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.


Iktomi said...

thank you for this post! it hits me at a time when i am contemplating joining a religious tradition, which holds up to your standards. :)

i realize that being "spiritual, not religious" is a good thing for my husband, who is not especially creative or magnanimous, but for me it is a wonderful way to express my love of life in an asthetic and practical way as well as develop my integrity.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Good for you! I have yet to find anything that works for me. But then again, I suspect that people like me have always been hermits---. I suppose that means that I have found something that works for me after all.