What makes a good religion?
Try these 10 tests to evaluate a belief system and see if it's worth believing in.
Is it about maintaining a powerful elite or not?
Those which are include most cults and most organised religions.
These disempowering systems tend to take your money, or impose arbitrary rules for the sake of it.
Every now and then they may issue new dictats for the sake of maintaining 'virtue' or 'morality' or 'discipline'.
They will also usually diss other belief systems. Theirs is 'the one true way'.
Their main purpose is to perpetuate their own power base.
If you're the kind of person who seeks security for their prejudices, who is afraid of other belief systems, or who believes in the concept of 'sin', then this is for you.
You'll probably also like this type of religion if you want to place your faith in an authority figure who can tell you what is right and wrong so you won't have to think it out for yourself.
You probably also like to believe that, self-righteously, your system is right and everyone else has got it wrong, and so will go to hell, or be reincarnated as a maggot or something.
Is there a leader or guru who can be trusted?
This test is not necessarily about power and its abuse, or an elite handing down tablets of authority that came in a vision or were given by God, but about whether the teacher has personal integrity.
This is more subtle. You have to look and see whether they practice what they preach.
Do they have humility or are they arrogant? Are they wise? Do they admit their ignorance? Or do they have an answer for everything?
Are they willing to learn?
Is it about what they think or are they really doing what they say - just passing on what they learnt.
Are they cynical and corrupt?
Beware of standing on rotten timbers.
How old is it?
A system which has entranced millions for thousands of years isn't de facto better than one invented last week, but the chances are it will have been criticised enough to have stood the test of time.
What kind of people follow it?
You can judge a religion by its followers.
Are they mature, rounded individuals? (And we don't necessarily mean upstanding members of the community.)
Do they possess emotional intelligence? Do they practice what they preach?
Are they wise? Are they fallible?
Or are they pretentious, overbearing or self-righteous? Or, worse, passive-aggressive?
Would you really like to be stranded on a desert island with them?
If you just stick with them because it passes for a social life and you'd be lonely otherwise - well, that's fine as long as you realise that's all it is.
Can you take the piss out of it and get away with it?
Any system that doesn't let you do that is paranoid. Forget it.
If you like the fact that your belief system will punish those who mock it, then you are a fundamentalist nutcase who has sacrificed their individuality - and anyone else's - for arbitrary rules to make your ego feel stronger. But in reality your ego is very weak.
Does its existence add to the sum of happiness and well-being in the world?
Or has it in fact led to lots of wars, or the destruction of species and parts of the natural world, or the enslavement or disempowerment of other individuals?
If so, into Room 101 with it - I don't care how many truths it peddles - take them elsewhere.
If a system has got this far, it gets interesting.
Belief systems come in all shapes and sizes and some ask you to believe the most extraordinary things. So how about this:
Is it a science?
Religions tend to try and explain everything.
Science, at least according to Karl Popper and other philosophers of science, doesn't - because if it did there'd be no way of proving a theory wrong.
If you can prove it wrong it isn't a scientific fact.
But also if it tries to explain the unvierse and everything, then it's not scientific either.
So you have to believe in it as an act of deliberate faith.
(On a deeper level, science is an illusion too, but that's a different story).
Does it have good stories, rituals or art?
This doesn't mean it's intrinsically more worthy of your belief and time, but it might be more fun and rewarding.
On the other hand, beware of the fact that some religions can entrance you with a good story, or overwhelm you with an awesome environment (lots of icons and incense) or a powerful ritual.
These can be good stuff, but again - so can theatre. It doesn't make it right. Just a good story, ritual or art.
Now, a positive test: is it empowering?
Does it make you feel good, more complete AND self-sufficient. without disempowering anyone else?
Does it help you be yourself? Does it set you free?
But beware of thinking that it does, but in reality it is a crutch to help you limp through life's hell and such.
If you need your religion more than it needs you, watch out. If someone kicked the crutch away, what would happen?
Can you admit it is nonsense and still believe in it?
If you study all the myriad of things human societies have placed their faith in over the world over thousands of years - lived and died for - you come to realise that it's not what you believe, it's that you believe, that seems to be helpful.
Just as our bodies have a physical immune system, which maintains physical health, so our minds have a psychological immune system, which does the same thing for our mental health.
Just as we can work with our physical immune system to enhance our bodies and make them strong enough to resist all diseases and extremes of heat and cold, so we can train our minds to attain phenomenal feats of wisdom, compassion, generosity, love, self-healing, tolerance and happiness by wokring with our natural psychological health-enhancing tendencies.
For instance, our minds have their own ways of healing the damage caused by traumatic experiences.
The best belief systems work in harmony with this natural process to reduce stress, and increase self-knowledge, for example.
And, just as we use tools to accomplish things in the physical world, such as levers which magnify our strength a thousand-fold, so we can use psychic or mental tools to accomplish comparably unusual things in the spiritual, emotional or mental worlds.
The things we use as tools to do this are beliefs. Believe in something strongly enough and you can use it as a lever to make your will achieve remarkable things.
No single religion has a monopoly on 'miracles' or the power of belief.
Whether the tools they employ are stories, gods, objects, rituals, 'energy flows', incantations, systems of correspondence, or visualisations, it doesn't matter, as long as they help you achieve your end.Except maybe nowadays we'd draw the line at sacrificing a goat, chicken, virgin or small child.
You can freely admit to disbelievers and sceptics that you know these tools aren't 'real', in the sense of being detectable by scientific instruments, or provable in the lab.
But neither is love, and we would row across the Atlantic Ocean for love if we had to.Well, some people would.