Image: Kevin Ambrose
The work of self-transformation can be done through psychotherapy, religious practice, reading self-help books, independent resolutions and intentions, consulting coaches, gurus, psychics, body healers, mind healers and faith healers of all stripes. People come to the work of self-transformation in moments of despair, moments of hope, after long reflection, through happenstance, and some, myself included, make the pursuit of self-transformation the central work and preoccupation of their lives.
By self-transformation I mean a somewhat ill-defined effort to be a better person, whatever that may mean to any individual. Education is transformational, but taking a course in engineering is not the kind of overall self-improvement I’m talking about. A course in literature, philosophy or music appreciation might, intentionally or unintentionally, lead to a more expansive sense of one’s humanity or purpose in life; so that kind of education might be included when we consider the set of tool available for self-transformation. Engaging in psychotherapy, listening to a sermon on forgiveness, or resolving to meditate daily are unambiguously acts of attempted self-transformation.
A few hundred years ago, religion had a monopoly on the self-transformation business. Self-transformation, moral improvement, efforts to get oneself or others to be morally better, have always been a central concern of religions (at least the ones sometimes referred to as Axial-Age religions), but seldom their sole concern. Religions also concern themselves with explaining cosmology, acquiring political and economic power, establishing and legislating social norms, killing or converting heathens. If religions stuck with helping people, non-coercively, in their attempts at self-transformation, they probably would not be ignored, hated or ridiculed as they are by growing numbers of the religiously disaffected.
Religions have certain advantages in the self-transformation arena that can’t be matched by secular forms of this work. One is the ideal–if not actual attitude–of religions towards money. Although the financial costs of religion can be quite high (giving away a tenth of one’s income is not uncommon), payment is generally voluntary; newcomers and poorer congregants can usually enjoy all the benefits of community, moral guidance and support, meaningful rituals, comfort in times of adversity, without having to pay more than they choose. Disingenuously or not, religions claim to be motivated by concerns beyond money, and obligate themselves to at least put on a show of providing services unattached to remuneration. For people outside the social welfare system, secular self-transformational help must be paid for. Much of the support in a religious community comes from other congregants rather than from paid clergy. As a special case, 12-step recovery fellowships, which include some of the largest organizations in the world, offer their members access to daily or hourly support, essentially for free, that could only be matched among secular service providers by extremely expensive in-patient treatment centers or psychiatry wards.
Atheist though I am, I am troubled by the widening gulf between people yearning for self-transformational support and religions that might support them. The well-known Pew Research study, Nones on the Rise, shows rapidly increasing numbers of Americans who claim no religious affiliation. The religious and spiritual opinions of the nones are anything but uniform, but I suspect there is a significant subset of this population that 1) is open to spiritual and religious ideas, at least partly as a means of self-transformation, and 2) chooses not to participate in traditional religions. My own name for these people, imperfect as it is, is “outsiders.” Outsiders, I would claim, have become a burgeoning, lucrative market demographic to be targeted by the self-improvement and the professional healing and recovery industries: psychotherapists, coaches, treatment centers, Oprah, motivational seminars, diet and exercise programs, alternative healers, etc.
I have no nostalgia for the bad old days of clerical authorities browbeating us into morality with their hands in our pockets. But I fervently yearn for a day when people wishing to be better have easy access to free or donation-based support, offered primarily by their peers, possibly facilitated by modestly paid clergy, and offered without coercion, without insistence that one set of beliefs is right and the rest are wrong, offered because people who actively pursue their own paths towards meaning, fulfillment and some vision of the good feel a generous desire to share what they’ve learned on those paths with others. Religions may be declining in their ability to provide that kind of altruistically motivated, communally organized support, but we have few other models to work with.
There are no easy answers here, but as we as a society grope towards the evolution of institutions that meet our spiritual needs without exploiting or oppressing us, we need to consider if, when and how we can use religions, individually and collectively, in our attempts at transformation. Are there changes we might make to religions that would allow them to work better? What if religions were to 1) reject any claim on exclusive truth and express genuine respect for alternative views; and 2) pay all their clergy, administrators and stakeholders modestly and transparently to avoid the possibility of financially exploiting their members; and 3) eschew politics and efforts to impose their values on others, focusing on congregants improvement of themselves and ability to offer support and love to each other and the wider world? Would religions like that win back those who have been lost to religion in recent decades? Would we welcome such a development?
Sigfried Gold writes at Tailored Beliefs and designs interactive data visualization software. Follow him on Twitter: @godforatheists.