Religious faiths, like political ideologies, are belief systems, that is, ways of imposing order on the Unknown, avoiding “psychic anarchy.” Like culture, belief systems are a product of indoctrination. A “world view” is inculcated at a young age, and few challenge the assumptions for very important psychological reasons. Faith as belief establishes psychological security and creates the illusion of confidence and stability in a world where there are no empirically verifiable facts about the “why” and “wherefore” of existence. Faith as belief is a way to console oneself, to put one’s mind at rest about the discrepancies and unfairness of life. And, faith as belief can be used in the same way as political ideologies to manipulate people and to maintain the status quo of a “religious bureaucracy.”
In surveying the landscape of religious faith, however, two separate and very different approaches to religious belief can be discerned. One is what will henceforth be referred to as a “belief system,” while the other is operational in nature. Operational means that the “mental constructs” that represent “faith” or a system of beliefs are essentially instrumental in nature, and are not meant to be taken as ends in themselves.
In general, the Western religions are belief systems, and faith in certain doctrines is very much a goal of these traditions. For example, faith that Jesus was God’s representative (essentially “God incarnate”), and his death and resurrection atoned for mankind’s sins is central to Christianity. It is the belief of many Christians that those who do not share this belief will face eternal damnation (i.e., eternal suffering). Similarly, other traditions hold beliefs that are binding on their followers and prophesy a negative destiny for non-believers.
While in the area of institutional and popular religion, Eastern and Western traditions share a certain commonality when it comes to belief systems and their associated rituals, the actual core of the Eastern traditions is more focused on experience than it is on belief. Indeed, as the Buddha made clear in his teachings, an obsession with philosophical, theological, or metaphysical concepts represents a barrier to realizing the goal of Buddhism. Faith or belief in Buddhism, then, was intended to be solely instrumental — like a raft necessary for crossing a river, but a hindrance once the other shore was reached. Essentially, in the Eastern traditions, faith is confidence that the “raft” (or methodology) will effectively transport you to the “other shore.” These traditions are, consequently, grounded in methodology and empirical validation, not theology, metaphysics or belief as an end-in-itself.
The problem with religious faith as a belief system and end-in-itself is that it is by definition divisive and incapable of being empirically resolved. We cannot know for sure if there is a Judeo-Christian God watching over the destiny of this planet. We do not know what happens after death — if consciousness is annihilated, or if heaven, hell, or reincarnation are our destinies. We do not know if consciousness as Infinite Being is the true nature of existence as some of the religions of the East assert. Instead, what we have in the world religions is conviction about the way things are. For the most part, religion is conviction.
Convictions influence people in both positive and negative ways. On the positive side, belief systems have been instrumental in civilizing barbarous people. The threat of eternal damnation in hell-fire eventually persuaded the barbarians who overran the Roman Empire that maybe it was not such a good idea to murder, rape, and pillage at will. In the absence of codified or enforceable laws, religious creeds have functioned to restrain the worst impulses of man. Against the odds, faith has even encouraged some people to care more for their fellow man. Compassion and generosity became ideals which were reinforced by society and, hopefully, rewarded after death. Ideals which pushed man to better his lot have always been helpful, though it is questionable if such ideals need in anyway be connected with concepts concerning the afterlife or nature of existence. Most of the Ten Commandments are commonsense rules for living in a society without anarchy. The emotion of compassion does not need to be codified in order to exist. Nevertheless, convictions about karma and the afterlife have doubtlessly helped restrain the worst impulses of man.
The negative side of faith as conviction stems from its absolutist nature. Belief is by nature divisive; it creates opposition. Even though neither side truly knows the truth, each side believes it does — and wars are made of such conflicting convictions. An unrealistic commitment to conviction is at the core of every delusion. How many murders have been committed in God’s name? Religious psychopaths are as common as political terrorists. Many admire the martyrs of early Christianity for choosing to die rather than give up their faith, but it is the same commitment that sends religious terrorists on kamikaze missions of death.
One would think that modern man would be mature enough to be able to live without dogma. Living with uncertainty is an integral part of modern living. In our daily lives we are continuously updating our assumptions based upon the most recent revelations of scientific research. For instance, food such as red meat and eggs were once believed to contribute to good health. Today we know they pave the way to an early death when consumed in excessive quantities. Such revelations do not shatter our lives — we simply modify our thinking along new lines, and at least some of us modify our behavior.
Likewise, in science, new data necessitates continuous revisions of contemporary theories. Science, in fact, is a collection of models on how things may work. The model is always subject to being updated. It is not Truth. It does not pretend to be absolute knowledge. If future data reinforces the model, so be it. If it doesn’t, so it goes. No one should be attached to the verdict.
When a model is put to the test and works, as when the first atomic bomb was detonated, then the model reflects reality. Religion should work the same way — otherwise the possibilities for delusion are infinite. An insurmountable problem arises when a religion makes belief a prerequisite to understanding. One would at the very least hope to experiment with the various religious paths that mankind has developed throughout the ages, but if one must, as a precondition, wholeheartedly adopt a belief as the basis of the path, then it is but a one-way street with no possibility of return. If, for instance, I adopt the belief “Jesus has saved me,” but later reject it as mere conjecture, then Christian apologists will argue that I never really believed it, much less understood it, in the first place. In other words, faith can only be a one-way street, and once you have started down the path, there is no turning back. All belief-based creeds are on equal footing here. There can be no experimentation, no investigation, no skepticism. Belief system-based faith allows no doubts, no challenge to the supporting assumptions of the creed.
When belief as a goal is rejected, there are infinite possibilities. As with the practice of science, the use of models can be useful in religious exploration. Concepts thus adopted are functional and instrumental. If they do not prove themselves when tested, they are cast aside. This is the experimental approach to spirituality, to the meaning of life. It relies not on belief or authority, but on investigation and experience. It is found in all the religious traditions of the world in greater or lesser forms of purity. The more an experimental practice is imbued with religious symbolism, the further away it is from pure investigation. The premise of this is empirical validation is the true foundation of anything that can be called SPIRITUALITY. Pure investigation, pure religious inquiry is devoid of binding concepts — it does not need them because it is grounded in methodology and direct experience. For over two thousand years, man has experimented with spiritual exercises that have led to mystical transformations. It is the goal of humans to place these practices in an analytical framework that contributes to the understanding of what spiritual transformation is, and how to bring it about.