Authoritarian religion is one of the greatest dangers facing humankind in our world today. Whether that authoritarianism be Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist makes no difference. In each case, an elite group claims absolute authority on the basis of a text or a mystical revelation, then seeks to impose that authority on others as the only way to achieve personal and collective salvation.

In this way, imperfect humans will be rendered more perfect until the day comes when a heaven on earth is realized. Yet no matter how often we observe such fantasies inflict enormous human suffering, our appetite for more seems undiminished. This is curious. Even intelligent and educated people remain vulnerable to the ex cathedra promises of messiahs. It is as though a core part of ourselves has never really grown up. Rather than take responsibility for our own lives, we willingly hand it over to someone else who claims to have direct access to God or the Absolute.

“I do not deny that we may have ‘experience of God,” wrote the English Buddhist monk Nanavira Thera in 1965. “Numinous experience is just as real as sex or romantic love or aesthetic experience; and the question that must be answered is whether these things are to be taken at face value as evidence of some kind of transcendent reality or whether the eternity they point to is a delusion.”

All belief in an unconditioned reality that transcends the contingent, painful flux of this world is, I suspect, an understandable but dangerous delusion. Rather than directing our longing and energy towards the Absolute and the spiritual freedom it promises, we need to turn our attention back to this world with all its messiness and suffering. For if there is any liberation to be found, it will be found here, in the midst of ordinary life, as a freedom from the grasping and craving for the self or the world to be perfect.

Stephen Batchelor (2009)

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