Sunday, February 04, 2007

Sunday Mornings

The idea of having other gods is a commonplace for Christians. We hear sermons on it, read books about it, teach it to our children. We know from the examination of our own hearts that such things are not only possible, but the natural state of things. There is a spiritual Second Law of Thermodynamics that says we will move inexorably toward lesser, path-of-least-resistance gods unless organizing energy is put into the system.

Yet few things are less congenial to a nonbeliever’s mind. I have lost friends almost immediately after asserting to them that they do indeed have a religion, whether they recognize it or not. That may be my fault for putting it so bluntly. The idea seemed very natural and unremarkable to me, having encountered it in myself so often. To set up Education, or Comfort, or Books, or Position, or Fame, or Freedom of Action as a small deity with a shrine of its own somewhere in my life is something I do almost accidentally. Self-examination or events of the week cause me to stumble over its altar: “Hey look, there’s a god there! Darn.” These days, my computer is God's Rival.

The initial difficulty comes because people think that to be called a religion, something has to have formal prayers or worship in it. If they don’t wear special vestments, or sing songs while thinking about Something, or get together with others to agree that they have a religion and this is it, they don’t think it should be called a religion. There’s some justice in that. Religion often does mean those things, and if we’re going to use common words in a different way, we have some obligation to clarify. I have several times mentioned here that liberalism is a religion – as conservatism can also be, though that is currently less automatic. It is easy to find people online who claim that environmentalism is a religion.

Where that goes wrong is that it is running way too far ahead. What we mean is if you examine this set of beliefs closely, you will find that it resolves into something that functions like a religion. And once we have stated it in that complicated fashion, it’s obvious that no one’s going to swallow that concept at one gulp. We need to go more slowly on that.

I have several times been in the CS Lewis “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic” debate with people, and I have never convinced anyone. (Even playing an Arts & Humanities trump card and saying that it comes from a medieval formulation aut Deus aut homo malus – either God or a bad man – has been unpersuasive.) People put forward all sorts of ideas about Jesus that they say do not fall into any of those. That’s true, in its simplest sense. What I should have argued is that all claims about Jesus eventually resolve into one of those three. The resolution, however, is not always immediately apparent.

If we start from the other end, and claim that everyone has some set of animating principles by which they have learned to interpret the world, there may be less objection. “Oh well then, if that’s all you mean, then of course that’s true.” Or to take it from another angle, that everyone has things they pursue and sacrifice for that pushes out lesser goals. I think it is only through long examination and many steps that people come to a realization that their desire to focus on rescuing the environment is based on an idea of leaving some legacy (why, one asks, should we care at all?); that this proposed legacy includes an idea of how the world should look; that this should is based on some idea of nature left over from summer camp, or from ideas of stewardship, or aesthetics. Only well down the line can people begin to absorb the ideas that this particular legacy may be tied in with having only one child, or none; that it wishes most for others to look at nature as they do; that it wishes, in fact for all people to be like them in some essential characteristic; that it is, in fact, a religion, with triumphant vision, ritual, sacrifice, and the giving of oneself.

Or similarly, people believe that we should move toward a world of no violence. For what reason? (I don’t disagree, but it helps to ask the question.) It would be better now if we had a world which resolved things through negotiation, so it is natural to think that those who come after will want the same. Let us attempt to move toward that world, then.

Yet why? We don’t know the people who will be running the joint in 2100, and they may be doing a lot of junk we disapprove of. We might not like them. And they may not like us. So why bother? If we have determined visions of preserving what is valuable no matter what Dark Ages may lie ahead – and I have those thoughts often – what is the reason? I know my reasons – they spring directly from my religion.

My most radical-lib friend claims to care not a whit about the year 2100, and in one sense, I believe him. He hates George Bush and the corporatocracy because they are destroying human freedom with their fascist overthrow of democratic principles. When you press him, he cannot allow it directly, but it is clear that he wants people to live a certain way in the world – for certain values to rule. He wants, in short, for others to be like himself and his friends. He believes if all this junk and superstition is cleared away, if the powermongers are held in check and the wise people allowed to direct things, that everyone will see that this is best and be happier. When his tribe wins, all will be well. He doesn’t sing songs about his tribe; certainly he does not pray to his friends or some idea of the ubermensch that is within our grasp; he doesn’t think he goes to worship services. But it’s a religion.

“Worship at the church of your choice*” the public service TV ad used to run when I was a child. Yes, children, that was broadcast over the public airwaves in the old days, and no one thought it odd. In 1960, 96% of Americans claimed to have some affiliation with a place of worship. It may have been that faith was a mile wide and an inch deep, but it was indeed a mile wide. That line comes to me on Sunday mornings as we drive to church. One person is running – ah, a body-worshipper; another has a skimobile or ATV in tow – ah, a fun-worshipper; the cafĂ© is full – another type of body-worshipper, or perhaps a socialization worshipper. This one does the crossword and reads the NYTimes Review of Books. Another goes to work to make money or rise in society. Yet another plays with the children, a gentler religion, bearing resemblance to the faith of his fathers, but insidious nonetheless. “Worship at the church of your choice.” You do.

*Those who worship on other days, no offense meant.


Jerub-Baal said...

We are the Rational, the sons and daughters of the Information Age. We are the progeny of Descartes and Newton, the sharply analytical myth-less children of knowledge and reason.

That in itself may be the foremost of Myths of the 21st Century. It is impossible to live without faith, and a tremendous amount of it at that. We cannot view everything first hand. We cannot know everything from personal experience. Our news comes filtered through talking heads on TV, and even if they are completely objective (a rather unreasonable thing for us to ask of them) they still cannot transmit every bit of pertinent information to us. There simply is not the time. And so we believe that we know ‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ when in reality we have replaced one set of shaman for another. We have set aside one set of faiths for another, based on ourselves.

Jerub-Baal said...

You know, I meant to add an explanation to the end of the above.

That is the "artist's statement" I use for one particular stream of idea-images in my paintings. The only way that anyone can operate is to have a basic framework of the universe that they choose to live by. Throughout history, people have believed that they rationally chose their thought-frameworks, when in reality most people simply accept what has been handed down to them. It is truly rare for anyone to re-examine his or her philosophical foundations, because it is a very scary thing to question ones-self that deeply. It is often a very cruel thing to ask someone to do, even if it is necessary (as in certain areas of mental health).

You've put this very well AVI, I hope you will be flattered if I pillage a little of it in the future, to explain my artwork...

Assistant Village Idiot said...

With my blessing.

ScurvyOaks said...

"These days, my computer is God's Rival."

AVI, I have the same problem. Consequently, I will give up blog-reading for Lent this year. This may be one of the hardest Lenten disciplines I've bitten off. That sounds silly, but I bet you understand.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I would recommend you only read religious blogs - and you know I have half-a-dozen I think wonderful - but I know for myself it would be the work of a moment to "just check in" on a few others.

terri said...

AVI...why do you think that there is this blind spot in the American/Western psyche, in regards to recognizing the influence of their own belief systems, vague and disorganized as they might be?

I always run into people, usually with no specific belief system, who state, "Religious beliefs and politics should never mix. You shouldn't advocate for anything politically nased on your personal beliefs."

That statement, of course, is quite stupid. Whenever I try to point out that everyone votes according to their own belief system, they seem unable to admit or comprehend it. When I ask them if they would vote for something that they personally felt was abhorrent, they avoid the question and veer off into some tagential point.

Is it force-fed ideology that keeps them from seeing it, or merely the inability to examine things more deeply? (as Jerub-baal posits)

P.S. the only reason I comment on your blog so much is because I can use words like psyche, abhorrent, and posits. It's a nice break from everyday voabulary. :-)