WHAT HOLD DOES RELIGION HAVE OVER SO MANY?

By Paul

I have many times in my life questioned what it is about organized religion that can take such a hold on people.  Why is it that so many in the world, Americans in particular perhaps but many others as well, particularly in the Middle East, adhere to faiths that, though in their essence may be benign, yet in their practice are so often unkind, uncompassionate, and even predatory?  And although I may not have the academic authority to ask, I can at least inquire into such questions with a sense of history all my own.  When I was a young man, I was a devout Catholic, and even spent seven years in a Catholic monastery.  That was some fifty years ago now, and I have changed, I dare to say evolved, in my thinking about such things.  And yet, just as one of many examples that could be given, when I read about a young person struggling with too often quoted Biblical passages, or with preaching from the pulpit that condemns him or her for being gay, I wonder yet again what hold religion can have on the human heart.

Of course, not all religions are necessarily heinous and reprobate.  Some clearly fit into these descriptors, but others come off as more benign, or at least less condemnatory of those who do not hold to their putative truths.  I will leave it to the reader to identify which religion might fall into these varying categories, and move on instead to the brief exploration I mention above as to why I believe it is that people so often cling to religion, good or bad.

One further clarification first, however, if I may.  In discussing religion, I want to emphasize that I am speaking about the organization thereof, that is, the need to codify, to hierarchize, to set out dogma, teachings if you will, about what is considered good and bad, right and wrong, proper and improper in thought and behavior, as well as the apparent need to arrange, assemble, and marshal human communities that believe in and promulgate these tenets.  This, after all, is what most religions deal with, is it not?  What I am not doing is discussing (at this point anyway) whatever we might call the inner impulse to seek to understand the immutable and perhaps ultimately unanswerable questions of the universe, such as life, death, meaning, love, cruelty, sickness and suffering, or who if anyone made the universe and for what purpose, and whether or not there exists a Supreme Being, who in some way, either directly or indirectly, interacts with fallible human beings.  For better or for worse, all this lies these days more often within the domain of science, philosophy, or mysticism, than in that of organized religion.

So, back then to my original query: what is it about the organization of religion that exerts such a gravitational pull on so many human beings?

Perhaps surprisingly, the first and the most common reason is simple indolence.  By that I mean that an individual is brought up in a particular religion that she or he has learned from the very beginning.  Most everyone that person knows belongs to that same religion, and so what else ought he or she to do?  Such people stay in the religion of their birth not so much out of strong conviction, but because it is what they know, the whole thing seems to have been given to them in some sort of set and preordained way, and why not just stick with what you know?  After all, it’s just a matter of going to the church or the temple or the mosque on the appointed day, or whatever the house of worship may be called (for simplicity’s sake, I will use the term “church” throughout, although we understand it can be applied more widely), sitting passively and listening, or allowing one’s mind to wander freely, and then going home afterward, feeling a vague sense that one has done one’s duty.  Even so, it’s somehow thought to be an important duty, and others in the community would think less of them if the rituals were not properly performed.

The second reason is, simply, fear.  Some individuals are convinced that, if certain ceremonies are not performed in the prescribed way, and if specific dogmas and beliefs are not adhered to closely, then something terrible will befall them in this life; or worse, that just and awful punishment will be meted out to them in the next life.  And so, they go to church in order to hedge their bets, and in an attempt to ward off what is sometimes called their “just deserts,” if they were not to do so.

A third, and ancillary, reason added to one and two above is the need for reinforcement of belief.  This pertains to people who in the secret enclave of their hearts are either not sure of their own beliefs, or who are themselves fearful of not being capable of toeing the line on their own.  As a result, they need the company of a congregation of watchful co-religionists in order to sustain and reinforce belief in the received dogma.  Without that societal fortification and bolstering, they understand they might lose interest and fall entirely away.

But with number four, we come closest to seeing why it is that organized religion so often appears rigid, overbearing, and condemnatory.   Here we meet those who can be called “the true believers,” that is, those who are convinced to the marrow of their bones concerning the rectitude of the preachings of their religion, and of the common interpretation of those preachings by prominent practitioners and leaders of the faith.  This, too, goes hand in hand with a belief in the unerring and literal veracity of every word found in the “holy book” of the religion, or the infallibility of the exalted leaders of the faith.  These are the people who rail against sinners and apostates, who condemn to hell anyone who does not follow their particular take on religion, who attempt to get their narrow dogma imposed as the law of the land, and who in so doing cause no end of unnecessary suffering to so many.  Just as one example, think of the various roles the Roman Catholic Church, and any number of Protestant Evangelical Churches, to say nothing of Sharia Law, have played, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, in condemning and blocking same sex marriage, and gay rights generally, over the last several years.

Again, I will say that not every religion is oppressive and denunciatory.  Neither is every religious adherent filled with censure, vilification, and disapproval.  There are some who are willing to allow others who don’t hold to the tenets of their faith to live according to their own lights, and who do not wish to impose their view of the world on everyone in the world.  There are even a few who seem capable of using the symbols and teachings of their particular religious traditions in ways that stimulate and advance personal piety, as well as love and acceptance of other human beings.  But, in my experience, these are the few, rather than the many.

So, what to do, if you are among those who eschew organized religion?  Not to worry.  Either ignore dogmatic faiths entirely, and lead your life in as naturally moral and loving a way as possible, forgetting for now things supernatural, but living the best and most honorable life you can.  Or, if you are like myself and find that you are still drawn to an understanding and even a hoped-for connection with what can only be called the Supreme Unknowable, then find your own way!  Do not wait for priests, or preachers, or mullahs to lead you; do not rely on teachings and dogma.  Go within and discover for yourself.  After all, even for those who follow more traditional paths, the seeker must ultimately learn to transcend all stories and images, leave behind all saints and depictions of the divine, indeed, all qualities and thought, and find for him or herself what cannot be found, but what – after long search and hard work — in the end can only be called the great Gift of Enlightenment.

New Mythologies and Rituals

Dear Paul,
 
Your New Mythology article is excellent, compelling, and beautiful in its profundity expressed very simply. I am very impressed with the depth you have achieved with such economy of expression. I agree that much of what makes our lives meaningful — the ways in which we understand and express ultimate truths — is found in our mythologies. I also agree that old mythologies may be wearing thin, and that is most apparent in the increasingly desperate, pathetic, and extremely fundamentalistic efforts we see all around us to cling to them and force them upon others. That is a sign of the end. I believe you are right that new forms of mythology are required to give our lives meaning in the new age. Ironically, the basis for those new forms is likely to be found in the very same archetypes that founded the old ones. It may be the new origins, forms and vehicles of the new mythologies that will provide us with surprises. Perhaps they will come from the masses using electronic devices, instead of from temple oracles. Perhaps they will come from artists, singers, dancers and poets, instead of from prophets wailing in the night. Or even more radically… perhaps they will come from the earth itself and the animals and plants that I am convinced are trying to tell us something. Or, who knows? Perhaps they will come from visitors from another world, bringing us knowledge of whole new realities and mythologies. It could happen…
 
As I read your essay on mythology, I thought a great deal about another primary source of meaning — ritual. During the past six years, as Robert and I have been living deep in the woods with our many animals, I have become very aware of how much of the meaning of life for animals is wrapped up in daily ritual. For our dogs and cat and koi and chickens, it only takes one meaningful experience and its repetition the next day for a new ritual to be formed, and they let us know that they expect that ritual to be fulfilled and are quite disappointed if it is not. We take our five dogs for a walk in exactly the same way, usually at the same time, every day. We put some on leashes and some run free. We make several stops along the way to do specific things. If any part of the ritual is out of place they let us know. The cat, the koi and the chickens are that way too. Animals require, demand and depend upon ritual to give their lives structure and meaning. We human beings are part of the animal kingdom. We need ritual to build our sense of reality and meaning in life. We make our coffee and tea in the same way every morning and serve it to a loved one with a kiss. We do certain tasks in a given order. We structure our months and years around major events, holidays and work requirements. All of these things are rituals, providing just as much meaning as religious rites. We rely on ritual. When our rituals are interrupted, we know that something is amiss, different or strange. We feel uneasy and adrift, and we seek to re-establish needed rituals.
 
Many of the old rituals are also wearing thin, because they have so much to do with destroying the world as a sustaining habitat for life, and because they no longer provide as much relevant meaning as they once did. Fortunately, like our dogs and all animals, we can make new rituals with just a few repetitions, and the more we practice them, the more meaningful they become. Just as you have intriguingly posited our need for new mythologies, I believe we also need new, healthier, more productive, creative and affirmative rituals to replace the old destructive ones and give our daily activities profound, relevant meaning. Wouldn’t it be interesting if these new mythologies and rituals were ultimately spawned by our fundamental drive for survival on a planet that we have been killing as an environment that can sustain us?

I loved your article on New Mythologies. It is so timely, appropriate and profound. I wonder if there is a candidate that would round out a trinity, including Mythology and Ritual. These Ultimate Truth concepts seem to work better in threes… Father, Son and Holy Ghost; Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; Red, Blue and Yellow, etc. And why do these things come in threes? I suppose it is because of the three realms of existence — the physical or material world, the astral realm of “Heaven,” and the causal plane of the unmanifested Infinite. Now there are some pretty big mythologies for you, and I daresay they are also deeply ingrained archetypes. Well, you’ve made me think. There is a lot more to explore here.
 
Love, – Kevin

MYTH AND THE MODERN WORLD

By Paul

When most of us in the western world think of mythology, images of Greek and Roman gods probably first spring to mind: old stories of Zeus hurling his thunderbolts, of Hera his jealous wife and sister, of Zeus’ Roman counterpart, Almighty Jupiter, or Mercury of the wingéd sandals, who reminded Aeneas that it was his duty to found the city of Rome etc.   And doubtless these are good examples, although only a very few among an endless number of such stories that have come down to us over the millennia from every part of the globe. 

But what really do we mean when we talk about mythology?  What is its essence?  Why has it been so powerful a force throughout human history?  And another equally important question suggests itself, as well – is mythology still with us today?  Is it a force in our lives currently, or was it a thing only of the past?  I believe the answer to all these questions is actually not quite as complicated as it may at first appear. 

First of all, let us consider what mythology is.  It can be relatively easily defined as having two parts.  The first is as a force, a desire really, a need on the part of human beings to explain what otherwise appears to us as unexplainable.  By this I mean what are sometimes referred to as the big questions in life.  Why are we here?  Does life have a meaning?  Who (if anyone) made us?  Why is there suffering in life; why do we die; and after we die do we live on in some form, or do we simply cease to exist altogether?   These and other similar questions have both intrigued and plagued humanity since the very beginning, when ape-like creatures first evolved and begin to engage in reflective thinking.  The second part of the definition is as important as the first, and it has to do with the fact that humans, for the most part, seem to be either unwilling or unable to live without some kind of hope.  Who among us, for example, does not wish for his or her life to be on some kind of trajectory whereby things are somehow “getting better”?  This is true whether we are rich or poor, atheists or believers, members of an organized religion or among those who eschews such groups.  And if, somehow, we have lost hope for ourselves, as some do, still we may hold on to it for our children or for our loved ones.  Those without any hope for the future are the saddest of the sad among us, and some, most regretfully, decide that life is no longer worth living.

So, myth making has been the way which humans have used over the millennia to explain the world to themselves, and through which they envision a better, more hopeful future.  If anyone doubts this, just familiarize yourself with the almost countless number of “creation myths” that people the world over have concocted in order to explain how the world was made.  Virtually every culture has had it own story at one time or another.  And many Christians still hold as literally true the story of God creating the world in seven days.  In every case we see a Creator Being of some sort giving form to things, taking what had been unformed chaos and making it into the familiar forms we have come to know and feel comfortable with. 

If it is true, then, that the making of these kinds of stories about ourselves and our world is so essential to human beings, it seems equally reasonable to posit that modern peoples too must continue to do so.  It is my contention, in fact, that all religions are a form of mythology.  This includes the major religions practiced today, Christianity (in all of its subsets), Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism etc.  Each one makes a valiant stab at explaining to its followers the world and its great mysteries of life and death and suffering and good and evil. 

Take Christianity, with which most of us are very familiar, as an example.  As Joseph Campbell points out in his master work “The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology,” a great shift began to take place in the Europe of the 12th and the 13th centuries.  Prior to that, the Church ruled with an iron fist, and its priests were the sole explainers and arbiters of all mystery in the world.  However, beginning with the wonders of the Grail stories, and moving on from there to the Reformation and the European Enlightenment, individuals gradually began to realize that they themselves are quite capable of making their own way.  Indeed, people began to see that it is an absolute requirement for them to do so. Campbell calls this “the rise of the principle of individual conscience over ecclesiastical authority.”  But just how far have we progressed?    

Many of the major world religions of today have come down to us from the almost incredible fertility of what Campbell calls “the nuclear Near East.”  Certainly, this is true for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  In each case, the stories, the myths if you will, that they are composed of are now many centuries old.  But they all have a sacred book or books considered to have been dictated by a Deity.  As such, the book and what it teaches are thought to be “outside of time,” that is, applicable to every era of human history.  Some followers even take these stories in their most literal form – which was never the real intent of myth making – and contrive to apply their rules and their strictures to life in the 21st century, with sometimes disastrous results. 

This is in fact the great danger of myth making, that many take the stories quite literally, instead of symbolically.  Take for example the story of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption into Heaven.  There are those who believe that her literal body was taken into a place called heaven, accompanied by a host of rejoicing angels, instead of understanding the story the way it was meant to be, that is, as a symbol of what it means to raise our consciousness above the everyday cares and worries of the world.  

My own view is that these stories are beginning to wear thin.  Yes, many still hold to them, but that is because some great New Myth has yet to emerge out of human consciousness to form itself in the world.  Mormonism, some New Age religions, and such oddities as Scientology have made an attempt, but most seem to come down to either a rehashing of the same old stories with a few tweaks here and there, or something so outlandish that they appeal only to the fringes of society.  Communism, too, is a kind of mythology, and it was tried and found horribly wanting.  It has been suggested by some, as well, that science itself may be the new mythology of the modern world.  It does, after all, attempt to explain many of the world’s mysteries, including creation and life itself.  However, such explanations are at best both provisional and tentative, nor do they provide any understanding of such questions as why there is evil or suffering in the world, or give us hope in the face of a perilous and uncertain future.  Such answers, if you will, come only with true myth making. 

So, we seem to be left either with what I will call the old forms, that is, the millennia-old religions and their waning stories, or – with what?  I would tentatively suggest that perhaps what is left is the very flowering of the greatest form of individualism that began to slowly and laboriously emerge from the High Middle Ages.  I would put forward that what may be needed today is a greater willingness and effort on the part of each individual to create his or her own mythic story, which ultimately attempts to grapple with all of life’s mysteries.  This means that it is ultimately incumbent on each person to go within and to search out what cannot be explained or even fully understood by our everyday consciousness.  I am not talking about a new religion, but a new way of being in the world, one whereby every human takes full responsibility for his or her own story, as well as for its ramifications on the world around us and on other people. 

We are individuals, but we do not live alone in the world; nor do we own the world.  Whatever story we come to understand and to live by must therefore take into consideration the needs and the rights of all other life forms, indeed, of the planet itself.  No longer is it necessary to read and abide by what was dictated by a Deity to prophets who lived thousands of years ago. Neither priests nor popes nor preachers need tell us what it means to lead a good life.  But this can only be true if we go deeply within, anchor ourselves in the Great Mystery that is beyond all explaining and understanding, and humbly seek what is best for ourselves as individuals and as members of the collective. 

In this way, a New Mythology may slowly begin to emerge, one that is fashioned for the challenges of the rapidly changing 21st century in which we live, but which still addresses the great mysteries that defy explanation, and gives us courage to continue on, as well as hope that a better day is yet to come.

SCIENCE AND MYSTICISM, WILL THEY SOMEDAY MEET?

By Paul

“He (Pope John Paul II) told us that it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the big bang, but we should not inquire into the big bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God.”  Stephen Hawking writing in “A Brief History of Time.” 

I’ve been reading Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” recently, and I have been wondering why it is that the late Pope might have declared it to be forbidden to delve into the Big Bang, in other words, into the beginning of the universe.  I have to say, I see absolutely no reason why it should be forbidden.  

But let me start first of all by saying that I am in no way a physicist, and I possess little or no background or training in science.  Still, the older I get, the more I honor what science can teach us, and I deeply respect the intellect and the profound curiosity about the origins of the universe evidenced by so many scientists today.  Indeed, from what I can see, science has taken up where philosophy once left off.  But just because I have no formal training in science, does not mean that I, or we, or any of us, cannot understand the basic concepts uncovered and elucidated by such thinkers as Stephen Hawking and his many colleagues throughout the world. 

Time began at the Big Bang.  Everyone seems to agree on that.  This is because there was nothing before it, or at least nothing that we can know.  Physicists refer to the Big Bang as a “singularity,” by which is meant a point in space-time at which the curvature of space-time becomes infinite.  Now, infinite is not a word we normally expect to hear from scientists.  We would think to hear it more from theologians.  But there it is, part of the currently accepted definition of the scientific term “singularity.”   The only other known singularities occur within black holes in space.  In each case, all laws of physics dissolve, both those which describe the universe at a macro-level, which is to say, Eisenstein’s Theory of General Relativity, and those which describe it from a micro-level, that is, Quantum Mechanics, which teaches us about all that is smallest in the universe. 

For the longest time now, scientists have been attempting to come up with a theory that would, in a sense, marry these two ways of understanding the universe, the unimaginably big and the unimaginably small.  Much progress has been made, and it seems as though ways have been devised to understand how three of the four basic forces of the universe do interact with one another.  These three forces are electro-magnetism, the strong force, and the weak force.  However, no way has yet been devised of incorporating the fourth force, gravity, into one Theory of All.  String Theory, and its cousin M Theory, have been proposed, but so far there has been no satisfactory way of testing this empirically.  And even then, there are a number of matters about this theory which remain controversial, not the least of which is that it posits eleven different dimensions, seven more than the standard four we currently have (i.e. up, down, across, and time). 

Understanding the Big Bang might unable us to see how all four forces of our universe interact together, thus allowing us to posit something like a One Force of All Theory.  This is because in such a case we could, as it were, peer into a “place” that was infinitely small, yet one which contained all that exists in the universe.  In the infinitude of its smallness, the Big Bang event contained at least in potential all the energy, all the matter, and all the antimatter that ever existed, exists now, or ever will exist in the universe.  Everything, in a sense, came from this infinitely small nothingness, and from there it spread out (at the time of the Big Bang) into what we now know to be our continually expanding universe.  Thus, the macro and the micro were one, bringing together the four great forces of the universe as we know them today. 

However, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle indicates that we cannot predict events with complete certainty (it states that we can measure the speed of a particle with great accuracy, or the location of the particle, but we cannot measure both simultaneously).  What follows from this is that, from the point of view of physics, we will probably never fully be able to predict things.  However, at the same time we know that, once again given a singularity such as the Big Bang, the ordinary laws of physics as we understand them cease to exist, and so within such a singularity, with its infinity of density, all of the basic forces must have merged.  Therefore, who is to say that what seems contradictory today in nature was not once in some way reconciled?  The same might also be true in regard to what is happening even now in black holes.

We may of course never be able to prove what happened in a singularity like the Big Bang, or even in a black hole.  Indeed, if the definition holds, it would seem to be almost contradictory even to try.  However, human beings by their very nature appear to be endlessly curious, even when it comes to those things which otherwise appear irreconcilable. 

So, I say bravo for those scientists who continue searching.  Or will the answer ultimately be found in mysticism, rather than in science?  In other words, maybe in the end science cannot go where its own tools by definition seem to be useless (although that is not the same as saying that it is forbidden to try).  Or maybe another idea is that someday science and what we now call mysticism will in some sense merge, and scientists will become the true seers of the age.  In fact, doesn’t the very definition of the Big Bang sound in certain ways an awful lot like some theologians’ definition of God?  I still remember the prayer we said as Catholics when I was a child, which ended in “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.”  Sounds a lot like the singularity of the Big Bang, doesn’t it?  And after all, the very word science is derived etymologically from the Latin word scientia, meaning knowledge.

So, I say it’s OK – and more than OK – to look into the beginnings of the universe.  It’s actually not only all right, it is perhaps a requirement of being human.  It is maybe the very culmination of being human.  Hindu philosophy, too, talks a lot about the reconciliation in Spirit of all the contradictions of all the pairs of opposites.  And the Tao Te Ching declares: “Nonbeing penetrates nonspace.”  Could it be someday in perhaps the distant future that science-cum-mysticism will finally enlighten us about Infinity?