Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Meaning and Content of Religion

What is God? What does God do? Can there be only one god, or is there one for each of us? What one thinks about supernatural entities, or “gods” clearly has to do with what one knows about the subject. Is there a Pantheon, mirroring our phenomenology, with each god shouldering their own interests in parallel with our own, or is there only a lonely Creator, who has “done it all,” and, “must not play with dice,” as Einstein jests.

The genesis of religion is often misunderstood either because of its seemingly obviousness or apartness of its history, its ubiquity, or the deafening thunder of its mysterium. We can move beyond this mystery however, through objectivity and reviewing various alternative views of religion that have been worked out since the Scientific Revolution.

If religion has a genesis, it is apart from us, since almost no one develops a religion entirely on their own, with a great emphasis here on the word, “almost”. Obviously, the names Joseph Smith and and L. Ron Hubbard must come to mind. The fact that full blown religions, designed with their own beginnings and liturgy don’t come along very often, and yet they do, even though the societal resistance to such upheavals is often great, suggests that religion is a force and entity of its own in human affairs, which can and should be studied.

All religions, seemingly by definition, are human concerns full of supernatural stories, each one marked by its own unprovability. Instead of demanding proof, religious thought seems to demand irrationality, if not full time, at least at certain junctures. The Catholic Rudolf Otto speaks of this, “non-rationality”, carefully in his book, The Idea of the Holy, "The consciousness of a 'wholly other' evades precise formulation in words, and we have to employ symbolic phrases which seem sometimes sheer paradox, that is, irrational, not merely non-rational in import."

A specific religion usually contains tenets about the past that need to be observed or upheld in order to assert group membership. Without a concern for the mystery of holy trinity, there can be no Catholic. No Evangelist is even possible without concern over repentance of her own sins and those of certain others. A Jew is marked by her devotion to honoring the national Covenant. Often, but not always, a non-believing or relatively non-religious Jew searches to discover which movement or human concern will serve as their personal oblation.  

If all religion was invented, as we know Mormonism or Scientology were, how did this happen? Was it simply the act of clever people, the Joseph Smith’s and L. Ron Hubbard’s of the world being at the in the right place at the right time? From looking at holy books, and primitive holy  cultures, such as the Vedic, and a certain universality of religious thought, I think we can say, “Sort of.”

I doubt that all religions started as scams, but that the evolution of many, on the other hand, had to do with power plays, or else a necessity for creating better order in society.

D.H. Lawrence, the famed British author in his book, St. Mawr, had a powerful effect on me personally in casting aside illusions I had regarding religion. As Marx said in his pamphlet, “Religion is the opiate of masses,” so I believed, however Lawrence, a master novelist, understood that all force is natural, especially those forces which are ascribed to supernatural causes, and religions were most natural when they respected these forces of nature. He didn’t believe, like a common atheist, that all religion is bad, but he believed that religions could be compared and judged according to how well religious belief coincided with respect for the forces of nature, with formal religions such as garden-variety Anglicanism being the furthest away from man’s universal religious roots in nature.

In, “The Essence of Christianity”, Ludwig Feuerbach discovers a psychological connection between an individual’s self-image, and his conception of God. For Feuerbach, regardless what the doctrine or books say, the individual always determines the ethos of her own personal God, giving God the capacities and values each individual feels are within herself. Having suffered personally through at least 10 years of Catholic teaching as a child, I have to agree with this assessment wholeheartedly, although I admit that it hasn’t caught on in the religious or counter-religious movements.

Did religion begin in prehistory (the Pleistocene) as quasi-political answers to societal problems? In a sense yes, It is even possible that it arrived prior to the evolution of humans, and humans assumed the operations of religious practice from watching the behaviors of higher rodents, such as prairie dogs, and canines, for example. I say the Pleistocene, because this is when evidence appears of ceremonial burials for the first time. This exploration into prehistory is, to me, one of the most fascinating subjects imaginable.

Probably the best way to observe the genesis of monotheism is to trace back the idea of a single ruler. Single-person rule is not the norm in today’s society, but God is such a ruler, and to understand it, we need to take ourselves out of our personal democratic shell and imagine ourselves as an autocrat setting the rules for many individuals, perhaps a Bill Gates, an Elon Musk, or a U.S. President are good examples. A God would have to make similar decisions as these people do. A God would be responsible for the welfare of many, in the process of unfolding their own personal will, and have developed her own ends to accomplish this. Such a God would not be the “every-man” of Feuerbach’s religious essay, but rather a superman, more akin to the Übermensch of Friedrich Nietzsche, projected by the hero of his fantasy, Thus Spake Zarathustra. So if for Nietzsche, the idea of God evolves to becoming a joke, the idea of a man or woman who behave like a God does not.

Perhaps in the future, society will concern itself with producing new leaders who will control the lives of many, who in turn will continue their belief in being controlled by supernatural entities. Or is that already how it is?   
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