The following was inspired by headlines a couple years back. By this reposting, the leader responsible for the deaths has been charged and sentenced. I'm not sure whether I think it's a fair sentence or not for the situation. Make your own decisions.
* * * * *
Five days a week I’m a news junkie. On weekends I take a complete break. Come Monday morning, I’m again ready for the news, catching up on whatever happened over the weekend. The first thing that slapped me in the face Monday morning, even before the every-five-minute repeat of the weather, was this story: a local woman had died after traveling to Arizona to participate in somebody’s idea of a sweat lodge ceremony. After keeling over from excessive heat (possibly literally biting the dust), she was taken to a hospital and later died. Authorities stated homicide charges were pending.
The headline is mine, so if you find it disrespectful, facetious, obnoxious, and judgmental, blame me, not the local news outlet. The story and what I took from it pushed so many of my buttons that every one of those adjectives fits what’s behind the headline. And I will confess right up front I’m reacting to very few facts.
I refer to her as a religion hunter. It’s not exactly a compliment. To me it’s more of a sickness, and it’s endemic in this society, perhaps throughout our species. I do understand the need to find something outside of one’s self, something bigger, hopefully wiser, something to fix whatever is ailing, whether in me, loved ones, or the world. We seek something to be worthy of our awe. Religions fill this need for most of us, offering answers to those questions. Sometimes the answers are easy, sometimes impossibly hard.
What bugs me most about religions lately is that religiosity itself has become sacred. It’s the same way nationalism has become sacred to some people. To me, as I understand sacred, that concept should be reserved for God, or Allah, or whatever higher being or ideal. To make the trappings that surround the group-think teaching, that describe the divine and set down rules to follow, as themselves sacred just succeeds in driving us a step farther away from the divine. Admittedly, they can be helpful, but so can a vacuum cleaner. While cleanliness is next to godliness, I’ll never call a vacuum cleaner divine.
Possibly one of the better arguments against making religiosity itself sacred is the number of people who are driven away from whatever the religion espouses in search of some new, different religion. I’m not talking about those turned off completely from the concept of religion. I’m talking about those actively hunting a new religion. This woman apparently was one of those, participating in some very minor (“fringe”) sect, adopting a Native American ceremony in search of meaning. If the Native American religion had been adopted (i.e., a context given to the ceremony to supply meaning) I’d have expected different skin tones and facial features on the group’s leader, and perhaps a name like Yazzie or Two Bears. But apparently they took the quickie route, not bothering to learn about harmony and beauty–or sensible, safe precautions–but going for the gimmick: the sweat lodge. I have to believe that’s as offensive to Native Americans as someone coming into a Catholic church, dispensing with reading the Bible or going through confession, and presenting themselves at the altar for confession. Voila–quickie Catholic on the half shell.
Since religiosity itself has become sacred, nobody questions what others do to “find” religion, or what they do in order to serve their particular brand of religion. So folks go along with the stupid, the selfish, the dangerous, as long as somebody tags it with “religion.” Another recent story points this out. A teenager with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma was denied standard medical treatment by his parents in the name of religion, until the courts stepped in to order treatment. Nobody questioned the sincerity of the parents religious beliefs, even though these beliefs didn’t manifest themselves until AFTER the kid’s first course of chemotherapy, when the kid quite understandably hated the pain and discomfort of the treatment’s side effects and protested having to go through with round two. So is it still religion when the prime precept seems to be keep my kid comfortable even if it kills him?
Being a religion hunter says a couple of things about you. First, you are likely sincerely seeking that something outside yourself. Unfortunately, the longer you look without finding, the more you are likely to become prey to the grifters, the charlatans, the greedy, and the idiots who just might kill you. Second, it says you are looking to others to give you what you are unable to give yourself. If you hunt out religions, you must carry the belief that other people know something, hold some secret, that you haven’t found yet–and that it’s something that they can share.
I’ve long since had a problem with that. Being around groups of other people works against growing religious feelings in me. Partly it’s a trust issue–too few of them have earned it. Partly they’re a distraction from whatever I’m trying to achieve. We are such a gregarious species that it’s difficult to be in the presence of other people and ignore them, but that’s what I’d need to do in order to find something I’d call divine. I’ve concluded that religious groups are enforcers of the group-think necessary to keep the leaders in power and control the masses. That idea alone is a further turn-off for me. Finally, I’m simply not convinced that others know some mysterious secret, or that they can share it. I’ve had the distinct displeasure of working with somebody who KNEW that he knew exactly the right words to ensure his own salvation. He also KNEW that knowledge of those words was limited, and he was one of the select few and I wasn’t. Others haven’t been so obnoxious about it but still cling to the firm belief that there is only one way, and theirs is it. It apparently comforts them.
So, personally, I have to get away from other people to explore my own spirituality, to examine my conscience, find my values, discover whatever is worthy of awe. A quiet couple hours in the woods, watching waves pound the shore, watching storms build and pass, letting my eyes devour the mountains, or really listening to a Beethoven symphony–these are things that help. I don’t expect to find all the answers, nor even most of the questions. I doubt I’ll ever be a religion hunter, though I can manage a smidgen of sympathy for those who are.
And a part of me appreciates the irony that our local religion hunter already has found out the answer to the question all of the rest of us have: what happens after death? While I’m really, really interested in that answer, I’ll wait for it.