The question of law and regulation has been part of the fabric of debate in religious school for centuries. Both Isaiah and Jesus criticized the Jewish establishment for enmeshment in minor rules such as hand washing at the expense of being merciful to the people. Martin Luther criticized the Roman Church for making religion more about their legal statutes rather than a relationship with God. In the current American system, focus on moralist behavior has made many people question whether the church has any concern for them individually if their lifestyle is less than perfect. It is not unusual for them to abandon the formal religious system entirely.
Abraham Heschel, the Jewish philosopher, questions what role religion has in a post-modernist society. He states that in life, man has become too concerned with comfort, looking for religion to fit his needs rather than the other way around. Religion, in turn, looks to fit the needs of the customer, and becomes the servant that cannot fulfill its master's wishes. By compromising its purpose, which is to be a beacon of justice, it becomes just another counterpart in a world dominated by consumerism. An example of this could be the plethora of denominations that exist within Judaism and Christianity, as though religion was being catered in an all-you-can-eat Italian dinner.
The idea of religion catering to man makes little sense to someone who can't get marital counseling because she didn't get married in the church, or a gay couple who doesn't feel comfortable worshipping in public because they feel their sexuality will be the only aspect that will be focused on. These people certainly don't feel catered to at all; they feel that they are exploited. But this may actually be a strong example of catering, except the catering is not to these people, but their accusers. Because what some people go to worship for is a sense of order in a strange and unfeeling world. Divvying things into black and white gives a sense of comfort. What movie is okay to see if I am a religious Muslim? I don't know, let's call the imam. Is it okay for Christian women to wear bikinis? I don't know, but the pastor said that women need to be modest. Is a bikini modest? I don't know, let's get a second opinion. The comfort comes in letting another make decisions for them. In the cases of the people in the beginning of the paragraph, some congregates may think this way: if the elders decide that only people who are married in religious ceremonies can get marital counseling, and the pastor says that homosexuality is an abomination in the eyes of God, it sounds good to me. If they don't like it, they can go to the church down the street. What are you bringing to next Sunday's potluck?
Freedom within a religious context increases the moral fiber of a person and strengthens the conscience of the individual so he can make these moral decisions comfortably himself instead of incessantly relying on the judgment of another. Comfortable platitudes do nothing to instill a sense of moral righteousness in a person; it only makes him a parrot of someone else's rhetoric. So how does one learn to instill this kind of conscience? How does one learn to use freedom responsibly, so when it comes to making an individual choice, he wishes to do the right thing?
The first thing that needs to happen is a change of focus, to be concerned for all of humanity instead of asking, what's in it for me. This needs to be combined with the easily misunderstood statement of, what is it that I can give to another person. This has nothing to do with being the slave of others' whims. Many times, a person who caves in constantly is not being moral or selfless at all, but is concerned what others think of her. If a free person is honest about what she can give in any given situation, then she is willing to give just because it's the right thing, and it is within a context that she enjoys. An example might be, I enjoy sports, so I will use that talent to play and display ethical competition to my teammates and opponents, and thus increase sportsmanship in the arena that I play. A person who enjoys business could sell a product for the explicit use to benefit others, say, electronic communication for people in poorer regions. He would treat his employees with respect and pay them a living wage, and refuse to compromise on this determination. Even going out to lunch with friends could be raised to an ethical level. The participants would agree that gossip is not going to be part of the menu and instead hold the discussion to a level that doesn't denigrate others.
The second thing that needs to happen is to cultivate the characteristic of delaying gratification. Too much indulgence leads to an atrophy of thinking. This doesn't mean that everyone should live the life of an ascetic, but to realize that the world doesn't exist solely as his playground. Looking for indulgences only leads to a stronger appetite for more entertainment. An example of this would be someone who goes on a shopping spree to make herself feel better. She goes on a frenzy buying, yet doesn't feel any better when she finishes. She then looks for something else, maybe chocolate or a bottle of wine. In the meantime, she is now in debt. Indulgence in and of itself is a misuse of freedom. It causes a sense of passivity as well, which leads to a vicious cycle: indulgence leads to passivity, which leads to indulgence, which leads to passivity. An example is a person who lives for his Friday night drinking bout; he can tolerate a horrible job where the boss abuses him all week if he knows he's getting blasted that weekend. Delay of gratification and proper use of freedom in this person's case would mean that he would have to step back and become honest where his life is going, which he may not want to do. This self assessment may lead to the realization that he wants to start his own business, but he is too afraid of what it would entail. Maybe he wants to start his life over somewhere else, but that would upset other people; people whom he doesn't really like but is afraid of losing their approval nonetheless. So he stays at his lousy job as long as he knows he can get plastered.
This leads to the third step of cultivating freedom, which is getting in touch with what it is that you really want to do, are able to do, and what your inner direction is. Many times this requires a person to be quiet with himself and pay attention to himself in ways he hadn't done before. A person may listen to herself when an urge to do illicit drugs comes up because it is easier than asking herself if what she is doing in her life is truly useful. By taking drugs, she may then become a scapegoat who is told what to do constantly because obviously, if she's taking drugs, she has to be told what to do. She then abdicates her sense of responsibility and defers it to others, much the way Adam and Eve did in Genesis: I don't know, she made me do it, I don't know, the devil made me do it. In this respect, she manages to escape the important questions in her life entirely. Being willing to ask yourself dangerous questions, such as what can I give in this life, is an important step in cultivating free thinking.
The need for comfort has gotten so bad that many people are uncomfortable with free time, needing to have others tell them what to do and who they are. Many people act as if they don't have a choice to do something differently with their lives, and blame their inertia on the fact that society expects it of them, or their house of worship said to do it this way. Houses of worship become cults of personality based on who is running the place at the time instead of a refuge for those who are suffering injustice, and as long as I'm getting what I need, it doesn't matter what is happening outside of my circle. Religion and spirituality do not function well as either an opiate or an addiction. It functions best when one cultivates a relationship with a higher deity who will hone his conscience, so he can determine his own life path. Then and only then is when religion and freedom can be comprehended within the same phrase.