status since less than 5% of the public attend church regularly and there are more Roman Catholics and Muslims in the UK than Anglicans. The result is howls of anguish from the establishment, as if the moral welfare of the nation would be irreparably damaged if a few crusty old bishops were excluded from the corridors of power.
Religion and superstition are essentially the same. They are both types of belief. The only difference is that religion is taken more seriously and has much higher status.
Institutionalised religion has little to do with genuine spirituality. It latches on to people’s natural sense of awe while exploiting their fear of the unknown.
There is nothing and no-one standing between you and your Spiritual Self, just as long as you are willing to take responsibility for discovering and living it for yourself.
©David Lawrence Preston, 15.6.2016
Follow me on Facebook and Twitter @David_L_Preston
Hay House/Balboa Press 2015