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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 13-Apr-07


Friday 13-January-07

Seven Rules of Religion

Would you like to start your own religion? Do you fancy being a high priest? There are many rules embedded in the patterns of religions. Here are seven of them.

1. Distant ideals

There are wonderful, perhaps unattainable things towards which we must reach. One or more Gods and saints may, if we are good and ardent enough, answer our prayers. Such perfect beings may also represent the state of being towards which we must strive. Religious ecstasy and nirvana represent a one-ness that, once experienced becomes as an addict's deep desire. The promise of perfection may reach even beyond death, to a heaven where compliance in this world leads to eternal joy in the next.

This ideal is the core of many religions. It is the great and wonderful carrot that is so worth gaining that everything else pales and must be bent to achieving this end. Like the multi-million lottery, it looms so large we are tempted to keep buying tickets. Then, having made that investment we are hooked into endless commitment.

2. Canonical texts

Spiritual truth is a slippery concept and, left to the discussions of men, would evolve and mutate. Written down, however, truth gains a permanence that may reach across centuries and around the world with the same, unchanging message. Thus religious founders may ensure the core truths will persist.

When a text is canonized it becomes unchallengeable and, by definition, truth. Science does this as well as religion and the proponents and defenders of scientific truth are no less committed than religious zealots who proclaim the word in pulpits and on the streets.

3. Interpreters of the word

The problem with religious texts is that they are constituted with words and language which are open to interpretation. And the meaning I put upon anything I read is based on my unique experience and context.

Thus the texts need to be studied in detail and carefully interpreted for the who lack the literacy to understand the inner truths. This is a full-time job and so a professional priesthood arises.

A problem with interpretation is that each person, no matter how well versed, might easily put a different meaning on the same words. Thus the priesthood need to organize and agree significance before unleashing commandments on the awaiting congregation.

And even with universal alignment there is always local preaching and interpretation to do, so the priesthood are never without work. With their dedication and spirituality priests also gain a hotline to the gods and saints, and so can advise on even the most sensitive of matters.

4. Sin and salvation

The rules of religion are hard and fast, and the rewards and punishment equally extreme. Condemnation and salvation epitomize this black-and-white judgement with little in between, and nowhere draws this line quite as sharply as the Christian church, where post-death lifestyle is either infinite joy or unending agony.

When you are judged, a moment's transgression in life can mean you will burn in hell for ever. It may seem a rather extreme sentence but then it does sharpen the focus when wondering whether to step over the line, which is a critical purpose of this rule.

5. Rituals of commitment and transformation

Religions and rituals are so synonymous that many see them as one and the same thing. Having religion means going to the church, mosque or temple for the services and ceremonies that mark the days, weeks and special events of our lives including birth, teenage transition, marriage and death. We also celebrate special days in the lives of the saints, martyrs and prophets.

And the repetition of familiar ritual provides comfort whilst it deepens our belief and commitment.

Rites and rituals are classic patterns of closure that date back millennia and can be found in cultures around the globe. They both symbolize and enact transitions that create powerful psychological barriers against a return  to the previous position.

Rituals also are used in the process of changes that transform and bind people further into a new self. A common pattern is the use of confession, where sins are released and rituals of absolution used to cleanse the person of their former sinful ways. Other rituals, from coming-of-age to funerals, mandate and facilitate the release of the past and the acceptance of the new.

6. Rules for life

The price of membership and salvation is not small. No less than total conformance is required if you are to attain a higher state of being. And the rules for this can be onerous.

Religions control all parts of your life, including (and especially) the private parts.

Such social control can seem ruthless and primarily benefiting the priesthood and the pious. On the other hand they provide a cohesion that avoids the back-to-the-jungle anarchic chaos that can arise when people feel no social obligation. Whilst some people can rationally build their own set of morals, others descend too easily into a selfish scenario where survival of the fittest is the primary rule.

7. Insiders and outsiders

Religions often frame themselves as exclusive clubs with sharp divisions between members and non-members. Separating believers from non-believers helps keep members onside as counter-arguments and contrary evidence is held at bay. Religions are thus often separatist and isolationist.

Non-members are often held away by demonizing them as bad, wicked and attackers of the faith. This provides reason for righteous defense and holy war, which serves to only sharpen the divide as others are provoked into battle. In a more peaceful alternative non-members may be targets for conversion and proselytizing a common task as members seek to convert the heathen non-believers.

Marriage across the divide is likely to be very much frowned up unless the outsider converts.

The division is accentuated in many ways, from language to dress to ways of behaving. Thus insiders can recognize one another even on a crowded train. Insiders are often obliged to help one another, whilst assistance of outsiders may vary. A general support for mankind can, however, be a good thing as it allows for both moral righteousness and opportunity for conversion. If you help me in my hour of need I will be far more disposed towards listening to you may well want to reciprocate in some way or become more like you.

Your comments

"When a text is canonized it becomes unchallengeable and, by definition, truth. Science does this as well as religion and the proponents and defenders of scientific truth are no less committed than religious zealots who proclaim the word in pulpits and on the streets."

Can you name an example of an unchallengeable "scientific truth"?

-- elwedriddsche

Dave replies:
Well, I guess it serves me right for being pompous and you're right to challenge.

Of course there is no unchallengeable scientific truth just as there is no unchallengeable religious (in the everyday meaning of the word) truth. Yet both have their canons which are by and large not challenged by their adherents. The way a religion (or a science) gets established is by the acceptance of a significant group of people of a 'truth' that is not challenged sufficiently to change it. A good science and a good religion has rules for challenge that permit changing of the canons and sometimes throwing them away.

Well, that's what I believe, anyway. 

 Religion like the word correction or realignment implies something is askew from some standard. Of course the question is, what is the standard ? You've noted a number of characteristics of poor judgment and bad religion - addiction to a carrot like ideal, unchallengeable interpreted truth, hot line to the gods, and exclusionary club mentality -that can be found in mainstream religions such as Christianity. In defense of Christianity it is a belief based on the precept of having no enemies and doing good to others regardless of how well or badly they might treat you. Granted the faults that you have highlighted exist in Christian churches. They are human faults practiced in churches, governments and other institutions. Nonetheless, a traditional pattern of life based upon sacred texts with psychological and judicial barriers that prevent a return to jungle like chaos will still be needed. The pursuit of this ritual pattern of civilized life is yet a noble and universal hope. Your website makes a positive contribution to this goal.

-- Robert Y.

Dave replies:
Indeed Robert. There's many differences in the way that religions are practiced. Done well, they at least lead to social harmony and benefits to many. Done badly, they lead to social control with benefits going to few. There's a lot in there about leadership and beliefs about people.

Today, I came to this site looking for information about "code of morals". I first read the page on values, morals, and ethics but it didn't help my understanding. The problem I have is in the given definitions of values and morals on that page.

I understand morals as basic rules and values as basic motivations/priorities. What you call values, I call morals and vice versa.

Now, on this page about seven rules of religion, under paragraph 6, rules for life, you seem to present morals more in line with how I understand them to be.

This isn't a major point of contention for me, but I am interested to know if you see how I've come to this conclusion about these two pages.

-- Tzod E.

Dave replies:
It's a tricky subject, Tzod and I've seen enough variation in definitions to conclude that there's no 'one true definition'. Values, morals and ethics are all behavioral rules. In general use, 'values' are commonly seen as personal or business rules. 'Morals' tend to be more social and possibly religious. 'Ethics' can be religious and professional. Hence you get professional codes such as 'medical ethics', businesses defining 'our values', societies defining 'moral codes' and so on.


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