Saturday, January 11, 2014


What we call “religion” is simply a “best guess” at how the world works that has been institutionalized by humans, sometimes mixed with government, and claiming knowledge of what humans cannot know.  It begins in general experience of the world (usually in a certain ecology), is elaborated by the culture and whatever social structure it has created, and is then perpetuated by humans who find it an advantage.  Or not.  After a while they forget it’s just a mental structure -- or may never have known it was that in the first place.

Religion is a bit like language -- in fact, often IS language -- meanings shift, new words are demanded, old meanings are defended -- because both are paradigms, avatars for reality.  When the reality of the culture shifts for one reason or another, then the language and the religion must shift along with them.

The 19th century Euro-Anglo movement of natural history to exploring, naming and classifying everything -- particularly creatures, plants and phenomena in the more far flung parts of the world -- meant that anthropologists finally had to admit that both the most primitive and the most sophisticated people had “religious” concepts different from those of the monarchs and nations they knew.  Their descriptions convinced ordinary people, fans of National Geographic, that such religions were arbitrary, misguided, and not true.  Soon the daring looked at the basic Abrahamic paradigm religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) in that same way.  

Since what the anthros reported seemed so arbitrary, the temptation was to simply invent a religion.  So one friend of mine, a professor of religion, and his best friend, started their own religion in which salvation was entirely dependent upon being buried standing up.  Since one had to depend on the cooperation of others to do this, salvation thus became dependent on friendship and trust.  Those were what the living person had to concentrate on.  Not a bad thing.

When the ancient body of a man was unearthed near Kennewick, WA., the tribes made it a point to claim it for religious reasons, which has been their main source of power once their ecologically anchored systems were recognized and written into the law.  So local farmers and ranchers formed an equal and opposite religion based on praying for water and claimed the body for themselves, since it was found in water.  In the meantime scientists decided that the skeleton might have been a white person, though it was presumably too old for whites to have been present at the time.  The situation became confused to the point of paralysis.

Design for Satanist monument

At present the furor over the monuments dedicated to the Ten Commandments but located on governmental yards has prompted some Satanists to require that their own monuments be placed alongside.   Religion Dispatches is a online magazine published at the University of Southern California that takes on such issues.  

Here’s an amusing reference to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, an invented God with balls.    This funny stuff arises from the mixing of government with religion and from basing a whole “religion” on one convenient issue.

Here are some criteria for a “good” religious system:

1.  Would it work as a free-standing system regardless of what authorities or big-shots sponsored or recommended it?

2.  Is it good for most people to act in the way this system proposes, for instance, the Golden Rule?   Or the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number? 

3.  Is it free of a lot of arbitrary requirements and customs that interfere with everyday life, while offering ways to symbolize one’s values?

4.  Does it allow for other entities than just humans?

5.  Does it offer community?

6.  If you take a moral stand on something you truly believe is just and true, will your religion support you?

7.  If you are in big trouble through no fault of your own, dying from some uncontrollable cause, impoverished, lost and suffering, will your religion support and comfort you?

8.  Is your religion about this world, this life, rather than some imagined place or time?

9.  Can you respect your leaders?

10.  Does your religion support your ecology: conservation of resources, restoration of damage, protection of biodiversity, enjoyment of creation?

This is just a quick list off the top of my head.  You can probably do better.  

We’re in a time when people are dislocated from the context where their religious beliefs formed, so that what made sense long ago and far away cannot really work in the here and now.  Whether that is a prohibition on birth control and non-productive sexuality or a list of what to eat and not to eat, it is often too specific to be useful when removed from that original context.  Therefore, religion needs to be moved more and more towards principles that are universal enough to be valid anywhere.

Few institutions can sustain this focus on principles because it is so much work.  The Unitarian Universalists have tried to do this, representing themselves as following principles instead of specifics, but because the congregations are spread over the continent, they cannot help but be part of where they are as much as any abstract idea.  Abstracts can only be grasped by the human mind at a certain level of sophistication and even then they are generally understood in terms of experienced specifics.  

The privilege and uniqueness of total immersion baptism in a desert environment is a far cry from squeezing out a cotton ball saturated with sterile water to baptize a premature baby in an incubator, but the abstract meaning is the same.  Or is it?  Maybe for one person it is a poetic evocation of an ancient tradition and for another the baby is having its Original Sin washed away so as to increase its chance for survival.

Likewise, representatives of religious institutions may see their task as enforcing the specifics of a prescriptive and authoritarian “God,” and others may understand themselves as seeking what will support individuals or communities.  The worst, of course, are simply perpetuating their jobs which is also the worst thing about government.

Last night I tried watching “Star Trek: First Contact” (1991) but gave it up because there was so little content once the spectacular battles were removed.  If you watch this and then watch just about any war movie, you’ll see how entwined culture/religion/war have always been.  How can we seem like anything but Borg to the mountain tribes of Afghanistan?   The original message of Star Trek was the commandment to leave people’s cultures as we find them.  Globalization has made this impossible.

The best thing about this film is the character played by James Cromwell,  “Zephram Cochran.”  With a name like that, you know he’s a mad scientist.  (Truth in advertising, Cochran is my maternal grandmother’s maiden name.)  This throws in the idea that “warp speed,” which Cochran presumably invented, is the factor like industrialization that made other galaxies accessible, setting up culture conflicts that led to dystopias like the one Cochran lives in with the aid of alcohol.  (Cochran is an Irish name.)  Sometimes simple justice and mercy prevents us from leaving people’s culture’s alone.  Ask Putin what he thinks about that.

Some of the best “religious” thinking is done by fiction writers in all media, though you might not recognize it.   The worst is done by those who promote fear in hopes that you will “buy” their ideas as the only path to safety.  It’s not religion -- it’s institutional job security.  And it's a swindle.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Heh, perfect timing. Pastafarian sworn into office.