On Practical Religion, Self-Improvement and Why Sermons Don’t Work


I listened to the imam’s Friday sermon recently and – as he exhorted us to various good things such as forgiveness, abandoning jealousy and resentment, cleaning our hearts of greed and wishing for others what we wish for themselves – I thought: easier said than done.

Personal ethics, character traits, and the emotions that drive them, largely arise at a subconscious level – they happen before your thoughts, and are more likely to control your thoughts than the reverse. Sometimes they even evade your conscious control – like they live in a part of your mind that your rationality isn’t in control of. It’s very difficult to control your character traits consciously even if you do fully accept that you should make a change (eg “I should stop being jealous” or “I should be grateful for what I have”). I speak from personal experience, and recognise what Sufyan al-Thawri meant when he reportedly said ‘Never have I dealt with anything more difficult than my own self, which sometimes helps me and sometimes opposes me.’

Consciously implementing character trait changes requires good levels of interoception (internal awareness), special tools and practices, and hard work. Many of these tools and practices are today the domain of therapy, coaching or self-help. These are things like routines, journaling (regularly writing down thoughts and feelings in order to unravel and understand them better over time), affirmations (personally-meaningful positive statements stated repeatedly on a regular basis in the hope that they sink in subconsciously), manifesting (the practice of thinking aspirational thoughts with the purpose of making them real) and meditation.

Religious traditions also embody a heavy investment into such personal development. Contemplation of personal errors, repentance for mistakes and sins, mindfulness of divine power and powerlessness of man (and therefore acceptance of what cannot be altered), monitoring intentions, abnegation and fasting, and other practices are strong features of Islam. Spiritual schools (such as Sufism in Islam) went even further into this, with mentorship, meditative practices and induced altered states of consciousness and other tools and practices (many of them sadly likely lost to time) used to cultivate internal strength, discipline, moral upstandingness and other positive character traits.

Unfortunately, our contemporary media-driven society lends itself to preaching more than it does to long-term building, and much modern religious discourse centers on telling people what to achieve rather than how – as though they should be able to achieve these things easily if they only made the decision. The problem is the reverse – most moral intuitions are capable of discerning a good destination, but the path is very difficult and people aren’t equipped with the tools by default (unless you were very lucky, most of these tools weren’t taught to you by your parents, school or community).

These tools have proliferated in fields other than religion today (such as therapy and self-help), and have seen rapid development over the last few decades – we now understand how the human brain works, the basic psychological principles at play and the mechanisms through which these tools and practices have impact. We also have large and growing bodies of experimental data (informal and scientific) on the efficacy of different practices.

These tools still need a fundamental value system to give them meaning, as well as an epistemological framework through which that system is derived, and that’s an area where religion still has a leading role (albeit a diminished one, no longer a monopoly). Rather than condemn religion to obsolescence, I think this provides a roadmap for what they could become. They provide a guiding philosophy arguing why to pursue self-improvement already – but in adopting the most effective of modern tools, in conjunction with spiritual communities, they could become a far more powerful force for personal good than they have been for a long time.