Religion as a Secular Experience
Catholics around the world have begun Lent, their forty day faith journey in preparation for Easter. In Catholicism, Easter is the culmination of the faith. Practicing Catholics spend forty days periodically fasting, attending Stations of the Cross, and choosing something to remove or add in their daily routine in order to enrich their life. For example, many adults might choose a series of prayers to say every day, and children often give up eating dessert after meals. At the end of this period comes the celebration of the Messiah's resurrection after sacrificing his life to offer salvation to all people. The concepts are abstract, but if you’re not a follower of the faith it is simply made out to be a celebration of spring and new life--marked by colorfully dyed eggs and cotton-tailed rabbits. Many important feast days and holidays in the Catholic faith have evolved in the hands of modern society similarly. One characteristic of our modern world is this secular nature that has developed as science, technology, and thought have replaced spirituality in many regards.
Many Catholics might frown upon the secularization of holidays and feast days that most Americans are familiar with--Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, Halloween--but in fact this secularization brings about a greater good. Removing the faith doctrine creates an opportunity for people to experience the wisdom of a religion without actually practicing it, allowing for interfaith dialogue to flourish. While I believe that the religious practice should remain spiritual and true to doctrine, I think that there are benefits to come from allowing people of other belief systems to incorporate foreign practices, and experience the sagacity that various faiths have to offer. From the “Hallmark Holidays'' of Catholicism, to the core belief of Karma in the Hindu faith, and even the practice of meditation in Buddhism; each of these and others offer us troves of knowledge that should be taken advantage of without requiring any level of spirituality.
As a practicing Catholic, I never understood the concept of Christmas without attending mass, or setting up a nativity scene on the red chest in my family’s living room. It wasn’t until I grew older that I realized there was a commercial side to one of my favorite feast days--one with practically no affiliation to the faith. Even when I became aware that many people celebrate a secular Christmas, I never condemned those who received presents without understanding the story of the wise men in which the practice was rooted. I also never envied the children whose parents didn't force them to attend mass, or say prayer before Christmas dinner. I simply appreciated the fact that this ritual of gathering and sharing in the company of loved ones was an experience shared amongst many. Even those who celebrate Christmas secularly can attest to the warmth and sense of community that the season brings. Modern culture has created an entire season inspired by a religious feast and bolstered by an infectious desire for coziness and warmth. For most, it’s a wholly positive experience.
While holidays like Christmas, Halloween, and Easter are commonly practiced secularly in the United States, there’s potential for other Catholic experiences to be shared. As aforementioned, the Catholic Lenten seasoned is best known for the practice of “giving up something,” in an attempt to enrich a person’s life by removing inconsequential practices and replacing them with an effort to think of God when tempted to break the self-prescribed “Lenten promise.” While giving up something in the hopes of fostering a stronger relationship with God holds little purpose for someone who isn’t Catholic, there could still be a benefit to giving something for secular purposes. It’s similar to creating a New Year’s Resolution, but instead of the timeline being dictated by the individual, this one is predetermined. Some might claim it would be pointless when you could start a similar journey at any point during the year; there might not be a point to aligning with a tradition you're not affiliated with. What makes Lent unique though is the sense of community that can emerge from the collective practice of fasting. Catholicism and the greater Christian community is one of the largest in the world, and ultimately this creates an opportunity for a larger sect of people to rise up and look at Lent as a time to challenge themselves, whether it’s done to strengthen a spiritual relationship or not. Many studies further show that new habits can be established after 21 days, so the forty days of Lent cover that readily. Not only could this practice challenge an individual, but it has the potential to lead to greater change.
Catholicism offers feasts that can lead to benefits when adopted secularly, but many other traditions offer similar opportunities. One belief of Hinduism, Karma, also offers benefits when accepted by followers of other traditions. Karma refers to the idea that cause and effect is extremely prevalent in our world, and when good is put out into the world, good will return. If this idea was simply discounted because it was a core doctrine of the Hindu tradition, the rest of the world would miss out on this powerful piece of wisdom. As humans, we have a tendency to ignore or ostracize ideas or practices that are foreign to us, regardless of the intention behind them. Accepting Karma as an honorable practice, regardless of your faith background expresses a willingness to accept accountability for the effects of your actions, but further reveals a desire to accept the beauty of other traditions. Opening oneself up to new ideas has always been regarded as a necessary part of growing in various facets of life, and the same idea should be applied to religion.
Buddhism, another flourishing faith tradition, is rooted in a quest for spiritual enlightenment; one such practice associated with this quest is meditation. Meditation is a centering of one’s mind in order to achieve greater clarity or awareness. The practice of meditation is a prime example of how an aspect of a faith tradition can be implemented secularly into our modern world, offering ample benefits to those who choose to incorporate that practice into their daily lives. A simple search on youtube reveals a multitude of guided mediation techniques with little affiliation to the Buddhist tradition. Practicing meditation has been proven to reduce stress, increase self-awareness, and induce creativity among other benefits. Even though this practice can trace its origins to the Buddhist tradition, when embraced by the modern world it has evolved into a practice that retains its spiritual significance while also revealing a pragmatic practice for the larger population.
Our shared human experience has given birth to so many rich theological traditions, each with its own unique beliefs and practices. Whether you’re a Muslim, Athiest, or Christian, the most important attitude to put forward is one of acceptance. Not necessarily an acceptance of beliefs, but an acknowledgment that each tradition in our current world is full of wisdom. Not every belief may resonate, in fact, many will clash, but if one walks through life ignorantly, they are simply deprived of the opportunity new ideas can reveal. Furthermore, a secular acceptance of theological wisdom fosters communication between faiths. Our modern world is connected thoroughly through technology, and by participating in interfaith dialogue this advantageous aspect of our society can positively affect our global climate.
Ultimately, we have a choice. We can condemn the secularization of our faith traditions, viewing it as a form of appropriation. We can also appreciate the evolution of our beliefs in this modern world, and recognize how other faith traditions offer us fulfilling bits of wisdom with the potential to incite positive change in our lives. I choose the latter.