Adam Blatner

December 14, 2008

One of the problems I’ve been wrestling with all my life is my ambivalence about religion. In some ways it’s wonderful, in other ways it is riddled with negative elements. Recently it occurred to me that it’s a matter of proportionality, mixed with proper understanding: There’s an optimal degree of involvement; too little doesn’t suffice; but too much—ah, this is the point!—there is such a thing as too much!—and this can drain energy and misdirect effort from a more balanced general advance.

Religion is one of the nutrients of the mind and soul, along with love, responsibility, wisdom, play, quiet enjoyment and some other elements. Religion is defined here as the social organization of the spiritual impulse. Ideally, it combines spirituality and the need for communion, which recognizes and responds to the social or collective dimensions of mind-soul functioning. (Humans are social animals: Perhaps not as much as bees or ants, but more than many other more solitary animals.)

Spirituality is an organizing function, an activity of connecting with the greater wholeness of being. As an analogy, the spirituality of the cells of our body keep them working for the good of the organism. When they lose their body spirituality they become cancerous or in other ways diseased. Spirituality lends meaning and directionality to life.

Now here’s the point: Unless it be balanced with responsibility and love and play and other elements, it can be destructive. Water is also a core element of our being and the world, but there are times and situations in which too much water can be destructive!

Our immature minds have a tendency to think that if a little is good, more is better. Lacking a recognition of proportionality and the corresponding need for balance is one of the hallmarks of immaturity.

The desire for too much also partakes of another interesting irrational but common mental illusion: “If I can get all the way over there, then I’ll have it once and for all, and having it means not losing it. I won’t have to keep up this balancing act in the middle.”

A related illusion common in childhood and still prevalent for many if not most adults is the idea of possession, having, holding. This feeds the deep desire to grasp, hold on to, keep. As such, it is the basis of the sins of greed, avarice, and to some degrees some of the others, such as gluttony and vanity-type-pride. (The greed element in pride involves the illusion that one can attain status, possess it, “having” it, and thus won’t lose it. This contrasts with the reality that in many roles and situations, you have to earn your status each day, each moment. One loving or giving act cannot substitute for the demands of ongoing relationship; one wise insight cannot substitute for the need to continue to stay balanced over the weeks and months of life.)

(The greed element in anger or wrath is the idea that a single aggressive act can get you to a position of triumph, winning, and sustaining that winning position. It is ignorant—or in denial of—the actuality that one cannot “win” over another in the long run; diplomacy, peace, working it out with a sense of justice is far more stable. Because “winning” denies the aspirations of others, it inevitably leads to resentment, revenge, rebellion, and continued strife.

To some degree this can be an enlivening game of competitive efforts—proportionality again. Unfortunately, competitive games and businesses have come to dominate so that many people hardly know that there exist alternative forms of activity that are far more cooperative.)

This digression into greedy-grasping and its tendency to generate sin (as misdirected effort) is relevant because we don’t tend to register the idea that excessive nobility of aspiration can also be a subtle type of addiction, grasping, and un-balancing dynamic. Think, then, of the challenge of balanced nutrition. (Well, we didn’t know about this concept two hundred years ago, and were only beginning to learn about it eighty years ago. We still have much to learn!) The body needs different kinds of foodstuffs. The mind-soul needs different kinds of activities and social inputs, and these, too, need to be balanced.

The main alternative activity is a category I call responsibility. A full description of this would fill perhaps many books, but in short it has to do with education, self-maintenance, relationship maintenance (so it overlaps in these with love), development of skills and talents, applying them effectively, inclusiveness and teamwork, and so forth. Responsibility overlaps with wisdom, which involves the skills of overseeing and balancing all these efforts, along with faith, love, play, and so forth.

If religion or faith is to be treated as the end-all, it offers what might be recognized as a kind of junk-food or empty calories for the soul. It needs the other components in correct proportion.

Excessive Religion

Excessive religion bleeds off energy that could be used better in other endeavors. I realize here that I’m approaching dangerous territory, stepping on toes, but I think these issues need to be called into question. The concept of yield is useful here: For example, if twenty minutes a day of alignment, prayer, meditation, or whatever leads to a more integrated form of social interaction, is it necessarily true that two hours will proportionally increase that “goodness”?

In nutrition, if you ingest more water-soluble vitamins than the body needs and uses, it just excretes these chemicals through the kidneys. What if there is such a thing as wasting time in prayer, study, contemplation, or meditation, time that might be better applied in other responsible ways—or even in the service of love or play? The key here is to reduce the almost habitual or automatic valorization, idealization of anything to do with spirituality. What if we acknowledged its virtues, but also considered spirituality to be just a matter-of-fact component of life, to be pursued in proportion with other components?

The instinct, to say again, is to try to “get there,” be “saved,” have something magical happen once and for all. This is childish, illusory, and leads to a misdirection of effort into magical thinking and activity. (There is some similarity in the dynamics of addiction, the desire to get that “high” and sustain it, return to it, “have” it.)

Insufficient Religion

I want to recognize that there may be insufficient religion—meaning that the perception that some people may have over-done their flight from established religion and thus pulled away too far from seeking meaning, finding a workable map that moves us forward, maintaining optimism and courage, and offering the social component of community support. I confess to having been on both sides of this dynamic. On reflection, the reaction into non-religion was to old-time religion, which was experienced as stifling and foolish. However, I found the status of non-faith to be dry and alienated, as well as operating in denial of the prevalence of a variety of mysteries of altered states of consciousness, consciousness itself, the deep socio-psychological functions of religion, and a number of deeper philosophical and scientific issues.

The key here is the recognition that the function of an ideal spirituality and religion need not be associated with the worst excesses of obsolete religion. This is mere culture lag. The spiritual impulse can evolve and become more intelligent, as the contemporary philosopher Ken Wilber points out in a recent book titled “Integral Spirituality.”

In the current culture wars about religion, religion versus science, religion crossing over into civil policy, religious belief and practice of one group feeling entitled to dominate other groups, or conflicting with other groups, etc.—all of these tend to be associated with a type of religion that is itself attached to sets of specific beliefs, ideas, rituals, commandments, practices, traditions, rules, scriptures—all of which become imbued with subtle idolatry. That is to say that these derivatives, which are more easy to grasp superficially, tend to be clung to in lieu of appreciating the spiritual truths that lie behind them, or operate at their origins. There is also the old tradition of believing in tradition, in the ideal of a pristine past, free of political wrangling, where Truth was revealed in its purity. This illusion again derives from the childish tendency to imagine that parents know and can care effectively; there is a magic to this primordial and hardly-remembered (and thus selectively remembered as ideal) past.

It’s time for religion as a social institution to (1) recognize that it needs to advance with the advance of knowledge, the scope of the universe—astronomical, microscopic, biological, ecological, sociological, etc. (2) incorporate not only new knowledge, but the very concept of continual discovery, invention, revision and creativity that has emerged more prominently in the modern world. The fundamental needs for community and direction remain, for solace and the many other functions of religion. These constitute the proverbial baby that should not be thrown out with the bathwater. There are, however, a number of elements that should be recognized as belonging in the “bath-water,” elements that are obsolete if not in themselves wicked—or at least nowadays so recognized—, such as slavery, the subjugation of women, and other types of prejudice and oppression.

Social institutions tend to expand to feed their ideal and also the status and economic benefits to their intermediaries (i.e., clergy, professors of theology, staff at seminaries, church janitors, the status of congregation leaders, etc.), feeding the more-is-better goal. Yet we are living in an era of transition into sustainability—a word that had hardly been known a few generations ago. (It’s not even in my spell-checker!) We are living in an era in which distribution of economic resources—and work and effort is economic from a certain viewpoint—needs to be more broadly distributed. In other words, there’s such a thing as enough and too much even of what is generally considered a good thing.

The need for proportionality applies to all efforts. There are contexts in which critical thinking needs to be subsumed into conviction and alignment (this is a new recognition on my part); and other contexts where rah-rah and band-wagon needs to be pulled up short and subjected to questioning and critical thinking. There’s such a thing as too much building, too many people, too much television, and so forth. Those involved in the endeavor live in bubbles of quite pathological (in the long run) collective denial towards the idea that there may be socio-economic, ecological, or other realistic limitations on their favorite activity!


I have been developing a stronger theme of proportionality in my philosophy as a whole—the idea that many qualities operate along a spectrum of too little to too much, with an optimal level somewhere in-between. What that level is varies with the subject matter and context. (Also, my son is writing about a similar issue.) It occurred to me that in religion, the problem has to do with the recognition that there is such as thing as “too much,” and too much religion draws off energies and economic resources that might better be expended in other types of more effective social utility, towards the pursuit of responsibility, love, play, cultural infrastructure, etc.

(I won’t even get into a few of the ways that some groups identified with and drawing on the status of traditional religion pursue what I consider to be misleading and even wicked ends, such as perpetuating the subjugation of women, certain other prejudices, and above all perpetuating the terrifying concept of hell.)

So it’s been difficult, appreciating certain types of spirituality, rejecting other types, and trying to find a point of rational balance. I hope this paper can be helpful to others as it has been in my expressing in writing one way to achieve more balance—recognizing that there may be such a thing as too little—and too much—religion, depending on time and context.