Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Religion and Worldviews

Jack Frost came through last night. He just swung through, but it was enough to necessitate the frantic end-of-season rush to bring all the plants in. Our ‘official’ first frost date is October 31, so we didn’t miss the mark by too much this year. Some of my tomato vines are blackened but most of them seem to have come through just fine. Of course, I picked all the tomatoes that were ripe or had any chance to ripen on a windowsill and brought them inside yesterday. Many of the trees had not turned as of yesterday and this morning there was an entirely new riot of color to greet my eyes when the sun came up.

Friday is Halloween, also known as Hallowmas or Samhain to pagans. Traditionally it is the New Year in most pagan religions. As a child I always thought the year should begin either in fall or spring –starting it in the dead of winter just seemed, well, stupid. I guess it should be obvious that I have always had earth-centered leanings. This is the time of the year when many pagans avoid the news and most of us cringe at the sensationalist news stories cooked up by the media about the ‘evil witches’ and our ‘Satanic rites’. For the record, we are hardly evil and we are not Satanists, nor are Satanists Pagan in any sense of the word. One of the core values of all forms of paganism is reverence for life, whereas Satanism is just the opposite, and is also pretty much a deliberate bastardization of Christianity.
Okay, rant over. ;-)

I mention this because I have been thinking about religion a lot lately. Specifically, about how it influences our worldview and our outlook on life. Sunday my adopted grandmother dragged me out to see Religulous, Bill Maher’s new flick about religion. It was a decent movie and I will give him credit for that, though I must admit I disliked his harsh style many times. But I also must find fault with it for several reasons. First, he views religion as a neurological disorder and I can not agree with him on that point, but I will discuss that more in a moment. Secondly, he falls into the trap he (rightly) accuses many of the religious of falling into: that of thinking there is only one right way, and it is his way. His call for an end to religion at the end of the movie could be seen as the secular analog of inciting a holy war. Not that he meant for that to happen of course, but neither did many of the people who have done such things in the past. Third, he focuses only on the Abrahamic traditions and there are many other religions in the world that do not share the attributes common to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Finally, he doesn’t seem to realize that people can be just as bad in a world without religion as in a world with it. Secular, intelligent people can and have committed atrocities against their fellow humans. Many of them had very rational-sounding reasons for doing so. Eugenics, anyone? People have tried to base racism, sexism, and every other ism you can name in science. Taking God out of the equation would not change that. Especially as we would immediately create new gods.

But I would like to get back to the first point. Calling religion a neurological disorder is just prejudice, pure and simple. I have heard pious people claim the same about atheists. Let’s get down to the basics for a moment. What is religion? Religion is metaphor, religion is a set of stories that form our view of the world. As human beings, we think in stories. It is impossible for them to escape them. We are constantly writing our own stories –our life stories, the stories of the people around us, and all of these are shaped by our view of the world, which is in turn shaped by the stories we believe about the big things: life and death. This is what religion is, when you boil down to it. As Reverend Forrest Church has often wrote, “religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die”. We use these stories to explain the big mysteries of life, why we are here, why we must die, and what happens to us after we die.

What then, is atheism or agnosticism? Well, it is just another kind of story. Humans can not live, can not function without some sort of story. Nonbelievers do not believe in nothing, after all. Everyone believes in something. What most of them believe in, or so I have observed, is the Myth of Progress –that all of history is a straight line shooting from the beginning of evolution up to the fish that crawled out of the water, to the monkey that climbed down out of the trees, to western civilization and from us out to the stars. They may not be conscious of this myth, but most believe in it. (By the way, I agree with John Michael Greer that progress is the dominant religion of America today.) All believe in the theory of evolution.

Let’s stop for a moment so I can make one thing clear: I am not claiming that evolution is or is not real, or that God/dess/Spirit is or is not real. I could be up all night (probably several nights) listing the arguments for and against each position and it still wouldn’t make any difference. For now I am just concentrating on their role as a story that shapes our minds and worldviews. I will, however, state that I have a pet theory as to why many people can not accept atheism and the theory of evolution: this may sound crazy to the nonbelievers who read my blog, but that theory is well…rather cold and heartless. Most people just can not accept the idea that we come from muck and return to muck and that is all there is to it. Most people need to think that there is something more, that there is a reason to all of this. As humans we like to think on big, grand scales, especially about the things we can not begin to comprehend.

Moving on, if we look at the world today we can see that there are a number of problems, all caused by various forces. I will not deny that religion is a cause of many of them, but religion has also done great good. Let us take it as a given for a moment that religion shapes our worldview and that this latter motivates many of our actions. It is therefore easy to lay many of the world’s problems at the feet of religion, but is it all religion, or merely certain types? I am going to introduce two theological concepts now. The first is the idea of immanence versus transcendence. Each phrase is a different way of looking at God and the divine. The first is the concept that divinity is inherent in everything, that God is all around us and even in each one of us. This is a minority position among the world’s religions. The second, and more common stance, is the belief that God/divinity is a distant, inscrutable force, the old man sitting far away in heaven. Under the first system of belief, God is present in every leaf of every tree while in the second he is somewhere far, far away. This is a very old theological divide but one that I think is crucial to understanding how we got where we are today: It is a whole lot harder to trash your world and destroy your fellows when you see all of them as divine.

The second concept is that of monotheism versus polytheism. I am not just speaking of belief in the number of deities here. I am speaking of entire worldviews, as Margot Adler pointed out in her seminal work, Drawing Down the Moon. Monotheism does not just mean a belief in one god; monotheism also encompasses a belief in one right way of doing things, one right way of being in the world, one right way, period. Polytheism, on the other hand, is a worldview that allows for many different paths and ways of being, for many different beliefs in the divine. Polytheism, it should be noted, encompasses monotheism but not the other way around. Because monotheism is insistent that there is One Right Way it is easy for it to fall into the path of “I’m right and you’re not, therefore I’m better than you” and to “convert or die” and on to holy wars. It is hard for polytheists to wage holy wars because they see many possible paths as right.

I believe these two concepts are the root causes of our problems today. The belief that God is entirely transcendent has led many of us to devalue nature and the world we live in today, and the firm belief that we are right has led us to reject all other paths and come into constant conflict with those on other paths. I am not calling for a return to a belief in an entirely immanent God or suggesting we should all return to believing in the Roman pantheon. Rather, I think things would get much better in this world if we could see the Divine in the trees we clear cut and realize that maybe our neighbors aren’t going to roast in hell for eternity for believing differently than we do.

My own faith has only two fundamental laws, two main tenets that I try to cleave to at all cost. The first is simply: Do not harm. It sounds easy, but it isn’t. The second, and more important, is There is no one right way. These are the words I try to live by.


Blogger SoapBoxTech said...

Great post. I think you hit some very important points. Its great to know more and more people who are truly awake and alive.

10/29/2008 11:06 PM  
Blogger MoonRaven said...

Your last paragraph is simple and amazing, RAS. 'Do no harm' and 'There is no one right way'. Words to live by indeed. Sign me on.

10/30/2008 6:50 AM  

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