Friday, March 27, 2015

Finding My Religion

Over on Facebook I often find myself verbally butting heads with a co-worker from long ago over the topic of religion.  Even though I self-identify these days as a materialist and consider the twenty years I spent as a Catholic convert to be memories of times past, my position in our debates is always in defense of religion Whenever I link to a story that shows religion in any kind of a favorable light, I trust that my friend will soon comment on the dangers of all metaphysical world views, the superiority of science to religion, and the religious education of the young as a form of child abuse (here I'm doing a gross disservice to his more nuanced arguments).

Religion in all of its many forms has been a major curiosity of mine since I was seven and attended summer vacation Bible school at the Baptist church in Greensboro, North Carolina.  These days I usually write "religion" with scare quotes because I think no one has a comprehensive definition of the phenomenon with which I can agree.  The old "if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck" argument no longer seems valid.  It's not that there aren't any definitions but that there are way too many and most seem inadequate for describing what people do and think that might be called "religious." Those with the most rigid definitions tend to be atheists, those critics Schleiermacher called religion's "cultured despisers." In my experience, they inevitably try to dictate what the faithful must believe and then condemn it. Whenever I see this happening, I go into lawyer mode for the defense.

Now that I'm in the last quarter of my century, I live in Thailand where the religion of 97% of the population is said to be Buddhism. Christianity has never gotten much of a foothold here, and those Muslims living in the south have been trying to break away for decades. While Buddhism isn't officially the state religion, it's included in the government's purview and the current military dictatorship is trying to wrest control for prosecuting misbehaving monks from the ruling Sangha Council.  Buddhist temples here in Bangkok are almost as common as 7-11s.  They're usually crowded with Thais "making merit" (tam bun in Thai) by bringing gifts (often an orange bucket full of trivial items for a 20 baht donation) and receiving a blessing from the monk on duty.  We keep an altar of icons atop our bookshelf (photo above) and refresh the flowers and liquid offerings every Wan Phra (monk day on the four phases of the moon). My wife says her prayers each night before going to sleep, and when I ask what she prays for, she says "that everyone be happy."

My objective in this post and perhaps a few more in the future is to ponder the word "religion" and what the term might point to that both pleases and upsets so many.  I've written much about my own experiences with religious beliefs and practices here during the last nine years.  After all, it's the first topic in the title of my blog!  Now, however, I'd like to think a bit deeper about the disparate reactions to the phenomena that people generally think of as religious.  A number of my friends get absolutely venomous about any form of religion, and slam all of it as backward, stupid and possibly lethal. These days, fundamentalism, Islamic as well as Christian, is the object of their ire, but many atheists, new and old, argue that tolerance towards any religious thinking or activity is ludicrous.  Just as anti-drug campaigns declared that smoking marijuana opened the door to cocaine and heroin, anti-religion activists believe that even liberal or progressive religion is a stepping stone to fundamentalist extremism.

Maybe I'm tolerant toward religion because I never went to Catholic school and got my butt slapped by a nun with a ruler.  My mother joined the most fashionable churches in the many places where we moved as I was growing up while my father claimed he found his god on the golf course.  I learned about the different world religions from a couple of books given to me by a friend in high school.  In college another friend's outwardly respectable mother communicated telepathically with flying saucers and wrote a book called Wisdom of the Universe.  For a time I took part in her study group and fell in love with all the kookiness of New Age Thought that predates by many years the hippies and other more modern New Agers. For years I thought there must me something more to life and pursued a plethora of spiritual disciplines, from chanting, meditation and genuflecting to alcohol and psychedelics.  But I never had that AHA! moment I thought and hoped was possible at the end of the journey.

Despite the disappointment of not achieving what was after all only a creation of my imagination, I have remained compassionate toward others who continue to seek what I did not discover. It's up to each of us to find our own way, so why be angry with anyone who choses a path you would not? Of course it's easier to be tolerant of the seekers than of the true believers who think they've found the truth and urge, nay demand, that you recognize theirs and validate it by joining them.  I suspect the anti-religion activists are more angry about the finders than the seekers.  There is something obnoxious about the missionary who solicits your conversion and won't take "no" for an answer.

Atheism is not really an adequate term for despisers of religion.  It denies the existence of gods and other metaphysical entities but doesn't really get at the whole "spiritual but not religious" movement of seekers today.  What happens when you pull the rug of religion out from under their feet? Buddhism, at least the modern form of it in the west, gets a pass since many of its proponents argue that Buddha didn't propose a god.  There is ample evidence that Buddhism was re-tooled in Thailand, Tibet and Sri Lanka for western consumption, made to seem more scientific and anti-metaphysical than the early scriptures would indicate. There are passages in the Pali scripture where Buddha speaks of devas and the different realms of heaven and hell, embarrassingly close to the monotheistic cosmologies.  Visitors to Thailand are surprised to see so many icons of Hindu deities in shrines, to learn of the popular belief in spirits, both good and bad, and to hear of the many methods of protection against spirits enjoyed by Thais, from tattoos to amulets.

Despisers of religion prefer science based on evidence and reason as the best description and guide for reality.  The scientific method yields truth, or at least the best hypothesis until a better one comes along to explain the origin or the mechanics of how life works.  Any other method comes up with superstition and idolatry.  Religion is ignorance writ large.  To deny the facts of science is stupid, and dangerous.  After explicating the mechanics of evolution, Richard Dawkins has devoted his life to stamping out the disgusting vermin of religion.  Others have joined him: the late iconoclast Christopher Hitchings, philosopher Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris (who says he's a Buddhist) and the comic commentator Bill Maher who lampooned religious belief in his documentary "Religulous."  At times their activities have the air of a crusade.  The social media has allowed atheism to become more vocal and more prominent, although it remains the kiss of death of politicians.

Some pretty scary people can be found at both ends of the spectrum.  In America numerous elected officials are making pronouncements supposedly based on Christian teaching that encourage hatred and discrimination of others.  In the Middle East, fanatics claiming to be Muslims are slaughtering their opponents and anyone who gets in their way with Medieval efficiency.  Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka declare that Islam is a threat to their nationalist religion.  On the other end of the spectrum, official atheism in the Soviet Union under Stalin and Mao in China was responsible for hardship and death.  The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Viet Cong in Vietnam destroyed churches and monasteries and tried unsuccessful to stamp out religion.  Eliminating religion is about as successful as forced conversions.  After the breakup of the USSR, orthodox Christianity came back with a vengeance and now is a conservative force in Russia.

Religion is the elephant and we are the blind describing it from different perspectives with only the other senses to go by.  My current point of view is to avoid the word "religion" as much as possible. It has become reified beyond all meaning.  Atheists frequently mean by it the religious institutions, authorities and sacred texts.  It's easy to ridicule the monotheisms by pulling texts out of context from the Bible or Quran.  Religion they believe refers to dogma, to the propositions that followers must affirm according to their leaders.  If you argue that Catholics get abortions and use birth control just like everyone else, they'll argue these are not really Catholics and remove them from the equation.

In place of "religion," there are many alternate ways to describe those participating in religious activities.  Here in Thailand, Buddhism (mixed with Hinduism and animism) is an intricate part of the culture; there is no division between the sacred and the secular which occurred after the French revolution and Enlightenment era in Europe.  One's religion becomes an essential part of one's identity, not unlike the team football fans root for.  The language used by co-religionists solidifies their community and allows members to be recognized.  While fundamentalists treat religious stories as literal truth, many traditions base their meanings on universal myths and pedagogical metaphors. Anthropomorphism, rather than being error, can also be a useful technique for negotiating the dangers of reality. Struggles between religions are quite often a conflict over something else, like land and resources, and religious identity can be used to compel participation.  To see religion as only institutions, authorities and texts is to miss the way that humans have used their imagination to make sense of their reality, and to find truth and beauty in the process.

I was thinking of R.E.M.'s song, "Losing My Religion," when I titled this post, and thinking of it ironically.  But of course I haven't "found" (or "lost") anything.  I was "in the corner" and now I'm out of it.  "Religion" is only a site of contestation, a term of dispute with no pure content.  And yet people fight and die for their religious concepts.  Academics declared for a few centuries that religion was increasingly unimportant and irrelevant.  Advanced civilization and modernity had no need of such illusory thinking.  But of course they were mistaken.  Current events show this.  And yet, no one can agree on what religion is.  How strange!

If these ideas seem scattered, it's because I have been thinking about them for a lifetime and their slipperiness and changeability make it difficult to put them into an organzied form.  If anyone finds these questions and proposals intriguing, and they speak to your condition, please let me know.  If not, no matter.  It's time for me to chew over these matters, organized or not, to find out how and what I think.  I will conclude with a couple of videos on the question of religion which I found interesting. Karen Armstrong is particularly astute at arguing persuasively that the meaning of "religion" today has changed considerably.

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