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In the summer of 1996 Ervin Laszlo, Stanislav Grof, and Peter Russell spent two days in conversation. Here's some of what they had to say about the destructive and constructive role religion can play in human affairs...

From The Consciousness Revolution: A Transatlantic Dialogue; Two Days with Stanislav Grof, Ervin Laszlo, and Peter Russell (Shaftesbury, Dorset: Element, 1999), 40-45:

RUSSELL: We must remember that organized religion is not a reflection of an enlightened mode of consciousness. Its goals may be laudable, but the people promoting or defending it are generally as unenlightened as the rest of us. Sadly, they are often another reflection of what is wrong with society.

It all comes back to self-centeredness. Self-centeredness at the biological level is okay, we need to be self-centered to make sure we feed ourselves and keep ourselves out of harm's way -- we need that basic level of self-centeredness to keep ourselves physically surviving. But we also apply the same self-oriented mode of thinking in areas where it is totally inappropriate. You could say that we have forgotten what our real self-interest is.

In the final analysis what everybody wants is to be at peace. We want to feel okay, to feel in balance within ourselves. Our society says you get that inner experience in the outer world. This leads to an intrinsic self-centeredness. We are always thinking, what can I take, what can I do, in order to be happy. Where do I stand in other people's eyes, what belief system should I adopt?

This search underlies not only much of our materialism, it is also the reason why we get trapped into religions. I may believe that this belief or this teaching is going to save me; by following this path I am going to be okay. And then we get very attached to our particular faith, and go to all sorts of lengths to defend and protect our chosen path. In this way religion can easily end up very self-centered. Which is ironical, because religion sets out to release people from their self-centeredness.

LASZLO: Religion is also a social phenomenon, a question of collective identity. We need to belong to a community, a social, cultural group, or a religious congregation. This need is filled differently today than it was in the Middle Ages, when the religious congregation was the key community to which one belonged, at least in Europe. Now we have the national and the regional communities, and within them all sorts of levels down to the neighborhood ethnic communities. Belonging to a religious group or congregation provides a sense of identity only to a limited number of people. And belonging to such a congregation has even less to do with gaining access to some ultimate truth. For the most part the doctrines disseminated there just draw boundaries between the "in" group and the rest -- between the "believers" and the "heathens."

GROF: Traditionally, what organized religion has done is to unify a group of people by focusing on specific archetypal figures and themes and claiming that they are unique. This typically brought the group into conflict with other groups who had chosen another form of representing the divine and relating to it -- Christians against Jews, Hindus against Muslims, Sikhs against Hindus, and so on. Sometimes an organized religion did not even do a good job of uniting its members within its own sphere, under its own umbrella. A prime example of this has been Christianity within which a fierce conflict between Catholics and Protestants has raged since the end of the Middle Ages and has caused much bloodshed and suffering.

By contrast spiritual experiences provide direct access to the sacred dimensions of existence. They reveal the unity underlying the world of seeming separation, the divine nature of creation, and our own divinity. They take us beyond the sectarian chauvinism of organized religions to a universal, all-encompassing and unifying vision of reality and humankind. Organized religions in their present form often breed dissent and contribute to the global crisis. But a religion based on a genuine mystical perspective could make a real difference in the world.

LASZLO: The other day, in Berlin at a symposium of the International University of Peace, the Dalai Lama said to me, never try to convert people to any religion. He himself, he said, never tries to convert people to Tibetan Buddhism. That is not the purpose -- the purpose is the spirit that underlies religion, which is love, solidarity, compassion. He advised never to look to one religion to have all the answers. What counts is the spirit of religion, not the words of the doctrine.

There are cases and places where this insight is put into practice. In Auroville, the experimental spiritual community in India, for example, the founders decided that there is not to be any religion. Religious doctrines are explicitly to be avoided, the same as religious rites. There is to be just a deep spirituality in everyday life, reinforced by individual and collective meditation. When religion becomes institutionalized, Sri Aurobindo said, it divides more than it unites.

RUSSELL: Many spiritual leaders have said this, and warned against their teachings becoming a religion. The Buddha told his disciples not to believe anything just because he said it. Only when it accords with their own experience should they accept it. More recently, Rudolf Steiner said that if he came back in a hundred years he would probably be horrified to see what people had done to his teachings. Spiritual wisdom is a universal wisdom; but, as it is passed on from one person to another, each teacher's expression gradually takes on a particular set of doctrines and dogmas creating some very different religions. I am sure that if you, Ervin, revisited Auroville in 200 or 300 years' time, you would see that an entirely different religion had emerged in the meanwhile.

Today we are seeing a new spirituality coming about. It does not have a name yet; it does not really have a specific form; and it does not have any leaders. But there is a new perspective emerging which is very much in the tradition of the Perennial Philosophy that Aldous Huxley charted. Many people are beginning to rediscover the eternal wisdom of human consciousness and put it into practice in their own lives.

In some ways this is parallel to what happened with the Buddha and his search for inner liberation. When the Buddha went out into the forest he spent six years visiting various teachers, tried many different practices and techniques until he finally woke up to the truth of how to ease his mind of suffering. Today we are in a similar process. But now it is not just one person; it is millions of us, all on that journey together, and learning from each other's experiences on the path. And the more we learn the more we are coming closer to the same truth. We are fine-tuning our understanding of spiritual development. I see it in the books I read, and the talks I hear people give -- more and more we are saying the same thing. Maybe this revival will become another fossilized religion in time, but right now, at the end of the 20th century, it is alive and vibrant, and exploring that universal truth which is the core of all religions. That is why I find the current times so fascinating. We are in the midst of a new spiritual renaissance, but unlike previous revivals this one has no leader; for the first time we are rediscovering it collectively.

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GROF: I believe that if organized religions are to become a relevant and constructive force in our global future, they will have to make their respective archetypes permeable, and accept that they are relative. This would generate an atmosphere of tolerance toward other systems that opt for a different symbolic form of worshipping the divine. It would connect religions to their mystical roots and to their common denominator, reverence for the Absolute, the divine that transcends all forms.

Joseph Campbell often quoted Graf Durkheim's statement concerning the function of specific archetypal forms or "deities." To be useful in a genuine spiritual quest, a deity has to be transparent to the transcendent. It has to be a gateway to the Supreme, and not to be mistaken for it. It should mediate access to the Absolute as one of the ways leading to it and not be an object of worship in and of itself. To make specific archetypes opaque and impermeable leads to idolatry, which is a divisive, destructive, and dangerous force in the world.