why leaders use religion and spirituality

Why Leaders Use Religion and Spirituality

This month President Trump held up and gestured to a Bible in seeming response to the civil unrest in the US. This story has rolled around in my head and conversations for the past few weeks, and has landed upon:

Ah. Must be time for a Revolution.

Throughout history, leaders have used religion and spirituality to propel social change (a less dramatic way to say revolution). And, as all students of history know – they use them the most in times of extreme change. And as these two crutches of religion and spirituality can, of course, be both helpful and harmful, it seems that now is a good time to dive into this space again and perhaps find out a bit more as to why. And so…a few discussion points on the matter:

Discussion Point #1: Leaders that use Religion and Spirituality are Neither Inherently Good nor Inherently Evil

I think it’s important to remember that leaders throughout all of human history have used religion and spirituality as a lever for social change. From Gandhi and Buddha to Mother Teresa and MLK to the KKK and ISIS to Jesus and Muhammad, leaders use religion and spirituality to unite and give momentum and power to the social changes that it seems some segments of humanity are desiring. So, clearly – some of these we term “good” and “beautiful” – and some we term “bad” and “horrific.” Yet all of these movements – every one – has used religion and spirituality to drive the social change they felt was needed. And some of those movements were beautiful and have given us so much fantastic in this world…so clearly the use of religion and spirituality works towards the good. Of course…it also works to make lynch mobs. The point here is that it works. Given that these forces are such powerful motivators – and are and continue to be used to drive change – perhaps if we could understand why it works so well for leaders to use religion and spirituality, we might be able to choose how we would like to respond. And so…let’s dive into that why.

Discussion Point #2: Everything has both a life-giving side and a life-depleting side.

In our search of that why, the first thing I personally like to remember is Taoism. And here I go to this fascinating place of realizing that everything has its “pluses” and “minuses.” Growing up, I was often counseled by wiser individuals to make decisions based upon a list of the “pros” and “cons.” And while this definitely helps in making decisions, perhaps a more interesting thought at this juncture is that every action has both. This fact, or “Truth of the Universe” as I like to call it, was famously articulated by Lao-Tze, the codifier of Taoism. For this reason alone, taoism stands as one of my personal favorites of the spiritual traditions (or “religions”) – mostly because it helps me remember my own absurdity. It helps me to remember that everything has both a life-giving side and a life-depleting side.

And so, while I like to think that while in some ways I might be “right” in this article, I’m definitely not 100% “right.” And I might even be “right” at the wrong time for some people (I ask you to please toss this out the window if that’s so). And that is a very comforting place indeed. This space of “unknowing” helps me to move into laughter and exploration and realize that there is no “perfect” answer. The life-depleting side of this thought process, of course (because everything has a life-giving and a life-depleting side!), is that we could all just sit around giggling and shrugging while our children starve. So – let’s just go with this yin and yang thing, and use it as one of our tools in our toolkit.

Discussion Point #3: Religion Can Create Dogmatism

So, what is one of the life-depleting sides of religion? We in America especially see this, we fleers of religious intolerance. This, of course, is the terror of dogma. And truly – it’s not a great history of the spiritual traditions. This is part of why we Americans eschew traditions, tear down and rebuild like there’s no tomorrow, and sometimes really like to blow things up. What can we say? Our ancestors were viscerally screwed by dogma. Dogma, of course, is when we get into that place of “I’m right and you’re wrong!” It’s when we get to that place of “you’re a slave and I’m a master!” and “it’s all the media’s fault that I ate that cake!” Dogma is traditions that, perhaps, are ready to be a bit outgrown. And when we start to get into that place of questioning our traditions, we can get quite defensive – and one of the most common outcomes of feeling defensive is pointing fingers at each other and starting that whole blame and shame and judgement game. It’s this story that we’ve known since Adam and Eve (and, as my Indian friends would wink and tell me – even before that), when it was “she tempted me with that apple, it’s her fault!” and “that damn snake manipulated me, it’s his fault!” That’s dogma. And it’s not super helpful to the system as a whole (as anyone in leadership development knows). Now, unfortunately, it can feel helpful at the time, and can actually unite people – and that’s because of the life-giving side of religion…

Discussion Point #4: Religion Can Create Safety

And what’s the life-giving side of Religion? Well…it’s safety from the assholes that are pointing their fingers and blaming you for stuff. It’s that place of “family” where we can bring all of our crazy and still be accepted.

So…figuring out what on Earth is going on inside of ourselves and in our world (the work we’re supposed to do within the container of religions)? It can get pretty damn scary. In fact…it’s REALLY DAMN SCARY. It’s wild and crazy poking down into any of our stuff on the inside. Example: talk to anyone that’s been through hard stuff in life. Oh wait – that’s all of us. How many of us want to go on Facebook and talk about the bullying we experienced as a kid, the abuse, the neglect, the fact that we were never able to have children, our loveless marriages? Like…zero percent. I know this. I’m a coach. Zero percent of us really are like “woohooo!! Let’s dive into that shithole OUT IN PUBLIC!!!”

And while Brene Brown and literally every other leadership developer on Earth is attempting to change that paradigm….until that happens, religion creates a safety net for us as we go there. Religion offers us a place of “family,” a collective that has made this agreement that, no matter what I say or think or do, I’m still a part of it. I can turn to someone in my religious family and be like “I’d like to eat my neighbor” and it’s the agreed-upon job of that religious family member to be like “no big deal! Let’s go talk about that, my friend!” Like, we agree at coffee and donuts that whatever you bring, we got yo’ back. At least that’s the story we claim.

And when religion is working well…that’s how it works. It provides an extreme relationship with us, a place of soothing and nurturing as we go poking around inside of ourselves. And to our caveman brain – that place where “to be kicked out of the group = death,” that’s quite soothing indeed. And so, of course – religions are wonderful. And this is why leaders use religion. MLK and Gandhi knew this. They knew that, as they were going out to make a more beautiful world, it would require a LOT of self introspection and coming to terms with our own inner demons. And they knew that they could use religion as a beautiful safety net to make those revolutions and social change turn out more like “We Shall Overcome” instead of “Let’s Just Lynch Them All.”

Discussion Point #5: Spirituality Can Give us Creation

Ok, so as alluded to above, spirituality – as I like to call it, “the stuff we do inside of religions” – has the job of making us go inside and figure out what on Earth is happening there. That is – religions are the container and spirituality is the soup. So why would we ever want to do this? Well, because going deep inside of us helps us to find new stuff, and create that stuff together. And Spirituality offers us some signposts along the way in the form of truths that we as humanity have already discovered and all hold in common. Truths like love is the way (most of the spiritual traditions talk about this), sometimes life can feel like shit (I like buddhism for that), we are all actually united (hinduism with their pantheon wins the prize for that one), humility helps us learn (love islam for this), and forgiveness is the way (talk to me, Jesus). This is the stuff that we all hold inside of us – and Spirituality helps us find it inside of ourselves.

Even more? When we get past these “already discovered” things and know them viscerally (not just intellectually), the next thing we figure out is OUR piece of the puzzle. In leadership, we like to call this “life purpose.” It’s just the next thing that happens in spirituality, kind of like “ok, you got all of the stuff our ancestors discovered, now it’s time to find your special brand of stuff!” It’s what happens right before we go hit up Silicon Valley and become the next Elon Musk – we gotta go figure out our own contribution before we can ever realize SpaceX. And once we do that, of course – that’s when we get to start playing in the creation of the new. Like MLK. And Joan d’Arc realizing she was the badass cross-dresser that needed to lead the French troops, and Shakespeare having a midlife crisis that helped him realize that he was made to put words to our innermost feelings. A lot of the Hindu gurus say “Spirituality is where we find ourselves.” So…that’s super fun! Spirituality helps us do that, as long as we do the work of excavating first. And that leads us to…

Discussion Point #6: Spirituality Can Give us Destruction

So as we’re excavating, we are going to have to toss out some of that old stuff. And this is where your Boomer mom joins a cult in India and starts wearing flowy patterns and you’re like….

All of us Gen Xers and Millennials can relate here. This I know from the movies.

Ok, so the life-depleting side of Spirituality is that we can actually forget and then destroy ourselves – and others. This has been expressed in LOTS of ways, and the one I like best is the story where Jesus says “when you go clean out your house and expel that demon, he will go grab seven of his buddies and come on back and make hay.” I am pretty sure we all get this – this is when those people we know and love go “find themselves” and end up being homeless Gunter on the street raving about conspiracy theories. Basically, this is when we lose our grip on reality and those we love and become like Theseus and the Minotaur…with no string back. So why does this happen? Because our subconscious – where we house those deep spiritual truths – it can be BANANAS down there. And, without good guidance, we can get lost and sometimes overwhelmed. That’s why all great spiritual traditions have “guides” – gurus, monks, priests – to help us not get lost along the way. So the joy and the incredible awesomeness of spirituality? Civil Rights. Freedom. Love. Forgiveness. And…so much more, of course ;). The downside? Psychoses and broken relationships. And that’s why religion is helpful – it’s like the safe container to find out that “so much more” while minimizing the risk of destruction. However, when we toss both of them out – when we say those downsides are just too much…we lose out on all of that “so much more” that’s calling to all of us. And we get stuck in repeating patterns. And so…right now, as leaders start, once again, to use religion and spirituality…it’s just our job to go find it for ourselves and figure out what that means for us. Or not. Either way, make no mistake that we’re participating in the discussion. And here we find…

Discussion Point #7: It’s Up To Us To Choose

We’re kind of in this current pattern of pointing fingers at “leaders” and being like “why is he holding up that damn bible??” OR “That’s right, remember the Bible, people!” I mean…me too. And so perhaps it’s really helpful to remember that all leaders have used religion and spirituality to help propel social change. They do so because of the reasons above – because it’s so powerful to combine safety with growth. That’s why, in Silicon Valley, we have “Angel Investors” (love that religious allusion there) to give us safety as we go out and live as entrepreneurs trying to create something new, something we think is needed by society. And right now, it seems that we are ready for some new along the lines of social change. What will that be? Well…I have some ideas. And I’ve found them by coming to terms (at least partially) with my own spirituality and religion. And that, of course, has helped me to be able to choose the fruit and life-giving sides of religion and spirituality, instead of being run by the manipulation and not seeing the choice I have.

And so… if we don’t want to get run by others – if we don’t want to be unconsciously manipulated by the images and tactics that will be used around us – well, the only way it seems we can be free of that manipulation is when we figure out what on Earth is going on inside of ourselves. Because those deep truths of Spirituality, that comfort of family we call Religion? They are MAGNETIC. They call to us, they make us do weird things in order to be a part of that. They have such power to move masses of people and motivate us to do things. So our job? Well, if we don’t want to be manipulated and run by other people, our job is to be the leaders of our own lives and figure out what all of that means to us…and what our fabulous part in the creation of the new will be. It’s our job to educate ourselves. And to find those truths ourselves…and then figure out our piece of the puzzle in the new creation that is constantly taking place. Pretty rad, imho. Because, you know…the truth will set you free.

(I think they all said that one ;))

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Why Leaders Use Religion and Spirituality

by Team Aina time to read: 10 min