Minimalism and Religion

I’ve always been fascinated by the philosophical aspects of world religions. As I mentioned in a previous post, I see many more commonalities among different doctrines than I see differences—and one of those happens to be their emphasis on simple living.

Across the board, the great spiritual leaders were not known for their riches or worldly possessions; rather, they led simple and humble lives, rejecting material goods in favor of teaching and service.

Jesus, usually depicted as owning little more than his robe and sandals, is quoted as saying, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

Moses gave up “the treasures of Egypt” to lead the Israelites’ Exodus across the Red Sea. He relied on faith, not wealth or power, to sustain his people as they wandered in the desert, and they were bestowed with “manna from heaven.”

The prophet Muhammad is said to have lived with few material goods, patching his shoes, mending his clothes, and eating and sleeping on the floor. He advised, “Wealth is not in having vast riches, it is in contentment.”

Gandhi, the great Hindu leader, died with less than ten earthly possessions—including his sandals, watch, eating bowl, prayer book, and spectacles. One of his most famous quotes: “Live simply so that others may simply live.”

Siddhārtha Gautama, the historical Buddha, was an Indian prince who renounced his worldly possessions in search of spiritual enlightenment. He taught that desire is the primary cause of unhappiness, and that “joy comes not through possession or ownership but through a wise and loving heart.”

The Chinese sage Confucius abandoned a comfortable life as Minister of Justice to teach his doctrine of ethics. He said, “”With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and my bent arm for a pillow—I have still joy in the midst of all these things.”

Lao Tzu, father of Taoism, championed simplicity and humility with such quotes as “Manifest plainness, embrace simplicity, reduce selfishness, have few desires” and “He who knows he has enough is rich.”

So I can’t help but wonder: if so many people subscribe to these religions, and their leaders were such powerful proponents of simplicity, why are consumerist lifestyles so prevalent?

Now I know that starting an internet discussion on religion can be a dangerous thing. We all have our own beliefs, and we’re often quite passionate about them. However, I trust that we can share our knowledge here without resorting to “my religion is better than yours” or “my religion is right and yours is wrong.”

I’d like this discussion to explore the threads of simplicity that are woven throughout the world’s religions. I’m not an expert in any of them, and would love to hear quotes, stories, and other examples of minimalist living in different faiths. Above all, I’d like to celebrate this beautiful philosophy that so many religions share.

So if you’re game, tell us something about simplicity and your faith in the Comments. (And for those of you who don’t follow an organized religion, please feel free to chime in with how simplicity plays a role in your own brand of spirituality—be it centered on nature, the Universe, etc.)

Just please, please, please do me one favor: refrain from any negative comments on others’ beliefs, and focus on positive ones about your own! :)

92 comments to Minimalism and Religion

  • Lisa

    In my own experience, I find that if I actually live the tenets of my religion, with time and effort spent on prayer, meditation, observance, and ritual, there is much less desire for material things as a way to fulfill my spirit.

    My husband and I have not had cable television, by choice, in 7 years. We are less materialistic without it. This may not be true for everyone, but the more we watched (especially home improvement shows), the more we wanted. I can’t help but feel that hours spent nightly in front of the tv, more than any other activity, contribute to materialism.

    What would happen to society if we reversed typical habits, and spent one hour per week watching tv, and 14 hours per week practicing our faith?

  • I am a witch and my religion is based around nature’s cycles, the goddess and god and the interconnectedness of everything. Having lots of unnecessary stuff just chokes up the flow of energy around me and each object carries its own vibration for me so life can feel “noisy” if I don’t live simply. Dead people’s things can feel sad and objects associated with conflict can hold on to anger. Witches often symbolically sweep out their houses with a broom after they’ve cleared the physical stuff and we know there’s great magic in simplicity on all levels.

    • Annie Ashby

      We hold different beliefs, but I agree that too much stuff creates a negative atmosphere! I believe a ‘clean sweep’ would benefit many of us, me included!

  • Jen

    Jesus tells a parable about an evil spirit leaving a house – the house in this parable being a person. The spirit then goes out and travels through a dry and empty land, returning to the house. The evil spirit, finding the house empty, returns with seven friends to re-inhabit the house again. The house (aka the person) is worse off than before because it remained empty after ridding itself of the evil spirit. (The Bible – Matthew 12 )

    What does this mean for minimalism? It can’t be an end in itself. The point isn’t to merely clean out corners and find fulfillment in empty space. The point is to make room in our lives to have our cups filled by love – for and from others, and for and from God. If we remain empty, we may as well have left the clutter.

    • Di

      I agree: minimalism cannot be an end in itself. There must be something to fill the space previously occupied by clutter; otherwise it becomes dead space and a dead fruitless life.

  • Annie Ashby

    Thank you for this thought provoking post! I am a practicing Christian (and a Baptist by faith) – many of the scriptural teachings caution against forming attachments to “earthly treasures” and the problems that may result. Greed, the coveting of others’ property, theft, the creation of a false idol, all stem from turning thoughts toward the materil things in life. That seems true of many – if not all – faiths. If that many beliefs hold these things in commom, there must be truth in in!

  • Cynthia

    I’m a follower of Jesus and His scripture that comes to mind for this article is
    “don’t store up treasures for yourself here on earth, where thieves break in and steal,
    and moths and rust destroy. Store up things for yourself in heaven instead, for
    where your heart is, that is where your treasure will be.” Beautiful words that keep
    me focused on Him and not what I own.

  • Thanks for this post and pointing out the tradition of simplicity among the world traditions. I’m a Quaker and one of our main tenants is simplicity. I’ve been traveling down the path for some time now. My most recent actions have been to eliminate my television subscription (almost a year ago) and to embark on a no-shopping challenge for 3 months. I am encouraged by many of the comments and believe that there is a growing trend to eschew materialism and to spend time and energy on the things that really matter.

  • Judy Harris

    What an intriguing question! How does Christianity simplify my life? Christianity narrows it down and keeps me centered and focused on what is true. There is only one God, one Savior, and one way. That eliminates the muck that clogs my life. Rather than discovering my own truth, I discover God’s. Rather than going blindly forward, I let him light my path. Rather than rescuing myself, I let him save me. When fear, past wounds or desires distort my view, he sheds light on the situation. When I get obsessed with things, relationships, or positions he shows me what really matters. If I start getting complicated, his truth simplifies my choices. When I am burdened, he carries my load. When I try to be in control, he laughs and shows me I’m not. When I don’t know where to turn, he holds my hand. When I’m stressed out he soothes me. When I feel offended his solution to forgive eliminates bitterness. When it seems so random, he shows me my purpose. When I seek him first, everything else falls into place and works out. Christianity is a beautiful release and the closer I become to my God the more I let go of the superfluous that weighs me down.

    • thia

      Judy, that was beautifully said and it gave me angel bumps. Truer words were never spoken. thank you for expressing your thoughts.

  • Excellent reflection on religion and simple living. For many years I worked as a Youth Minister in the Catholic Church and I was very fond of taking retreats at a Benedictine monastery in Michigan. I loved the simple way in which the monks lived, holding all things in common and having very few personal possessions. Over the last 20 years I have slowly (unknowingly almost) made my life more “monastic.” Spirituality is more about “being” than about “doing” or adhering to strict belief systems. Religion is (or should be) about living. I think consumerism is actually a form of religion in the same way as practicing a minimal way of life. We “believe” what we consume will make us happier, better, prettier, etc.

  • Delores

    One of the sayings I have heard, probably badly paraphrased, is that if you have too much stuff, then you are keeping someone else’s stuff as well. So if you have two coats and only need one, then you are depriving someone else of their coat. It really made me think about what I keep and in our house we often talk about how we seem to have collected too much of other people’s stuff and it’s time to give some back.
    I’m Catholic/Christian and I believe I’m quoting St. Benedict badly.

  • Anne

    The interesting thing is that one day this week our priest was talking about the importance of simplicity and being satisfied instead of always wanting more. Afterwards my dh asked if I enjoyed the sermon because it was exactly what I’ve been telling him for awhile now. It was nice for him to hear it from someone else.

    I thoroughly agree that the religions do have a great deal in common. Besides simplicity, treating others with love can be found in all. If only we could follow the basic tenets, the world would be a better place regardless of what religion we choose to follow.

  • runi

    I am a vegan who follows the Wiccan Rede, “An (if) ye harm none, do as ye will”. What could be simpler than that.

  • Wes

    There is no religion is most more minimalist than having no religion.

    That being said,”Across the board, the great spiritual leaders were not known for their riches or worldly possessions; rather, they led simple and humble lives, rejecting material goods in favor of teaching and service.”

    Have you seen the digs the Pope lives in, Peter Popoff anyone? What LDS chuch?

  • kellie

    I was born into a Roman Catholic family and I endured my share of religious “education”. I went to church as a child, observed all the holidays. And for what? No answers beyond, “Because I said so.” And this from an organization that supported graft, larceny, child and sexual abuse, and did their best to cover up scandals and hide their misdeeds. Which shouldn’t have been surprising in light of the past 2000 years of their history.

    I looked into religion to see if there was some kind of logic, some way of proving there was someone, some group, something, in charge of the universe. I did get some truth there. The answers? We can’t prove or disprove the existence of a supreme being. We don’t know if there is life after death. We do know that any mystical experience is a unique, personal experience. We think mystical experiences are manifestations of mental conditions; but we don’t know if they are caused by the brain, or working through the brain.

    In short, nobody knows. Fine, let them advertise all they want, as long as they pay for it.

    One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious. We should not retreat from this accomplishment.

    To be blunt, intelligent people can see beyond the fairy tales and the lies.

    • Jayne

      This antitheist attitude does no good. There are intelligent Christians and Buddhists and Muslims, just as there are intelligent agnostics and atheists. There are also those who don’t use critical thinking skills in both camps. These qualities are not derived from religion or lack thereof, but of careful study, assessment and willingness to learn. Calling the beliefs of others fairy tales and lies fosters nothing.

  • The Graduate

    Although I am not giving the direct place it says in the Bible, I do remember that Moses, when walking in the desert, has manna fall from heaven to provide. Many people know this part of the story, what they fail to remember was the instructions that came along with that. Although there was infinate manna that was provided, they were told to gather only what they each need, no more and no less. If they kept this, manna would continue to fall from the heavens, if they did not…it would no longer be provided in their wandering. I think this speaks a lot to the movement of minimnalism and simplicity, to use and keep only what we truly need, no more, no less.

    And a small comment about intellegence and religion. I respect people that beleive that religion is “fairtales and lies”, though I also respect the opinon (and my own experience as a research scientist) that the more I learn about science, the more I beleive that it is more than scientific coincidence. Thank you for bringing up your views, so that I can more clearly define mine. The quotation that I always attribute to my scientific view of religion is this from C.S. Lewis: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” No matter what you beleive or do not believe, it truly is the lens on how we see our world, be it scientific or otherwise. Everyone is free to wear their own lenses to the table…and everyone wears lens, it is just a matter of which they wear. :)

  • Kellie

    There are none as blind as those that cannot see that religion is now and has always been the basis for most of the hatred between mankind. It has been the basis for racism, bigotry and ignorance in the world. It has a history of separating those who have much from those who have nothing at all.

    Religion is the opiate for the masses. Just say ‘NO’ to it.

  • Heather

    My faith has taught me to share my abundance that I am blessed with in my life. I believe in living with just what I need and leaving some for others. It’s a simple idea and life for me. : )

  • Lilly

    I’m Catholic and Jesus is a great example of a minimalist. He led a very simple life, with few material possesions. When He lived on earth he had an enormous amount of love for everyone as He continues to do today. What else could you ask for? Eternal Love. There’s nothing better than that! Minimalism simplified to its core.

  • Henny

    I do not follow or identify myself any organized religion, but am a very spiritual person. If I had to declare a religion for myself, I guess I would simply call it Mother Nature, and my only scripture would be “Tread lightly upon the Earth.”

  • Caroline

    In all my studying of religion (formal and informal), I (and others I’m sure) have basically concluded that religion is just a word for a set of beliefs, ie the way you live your life. Sometimes it has an official name, sometimes it doesn’t. So my ‘religion’ these days is just regarding physical possessions as less important than non-physical. Life feels richer with more experiences and people than stuff. I’m not really looking for a ‘simple’ life – just one with the right kind of complexity.

  • Bravo Francine,

    I feel so blessed to know you, through what you share here with us each week. You have managed to bring such a beautiful diversity of perspectives all under your blogging roof, all peaceably sharing their innermost truths of the spiritual.

  • I think you’ve hit on something important here about minimalistic living being a common denominator in religious leadership. But I think religion should go further and try to be minimalistic in its ideas as well and I don’t see as much evidence of this. Even when things begin simply, as in monotheism, they soon start to get complicated in terms of precepts, dogmas, rituals, mythologies, institutions and so on.

    I saw a great church, too great for me,
    I mused beneath a shady tree.
    But then I wondered was it great at all?
    Does God require roof and wall?

    And what cathedral can touch the sky?
    What art exceeds the artist’s eye?
    What bishop comprehends creation’s start?
    What dogma guides better than a simple heart?

    So I have made my church the church of sky,
    With nothing between my God and I.
    Come share it with me, if you will,
    We gather not upon a hill.

  • Taryn

    I’m a Christian. I don’t watch religious tv. I was raised Catholic but was married in the Baptist church. I still attend a Baptist church. I prefer the King James Bible. For years I had several versions but now I only read the KJ Bible after comparing it with the others. The other day my daughter and I were shopping for a new calendar. I told her it had to have KJ Scriptures on it not New King James or any of the other versions. I found one for the kitchen at Walmart for under $5. I don’t listen to Contemporary Christian music anymore. I have enjoyed learning the hymns.

  • Rachelle

    I completely agree that there is so much beauty and inspiration for living simply in many faiths. I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly referred to as Mormons) and I just watched such an inspiring little video by my church that I think illustrates the value of focusing on what matters most in life. Here is the link if anyone is interested in watching it http://youtu.be/l70e1TfN34w. It is a youtube video called Moments That Matter Most. It is simply a beautiful message that could inspire all people, regardless of faith. I was deeply touched as I watched it. I think the cultural pull of consumerism is a strong one so I am always seeking inspiration to focus on the things I truly value most in life and let go of everything else that distracts me from it. I have been finding some of that inspiration on this blog, so thank you.

  • Heather

    I am a Muslim. Islam requires us to share what we have with those less fortunate. The Qur’an exhorts charity and moderation — which is harder to accomplish if you buy too much and have too much.

    The atmosphere of a mosque (the Muslim equivalent of a church) is peaceful. Quiet. Some are quite ornate, some are plain white walls and patterned carpet, with a few chairs for the elderly or infirm who can’t get up and down on the floor during the prayers. This minimalist atmosphere is beautiful and highly conducive to spiritual growth.

  • Lobo

    Has anyone also looked into Philosophy and minimalism? I mean a true “Philosophy of life”, as the ancients meant it – a way to live the best life. I have recently taken to Stoicism, which is nothing like the dictionary definition of the word. Stoics believe that the best good in life is happiness/tranquility, and also that materialism is to be avoided.

    One of the most famous Stoics, Epictetus, said, “It is impossible that happiness, and yearning for what is not present, should ever be united.”

    One of the many exercises they recommend is negative visualization – to frequently imagine how things may be worse. This is in an effort to get us to obtain satisfaction, even joy, from what we already have. Another technique is to practice self-denial, to prepare yourself for the chance that it may not be a choice. I can tell you from experience that these practices are more effective than you would ever think.

    On the religion note, I am a Christian. I think the minimalist principles are undertaught at church (among a vast amount of other fundamental principles). I worry that it has become more about going to church and giving your 10% than about truly living the life God has meant for all of us. In my case, the pure analytical nature of philosophy has done more to change who I am than going to church ever did (and it has also increased my faith likewise).

  • […] yandan, bu minimalizm hayat tarzı bütün bilinen dini inançların da kesişen kümesi…Dinler minimalist bir hayat tarzını öngörüyor. Peygamberler de […]

  • Tina

    We learn as Jews to give charity. To be content with enough. And then there is the whole book of Ecclesiastes about nothing being permanent. We are always having charity drives and food drives. We know that we may lose everything and have to leave whatever country we are in with only one suitcase. There is no sense in piling up possessions. “Justice,justice shall you pursue” is right out of prophets.

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