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What Christianity Needs to Know About Its Own Decline

Paralleling the experience of so many cities throughout North America, Ottawa is marking the closure of one of its oldest and most iconic churches, the 127-year old St. Matthias Anglican Church. In a building intended to hold 600, the average congregation has dipped to 75. It’s an everyday, almost unremarkable phenomenon of modern life, that even as people are willing to cross continents and look to traditions from the Himalayas and the Far East in search of meaning, the churches that were once the religious backbone of our society seem to exert almost no attraction at all.


A lot of people have said a lot of things about this from many different viewpoints, and I’m not going to repeat most of it, because, frankly, none of it gets to the heart of the matter. It is no secret that Christianity is in numerical decline in the developed world, or that the most successful churches at this point tend to be on the radical side of the Evangelical movement. Many, long lists of contributing causes have been compiled by writers either seeking to bandage the sucking chest wounds or gleefully celebrate the death of a personal bogeyman.

One Cause

There is only one ultimate cause of the decline of Christianity, without which all the others either would not exist or would not matter. It’s not science or modernity or consumerism or hedonism or any other external factor. It’s not church scandals or liberalism or ecumenism.

The one and only cause of Christian decline is the fact that the real spiritual tradition of Christianity and its understanding of the world is not only dead in most churches, it is so far gone that they it sounds utterly foreign to them.

Libs vs. The Hardcore Crowd

Let’s look at the most basic dichotomy among Christian churches today, which is between those teaching niceness and inclusion and those teaching moralism and exclusion. You can see this dichotomy between the mainstream liberal and evangelical branches of Protestantism, between the modernising and traditionalist parts of Catholicism and so on.

If we look at the Protestant churches of the developed world as a case study, we can see three basic trends that are fairly undeniable, statistically speaking.
1. Liberal Protestant churches are in sharp decline
2. Evangelical Protestant churches are still attracting followers
3. Overall, Protestantism is in decline, whether measured by absolute number of adherents, attendance or by percentage of population

How did this situation come to be? On the one hand, Protestant roots going back to the likes of John Calvin and the Puritans emphasised a particular interpretation of strict Christian practice against the corruption of the Catholic Church. This practice was extremely harsh in its denial of pleasure and its emphasis on hard work, to the point where the Puritan Oliver Cromwell banned the celebration of Christmas. This kind of alleged Godliness could only hold the imagination for so long. As Protestantism embraced more social causes in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it became a driver for social change based on the morality of the New Testament- helping those in need, redistribution of wealth, equality of all people before God and the acceptance of everyone.

That shift was a much-needed relief to societies that had long been burdened with a rule-heavy morality and a rather Old Testament conception of a judgmental God. But without the rules that had held sway for so long, it brought on a crisis of what it meant to be Christian. After all, you don’t need to embrace any particular religion to be a nice, tolerant person. From this comes the view of Jesus as a moral teacher of enlightened values. But if that is all Christianity has to offer, then why do we need to go to church, and what, if anything, is the purpose of Christian practice?

The reaction to the resulting crisis of purpose was an inevitable revamping of old Protestant values. We’re not here to be nice! the Evangelical Churches proclaim. We have sinned and can only be saved from damnation because Christ paid our debt to God by dying as a man! Now we have to obey the rules so we don’t fall on his bad side again!

What rules? Well, there’s the rub, there are so many possible rules in each tradition, so many ways in which the rules contradict and so many interpretations that there really is no moral consistency to be had. But that doesn’t matter to the “rules club,” the hardcore Evangelical Protestants, “traditionalist” Catholics and Orthodox. No, they want rules for rules’ sake. We are saved for adhering to a particular ideology and obeying a checklist of rules- the one they happen to be emphasising this week- and anyone who doesn’t can expect fire and brimstone.

Selling Points

So why are these people so successful in marketing their petty, vengeful God and his inhuman checklists of rules? For two reasons.

First, because they’re serious about it. They seem to be offering exactly what the liberals never did- a thoroughgoing approach to Christian life. People are attracted to seriousness, because it feels like they’re actually doing something, like their faith is not superficial.

Second, because they trade on fear. You may remember our post on the difference between religion and spirituality. The core of the religious illness is the attempt to exert control over our destinies by performing ritual and moral actions that will get the deity on our side. Religious rules are a means of exerting control over the universe, of feeling like we’re justified or on the right track. They’re also a means of sorting the good people from the bad people, and we all know how much humans like to have bad people on whom to blame their problems.

The Lost Pearl

And that brings us to the real core of the problem here. From the very beginning, there was a tension in Christianity between principled spiritual life and rules. You can see one of the earliest instances of this in the Acts of the Apostles, when the church in Jerusalem had to decide whether to admit Gentiles. On the one hand, the Jewish Law forbade them to associate with Gentiles. On the other hand, the Holy Spirit had already acted to transform the lives of these people. In that case, the Spirit won, but it has been an uphill battle ever since.

The tradition of theosis, of the transformation of the human person in cooperation with the divine energies of God, is a demanding one. It requires us not to follow a checklist of rules, but to enter upon a deliberate journey into the centre of our being, to face and heal the very sources of our misery, to change the way we as human beings exist. It also requires us to exercise moral discernment rather than depending on rules. Here is what it has to say about the God of juridical Christianity:

“Far be it from us that we should ever think so wicked a thing as that God could become unmerciful. For God’s attributes do not change as those of mortals do.”

“As a handful of sand thrown into the ocean, so are the sins of all flesh as compared with the mind of God.”

– St. Isaac the Syrian

But following the rules is much easier than self-transformation, and certainly much more convenient for an institution governing a large body of followers.  The idea of a divine judge gained almost universal currency in Christianity, while the tradition of theosis was obscured. What the Evangelicals and other rule-bound types embrace is not Christianity, but the rule of rules, the neurobiological sickness of religion which allows people to be assured that if they follow such and such a set of rules, if they associate with the right group and believe the right things, they can control their eternal destiny without in any way challenging the many mental afflictions that they have grown comfortable with.

But today, our society is growing much more aware of the limitations and harmful effects of moralistic rules, and so it is often the case that those who enter strict rule-bound parts of Christianity or their children end up leaving it for good.

The alternatives those alienated ex-Christians and our alienated society look for are those with fewer rules, but a genuine and thoroughgoing approach to self-transformation- in short, those offering real substance up front.

The Challenge

What’s really dying here is not Christianity, but the husk of a shadow of Christ’s teachings. Without a real path of spiritual development that is not overshadowed by the bankrupt morality of juridical Christianity, nothing else will take for very long. In order to change this dynamic of decline, Christians would need to do three very difficult things:

1. Confront the moral inconsistencies of the inherited rules and replace them with consistent adherence to divine love and personal integrity,
2. Rediscover the ancient tradition of self-transformation (theosis) and put it into practice, and
3. Build a community around it that is willing to teach it and live it out.

No existing church is even close to doing this, certainly not the Orthodox Church which claims the tradition of inner prayer as its own. In fact, although the knowledge of the ancient tradition survives only in the Orthodox Church, that illustrious institution largely ignores it in practice. After all, it’s much easier to celebrate the lives of the transformed human beings (saints) of the past than it is to actually do what they’ve told you.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger
~ Anthony S. Rodger, M.A.

No Good Options: Why the West is Stuck on the Middle East

The biggest immediate result of the tragic events in Paris on 13 November has been the re-examination of the refugee crisis in light of the problem of Islamism. Unfortunately, this debate has been anything but balanced, with some so steadfast in toeing the politically correct line that they will not even honestly discuss the impact of this huge migration on Western society, and others so simplistic in their rejection of Muslim immigrants of any stripe that they can’t have a cogent conversation on the topic. Hate crimes have been committed against Muslims which only reinforce the absolutism of alienation which jihadis espouse. None of this helps us.

Here, for better or worse, is my take.

Islam in the West

Two things are missing from the debate. The first is a frank appraisal of the overall impact of Islam on Western society, or rather the reasons for its frequent refusal to play by the rules of Western society. Second, there is the tendency to oversimplify a very complicated social and cultural reality.

Consider the following. How many Muslim immigrants, families and communities in the West do you think espouse the view that husbands have a right to beat their wives? How many agree that a woman who has sex other than within marriage has dishonoured her family and should be severely punished or even killed? How many agree that apostasy should be punished by death?

Before you answer, consider that each of these points is undeniably enshrined in Islamic religious law and supported by the Qur’an and the Hadiths:

“The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: A man will not be asked as to why he beat his wife.” (Abu Dawud 2142)

Two people guilty of “illegal” intercourse are brought to Muhammad, who orders them both stoned to death. Apparently their act was out of love, since the verse records the man as trying to shield the woman from the stones. (Bukhari 6:60:79)

“…The Prophet said, ‘If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.’ “ (Bukhari 52:260)

“And when you meet those who misbelieve, non-Muslims, while fighting in Jihad, cut off their heads until you have massacred them.” (Qur’an 47:4)
This is not to say that all Muslims think this way- many educated Muslims are just as unlikely to hold these beliefs as you or I. The point, however, is that a surprising number actually do – the statistics on Muslim views in these reports are typical.

How many Muslim immigrants believe that Sharia law should be instituted in Western countries, either to govern Islamic citizens, or, as a very vocal movement in the UK demands, universally? Again, bear in mind that this position is explicitly supported as a fundamental goal of Islam in the Qur’an:

“Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” (Quran 9:29)

This way of thinking is fundamentally at odds with Western values of life, liberty, freedom of speech and conscience, free will and equality, the ground rules on which pluralism is founded. Within the enclave existence of so many Muslim immigrant communities, given their economic conditions and the relative isolation of their more vulnerable members, nothing has happened to achieve a fundamental shift from the values that enable beatings, honour killings and murder of apostates to continue in their home countries and toward new values of coexistence and equality. No one is teaching them this new way of thinking, and nothing in the process of gaining citizenship presents a clear and binding choice between these two worldviews.

Here is what Maryam Namazie, a former Muslim and well-known expert on Islamic issues, has to say about some of the issues facing Western societies during a talk at the London School of Economics:

The Complex Reality of the Middle East

To understand the complexity of this problem, we have only to look honestly at the situation in the Muslim world. Take the Egyptian Revolution. Educated students and urban residents, steeped in global culture and democratic values, achieved the end of a dictatorship. In the elections that followed, it was not their values that triumphed. It was the values of the uneducated rural majority, who were not only indoctrinated by the radical Muslim Brotherhood, but often depended on the Brotherhood for their material survival. The result- a radical government, under which no minority was safe.
This is not an isolated example: Pakistan, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia- wherever the majority rules, minorities and women are not safe and radicalism spreads.

The bitter truth is that secular tyrants backed by a minority have been far more effective at providing basic safety for vulnerable groups than democracy has in the Middle East. Material problems- poverty, warlord rule, displacement- are a significant factor in this dynamic. But the mentality that enables it is alive and well in the population, and is carried by them to the Western world.

The Humanitarian Dilemma and the Impossible Task of Sorting

Because the West is divided between liberals who refuse to approach these issues with intellectual honesty for fear of being thought intolerant, and radical conservatives who easily justify the labels with which the media brands them, it has no means of processing this reality. The hard truth is that there is no way any country can effectively determine who among its immigrants will continue to hold values at odds with the founding ideas of their host society, and who has come to participate fully in that society. How do you separate the people who come to Canada to be Canadians from those who come to promote Islamic law in Canada or who will enable those who do? The one thing a democracy cannot and should not tolerate is the promotion of an ideology that stands against equality and free speech. In our great conversation, we can tolerate many things, but not the suppression of free participation.

So what about the enormous humanitarian problem we face? No one has the resources even to effectively weed out radicals from among refugees, or refugees from economic migrants (a murky distinction to begin with, since war has a tendency to destroy economies). Do we accept everyone, with all the huge expense, social consequences and risks involved? Do we reject everyone and condemn innocent people to death or a miserable life? Where and how would we even begin to draw the lines?

The Intervention Trap

Do we intervene to stop the conflict that is causing the misery? Given our dismal record, how can we be sure that that intervention won’t cause more problems? Do we stay out of the Middle East entirely? There are no good options, no firm middle ground, and many ways we could make things worse.

If this can be said about the refugee problem in a vacuum, the same goes doubly for our reaction to incidents like the Paris attacks. After 9/11, the United States launched two poorly-targeted wars that ended up costing the country far more in lives, prestige and money than any terrorist group could possibly have managed on its own. The net result of that failed policy is ISIS. Granted, a lot of that can be blamed on specific policy failures such as the de-Ba’athification process that left so many trained people ripe for radicalisation and recruitment. But is any response to the present situation likely to do better?

Training local troops is clearly not enough. Air strikes are next to useless against a group like ISIS (notwithstanding the incident where a jihadi took and posted a selfie in front of a headquarters building which was soon reduced to rubble). The West is unwilling to support Assad, who, though a monster, could at least keep Islamism in check. The formation of a strong Kurdish state could be a significant stabilising factor- the Kurds are distinctly non-radical, proven to be able to form stable governments and militarily effective. Again, for political reasons, the West is unlikely to go this route. The remaining mass of ineffective governments and contending militias are utterly useless and intractable. Putting “boots on the ground” without a viable plan for short-term stabilisation and long-term governance, peace-building and reconstruction would be a catastrophic mistake.

Unproductive Cycles

As far as terrorism goes, we risk becoming locked in a cycle of provocation and rash overreaction. Where refugees are concerned, there is another cycle of successive Middle Eastern crises leading to refugee crises leading to insoluble dilemmas. The two related problems are tremendously frustrating, but decisions, for better or worse, do need to be made.

Only an Honest Approach Can Help Us Now

Even if there are no good decisions available, we owe it to ourselves to begin by bringing a frank examination of these complex problems into public discourse. And this begins by doing the one thing Western society seems the least willing to do – to ask the hard questions about this seemingly intractable religious ideology called Islam.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

Weighing In: Organised Religion

Never a day goes by when some group or other doesn’t declare themselves ‘beyond the curse of organised religion’, and never a day goes by when established religions don’t mock the flakey New Agers with their wishy-washy spirituality.

What few on either side have so far been willing to do is take a deeper look at the issues underpinning this debate in an objective way.

There is no denying that organised religion is in crisis on many levels, and has done a great deal of damage to many people. Even the notion of religion itself is problematic for spiritual life, a topic we’ve covered previously. But it is also quite apparent that the “every man for himself” approach doesn’t really serve us either.


While it is true to say that many internet comment sections are the lowest forms of communication yet devised by humanity, it is also fair to say that religious people tend to do themselves very little credit on them. One would think that the increase of love and the decrease of hatred would be the obvious objective of religious participation on the internet, but so far this doesn’t seem to be happening (Buddhists aside). One can only take so much of the constant dogmatic wrangling, which all amounts to the same thing- “My pet dogmas are right and anyone who disagrees with me is stupid and/or an enemy of the truth.”

This is illustrative of an approach to spiritual life which many people are rightly discarding. The notion that belief in the correct ideology is the main requirement for your future happiness is a chronic recurring delusion of the human race, whether we’re talking about religion or any number of modern ideologies. That approach to religious teaching, based on fear and coercion, is perhaps the main obstacle for any religion hoping to survive into the next century.

But rather than reject all fixed teaching out of hand, we should take a moment to appreciate the nuances of the problem. It is true that dogma has gotten out of hand in many religious contexts. But why is this? In many cases, it is a function of institutional politics and sometimes cultural factors as well.

By responding to this problem by doing the opposite, we are essentially setting the clock back to zero. Assuming that our goal is to make real spiritual progress, we cannot ignore the value of the accumulated experience of previous generations, nor can we ignore the fact that the beliefs we go in with strongly shape the result we get. Without this kind of grounding, we are robbing ourselves of centuries’ worth of knowledge and shortcuts. Accessing that knowledge means taking the time to educate ourselves about who to listen to in a given tradition, and unfortunately, a lot of people don’t seem to have that kind of patience.

By taking an “every man for himself” approach, we are also giving organised religions a free pass on the many inconsistencies they need to address before they can be taken seriously as centres of spiritual life. How many religions actually practice the real spiritual exercises of the authentic spiritual tradition with which they are associated (assuming they have one)? Many religions claim love and compassion as core values, but how many have stayed consistent with those principles in the development of the detailed rules that religious institutions love to promulgate?

Doing the Opposite

It often seems that when it comes to answering whatever aspects of organised religion they don’t like, the independents will do whatever seems to them to be the opposite of that position. If they don’t like juridical morality, they will instead say that everything bad we may do is either the result of the experience of past lives or because the people we do the bad things to need to learn a lesson in this one. Whatever the issue, the pattern seems to be that people prefer taking the path of least resistance rather than actually getting to the root of whatever the problem was.

Whether we’re talking about juridical morality or sexual mores or anything else, there is a long, winding and often very revealing history to the topic in just about any religious context you might choose. By understanding the history, we can look at these positions not as an inevitable product of any tradition, but as the result of certain historical choices.

We’ve spent a good deal of time on this site and others teaching Westerners about the history of their own religious world, and again and again, we find that knowledge having a transformative and liberating affect.  This impact could be multiplied a thousandfold if we all gave some mindful attention to the historical roots of the religious problems we may have inherited.

A Changing World

There is a change coming in the way that religion and spirituality are discussed, and in the way that existing traditions relate to society and to each other. Religions that do not adapt- not in the sense of the last generation’s attempts at “relevant” religion, but in terms of addressing the deeper institutional, spiritual and dogmatic issues which damage their integrity and spiritual credibility- simply will not thrive.

On the other hand, the staying power of the shallow end of the New Age smorgasbord is also questionable. As more and more people get sick of counterfeits and demand substantive, transformational spirituality underpinned by a repeatable, evidence-based process and integrity grounded in the universal ontological morality about which so much has already been discovered, a new approach to spiritual life and community will start to take shape.

“Extreme Pilgrim”: Learning to Navigate Spiritual Traditions

In this remarkable BBC series, Peter Owen Jones, a Church of England vicar, travels in search of the serious spiritual endeavour that he finds missing in his own church. His journey takes him to two places of interest for us- the Shaolin Temple and the Egyptian desert.

The honesty, open-mindedness and seriousness Jones brings to this journey makes the series truly remarkable and very watchable in this era in which dogmatism competes with the fast-food approach to spirituality.

On the other hand, what can’t be ignored is that the lack of background or understanding of the wider context of both these traditions severely hampers him on his journey.


Going to the Shaolin Temple in search of authentic Buddhist spiritual practice is an understandable mistake- a movie like the original Kung Fu leaves a deep impression of spiritual depth. Unfortunately, as Jones finds, the modern Shaolin Temple is little more than a tourist trap, a martial arts theme park. What is interesting is that he finds a smaller temple up in the hills, where the monks and nuns are after the real thing.

But even here, there are problems. The monks seem to do nothing but physical exercises, and while they are extremely mindful in all they do and there is much to learn from them as a community, the lack of deeper Buddhist spiritual context makes all the physical stuff rather extraneous. Jones might have been better off visiting some of the Tibetan traditions that could have given him very detailed theoretical explanations of and practical experience in their spiritual process, or even some of the more contemplative Chan or Zen establishments.



But all of this is a cakewalk next to the Coptic monasticism of the Egyptian desert. Here, Jones runs almost immediately into a monumental problem- the problem of juridical language. When he visits the hermit whose life he plans to imitate, the hermit’s first question is, “How conscious are you of your sin?”

The idea that the purpose of monastic life, and spiritual endeavour in general, is to repent for sin, to abase yourself enough that God will forgive you, is not and was never the idea of Orthodox spirituality. While the Desert Fathers certainly talk about sin and repentance very seriously, and a few go overboard on this point, even the very words did not mean what they mean now to Western ears. Sin, amartia, the tragic flaw of the hero in Ancient Greek drama, literally means missing the mark, missing one’s potential. Repentance, metanoia, doesn’t mean ritual actions intended to allay the anger of a divine judge, but a change of mind, and by implication, of the whole mode of being. Repentance in this sense was the first step of monastic life.

The problem is that the language of judgment lingers on from the Old Testament, and the Coptic Church in particular will use it innocently in a way that Western ears cannot accept after centuries of enduring Anselmian and Calvinist theology. Listening to the hermit, however, there seems to be more than a little of that influence in his thinking. Whatever the case, he loads poor Jones up with this mentality and then casts him loose in a cave for three weeks. And by the way, some demons may come knocking. No wonder the poor guy has trouble coping!

Jones is pushed nearly to the breaking point by what he rightly calls the hermit’s “bleak theology” and almost seems to come unhinged.  His struggles with the pervasive guilt which an Anselmian view imposes for any sort of natural pleasure or enjoyment, and it is really painful to watch.

In the end, to his great credit he perseveres and achieves a measure of inner freedom and perception of God. Jones would have been better off bringing some more reliable spiritual guides- such as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the Ascetical Homilies of Isaac the Syrian and other sources that could have given him a far better idea of the real goals of ascetic life. Before going to the monastery, Jones visits the cave of St. Anthony the Great, founder of monasticism, and wonders why anyone would choose to live in such a place. That unanswered question is the problem all throughout this episode.

Here is what St. Isaac the Syrian has to say about sin and judgment:

“As a handful of sand thrown into the ocean, so are the sins of all flesh as compared with the mind of God.”

“Just as a strongly flowing fountain is not blocked by a handful of earth, so the compassion of the Creator is not overcome by the wickedness of his creatures.”

“Far be it from us that we should ever think so wicked a thing as that God could become unmerciful. For God’s attributes do not change as those of mortals do.”

“Sin, Gehenna and death do not exist at all with God, since they are effects, not substances.”

What then is the purpose of spiritual life?

“Love is the Kingdom in which the Lord mystically promised that his disciples should eat and drink.”

“The person who has found love eats Christ at all times, and from then on, he becomes immortal. Whoever eats this bread, he says, shall never taste death.”

Another issue is that the Coptic Church missed the real theorisation of the ascetic life that took place in the Eastern Orthodox hesychast tradition. Although Jones employs the Jesus Prayer, had he been taught the process of stabilising the prayer of the heart, understanding its purpose in the transformation of the human being, he would have encountered a much easier and more productive path than mechanical recitation of psalmody.

Theophan the Recluse defines inner prayer as “standing before God with the mind in the heart.” The goal of this practice is “To unite with God in an inseparable union of love… And the heart, set on fire, will warm all the inner man, will enlighten and teach him, revealing to him all is unknown and hidden wisdom.”

Spiritual seekers today need not only to know where to look, but what to look for. They need to go to the heart of the issue, the objective of the transformation and healing of the human person, and understand how to look for this systematically in a tradition. To go to any particular tradition doesn’t guarantee that you’ll encounter it if you don’t know what to look for.

What Happens When Religion Goes Wrong?

In its most extreme forms, we see the results worldwide every day – radical evangelicals preaching violence against gays, a papacy in deep denial over the scale of sexual abuse in its midst, mass rioting and random killings throughout the Muslim world at the mere rumor of an anti-Islamic publication in the West, and the list goes on and on.

Those extreme forms are just symptoms, though.  They’re symptoms whose causes remain largely hidden from us as a civilization because we no longer understand a fundamental truth – not everything that passes itself off as “spiritual” is good, healthy and beneficial.  Far from it…

In fact, as a civilization we’ve become so divorced from real spiritual life that our ability to sort out false spiritual paths from healthy ones is marginal at best.  We no longer know the distinguishing criteria of each, the questions to ask or the tell-tale signs of each.  

In reality, asking most people today to distinguish real spiritual paths from false ones is about as useful as asking a Kalahari bushman for advice on your next family car.  

The Vital Importance of Spiritual Resilience

To get anywhere close to figuring out what spiritual resilience means, we first have to define the word “spiritual”, which is no simple task.  

So let’s put it this way: just as resilience itself is a path toward maximizing your potential on all levels (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual), spiritual resilience is the act of opening yourself to the deepest truths of your existence in this universe so that you can become everything you’re meant to be. 

Not surprisingly, you can never become truly resilient and fulfilled as a human person if you ignore your own spiritual dimension, since that is, in reality, the deepest layer of your own being.

What I’ve called “authentic ancient traditions” in my bestseller, The 5 Pillars of Life*, are ancient, tried and proven approaches for doing exactly this.  And, contrary to what we assume, they have a boatload of evidence to back up the authenticity of their discoveries.  

Religion vs. Authentic Ancient Traditions

Here’s a short excerpt from The 5 Pillars of Life* to help you wrap your head around the differences between what we usually call “religions” and something much deeper:


All fantasies, especially that of religion, are caused by a short-circuit at the centre of the human personality.  This short-circuit, which exists between the heart which pumps blood (the circulatory system) and the spinal cord which circulates spinal fluid (the nervous system) is only repaired by ceaseless prayer in the heart.  It is only when the short-circuit is repaired that you begin to be liberated from the realm of fantasy.

– Rev. Dr. John Romanides in “Religion as a Neurobiological Illness”[i]


Startling, isn’t it?  – A world-renowned Orthodox priest and theologian calling religion a “neurobiological illness”!  But he’s right – Orthodox Christianity is not a religion in the conventional Western sense of that word.  And for that matter, neither are other authentic ancient traditions.  What Westerners conventionally call “religion” is a term that applies almost exclusively to their own approach to life as it has developed historically over the last thousand years or so.

“Religion” in the Western sense the word has a number of particular traits.  And generally speaking these traits apply to the vast majority of Western people who “practice their religion”:

– Religious teachings are ideological statements divorced from real life and which people subscribe to based on emotional considerations.  Teachings of authentic traditions are based on an experience of true life, and practitioners adhere to them based on observable verification

Religion provides psychological comfort and self justification in the face of its failure to cure psycho-spiritual (noetic) illness.  Authentic traditions take you from sickness to health; religions tell you your sickness is health.

-Religion shifts the blame for good and evil, and for the final outcome of life, onto a deity or process (saying, for example, that illness is a punishment from God or that God decides whether to forgive you and send you to heaven or to damn you to hell).  Authentic traditions know that the Absolute Reality never does harm and that the only real danger to us in this world or hereafter comes from ourselves.

-Religions and authentic traditions both have a ceremonial aspect or some collective manifestation, but the religious version exists to provide psychological comfort or aesthetic pleasure, whereas the authentic version is there to lead you to self-transformation.

-Religion is always reduced to a compartment of life, whereas training in any authentic tradition involves every moment of life.

-Religion’s “transformation” of human life is limited to the superficial aspects of the personality, is often based on a tedious list of prohibitions and is geared toward social acceptability.  Religion produces nice people; authentic traditions produce extraordinary ones.

-Real self-transformation is not a goal of religion; the knowledge and methods required for self-transformation are absent and there is no access to a lineage of transformed people.  Life degenerates into “salvation by association” (I’m saved because I’m part of the group) and “salvation by conviction” (I’m saved because I hold a particular opinion).

 –Religion is ignorant of the technical terminology of self-transformation and interprets it in a general and nebulous way.  The religious version of a tradition will seldom have any real idea what the authentic version is talking about, even if they use the same language. 

Religion is comfort-loving and presents no real challenge to its adherents, whereas authentic traditions take you beyond your comfort zone and into realms that religion knows nothing of. 

-Religion abhors mystery and tries to explain everything with concepts.  These concepts can be controlled and manipulated by a cadre of “experts” for the good of the institution, whereas transformed people – saints, immortals or bodhisattvas – are notoriously hard to control.


Given these traits of religion, it is not too surprising that Father Romanides classifies religion as a “neurobiological illness”.  What this means is that religion has its origin in the fallen state – where the neurobiological malfunction characteristic of life in the fallen world has not been healed – and that it perpetuates this unhealed state as if it were normal.  So it is not surprising that religion prevents countless millions of people from finding true fulfillment and happiness.  And like all illness, it leads to untold suffering and misery.

[i] Pages 1-3.  The order of the elements in this quotation has been slightly rearranged for the sake of clarity.  Several Orthodox writers of the twentieth century noted that the word “religion” as commonly used among peoples of  European ethnic origin does not correspond to Orthodox Christianity.

*The 5 Pillars of Life is available on the website or through



Next time, we’ll talk about some of the real “dark side” of the religion and spirituality that’s out there now – how to identify it and avoid it.


~ Dr. Symeon Rodger 

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We are living now in a culture radically reacting to a series of profound mistakes made in relating to its own religious scriptures. Because of the absurd weight placed upon the Bible in the Protestant tradition, we have created a culture of deconstructing sacred texts. Unfortunately, this leaves us as a society and as individual […]

“Spirituality? No, we don’t do that here.”- When Religious Institutions Go Wrong

In the spirit of our membership site’s upcoming unit on spirituality, we thought it was time for a little perspective on all the ingenious ways we humans find to avoid that very subject.  Religious institutions, or at least large parts of them, tend to become masters of the art of avoiding spirituality!  The reason is […]

Identifying "Spiritual Life Gone Wrong"

Today we begin a two-part series on something at the very heart of the issues of our time all over the world: what happens when religion goes wrong… In its most extreme forms, we see the results worldwide every day – radical evangelicals preaching violence against gays, a papacy in deep denial over the scale […]

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