Religion appears to be getting to be increasingly relevant to the world we live in — by the day. The news is filled with stories in which religion and religious identity seem to play a crucial role — from stories about religiously motivated violence to those about end-time scenarios. While religion is a vital part of the human experience, the fact that it continues to become increasingly significant in modern, 21st century life, is surely cause for concern and speculation.
My understanding of religion is that it is, essentially, a metaphorical overlay on top of a spiritual experience of some sort. There are two fundamental layers or dimensions to religion — the metaphor and the message. The one — metaphor — is the linguistic or symbolic expression of the other — the message — which is the underlying spiritual experience conveyed by the religion. As I see it, regardless of the linguistic, symbolic or ritualistic trappings of a religion, it is the underlying spiritual dynamics that are really important in any religious tradition. In that respect, every religion is a different language used to describe similar human experiences and spiritual themes.
Cruelty, for example, is cruelty in any religion. Similarly, grace and compassion are the same regardless of the religious or cultural context. The same may be said about corruption, manipulation, deception, etc., which are universal human traits, attributes or experiences. They may be conveyed differently in different religious settings, but the core human experiences remain consistent across all platforms.
Every culture or religion has its share of unseemly institutions and depraved practices. Customs like polygamy, pedophilia, human sacrifice, cannibalism, the marginalization of minorities, the scapegoating of innocents, etc., are, in my estimation, inherently despicable regardless of their religious or cultural context, which may be diverse and wide-ranging. Some specific examples include the ongoing pedophilia scandal in the Catholic church, the historical practice of polygamy in Islam and Mormonism, the underground practice of human sacrifice in Satanism, and the (now illegal) practice of caste discrimination in Hinduism. From a sane, rational perspective, I think, we may be justified in condemning such depravities, regardless of their religious significance, and calling for, or even legislating, religious reform. By the same token, every religious or cultural tradition has its share of inherently positive, spiritually uplifting practices and messages — such as prayer, meditation, choral and instrumental music, chanting, service to humanity, charitable institutions, the arts, etc. From a sane, rational perspective, these are inherently praiseworthy, regardless of the religious or cultural trappings one may find them in.
A terrorist is a terrorist in any religion; an autocrat is an autocrat in any religion. Similarly, basic human decency is what it is in any religion. A saint or a visionary is who they are in any religion.
If religion may be described as a metaphorical/symbolic/linguistic overlay that describes certain fundamental truths about the human condition and spiritual experience, then, I would argue, religious fundamentalism is the result of placing inordinate emphasis on the metaphor, to the exclusion of the message. It arises when the linguistic constructions and symbolism of the religion override the underlying spiritual dynamics and human truths. Fundamentalism happens when the metaphor/symbols/language of religion become supremely relevant while the true meaning of those symbols becomes less important, or even unimportant. This is how you can have a situation where a religion preaching a message of peace, love and compassion can, at the same time, promote acts of hatred, violence, terror, and discrimination — all in the name of that same religion. Thus, in my humble estimation, when religious metaphor overrides the underlying message and spiritual dynamics — that is what ultimately creates divisiveness and violence in society along cultural, ethnic, and other sociological grounds.
I think that the important thing for religious people to keep in mind is to place greater emphasis on the underlying meaning and message of their religious tradition, and not so much on its metaphorical overlay or superficial trappings. I think it is the spiritual dynamics underlying any religious tradition that are of vital significance — for example, messages of grace, compassion, redemption and human upliftment. The language and metaphor, rites and ceremonies, costumes and pageantry, may be splendid to behold, but are, ultimately, far less important. From a sane, rational perspective, that is how one can, I think, get to the truth and restore the integrity of any religious experience or practice.