I’m writing this on July Fourth, feeling thankful that the American Founders declared themselves free not only from political tyranny but from religious tyranny as well. The freedom to exercise the religious impulse as each of us sees fit is among the great blessings of the modern age, and we should thank God/Spirit/Higher Power/Whatever for it.
While we celebrate our freedom from various forms of religious oppression—state religion, forced conversion, systematic discrimination, etc.-we also need to address other modes of spiritual authoritarianism. I don’t just mean violent jihadists who kill in the name of Allah, and theocrats who would rewrite laws according to their interpretation of the Bible. Those, of course, require appropriate forms of resistance. I’m thinking of more subtle forms of repression, from which each of us, in our own way, needs to declare independence.
Obviously, one central component of freedom is the right to think for ourselves. In a free society this is inalienable, of course, but many of us foreclose on that right through our own choices. We yield unthinkingly to religious dogma, or the authority of a particular pastor, guru or theology. Sometimes, we do so out of fear: “If you don’t declare allegiance to this set of beliefs you will go to hell,” or, “If you don’t believe this doctrine, you will not deserve God’s love,” or, “If you don’t accept these teachings you will fall behind in the race to enlightenment/salvation/liberation.” The flip-side of fear-based belief, of course, is belief by attraction or wishful thinking: If you do accept this or that set of premises and practices you’ll be rewarded handsomely, in this life or the next.
Either way, it amounts to forking over some independence of thought as a kind of insurance premium.
There are other reasons we willingly shut down our critical faculties: intellectual laziness, lack of faith in ourselves, the desire for acceptance, worry about possible ostracism, anxiety towards change and uncertainty, etc. Whatever its cause, the unwillingness to declare independence is a constraint to spiritual growth. Why? Because we’re each on our own, individual paths. It’s as if we’re all students on Campus Earth, but we’re enrolled in an independent study program and we each design our own curriculum and carry around backpacks filled with unique learning materials. If we don’t read our assignments with a critical eye and ask demanding questions of our “faculty,” we won’t learn the lessons we need to absorb in order to matriculate.
Does independence mean severing ties with religious tradition like the colonists did with England? Of course not. You can be a loyal and devoted participant and still think for yourself. In fact, you might be a better adherent if you question and probe than you would be if you were to blindly accept every doctrine at face value. Discernment often leads to deeper and more profound faith, not the opposite. Many religious people find themselves at odds with certain premises—unable, for example, to accept certain scriptural passages as literal truth. In their struggle to come to terms with their dissonance, they are often forced to abandon specific beliefs but at the same time their commitment to other teachings deepens. Thinking for yourself can help you separate the baby from the bathwater—and embracing the baby with greater devotion.
Declaring independence from dogmatism doesn’t make you a spiritual anarchist. It simply means using your intellect, listening to your gut, and having the courage to ask hard questions—not only of spiritual authorities but of yourself. We all have to guard against the tyranny of our own subconscious needs. Are you taking the easy way out? Do you believe in certain teachings because they make you feel good? Are you grasping onto the buoys of official tenets and convenient absolutes because it feels safer than swimming in the waters of doubt and ambiguity? Are you being truly independent or merely stubborn or narcissistic?
Staking claim to spiritual freedom is a big responsibility. What has been said of democratic government applies to spiritual democracy as well: it requires eternal vigilance—toward ourselves, not just authority figures. To reap the rewards of independence you need both a discerning intellect and well-honed intuition. Together they make up what could be called a Spiritual Positioning System. Like the Global Positioning Systems in new cars, your internal SPS can guide your progress and help you make appropriate choices at life’s intersections. But, as with a car’s GPS, it’s up to you to continuously update it, reprogram it and redefine its parameters. If you stick to the original programming, you’ll never get anywhere.