People today reject religion in part because, without understanding why, their minds have matured beyond religion’s first two phases; the childhood phase of symbols and the adolescent phase of moralism.
This concept echoes a verse in Corinthians that Christians will remember from their childhood bible studies, “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for till now you were not able to bear it, neither yet now are you able.”
When a person is too young or uneducated or simply theologically unsophisticated like the people in Corinth, the use of symbols is important. The sign of the fish or a crucifix are examples of religious symbols. Mythological stories, metaphors, and analogies are important in this phase of spiritual growth.
However, just like a child grows into an adolescent, a believer should mature in their faith and eventually should understand and require more than symbols. Moving from one phase to the next shouldn’t be a cause for alarm or angst. The maturing devotee should be ready for rules and morals. Moralism often gets a bad reputation simply because it’s misused and used beyond its effectiveness. Many times people never progress beyond moralism and it amounts to their entire, lifelong faith experience. Even though there’s a phase in a person’s spiritual life in which moralism is critical, it’s equally critical that we eventually grow beyond it.
Jesus was very clear to his friends and followers when he told them it wasn’t enough to just refrain from murdering and fornicating. To be where you ultimately need to be in your spiritual journey you also need to cease hating and lusting. And, not just because those things are morally wrong. But, also because you will never find peace and experience the Kingdom of God (described as Nirvana, and the Eternal Now in other cultures) while you are grasping (lust) and devoid of compassion (hate).
Jesus knew that moralism only takes us so far along the path. His whole time in this world was spent teaching others the importance of a direct relationship with our creator that goes beyond all understanding. A mystical relationship. A relationship that isn’t in the past or in the future, but only now, in the present moment (see Matthew’s lilies of the field). A relationship that’s beyond symbols and beyond an ever changing set of moral rules based on prevailing culture (see slavery and misogyny). He submitted that we all must practice something most people are frightened to attempt, even if they understand it; a direct, mystical union with God.
Although the childhood phase of symbols and the adolescent phase of moralism were critical for medieval and even modern society, our post-modern world has moved beyond symbols and morals and is literally begging for a direct mystical union with God, the Eternal Now, some sort of spiritual singularity. Even if they have no idea why or what it is they’re looking for.
Perfectly fine people are rejecting and dropping out of churches and synagogues. People are taking up atheism because their post-modern mind rejects symbols and has moved beyond moralism with no where else to go. What they are ready for, most mainline religions have rejected. Most churches are still worshiping symbols and idolizing the narrative, instead of moving on to the adult phase of direct communion with God. That might sound sad and harsh, but that seems to be what’s happening.
A mature religious vehicle can provide the guidance for that mystical union that is within all the world’s great traditions. But, the leaders and teachers prepared and qualified to provide the proper guidance are few and far between. And, the general religious population – the devotees who should be moving on to their own adult phase and direct relationship with God – too often are stuck in a childhood of symbols and spend their time practicing the idolatry of ancient narratives.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We can’t fall into a trap of discerning and judging others just because they’re in a different place. It’s just that so many people are looking for something more and it’s right there with them and they don’t even know it. Instead, people are all to often exploited by a world of grifters, thieves, and politicians selling thrills, distractions, and fake solutions to a problem that never was.
You are the only thing between you and God. All you need and all you have to do is wake up to that fact.