A card came from a wonderful friend in Tokyo the other day, making me sad. He told me that he and his wife had divorced, after many years together. The cause: “She became involved in a religion”: a true religion that demanded conformity.

I sighed as I thought of my friend, then fought off even sharper emotions as I began thinking about “true religion,” that form of belief that knows itself to be right and others to be wrong.

There is much to be said for religion–even true religion–Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchins notwithstanding. Hope, meaning, love, togetherness, moral compass, compassion: they all spring from it, more often than skeptics or progressives want to admit.

Those are big things, not to be dismissed.

But . . . ! How often I’ve seen the other side, the side my friend experienced last year. How often I have come away chilled, frightened, or excluded by those who know their religion to be uniquely true.

Why? What’s wrong with such a faith? Why have I grown so uncomfortable with “true religions” in recent years?

Let me list a few of my reasons.

  • True religion, all too often, separates us: insider from outsider, believer from non-believer. If God is about love and connectedness, true religion is about separating. I sang it as a child: “One door and only one, and yet the sides are two. I’m on the inside; on which side are you?”
  • True religion judges. Is your doctrine correct? Do you live by the right rules? “Judge not,” said Jesus. “The faults of others are easier to see than one’s own,” said the Buddha.
  • True religion makes it harder to appreciate the truths and insights of other faith (or non-faith) traditions. If mine alone is true, how can I sit openly or eagerly at the feet of Buddha, or Mohammed, or Confucius, and learn what that wise one has to tell me?
  • True religion warns me against fully exploring unorthodox or heretical ideas. And that restricts my own growth: in the arts, in the sciences, in the spirit, in the world of thought. Why did Charles Darwin put off publishing his findings for decades? Because he was afraid of offending the church’s orthodoxy.
  • True religion inspires pride. If mine is the only truth, how easy it becomes to consider myself not just blessed, but better–all my talk about humility notwithstanding.
  • True religion justifies–and often intensifies–disputes, controversies, even wars. Convinced of the superiority of Nichiren Buddhism, Ishiwara Kanji taught his soldier-disciples in the 1920s that true Buddhism would defeat America and bring prosperity to the world. “Extending the Blessings of Civilization to our Brother Who Sits in Darkness,” said Mark Twain after an American massacre of “heathen” Filippinos, “has been a good trade and has paid well.”
  • True religion–let me say it again–excludes. If God is love, if God is presence, if God is connectedness, there is no place (in the words of Bob Thompson) for that which excludes. For when I exclude, I make myself smaller, because I make my world less than the encompassing whole that God intended it to be.

I am thankful for religion; it has given the world great things. I’m thankful too for the practitioners of true religion; they have much to teach me about conviction and earnestness, among other things. But God’s reality is too big, too complex, too dynamic and powerful to be captured by a system or doctrine. God’s presence is too pervasive, too energetic, too compassionate to be contained by a true religion.

I often wish this were not so; some days I wish I could squeeze God into my own small mind, into something I could easily define. But most days I’m glad I can’t do that. For in God’s massive, moving, not-to-be-captured presence comes that sweet connection with everything and everyone I touch–or don’t touch.