Without gods or masters, how do we live? Who do we live for?
One of my earliest acts of rebellion was leaving behind the religion of my parents. There was no legitimate authority in my eyes; neither natural nor supernatural.
Religion seemed an obvious enemy: clearly corrupt, notoriously pacifying, and easy to vilify. In well-meaning haste, I cast religion as something stark: always monotheistic, always Christian. And further: always dogmatic, always a tool of the powerful.
Reality is so inconveniently complex. I wanted to believe that I could live by the radical slogan, “no gods, no masters,” and truly be free of both. I wanted to believe that it is even possible to live without serving something larger than myself, on the ground and in the cosmos, in spirit and flesh.
The dominant culture forces upon us gods and masters in their most destructive forms. But in rejecting them, which other gods and masters do we end up serving? Who do we live our lives for? Which stories do we live by? And how?
Writes Rob Bell:
The danger is that in reaction to the abuses and distortions of an idea, we’ll reject it completely. And in the process miss out on the good of it, the worth of it, the truth of it.
All religions ask us to ask ourselves one question: “How shall I live my life?” For the socially-conscious, for the socially-active, this question is our guiding beacon. It always has been.
The journey towards that beacon, the attempt to describe what it means to be human, routinely leads political people to religion. It certainly led me.
I’ll be candid: I go to church. About a year ago, I could no longer deny the yearning inside me to have a spiritual home for my activism; some kind of sanctuary to rest and recharge.
The church I found is a progressive one and part of the Unitarian Universalist tradition. At first, I was skeptical. What would my radical comrades think? What did I even think? But sermon after sermon spoke to political struggle, past and present. Sermon after sermon spoke to living in reverence and humility and integrity. Then I read the official set of Unitarian Universalist principles, which includes “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”, “the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all”, and “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” Despite all apprehension, I knew I was being stimulated and challenged. I knew I was growing.
Spiritual practice is not a replacement for the hard work of political organizing, but a supplement to it; sometimes, a basis for it. In his book, Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition, Dan McKanan explains the relationship. He writes that not only have religion and radicalism always been intertwined, but that radicalism is in itself a form of religion. “It occupies much of the same psychological and sociological space,” writes McKanan. “People are drawn to religious communities and radical organizations in order to connect their daily routines to a more transcendent vision of heaven, salvation, or a new society.”
If religion starts with a capital “R”, if it has a singularly destructive form and purpose, if it is categorically opposed to liberation, how do we explain religions of resistance and religions of communion?
How do we explain former-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who said it was only alongside other radicals that he could “get any glimpses of God anywhere”?
How do we explain Shawnee warrior Tecumseh, who tried to unite tribes under the “Great Spirit” for one of the largest resistance campaigns against white colonialism?
How do we explain Catholic anarchist Dorothy Day, who referred to the “poor and oppressed” as “collectively the new Messiah”?
How do we explain the countless radical movements throughout history which were firmly rooted in religion? How do we explain religions that have acted not as an “opiate of the masses”, but as a mobilizer of the masses?
How do we explain the thousands of indigenous human cultures able to live in place for essentially eternity, because they believed—and continue to believe—in the holiness of the natural world?
We needn’t fall in line with any of these specific religions to recognize the roles they have played in making our world a better place.
Religion can be many things, both righteous and rotten, but it certainly is not one, monolithic institution.
What is it then? “Religion, in reality, is living,” writes Native American scholar, Jack D. Forbes. “Our religion is not what we profess . . . our religion is what we do, what we desire, what we seek, what we dream about, what we fantasize, what we think. . . . One’s religion, then, is one’s life, not merely the ideal life but the life as it is actually lived.”
If religion is what we do, none of us can be said to be truly non-religious. We may be non-monotheistic. We may be non-Christian. We may be, and hopefully are, non-dogmatic and non-destructive.
All of us embody our religions each and every day. We may pick from already existing traditions or practices. We may create our own. But to assume it is even possible to live without religion is to live religiously in denial. Our actions, small and large, speak loud and clear of which religion we adhere to, of which gods and masters we ultimately serve.
Without religion, how do we live, who do we live for? If we don’t consciously choose, our actions choose for us. We can choose to be accountable to others, we can choose communion, we can choose to serve life. We can choose to live in such a way that, year after year, actually creates more ecological health and social justice. Or, we can pretend we are exempt from choosing. We can pretend to be non-religious or anti-religious, yet serve a certain religion, certain gods and masters, nonetheless. At its root, the word “worship” means “to give something worth.” In our daily lives, where do we see worth? What do we, through intention and action, give worth?
The dominant culture is deeply religious and ever eager to force its own religions upon us. Forbes writes that we all suffer under the wetiko, or cannibal, sickness: “Imperialism, colonialism, torture, enslavement, conquest, brutality, lying, cheating, secret police, greed, rape, terrorism.” The cannibal sickness is a religion. It is, as Forbes has termed it, “a cult of aggression and violence.”
Whether or not we like it, this is the cult we’ve been socialized into. Its values come naturally for us; unseating them from our hearts and minds is a lifetime project. But if we don’t try, these values will rule our lives. If we don’t replace the cannibal religion with our own religion—that is, if we don’t adopt and act from an opposite set of values—we inevitably act in its service, we inevitably worship it.
“A word for religion is never needed until a people no longer have it,” Forbes writes. “Religion is not a prayer, it is not a church, it is not theistic, it is not atheistic, it has little to do with what white people call ‘religion.’ It is our every act.”
Ailed by the cannibal sickness, how do we act? Forbes continues, “If we tromp on a bug, that is our religion; if we experiment on living animals, that is our religion; if we cheat at cards, that is our religion; if we dream of being famous, that is our religion; if we gossip maliciously, that is our religion; if we are rude and aggressive, that is our religion. All that we do, and are, is our religion.”
This is why I go to church: to share with and be held accountable by a congregation of people, all of us struggling to live out of a religion that serves not the cannibal sickness, but life. Sure, not everyone needs a congregation for this. But I find it invaluable.
In a sermon, one of the ministers at my church described his vision of religion. He said it is both private and public, an organization of people and a personal practice. He said it is an overarching myth, a path towards a new way of living. And finally, he said that the root of the word “religion” means “to bind,” because it is meant to bind each of us into a community, all working and walking together.
Another one of the ministers at my church put it this way:
If we are living, breathing, hurting, laughing, crying, questing human beings, it is impossible not to be spiritual beings. Spirituality is the energy that connects us to the greater pulse of life. We work on and with our spirituality, not to become divine, but to become more human.
Radical activism can be religious just as religion can be radical. Look around. Life moves. We can join that movement, or we can stand against it. We choose anew each and every day. Love life. Defend life. Make it your religion.