COLUMN - THINKING OTHERWISE - On Religion - Part One
“We Irish think otherwise.” Bishop Berkeley
Francis Bacon, After Velasquez
What religion is really all about is wearing funny clothes. Whether you are a priest in a soutane, a nun in a wimple, an Amish farmer in a black suit and a horse-drawn buggy, a woman in a burka in Paris, a Hasid with a shtreimel in Jerusalem, a Sikh in a turban in Toronto, or a Hindu in a dhoti at JFK airport, funny clothes declare your commitment to your group. Like fraternity hazing, the more absurd the group demand, the more obedience proves commitment.
Churchgoers interviewed by journalists about why they attend Sunday services, admit their attendance is more about a sense of belonging to a community and a culture than a belief in doctrines. Religion is comfort food for the soul. So intellectuals who no longer go to church have to accept the fact that religion is basic to human nature and will not disappear anytime soon.
Humans are animals, if not always with a conscience, at least always with a consciousness. It doesn’t matter what the content of that consciousness is—an old man called God in robe and sandals walking on a cloud or the invisible tooth fairy. Filling the container of consciousness with a cosmology is what is important, not the veracity of any particular content. Kids know that their parents are fibbing about the tooth fairy, and grownups know their priests are fibbing about virgin birth.
Virgin birth is a Near Eastern myth that antedates Christianity; it found a new relevance in helping the Church Fathers fight Gnostic sects like the Borborites who sought to make sex into a magical sacrament by putting menstrual blood and semen on the communion pita bread. Fall-awful!
By lifting Jesus out of the muck of sexuality, and elevating Mary with an Immaculate Conception, the men of Rome sought to create an idealized Woman that could help them keep actual women in their place--and that was out of the priesthood. But, hey, historical facts are not what religious storytelling is all about.
Folks will believe in anything as long as it makes them feel better. The universe is too big and scary—with crashing galaxies, bombarding asteroids, catastrophic tsunamis and floods, disease, and menacing bad guys everywhere for the individual to want to go it alone.
We became human by coming down out of the tree canopy—a move forced on us by weather change and desiccation-- to get together on the ground. This emigration required new skills for a new world: like recognizing many faces, organizing in hierarchies of dominance, developing a culture around sexuality and child-rearing, and learning how to communicate through language. To manage all these new cultural skills, our brains over time grew larger and more complex. In a good Buddhist fashion, there was no such entity as an isolated self; we became human through a process of dependant co-origination in which an I was an expression of an Us.
If religion is an expression of the evolution of consciousness and the growth of the animal into the human mind, then fundamentalism is the metastatic cancer of consciousness—a malignant growth of mind that displaces a healthy sense of compassion and tolerance for a violent commitment to the literal reading of a sacred text. In the theory of “cognitive dissonance,” when you are asked to believe something patently absurd, it generates a need to proselytize, for if you can convince others that your religion is acceptable, it stills your own inner doubts and the terror they generate.
Fundamentalists, therefore, degrade metaphor into code. Here one needs to remember that fundamentalism comes in many forms and domains of culture: religion, politics, and even science. In politics we have the shouting sects of extreme Right and Left, and in science we have the linear reductionists of the sociobiologists and eliminativists. The literalism of Richard Dawkins’s selfish genes is another way of reducing the complexity of the cell into a code. The cognitive science of Patricia and Paul Churchland that eliminates the self in favor of an information-processing machine called the brain is another example of culture reduced to a binary code.
Religion is not a static thing; like everything else, it is time-bound. The funny clothes are chosen because they are from the past—like the nineteenth-century Polish fur hats and coats the Hasids wear in hot Jerusalem, the burka Islamic women tried to wear in fashionable Paris, or the starched linen Breton wimples the nuns of my childhood wore in hot, sweaty, pre-air conditioned Los Angeles. But even religion changes as it moves through time and before there were priests there were shamans.
To be continued...
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