Sunday, May 17, 2015

Something About Religion

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

John Lennon, "Imagine"

Jim, my faithful interlocutor on Facebook, rarely fails to comment when I post something about religion.  We almost never agree.  He's an accomplished writer and musician and he hates religion in any shape or form.  For the most part, he's in sympathy with the outspoken "New Atheists" (though he hates that label) -- Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris.  Though our dialogues are often frustrating, I appreciate the challenge of his persistent attempts to push over my dominoes.  I have been engaged for some time now in saving the appearances (using Owen Barfield's phrase) of religion.  For me, this means searching for value in the human questions that receive a variety of answers from the cultural traditions that are called religious.  These questions, rarely scientific, are also my own.

In Marx's well-known analysis,
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
Marx believed that politics could erase the conditions that brought suffering, but that has not been the case.  The suffering of humanity, however, is real.  It is the central point of the Buddha's teaching. Religious explanations for this fact vary enormously and solutions to the problem of suffering, the "opium" offered by the numberless sects, range from "love your neighbor" to the "Last Judgment" and Holy War (jihad).

Is it possible for a materialist, who believes that the body and brain are all we have to survive in this world (and not for long), to affirm the importance of the question of suffering without accepting most of the answers that the different religions have proposed?  This is my project.

To begin at the beginning, I call into question the very term "religion."  The latest scholarship in religious studies argues that this word has come into use only in modern times.  Most languages do not distinguish religious from ordinary behavior.  The study of "world religions" arose with the discovery of non-Christian religious practices and was developed and defined by western scholars, many of them linguists in the employ of colonial enterprises.  Today, it's a classic case of reification, where an invented word becomes a thing ("unicorn" is another).  Religion, according to Jonathan Z. Smith, consists simply of the activities of human beings. In other words, it's an aspect of culture. According to anthropologist Clifford Geertz, religion is
(1) a system of symbols (2) which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men (3) by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
You might say the same of dancing, or of playing sports.

Here in Thailand where I now live, there seems to be no divide between secular and sacred activities. Thais pay their respects to altar images (many of them Hindu), ancient trees, and go to the temple regularly for a blessing from a monk without calling attention to these activities as something special. Taxis and new shops are inaugurated with ritual ceremony.  People wear amulets featuring images of popular monks and are symbolically tattooed as a form of protection from unhappy ghosts.  Is this superstition or religion? Even Buddhists are unable to decide definitively.  How do you tell the difference?

These days cognitive scientists are turning to religion to understand the popularity and spread of metaphysical ideas.  They have discovered a tool-kit of mental faculties that evolved to make life easier for humans 10,000 years ago. They have verified in experiments that young children are born with perceptions and instincts enabling them to detect unseen agents and predict what they're thinking.  These new theories explain the possibility of religion (I'll use the word for human activities with particular characteristics) without predicting what particular forms it will take. God, of course, is the unseen agent writ large, and we (or the theologians) know what he's thinking.

Vocal atheists and haters of religion are reacting to real circumstances.  Christians in America campaign against abortion and homosexuality, Muslims in Syria and Iraq slaughter those who they deem threatening, Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka persecute Muslims, and Jews in Israel bomb Palestinians back to the Stone Age.  Not so long ago, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland were at each other's throats.  It seems that Holy War is the dominant conflict in the 21st century. Others look behind the religious curtain and see conflicts over land and power, the same political struggles humans have engaged in since the dawn of history.

Religious activities have historically been organized and controlled by authorities, a priestly caste. Replete with all the harmful characteristics of institutional structures, these religions have declared their followers a "chosen people," defined the dogma they must affirm, and punished heretics for blasphemy and other deviations in belief.  Their prophets have demanded obedience and promised rewards or punishment in a life after death, whether in a heaven or a hell.  Scribes who claim to take dictation from a deity have written books to be worshipped that contain stories glorifying suffering, hatred of the body, subjection of women, and practices of purification that include genital mutilation. Missionaries carrying their holy texts have accompanied armies for the forced conversion of subject peoples.  The whole sorry history of what we call religion gives the lie to any notion of human progress.

And yet...  Religious believers have given hospitality to strangers, healed the sick at a great cost to themselves, and forgiven debts from horrible crimes as well as loans.  Soup kitchens, schools and hospitals have been inspired by different religious messages. I was raised in the 1940s on a radio version of "The Greatest Story Every Told," a retelling of the life of Jesus, and the love and kindness in the parables brought me to tears.  I am still moved by the core message of the Gospels without its institutional cloak.  The Buddhists around me in Thailand, raised on a message of compassion in the Buddha's teaching, are incredibly generous to the beggars and fund raisers I see on the streets every day.  Religious art and music can lift the heart to new heights.  For me, the impetus for these activities that bring humans and communities together is at its root a response the the awareness of the suffering of the other.

So this is my dilemma.  At their best, human beings can transcend the barriers that divide them and see themselves in another who might in fact be a member of group they traditionally hate, like the Samaritan in the Gospel story.  Fear of the other is a legacy from the days when people lived in tribes and struggled for scarce resources.  Today we're locked into identities of nation and religion, but occasionally we can break out of these cages and find that we are bodies with brains and this is all we have, so we need to stick together.  Perhaps the "kingdom of God" is right here on earth, right now. Religious myths and rituals that permit and encourage such cross-cultural unity are to be treasured and encouraged.  Those institutions that promote division and intolerance are to be condemned.

Theologian Don Cupitt has proposed a religion of ordinary life in a series of books that just might coexist with a secular or even an atheistic philosophy.  For Cupitt, God is a symbolic vehicle for common cultural values, and religion gives us a shared vocabulary.  There is no heaven or hell in Cupitt's theology.  For him life is limited, transient, contingent and temporal, and also bittersweet (is this the Buddhist dukkha?).  His most radical claim is there is no stable real world and no enduring self.  All experience is mediated by language.  Cupitt's theology is life-centered.  Religion is expressive and we become ourselves only by expressing ourselves.

This sounds a lot to me like John Lennon's vision.

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