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Self-Created Religion.



Friday, August 26, 2005 (SF Chronicle)
Come, all ye faithful, join the giant and wise reawakening of faith
Mark Morford


There is this upwelling. There is this delicious rebellion. It is not yet
loud and it is not yet conventional and it is certainly not yet dominating
the national political dialogue and it is not yet making the headlines and
maybe it never will and this is probably a good thing.
But it's happening. I have seen it. Maybe you have, too. I am, in fact, a
part of it. Maybe you are, too. And lo, it is righteous and delicious and
good.
It is this: Whole happy unfettered slews of people, young and old and in
between, both genders and all genders and those who have yet to figure out
just which gender they are, they are dancing to their own cosmic tune and
blaspheming against the quo of status and taking divine matters into their
own tingling and luminous hands because, goddammit, it's the right thing
to do.
This is what's happening: Millions are defying what many think is the
religious norm, giggling in the general direction of all those silly
apocalyptic "Left Behind" books and rolling their eyes at the "intelligent
design" nontheory and ignoring the syrupy chants rising from all those
creepy megachurches across the land -- and they are, instead, defining
religion and spirituality for themselves, against all odds and against all
baffled militant true believers and against the president's very own
bewildered-monkey stare. Imagine.
Oh sure, they've been doing it for years. Decades. Centuries. Spiritual
self-determination among the intelligent and the educated and the
independent- minded in this country is nothing new -- hell, it was the
impetus for the Aquarian '60s, the happy drug of the '70s, the mantra of
the New Age '80s, the sacrum tattoo of the '90s, the whale song of the
'00s. It is, of course, one of the founding tenets of this nation, one
apparently long forgotten and/or beaten into a bloody pulp by the neocon
right. But still it flourishes.
But something feels different now. There is this palpable sea change.
There is this deep simmering electrical pulse. There is the return of the
divine feminine, the flip of the cosmic coin, what the mystics and the
seers call the Great Awakening, happening within the next decade or so
(for those who are ready). Or maybe it's just a giant and wise recoil away
from bogus notions of a warmongering homophobic paternalistic God.
Whatever.
I have seen it at the radiant retreats of Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi), the
world-famous Hindu guru and "hugging saint" who has literally touched the
lives of tens of millions of followers. I have seen it at Burning Man (and
I will see it there again, next week), where more than 30,000 glittered
and cosmically dusted revelers gather every year to celebrate the rather
obvious idea that "god" is nothing more than a raw hot energy that
permeates all things at all times in all places and it is meant to be
shared like a long slow tongue-kiss across all genders and locations and
hairstyles.
I have seen it at yoga retreats and Wicca gatherings and in all related
offshoots, Druidism and pantheism and animism, etc. I've heard it in the
talks of modern gurus and nontraditional pastors and felt it in our deep
cultural fascination with mystical powers and dream energies and
supernatural phenomena, and it is perhaps most visible in the Religion &
Spirituality aisle of your bookstore, the most explosive section of the
publishing market, $2 billion worth just a few years ago alone, countless
thousands of titles shooting up like flowers and very few having to do
with how to kneel in abject guilt- addled faith to a solitary sullen
disapproving deity and instead almost every single one having to do with
how to take some sort of larger view -- or rather, a deeper, inner view,
profoundly personal and free of typical religious dogma and churchy
groupthink and send us your money now so the pastor can make his Lear
payments.
I have seen it, furthermore, in the latest Newsweek cover story, where
poll after poll and piece after piece reveal how many Americans are
changing the rules, mixing it up, increasingly seeking ways to have very
private, one- on-one connections with some sort of divine source --
decidedly not a domineering God, not a collective blind faith, not a
white-robed all-powerful deity who stares down from a gilded throne and
judges all they do and frowns at anal sex and sweaty dancing and female
nipples under threat of fiery spanking punishment.
Millions are doing it, especially the young. They are shucking "religion"
and taking up "spirituality." They are mixing Buddhist meditation with
nontraditional Catholicism, eco-friendliness with Jesus, racial tolerance
with Allah, ancient mysticism with Judaism, divine sex with Hinduism --
with an overarching sense that there is far more in heaven and earth than
is dreamed of in most organized religion's meager philosophies. It sounds
good because it is.
So then, why not mix and match? Why not let spirit evolve as you evolve?
Why not casually defy, say, the new and hard-line Pope Benedict XVI, who
recently declared it very, very wrong to customize religion to suit one's
personal wiring, one's perspective on the world? This is, essentially, the
modern rule: If it's cultural and it's individualistic and the pope scolds
against it, you know it must be juicy and right.
After all, "true" religion is, perhaps more than anything else, supposed
to be empowering, is it not? Of course it is. They all say so. It's in all
the brochures. My lovely recovering-Harvard-scholar significant other and
I discuss it all the time and she's even written a book for youngish
women, all about reconnecting to self and igniting that divine
nonreligious spark ("The Red Book," coming this spring from Jossey-Bass,
shameless plug), and we both agree that this empowerment idea is the major
attraction of religion as well as its most fatal shortcoming.
Because here's the catch, here's what they won't tell you in Sunday
school: Religion is supposed to be so goddamn empowering that it could
very well empower you right out of the very belief system that's doing the
empowering. It should catapult you back into yourself, whole and gleaming
and so reconnected to your higher self (which is, of course, God, in
miniature) that you don't even need religion anymore. Possible? Crazy, I
know.
Look. Religion is not the answer, the law, the inflexible iron rod of
pious justice. It is, rather, a hint, a nudge, a suggestion, a possibility
for exploration meant to be sifted through for clues to the Mystery and
maybe some great techniques for sitting quietly and shutting the hell up
for a minute and listening to your breath so you can better touch the
stars.
So then, let us celebrate. Let us champion the new non-ideologies,
acknowledge the need to be reminded that despite all the militant
fundamentalists who stab at the nation's soul and despite a warmongering
president whose own unhappy God tells him to bomb foreign lands and
despite the prevailing ethos of black/white, red/blue, Christian/sodomite,
boxers/briefs we are, in fact and by and large, far more spiritually
exploratory than we've ever been before.
In other words, it would appear, as far as the divine is concerned, that
we are opening rather than closing, inventing rather than devolving,
experimenting and thrusting and whispering new secrets to the moon rather
than quivering in the corner, afraid of our own divine shadows, slouching
toward death, unaware that our cosmic shoes are untied. Can I get an amen?
Or maybe an om?

Mark Morford's column appears Wednesdays and Fridays on sfgate.com and in
Datebook. E-mail him at mmorford@sfchronicle.com.
Copyright 2005 SF Chronicle

The original article can be found on SFGate.com here.

One interesting thing about this article is that it presents a positive view of this phenomenon. The first widely-known mention of individually-created religion was the discussion of "Sheilaism" in Robert Bellah, et. al.'s bestselling work of sociology, Habits of the Heart, 1985. "Sheilaism" is the private religion of a nurse named Sheila Larson, who describes it as "just my own little voice". Bellah and other commentators of the time were relentlessly negative in their appraisal of Sheila's spiritual beliefs. In fact, one otherwise-respectable writer, Wendy Donigan O'Flaherty, even spoke of "the horrors of Sheilaism," a phrase that would make one think Sheila was committing human sacrifice. In actual fact, "Sheilaism", in Sheila's own words, consists of quite innocuous beliefs like, "I think God would want us to take care of each other."

In this 1986 article, Bellah reveals his position: he regards community-based religion not just as an equally-viable alternative to individual spirituality, but as superior. He assumes that a person cannot maintain a meaningful and active spiritual commitment without conformity to a group. He rejects, offhand, the possibility that solitary paths can have genuine relevance.

It seems that the tide is turning in this area. Having a unique, self-designed religious philosophy and practice is a privilege that more and more people are claiming for themselves. Once limited only to rare geniuses and mystics, "ordinary" folks are now listening to "their own little voice" -- not to lead nations like Joan D'Arc, but to lead themselves.

Bellah, I believe, is wrong in claiming that religious individualism prevents people from making connections. Folks do not need to believe the same things to interact meaningfully and learn from each other. The Eclectic Pagan and New Age communities, for instance, are quite active in sharing views and practices. There is room in the new religious milieu for both stable traditions and unique innovations, and every facet in between.
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