Religion in America


The church where I participate regularly is very different from most. It is built on the principle that we are a group of people who are there to support each other in our individual spiritual quests. While we often use the traditional Christian language, it is understood that each of us is expressing our own meaning through those words. Quite a number are non-theistic, not believing in the existence of a supernatural being in any form. Others do have a theistic faith. The principle is that whatever we mean but our words, we will support each other, believing that asking questions will lead to a more lively spirituality than would any dogma or doctrine.

The church is facing a change as the pastor who has guided the congregation from a more traditionalist form to the present open forum has announced his retirement to take place in October. A “transition committee” is now working hard to create a vision of the direction that the church should go in choosing it future mission and therefore the kind of pastoral leadership it should seek. They are using focus groups to learn what the members want. By the time they are finished, every member will be asked for her or his opinion.

This morning, one of the groups was the senior study group composed of folk who get together every week to share their ideas, support and learn from each other. The figures noted in this article from Alternet.org were cited.

Authors Phil Goldberg and Greg Epstein share their provocative views on why a quarter of Americans now call themselves agnostic, atheist or nonreligious.
May 10, 2011  |  

Currently more than one billion people around the world define themselves as agnostic, atheist or nonreligious — including 15 percent of Americans. Perhaps more striking, “nonreligious” is not only the fastest growing religious preference in the U.S., but also the only one to increase its percentage in every state over the past generation.

Phil Goldberg and Greg Epstein have provocative perspectives on who these people are, what they believe, and how they arrived at their worldviews and their moral codes.

In February, 1968, the Beatles went to India for an extended stay with their new guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It may have been the most momentous spiritual retreat since Jesus spent those 40 days in the wilderness.

With these words, interfaith minister Goldberg begins American Veda, his look at India’s impact on Western culture. From Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, succeeding generations absorbed India’s “science of consciousness,” and millions have come to accept and live by the central teaching of Vedic wisdom: “Truth is One, the wise call it by many names.”

Acccording to Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, recent bestsellers from Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris stress the irrationality of belief and what’s wrong with religion, while offering few positive alternatives. In Good without God, Epstein explains how humanists strive to live well, build community, uphold ethical values, and lift the human spirit…all without a god. “It’s not enough to just ‘discover’ the meaning of life. Humanism is concerned with one of the most important ethical questions—what we do once we’ve found purpose in life.”

Terrence McNally: In terms of the influence of Indian spiritualist teachings on American culture, let’s start with one individual American – you. What was your path?

Phil Goldberg: In the 1960s, I was a college student majoring in psychology and a political activist on the front lines, a Marxist and an atheist who thought religion was the opium of the people. But I got pretty disillusioned with those ways of looking at the world. They were not providing answers to big questions or a means to get my life together. That twin preoccupation led to reading about Eastern philosophy and mysticism, yoga, Hinduism and Buddhism. There was something in the zeitgeist that brought the East to the forefront. It was Ravi Shankar’s music, it was the Beatles, it was drugs. And the passion to get answers.

I read the Bagavad Gita and a number of books by western interpreters — Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and Houston Smith – who presented ancient teachings in a very rational and sensible way that made sense. I remember saying to myself, “Why do they call this mysticism? There’s nothing mysterious about it.” It makes sense and offers an empirical approach to human development and our place in the cosmos. That got me hooked, and I wanted more and more. Eventually I picked up meditative practices, and they were transforming, changing my life for the better.

McNally: Reading your book, I remembered some of my own experiences. Freshman year in college I visited my best friend from high school at Yale. One of his roommates was Michael Medved, later a film critic and even later, a right wing pundit. His other roommate read me a couple of quotes from Nature Man and Woman by Alan Watts. I bought it, and that was the start for me.

I started meditating in the ‘80s. I can remember taking to the beach a paperback that had been sitting around the house — The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson — a very Western perspective on meditation…

Goldberg: derived directly from the scientific research on TM back in 1970. I was one of subjects in Benson’s first study — just because I was hanging out at the Cambridge TM Center.

McNally: Why did you write American Veda?

Goldberg: I actually wanted to write this book 25 years ago. I could see that principles coming here from India — the philosophy of Vedanta and the practices of yoga and meditation — were transforming people’s lives. I saw it seeping into other areas of the culture in subtle ways – psychology, healthcare, the study of consciousness, even physics and the arts. I saw people affected by these teachings without even knowing it.

McNally: Like fish in water, we talk about “karma” and don’t think about where it comes from….

Goldberg: I suspect this is a much more important phenomenon than people realize. First, more people are affected by what we’ve imported and absorbed from India than is generally recognized. Second, it is affecting how people see the world in a way that I think is potentially transformative to the culture.

The spirituality that we’ve absorbed and adapted from India is a needed antidote to the foolish polarization of atheists on the one side and biblical literalists on the other. It offers a way of being spiritual that is rational, reasonable, and sensible — and matches the kind of pluralistic globalized world we live in today.

McNally: One quote that really struck me in the book: In 1952 Arnold Toynbee says —

Goldberg: — “The catholic-minded Indian religious spirit is the way of salvation for all religions in an age in which we have to learn to live as a single family if we are not to destroy ourselves.”

McNally: We’ve just come out of World War II, we’re living in the age of the bomb, and at that moment — years before any significant wave of Vedanta appears — he sees its more open and pluralistic approach fits challenges we face now in the 21st century.

Goldberg: Religious extremism running amuck. People needing to believe – for whatever pathological reasons — that their way is the only way, and they’re going to impose it on others. And here’s this ancient teaching that there are many valid ways of being spiritual in the world, including secular, including scientific.

McNally: Early in the 1990’s in his book, Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be, Walter Truett Anderson said the real clash is not between two religions or between two truths. It’s between those who can see more than one truth and those who cannot. In the past, it used to be my truth against yours. Today, whatever your one truth may be, your confrontation is with modernity — which says there are many.

What are some other principles of Indian spirituality that have come to infuse American society?

Goldberg: The first we’ve been speaking of is “one Truth, many names.” Along those same lines is an individuated approach to enlightenment, in which the individual spiritual seeker — or the secular seeker of self-development — should and must carve out his or her own way.

You don’t just “choose your religion.” You also choose the nuances of your personal spiritual life — the practices, the approaches that serve your individual perspective, your personality, your inclinations. This is fundamental vedantic, yogic teaching.

McNally: And that’s why there are four major paths of yoga? And each will be most appropriate for a certain kind of person?

Goldberg: As outlined long ago in the Baghavad Gita: Bhakti yoga is devotional; Karma yoga is the yoga of selfless action; Jnana yoga is yoga of the intellect, of understanding and study; Raja yoga is a sort of psycho-spiritual approach that emphasizes practice, meditation and so forth. But they overlap significantly and lean in different directions at different times.

McNally: But the key lesson is…

Goldberg: It’s individual.

There is also an emphasis on individual inner experience of the sacred or the divine — as opposed to belief systems. What you believe is less important than what you experience within yourself. That is the fulcrum of Vedic spiritual teachings. Beliefs are good and important, faith is good and important, but what matters is individual spiritual development.

In seeing forms of yoga as a developmental process, Indian philosophy and yogic and Buddhist teachings have expanded psychologists’ view of human development.

McNally: Maslow with the hierarchy of needs and so on?

Goldberg: — who was affected very strongly by the Indian mystical texts.

McNally: Your book is not about Hinduism per se, is it?

Goldberg: I use the term sparingly in the book because there’s a lot of confusion about what Hinduism is, and because many associate it with the everyday normative practice of religion in India.

The kernel of Vedic teachings that made it to the US was formulated by people who understood the West, spoke English, had been educated, and were compatible with science. They extracted the essence of Vedic teachings without necessarily retaining the nuances of Indian culture that we associate with Hinduism.

McNally: These things that you’ve pointed out: pluralism, many paths; individuated, different for different people; and inner experience being crucial. These are helpful in our current time, and they seem to be in distinction to the broad sweep of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. What was it about India that allowed this to emerge?

Goldberg: Whatever allowed it to emerge in the consciousness of ancient sages got preserved as an oral and a written tradition. There were people smart enough to preserve it in the midst of colonization and all the rest of the craziness and tragedies that befell India. In the 19th century, people associated with the Hindu renaissance or the Bengal renaissance formulated ancient teachings into modern form, so they could be compatible with science and with a Western perspective on social progress.

McNally: But we don’t know what it was that allowed this open consciousness to emerge as an organized religion.

Goldberg: In the West, ancient mystical teachings somehow got lost and buried in monasteries. We got to the point where the great Christian mystics and Jewish mysticism or Kabalah were seen as esoteric experiences that lay people and even ordinary clergy did not pay any attention to.

Please read the rest of this article at AlterNet This is an extensive column and quite well written.

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