Religion has been the gateway to spirituality throughout humankind's history. Prior to and during the Horticultural Age (c. 8000 BCE-3000 BCE) and Agrian Age (c. 3000 BCE-1800 CE), the religions interpreted the will of the gods for ordinary human beings, usually based on sacred texts that only the functionaries were qualified to read or interpret. The functionaries were called rabbis, imams, preachers, priests, fathers, shamans, or ministers, and were regarded by the general population as the guardians of the truths and even of God "himself" (almost universally male in the Agrarian societies). They were the keepers of spirituality and thus seemed to themselves have a thin coating of god dust, making them different from ordinary people. No one would have thought of engaging in spiritual practices outside of their control.
With the Enlightenment, humankind began to realize that the old notions of God being a big male in the sky were antiquated, and today people have a much larger, less archaic view of God. Terms such as the Higher Power, the Divine, or the Ground of All Being are common and accepted by most people as meaningful terms for God. They imply that God is all encompassing and not in the image of humankind.
Humankind is now maturing away from those archaic conceptions. The twenty-first century will see the decline of "religion" as such and the ascendance of personal spirituality, without the intervention of functionaries between people and God. However, today, the archaic views still dominate. The facilities, functionaries, and organizations most people think of as spiritual are the church or temple buildings, the religious functionaries associated with them, and the religions to which the churches belong.
Since that's still true today, during this transition period, it would seem that religions should have some place in helping individuals and humankind grow spiritually. However, asking what role they can play is asking the wrong question. It assumes that religions are somehow more spiritual organizations than other physical-realm organizations and that the functionaries are somehow more spiritual, more knowledgeable about spiritual issues, or closer to God. None of these assumptions are true.
Nothing in the physical realm is spiritual. That means churches or temples, religious functionaries, and religious organizations are no more spiritual than the town library, a grocery clerk, or a bowling league. Spirituality is within, and growing spiritually can only involve changing the mind within, in direct, unaided dialogue with the Higher Power.
Thus, instead of asking whether religions help individuals and humankind grow spiritually, we must ask "What people and physical-realm organizations of any kind help individuals and humankind grow spiritually?" Religions, then, are simply another variety of physical-realm organization that we must examine using the criteria.
And so, a person or organization helps people and humankind grow spiritually if it holds, promotes, and acts based upon the following assumptions about people and humankind:
Those people and organizations that help individuals and humankind grow spiritually by coming to hold these beliefs as common assumptions are spiritually good for us. They are, in short, spiritual people and organizations.
- We and all others are eternal beings having a physical experience.
- The goal for our lives, over any physical realm goals, is to grow spiritually.
- Our highest calling is to serve others.
- All other people are one with us.
- Our love for all others is without conditions; we love without reservation.
- We help all others grow spiritually so humankind is developing toward heaven on Earth.
- We are one with nature.
- We are one with the Higher Power.
- The intuition that guides us is the Higher Power and beings on the other side of life whose sole desire is to help us grow spiritually.
Conversely, we must ask whether any person or any organization hinders people and humankind from growing to have those assumptions about themselves and humankind. Does the person or organization have these characteristics?
All people and Earthly organizations should be evaluated using these criteria, not just religious functionaries and religious organizations. Those whose activities and beliefs match the first, desirable set of characteristics benefit humankind spiritually. Those whose activities and beliefs match the second set of characteristics are bad for people and humankind. That applies to people such as business managers, counselors, physicians, teachers, professors, non-profit group leaders, priests, ministers, and all others who lead and influence people. Those criteria also apply to businesses, societies, non-profit organizations, granting foundations, government agencies, schools, universities, nations, religions, and all other bodies that promote loyalty, creeds, beliefs, and values.
- Tells us that we and all others are finite beings with no life beyond death.
- Tells us that the goals for our lives are to be successful, acquire wealth, and consume, and spiritual goals are superfluous or unattainable.
- Tells us that our purpose in life is to advance ourselves and our group materially (infinite pursuit of infinite wealth).
- Tells us that any other group of people or individuals are separate, inferior, wrong, and exploitable.
- Tells us that our love for all others must be conditioned upon their following the rules and doing good things for us.
- Tells us that we have no need to help others grow spiritually and that a heaven on Earth is simply not possible because of conditions on the Earth and in humankind.
- Tells us that nature is for man to use and exploit.
- Tells us the higher power is separate from us and we cannot have access to God by ourselves.
- Tells us that the intuition we hear within is some source other than the Higher Power and beings on the other side of life; the source is evil or untrustworthy.
With those criteria in mind, the first question we should be asking is, "What people and organizations possess the characteristics that will help people and humankind grow spiritually?" Let us find them, reward them, support them, and encourage people to join them.
The second question we should be asking is, "What people and organizations possess the characteristics that will inhibit or preclude people and humankind from growing spiritually?" Let us expose them, inform people about their dangers, withdraw support from them, and encourage people to avoid them.
When we apply the criteria to people and organizations, including religions, the results stand out starkly. Some organizations, especially religions, espouse a set of values, then act from an entirely different set of values. They talk about peace, love, and brotherhood, but condemn groups of people, claim to be separate and privileged, wage war on others, exploit people, and otherwise reveal the implicit beliefs that people are not one, they are the chosen ones, and others are deluded and damned. We must judge them based on what we know is spiritually good for humankind, looking at their actions that reveal the real assumptions and perspectives they hold, not their rhetoric.
Can religions contribute to individuals' and humankind's spiritual growth? Yes. But they must display those characteristics we know will result in spiritual growth for individuals and humankind, and they must abandon those beliefs that have impeded humankind's growth in peace, love, and universal brotherhood for millennia.