Religion Hunter Bites the Dust

Five days a week I’m a news junkie. On weekends I take a complete break. Come Monday morning, I’m again ready for the news, catching up on whatever happened over the weekend. The first thing that slapped me in the face Monday morning, even before the every-five-minute repeat of the weather, was this story: a local woman had died after traveling to Arizona to participate in somebody’s idea of a sweat lodge ceremony. After keeling over from excessive heat (possibly literally biting the dust), she was taken to a hospital and later died. Authorities stated homicide charges were pending.

The headline is mine, so if you find it disrespectful, facetious, obnoxious, and judgmental, blame me, not the local news outlet. The story and what I took from it pushed so many of my buttons that every one of those adjectives fits what’s behind the headline. And I will confess right up front I’m reacting to very few facts.

I refer to her as a religion hunter. It’s not exactly a compliment. To me it’s more of a sickness, and it’s endemic in this society, perhaps throughout our species. I do understand the need to find something outside of one’s self, something bigger, hopefully wiser, something to fix whatever is ailing, whether in me, loved ones, or the world. We seek something to be worthy of our awe. Religions fill this need for most of us, offering answers to those questions. Sometimes the answers are easy, sometimes impossibly hard.

What bugs me most about religions lately is that religiosity itself has become sacred. It’s the same way nationalism has become sacred to some people. To me, as I understand sacred, that concept should be reserved for God, or Allah, or whatever higher being or ideal. To make the trappings that surround the group-think teaching, that describe the divine and set down rules to follow, as themselves sacred just succeeds in driving us a step farther away from the divine. Admittedly, they can be helpful, but so can a vacuum cleaner. While cleanliness is next to godliness, I’ll never call a vacuum cleaner divine.

Possibly one of the better arguments against making religiosity itself sacred is the number of people who are driven away from whatever the religion espouses in search of some new, different religion. I’m not talking about those turned off completely from the concept of religion. I’m talking about those actively hunting a new religion. This woman apparently was one of those, participating in some very minor (“fringe”) sect, adopting a Native American ceremony in search of meaning. If the Native American religion had been adopted (i.e., a context given to the ceremony to supply meaning) I’d have expected different skin tones and facial features on the group’s leader, and perhaps a name like Yazzie or Two Bears. But apparently they took the quickie route, not bothering to learn about harmony and beauty–or sensible, safe precautions–but going for the gimmick: the sweat lodge. I have to believe that’s as offensive to Native Americans as someone coming into a Catholic church, dispensing with reading the Bible or going through confession, and presenting themselves at the altar for confession. Voila–quickie Catholic on the half shell.

Since religiosity itself has become sacred, nobody questions what others do to “find” religion, or what they do in order to serve their particular brand of religion. So folks go along with the stupid, the selfish, the dangerous, as long as somebody tags it with “religion.” Another recent story points this out. A teenager with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma was denied standard medical treatment by his parents in the name of religion, until the courts stepped in to order treatment. Nobody questioned the sincerity of the parents religious beliefs, even though these beliefs didn’t manifest themselves until AFTER the kid’s first course of chemotherapy, when the kid quite understandably hated the pain and discomfort of the treatment’s side effects and protested having to go through with round two. So is it still religion when the prime precept seems to be keep my kid comfortable even if it kills him?

Being a religion hunter says a couple of things about you. First, you are likely sincerely seeking that something outside yourself. Unfortunately, the longer you look without finding, the more you are likely to become prey to the grifters, the charlatans, the greedy, and the idiots who just might kill you. Second, it says you are looking to others to give you what you are unable to give yourself. If you hunt out religions, you must carry the belief that other people know something, hold some secret, that you haven’t found yet–and that it’s something that they can share.

I’ve long since had a problem with that. Being around groups of other people works against growing religious feelings in me. Partly it’s a trust issue–too few of them have earned it. Partly they’re a distraction from whatever I’m trying to achieve. We are such a gregarious species that it’s difficult to be in the presence of other people and ignore them, but that’s what I’d need to do in order to find something I’d call divine. I’ve concluded that religious groups are enforcers of the group-think necessary to keep the leaders in power and control the masses. That idea alone is a further turn-off for me. Finally, I’m simply not convinced that others know some mysterious secret, or that they can share it. I’ve had the distinct displeasure of working with somebody who KNEW that he knew exactly the right words to ensure his own salvation. He also KNEW that knowledge of those words was limited, and he was one of the select few and I wasn’t. Others haven’t been so obnoxious about it but still cling to the firm belief that there is only one way, and theirs is it. It apparently comforts them.

So, personally, I have to get away from other people to explore my own spirituality, to examine my conscience, find my values, discover whatever is worthy of awe. A quiet couple hours in the woods, watching waves pound the shore, watching storms build and pass, letting my eyes devour the mountains, or really listening to a Beethoven symphony–these are things that help. I don’t expect to find all the answers, nor even most of the questions. I doubt I’ll ever be a religion hunter, though I can manage a smidgen of sympathy for those who are.

And a part of me appreciates the irony that our local religion hunter already has found out the answer to the question all of the rest of us have: what happens after death? While I’m really, really interested in that answer, I’ll wait for it.

Additional Links
Much, much more on the tragedy and the magical thinking behind it.

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8 Responses to “Religion Hunter Bites the Dust”

  1. October 22nd, 2009 at 7:26 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Hector Avalos has written about the Abrahamic Religions as a “scarce resource” in the classic economics sense that authorities, or “priests” have access to info not available to the rest of us and so they are able to dole out answers to our questions on the nature of a particular aspect of religion in exchange for tangible capital. The book is Fighting Words, and I have a copy if you would ever like to borrow it, Heather.

    I mention it because the theme you express here is that people are constantly looking for an external resource to satisfy an internal need to know the unknowable, and there are people willing to share their “knowledge” for a price; and in this shortcut case of the sweat lodges the price was not only her money but her life at the hands of someone who practiced another culture’s religion as though he learned it from reading an excerpt from a book jacket and decided “Hey, this is easy.” Cultures that do sweat lodges have from long experience and cultural practice learned how to properly prepare for such a ritual. I knew someone in Minneapolis who had been raised as a Catholic, converted to Wicca and was later invited by the Mdewankenton to learn their religion and spirituality, but before he partook in any of the spiritual ceremonies he had to study carefully to learn the depth of their religious beliefs. It took years for him, which is something that the “religion hunters” (I like the phrase you have coined because it fits in context with Avalos’ thesis,) seek to sneak out with in the middle of the night.

    I’m not saying that the guy that I knew was any less of a “religion hunter” than the woman who died in a sweat lodge, but the point I am trying to make is that in trying to snatch a little piece of a religious culture like that the charlatans who arranged this event were grabbing at a small piece of a scarce resource and hoping to get at something much larger.

    But even Christians engage in Religion Hunting, shopping church to church to find the one that follows the “true teaching” at the exclusion of the misguided souls in the church down the block.

  2. October 23rd, 2009 at 12:42 am

    Alden says:

    Speaking as a Christian, I have to say that for the most part, I agree with you. While I’ve never thought of it as “religion hunting,” that’s a good analogy. Within Christendom, there are those who keep running after this or that, looking for some “trick” to make everything work. Sometimes it’s referred to as “religious addiction.” While there are those who would say that anything religious is a crutch, there is a difference between the simplicity of orthodox Christianity and the Christian with a religious addiction.

    I think you’ve hit on something in your 2nd to the last paragraph, “I have to get away from other people to explore my own spirituality…” Religion hunters, I suspect, are using the religious search to run from themselves, the way others do with excessive drink, drugs or sex. It’s not moving toward something, but a move away from yourself.

    Finding that place of quiet is the most challenging thing we can do, because we must deal with ourselves. This, I think, is the point behind Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God.” If we create too much noise and activity, all we find is another attempted escape from reality.

    Nicely done.

  3. October 25th, 2009 at 9:01 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I do think that they are seeking a shortcut towards that “peace” and it is difficult in modern culture.

  4. October 26th, 2009 at 8:08 am

    Russell says:

    Greg writes:

    “To me, as I understand sacred, that concept should be reserved for God, or Allah, or whatever higher being or ideal. To make the trappings that surround the group-think teaching, that describe the divine and set down rules to follow, as themselves sacred just succeeds in driving us a step farther away from the divine.”

    I suspect religion hunters would voice their assent to your precept. The problem is that God or Allah or the divine are not present, at least not in any objectively observable fashion. Trappings are all that religions offer, reading the Bible and confession no less so than communion. It is empty to criticize religion hunters for going for the trappings rather than the substance unless you can provide a discrimination test between the two. I doubt you claim to do so, and if you did, I suspect it would be as meaningless as those offered by the religious.

  5. October 26th, 2009 at 8:37 am

    micheleinmichigan says:

    I have to agree with Alden. Dangerous religion hunting (or cult membership) probably has less to do with an actual spiritual exploration as addiction or compulsion. While it may be tempting to think the person should just “wise up”, they are probably no more likely to do that than someone with OCD can quite checking or an alcoholic can easily see how self-destructive their drinking is.

    The fact that there aren’t many 12 step programs for religious addiction does help make Heather’s point though. People are not near as likely to point out when someones religion has become a problem as when their drinking, eating, etc has.

    There is one kind of OCD, scrupulosity, that is religious in nature. My understanding is that the therapist must be quite careful about teasing out the compulsions to treat while not trying to undermine the patients actual spiritual belief.

    In regard to the boy with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, I have to point out that if the case ended up in front of a judge then someone or several people did NOT just go along with the parent’s beliefs.

    I agree with Heather that not questioning religious actions can be a problem, but I also know from experience that religious intolerance is also a problem. Sometimes it is a difficult line to walk.

  6. October 26th, 2009 at 9:46 am

    RBH says:

    I’d always thought of it as “religion shopping,” with the image of someone wandering through a mall, stopping in first this store and then that to feel the fabric of a sweater and try on a suit, then moving on to groceries to tap the melons and squeeze the tomatoes. But “religion hunting” better captures the near-obsessive behavior of some folks.

  7. October 26th, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    Rob W says:

    [Proofreader comment, feel free to delete] “dispensing with reading the Bible or going through confession, and presenting themselves at the altar for confession.” / communion

  8. October 26th, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    Heather R. says:

    Thanks, Rob, that’s what I meant, but my own proofreading didn’t catch it.

    Russel, my own personal discrimination test between what is sacred and what is trappings – and this is off the cuff so please bear with me – seems to revolve on what is a repeated routine or action (being trappings) and what is the very essence of the supreme being and the inner voice message that one hopes will be derived from going through the trappings. Communion, sweat lodges, ringing chimes, lighting candles – these are trappings as I define them. A lot of folks claim religious texts are sacred, and for me they’re borderline, since to me they are a very human interpretation of what must by definition be way beyond human understanding. If we could understand God, it wouldn’t be God. This doesn’t – shouldn’t – stop us from trying, and for some, a set interpretation is the final word on the subject, period, and thus sacred. As our understanding of what is divine grows and changes, our texts must as well. We will/must rise above some one’s or some group’s limited understanding and in so doing grow closer to what is truly divine.

    Of course, I’m pretty agnostic, so I’m wiling to posit that it may just be a goal, and we really are creating God in our own image. Even if that is so, if what we’re striving for is the best in ourselves, how can we not try?

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