Religious – to be or not to be

Having once been told that I sit on a fence, concerning religion, by a christian for whom, like an on/off switch, you either are religious or not, this has stayed with me over the years.  And being in Italy recently, where I was declared as being anglican simply because I was English, and where my Italian was not good enough to explain that actually I was quite irreligous but that as a social phenomena, and with a strong religious family background, I found religious practices quite interesting,  I therefore let myself be pigeon-holed as being, indeed, anglican.  But I’m not anglican.  In fact, I’m not sure how I would pigeon-hole myself in terms of religion and I don’t see why I should.  It’s a bit like appreciating a good game of football, but not supporting any one side.  My appreciation is of the skill and strategy of the players, not on some totemic affinity with individual teams.

Sitting-on-the-fence can sound indecisive, or worse, fearing to take a plunge in committing to beliefs.  Maybe that’s true, or because my beliefs need to be founded on something more rationally solid than religious beliefs tend to be, without negating the experiential factor.  You can challenge that comment if you like.   Anyway, not wishing to diverge, the view is clearer and more objective when sitting on the fence.  And you soon find there are many other fences to sit on too – as many as you like, in fact.  Why limit yourself?  You can jump down on to either side of these fences, if you wish to dabble in any ritual; inhale their intoxicating fervours; join in with singing out praises, meditate in prayer upon life’s mysteries – before returning to day-jobs.  Irreverent?  Not really.  My ‘sitting on the fence’ is of a reflexive type, possibly as a ‘multi-perspectivist’:   That’s just a phrase I stole from the anthropologist Clifford Geertz.  But I like it.  So, no, I don’t purposefully go out looking for religious activities to take part in just for the fun of it.  Honestly.  But if I come across them on my life’s travels, I’ll watch them, with interest, from a non-judgemental, sitting-on-the-fence viewpoint.  Why? You might ask – apart from being a good spot to take photos and play at being a social anthropologist?

Example:  In 1953 this statue of the Madonna, then on the wall in a poor couple’s house in Syracuse, Sicily, began to weep.  It continued for three days over which time many people visited and many were cured of a whole range of ailments from blindness to lameness.  The Vatican, under Pope Pius X11 declared it a miracle.  The statuette is now enshrined at the ‘Santuario Madonna Delle Lacrima’ where people come from all over the world for blessing.   Irrational belief?  More tactful, in Syracuse, to show interest and reserve judgement.

In fact, considering ‘truths’ about religion is generally a case of reserving judgement, in my case anyway.  And over the years I’ve absorbed an endless, life-long stream of experience (from church services to pagan rituals), reading analysis, discussion and debate (from pub bars to university anthropology lectures), to help form my thoughts whenever the question arises; which is actually quite rare these days.  Sure, I’ve been swayed over the passing decades, by reasoning, sentiment and appreciation of others personal histories, both for and against religious practices.  When I hear christian creationists ignore any of the understandings science has brought to life on our planet; or see on television other ‘fundamentalists’ chanting fanatically on mass, I prefer to remain distinctly apart from religious ideologies.  But when I gaze out to sea on a clear moonlit night, with the stars displayed above across the dark celestial canopy;  or when I enter ‘hallowed’ ground such as Stonehenge, Westminster Abbey, or some ancient Greek temple perched on a Mediterannean cliff-edge, I am touched by a sense of ‘eternal peace’.   And this you may choose to call ‘religiosity’.   But it doesn’t make me ‘religious’.

A few years ago I overheard a conversation between an christian and an aetheist.  I mention no names.  The aetheist was telling the christian that their beliefs were culturally determined (an american brand of christianity) and that if she had been an Indian she would have been a Hindu, a Saudi – a Muslim, a Chinese – a buddhist etc.  What he forgot to include was that if she had been a scientist, like him, working in western business practices, she may also have been an aetheist.  My point being that if you take the cultural determinism approach, it works both ways; for the christian and the aetheist.

I don’t hold with that.  Individual choice exists.  Culture is not the ultimate determinant of our beliefs.  The individual/society dualism has long been explored by sociologists with human action (‘agency’) placed at many points along the line between the two.  Others may call this the ‘creative zone’, where ‘self’ interacts with society, reporting upon it, manipulating it, using it, symbolizing it, attacking it etc.   Recall , for example, that many, many Germans living under Hitler’s National Socialism did actually oppose it, and died for their beliefs.  We are not all blindly-following, docile sheep obeying dominant discourses à la Michel Foucault (or ‘soma addicts’ in Aldoux Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’) ; but sentient, reflexive, human beings .   And relating these ideas/theories to my own personal existence is a continuous theme within my own reading and developing perception of ‘self’.  ‘Becoming’, rather than ‘being’, is a slow process taken through life and one I enjoy taking.  I therefore prefer to reflect upon these ideas, perhaps even integrate them into my existence, but not to dogmatically rest upon one particular outlook.  Change, as both Heraclitus and Lao Tzu said millenia ago, is the natural flow of life.  One can become a Hindu in bible-belt America or a Christian in Saudi, if one’s personal beliefs can withstand the cultural forces being applied to conform to the general trend.  People do.  It’s called being individual.

A couple of decades ago I attended a religious function.  It was a big affair in Sheffield’s town hall, packed out with (5,000?) christians.  This was the last of five days exploring the works of Jesus and the speaker, an american evangelist, spoke about using the power of the Holy Spirit to perform miracles.  Then there was a hush as he invoked the Spirit to descend.  A woman from the choir behind screamed (apparently possessed by demons; so the evangelist said), and people started fainting.  Sitting watching, I was obviously bemused by it all, for a lady came and asked if she could say the Lord’s prayer with me.  I agreed to this and we did this together, myself feeling other hands rest on my shoulders and head as we recited the words.  Then the lady cried, ‘halleluja, you are now in the kingdom of heaven.’  I politely thanked her and she moved on.  I then wandered around a while, seeing many praying groups with hands in the air crying out ‘hallelujas’… and left.

Interesting?  Yes.  And powerful too. But not really my thing.  I went to the pub.

Recently I attended another religious frenzy.  This was at the San Sebastian festival at Palazzola Accreide in Sicily.  Basically, a mass was first held to the saint, then everyone left the church to stand in a square at the bottom of the church steps (again 5,000?).  The church doors were then closed, all lights extinguished, and darkness descended.  Then the doors burst open with great bursts of light and fireworks, and  a statue of the saint was carried out of the church, down the steps and around the town in procession.  The crowd went wild with ‘hosannas and hallelujas’.  Saint Sebastian was resurrected!

Interesting?  Absolutely.   Thrilling even.  But only as an observer.  I (we) left and went to a restaurant.

In fact, the power of the crowd at such events can not be under-estimated.  Call it ‘collective conscience’ if you like, and I guess it’s the same when caught up in a good football crowd or any other mass gathering.  Indeed, sometimes it can appear downright frightening, as with observing youtube clips of those mass Hitler or North Korean or KKK rallies.  Or those muslim effigy/flag burning crowds baying for blood and death.  Perhaps on a less frightening scale, Billy Graham (american evangelist) rallies too have drummed up incredible intensities of emotions with rhetoric declaring the approach of armaggedon, the forthcoming plagues, and the need to repent if you don’t want to suffer the consquence of eternity in hell.

But my personal sense of individuality doesn’t go for all that – I saw Billy Graham three times at Sheffield’s Brammal Lane football stadium to check him out.  In fact, as in the Sheffield town hall occassion, I personally fight against the persuasive power of the crowd.  My individual beliefs are not to be dictated to, preached to, or coerced.  They simply evolve, reflexively, through my life-time as I grow older.  And yes, I do listen and read extensively to the opinions of others which inspire and provoke my thoughts.

Undoubtedly, religion is a power.  And it is very easy to concentrate on the negative consequences of this power.  I dread to ascribe a number, if at all possible, to the millions (or billions?), who have been killed in its name.  Perhaps, like ‘clean’ nuclear power, it would be better to leave religion well alone for the damage it can, and has, wreaked, in mankind’s hands – although apologies and acceptences of past errors are long time coming by those who hold the batons of such power.

But religion, whether ‘true’ or not, can also (again like nuclear power) be a power for the good.  Many charitable works have been undertaken through religious organizations and many lives have been improved through acceptence of ‘ religious faith’.  Religion has helped build and unify communities (e.g. in frontier zones of the US and Australia).  Religion has been instrumental in encouraging acts of reconciliation between broken communities (e.g. Northern Ireland).  Religion has helped many to cope with fear and persecution (e.g. from evil dictatorships to Guantanamo Bay).  Religion has got people through those ‘hard times’ (e.g. life in early industrial Britain).  Religious sentiment has produced some of the most remarkable monuments in the world (architectural, literature, music and the arts).  Religion has given meaning and humanity to lives, broken or not.

Which is all quite remarkable for something fundamentally based on ‘faith’, rather than any strict code of rational thought.  And therein (I feel) also lies, sadly, its susceptability to being abused.  No proof – just rhetoric, drama, theatrics…and ‘faith’.  And with little accountability of the leaders.  Sorry, but how often have child-abusing priests been quietly hushed up?  How often do muslim imams rant against the sins of western capitalization whose knowledge of the ins-and-outs of 21st century macro/micro economics is based on reading a 7th century Koran.  How often are appraisals carried out on church leaders, as they are with school teachers, to inform them when ‘acts of worship’ and/or sermons need ‘tightening up’ –  I personally remember one particular priest being defrocked for leading his flock astray (see here).  Interesting tale, which I mention only to illustrate the potential dangers of holding religious power and not being held accountable.  Finally he was, following media revelation. In most other professions accountability to (earthly) superiors is almost a daily affair.

So yes, once ‘myth’ turned a corner and became ‘religious truth’, old stories (that had been employed for aeons to illustrate certain ‘ontological’ notions relating to human existence and its emergence from an earlier chthonic state), changed in function and became politicized.  The process parallels, in its evolutionary aspect, Thomas Kuhn‘s changing scientific paradigms.  However, changing religious paradigms came to incorporate the manipulation of power over citizens and subjects .  So, all those Indoeuropean and early Mediterranean stories relating to ‘cultural heros’ (who could transverse cosmological domains between the heavens, the earth and the underworld)  emerging from caves, and having rhetorical powers of magical speech to bring life and culture to the darkness of ignorance), became, in time, and as communities grew into towns and cities, tales of cultural inclusion, or exclusion.  For if you believed this version, you belonged to this group of believers.  If you didn’t you and you preferred that version, you were excluded; even stoned or burnt as a heretical outsider.

And there were several Indoeuropean/Mediterranean versions too, from the Norse, to the Celtic, the Egyptian, the Greek, the Judeo-Christian, the Muslim… each with several, minor, regional variations.  All, however, having so much in common, that they seem to spring from a common Indoeuropean source of several thousand years ago – just as one ‘Sir William Jones’ (Sanskrit scholar and linguist) once first noted about all european, and several asian, languages.  The distinction between teleological and regeneration-themed religious outooks came sometime later,  splitting Celtic and Indian theologies from the Greek, Judeo-Christian and Muslim. How some mythological versions then became so politicized is the story of emerging civilisations and disputes involved to keep hold of power – over neighbours and one’s own people; as the story of the Popes and the Holy Roman Empire illustrates so well.   And somewhere along the line, explaining human arrival from chthonic origins by way of sweet little bedtime stories, or campfire tales, was discarded and exchanged for usage in international power games.  Crazy world!

Actually, regeneration-based religions (e.g. druidic and pagan religions worshipping the cyclical aspect of nature) have blended and merged with teleological outlooks.   The two are not mutually exclusive.  ‘Resurrection’ and ‘born again’ concepts are central to Christianity, which is strongly teleological in leading towards an ‘end days’ theology resulting in an  eternal paradise.  Cybele worship (of Anatolian origin and once the official religion of the Roman empire), in which Cybele resurrected her son Attis as a pine tree, rests on the historical boundary between nature regeneration and person (man-God) resurrection.  Interesting how the teleological outlook began to be adopted at the same time as writing and the setting down of records, began.

With writing, firstly done by merchants to keep tallies of stock transactions and scribes for the recording of king lists (e.g Sumerian), flexible, oral traditions passed into fixed, definitive accounts.  Myths changed form too, becoming creative detailed accounts (e.g. Gilgamesh) rather than simply accounting for cosmologies and creations, and  providing reasons for human suffering (theodicies).  They became historical accounts of peoples, thereby creating time-lines.  And once these were laid down, a future-line too could be envisaged.  Not just by examining animal entrails to predict an occuence in the near future, but also  by introducing a messianic notion.  Of course.  Many myths previously detailed a cultural hero bringing humanity out of ignorance, so a new  cultural hero would lead humanity into the next stage.  Hence, whereas backward looking myths explained human origins as stemming from the uncivilized and savege ‘heart of darkness’ (to employ  the Joseph Conrad/ ‘Apocalypse Now’ metaphor), there now became a future stage of human development attainable by following certain messianic leaders.  Not a physical or intellectual development, but a ‘spiritual’ development, beyond the ‘age of reason’, paralleling the way music and art leads us to ‘higher’ (or ‘different’) planes. 

Salvation and redemption, is the key within the Christian religion, by confessing sins and acknowledging Jesus as that Messianic leader.  In Islam it is reached by following the prophet Mohammed and their five pillar of wisdom (praying five times a day, fasting at Ramadan, monotheism, charity, undergoing a Hajj pilgrimmage to Mecca).  But there have been other ways too.  Post-second world war ‘Cargo cults’ of the south Pacific took believers forward by copying the observable behaviours of American military personal stationed there, such as taping away on boxes like they’d observed Americans do on type-writers.  Alternatively, in dollar-led America, for some it has become by actually ‘buying’ steps up the ladder of enlightenment from the Church of Scientology.   As I said – crazy world!

 So yes (fast-forwarding back to modernity), give me that ‘ol’ time religion’ and keep the faith alive and burning – that’s the key, particularly when done through action and ritual activity.  This is also important where ‘spiritual growth’ and ‘personal development’ are seen to go hand-in-hand (I guess for many they do), and where religious institutions work to survive like any business or political institution.  So yes, put on  good show, power out the church organ, ring our the bells, parade through the streets in glowing Hare Krishna gowns, speak out with silver tongues of first-class salesmen*, bow heads to the floor in acts of submission five times a day, hold hands in fellowship, chant the chants (gregorian, buddhist, pagan), dance around the wickerman, consult the oracles, enter shamanistic trances, perform ritual offerings… anything active and participatory to keep the faith alive; anything communitarian, anything dealing with the profundities of human spirit and experience.  And in the right hands, it can be a good thing.  I can see that.  Sharing and supporting each other through the joys and trials of life, emotionally, symbolically, or ritually, is part of our humanity.  But in the wrong hands, as with nuclear power, it can be terribly destructive.  We have seen that too.

(*No, I don’t wish to be cynical, for I appreciate the emotional, or ‘existential’ depth, religion gives to many in their lives. But those rich tv evangelists…ugh!)

 So, blind faith?  So what if it is?  Too much rationality in life can be boring and anyway, my faith in the safety of air flight is also a little blind.  OK.  Maybe not a fair comparison, for scientific rationale can not be applied to examining religion as it is to air flight.  But all those rationalizing – ‘Does God exist?’ type questions, go round and round in circles, as they have done since the days of Aristotle… or Aquinus…(and probably millenia before that), and I don’t blame anyone for just getting on with their beliefs; with faith rather than rationale.   Sure, Stephen Hawkins and Richard Dawkins don’t believe in God: One’s an astro-physicist, the other a biologist, and that’s their choices made within their chosen realms of thought.  But they could believe in God if they wanted to deify the ‘wow’ of experiencing the universe, or give it some ‘cosmic meaning’.

Still – I do think theologians and philosophers could give more appreciation to the findings of scientists regarding origins of the universe – also to those paleo-archeologists and neuro-anthropologists (et al) coming to terms with the origins of ‘mind and consciousness’.  I’m not completely sure why some (not all!) such thinkers tend to feel that their mental perambulations are superior, or automatically more correct.  In areas where science still struggles to find answers, such as ‘why’ the big bang occured, or ‘how’ organic ‘life’ emerged from a collection of inorganic molecules, a window opens for such theologians and philosophers to posit non-scientific answers and try to maintain their positions as ‘thinkers’ of credibility.  (example: see here.  Dawkins debates with Rowan Williams, the arch-bishop of Canterbury).  Without disregarding their religious wisdoms, which I personally find especially pertinent in such social areas as moralities and ethics, perhaps religious leaders should acknowledge more our scientific understandings, even if most lay people are not able to understand their technicalities, and if unable to  understand all the technicalities (who can?) – simply accept, with ‘faith’, scientistific theorizing.   That should not be so difficult.  Scientific ‘truths’ are, by definition and practice, more determined than theological ‘truths’, and having ‘faith’ in non-scientific points of view is something religious believers do quite readily do!

And so, the great debate between religon and science continues.  Not necessarily because ‘truth’ is still being determined, but because the credibility of the purporters of ‘truth’ is continuously on the line.  The more science advances into the realms once held  by religion, the more religious sympathizers retreat into non-determinative notions.  Therein lies the rub.

In brief: Scientific rationality is a choice, debated with rationale.  Faith is not to be debated with the same tools, and I leave it to those who have it.

My choice is to be curious, to question, and to muse upon certain issues.  Yes, there are so many strands of thought in the world that many life-times would be needed to consider them all.  Doesn’t that make life fascinating?  It does for me.

2 comments on “Religious – to be or not to be

  1. Hello Phil, as you point it out, religions have always been very useful to societies for they give a frame to our behaviour which would otherwise tend to be ‘wild’. But religions are but socio-cultural phenomenons. There is not a shadow of a reason that their dogmas should be true. On the other hand, science can prove that its truth is really true. For example, astronomy is able to foresee an eclipse a long time in advance and those predictions always turn out to be true. Our current astronomy is therefore right. So if I’m a believer, it’s only a belief in science.

    • english13 says:

      I agree, Hubert, with no ‘reason that their dogmas should be true’, but maybe they can be useful – in helping us cope with misfortune, enhancing social/community solidarity, giving personal meaning to lives. If they do these things for people, should scientists really uncover fallacies in their beliefs? I believe it was Francis Bacon, during the Enlightenment, who first stated the primary rule of scientific examination as ‘testability’. But religious devotees don’t put their faiths to the test. For them it’s a false doctrine. Yes, I am wholeheartedly with you, but religious epistemologies based on different precepts, such as ‘hermeneutical issues’, exist for millions too.

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