Friday, March 9, 2012

The Seduction of Religion

Over the years I've tried to stake out a position for myself as being somewhere in the middle between identifying myself as a "religious Daoist" and a "philosophical Daoist".  To a large extent, this has been because I believed that there is a great potential for good in the existence of religious institutions.  I have always admitted that in practise religious bodies rarely live up to this potential, but I have always thought that the isolated tremendous good that some individuals do shows just what could be done if religious organizations finally reformed themselves.

I no longer think that this is possible.

I've come to this conclusion because I've changed my opinion about what it means to be a religious "believer" and to live in a religious "congregation".  By way of an explanation, I have to explain where my interest in religion comes from.

I was raised by a totally non-religious family.  I don't mean that they were atheists who had consciously rejected the Christian church (or any other religion, for that matter.)  Instead, they were people who simply didn't think about anything that would be considered "spiritual", "philosophical" or "high-fallutin".  They were simple country folk who did not bend their minds towards anything except the daily grind for existence.

I learned from their example the wisdom of Socrates dictum "the unexamined life is not worth living".  People who do not think "ultimate thoughts" end up with minds that are little more than jumbled-up attics filled with the rubbish that they have been exposed to during the random events of their life.  People who do not develop the habit of self-introspection, and who have never learned to separate a good argument from a bad one ultimately have only one option:  just "follow along and do what you are told".  This makes you tremendously vulnerable to any sort of social disruption.  It also takes away any sort of brakes over strong emotions.  People who aren't terribly thoughtful tend to be "drama queens", which makes life incredibly miserable for anyone who has to live either with them or is at their mercy in any shape or form.

Living around very emotional, not terribly thoughtful people for most of my childhood awakened a strong urge to try and emulate the character "Spock" from Star Trek.  The great thing about Spock was that he was not only committed to being logical, he obviously had real problems doing so.  For example, he lost his marbles over sex, as in the episode where he dragged the crew to Vulcan and ended up fighting Kirk over a woman.  As an adolescent boy, I certainly understood the conflict between instincts and rationality, and how no matter how much I tried not to, I would end up "losing it" in one of several ways that still bring waves of embarrassment and shame to this day.   If Spock had really been the sort of "soul-less robot" that people referred to him in the television series, he wouldn't have had any appeal for viewers.  It was the fact that he was a passionate man with real problems who still tried very hard to live up to a specific ideal that made him a hero to so many people.

And working through the logic of the situation (please, no pun intended), the series writers had to develop a rationale that would explain exactly where this character's "love of logic" came from.  I their decisions through various episodes and movies ended up building up the edifice of a Vulcan "religion" based on logic.  This makes a sort of sense in that it is only reasonable to assume that any sort of cultural norm requires some sort of institution to pass it on to future generations.  In my own case, this is how I began to view religion, as an institutional framework for passing on the ethical and social teachings of some great teachers of the past.

Dominic Crossan
This is where I take my leave of Gene Roddenberry and enter the realm of religious scholars like Dominic Crossan, Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg, and, the members of the Jesus Seminar

Karen Armstrong
These voices of "progressive" Christianity were pretty important to me for many years.  I read their books and wrestled mightily with the ideas that they presented.  The Jesus that they discussed was a figure who manifested a very radical response to the problems manifest in Judea during the Roman Empire.   He didn't identify himself as being a "God", but as an ordinary person.  He didn't come completely from the Jewish tradition, but also incorporated aspects of Greek Cynic philosophy.  The stories of the New Testament were not factual accounts of history, but rather archetypal stories that get people thinking about the forces around them.  The Jesus of Christianity was someone who was very concerned about the poor and would be considered a "Leftie" or "Commie" today.

Marcus Borg
My problem was that I read these books and as a result created an artificial "air religion" that has never existed in real life.  It was only when I met real, honest-to-God Christians that I realized that almost no one in any Church understand Jesus and religion the way these academics do.  (Indeed, Dominic Crossan stopped being a priest so he could marry.  Marcus Borg is now a philosophy professor instead of a theologian, and Karen Armstrong left her nunnery because it the discipline was impossible for her to bear.)

In actual fact, the vast majority of people who call themselves "Christians" do not read the Bible and wouldn't understand an archetype if it hit them over the head with a rotting carp.  For them the story of Jesus's arrest, trial and crucifixion wasn't a story about how religious and civic institutions react to moral imperatives----i.e. angry leaders afraid of their position, and, spineless bureaucrats unwilling to overcome the mob----but rather that those damn Jews killed God.  And the most important part of Christianity isn't "love your neighbour" and "help the poor and weak", but rather that of "don't have sex unless it is sanctioned by the church".  If you really want to know who is the authentic interpretor of scriptural orthodoxy, it isn't a scholar like Crossan, it's a political leader, like the Pope .

As a result, the values of the institution are inexorably drawn towards points of view that strengthen the hold that the church has over the individual believer.  Consider, if you will, a point that I have raised before in this blog:  Mother Teresa versus Oscar Romero.   Teresa supported an extremely conservative point of view that maximized the power of the Church and voiced the "party line" over the importance of regulating human sexuality (e.g. when she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize she said that the greatest threat to world peace was "abortion".)  In contrast, Oscar Romero took the line that the church should be on the side of the poor and oppressed.  His "prize" wasn't universal acclaim, television documentaries, etc----instead, he was gunned down while saying mass in a cathedral.  Teresa was fast-tracked into sainthood, whereas Romero will probably never be made a saint---or at least won't until people totally forget exactly what it was that he got killed for.  My read of the Bible says that Romero was by far the most in line with the teachings of Jesus, yet his life doesn't teach Catholics to "shut up and do what they are told", whereas Teresa's does---which is why she is a saint and he isn't.

Another example has to deal with the sex abuse scandals plaguing the church.  People often fixate on the behaviour of individual priests and argue that celibacy is what is to blame.  This is a misread of the facts.  The problem isn't the individual offender----the odd person in all walks of life has problems controlling their sexual urges.  The real issue is that the institution protects priests whereas other parts of society---such as school boards---are designed to protect the child.  And priests are protected for the very real reason that if people start to see priests as ordinary humans instead of as exalted beings who are better than ordinary church goers, the whole religious hierarchy starts to fall apart.  If a priest can't be trusted around the choir boys, then why should we accept their interpretation of the scripture?  And if the priest is suspect, then what about the Bishop?  Or the Pope?  

Exactly the same sort of statements can be made about every church that I ever looked into.  Each one ultimately has some sort of leadership that controls things, and theology invariably ends up warping itself to supporting the political structure.

Confronted by this fact, I investigated other religions, most notably Buddhism and Daoism. At first I found myself very attracted to both of them.  Neither has the sort of centralized structure of Christian churches and both have a theology that has a greater emphasis on personal study and investigation---through things like meditation.  But as I learned more about Buddhism, I found out that there are as many abuses by Dharma teachers as there are by Christian priests, many of which are documented in this excellent blog:  "Down the Crooked Path".  Daoism is too new in the West for many abuses to exist, but I certainly could see the potential during my involvement with the Taoist Tai Chi Association---which is why I left the group.

I went through a real phase of being upset about this state of affairs.  I think that we do need a way of handing over values to future generations.  Moreover, I feel that there is a real need to have institutions around that do good work for the poor and oppressed.  Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that there simply is no way we could reform religious groups to be able to do this.  Moreover, I think that I know why.

The first point to understand is that real charity is inherently anarchic.  That is to say, people do not "just" become poor.  Invariably they do so because there are institutions or patterns to their existence that force or encourage them to be poor.  In a society with significant inequality, there are economic and political forces that keep a fraction of the population from redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor.  These can be as simple and obvious as the rich paying off the police to "look the other way" when the nation's wealth is looted, or as subtle as lobbying Congress to write tax loopholes that allow someone to define their income in such a way that Warren Buffet pays taxes at a rate far less than his secretary.  Either way, if we are genuinely attempting to help the poor, we are also going to be empowering them as well.  And any institution that is engaged in really empowering the poor will not only be weakening the power of the leadership within that institution, they will also be encouraging other elements of that society to attack and weaken that institution within it.  Church leaders---even with the best of intentions---always find themselves worrying about whether their actions are "prudent" enough to preserve the institution.

This is why whenever there is a movement towards making the lives of individual people better, it is inevitable that the overwhelming majority of organized religions will be opposed to it.  The Church opposed trade unions, democracy, birth control, the end of slavery and just about everything else.  That is why the leadership of most churches support reactionary political parties.   It is also why when the relative influence of the Church gains ascendancy in a political party---as it currently does in the American Republican party---that party will invariably swing towards political extremism.

Not only does the structure of the church define whether or not it can honestly embrace the poor, it also means that it can never truly become a bearer of morality.  To understand this point, however, we need to understand just exactly what morality consists in.

People of Conservative bent often complain bitterly against what they call "situational ethics" because they believe that once people are taught that they are able to "bend the rules" based on a specific situation, total  chaos will inevitably result as people start to "make it up as they go along".  As I see it, the problem with this analysis is that it reduces morality to doing what you are told.  Moral behaviour is something very special, it is judging a specific behaviour based on a criteria that goes beyond mere utility and instead suggests that there is a code that someone is following because it is the right thing to do.  Now the problem with reducing doing the right thing, to simply doing what you have been told comes from the fact that doing what you are told to do doesn't have a moral component.  This is why the judges at Nuremburg refused to accept the "we were just following orders" defence offered up by the Nazi war criminals.  Even under military discipline, it is believed that normal people have a moral sense that allows them to make a distinction between a lawful and an unlawful order.  Indeed, Western military codes specifically make this distinction and suggest to soldiers that they have an obligation to ignore unlawful orders.

If a soldier is obligated to disobey an unjust order when he is under discipline during time of war, then surely an individual parishioner has an even greater obligation to ignore or disobey an unjust moral injunction laid upon him by the ecclesiastic hierarchy.   If your Church says that homosexuals should be abused and discriminated against, that women should continue to be forced to carry pregnancies to birth even if the baby is unwanted and will cause great hardship, or, that women should never use birth control even if the resulting high number of children will be a catastrophe for both her family and nation----then the moral obligation to "do the right thing" would seem to suggest that people disobey the "unjust order".  

This criticism of morality goes beyond the practical issue I raised earlier.  Even if the Church were to miraculously stop being concerned about prudential issues such as whether a given teaching weakens the power of the institutional church, it still wouldn't be able to overcome the inherent problems that come from teaching morality as a set of eternal truths.  That's because morality just isn't something that is revealed through some sort of objective discovery process.  The revealed Ten Commandments simply do not have enough moral sophistication to cover all situations (which is why they and the other rules in Deuteronomy could never work as a legal code.)  Instead, as people are confronted by a new situation, they have to analyse the key components and decide what they feel is the moral thing to do. 

The point is that morality is not defined, it is discovered.  And as such, we cannot teach people what the right thing to do is in each situation.  What we can do, however, is teach people the right general way that they can approach an issue so that they can work out the best answer for themselves. Our legal system understands this point because it functions not just on the basis of regulations passed by politicians but also by having those laws modified through the rulings of case law.  

The way to teach this discovery is through entering into a discussion or dialogue, either with others or within ourselves, in order to ascertain the which side of a given debate can marshal the best arguments in defence of their position.  Again, unfortunately, any religious institution simply cannot allow for this sort of methodology because it will invariably undermine the authority of the institution.  Church is not a grad seminar and parishioners simply cannot be allowed to debate scripture with the pastor, or else there soon will not be any authority left for either the local priest or the Pope in Rome.  The same can be said about Buddhist monks and Daoist priests.

This leaves me on the horns of a dilemma that everyone with a religious bent has to face sooner or later.  Will they learn to keep their mouth shut so they can carry on in the faith?  Or will they take the harder, moral road and walk away from the church and stick it out on their own?

In a sense I made that decision a long time ago.  I have called myself a "hermit" because I refused to make the compromises necessary to stay in a group.  But between then and now I have kept a bit of a mental connection with the ideal of religious fraternity.  Now I finally reject it.  I think that if you really want to be a genuinely spiritual person you have to accept that each and every relationship you make has to be created on its own merits and cannot lean on the clap-trappery of church, robe, title or lineage.  In the same way, every act of charity and benevolence has to justify itself.  If you help the poor, do it because it genuinely helps the poor.  Don't do it because Jesus said you should or because you are want to buy a place in heaven.  (Certainly, don't do it because you think you can get a job out of it.)

Luckily the key texts of Daoism never really did have any sort of religious background.  Instead, they were written by people who probably had never seen a religious Daoist in their life.  (The Zhuangzi, Laozi and Liezi were written before the creation of an organized, Daoist religion.)   This makes it easy to follow the teaching while ignoring the religion, as many people do. This includes me too from now on.  Now I have to decide if I want to sell off my various statues, close down my altar and so on.

Decisions, decisions, decisions---.


Jennie said...

Yes but... isn't "a religion" so because it has worship as a keystone? Worship & belief are different, as are religion & spirituality...

Andrius said...


an interesting post, and an interesting story.
I've had somewhat similar ideas, though coming from a different direction, and thus probably arriving at somewhat different conclusions. I guess it relates to the sentiment that you mentioned is prevalent among more conservative people, that situational ethics might turn into chaos.
When I was studying philosophy, we were encouraged to “think critically“. We were encouraged to not accept anything as true until we can confirm it to ourselves. Socrates, Descartes, Hume were held as great examples of commitment to critical thinking.
I always had one problem with this idea. This type of “doubt everything“ thinking might suit very well people of great intelligence, like Descartes, but what about, well, to put it simply, stupid people? It is very easy to start doubting – one doesn't need much intelligence for that, but what if one doesn't have enough brain power to arrive at something solid after doubting everything? And the most important problem is how do I know that I am not too stupid to “start doubting“ everything? How do I know that I am not rejecting truth in favour of dubious virtue of scepticism? I don't know.

So, to sum it all up, I think your idea of moving away from established institutions might be a good idea for people who are capable to do that. But it also might prove too difficult a task for some others. An important question is how many of each type of people are there in the world.

baroness radon said...

"I think that we do need a way of handing over values to future generations."

Which is what all religion and mythology has been through time. Unfortunately, with science, many of the traditional values appear to be obsolete or meaningless. Our public education system fails, or is not permitted, to pass on values (hence the rise in private, religious-afilliated schools, or home-schooling). I do fear contemporary myth-makiing and commercial values that we see in media. No wonder so many of us turn within; the culture has failed us.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

It does come down to how a person defines "religion". And it is true that a key dividing line is whether you have to 'believe' to be a member of a religion. This is a line that divides Daoism and Christianity, IMHO. But religion is also about behavior too. This is what I'm trying to get at.

Yes, of course. But even stupid people copy the behavior of others. Radical doubt is just one stage in the philosophical process,if people of moderate intelligence and higher were encouraged to think instead of being punished, which is what usually happens both in the church and society at large, then even the most intellectually stunted would at least have something to copy.


I don't come to my position lightly, like you I am very concerned about where future generations will learn their values from. Like you say, our popular culture seems bereft of intelligent ideals. This is something I've been wrestling with for years and ultimately what my book---The Vow of. Sustainability---is supposed to be about.

baroness radon said...

You write "Over the years I've tried to stake out a position for myself as being somewhere in the middle between identifying myself as a "religious Daoist" and a "philosophical Daoist".

I am one of those that do not subscribe to this distinction anyway; I think it is sufficient just be Daoist and know your own position. Although to deal with this issue of "philosophical Daoism", or "western Daosism" I have come to think of Daoism as a kind of spectrum, on which one places oneself. You know, a spectrum that runs from the Wayne Dyer/self-help crap to worshipping Gods. I envisage a Dao spectrum, where traditional Daoism itself occupies** a certain range of wavelengths, and then there is a lot of weird stuff that falls outside that range, but is still on the overall spectrum. Or maybe not.

**I hope "occupy" doesn't become a politically loaded term, like "gay" or "conservative" that carries with it some unintended baggage.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


I understand that the distinction has taken a lot of heat lately from academics who want to assert that religious Daoism isn't just bone-headed superstition. But that's pretty much what I'm saying most religion really is. That's not to say that you can't construct a more reasonable version---that's what Armstrong, Crossing and Borg have attempted to do with Christianity. But the problem is that none of the churches want to listen to what they have to say. I've come to the conclusion that this isn't just a happenstance, but rather something inherent in the nature of the institution.

Daniel Mroz said...

I always appreciate your writing.

I'd be happy to give your various altar items a good home should they ever need it.

All the best,


a natural mystic said...

Your argument seems to be, "the vast majority of religious people are idiots, so I don't want to have anything to do with religion."

Unfortunately, this could be said of all human institutions and societies. You may as well say "the vast majority of humanity are idiots, so I don't want to have anything to do with them." This strikes me as a petulant and misanthropic attitude to take. You don't improve things by turning your back on them.

Moreover, you ignore many organizations like Catholic Worker, or various Buddhist Peace Fellowships, etc, which do advocate for progressive values within a religious context. The fact that such organizations are small doesn't mean they don't exist or that the work that they do isn't vitally important. Frankly, I think you've set up a dichotomy between religious fundamentalists and academics that ignores the more interesting and fruitful middle ground.

And a question: if you've turned your back on secular political organizations, and now on religious organizations, what is left for passing on and advocating for the values you uphold? Nuclear family units? Rogue individualist intellectuals or hermits? The best and most enduring way of transmitting values from generation to generation have been through religions, as I am sure you are away - monastics in Europe and Asia were both vital in preserving knowledge and culture through various "Dark Ages".

I would suggest that if societies are going to survive the coming ecological crises or carry on any kind of knowledge from the present, they won't be able to do it by rejecting their communities.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Natural Mystic:

No, I think the situation is more dire than you characterize it. I don't think that all religious people are "idiots", but I do think that all the religions I know are controlled by the "idiots". There is a distinction. Yes, there are groups like the "Catholic Worker". There have always been people like Dominic Crossan and groups like the Catholic Workers. But they have never, ever been in control.

I had a revelation about this when after hearing lots about the Catholic mystic Meister Eckhart I found out that he died in prison while awaiting trial for heresy.

The point I'm trying to make is that while still believe in the wisdom of the Dao, I no longer believe that there is any sense engaging myself in the "flummery" of religion, because it always ends up being "owned" by people who don't even begin to understand the truths that I find in the faith. Since the only reason I can think of to have the flummery in the first place is to hand on the values of the founders, what is the sense of supporting a flummery that ultimately supports perverting those values?

Examples can be found all over the place. As I said in the post, why is it that the Catholic church goes all "ga-ga" over homosexuality and abortion, when the Jesus of the New Testament was clearly more concerned about inequality and rejection of the poor and sinful?

In a sense, all I'm really saying in this post is what the DDJ says when it suggests that the Dao that can be spoken is not the real Dao----.

By all means help the poor, spread serenity, etc. Just don't bother labeling yourself as a Catholic or Buddhist because all you're doing is helping "the brand" of others that are not interested in the same things you are.

Jim714 said...

Greetings CWO:

Our journeys are somewhat similar. I was raised in a non-religious (as opposed to atheist) household, though my family seems to have been somewhat more thoughtful, less emotional.

I have also arrived at a similar feeling; namely that at a certain point one needs to step away from the institutional setting. It isn't easy. I think we humans are innately social beings. Works I have read by hermits are poignant about this in the sense that though they love their solitude, there is definitely a price that is paid for pursuing such a path. Loneliness, at times, is part of that price.

After wandering through a number of spiritual setting I have settled on the Quakers and found the home to be congenial. Quakers have institutional parameteres, but they are flexible. And there is a spaciousness that allows for different individual practices and interpretations. Perhaps this is due to the non-credal nature of the Quaker tradition, the fact that the Quaker tradition is only minimally theological.

In any case, as always I appreciate your thoughtful post.

Best wishes,