The following is excerpted from Create Your Own Religion, published by Disinformation Books, an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, llc.

Nothing to Lose

Countless peoples have an irrational fear of questioning what they hold most sacred. Because they think that certain beliefs are desirable, they come up with contorted rationalizations to justify them against any possible attack, rather than taking an honest look at them. They are terrified by the thought that if they begin doubting their certainties or looking at them with a critical eye, the entire castle of values upon which they have based their lives will come tumbling down.

For this reason, they try their hardest to avoid facing any facts that would force them to revise their ideals. Taking this course of action (actually non-action) may feel safe and reassuring; however, indulging in this paranoid phobia can only hurt us in the long run. Testing our most sacred values against different options will only strengthen us. We really have nothing to lose by being open-minded. It’s a win-win situation.

Let’s look at it this way. If we test our most sacred values against all kinds of different options, two things can happen.

In one case, we find out that all the other alternatives are not as effective as what we already believed in the first place. This is clearly a win, since it will increase our self-confidence by reinforcing the feeling that we are on the right track. Moreover, when we engage in discussions with others who swear by different ideas, our arguments will be stronger and more effective because we have already explored all possible counterarguments and discovered their weaknesses.

If instead we find out that our ideals were not as good as we thought they were, and there are better alternatives available, this is just as good a result. We win again because we have a chance to correct our mistakes, stop living according to flawed ideas, and discover a better path. In either scenario, we can only gain by testing and questioning. We truly have nothing to lose but our prejudices.

Untested beliefs are not a treasure to conserve but rather a cage to escape. They keep us prisoners of our opinions and prevent us from facing reality for what it is. As Nietzsche puts it, “[I am] a man who wishes nothing more than daily to lose some reassuring belief, who seeks and finds his happiness in this daily greater liberation of the mind.”

Here we reverse the traditional attitude. Instead of thinking, “It must be good because I believe it,” we can switch to “I believe it because it is good.” Whatever conclusion we end up embracing will not be born from fear of change, excessive attachment to one’s preconceived opinions, or a scarcity of alternate viewpoints. It will be the result of testing what works and what doesn’t, and picking the best option among many at our disposal.

Only those who are scared of the truth are hostile to questioning. No one would refuse evidence if it confirms and gives greater credibility to their ideas. The centuries-long persecution of science by religious authorities cannot be explained unless religious authorities already knew they were frauds and were afraid of somebody exposing them. Unless you are a liar or are pathologically attached to your opinions, you should not be afraid of the truth.

Heretic and Proud

Although I have tried to be reassuring and nonthreatening in the preceding paragraphs, I have no illusions. This book is a declaration of war against all those traditions that want to limit our choices, stifle our growth, and restrict our freedom.

This is a battle between the heaviness of tradition and the daring to create, between the conforming crowd and the individual shaping his/her own destiny. Most, but not all, forms of organized religions stand firmly on the conformity side of the battle line. They don’t want you to think for yourself, or they would go out of business. Their clergy is always threatened by direct individual experience because it makes them obsolete and takes away their source of authority.

Dogma is safe only when individuals give away their power to religious institutions, stop questioning the world around them, and gladly accept pre-packaged answers. Thomas Paine saw this clearly when he wrote:

"I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. All national institutions of churches . . . appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit."

What we are engaged in here is, by its very nature, a heretical project. Forget the virgin-sacrificing, devil-worshipping, religion-destroying image that centuries of inquisitions and authoritarian brainwashing have attached to the word “heresy.” What we mean here goes back to the original Greek meaning of the word, which is translated literally as “to choose,” or “to go one’s own way.”

This meaning points to the sacred word at the roots of this enterprise: choice. The choice to go one’s own way; the courage to explore life’s mysteries for oneself rather than accepting second-hand answers; and the refusal to bow to the dogma of existing dominant theories—these are the things that make this quest a heretical one. In the eyes of many established religions, in fact, choosing your own way rather than blindly following theirs is a horrendous crime and grounds for persecution. The history of both Christianity and Islam is stained with the blood of those tortured and killed because they committed the unforgivable sin of questioning the answers provided by religious authorities.

What is bizarre in all of this is that many of the religions that try to squash independent inquiry today were founded by supposed heretics and dangerous outlaws: Jesus was crucified for blasphemy, and Muhammad was chased out of Mecca by assassins. Think of the irony. These men were all about questioning tradition and established forms of authority, which is exactly what the fundamentalists claiming to follow them hate. All religions were born because someone departed from an existing tradition and created their own. But instead of honoring their example, most of their followers turn their insights into one more dried-up dogma used to repress individual freedom.

This book, on the other hand, invites you to honor their pioneering spirit by doing exactly what they did: create your own path. As William Blake beautifully said, “I must invent my own systems or else be enslaved by other men’s.” If we are successful, things may turn out the way Walt Whitman predicted, “There will soon be no more priests. Their work is done . . . A new order shall arise . . . and every man shall be his own priest.”

Some hardcore atheists, in an effort to attack anything that goes under the heading of “religion,” lump together all religious traditions as equally evil. In doing so, they completely miss the fact that within every religion, even the ones with a long history of intolerance, there are branches that are more than willing to make room for individual exploration.

In yet other religions, in fact, respect for independent inquiry is not present only in some heretical faction, but is at the very foundation of their ideas. While plenty of things about Buddhism turn me off, here is a tradition that allows and encourages freedom. Consider this. Lin Chi, a Chinese Buddhist teacher, once said, “If you encounter the Buddha, kill him.” Kill the Buddha?!? Buddhists certainly seem to have a weird way to revere their founder. What’s this crazy Chinese talking about? Far from being a blasphemous statement, Lin Chi’s words are a metaphorical rejection of the dogmatism that inevitably results once we’ve put our teacher on a pedestal. Precisely because Lin Chi loved Buddha, he warned people against turning him into an object of worship (a warning that has gone unheeded by many Buddhists throughout history).

Can you imagine a Christian inviting people to “kill Jesus,” or a Muslim to “kill Muhammad”? No matter how well intended the metaphor, the odds are that whoever spoke the words would have to run far and fast to escape being lynched. In Buddhism, on the other hand, this kind of iconoclastic statement would hardly raise an eyebrow. This is why Lin Chi could say what he said, or why the Japanese Zen monk Ikky? could write

"Without a bridge Clouds climb effortlessly to Heaven; No need to rely on anything Gotama Buddha taught." 

Buddha himself argued that his teachings were but a means to an end. On his deathbed, Buddha told his followers, “Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept tradition, do not accept a statement because it is found in our books, nor because it is in accord with your belief, nor because it is the saying of your teacher . . . Be lamps onto yourselves. . . .”

In a similar vein, one of the pillars of Taoism, Chuang Tzu, wrote, “The torch of chaos and doubt—this is what the sage steers by.”

Here we are 180 degrees away from what you hear from many other religious leaders who threaten hellish punishments unless we obey their every command. Fixed certitudes, comfy reassurances, never-changing rules; the entire baggage usually fed as religious dogma . . . Chuang Tzu will give you none of that. Instead, what he brings forth to light the path is doubt—what Alan Watts called “the wisdom of insecurity”—the force that invites us to constantly test our most cherished ideas. This is a clear example that not all religious traditions shove dogma down our throats. Rather, some encourage us to embrace doubt, question all conclusions we are offered, and experiment on our own.

Epistemological Anarchism, Bruce Lee, and the Freedom to Be Who We Are

As much as doubt keeps dogma at bay, doubt for doubt’s sake can paralyze us, making us too timid and insecure to commit to any ideal. Clearly, this is not the kind of doubt we are talking about. The aim of this book is to provide tools to create your own path and solve very real, very scary problems. I certainly don’t intend to confuse you with some relativistic, wishy-washy crap that only leads to weakness and indecision.

No, the doubt we are referring to here is a fire lit under our butts to keep us alert; to constantly prod us so we never get so comfortable in our findings that we turn them in absolute laws; to make sure we don’t get so enamored with our theories that we lose touch with real life.

Both Heraclitus, one of the greatest philosophers in history, and Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao Te Ching, stress over and over again: life is constantly changing. What proved useful yesterday may not work in tomorrow’s context. No matter how good something is, it never works 100 percent of the time. No rule, no recipe, no fixed formula can ever capture the flow of existence. When you start believing otherwise, you are on your way toward creating another dried-up tradition that will be kept alive out of inertia rather than because of its effectiveness.

Chuang Tzu’s brand of doubt is about engaging in a constant process of research, continually testing our truths, and keeping the river of our ideas flowing so that they will not turn into the stagnant swamp of dogma.

As Bruce Lee said, “How can there be methods and systems to arrive at something that is living? To that which is static, fixed, dead, there can be a way, a definite path, but not to that which is living. Do not reduce reality to a static thing and then invent methods to reach it.”  Or, as he puts it here, “Knowledge is fixed in time, whereas, knowing is continual. Knowledge comes from a source, from accumulation, from a conclusion, while knowing is a movement.”

If you are wondering what Bruce Lee has to do with religion, you have my sympathy. I concede that the connection is not the most obvious, but please indulge me for a little while. I swear there is a point to this.

While he may be better known as the star of the kung fu movie genre, Lee was also a brilliant philosopher who successfully applied his insights to the martial arts. What this book intends to do to religion, in fact, is exactly what Bruce Lee did to the martial arts.

At a time when the Confucian reverence for tradition characterized the martial arts world, Lee came along to challenge it all with an antiauthoritarian approach that was unlike anything anybody had ever seen in the West. While the exponents of different martial arts styles argued among themselves about which art was the best, they all agreed on one basic concept: there is such a thing as one perfect art, with a perfect methodology and perfect techniques, which alone embodies the Truth in regards to combat.

Naturally, much like the members of many organized religions, each claimed their art was the One. But according to Lee, they were all wrong because the very concept of separate “styles” of martial arts is wrong. He considered styles to be ideological prisons limiting the individual freedom to pursue one’s own path. In Lee’s view, they all had good ideas and good techniques, but they were all hopelessly deluded if they thought their partial truths were the Only Truth. Not all knowledge can be found in the house of the same teacher. Certainly agreeing with Thomas Paine’s idea that “Every person of learning is finally his own teacher,” Lee believed individuals needed to be exposed to different methods in order to figure out what works for them.

Long before Lee’s time, many great innovators in the history of martial arts had created new styles by mixing ideas and techniques from various systems. Lee took a much more radical step. Following the ideas of Zen Buddhist master Hakuin, Lee coined the motto “Using no way as the way.” This cryptic slogan meant it was not enough just to create a new style, with its inevitable rigid methodologies and fixed curriculum. Instead, Lee advocated cross-training, picking and choosing what suits one best from all different styles of martial arts. Lee’s revolutionary yet simple approach was broken down into four steps:

1.    Research your own experience.
2.    Absorb what is useful.
3.    Reject what is useless.
4.    Add what is specifically your own.

In other words, people should experiment with as many paths as possible and extract the best out of all of them. In doing this, Lee invited martial artists to resist the temptation to crystallize their discoveries into a fixed style. Instead, he invited them to engage in a process of research that would keep their ideas fresh, and would spur them to constantly evolve as fighters and as human beings.

As Lee further wrote about his martial arts philosophy, “Jeet Kune Do favors formlessness so that it can assume all forms and since Jeet Kune Do has no style, it can fit with all styles. As a result, Jeet Kune Do utilizes all ways and is bound by none and, likewise, uses any techniques or means which serve its ends.”  Lee’s plan was to be able to use the strengths of any style without being bound to its weaknesses.

Following a method—any method—too closely robs us of the flexibility necessary to face life since, by its very nature, life is vaster than any law or rule. Too many rules suffocate individuality. People are different by talent, taste, and experience. To expect everyone to follow the same formula is a fascist dream that is completely out of touch with the essence of life. As Chuang Tzu puts it,

"Water is for fish And air for men. Natures differ, and needs with them. Hence the wise men of old Did not lay down One measure for all."

If you have ever seen any great chef at work, you know that they don’t follow a recipe. They follow their nose. A recipe may be a good guideline for people who are lost. But if you develop timing, awareness, and sensitivity you no longer need recipes. And this is precisely what Bruce Lee was trying to teach: develop the tools to trust in yourself more than a method.

The Fear of Freedom

To put it mildly, most of the martial arts community didn’t respond kindly to Lee’s ideas. They were outraged by what they perceived to be an arrogant slap in the face of tradition: Who is this young punk, they wondered, to question the teachings passed down by our masters? It takes a lifetime to learn and perfect the practice of one art, and yet this guy has the audacity to think he can briefly dabble in many arts, and based on that experience extract the best out of them? By abandoning time-honored methods, all he is going to accomplish is to become a stereotypical jack-of-all-trades, and master of none.

This is the same reaction that most anyone rejecting ancient dogmas in favor of exploring new paths has encountered. The idea of “creating your own” (whether it be a martial art, a religion, or anything else) always arouses hostility. Many people object that by merging separate traditions we end up watering down the truths contained in each. These people tell us that any type of syncretic mixing leads to hopeless confusion and spineless relativism. The do-it-yourself approach, they insist, is for people who are looking for an easy way out by custom-making comfy beliefs tailored to their needs; these people lack the discipline and commitment to explore the depths of a single tradition.

If you are an acute observer and you actually still remember the title of this book, you may have noticed that I’m not exactly in agreement with this position. To put it more bluntly, I see this hardline insistence on absolute values, and on the sanctity of traditions written in stone, as a tough-guy act that stems from insecurity, poor self-confidence, and fear.

To argue for a greater possibility of choice is anything but relativistic. Not only is mixing more in tune with the globalized world, it is more in tune with the biological essence of life itself. Mutts are always healthier than purebred dogs. A person who develops the many talents necessary to explore a variety of different sources, discovering their strengths and mixing them together harmoniously, is not showing weakness or lack of discipline. They are making a choice that is born out of very strong convictions—strong enough as to be willing to experiment and change one’s mind.

This is definitely not the easy way out. If anything, the easy way out is buying into beliefs and adhering to them without question. It takes incredible guts to leave the herd behind, to become your own leader, forging yourself in the fire of unfiltered experience.

Much of the hostility toward “creating your own” comes from a deep fear. Most people are too scared of their own shadow to dare taking full responsibility for their values, actions, and lives. The prospect of having to rely entirely on themselves, without a group to fall back on or a dogma to reassure them, terrifies them to the core. Deep down they know they lack what it takes to live up to the challenge.

Freedom, in fact, is not for everyone. Besides sounding horribly undemocratic, the sentence I just wrote may also seem counterintuitive. Freedom, after all, seems to be everywhere around us. Most people list it as one of their primary values. Hardly any war is fought without at least one side (and usually both) claiming that they are fighting for it. Songs and movies always talk about it. Politicians use the word when they are shopping for votes. Advertisers use it to sell their products. Freedom is the star in plenty of catchy slogans, songs, movies, political rhetoric, advertisements, etc. With such an overabundant use of the word “freedom,” and with so much lip service paid to it, it would be easy to be fooled into thinking people actually love freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What people love is the idea of freedom. They love to think that they are not slaves. They go to great lengths to convince themselves they are independent, and that no one can boss them around. But reality tells a different story. Most people badly want some parent figure—whether that’s a teacher, president, gang leader, pope, guru, God, or Santa Claus—to whom they can delegate their power of choice, for they would much rather trust anyone other than themselves. Having to figure things out on their own and take responsibility for their lives is too scary of a prospect. Following a path is much easier than creating one. This accounts for the popularity of dogma; and this is why, despite all the rhetoric suggesting otherwise, real freedom terrifies people.

What they crave is not freedom but authority figures to give them orders. If I can go on record with another runner-up for the most undemocratic sentence of all times . . . most people seem to be born to obey commands. They probably resent the commands, often complain about them, and occasionally secretly break them only to feel guilty later, but the truth is they would be totally lost without them. If you try to take away their chains, they’ll scream and shout because their security, their very identity, is in their chains. Give them real freedom and they’ll run back to their dogmas crying “please mama hold me tight.”

Dogma is what reassures them and lulls them to sleep at night. “No, dear child—dogma whispers softly in their ears—you don’t need to venture alone in that big, scary world. Stay by my side instead, and I will always take care of you. I promise you will never have to make difficult choices all by yourself. I will map out the path for you, and all you’ll have to do is follow. You will never be lost again.”

Forget freedom as a family value. Real freedom is scary. Real freedom is for people with broad shoulders and big hearts. So, if the thought of refusing to surrender your power to authority and becoming the leader of your own life scares you, I strongly recommend you quit now. The rest of the book is not going to get any easier.

Not So Fast

OK, now that I’ve had a chance to get off my chest just how deeply I dislike the critics of the “create your own” approach, let me freely admit that sometimes they are right. Exhibit A in their favor is the New Age movement.
If I listen carefully, I can hear my publisher crying somewhere. No, Bolelli, c’mon. You have already pissed off scores of militant atheists. Fundamentalists from different religions are united in gloating at the thought of you burning in hell. At least, be nice to the new agers . . . Do you want to sell books or not?
Sorry, man, but I got to tell it like it is.

The New Age movement bugs me precisely because it takes some beautiful ideas, and turns them into a parody. Don’t get me wrong. Plenty of great people with nothing but good intentions are connected with the New Age phenomenon. But the whole thing most often appears so painfully superficial as to give ammunition to those opposing the notion of anyone “creating their own.”

Today after yoga, I’ll try Tibetan meditation. Tomorrow I’m off to healing with crystals, and then I’ll complete my spiritual joy-ride playing with the dreaming techniques of Australian aborigines.

Mixing different elements together is an art. Tossing a bunch of random ingredients together without truly understanding any of them is not. Even though many individuals are genuine—albeit somewhat desperate—seekers, just as many are on an ego-inflating trip taking them from one spiritual fad to the next. Besides making me sick, the pseudo-mystical posing that characterizes plenty of new agers ends up giving a bad name to the very ideas I am advocating, and this is why it bothers me to no end.

Everyone has the right to be free to pick and choose the best from different ideas and practices, thereby creating his or her own path. But clearly, merely rejecting traditional dogmas and creating your own way is no guarantee that you’ll come up with something good. Talent and intelligence—unfortunately—are not distributed equally. The abundance of choices is welcome to those who have the skills to choose wisely, but is overwhelming for those who don’t. If you combine the right elements together, you can come up with a masterpiece.

I worship daily whoever first departed from tradition by deciding to throw in the pan noodles from Asia and tomatoes from the Americas, and came up with Italian pasta. On the other hand, mix the wrong ingredients, and you end up with Alfredo sauce.

This is probably why Benjamin Franklin promoted freethinking in matters of religion for highly educated people like himself or Thomas Jefferson, but at the same time he argued for the necessity to keep the masses anchored to traditional forms of religion. In his opinion, in fact, they lacked the wisdom and self-discipline necessary for a healthy use of freedom.

This same elitist attitude has characterized the history of many philosophical schools of Taoism. They rarely ever tried to recruit people to their ideas. Most often, they tried to discourage them. If, like most people, you are too stupid to play with us—argued the Taoists—you better stick to Confucianism. There, they will give you rules to limit the amount of damage you can do, and feed you fairy tales to comfort you. It’s better for you. If you try to play with the big boys, you may get hurt.

In the same spirit, Nietzsche wrote, “And he who is not a bird should not build his nest over abysses.” An echo of this is heard in Hermann Hesse’s warning at the entrance of the Magic Theater in his famous novel Steppenwolf, “Magic Theater—Entrance Not for Everybody.”

Call me idealistic, but I see no reason to discourage freedom just because most people use it poorly. Sure, not everyone can create something wonderful, but everyone can and should be pushed to honestly express themselves. Despite all the possible problems, I agree with Bruce Lee. I’ll take a daring experiment that fails over a safe, wimpy devotion to dogma any day.

The Evidence Never Lies

The task of weaning people from dogma is challenging in all times and contexts, but Bruce Lee had an advantage in his antiauthoritarian quest. Because of the very physical nature of martial arts, one can go on talking for only so long before he or she is invited to step up and put their theories on the line. Martial arts theory is tested not through flowery debates but combat. At the end of the match, you are either the one left standing or the one on the floor.

No arguments there. Fighters can spout the best speeches in the world about the superiority of their art and training methods, but if they keep getting knocked out, they will be forced by reality to revise their ideas.

Because of this wonderfully concrete aspect of martial arts, Lee’s inflammatory ideas were eventually tested and vindicated in the early 1990s through the development of the new sport of mixed martial arts. Competitions such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship, in fact, invited fighters to test their skills in contests with as few rules as possible.

Traditional martial artists from every corner of the globe stepped up to defend the honor of their systems. This, after all, was their chance to prove in a public forum the superiority of their style. Much buzz was in the air: maybe the debates among martial artists about which art was the best would be finally settled. What resulted shocked everybody. No single art turned out to be “the best.” Just as Bruce Lee had predicted, traditional martial artists became easy prey for those fighters who followed Lee’s insight by picking the best techniques from several different sources and mixing them together. This was the most indubitable proof that, in the right hands, an eclectic syncretism is far superior to rigidly following a single path.

In case you are wondering, I am not proposing an Ultimate Fighting competition for religions. While I have to admit that the prospect of having a beer in front of pay-per-view matches between Shinto and Judaism, or Islam and Buddhism, seems like lots of fun, I am afraid it wouldn’t work. The effectiveness of a religion cannot be measured through objective, physical standards. No concrete testing ground exists to prove beyond a shadow of doubt the superiority of one religion over another.

We can’t test objectively the existence of God, or of heaven and hell, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t test religious theories at all. What we can do is look at the effects that certain religious ideas have had throughout history and continue to have today. It is a much nerdier approach than a knock out, and it certainly doesn’t possess its discussion-ending clarity, but it’s the next best thing. We can observe the historical consequences of certain beliefs, and decide which ones have had more desirable effects on our lives.

Clearly, a subjective element enters the game here. Different people are going to judge the same consequence positively and negatively. But we don’t need to fall in a relativistic trap. We are not going to accept some cop-out excuse about how it’s all just a matter of opinion. Beliefs that cause people to behave decently toward each other are not just different from beliefs leading to widespread warfare, bloodbaths, and misery. Positive beliefs are qualitatively superior much in the same way that health is preferable to sickness. In creating our own religions, we should carefully separate those ideas that have contributed to the amount of violence, conflict, and suffering in the world from those that have helped alleviate or diminish those things.

Our task is going to be complicated by the fact that beliefs have different effects on different people. The same belief can often result in both pleasant and horrific consequences for different people. What we need to figure out is what seems to be the exception and what is the rule. For example, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that so-called family values among fundamentalist Christians may have helped thousands of people to lead better lives. However, objective statistics point to much greater rates of social dysfunctions (from divorce to murder) in states where fundamentalism is powerful, compared to states where liberal Christianity and secularism are more popular. This suggests one of two things: in the best case, these “family values” are not very effective at fixing the problems they try to address; worse, they actually may contribute to them. In either case, the evidence tells us that fundamentalist family values could use some serious adjustment.

In choosing the values we want to use to create our own religions, let’s always keep an eye on the evidence. Effectiveness is not measured by the complexity of a theological argument, or by how loudly its supporters scream. It is measured in action. Values are only as good as the results they produce.

Teaser image by
ZeHawk, courtesy of Creative Commons license.