Monday, July 16, 2007

Just what exactly is religion?

As I mentioned before, I've been working through Joseph Campbell's mind-blowing, four volume magnum opus The Masks of God and have been recently reading about the transition in Egyptian society that ended the practice of human sacrifice. One of the citations he uses is that of an eye-witness account by a British officer who saw a 16 year old Indian woman voluntarily submit to being buried alive with the corpse of her husband. The account mentions that she not only agreed to the procedure, but that she sat with her back to her husband's seated corpse, put her hand above her head and continued to gesture for the burying to continue after her head had been covered and she was already slowly suffocating.

Campbell used this citation to point out that we should not project our modern ways of thinking into the minds of the ancients who were buried alive in the tombs of ancient Egypt. He did not see these archaeological sites as evidence of some ancient mass murder, but rather that of evidence of people bye-and-large voluntarily going to continue their service to their master after death. The point being that their consciousness was so in the grip of their mythic world-view that they did not feel that they were being murdered but rather that they were entering a new life.

Of course, people do not feel this way anymore. (Indeed, the British officer who observed the Indian woman's act of sati felt extreme revulsion and tried to talk her out of it.) And in the same way, we moderns feel extreme revulsion at many of the things that this officer would have taken for granted, such as slavery or sending young children into battle as drummer boys or "powder monkeys". The point is that contrary to the modern mythology that states that "all men are created equal", there is a significant difference in people's consciousness from one time in human history to another.

People often fail to understand this point, which is why we see dramas on television that portray ancient peoples as if they were exactly the same as you or I. (Think about those BBC shows like "I Claudius" or the "Brother Cadfael Mysteries.") In actual fact, I suspect that if we were able to speak to a Roman Emperor or a Medieval monk we would find that beyond the barrier of language, there would be a huge difference in the the way that they see the world from that of the average modern Westerner. (I noticed one example of this extreme difference when, as an undergrad, I was studying medieval philosophy and read that St. Augustine was the first historical figure who is described as being able to read silently. It appears that until his time the only way people read was out loud. Think about what that says about their interior lives!)

These differences also occur between modern cultures. I recently came across an account of the failed American mission to Somalia (think "Blackhawk Down") and was struck by the extreme difference between the American and Somali vision of warfare. The American soldiers were appalled at the way women and children were used as "human shields". One army ranger mentioned having to shoot a woman with a baby in her arms because she pulled a pistol on him once she got close enough to shoot. In contrast, a Somali leader is quoted by saying that the Americans are very brave but too unwilling to let people die. He knew that once a helicopter was shot down their comrades would fight foolishly in order to try and save its crew---no matter how badly that exposed their position and how many soldiers died in the attempt. (Of course, the current fiascoes in Iraq and Afghanistan could furnish similar examples.)

To get back to the point that Campbell was making, he believed that the role that religion plays in our society is directly connected to the form of human consciousness that is manifest in its adherents. Moreover, the form of individual human consciousness that is manifest has a huge impact on what form a society can take. So the evolution of human society is also the evolution of human consciousness is also the evolution of religious systems. Both individually and collectively, we are what we say that God is.

This position makes a lot of sense to me. People who believe in retribution believe in a God that supports the credo of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". And people who believe in mercy support a God that says "turn the other cheek". The point is that they are externalizing their values and projecting them into the metaphysical realm.

Where does Daoism fit into this? I suppose that folk Daoists who believe in the actual existence of a realm of Gods would also be in the same camp as the folks that Campbell is talking about above. But from the very beginning Daoism has also had a very strong tradition of calling all of that into question. Laozi warns that the Gods treat individuals like "straw dogs". Zhuangzi's radical skepticism about how much anyone can know about anything also draws into question the idea that we can know much about the ultimate "rules and regulations" of existence. So if we just talk about those Daoists who inhabit the stratospheric limits of the faith and have gotten beyond all the folk beliefs, it might be that they are beyond all of this need to believe in someone "out there" who reinforces all their beliefs.

But there is another level to this. When the scales fall from our eyes and we realize that we are players in a game we can get angry and try to toss over the board and scatter the pieces hither and yon. This is the way of the angry atheist like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. But if we aren't willing to be perpetually angry, what then? We still have to live our lives and get along with the other people. I would suggest that because the Daoist believes that the best way to get on with life is to try and find the way things work and then "go with the flow", then she would recognize and accept the role that religion plays in the formation of human consciousness and society-as-a-whole, and "play the game" to the best of her ability---but all the while reminding himself that it is indeed a game.

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