Ramakrishna would agree with the great American Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, who said we need to take religion seriously, but not literally. Niebuhr recognized that Religion is an important part of life for many people, but he didn’t advocate a narrow sanctimonious piety or an excuse for arrogance and divisiveness. Religion should not keep people apart – and it only does so when it is taken literally, legalistically, and politically, for this leads to all sorts of spiritual absurdities and social cruelties, as blind followers accept the prejudicial notions that others have told them to believe.
This kind of religion, of course, is contrary to the teachings of Moses, Socrates, Christ, Buddha, Muhammad, and other great spiritual leaders, who all taught their followers to open their hearts and minds, to be responsible, to learn how to think for themselves.
I know that what I just said does not sound at all like what many people think of when they hear the word ‘religion’! But to give just one example, this is precisely what Jesus was talking about when Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” and Jesus responded, “Do you ask this from yourself, or did others tell you about me?”
In other words, “are you just repeating what you’ve heard, or are you thinking for yourself?”
Here’s another example: In Chapter 8 of the Qur’an we read, “Truly, the worst of all creatures in the sight of God are those who do not use their Reason.” And Chapter 59 includes the statement, “All such parables we propound upon men so that they might learn to think.”
I remember a time some years ago when I was part of a spiritual group in New York City. One night our group’s leader made a statement about something, I don’t recall what it was, but I sure remember the aftermath! He asked me what I thought of what he had just claimed, and I said politely “I believe you.”
Boy, was that ever the wrong answer! He bellowed at me so that the room shook, “You believe me?!? You have no right to believe what I say! How dare you take my work for your own! You find out for yourself!”
Once I stopped shaking, I recognized that this points out the difference between a genuine spiritual Teacher and a Cult Leader. A Cult Leader tells us what we should blindly believe. A real Teacher helps us become able to think (and feel and act) for ourselves.