Last week at the meeting of the Virginia Atheists and Agnostics, we had a fascinating talk by Chris Bell, titled “When are Tibetans not Buddhist?” Chris is working on a Ph.D in religious studies with a focus on, of course, Tibetan Buddhism. I won’t even pretend to recap the incredible depth of detail, including pictures and video from his own trip to Tibet. However, the main point was to compare the ideals, teachings, and writings of Tibetan Buddhism with the actual practices of the monks and the laity. The scholarly study of religion formerly focused on the “pure” religion, the teachings, not the people. Any deviations from this ideal were considered to be the local cultural influence, or “local color,” not part of the religion itself. More modern studies tend to include the practices that deviate from teaching as part of the religion itself. So the answer to the title of the talk is, well, never, since the people help define the religion itself!
This seems like an obvious point, but it was certainly an “ah ha!” moment for me. Really, there are as many religions as there are religious people, when you get right down to it. Each person interprets the religious teachings and acts, thinks, and reacts based on their own cultural and personal influences. My personal experience was with Catholicism, which is fairly strict on what it considers canon. However, most Catholics that I know believed and practiced a religion that was slightly different from that canon. So, is Catholicism all that comes out from the pope? Or is it defined by the Catholic people? What becomes a problem is when it is said that xx% of people are Catholic and Catholics reject birth control. Well… that’s not true. Many Catholics understand the efficiacy, safety, and need for birth control, so they are not being properly represented.
Is there ever a true, pure religion? One can say that the purest form is in the writings, but religious writings are self-contridictory. Therefore, it can never be practiced in it’s “pure” form! In fact, if more people were to realize that religion, and how it is practiced, is so heavily influenced by culture and personality, it could mitigate some of the “my religion is the only correct religion” mentality that threatens political stability and personal relationships. It may also keep non-believers from putting people in a box based on their religious labels. However, believers should be aware of the implications of their label and realize when religion breaks down in describing one’s actions and morals! Maybe, just maybe, religion isn’t needed for describing morality at all!