Again with an enormous amount of serendipity or God-incidence we bring you part 1 of a fascinating commentary by Dr Graham English that blends like good harmony in music with other discussions and news breaking elsewhere on Catholica. This commentary is an exploration of the search for religious meaning and sits beautifully with a series in the latest issue of New Scientist magazine we've been discussing on Catholica in the last 24 hours on the origins and future of religion. Neither Grahame English nor ourselves knew the content of the New Scientist articles which have already generated much discussion and thought amongst the readers of our website. This beautifully crafted commentary, along with the articles in New Scientist, provides a wealth of material for long reflection.
Religion and meaning...
It is natural for humans to seek meaning. That is one of the reasons we have religion.
Religion is about producing meanings that are crucial to people's life orientations. We want to know where we came from and what we mean, if there is life after death, if we are worthy. We want to know what to do and how what we do affects who we are. We want to know why there is evil and whether we caused it or can affect it.
Religion provides answers, more or less convincingly for such things and it gives us a structure to act them out. It provides us with ritual, liturgy, theory, and language to express our feelings and desires. Of course some people get by without religion. Their number seems to be increasing, but religion has a long history of being there for us when the big questions arise and we try to work out what to do next. Over human history there have been many religions.
In all that time some religions have provided meanings that are better than others. Some of the meanings suggested have been dead ends or worse. The Aztecs devotion to human sacrifice has little to recommend it though in one form or another it keeps coming back. Stalin was a great exponent of it for example, so were Hitler, Pol Pot and Mao Tse Tung. Of course their ideologies were not religions in any way religious people now would recognise, they were narcissisms but each of them claimed to be producing meanings crucial to people's life orientations.
Some meanings are good or good enough for the time being but they do not last. Chopping up chickens and looking at their entrails as a way of predicting the future was hard on the chickens and was never better than fifty-fifty as a predictor. Astrology is cleaner and was once a powerful part of several religions. It was used by Catholics, popes even, and Jews as well as other religions. You can find astrological charts in the mosaic floors of synagogues and churches from times long past. It still has a following especially in eastern religions and in the tabloid press but most people regard it as superstition or just silliness.
Meanings that fail...
Some religious answers fail eventually simply because we work out a much more convincing answer to a particular question. The gods of the gaps disappear as the gaps are filled by mathematics, science, wider experience or travel. Medicine has wiped out most of the beliefs that illnesses are caused by the devil, the evil eye, or the witch next door. Clean water and the hygienic disposal of human waste have answered more religious questions than any other human endeavour. Psychology has answered a lot of other questions that were once answered by the claim, "It is an evil spirit" or "I am getting direct messages from God". A lot of soothsayers, mystics and shamans were just mad.
Sometimes simple religious answers have been superseded by more complicated answers. It is likely that before Greek philosophy and Zoroastrian theology humans were content enough with creation. They are likely to have thought that the earth is okay, we are born and die like everything else and that is it. Then along came idealism, belief in devils, angels and other spirits, belief in an afterlife with different possibilities and eventually the belief that we need salvation. At the time such ideas entered the human discussion they must have seemed very sophisticated and helpful. You have to wonder whether they all were.
We have also had many ideas about God and gods, and whether we can affect what they think of us and do for us or to us. In the days before most people could read or write we told stories about the gods. These stories were of many kinds. They were usually myths, stories told to address questions that are really unanswerable. For example we simply do not know what happens to us when we die. No one knows. We do not know why there is evil. There are very intelligent attempts at answering this but like life after death and many other things that trouble us it is imponderable.
But we keep telling stories. Some of the stories we give extra credit to because we believe they were revealed to us by the gods, by God, or by angels, bodhisattvas or saints. We call these stories revelation, sometimes Revelation with a capital. For believers of particular religions these are the word of God or the words of God. The Bibles, Hebrew and Christian, the Koran, and the Book of Mormon are examples. Those who do not share the faith of the adherents of these religions are not quite as sure they are revelation. Christians believe the Hebrew Bible is Revelation but they do not normally accept the Hebrews' explanation of what it means or how it is Revelation for them. In fact Christians sometimes claim that the Hebrews do not understand their own Bible. This might be down to hubris. In an amusing skit some years ago the British comedian Rowan Atkinson played the part of the devil welcoming people to hell. In it he told the Christians that all along the Jews had got it right. Of course Rowan Atkinson's skit is NOT revelation.
All these stories that we tell ourselves have to make sense in the culture we occupy, and also they must fit our cosmology.
Culture is what we do around here
Take cultures for example. For a long time in human history we told stories of heroes. Heroes were usually men, often young. They were often the child or grandchild of a god. Usually they performed some heroic deed that saved their people. Sometimes they were wonder workers. Often they died young. Sometimes they were raised from the dead and went to the heavens or wherever it was that the gods dwelt. People used to these stories were not surprised by them, they lived in a universe of miracles and wonders, though they might have been overawed by them. Awe is a big part of religion. Some cultures are easier to awe than others. In technologically simple cultures it might just take a very big fireworks' show. In Australia in 2012 where we are technologically sophisticated it might just take an act of simple human kindness. For some of us Mother Teresa is more awe-inspiring that space flight.
Stories about the gods also talked about whether our actions offended the gods and whether we could change their minds or affect how they treated us. Somewhere along the line humans decided that we could affect the gods by offering them things. Usually this offering involved killing or burning the things we were offering. This at first sight seems an odd way to deliver gifts to the gods. I suspect that as smoke goes up, usually, and the gods are supposed to be up it has a certain logic.
Humans could sacrifice fruit and vegetables, animals, even other humans. We got it into our heads that if only we worked out what the gods wanted and if only we gave it to them then life would be better for us. It is an interesting idea but it is unlikely to be true. A coin tossed into the air one hundred times will fall heads half the time and tails half the time. The odds of sacrifice succeeding are roughly the same.
I have a lot of problems with the idea of sacrifice. Thinking that killing other human beings makes God happy is an odd idea at best. It leads to people putting up with pain and misery instead of doing something to alleviate them. It leads to people saying "just offer it up" when a better approach might be to seek a cure, or just to admit we have no convincing idea why children suffer and leave it at that. I think the idea of sacrifice leads to sadomasochism. It also leads to the use of violence as a normal method of inculturating children into a religion and to the unjust treatment of adults already socialised into it. I heard of a Christian leader praising the founder of Rugby school, "He was a brute but a fair brute". Consistency in brutishness is child abuse just as spasmodic brutishness is. It has nothing to recommend it at all.
Cosmology is about HERE
Stories about the gods also have to make sense in the cosmos we believe we inhabit.
In a cosmology that thought the world was a disc on top of some elephants standing on top of a turtle people had different answers from those who believe that the universe might be infinite. In a cosmos that resembled a large upturned dish surrounded by water it is easier to believe that the gods are Up and the devils are Down and that when we die we go in one or other direction. But the Hubble space telescope makes both the elephants on the turtle and the dish lined with stars useless as either a metaphor or as a model for geography.
The Hubble telescope has skittled a lot of literalist religion though some religious people are hanging on like fury. "I don't have to believe the evidence if I don't want to" has a certain charm but as the ship sinks it won't save you from drowning.
The best of all possible religions
Religions can also be dangerous especially for people who in their innocence or even in their guilt do not belong to the one that is in power at present. One of the reasons religion can be dangerous is that religion tends to convince its adherents that they are exceptional. Even within religions this can happen as religions are prone to splitting, Christianity and Islam are prime examples, and each of the factions believes it is the one and only true representative of whatever it is they claim to believe.
This tendency is called exceptionalism. It happens in cultures and nations too. For example it happens frequently in America. Wikipedia says of American exceptionalism:
American exceptionalism refers to the theory that the United States is qualitatively different from other countries ... (the) "idea that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy."
Think of all the Catholics, for example, who presume we are like the biblical "shining city on a hill", and we are exempt from historical forces that have affected other religions. We are not like the others and we need not keep their rules. Our response to child sexual abuse by Church officials feels a lot like exceptionalism to me.
It is probably the Australian in me but I find all exceptionalism hubristic, be it political or religious. I feel a strong urge to "take the piss" as some of my students used say. Rowan Atkinson has the same tendency. Over the years millions of Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Cathars, Sunnis, Shiites and others have paid a heavy price for being unexceptional. And lest you gloat we have all done it (all the religions I mean). It is a long sorry tale, being right and having to reassure yourself you are the chosen people by using violence on all the others.
Graham English submitted to Catholica on 19 Mar 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2012Dr Graham English