ISM is an initiative to develop both a “universal religion” as well as a commonwealth of ministries that would promote that religion via unique (and sometimes quirky) vehicles. Mainly, ISM should be enjoyable. It’s is only meant to be taken as seriously as you want it to be. What follows is an in-depth look at what all religions have in common, how they differ, and how ISM aims to develop a new way of thinking about religion, one which could minimize friction and appeal to a broader variety of people.
A Universal Religion?
On the surface, the major religions of the world look very different: Their gods are different, their prophets are different, and their stories are different. Some believe that when you die, you go to heaven (or hell) while others believe that you’ll be reincarnated. Some believe in one god, some in many, and some in none at all.
However, at their base, most religions have the same basic objectives, philosophies and values. That’s because the primary goal of all religions is the same: To teach us how to operate effectively in the world. Throughout history, religion has always functioned as sort of a handbook for living, thriving, understanding, and getting along with others. Let’s take a look at them.
In order to help people to thrive in a complex world, nearly all major religions adopt the following ideals:
We all know the saying “no man is an island.” Our success as individuals (and as a species) comes primarily from our interactions with others. Our ancestors banded together hunt great predators and game, to develop community agriculture, to defend against other tribes, and to solve an endless number of everyday problems. Religion helps to keep the group together by providing a shared sense of identity, as well as the psychological comfort and security of being part of a bigger whole.
In order to keep its group members from warring with each other, religion generally counsels a rejection of the overinflated ego. By being self-effacing and accommodating to others, harmony within the group is fostered and petty vengeances are avoided. Also, since our egos are never satisfied and all of us are prone to failure at times, the inculcation of humility is seen as way to promote psychological well-being. Humility is developed through meditation, prayer, and ongoing instruction and the examples provided (often imperfectly) by religious leaders, as well as historical and mythic figures.
While religions tend to offer a ready-made view of the world, one with which it’s often against the rules to question, they also generally provide a means to investigate those ideas and principles. Through study of scripture, counseling, and insight meditation and prayer, religions try to help us expand our understanding of the world, at least within the boundaries that the religion allows. Most religions tend to set limits on inquiry in order to protect their canonical beliefs. (Note: We don’t set any of these limits.)
By providing a framework for understanding how the world is structured, religions provide us a “place to hang our hat.” Prior to the advent of science, religious doctrine was the only means of explaining the world. Even today, scientific explanations are too complicated, difficult and unsatisfying for many, and so religious explanations are still often more popular than scientific ones. At ISM we tend to favor scientific explanations, but we also recognize that sometimes it’s easier and more immediate to understand things from a poetic perspective.
Religion is designed to empower its adherents in many ways. By providing a pool of support, resources and inspirational teachings, the adherent is expected to develop into a better version of themselves. In some religions this is done in order to please a deity, while in others, the benefits are for the society as a whole, or even sometimes just the practitioners themselves. Regardless of why growth takes place, the end result is that its individuals and communities become stronger, more nimble and generally more resilient when confronted with the world’s many frustrations and challenges.
It could be said that religion is what separates us from the animals – not only because animals have no need to “make sense of it all” but also because quite literally, religions teach us to transcend our animal instinct and behavior. By increasing the distance between ourselves and our desires (sex, aggression, material wealth, violence, jealousies), religious training can impel us to act more pragmatically our immediate impulses might otherwise have us do. Religions take great pains to steer us towards more rarefied objectives and behaviors, and while this can make them seem strict and prudish at times, this has arguably allowed us to develop socially and intellectually. By counseling moderation, patience, and skepticism in regards to instinct, humans have managed to transcend the limitations of biology and enhance our group intelligence.
All religions promote some combination of compassion, selflessness and charity, partially as a means to foster cooperation (see above) and strengthen the group. However, this ethical attitude can have several other beneficial effects as well. Firstly, a religion that promotes social outreach will attract more outside adherents. Even more importantly, loving acts can have a strong psychological effect on the actors themselves. Furthermore, the outward-looking nature of this ethics leads to a greater understanding and comprehension of the world (see “understanding” above). The action of “reaching out” to the world can provide an enormous return on investment, as it expands the system in many ways.
The end result of following these elements is meant to be a serene form of pleasure. This sense of contentment helps to implicitly corroborate the idea that there might be something good or correct about the teachings which led us there. Consequently, most religions promise various varieties of bliss, peace of mind, and transcendence as a result of following their principles. Sometimes this can come in the form of peak “enlightenment” experiences, although most of the time it takes the form of a general centeredness that comes from feeling “at home in the world.”
Note: This is a general investigation into the idea of universal religious ideals, and will likely be added to or modified. Yet it stands as a general framework: ISM will aim to satisfy each of these ideals through various elements like a knowledge base, meditation halls, articles, counseling, and community forums.
We’ve looked at what religions have in common. Now let’s look at what differentiates them.
Though religions all tend to have the same objectives, where they generally differ is in their content. And although this is where most of the friction and fighting occurs, it’s also where we can be creative and have fun with ideas. Here are the different types of content commonly found in religions:
In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Cat’s Cradle he proposes that so long as people have a few religious rituals to follow, they will be happy. The content of those rituals is arbitrary, however. What is important is that they give a sense of order and meaning and help us to cooperate with one another. Traditions like holidays and parades and sacraments are what can make religion fun. So long as those rituals don’t hurt anyone, it hardly matters what they consist of.
Each ministry at ISM will develop its own rituals in order to solidify and celebrate their ethos, although they will mostly be for pleasure, and won’t be strictly enforced.
This is where problems start to arise. Social rules have always been necessary to impel people to get along. However, they can change very quickly if people decide they’re no longer relevant. But religious rules are very hard to change once they’re codified.
Here at ISM we like to keep rules to a minimum, if possible. The only hard and fast rules we have are those of non-aggression and non-coercion. In other words: don’t be a jerk. Everything else seems to fall naturally into place after that. However, our various ministries might choose to add minor rules if they see fit.
Like rituals, religious literature helps get people “on the same page,” ‘so to speak. By putting down the philosophy of the group on print, it functions as a touchstone to prevent people from drifting too far from the core principles.
At ISM, each ministry is expected to develop its own literature, starting with interpolations of the ancient Chinese text The Tao Te Ching. Additional books and scriptures will eventually follow.
This is a biggie. And so we will devote a lot more discussion here.
The place where most religions tend to differ the most (and often aggressively) is in their beliefs, primarily the supernatural ones — things like the name of the creator god, what their commandments are explicitly, or ideas about what happens after you die. Despite religion having so many different aspects, this is the one place where it’s really hard for them to be accommodating to each other. This is because the supernatural is by definition something unknown. If it were known, it would just be called “natural.” And because there is no actual measurable data to work with (and thus debunk), this is also the element most resistant to modification or change. This isn’t to say all supernatural ideas are false, only that we will never all agree on points of contention that by definition can not be proved.
At ISM we’re not against the idea of the supernatural, but our ministries generally don’t have any supernatural content. We consider it more fruitful to concentrate on the here-and-now rather than the there-and-then.
Some might object to this. Many people feel that you can’t have a religion without the supernatural, that it’s the supernatural elements that are the most important part of religion. This is certainly a valid opinion, but as this manifesto illustrates, there is so much more to religion than this. Note that several religions have barely any supernatural elements at all (early Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Jainism, Unitarian Universalism, Reform Judaism). Moreover, many followers of traditional religions today view their supernatural elements as metaphor, not literal truth. Thus, in our view, the importance of the supernatural in traditional belief systems may have more to do with tradition itself, rather than any fundamental definition of religion.
Some people might also object that religion without supernatural aspects is just philosophy. However, the dividing line between a religion and a philosophy can be extremely fuzzy. Most philosophies only concern specific aspects of life, such as politics, ethics, or economics. A few, such as Epicureanism and Stoicism are indeed more like religions in that they aim to deal with the entire human condition, and in that they have had devoted communities of adherents. So, then, why not call them religions as well? For this very reason, we have launched ministries in their names.
Finally, it is important to note that ISM is not atheistic — rather it is non-theistic. Though there are no gods mentioned in our ministries, that doesn’t mean we deny their existence or that we reject people who believe in them. We welcome those who wish to follow their traditional religion and simultaneously follow ISM.
The ISM Ideology
So, then, in a nutshell, what is the ISM ideology?
First off, a little stage-setting: Civilization is complicated and humans aren’t really designed to live the way we do. Our brains evolved and adapted to deal with life on the African savannah about 100,000 years ago. A lot has changed since then and because genetic evolution is so slow, our psychology hasn’t caught up. Consequently, today we have to trust and get along with strangers who aren’t in our tribe; we have to deal with money and status and professional relationships that make us feel jealous or aggressive or hopeless; and we have to deal with the fact that we’re tiny parts of an enormous, unforgiving universe. It’s no coincidence that all of the world’s major religions appeared at the beginning of civilization, about 2000 to 2500 years ago, in what has been termed the Axial Age. Our current major religions were a reaction and a solution to the problems inherent in civilization.
Most of these religions dealt with this by introducing certain ideals. These ideals worked pretty well, and allowed people to transcend their biological impulses and get along with one another. Eventually, these religions grew and gave rise to large groups of like-minded thinkers. However, they also introduced unique ideas which ended up making it hard for those groups to get along with each other. Moreover, to protect themselves, they became more and more strict and resistant to change, ushering in what became a long period of irrationality and an increased emphasis on supernatural answers and directives.
Today, while science has replaced most of the functions of those old religions, most humans still require a psychological means of simplifying and making sense of the world, one which has grown even more complex than it was 2500 years ago, vastly so. Without suitable alternatives, many still cling to strict interpretations of the old belief systems, even when they aren’t always congruent with the features of the modern world. This can cause a lot of conflict and cognitive dissonance and can get in the way of genuine inquiry and exploration. Meanwhile, other people reject all belief systems entirely, claiming that they’re by nature illusory or flawed, which can result in a sense of purposelessness, confusion and alienation. Generally, human beings require a framework to help make sense of things, but to be effective (especially today), those frameworks must be flexible and rational.
ISM is a solution to these twin problems. By identifying the ideals of the religious impulse, and framing them in a flexible, semi-organized structure, we hope to encourage people to see the world as a spiritual place imbued with meaning and feeling, yet one in which we can operate not just passionately, but rationally and pragmatically as well.
A Commonwealth of Ideals and Ideas
Let’s face it: by itself, a single universal religion would be extremely boring. Human beings have all sorts of different tastes and attitudes. If the Internet has taught us anything, it’s that the future is not going to be monolithic — it’s going to be full of variety and personal expression. The evolution of religion will hopefully follow the same path. Consequently, ISM is both one and many, containing lots of different ministries with varying content, but with a central hub of ideals to hold it all together.
Note that the varying assortment of ministries in ISM is not only for the sake of diversity of interest, but also for the sake of passion. To pare religion (or any creation) down to its essence is both to cleanse it, but also to drain it of all its juice. For the religious spirit to come through, there needs to be something iconic to rally around – metaphors, pastimes, artwork, pieces of literature, stories, and so on. Although all the ministries under the ISM umbrella share the same basic philosophy, they differ in what they use as their liturgical vehicle. By separating ISM into various religious groups a broad and bold variety of thought and inspiration can be generated.
As ISM is just getting off the ground, organizationally and philosophically, it might seem as if the content of each ministry is a bit thin at first. However, we expect ministers and followers to help us shape their pages, add to their literature, provide inspirational quotes and articles, and develop events and pastimes and generally build this whole thing into a bona fide world-class religion. Or a bunch of religions, actually. We can’t wait to see what everyone brings to the xist dance.