Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Functions of religion

I guess the social function of religion is to maintain social cohesion by suppressing urges that lead to individuality (such as sexuality, magic and mysticism) and providing rituals to guide people through the trauma that this will inevitably create. Examples: the way that mystics, magicians and sexual and gender-variant individuals are shunned and persecuted by religions. Also, rites of passage are designed to negotiate the tensions created between individual impulses and the needs of the group. This is why they take place at times of stress.

This is all very well if the religion functions to maintain a just society, but not if the society being maintained is fundamentally unjust. I also suspect that all esoteric systems will eventually settle down and become religions in that sense - which is why Aleister Crowley rejected the idea of "Crowleyanity". He knew that his path would be turned into a religion for others to follow, and wanted to prevent that.

If you look at the way religious movements develop, their eventual assimilation into the host society is all too frequent. Sometimes they influence the host society, but all too often the reverse is true. Religions start out radically counter-cultural, and then gradually assimilate. If their rules are particularly demanding, this is probably a good thing, but in many cases, it's a bit of a disappointment. Christopher Partridge describes the assimilation process particularly well in The Re-enchantment of the West.

Of course, there are many values promoted by liberal religions which are worth having, like celebrating diversity, radical hospitality, community, and so on. But they still tend towards the sacrifice of individuality for the greater good.

Sometimes it can be painful to be in community with others. There's a certain element of impersonality about it. There is also an expectation of serving the community, and this can be in conflict with individuality, even in very liberal groups.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Does this stuff actually work?

So then, religion and spirituality - do they actually work?

Paganism claims to put its adherents in touch with Nature by celebrating the seasonal cycle of festivals (or at least that used to be its claim - this seems to have been largely sidelined in favour of talking to deities). Does celebrating the seasonal cycle of festivals really put you in touch with Nature? Does it really transform the psyche? Do the rituals actually have a beneficial effect on the practitioners? (If not, at least they are fun.)

Unitarianism claims that it is building the beloved community, and that by being in community together, we can model a microcosm of the world, and create meaningful connections and communities. Does hanging out with people, some of whom one doesn't actually like, really make you a better person? Possibly, in that it is supposed to rub off the corners and make you more tolerant by exposing you to different viewpoints. But you have to really hang out with them and make actual community, not just see them on Sundays.

Buddhism claims that meditation is the transformative ingredient. I do know that the metta bhavana meditation really helped me to avoid conflict with someone I found incredibly annoying - but then maybe I could have saved myself an awful lot of trauma by just having the conflict with the person, because I was damaged by acquiescing to their nonsense.

Quakers claim that their gathered silence transforms the participants. At least Quakers do engage directly in social justice work, and attempt to allow their values to permeate every aspect of their lives. The trouble is, I couldn't actually be a Quaker, because it wouldn't suit me.

Pick and mix spirituality - once memorably characterised as 'a glowing and useful term in search of a meaning' - where, at its worst, you get to do all the bits you like and avoid the rest - just makes people disappear up their own bottoms, lost in a welter of crystals, pastel colours, dolphins, quantum vibes, and Mayan prophecies. Yes, it is necessary to seek rest and refreshment before re-entering the fray of activism - but maybe that would be better gained by going for a nice walk in the woods or listening to a really good piece of music. It certainly isn't gained by paying megabucks for some dubious bullshit.

There's a joke in the Pagan community: "Q. What's the difference between Paganism and the New Age? A: a couple of extra zeroes on the end of the price."

The trouble is, there is no objective way of testing the effectiveness of religion and spirituality. I've done lots of  stuff, and I have become more relaxed and learnt to like myself, but did that happen because I practiced religion and spirituality, or would it have happened anyway? When I think of all the heartbreak and angst I have experienced over various aspects of religion and spirituality, I sometimes wonder if it was worth it. I do know that I have got spiritual burnout and need a rest.

I do not use my religion as a "crutch" - because it does not offer me the consolation of believing in life after death. I sort of believe in reincarnation, but I have no idea what form it might take, or whether the individual personality survives the transition; so there's very little consolation available there.

I guess I have been looking for "spiritual experiences" but I do not think they are really the point of spiritual practices; though they are an agreeable by-product of the process. The point of spiritual practices is (supposedly) self-development.

I started out on my journey because I decided the point of existence was to make the world a better place, and the most effective way to do that was to start on the self. The trouble is, it is very easy to get side-tracked into the whole self-development thing, and forget about the activism for social justice. I am an armchair activist, signing petitions, blogging and tweeting about LGBT issues and other causes - but I don't actually do any direct social justice work.

I think anyone who practices religion and spirituality should be constantly asking themselves, why am I doing this particular practice? Does it benefit me, and/or the wider community? Does it make anyone unhappy? Does it create false hope? Will it build up expectations, only to dash them later?

I think Walt Whitman really hit on something when he wrote:
I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self contained;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied-not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is responsible or industrious over the whole earth.
I also think that the Abraham Lincoln quote that I used as the strapline of this blog is a good acid test of whether a religion or spirituality is any good: "I care not much for a man's religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it."

Perhaps also my favourite Carl Sagan quote:
A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later such a religion will emerge.
I do think that living by a particular set of values, rather than a particular set of beliefs, is a way forward, because beliefs about 'spiritual' matters are generally  not very testable or falsifiable, whereas values and practices can be tested empirically, and discarded if they do not work.

To be perfectly honest, I have got just as much benefit (possibly more) out of long walks in the countryside, making music, creating art, and reading novels.