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" One touch of nature

makes all the world kin "

William Shakespeare

A Smorgasbord Approach to Religion

January 12th, 2013

Philosopher Alain de Botton advocates a smorgasbord approach to religion, saying: “I’m aware this offends some people; there’s a criticism that religions are not spiritual buffets from which we can select the choicest cuts, but I heartily disagree. Just as with a singer you like, you wouldn’t buy everything they ever did and never listen to any other singers. Surely we can create our own playlist when it comes to culture, and also religion.”

Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton (Photo credit: juan tan kwon)

Do you agree?!

24 Responses to “A Smorgasbord Approach to Religion”

  1. The question is : can one do anything else? Even if one keeps to óne religion, most people will make up their own thoughts on what might be fitting to their religious thinking, and almost certainly they would come up with ideas from “other” religions. So, why not make this a conscious practice ; search for the thoughts you like in whatever religion they are found. I see no problem here.

  2. There was a time where you could not choose what you believed, or did not, or at least you could not talk about it – on pain of death. So this is the logical consequence of (religious) freedom.

  3. I agree completely. First off, who is anyone else to say there is something wrong with this? It’s hubris, IMO, to decide for anyone else. One reason I am so enthusiastic about the OBOD course as I’m nearing the end of my Bardic year is the respect for personal process. To me, that is the sign of a genuine spirituality and a path worth following.

  4. Interesting topic. Like many people I find I am particularly drawn to a number of religions and spiritual practises; in my case Buddhism, Contemplative Taoism and British Neo- Paganism. For different reasons, I find I cannot embrace any particular one exclusively. So I make up my own, using these ingredients +. Firstly the question arises, do you integate the appealing bits to make one regular but personal practice, or do you do Zazen on Monday and Celtic visualisation on Tuesday? Read the Tao Te Ching on Wednesday and The Mabinogien on Thursday? Chant Awen on Friday and Om Mane Padme Hum on Saturday?
    Now spiritual paths have a social function, as well as providing support for its adherents, whether that be a Christain congregation, a sangha or coven. I think they may also develop their own energy through the long tradition of practitioners, a sort of morphic resonance maybe, By being too personal we may lose this aspect and become too isolated and introspective.
    On the other hand, religions can be too preoccupied with lineages and the purity of doctrine. I often feel that religions take themselves too seriously and then become a heavy burden. To me religion should be like art; be creative, be joyful, share and discuss with others and naturally be influenced by the the masters both past and present.

  5. Very interesting question….
    I think i disagree with Alain de Botton. If we get to choose everything like a swedish smørgås buffet, then we surf around picking whatever we like. The problem with this is, that our spirituality can become somewhat shallow and never brings us to the essence, because that journey is often long and quite lonesome and painful. Confronted with our ego, we tend to jump to another practice. Well, that is my experience, anyway.
    On the other hand, if we uncritical just follow some religious system, there is a risk that we stop asking questions, and just follow along like a puppet.
    Then, again, most religious mystical systems are made to follow you all the way, so sometimes, it is necessary to keep following the hard track, until it get´s you to the other side.
    I my humble opinion, I think we need to hold focus on our own path, following a system that has proven its worth over time (Druidry, Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tze etc), but also allow oneself to be inspired by other philosophies. British neo-paganism, shamanism and Taoism are very much alike, and does not have to be separate systems.
    I have met too many new age people, that just didn´t have any earthly grounding, and they just followed anything out there. I have also met religious people that thought that their system was the only one correct according to their perception of God, and therefor became arrogant and seperatistic.

    But as many things here in life, there is many ways of looking at this topic…. Hard to say really!

  6. This makes me think of C. S. Lewis’ assertion, I believe in “Mere Christianity,” that within a single religion practitioners choose which aspects of that religion to emphasize. He notes the result is that there could be two people in church side by side but with their own emphasis and interpretation they are practically of different faiths.

    If one takes this approach, as I do, then it is all really a smorgasbord (well for most). The real difference is if one is publically saying they are working in more than one tradition or not. I am an active member of both OBOD and the Episcopal Church and is does seem to put me on the boundary of each at times. However I have never felt happier about my practice.

  7. I am a Pagan Buddhist and feel there are two main elements to my spiritual path in this life-time. I have a Pagan since 1986 and have learned from and incorporated elements from various traditions into my practice including wicca, druidry, shamanism, northern tradition and non-denominational paganism. I am an initiated wiccan priestess and a bard in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I am also a student and practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and have studied with several Tibetan Buddhist Teachers. The Tibetan Buddhist core view of reality and core values of compassion are at the heart of my spiritual practice. However I respect the boundaries of the traditions I follow and am wary of a New-Age style free-for-all which does not respect the boundaries and context of spiritual traditions and practices.

  8. This brings up important issues for our time, individually and collectively! Yes, a much greater understanding and awareness of various spiritualities and/or religions – depending on which definition(s) someone prefers – is very much needed globally. Thankfully, many all over the world now are experimenting with various ways of doing this. Bring it on! One analogy might be like the image of the Centre of a wheel, with its spokes radiating out from its centre – i.e., whatever path you personally choose to follow at any given time in your life is like the Centre, yet, the spokes of the wheel radiate out from that in-depth Centre to, at times, also acknowledging, learning, appreciating, and incorporating aspects of other spiritual paths…a wonderfully creative, fluidic, joyful thing!

    Music and chants of various paths can also be helpful in unifying people and various cultures, to build and celebrate what we all have in common; music takes us beyond ‘belief’, ‘words’, ‘texts’, etc, etc. So in a deeper sense, all people are One and are connected; but by focussing more on a primary Centre for periods in your life (or, for some, all their life), it can enable you to be able to go deeper into one path, while still greatly appreciating others and how they relate to it, and to what many acknowledge is an underlying mystical unity between many paths. And usually, let’s face it: any ‘smorgasboard’ dining experience features samples someone takes from several dishes on offer…but not only one bite from every single thing on the table…. Food for thought…

    Another way of putting this might be to picture your favourite tree — to ‘dive deeper’ is to go down to the very taproot of one’s being and chosen path… beyond its surface aspects… and yet, to also go up to its highest branches – but the Centre of the tree is the trunk! Awens to that!

  9. I wholeheartedly agree, though I consider myself an atheist (in the strict, etymological sense of the word). It is reminiscent of the philosophy behind Jeet Kune Do and Bruce Lee’s entire life: study as many different approaches as you can, use the parts that work for you and discard the rest.

  10. Hi Philip, good question. i think it’s probably MORE reasonable that being singular and dogmatic about your spirituality. I’m sure many of the religious leaders who have taught would rather people think for themselves than follow blindly evolved doctrines? Surely ‘good’ action and thought based on reasoned principles derived from a variety of world faiths would be better than unskilled actions based on ignorance, even if that ignorance comes from having a limited understanding of the cultural variety around us? The basic shared concepts of the worlds major faiths lead (i think) to universal principles?

  11. I agree with him. When asked to label myself I always say eclectic shaman. I use what ever works for me and my path or belief encompasses many aspects from different pantheons. It is my path and if it works for me then it is the right path

  12. When you ask this, I assume by religion you mean a set of practices identified with a particular set of beliefs. As some here have said, I think this is what goes on automatically with most people anyway, accepting only those parts of a religion with which they agree, or which are not too difficult to implement. Knowing this, I think we must be conscious of the process, and whatever path we choose, ensure we do not also choose to evade the difficult questions. It may be that a difficult question for one person is not difficult for another. It is only in identifying and asking those difficult questions and seeking until they are answered that we find our true spiritual self. Once we have found our own personal answer, we must implement it in our life. To me, Religion is action, versus spirituality, which is belief. Until we implement the answer, it is not Religion. So in answer to your question, I say Maybe!

  13. I strongly disagree. The smorgasbord approach may be appropriate for seekers who are trying to figure out where their true calling lies, but sooner or later we all need to stop nibbling and dive deeply into one tradition. SolAnn explained why better than I can.

  14. I absolutely agree. It’s probably easier to have a dogma dictated to you that you can stick with your whole life. No messy questions to ponder. But for me, I pick and choose and customize. I find that method to be much more fulfilling for my spiritual life. And I like learning what other people believe.

  15. At Talliston (, we celebrate all aspects of the universal divine.
    The way we see it, they are all true or they are all wrong.
    Every effigy or religious item in the house is set it’s own holy day, which is celebrated in traditional style (albeit sometimes on a microscale!) and forms a pantheon of household gods that perfectly balances the architectural smorgasbord we’ve adopted throughout the house.

  16. Is the buffet of all the worlds faiths, with its doctrines, concepts of what our spiritual path should be, nothing more than a confusing ‘super market’ with its clever packaging of products, constantly being moved around to keep us searching at the mercy of those with the biggest advertising campaign ?

    For me, i was very lucky, from a young age i found my place in the Universe, learning and living with natures rhythm. Through this, our natural creativity grows through music, art, learning from our ancestors and finding happiness today and so, we plant the acorns for tomorrows children. The question you asked is not simple to answer, but i would only take what i need from the buffet for my spiritual journey.

    I find that the threads of many religions become a chaotic, knotted mess, whereas with nature religion, my thread is a simple, unbroken circle.

    Whatever one chooses, the path should not be complicated. It should be simple! – Have a true compassion for the earth and those around you and to develop to ones full spiritual potential. In that, you will find true contentment.

    Travel lightly.

  17. I totally agree with the smorgasbord approach! When it comes to spirituality, why limit yourself?

  18. Hi Philip, having just listened to your dialect with JMG on the OBOD podcast, i see where this is coming from!

    My problem (or is it a problem?) is that when I have tried to attach my self deeply to one system of enlightenment, I always come up against the “uh-oh” moment, when there is something I just can’t believe in. Do I let that moment negate everything that has gone before or will come after? Or do I let that system become another dish in my spiritual smorgasbord?

    I choose to have a variety of tasty dishes to sample from. Then if there’s something I don’t like I don’t have to go hungry.

  19. I totally agree with this, and maybe this is a way to approach the common spirituality beneath religions. For some time I felt uncomfortable with “mixing” my beliefs, practices etc, but as time went on I could only reflect that without my patchwork approach, I would be missing something. I find it fascinating to compare what I learn and also it reminds me always of the unity behind the appearance of things. This approach is also the other side of the coin to being totally immersed in one belief, encouraging us all to follow the path/s that our instincts demand. So this is really good to hear!

  20. Christianity began by taking the root concepts of Mithraism and similar mysticism, incorporating pagan practices and forms from Rome, and
    , as it spread, from practices much further afield, absorbing gods and goddesses into saints, etc. I’d say you would never know the depths of older practices such as Hinduism unless you were grounded there firmly, but the post-Christian faiths, being hybrids from the outset, make them viable candidates for culling the best and leaving out the rest. It does however make for shallow, new-age mentalities, and therefor a lack of spiritual evolution, if we leave out the depths of process and conviction required for true spiritual insight, taking the easy, comfortable road, choosing only the ‘light’, forgetting that without the ‘dark’ light is meaningless. In this age it is far too easy, and seems to be the dominant mentality, to go the route of least resistance. In other words, I agree, but it depends upon which system you are trying to borrow from.

  21. @Gwernan, it was the path of least resistance that carved the Grand Canyon.

    You seem to think that pre-Christian faiths sprang fully formed from the head of (insert the name of your deity of choice – Zeus, Rama, Osiris, etc) I submit that all religions that can be called religions are hybrids that have solidified over time.

    That’s why I like Buddhism – he’s the only spiritual leader (and correct me if I’m wrong on this) who actually told his followers, “Don’t take my word for it – try it out for yourselves, and if it’s not for you, try something else.” Ditto OBOD/AODA style druidry.

  22. I seem to remember you (PCG) on an OBOD video a while back use the analogy of Druidry being like a chef in the kitchen rather than a customer in a restaraunt. Instead of a meal pre-prepared off the menu (organised religion), we can get a bunch of raw ingredients and combine them to create our own unique recipe. I think this approach allows for far more personal freedom and growth.

    As an atheist I recognise that all relgions are human creations, so they must contain some wisdom that is beneficial for humans. The trick is to take what is good and discard what is bad. I don’t normally agree with DeBotton (his ‘atheist temple’ idea for instance is just silly) but I think he’s onto something here.

  23. I disagree. This view presupposes that there is no universal truth and that this truth could not have a conscious will. After all: we are spirits that have conscious will.. but surely we did not create ourselves. I certainly agree that we alone cannot find the entire truth (Plato’s Cave) but I certainly believe that any universal creator could reveal the truth to us, but it must be in a way that does not force our will. It created us to be unique indeed, but it also created us to love. To seek to share that love by whatever way we see fit is only serving for our own glorification and serves to no purpose in the end. After all; we are never in total control of everything. We may learn to swim the ocean in our own way, but one day the source of that ocean is going to pull the plug and no matter how uniquely you have learned to swim, if you did not get on the boat provided to you on time, it is of your own folly.
    Oh and I’m a Christian 🙂

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