Top-Down and Bottom-Up Religion


The first, perhaps, in a series of posts on Indian religion.


Religion is a surprisingly eely concept, as most large and ancient things are. But to my mind, religion is, simply, a thesis about how human beings should relate to the transcendent and a comprehensive set of practices to develop that relationship.

With this view, I see a natural division between two kinds of religious practice.

The first kind is what I call top-down religion, and I expect that to many who grew up in the West, it is the only kind of religious practice there is. Top-down religion centers on a supreme authority at the top of a hierarchy of being from whom flows all law and order. This authority defines what it means for an act to be right or wrong, often through an infallible revelation to a chosen prophet. Correct practice is to become more obedient and conformant to this authority and its laws, and the reward for this practice is to live in an immortal paradise.

I associate top-down religions with lines: start to finish, lower to higher, beginning to end, and similar dualisms.

Top-down religion is systematic and ordered, and its community structures are likewise based on elaborate systems of rank, hierarchy, and lineage. Those outside of its ken, sadly, are subject to varying levels of torment. In conventional society, it resists dissent, sometimes to the point of violence. The mediocre view is that religion is thus responsible for this violence; but the result would be the same for any vital idea unable to tolerate dissent.

The second kind is what I call bottom-up religion, which is less well-known in the West.

Bottom-up religion centers on personal authority and one's own relationship with the transcendent. Actions are conventionally or contingently wrong — or in another framing, they might be called skillful or unskillful to a particular circumstance. Correct practice is to gradually become more skilled and perceptive through regular training, and the reward for this practice is self-knowledge and insight into natural law.

I associate bottom-up religions with circles: seasons, generations, interdependencies, and cycles of creation and destruction.

Bottom-up religion is decentralized and messy. At its worst, it is anarchic, self-indulgent, and incoherent. But this is not a necessary condition. Order and structure arises from natural law, and there are experts and masters who live in accordance with this law who are capable of training the eager aspirant.

Since skills and methods are contingently appropriate to the student, there is no absolute method or practice. Thus bottom-up religion tends to be highly pluralistic and draws its teachings from a constellation of sages, saints, and wanderers.


Any conventional religion of a certain age has both top-down and bottom-up elements. But I think each religion tends to have a specific orientation. Thus the Abrahamic religions are quite clearly top-down, and the Dharmic ones are quite clearly bottom-up.

But, these are not absolute categories. More conservative forms of Buddhism seem top-down to my eyes, and likewise the Sufi mystics seem more bottom-up.

If you can't tell, my heart is with the bottom-up practice. But sadly, it is precisely because bottom-up practices are pluralistic and ecumenical that top-down practices are so hostile to them.