This is my pyramid theory of religion:
1. Start with the broad base which is human experience. Everyone has feelings (physical/emotional/psychic) and concepts that PRECEDE all vocabulary. We sense things in sunsets or birth or forests or whatever before we have any words for them. Philosophers point out that some things FEEL different that others, more intense, more special. In the Western world there is a division between sacred and secular, sacred and profane, sacred and ordinary. In the Eastern world the difference is in the DIMENSION of the thing, a time or view or object might have a sacred dimension or maybe not. It is assumed that anything can have that dimension.
In the Western world the division has been very strong in order to keep institutionalized religion from interfering with institutionalized science.
2. Next step up is that people begin to pattern and ritualize and reach out for that which seems sacred to them. A place, an object, whatever. They claim it and identify with it. It begins to seem right to them, the proper way to be. This can include ethical advice, like generosity and protecting the vulnerable or being fair in transactions or avoiding force. They might personalize something like the force they feel at the top of a mountain and give that “person” a name, call it a “god.”
3. A community, defined as a group of people who are interrelated kindred and neighbors, begins to standardize and some taken it upon themselves to correct the others. Pretty soon there is a priest class that monitors what is sacred and makes sure that everyone knows what they are supposed to do. The trouble is that their focus shifts over time from what it good for the community to what is good for them, and as they institutionalize, what is good for their institution. Pretty soon the minister has slid over to doing and saying what will make sure the church is prosperous so it can pay his/her salary. And religious “virtue” has become a cloak to hide under.
4. Next is that the problem of status, some people being more admired and powerful than others, gets entangled with church interests so that the church is tempted to do a little quid pro quo with whomever is in power. Billy Graham prays with the president. We put God on the money.
5. Political interests often mean the victimization or shutting out of the vulnerable because they have no bargaining chips. The church, which originally was supposed to have defended the poor, the old, the children, the diseased, the crippled, the deviant, the rebel, now sells out to the politics. Burn the books, burn the people. In our time, with the nations crowded aside by corporations, that means the church sells out to corporations because by now it IS a corporation itself and its main goal is to stoke its own interests and defend its own treasure.
6. With luck, at this point they are unmasked as sclerotic and irrelevant, and a new religious movement begins again with new symbols of the holy. Often there is a major exogenous shift in the cosmic nature of things that precipitates this. The photo of the planet earth from outer space is one such shift, wordless. Another is the internet -- very wordy, flying everywhere. Another is the understanding of DNA. Our view of human existence must now admit that we are entities interwoven with everything else that exists, barely separated by thin membranes from the world where we exist, exchanging gases and fleshes all the day long, filled with nations of tiny entities that live in our guts and on our skins.
This view of human life forces a new understanding of what is sacred, but it is so deeply scientific that we cannot give up the separation of religion and research. We must find a new way to meld them. For this we don’t need priests: we need poets.
Scriver’s Reluctant Doctrine of God
Western religion (Abramic, Middle Eastern, Big Three: Judaism/Christianity/Islam) emerges from the original shift from hunting people to agriculturalists. (From Esau to Jacob.) First the invention of grain so that someone had to begin marking things on tablets to keep track, the first scribes. Also the luxury of enough food produced that not everyone had to work in the field. But then a storage problem. Villages formed so that people could live in community to pool their resources, defend their stores of grain, and begin to specialize into the first skilled artisans since they didn’t have to pack stuff around with them as nomads. Then they had to build walls around the town.
Joshua fought the battle of Jericho. And someone invented chariots: early Predator drones, horse-powered. Religion shifted focus from protecting the fields to endorsing military encounters. As the population increased, war over territory increased. Then the wood began to be used up and that affected the water and the climate, and everything began to be defined in terms of scarcity and defending the wells. Power was the goal. Winner takes all. Rome got very good at this and carried it all north across Europe.
But then there began to be stories about someone named Joshua, or Jeshua, or John, or something like that. They finally sort of melded together into Jesus, the Jew. He began to preach the importance of protecting “the least of these” and he spoke of a Leader of the Tribe, a King, an Emperor, a God of Gods, who was more powerful than anyone on earth but whose kingdom was after death. People who accepted his ideas would live forever.
Part of the genius of this was monotheism and part of it was the idea that it was a virtual kingdom. But the thinking of the time was territorial and adversarial. So God had to have an adversary: the Devil. (There went monotheism.) And the various “virtual” kingdoms insisted on realistic evidence on this planet and assurance that in this time/space that THEIRS was the winning tribe. (Winner take all.) And so was born conversion and evangelism and heretics and excommunication and shunning and who was in and who was out, and a constant pull back and forth over the line.
This was emotionally shadowed by the human family, esp. after the farming ended and the nuclear family formed with Dad the Father, Mom the Holy Ghost, and in some families, Boy the Crucified. Boys grow up. On the one hand, Dad is the worst and Mom is the best; but on the other hand, Mom is the worst and Dad is the best. Confusion.
Oh, well. Dump the family. Start over.
I do NOT like the idea of patterning religion on ANYTHING human. The only definition of God I will accept is that God is the whole thing -- RADICAL oneness, everything that can be imagined plus everything that can’t be imagined by any human being and why should it be? This is the religious Johari Window with all four panes intact. They are virtual panes. They cannot be broken, no matter how many stones we throw. It has nothing to do with books or incantations or buildings or institutions of any kind.
There is no need to be a heretic because one is part of God, inside God. If one is fighting something, it’s God but you’re God, too, and you’re probably fighting yourself. Maybe that’s a good thing and maybe not. Best to think about it. You could call that “prayer.”