Since we’re all sharing our various religious travels, I thought I’d get in early. While I didn't grow up as an atheist (although they say we're all born atheist), my family was definitely what you'd call "lapsed". But I caught the faith bug in my late teens and for several years had the "hound of heaven" snapping at my heels. I read whatever Catholic spirituality works (and the bible!) that I could find. I prayed for just about everything in my life, though in retrospect they were just the usual concerns of a young man trying to establish himself. I was constantly trying to understand the nature of the relationship between me and God, and I guess after dong this for a few years, the cracks in my spiritual worldview began to show.
First it was that prayers didn't correlate with outcomes - if I didn't pray for something that I had previously been granted by prayer, I still received what I needed. Praying for assistance with spiritual things I was struggling with didn't help. And obviously world peace hasn't happened... (I now understand why having watched this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jk6ILZAaAMI).
Then the questions began - you've seen them all on this forum as challenges to belief - and, naturally, they went unanswered by the church (or at best poorly answered). The concept of "God's will" as a salve to unanswered prayers began to seem illogical and disingenuous to me. How can two warring parties both have God on their side? The emphasis placed on suffering as a way to God began to seem unjust. It all began to seem like smoke and mirrors.
I began to realize that there are other styles of spiritual appreciation. It seemed crazy to me that out of the hundreds of thousands of years that humankind has been wondering about where we came from, the answer should take exactly the Christian form, when other paths have been around for far longer. I explored the Eastern traditions, and by realizing that there are equally bright and enlightened people in different parts of the world, began to think that they are all “right” to a degree and in different ways.
Christianity could not elaborate on the nature of consciousness and couldn’t tell me adequately what a soul actually is; it could not tell me what happened to my dear old dad when he died, or beloved pets, except to offer medieval imagery. It could only offer the same style of imagery when attempting to explain the nature of good and evil, so I realized just how much the religious understanding of things is influenced by our cultural history rather than spiritual knowledge. And the people that claimed to have physically encountered either God, Jesus or Satan weren’t credible witnesses.
I read Carl Jung and understood how we humans project parts of our identities either onto sacred “entities” (the good bits of our psyches), or onto a “shadow” that we deny exists (the “bad” parts of our psyches), and how we all entertain the same archetypes deep down within us. He showed how the collective unconscious is experienced, and I realized that in chasing after a God-figure, we are simply experiencing “higher” or more subtle aspects of our own selves. He described the process of “individuation” as one of reconciling the archetypes and opposites within us and becoming “whole”. I found parallels to this in other spiritual traditions, and it didn’t take long to figure out that all the rituals, the beliefs, the singing, the spiritual traditions, the holy commandments and the teachings of any religion are quite incidental to the true experience of the “sacred” – they are simply ways of getting there, and none is better or more holy than any other.
While I don’t want to sound elitist, it also became clear that religion is the universal entry-point into the process of individuation, and it’s the necessary first step for most people. It’s somewhat like ninja training in that the physical training phase emphasizes technique, rules, ways of behaving, paying respect to teachers and spiritual discipline – these “outer” practices run directly parallel to religious methods. What the religions don’t reveal is what follows this phase, which is inner self-mastery that does not require adherence to teachings (because the student has absorbed them as part of his or her nature, or achieved a level of individuation). This is the phase where you won’t recognize a practitioner as a particular “brand” of spirituality, even though they demonstrate the values.
It’s quite clear to me that humanity has all the necessary understanding within it to navigate the moral world. We use various methods to get at that understanding, such as commandments for the less spiritually developed, conscience for those with more understanding, and intuition. Religion is just a structured approach to the problem. For those not disposed to religious lives, the study of ethics has been around for as long as people have thought. Humanism is an area that seems to have taken on this body of knowledge in a non-religious setting.
Where does this leave religion today? We have great diversity between faiths that can foster sharing of values as well as creating conflict. Within faiths we find moderates as well as extremists (strangely, it seems to be secular law that prevents religion from getting out of control and expressing its real extremes, which suggests that the secular world is better attuned to the needs and aspirations of humankind). I suggest that instead of trying to reconcile diverse faiths, individuals can see the values that are common to them – and not be required to identify with any particular religious way. This marks a recognition that while we are human we can still aspire to and achieve those things that many regard as sacred.