An advice vacuum

Spacewalk photo courtesy NASA

I have some confessions to make. And I would like to ask for your help.

When I first started writing this site, my outline called for a page on the topic of “approaching” in general. By that I mean the process of looking around for a spiritual system that is a good personal fit, evaluating alternatives, gradually getting more involved, asking sensible questions at each step.

“Spiritual shopping,” some call it; but that sounds disparaging. I think this “shopping” is something everyone ought to do, before getting seriously involved with any religious system.

I expected that writing the “approaching in general” page would be quick and easy—because I expected to steal the content. (That’s my first confession.) I didn’t know of anything about this written specifically for Buddhists, so I planned to read a couple of books aimed at a mainstream audience, extract the main points, make some minor changes to reflect the Buddhist context, write it up quickly and move on.

I kept putting it off, because I had trouble finding the “how to choose a sect” books written for a general audience. It didn’t seem pressing.

I kept an eye out. I asked around. I googled.

I asked some more people. I googled again.


I feel stupid. (That’s my second confession.) Three years have gone by. I still think that there must be something worthwhile written about this—but I haven’t found it yet. For instance, there are high school and college religious guidance counselors—surely there is something written for them, explaining how to help students clarify their religious orientation and aim them toward a suitable tradition? If so, I haven’t found it.

There are some things written on “how to choose a religion”—but the ones I have found make it a joke. They ridicule the process, more or less good-naturedly; the implication is that any comparison or evaluation is obviously silly. I don’t understand this.

There is quite a lot of serious writing on “how people do choose religions.” What I have read falls into two categories.

  • Some is sociological or anthropological, and looks at the social and cultural bases for choice. Most people choose religious groups mainly on the basis of “do I feel comfortable with these people.” But I think this should be only one of many criteria, and not the most important.
  • The rest is written from the standpoint of an author’s own religious tradition, which he assumes is the only right one, for everyone. He explains to a general audience why you ought to convert to his tradition. Or, to the church leadership, he explains how to convince seekers to convert. I find this unhelpful. What’s needed is neutral advice on how to find a good personal fit, not justification for the One True Way.

The only advice genre I’ve found explains “how to spot a dangerous cult.” There’s lots written about that, and it’s worth reading some. But it addresses the question “is this religious group good for anyone.” The question I am more interested in is “supposing this group is basically OK and useful for someone, how do I figure out whether it is a good fit for me?”

Through most of history, the question “how do I go about choosing a religion” has rarely come up. In most times and places, there were few options—often only one. Where religions coexisted, almost everyone adopted the religion of their family/tribe/ethnic group, without question.

But the “spiritual supermarket” has been open in the West for decades. Tens of millions of people do deliberately look about and comparison-shop. That is a daunting process. Wouldn’t some advice be helpful?

I have been through this myself, and I have talked with many other people in various stages of the process. I have quite a lot to say about it.

I feel completely unqualified and inadequate, though. Choosing a religion is a serious and important business, and the advice I can give is based just on off-hand observations.

I am hesitant to say anything. On the other hand, if it is really true that nothing has been written about this, then I feel I have a responsibility to do the best I can. (Maybe that will provoke someone better-qualified to do a better job.)

Can you help?

So I would like to ask for two kinds of help from you.

  • If you know of anything written about this, which you have found helpful, could you point me to it?
  • If you have thoughts or advice about looking for, comparing, evaluating, selecting, or getting involved with spiritual or religious systems or traditions or groups—based on your personal experience or observation—I’d love to hear about it.

Please leave a comment below! Thank you. I will credit any suggestions I use, unless you’d rather be anonymous.