Sunday, March 21, 2010

Non-Poisonous Religion

My last post suggested that religion serves a purpose by collecting and transmitting some of the best aesthetic and moral insights of humanity. But having said that, the fact remains that the examples of poisonous behaviour on the part of religions simply should not be "swept under the carpet" by people of good will. Unfortunately, this seems to be the response by almost every religious person I know. I think that this comes about for a variety of reasons.

Unfortunately, there has been a great "sifting out" of religions congregations and institutions over the last 50 years or so. People who have a tendency towards critical thinking, who have a natural curiosity towards the foundations of faith, and, who have a sense of moral courage and outrage towards institutional injustice seem to have, bye-and-large, collectively decided that there is no room for them in religion and have left the institutions. I hate to say it, but I think that a case can be made that the people who are left tend to be individuals who are unsophisticated, intellectually incurious, moral cowards and/or compulsively drawn to not make waves. (Please feel free to throw brickbats at me for this wild over-generalization.)

I think that this is what has fuelled the huge rise in the number of people who say that they are "spiritual but not religious". Unfortunately, people who fall into this category end up facing a few problems.

Some of them still feel a need to be involved in some sort of community, which leads them to end up in some sort of "New Age" group. Unfortunately, these organizations often end up being, if anything, worse that the churches that they left. Even if they don't end up being dangerously crazy whackos like the Heaven's Gate group, they almost invariably end up having theological ideas that are even more illogical than anything that mainstream religion can come up with. Moreover, many of these groups are led by charismatic individuals who have no institutional oversight, which is an open invitation for financial and sexual exploitation that makes the Catholic sex scandals look tame in comparison.

If a person doesn't "hook up" with a new group, then they end up being totally isolated from any sort of community. People in this situation will often have to live a "double life" in that their friends will tend to either consist of people in mainstream religious groups who will not listen to any criticism of their faith; or; totally secular people who think all of religion is a crock. This type of isolation can be similar to that experienced by gays who have yet to "come outside of the closet".

A third problem comes from the extreme cultural fragmentation that comes about from people either choosing to join some sort of independent group or going it totally alone. If a large part of the value of religion for society is the way it creates an aesthetic and moral bridge with the past traditions of human society, this fragmentation leaves leaves the individuals who have left traditional religion behind floundering in some sort of aesthetic and moral "limbo".

I think that it is because so many people are stuck in this existence where there are no traditions to hold onto, that some grab onto and try to appropriate the trappings of other cultures. They can't stomach what the "gate keepers" of their own traditional culture have done to it, but neither can they stand the empty world of secular society---so they scour the world's religions in an attempt to find something else to latch onto. (This certainly explains some of my own personal motivation.) Unfortunately, many, if not most, of the people who follow this path end up finding out that exactly the same problems that drove them away from the old tradition also exist in the new. (I would suggest that those who do not simply haven't looked deeply enough into their new faith.)

So, if "going it alone", creating something totally new, or latching onto some other version are not very desirable options, what else can a person do?

I'm not sure that there really is any answer. I certainly don't suggest that people follow the path that I am on, as being a hermit simply isn't open to any more than a small number of people. But I do have the consolation of being able to think of Earth as being a realm where the Dao is working through issues---over the long haul. So I do believe that eventually religion will "get its act together". I suspect that this will not happen until long after I am dead, though.

As for now, at least I can "do my bit" by trying to spell out what a non-poisonous religion would look like.

Experienced, not Revealed

One of the ways in which different flavours of religion can be divided is along the axis of whether it was revealed to a small number of individuals who had a privileged access to the source of the faith; or whether the information gained is available to any and all members of the religion who are willing to invest the necessary discipline and effort. Christianity is an example of the former, whereas Buddhism is representative of the latter. (There are streams of each tendency in all faiths. Moreover, this characterization is grotesquely over-simplified. But for the sake of illustrating the point, I'm giving a two-dimensional picture of these two religions here.)

Revealed religions are inherently authoritarian because there literally is no appeal beyond the statements of long-dead individuals as recorded in ancient texts. If someone doubts the veracity (at least in the sense that is critical to the "believer") of the Bible, it is hard to understand why they would be a Christian. This means that whomever wrote the Bible (and creates the dominant interpretation) ends up "owning" the faith and dictating what it believes pretty much forever.

In contrast, the Buddha specifically suggested that people should be a "light unto themselves" and test all his teachings in order to see if they made sense. More importantly, intellectual adherence to the teachings of the Buddha will not bring any sort of salvation. In order to be a Buddhist, one has to put in the effort to try and become a Buddha too. But once once follows this path and puts in the effort, the believer can---at least theoretically---gain enough insight to speak with authority equal to the Buddha himself. This is very different from Christianity, where no believer would ever say that their practice allows them to speak with authority equal to the Bible.

This makes experiential religions, at least in theory, inherently more democratic than revealed ones because all individuals have the potential to gain the authority necessary to speak on an equal footing with the founders of the faith.

Tradition, not Authority

In effect, my support for religion is an argument that religions are useful vehicles to create and preserve cultural tradition. If so, I think it is important to understand that there is a difference between this and ecclesiastic authority. It is easy to confuse the two, but the results can be terrible.

Consider the case of Papal "infallibility".

A great deal of the appeal that the Roman Catholic church has for its members is the fact that it stretches back through the centuries in an unbroken lineage to the time of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, this respect for tradition gradually morphed into respect for the authority of the Church. And this morphed into respect for the hierarchy of the Church. And this again, morphed from respect into submission to the authority of the bureaucracy of the Vatican. And this emphasis on submitting to the ecclesiastic authority has allowed the Church to not only hush up outrages like the abuse of children, it has also allowed it to defend absurd ideas like celibacy for the clergy, opposition to birth control, refusing ordination of women, etc.

A non-poisonous religion would have to create the proper mechanisms to be able to separate respect for tradition from respect for a bureaucracy.

Form as well as Substance

At the same time that religions are reforming themselves by removing authoritarian elements, there is also going to have to be some movement on the "left" of religion too. The greatest appeal of conservative religion has been that it has refused to rip away the art, music and liturgy in a misguided sense of egalitarianism. Indeed, egalitarian religion often not only does away with the "smells and bells", but it also turns up its nose as things like meditation and contemplation. Instead, it tends to emphasize active engagement in things like helping the poor and fighting oppression. In the process of doing so, however, it is operating on an impoverished theory of the human psyche---one that leaves no room for either aesthetics or the interior life.

I'm not saying that social engagement isn't important. In fact, I think that it is the equivalent of sparring in the martial arts: it is the test that proves or invalidates a religion's value. (I think that the inability of Western Buddhism to develop some sort of social engagement is one of its greatest flaws.) But this needs to be balanced by an understanding that people also have a hunger for beauty and wisdom besides bread.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Part of Religion That Isn't Poison

I just got finished reading Christopher Hitchen's book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. It is a very persuasive polemic against religion that argues simply by pointing-out over and over again examples of practical viciousness in its practice. I have done an enormous amount of research on the subject, which means that there were very few sources that Hitchens quotes that I have not read----and as near as I can tell, he got it all right.

Yet, I still see a role for religion in human society. Why?

Primarily, I have a deep and abiding skepticism about the completeness of the role that reason can play in organizing either an individual human being's life or an entire society. I say this as someone who has a Master's degree in philosophy and who has even taught symbolic logic. I believe that reason is absolutely essential to the good life. Yet I see time and time again that it isn't sufficient to organize human existence. We also need things like art and emotion, not merely to be "complete", but to be anything at all. And religion serves and important role in society as a repository of collective emotional and aesthetic decisions.

The rituals and art of a religion are not "just" epiphenomenon, they are an integral part of what it is all about. Gregorian chant is not just a cool thing that Benedictine monks do, it is the axis that their entire life revolves around. Zen gardening is not just something that grew out of the fusion of Buddhism and Daoism and makes their Temples look really cool, it illustrates, illuminates and exposes a key element of Zen (and Daoism too.) In a more simple, homespun example, the plain, yet elegant functional design of Shaker furniture shows something absolutely essential to the Shaker experience.

This is why religious institutions in all countries and all societies have put enormous energies into building artistic superstructures for their faiths. The European Cathedrals,

the Daoist Temples,

the Islamic Mosques,

the Sikh Gurdwaras,

etc, all embody the unifying principles of the faith. Moreover, the rituals, music and art of these religions are also not mere epiphenomenon but absolutely essential to the way these institutions created a collective aesthetic vision for the people.

If a society doesn't have something like religion to unify people's artistic vision, it ends up being defined by some other force. In totalitarian states, such as the Soviet Union, this inevitably means that the vision flows from the whims of politics. If the "head honcho" likes gingerbread, we end up with buildings that look like giant wedding cakes, as in Stalinist Architecture.

If, contrast, the ideal is to make people feel like ants about to be squashed by the boot-heel of the "master race", we design buildings that are huge and inhuman looking, like in Nazi Germany.

In liberal democracies, where no such unifying force exists, the marketplace ends up in control. That means we end up with the sort of ugly mess that is known as a "strip mall"---Walmarts next to MacDonalds next to Speedy Muffler,

or, miles and miles of vile suburban sprawl.

More to the point, aesthetic visions are mutually exclusive. You simply cannot fuse, for example, Victorian clutter with Zen minimalism. Nor can you mix together Daoism's attempt to fit into and harmonize with nature with Brutalism's use of massive, concrete geometric shapes. Moreover, these types of arts embody very different visions of how to live in the world. People who live in Victorian clutter will always believe that more is better, whereas people with a minimalist mindset will honour the space between things more than the objects themselves. Similarly, Daoists would honour and respect the trees that the brutalist would bulldoze in order to build his concrete slabs.

Aesthetic world-views aren't interchangeable because each embodies specific visions of what is important. For example, Christianity puts the human community first and foremost. For liberals this means social justice. For conservatives, the right to life. In contrast, Daoism put humanity into an environmental context (e.g. the "Dao") and argues that while people are a valued part of both Heaven and Earth, they do not have a place so privileged that they have any right to abuse any other inhabitants. Buddhism posits that mind is the absolutely key element of existence, if for no other reason than all our experience is mediated by it----honour and understand the Buddha-mind and all else becomes easy.

What I am getting at is the idea that morality is ultimately a branch of aesthetics. That is that ultimately the only real reason we pursue a difficult moral path as opposed to simply the line of least resistance is because we find the life lived on moral values to be more beautiful than the one that follows mere expediency. And just as some people have no sense of taste, so some people have a terrible sense of morality. Religions exist to a large extent to codify and perpetuate a specific aesthetic tradition, one that has huge impact on how we order our lives and related both to other people and the greater world around us.

It might be that we can replace religion with something else, but as a practical fact, I simply cannot think of what that might be. If we replace it with politics, we end up with totalitarianism or some sort of Ayn Randesque utopian/dystopian vision of the market. History teaches us that whenever a government has tried to do away with religion, the movement supporting it increasingly takes on the trappings of the religion that it sought to eliminate.

Please note, however, that even though I see an inevitable role for religion in human society, I do not think that its present form is viable. The excesses that Hitchens catalogues in his book simply cannot be ignored and they flow directly from certain key elements in religion as it currently exists. If it is going to continue---and I cannot see how it cannot---it is going to have to change mightily. Perhaps in a future post I will try to identify what religion might look like if it is going to co-exist with the modern world.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Environmental Vow: Part Seven


The Monks of St. Benedict serve as a salient example of good that has come from religious faith. In fact, there is a very strong argument that much of modern Western Europe was created by them. Everyone knows about the role that Benedictines served in preserving the learning of the Greeks and Romans. But far fewer are aware that when the order was first formed much of European geography had declined into a howling wilderness because of the centuries of barbarian invasions and genocidal wars that brought the end of the Western Roman Empire. St. Benedict's rule ordained that men (and eventually women) should live together under a regime that was not so strict as to styfle their interest in bettering themselves, but with an emphasis on physical labour that ensured that the monks did not isolate themselves from the world around them.

Monks would move into an area of desolation, drain swamps, clear forests, and, eventually build an abbey with strong stone walls. This would be a place of refuge from brigands, which meant that people would have a chance that the fruits of their labour would not simply be stolen from them at first opportunity. The monastery would also have an infirmary for the sick and a herb-garden where trained monks would grow medicine. These would attract peasants in search of land, then craftsmen, then merchants, which would eventually lead to the creation of a new town or city. Create enough towns and cities, and you have a nation instead of a wilderness.

Bound together in a network with other abbeys, important technical information would be shared between monasteries on new agricultural methods, and, varieties of crop and livestock, which in turn would be shared with the surrounding peasants. In effect, each Benedictine Abbey served the same role as a modern agricultural college. Later on, they also became centres of excellence for metallurgy and industrial machinery. (The first really large scale uses of water power were all at abbeys.) Even into the modern era Benedictines still continue this tradition. For example, the famous Brother Adam (the “Bee Monk”) at the Buckfast Abbey in England devoted his entire life to breeding varieties of bees resistant to trachea mites. And Sister Noella Marcellino (the “Cheese Nun”) at Regina Laudis in the USA, has become equally important in the world of cheese making through her work recording and reviving traditional artisanal methods.

The Benedictine “movement” simply made sense in the context of Dark Age and Medieval Europe. But practicality doesn't explain why it thrived then and continues to exist to this day.

Anyone who has attempted to live in a communal situation realizes how quickly the petty squabbles and different agendas of any group of people can blow apart any project based on simple self-interest. These men and women were able to work and live together because they believed that what they were doing was not just serving their own personal needs, or even the needs of society---but because they thought that they were serving their God. The glue that held these orders of monks or nuns together was faith.

But it needs to be said that this type of faith was and is probably quite different from the “faith” of ordinary believers. Put most ordinary Christians---or even most ordinary Catholics---in a monastery and chaos would result. What inspired the solidarity that drained the swamps, created a new type of agriculture and built Europe? I would argue that it came from the monastic structures, rituals and routines that governed life in Benedictine communities. The Benedictine life re-arranged the “common sense” worldview of the monks in a way that allowed them to live together in a shared purpose. As such, they created a new and special type of “faith” that was different from both the one held by ordinary believers and even non-monastic clergy during the Middle Ages. Moreover, it was and is significantly different from the faiths that sustain most moderns—even fundamentalists.

First of all, all the communities were celibate. It is true that sexual relations are a release of pent up energy, but it is far more true that sexual relationships usually create far more tension between people. Moreover, where there are relationships, there are children. And children always cause problems because they are not voluntary members of the community and must be provided for in terms of education, employment, etc.

Secondly, while it is true that the Abbeys were (at least in the begining) governed by democratic decision-making through “chapterhouse” meetings, this democratic rule was limited to ensure stability in the community. The membership of the community was segregated into two groups: “postulants”---people who were interested in joining the community but had not yet been formally accepted---and full-fledged brothers who had voting rights. Moreover, the decision to accept a member was made by the already existing members through a process of voting. In most communities a small minority in opposition (and in some, even one vote) to accepting a postulant as a brother was enough to “black ball” the person. This meant that the community didn't bring in new members that grated excessively on the existing community.

Secondly, the Abbot of the community was generally elected for life. This meant that while there could be, and probably was, a lot of politics involved in the process of electing the Abbot, this generally happened at very infrequent intervals. And while the power of an Abbot was theoretically immense, in actual fact these tight-knit communities could only function properly on the basis of consensus-building anyway. In fact, an Abbot tended to have a group of trusted advisors that helped him with his work. As a result, while innovation was accepted from time to time, there were no wild changes in Abbeys as one faction versus another gained power due to shifting support amongst the brothers.

Beyond these structural factors, there were also cultural ones that build a strong sense of solidarity. First of all, the lives that the monks lived were very structured. Every day, all the monks were expected to drop whatever they were doing at regular intervals and head off to the chapel to sing the Gregorian Chants. Not only did this break up the work day, it even occurred in the middle of the night, where monks would rise from their beds, sing the Gregorian chants, and then go back to get a few more hours sleep before it was time to get at the day's labours. This externally-imposed discipline (plus the celibacy) tended to select for people who were really committed to the monastic life. More importantly, it created a sense of routine that would get monks over the petty problems that often break up intentional communities. Even more to the point, the beautiful music that the monks participated in through the long hours of practice (which people still experience today when listening to recorded chants) brought the monks together and gave them a sense of exaltation as a community.

This last point needs to be emphasized because it can easily be missed by people who live in our current world. Before the time of recorded music---let alone Ipods---people did not live their lives in a pool of recorded sound. Musical instruments were very expensive and trained musicians very rare. Only the very wealthy, who could afford to support court musicians, could listen to music when the mood struck. For everyone else music was a very rare treat that usually didn't go much further than the odd bagpiper at the village fete or, if they lived near a relatively big church, a pipe organ on Sundays. Walking into an abbey and hearing the monks---some of whom had been practicing daily for decades---probably seemed like gate-crashing heaven. Not only would this create a bond between the community and the abbey that would go beyond the practical benefits describe above, it would also create a strong bond between the brothers, one that would go a long way to minimizing petty squabbles.

Even more to the point, the plainsong liturgy that the Monks and Nuns followed on a regular basis is a form of meditation. And the goal of meditation is ultimately that of learning to control the way that one's mind operates. In the case of these religious people, one of the goals of the plainsong method of meditation is to learn to control the individual's passions so they do not harm the good of the group. A choir only works if the individuals are willing to sing specific parts of a collective good. If you are part of a Monastic choir singing like a group of angels, this subversion of the individual in favour of the collective seems a fair trade. Similarly, life in a monastery can seem like a good thing if you also believe in the result.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Loneliness for Hermits, Sadness for Ministers

I recently got involved in a minor controversy over planning in my town. The Sikh community wanted to buy some land and build a Gurdwara. The people who would be neighbours to this group made some wild accusations about the seating capacity of the building and things boiled over into an ugly local racist drama. Ultimately several people, including myself, decided to make presentations to city Council supporting the proposed building.

Before we went to City Hall, we met for a potluck dinner.

It was one of those profoundly lonely moments that happen to me once in a while. Everyone else was "chit-chatting" about all and sundry, and I had nothing to say. I could respond to people's questions, but the ability to spontaneously "yack" with strangers about not very much of importance is something I have never been able to do. I used to try and "force it", but that would invariably result in me embarrassing myself because I say or do something that is wildly innappropriate.

As far as I know, all of these people were members of religious groups, successful at their careers and happy in their family life. In contrast, I work at a "slacker" job, will probably never be in any sort of relationship for the rest of my life, and, have never found a religious community that I felt comfortable in---even though I have tried time and again to "fit in".

And yet, there is something that is a bit of a consolution.

I don't think that these people see the world that I do. The introversion that dominates my life and creates a barrier with others I think allows me to see things that these people cannot fathom. I'm not talking about the ability to fart lightning bolts or regress to past lives. Instead, I'm thinking about, amongst other things, the way our society molds us and holds us tight in its fist.

After the event a couple aquaintances who are associated with one of the major Christian denominations came over to the pub with me for a pint of ale. One of them was a bit low as a result of church politics and was---in his words---"venting". It became very clear to me that even though he genuinely likes the people around him, he pays an enormous price for being an engaged member of his religious community. In particular, he has to be totally circumspect about what he says in public events about various elements of denominational orthodoxy. (I've had more than a few clergy tell me how carefully they have to mask what they think from various elements of their flock---this is a very common complaint.) The other fellow talked about the same thing from a historical perspective by illustrating time and again the ways in which the ecclesiastic hierarchy had styfled the free expression of ideas.

By the time it was time to leave, I had come to the conclusion that deeply religious people simply have to pay a huge price in life. Either they opt for being in congregations and thereby have to subvert the dearest part of their souls to the viscissitudes of ecclesiastic politics (this can be as big as the entire denomination or as small as the petty snits in a monastery.) Or, like me, they have to purchase their freedom at the price of finding themselves excluded from the warmth and comfort that comes from being in a community.

Sadness from thwarted passion, or, extreme loneliness from spiritual isolation. It seems to me that the genuinely religious person will always find his passion. In Christian terms, it is picking up the cross and following Christ. In Daoist terms it is burning away all your impurities in Old Lao's furnace.