Article by LiveReal Agents Grace and Thomas

Substitute religions can be hazardous to your health.

It might seem like strange advice:

“Avoid substitute religions.”

But that little tip doesn’t tell us to do anything particularly odd or strange. It’s something we already do – or at least try to do – consciously or not.

It’s a primal instinct: we prefer the “real” to the “phony.”

Whether it’s a fake Rolex, a fake diamond, or a fake person – we naturally find “the real” compelling and “the phony” off-putting. Counterfeit money carries a prison sentence. Fraudulent scientists corrupt science. Cheap, knock-off electronics often break. A diet of only cotton candy - or any other kind of "fake food" - would leave us malnourished or poisoned. And so on.

But the same basic dynamic happens in an area that’s infinitely more tricky, complex, and important. (Even though we rarely talk about it.)

The same thing happens with religion and spirituality.

To be fair: nobody chooses a “substitute religion” deliberately and consciously.

The ability to discern the real from the fake in these areas is at least partly a skill.

These skills are often developed only with study, experience, insight, and hindsight. (And unfortunately, “hindsight” usually means learning the hard way.)

But the basic idea is pretty simple.

It’s also powerful. When we really dig into this – and combine certain ideas with a few others – the results can be explosive. This basic model – of “substitute religion versus real religion” – can help us navigate some treacherous terrain.

It can start with a basic point:

“Everyone is religious.”

Clearly, there are atheists, agnostics, and people who think religion is wrong, boring, or irrelevant. So this might seem like a strange idea at first.

But if we examine it closely, we’ll see that everyone is “religious,” including “atheists.” Or in other words: there is no such thing as being “irreligious.” And all of this really hinges on an even more basic question: “What is religion, exactly?”

If the ideas above are even roughly on target, several consequences naturally follow.

All of them point toward a key quality of the basic human condition.

The setup is fairly simple.

Life confronts us with basic questions.

“Why are we here?” “How should we live?” “What’s the point?” and so on are just a few of the existential riddles we all face.

We have no choice but to answer these Big Questions. We can’t not answer them. Even if we don’t answer them consciously, verbally, and intellectually, then we still answer them through our choices and actions.

Our answers to these Big Questions come from – and express – our “religion.”

Logically and psychologically, this takes the form of our basic life philosophy (or “worldview,” “code to live by,” “core beliefs,” etc.) or the fundamental assumptions (premises, axioms, starting points) we live our lives by.

After all, we have to give our lives to something.

We have to do something with ourselves.

So, what do we wind up doing?

One basic way to describe it: we choose certain “games” to “play.”

Our most basic answers to the Big Questions lead to the “game of life” we play.

For example, there’s the “Wealth Game.”

There’s also the “Status Game,” the “Fame Game,” and several others.

Every “game” we choose to play has a “trophy.”

“Trophies” are the rewards we should get if we play well and succeed at the game - things like wealth, fame, power, status, etc. If we play the Fame Game well enough, we can earn the trophy and become famous.

We don’t always choose our games consciously.

We often starting playing games without necessarily knowing what we’re signing up for, thinking it through, or even looking more than a step or two ahead.

As a result, we often find ourselves involved in games without ever having seriously considered whether the trophy will be worth the struggle it takes to achieve it.

We can sometimes put more thought into buying a phone or microwave than we do the courses we give our lives to. It’s as if we can one day wake up to find ourselves on a ship sailing full-steam ahead without ever asking where it’s heading.

For some games, the odds are stacked against us.

Someone, for example, might decide that he wants to be world-famous. He decides (consciously or unconsciously) to play the Fame Game.

But few succeed at that particular game.

In fact, the vast majority don’t really make it.

But at this point, something interesting can happen.

Even if we win whatever game we’re playing, we might still ask, “was it worth it?”

The answer, sometimes, is a resounding “no.”

A surprising number of even those few who succeed find fame to be a letdown, a disappointment, or even a burden. In those cases, they discover that the effort wasn’t worth it. Early on, they realize they had assumed (often unconsciously) that fame would lead to complete and perfect happiness, or “IT”.

But they realize that it’s not “IT”.

What they thought would be a main course turned out to be a side dish, a kind of existential consolation prize. It might be nice without being The Ultimate Answer. Compared to that, it’s just some form of substitute or counterfeit.

This can sometimes lead to an existential crisis, especially if hopes were high – and decades invested – with the idea that fame really would be “IT”.

To be clear, none of this implies that there aren’t legitimate benefits to things like wealth or fame, or that any specific course is inherently and unavoidably “bad.” Some famous/wealthy/high-status people seem to do just fine, and find fame not terrible. It’s not a simple either/or.

But they might still say it’s not “IT”.

We can give our lives to a game that promises something it never delivers.

So, if we define our religion as our answers to the Big Questions of life, and those answers determine the course our lives take, then we’re led to this:

Our “religion” determines what “we give our lives to.”

And some “religions” lead to dead ends.

They eventually lead nowhere, at least in the most important sense.

They might work only to the degree that they’re imitations of the real thing, or to the degree that they promise the kind of fulfillment that only the real thing can provide.

They’re imitations of real religion.

There are lots of substitute religions.

Again, we have to do something with ourselves. Life offers us a seemingly infinite array of choices. And clearly, some options are better than others.

Heroin, for example, serves as one “answer” to the meaning of life.

It’s a kind of “religion.”

The “religion of heroin” – or “heroin as The Answer to the Big Questions of life” as a response to “What should we can give our lives to?” – offers brief tastes of bliss in exchange for a degree of destruction of one’s mind, heart, body, relationships, career, etc.

It’s usually pretty clear to almost everyone but the person doing it.

The “religion of heroin” isn’t a good one.

(Some might call the above statement “judgy,” as if warning about the widely-known, well-documented, highly-researched effects of heroin would somehow be a bad thing. But we can be honest/real/non-counterfeit here: that’s not a serious position. The judgment that “we shouldn’t judge anything!” is a judgment on the act of judging. It contradicts itself, and so invalidates itself, and so can be ignored.)

But just from this, we can extrapolate a much bigger point.

Some religions are better than others.

The religion of heroin, for example, is highly likely to lead to unnecessary suffering and misery.

Other religions offer much better odds when it comes to the business of finding genuine happiness and leading a life that won’t wind up full of regrets.

But religion itself – as history has demonstrated clearly – can be a tricky business.

Of course, all of this is sensitive territory.

Wars are fought over disagreements about some “religions” being more accurate than others. These topics live close to major nerves. We tend to be pretty defensive and jittery – to put it mildly – when it comes to our answers to the Big Questions. Genuine tolerance between differing worldviews isn’t easy.

But if we keep following this thread down this rabbit hole, it raises yet another question.

How can we “measure” all this?

How can we size up a “religion” along these lines?

The idea of a human “measuring” religion might initially seem absurd.

It might seem like a song trying to measure a songwriter, a painter trying to measure a painting, a novel trying to measure an author. It just doesn’t work that way. Those things just live in completely different categories. One measures the other, and it doesn’t work the other way around.

But then again, from a different angle, our real choice isn’t whether to do it or not.

We’re already doing it.

We have no choice but to make choices. If we’re all religious, and if there are many potential “religions” out there – including substitutes and imitations – then we’re already making these choices, whether we want to or not.

We have no choice but to measure religions.

So, we can return again to the question: how?

What possible guidelines could we use to evaluate ultimate matters?

Luckily, we do have a few handy yardsticks at our disposal.

This can be similar to the question, “How do we measure a life philosophy?”

We’ve explored that question here. And we can approach it by way of a similar process. There are several useful yardsticks: Is it coherent? Is it consistent? Is it livable? - and so on.

One especially helpful key measure is this:

"What are the results?"

That question can generate some interesting data.

A few other measures help zoom in on this.

For example: which religions make us better people? Which religions, if any, satisfy us? Which leave us broken, angry, frustrated, and miserable? Which religions lead to us becoming genuinely and profoundly fulfilled? Which ones lead to us becoming more complete human beings?

We can use every tool at our disposal here – logic, empirical research, basic intuition, common sense, historical research, and so on.

A brief tour of substitute religions can also offer some clarity here.

Again, “the religion of heroin” can be a stark example of dysfunctional spirituality.

Cults are also pretty clear examples of “religion gone bad.”

We could describe addictions themselves in religious terms. Questions such as “What do I live for?” or “What do I love most?” or “What’s the way to happiness?” – could be answered with “opioids” or “whiskey” or “crack.”

There’s also no shortage of tragic stories in the quest for wealth, status, power, or fame. After all, just to look at the case of fame: audiences are fickle and fashions change quickly, and this can take a toll on even the most talented and beautiful. In this sense, fame as a religion (or other variants, such as celebritheism) can be quite ruthless (as portrayed in the movie Babylon, for example). The same could be said of wealth, power, status, and so on.

Some things that are generally good (or at least started out as good) can degenerate into dysfunctional religions if we approach them in certain ways.

Science, for example, can dissolve into scientism, where science claims to offer the sole and exclusive route to all truth. It declares everything but itself invalid. This approach soon anoints scientists as the new high priests and the latest Harvard study as the new scripture.

Therapy, psychology, and self-help can dissolve into forms of dysfunctional religion. To be clear, they can clearly be lifesaving. But they can also degenerate into improvised, arbitrary, and expensive systems of ritual and dogma where the self becomes the object of worship, the road to salvation winds through endless and elusive “healing,” therapy becomes “confession without absolution” (Chesterton), and ultimate deliverance is measured by devotion to some form of cult, for example.

Politics can become a religion. Politicians frequently offer simple explanations for our suffering, dangle promises of happiness or solution to that suffering (“Vote for me, and I’ll fix everything!), and deliver lofty speeches explaining how to get from one to the other. If they’re persuasive, that vision easily mutates into an ideology that “explains” basically everything (including explanations that discredit those who see flaws in the ideology). And throughout, those visions can be profoundly, colossally wrong. Fascism and communism, for example, are frequently described as secular religions. Their appeal is often fueled by dysfunctional forms of selflessness as well as warped explanations for why we suffer and how we can find happiness. They offer answers to life’s problems – terrible answers that lead to horrific outcomes in some cases, but answers nonetheless. (Any answer is better than no answer.) The results can be the most toxic forms of politics-as-religion, which have led to hundreds of millions of murders, countless stories of oppression and dehumanization, and widespread misery.

And so on.

The list of potential substitute religions is nearly limitless, and are unique as every individual.

Clearly, the stakes here are high.

It’s an important thing to get right.

Yet we hardly ever seem to talk about it.

It’s part of life in the “secular world.”

“Secular” here refers to “the attempt to live without religion.”

We might think we can just dodge the whole messy “religion thing” by ignoring it. “Some people are into it, but I’m not. It’s like a hobby. Some are into it, but not me.”

The secular world defines religion as something subjective, personal, and entirely a matter of taste.

That approach sidelines the matter, deeming it essentially unimportant.

Speaking openly about religion can become increasingly taboo in a situation like this. It becomes like revealing something personal, private, and even embarrassing. After all, according to this perspective, religion isn’t merely subjective, personal, and entirely a matter of taste; it’s also highly controversial, immeasurable, and impossible to settle with finality. That’s a recipe for a conversation topic many people try to avoid.

As a result, this situation can become an entirely new form of repression. Anything with depth is avoided, every Big Question remains unasked, all swimming beyond the shallows is forbidden.

But all of this is based on a key fallacy: the myth of neutrality.

Secularism – as defined above – is a “religion” itself.

It assumes answers to the Big Questions of life.

Secularism is one form of the basic worldview of materialism. It assumes that the basic stuff of the universe is physical matter, and that’s it. Physical matter is governed exclusively by a combination of “natural laws” and “chance” (that’s the metaphysics) and the only way we can know anything is through empirical science (that’s the epistemology). And so on.

Secularism doesn’t think of itself as religious.

It even thinks of itself as “non-religious” or “anything but religious” or having transcended religion. It tries to come from a “neutral” perspective where “everyone else might be religious, but I’m not.” “Everyone else makes unproven assumptions, but I don’t.” Because of this, it often feels justified in imposing its ideas on others. It claims to have moved beyond the religious thing into a zone that’s religiously neutral.

But this zone of “perfect neutrality” doesn’t exist.

Secularism is another set of answers to the Big Questions of life, just like every other worldview.

The dubious assumption that religion is entirely subjective, personal, and entirely a matter of taste is deemed to be infallible, unquestionable dogma that’s objective, impersonal, and universal.

This doesn’t mean secularism doesn’t offer certain advantages.

It’s clearly an improvement from outright religious warfare, for example. It also offers relief from the kind of “religious debates” that refer to mean stale, endless arguments between individuals who relentlessly talk past each other and never question or even discuss their more basic underlying assumptions.

So, what’s the alternative?

The solution here seems to be a strong dose of healthy tolerance for differing worldviews without ignoring or banning the topic altogether.

The answer, in other words, seems to lie in the direction of healthy dialogue, or good conversation.

But all of this can put many of us in quite a pickle.

If “religion” doesn’t actually exist at the outer periphery of life – but lives at the very center, deep in the marrow of the marrow – then secularism is fatally mistaken on a critical point.

And if that’s the case, then our culture is primarily focused on everything except what’s most important. The result is a flood of small talk and ongoing real-life games of Trivial Pursuit.

This approach often leaves us to tackle the most critically important and profoundly difficult questions of our lives almost entirely by ourselves.

That’s no small task.

This situation means we can find ourselves fighting existential monsters armed with little more than plastic sporks and a headful of slogans.

It abandons us to struggle with the most difficult questions of the universe with hardly any tools, help, or training.

That makes it incredibly easy to answer the Big Questions poorly.

We all face the Sphinx.

It’s easy to respond to existential riddles with terrible answers.

Good answers don’t come easily.

In fact, according to the myth, everyone who met the Sphinx came to a rough ending until one guy (Theseus) finally cracked it.

All to say, it can be easy to settle for substitute religions in this environment.

The benefits are often immediate and tangible while the costs are hidden and postponed until they cause damage much later, like philosophical time bombs that are now ticking away.

Some people even seem determined to deliberately engineer substitute religions in order to get us hooked in games of life that they control.

All of this makes it more likely to wind up spending years or decades playing certain Game of Life only to eventually wind up with consolation prizes. It’s a lesson that might only come after decades of effort.

It can be an expensive lesson.

The trick, it seems, is to learn quickly, and waste as little time as possible. The thing is to wise up while we’re still young enough to enjoy it.

Ideally, we bypass all the consolation prizes and substitutes and skip ahead to the good stuff.

So, all of this now leads to a single question.

Substitute religions aren’t the answer, and the best route is to avoid them. This doesn’t mean literally avoiding all wealth, fame, status, power, beer, and so on – it just means avoiding turning those things into religions.

But the advice to “avoid substitute religions” depends on already knowing something else.

There’s the old saying: if there is fool’s gold, there must be real gold.

If substitutes exist, they must be substitutes for something real.

This leads to a question: if there are substitutes for religion, what are they substitutes for?

What is real religion?


Our investigations will continue. Stay tuned.

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