How religious or spiritual authorities can
help or hinder strong character development


A high-minded religious advisor supports the individual's diligent efforts to overcome shortcomings, in harmony with the saying, "God helps those who help themselves." He or she teaches that the challenges of life are not necessarily cause for Divine intervention or rescue, but rather, fertile areas for spiritual growth -- growth which is maximized by our efforts to actively and constructively deal with our problems and tribulations. Responsible religion helps people grow up by encouraging people to take up that kind of challenge.

However, this lesson is undermined by religious doctrines that support spiritual complacency in any of these ways:

1. by not requiring or expecting us to be capable of higher spiritual discernments,

2. by not holding us responsible for the higher moral action of which we are, at least as a matter of developmental potential, quite capable,

3. by over-emphasizing man's imperfection in such a way as to excuse a spiritually lazy lifestyle that is light on self-discipline, spiritual aspiration, and the implementation of rightness in thought and deed -- considering as hopeless, or perhaps arrogant, earnest attempts to "be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect."


It is one of the most fundamental purposes of religion to establish high standards of morality and to encourage followers to live up to those high standards. Deeply religious people often embody high ethical standards. There are, however, certain doctrines of religious faith that contradict the need to exercise careful spiritual discernment, or to accept personal accountability for rectitude. The doctrines we speak of

inadvertently downplay the need for rectitude, and encourage spiritual lassitude, with comforting guarantees of faith salvation that are ALMOST unconditional;

inadvertently perpetuate the cycle of immorality/confession/forgiveness with the assurance of infinite mercy -- and sometimes by offering indulgences through ritual confession and/or purificatory rites;

misuse concepts such as Original Sin or "man’s essential imperfection" in a way that seems to justify and even enforce spiritual complacency.

For people whose ethics are weak, or whose standards for personal rectitude are low, such teachings can be used as an excuse to behave poorly and rely on Divine mercy for their salvation. That kind of misinterpretation is not the intention of the teaching; people take things the way they want to take them. But for the good of the faithful, it may be wise for religious leaders to correct those particular spiritual pitfalls, rather than avoid the confrontation of addressing them.

[click here to read a re-interpretation of grace-emphasizing doctrines such as Original Sin]


Innocent or unsophisticated people may derive considerable comfort from depictions of a black-and-white world, a world in which difficult moral decisions are simplified by the use of strict rules. Reliance on rules promises protection from many challenges of real life, most notably: the inevitable possibility of making errors in judgment when it comes to decisions; the human tendency to misinterpret the inner voice; the easy error of mistaking egoic urges for spirit promptings. Despite these pitfalls, the development of spiritual discernment is important, and it can only be developed with practice.

Religion can advance the development of discernment by acknowledging inner knowing, and by encouraging efforts at faithful attunement to living spirit guidance. The development of clear and responsible discernment can be suppressed when rules are too rigidly held, and reference to inner knowingness is discouraged. Religion interferes with the development of mature discernment when it works, consciously or otherwise, to replace true inner gnowingness with blind faith in dogmatic suppositions. It interferes with the development of mature, dynamic discernment of rightness when it insists that the faithful follow static memorized codes of "right behavior."


Strongly positive faith convictions, including firm belief in the love of God, give us the confidence we need to actively LIVE our faith. Religion is clearly a positive and forceful motivator for the good when it exhorts us to spiritual accomplishment by appealing to our higher affinities for spiritual rectitude and for spiritual experience of a higher order. However, some religious messages -- about the end of the world, or the dangers of satanic influences, for example -- seem aimed at controlling the faithful with fear of God and damnation. Such messages appeal mostly to the child in man, and the survival instinct. They support closed-minded living, justify reactive thinking, and thereby block the path of spiritual progress with a landslide of "theillogical" dirt.

Close Window