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Archive for the ‘Phenomenology of Religion’ Category

The question can be unpacked, as religion consists of a number of elements, only some of which may be innate. First, does the human brain have a proclivity to make and find meaning in myth, or sacred narrative? Claude Levi-Strauss thought so. He theorized that myth is a way in which the mind holds without reconciling opposites such as life and death. For example, the notion of resurrection maintains the duality of life and death without resolving their opposition. The resurrected Christ walks through a door but is hungry and eats a fish. The tension in the myth is not resolved; rather, the opposition between life and death is transcended. It is the human discomfort with unresolved basic oppositions that spurs the mind on to mythmaking, according the Levi-Strauss. Just because myth or sacred narrative (e.g., the Passion story) serves a purpose does not mean that mythmaking or believing in a living myth is innate. Automobiles serve a purpose in transporting humans, but cars are not innate. So too, religious story may be an external tool. In fact, a religion’s mythology or sacred story can be distinguished from dreams, which are innate. In other words, myths are formed externally, whereas dreams are entirely manufactured by the mind during sleep. For example, a myth could be created out of a conversation between co-religionists. Their own agendas, and at the very least their intentions, can impact the story. Peter’s followers may have added the part about Jesus giving the keys to Peter, for example. Such strategizing makes the myth at least in part artificial. Moreover, the content of some myths is different from the world in which we live that myth-making may be artificial rather than natural. It is not as if the notion of the world beginning as an egg, as in Hinduism, automatically occurs to Hindu children. The myth must be conveyed externally.

Second, the act of worship can be distinguished from the cognitive activity in myth-making and believing. Do humans have an innate proclivity to worship? Here belief in the object to be worshipped can be distinguished from worshipping as an activity. Taking the object itself, are the divine attributes and descriptions innate or manufactured? The answer may be found by investigating whether young children untouched by a religion think about a transcendent object of the sort that would be worshipped. I don’t know the answer to this question, but I suspect that the developed theologies of the established religions do not naturally spring from young minds untouched by religious instruction.

For example, viewing God as “Father” does not automatically follow from a sense of God as a power or even as the source of Creation. We don’t view seeds as the fathers of plants. We don’t think of lava as the father of a volcano. To project the concept of father onto metaphysical concepts is anthropomorphic, which means ascribing human characteristics or relations to non-human objects. Even to say “that plant is happy there” is anthropomorphic. To apply a human characteristic to something not of the world is even more of a stretched. Hume suggests that it is difficult for the human mind to hold on to an idea of invisible divine simplicity (e.g. God as the One—Plotinus’s notion) that the mind adds anthropomorphic “layers” onto the pure idea. A religion thus becomes increasingly about us until it is finally discredited as too much “of the world.”

One might be tempted to conclude that divine simplicity is therefore innate. However, if such an idea is difficult for a human mind to embrace, it is not likely that the idea comes from the mind. Rather, it is more likely external to the mind, interlarded from an external source such as a parent or religious teacher. If the human mind naturally has any internally-sourced sense of a religious or spiritual phenomenon, thing or entity, it is likely vague and mostly undefined in a cognitive sense. It is unlikely that “God is one in essence” would spontaneously dawn on a boy as he walks through the woods or down a residential street. Instead, such a lad might be inclined to wonder, and thus have a sense of mystery. “Why does the sun move so regularly?” he might wonder. “Is there a bigger force behind it? Will the sun always rise and set? What happens to me after I die? Grandma died—is she somewhere hidden? I’m just a boy. Is there something larger out there that I don’t see?” The boy might have a sense of himself and even the world he knows as somehow part of something bigger, as when he looks out at all the stars on a clear warm night. “Is there any limit? Any end?” He might have a sense of himself as small relative to what he observes, whether it be the myriad of stars or a powerful storm. He would be apt to have awe for the infinity and power, respectively, even though you or I might tell him that neither infinite space nor forces of nature are themselves divine. When he gets older, he might explain that what he had observed as a child gave him an intuitive sense of bigness, and thus of beyondness. From this standpoint, the emphasis that some religions place on creed is rather contrived, or artificial in nature.

Even if some vague sense of something divine or transcendent comes naturally to mind in the development of the human mind that is untouched by religious instruction, one can ask whether worship activity, such as devotion other than how one would be devoted to one’s parents or family, for instance, is innate. If it is, how much emphasis does the worshipper naturally give to the activity relative to the object? In institutional religions, the tendency is to emphasize the nature of the object even at the expense of the worship experience. Lectures about the deity can cut into worship time in a religious service. So much emphasis can be placed on cognitive assent to a description of the deity that actual communing with it, such as just after taking communion in the Mass, can easily be marginalized.

Before my teenage years, I was raised largely outside of organized religion. The morality stories of Jesus were about all I got from an occasional Sunday School lesson at a Congregational Church in which theology was all but absent. My mother’s parents had both been raised Quaker, which stresses the personal or private aspect of spirituality. My grandfather practiced charity toward neighbor, such as by delivering free produce and eggs to friends on Sundays. Honesty was among the most important virtues, as was genuineness and tolerance. Theology was not required in order to instill these virtues. As a young teenager, I attended a Unitarian Universalist Society for a few years with my parents. Religion was even less in evidence in Sunday School there, as “UUism” was then dominated by humanism. When I was a freshman in high school, I attended Catholic Mass with friends on a regular basis. I found the ritual completely novel and interesting. Watching the laity kneel after receiving communion, I saw sustained and concentrated worship in terms of trying to commune in the sense of transcending. While in college, I became a member of the Catholic Church. In graduate school, I was so interested in the religion thing I had discovered that I thought seriously about a religious vocation. Thinking I would want to eventually marry, I joined the Episcopalians. However, I did not get a sense of worshipping after communion that I had witnessed in Catholic churches.

My religious or spiritual experience has not been limited to institutional religion. For two years while I was in High School, I practiced Transcendental Meditation on a regular basis. Although repeating a mantra (a word without meaning) to give one’s mind a rest from thinking (i.e., “pure consciousness”) is not in my view religious or spiritual, I would eventually apply the technique during the “corpse pose” at the end of yoga sessions. I began attending yoga sessions when I was in graduate school. Depending on how the instructor handles the practice and especially the final resting pose, yoga can even be explicitly spiritual without any hint of the existence of the world religions. It dawned on me that institutional religion is not inevitable, even within the religious or spiritual domain. In fact, the institutional religions may not be very good at providing dedicated worship activity.

For example, in the Mass the worshipping just after the Body of Christ is ingested is typically truncated in favor of ending the Mass and getting outside. The ritual, I concluded, is prep rather than the point, but this point had somehow been lost along the way. Similar to Hume’s theory that it is difficult for the mind to hold onto an idea of divine simplicity, it may be difficult for the mind to stay in a pure or unadulterated worship experience. The mind tends to wander, or we get bored or tired reaching to transcend in a religious sense. If so, the worshipping activity is not innate; rather, it must be learned and practiced, not the least of which through socialization.

My experience in institutional religion spanned from the religious left to the traditionalists in Christianity (i.e., not counting UUism), with occasional attendance of “mainstream” Protestant denominations including evangelical meta-churches. In Catholicism alone, my experience ran from the post-Vatican II movement back to the hegemony of the traditionalists. The theology and rituals I was taught were so different from my boyhood “religious wondering” and the spirituality in yoga practice that I have concluded that theology and worshipping must be artificial rather than innate. Put another way, the cognitive and praxis content of a revealed religion is so qualitatively different (i.e., in kind) from the wondering and activity of a child or young adult unschooled in any institutional religion and the spirituality outside the religions that an organized religion is likely constructed rather than natural or innate.

Lest be objected that religious worship is too universal to be a function of externals, religiosity has been far from universal. Only 15 percent of Europeans attend weekly religious services, while most people are just fine leading a secular life. Among hunter-gatherers, the !Kung bushmen of southwestern Africa have a highly developed religious belief-system, while the Hadza of eastern Africa have minimal religion and do not believe in an afterlife. Were the idea of a deity and the action of worshiping innate, the Hadza (and Europeans) would instinctively comply. Prosperity and security would not be inversely related to religiosity, and rough conditions in primitive societies and financial inequality in modern ones would not be associated with increasing religious worship.

Therefore, just as theological concepts such as Trinity do not just dawn on people who are unfamiliar with Christian theology, there is probably not a worshipping instinct in the human brain either. Without being socialized into an organized religion, a person is not apt to spontaneously reconstruct an existing theology or start worshipping. I did not come even close to worshipping when I “wondered” as a kid about “big questions” and had a sense of being a limited being compared with the universe and life itself. Realizing I will die one day and wondering what that means, it did not even occur to me to pray to a divine being so I could continue existing after death or even go to heaven. Belief in an afterlife is not innate to the human mind; the reason many people hold such a belief is probably psychological in nature. Specific worshipping via ritual, including prayer, undoubtedly comes from socialization. Children of Catholic parents are taught that the Virgin Mary exists and should be used as an intercessor in prayer. The children are taught how to pray.

The conclusions here do not mean that I have rejected religious or spiritual experience. Just because I do not view them as a necessary part of me or as obligatory does not mean that I recognize no value in worship. Having been socialized into specific worshipping techniques, I have found value in the experience. From my experience, I have found that the specific characteristics of the object being worshipped are less important than that the yearning to transcend in the direction of the mysterious beyond, or “beyondness,” is the worshipper’s sustained focus during the activity. I have found that regular experiencing of this sort heightens sensitivity outside of the worshipping experience. The world having been transcended is seen clearer or more distinctly, hence the heightened sensitivity to subtle things such as another person’s change in mood. The added sensitivity in turn naturally renders the regular worshipper more compassionate to others. Rather than being innate, the external tool impacts something natural. So there is value in a worship activity even though it is difficult for the human mind to do. While theology provides a background or context for the activity, worshipping can transcend even theological concepts of God. Those concepts may be useful as a launching pad, after which concentration can turn to the experience itself—the action of yearning to transcend. If I am right, it is the experience of yearning that is the religious experience, with compassion as a byproduct.

 

For additional material, see Gregory Paul’s “Why Belief in God Is Not Innate,” in the Wall Street Journal of April 10, 2013. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304222504575173890997846742.html

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In the 1940s and 1950s, only about five percent of adult Americans did not identify themselves with any institutional religion, according to the General Social Survey. That number rose to only eight percent in 1990. By 2013, however, the percentage of people who don’t consider themselves part of a religion had jumped to twenty percent. Interestingly, there was no discernible upward trend in the percentage of people who expressed atheist or agnostic beliefs. Several implications can be drawn.

One implication is that it cannot be assumed that a person does not believe in “God” just because he or she does not belong to an institutional religion. Indeed, “atheism” does not make sense without a “theism.”  Put another way, atheism is part of the religious paradigm, serving as the negation of a theist belief. People can be spiritual without being religious. This does not mean that they are “new age.” Nietzsche, for example, was accused of being an atheist just because he criticized the dominant conception of God (as, for example, being vengeful). A vice ascribed to the deity in how it is being conceptualized discredits the conceptualization itself. “God is dead.” This does not mean that the living God of experience is discredited, as it does not depend on the concepts that are ascribed to it.

Another implication is societal in nature. As the percentage of people not identifying themselves with a religious paradigm (i.e., basic framework, including of concepts and conduct such as ritual and prayer) increases in a society, the religious world-view itself becomes increasingly demarcated as delimited in nature. That is, the default in society turns to viewing the religious world-view as foreign rather than as a given. The disparate nature of the religious paradigm as being very different makes it easy for the non-religious to keep away from it, as well as to view it as foreign. The world of religion is perhaps inherently delimited because its concepts do not have currency outside of the religious paradigm. The historical hegemony or even universality of religions in societies may therefore have been artificial in nature, such as by means of being forced on people. If so, the declining salience of religion in modern society may be nature’s way of restoring to religion its rightful place, similar to how water finds its way eventually down the stream.

Another implication is that it may not be reasonable to assume that even a highly charismatic leader of a particular religion, or sect thereof, can bring people back to religion. The assumption that such a leader could accomplish such a feat presumes that 1) not belonging to an institutional religion is a problem and 2) the problem does not lie in the religions themselves, or in religion itself. Also assumed is the problematic assumption that a leader can make such a difference. It may be that religion itself puts too much emphasis on the religious leader or founder, attributing too much significance to him or her relative to the value of the teachings themselves. Such anthropomorphism may be one reason why not identifying with a religion is not a problem, but, rather, a sign of spiritual health instead. According to David Hume, the human mind has great trouble holding on to “pure” concepts of divine simplicity. We tend to add our own human characteristics to the divine, even to the point of constructing the god-man concept. If religion is incapable of being purged of error, it is right and fitting that people refuse to identify themselves as not belonging to a religious institution.

Besides the implications above, one question that “comes out of the data” regards whether people who do not belong to an institutional religion can sufficiently “exercise” their spirituality. A related question is whether spirituality can exist apart from the religions. One might also ask how well spirituality can do within a religion. To the extent that a given religion (or religion itself) is rigid, it may be that certain expressions or manifestations of spirituality are snuffed out or excluded outright. The trend of “none-religious” may provide more opportunities for spirituality to come into its own. We should not assume, in other words, that the trend is toward secularity if it is defined as the absence of spirituality in addition to religion.

 

See Katherine Bindley’s article, “Religion Among Americans Hits Low Point, As More People Say They Have No Religious Affiliation: Report,” at the Huffington Report on March 13, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/13/religion-america-decline-low-no-affiliation-report_n_2867626.html?utm_hp_ref=religion

 

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The Pope celebrating Midnight Mass in 2012

The Pope celebrating Midnight Mass in 2012

Sometimes a plea on behalf of God can tell us more about our society and ourselves than God. That the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church would use his homily during the Midnight Mass of Christmas 2012 to ask people to make room for God is hardly news. It is like the President of the United States urging Americans to become better citizens—hardly worth printing such obvious messages. However, behind the Pope’s expected plea is something not immediately obvious about us and our culture in the modern world.

Referring to God, the Pope asked, “Do we have time and space for him? Do we not actually turn away God himself? We begin to do so when we have no time for him. The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full.” It is ironic that the advent of time-saving tools has resulted in our time being “completely full.” This is not necessarily so; rather, valuing the gadgets tends to fill up our lives.

In other words, valuing the self-contained world of things means that exogenous “things” like God do not occur to us. “Even if he seems to knock at the door of our thinking, he has to be explained away. If thinking is to be taken seriously, it must be structured in such a way that the ‘God hypothesis’ becomes superfluous,” the Pope said. Even thinking of God as knocking treats God as a thing, or entity, and such thinking can be informed by a culture ensconced with things. Alternatively, God could be thought of as the experience of transcending things. It is this experience, which involves reaching without being able to grasp, that is excluded by an orientation to ipads and computers, for example.

“There is no room for him,” the Pope said. “Not even in our feelings and desires is there any room for him. We want ourselves. We want what we can seize hold of, we want happiness that is within our reach, we want our plans and purposes to succeed. We are so ‘full’ of ourselves that there is no room left for God.” Pivoting from God as a “him” that is requesting attention—what I would call an object orientation—the Pope came to rest on what lies behind our desires. We want ourselves because we want to the kind of happiness that can lie within our reach. This sort of satisfaction requires being full of ourselves in the sense of taking our realm as the whole rather than as a part. In contrast, transcendent experience eclipses being able to grasp a desired object—indeed, even the concept of an object—and thus treats the human domain or world as relative or a part.

Put another way, we live in a culture in which selfishness and impatience are the norm and our desired reach is not very far from ourselves. It’s all about us. We want ourselves. Not only do we not see God in others; our focus on what we want does not even admit the sheer existence of what others want. In contrast, one byproduct of regular transcending is heightened sensitivity to others because existence itself is felt more.

The connection between perceiving one’s very existence as transparent (i.e., perceptible) and being more oriented to others is also in the Pope’s homily. “Let us ask the Lord that we may become vigilant for his presence, that we may hear how softly yet insistently he knocks at the door of our being and willing. . . . Let us ask that we may make room for him within ourselves, that we may recognise him also in those through whom he speaks to us: children, the suffering, the abandoned, those who are excluded and the poor of this world,” The “door of our being” suggests a more transcendent orientation or “gaze,” a byproduct of which is sensitivity to the existence of others and thus their desires.

For more, please see: Philip Pullella, “Pope Christmas Eve Mass 2012: Find Room For God,” The Huffington Post, December 25, 2012.

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A call by Mormon women in Salt Lake City to wear pants to church had by the end of 2012 stretched around the world and, perhaps all too expectedly, created a backlash that included even death threats. Beyond the issue of what counts as “proper attire” that according to the Mormon Church is “a sign of respect for the Savior”—a matter the Church leaves up to the individual church member—is the “elephant in the living room.” Specifically, is a pathological loss of perspective inherent to religion itself, or merely a symptom of having gotten religion wrong?

I contend that women wearing pants to a church service hardly counts as a big deal, whether in secular or religious terms. In terms of feminism, the “protest” has its most significance. “Wear Pants to Church” was meant to draw attention to the role of women in the Mormon Church. In religious terms, however, drawing attention to gender equality takes the focus off of transcendent experience, wherein the stuff that we think is so important in the world is marginalized or relativized. This is not to say that women who wear pants to church are somehow less religious.

In fact, bashing the women wearing pants on religious grounds only further removes both sides from the opportunity for religious experience. The loss of perspective is particularly salient in the “no” camp. For example, a man at a church in a Salt Lake City suburb said, “Women who want to wear pants, they just don’t know how to follow the Lord.” Besides treating something that is not religious as though it were in fact vital to it, the man had completely lost perspective, as Jesus is nowhere on record as having said as much. Prime facie, what one wears is not so determinant concerning the ability to have a religious experience—although wearing distinctively religious garb can have religious significance in that the purpose of the vestments is to remove one from the world in to the realm of the sacred. Unfortunately for the man, his comment about pants and following the Lord is too profane to be counted as being oriented to the sacred. Indeed, the statement indicates that he had missed an opportunity to engage in transcendent experience, wherein issues that seem important in this world are also transcended.

I contend that religious rightly understood as being of or at least oriented to transcendent experience does not contain or trigger lapses of perspective. Rather, perspective itself is transcended. A “religious practitioner” losing perspective—particularly if doing so is a weapon of sorts—is not really a religious practitioner. Rather, such a person is taking the artifacts of religion as ends rather than as means, then using those ends as means to inflict pain or otherwise harm another person. That religion has so often been abused may raise the question of whether the decadence is in religion itself—or at least whether religion can afford its artifacts.

For instance, the popes who raised troops to fight in the Crusades promised the recruits salvation in fighting for the Lord. The troops no doubt believed that because they believed that Jesus is the Son of God that they would be saved even in killing rather than loving their enemies on the battlefield. Considering the carnage under these “religious” auspices, one might argue that historical Christianity could ill-afford its focus on Christology rather than on principles such as “love thy enemy” and “turn the other cheek.” To be sure, such principles can be viewed as means to trigger a shift of perspective capable of giving rise in turn to a transcendent experience, rather than merely as moral dictates of Christian ethics. Generally speaking, if “Jesus as the Son of God” is used as a weapon, even in passive aggression, the attendant loss of perspective alone signals a lack of religiosity. The question is perhaps whether the loss is inherent to Christianity or a falling away from the real message of the faith to something that is more easily recognizable—even potentially self-idolatrous.

The Mormon man who said that women who want to wear pants just don’t know how to follow the Lord was likely also capable of saying that people who don’t believe that Jesus is a god-man are going to hell. In using Christology as a weapon, the Mormon man would be castigating himself into hell because he would be essentially keeping himself from transcending to something deeper and more fundamental than even theological concepts.

Abstractly speaking, experience is distinct from cognitive belief. Getting caught up on a particular belief, even if it ostensibly concerns a religious idea, can have the opportunity cost of foregone transcendent experience. Put another way, a loss of perspective divides whereas religious experience transcends divisions—being oriented to the unity of a more fundamental, or transcendent, source. Religio literally means, “back to the source.” In contrast, losing perspective by treating little things as vitally important even in religious terms distants one from a more fundamental source wherein the little things are even less significant. Therefore, getting upset about pants, or even particular cognitive beliefs, pushes one away from one’s very source or basis. Such a use of “religion” weakens one, or reflects one’s weak state. Perhaps it could be said that religion is susceptible to being abused by weakness in the name of religion, and that the world too often is blind to the abuse itself—treating it as part of religion and therefore as legitimate and perhaps even laudatory.

For more on the story of Mormon feminists using pants as a symbol, see Timothy Pratt, “Mormon Women Set Out to Take a Stand, in Pants,” The New York Times, December 20, 2012.

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How far can clergy reasonably go in the name of religion? More to the point, are there any limits to what counts as religious? In the wake of the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, religious leaders “vowed to mobilize their congregants to push for gun control legislation and provide the ground support for politicians willing to take on the gun lobby.” According to the New York Times, the leaders had come to the conclusion that the time had come for “action beyond praying and comforting the families of those killed.” Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Church’s public policy office—the General Board of Church and Society—sent out an “action alert” on gun control to bishops and other church leaders. “I could tell there was this real need, real hunger, at least in my denomination, for there to be some response that is not only prayers and expressions of sadness, but also a call to action. And it came from some who wouldn’t normally care that much about public policy action, but who would be more interested in spiritual responses.” I contend that Winkler missed an opportunity for a more intense or riveting spiritual response than merely praying or being sad (as though this were a religious response) as he moved off religion itself into the realm of political activism. It is possible that the clergy in general undercut their own religious credibility in becoming advocates for gun legislation.

To take sides on a political issue is to be partisan in nature. Even if many people in one’s congregation happen to take the same position, those who take the opposite stance would at the very least feel a slight discomfort in listening to a speech under the subterfuge of a sermon. The New York Times reported at the time that advocating limits on guns was controversial within many religious groups, and many evangelicals were opposed. A CBS News poll taken during the week following the massacre found that while 69 percent of Catholics wanted stricter laws on gun control, only 37 percent of white evangelical Christians agreed. Even in a Catholic homily, promoting gun control could distance or even offend nearly 30 percent of a congregation. The advocacy could be viewed as a manifestation of the priest’s own politics taking advantage of the pulpit.

Therefore, a cleric’s decision to weigh in on a political issue could potentially divide or even rupture a house of worship. At what cost to the worship? Indeed, partisanship itself may be inherently inconsistent with worship. Whereas the latter is transcendent in nature or orientation, political issues are “this worldly” and thus eclipse transcendence. Jim Winkler not only risked introducing division into Methodist churches; he also missed the opportunity for transcendence beyond that which comes with prayer. In other words, he was going off a false dichotomy.

Admittedly, there was something unifying, and thus holistic, in the gathering of clergy from the three Abrahamic religions (and various sects thereof) at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. exactly one week after the shooting. It might be tempting to conflate this unity with that which is presumed through faith to go along with transcendence (e.g., an attribute of God or of the experience itself). There is something “other worldly” about the church bells including on toll for the 20 year-old gunman who committed suicide after having killed 20 children and 8 adults at the school. That is to say, including him changes the perspective to one that is more holistic, even transcendent, because he is grouped in with the victims. Experiencing the toll for the shooter can be transcendent because the symbolic act goes beyond “the ways of this world” in treating humanity itself as a part rather than the whole. The unity of various religions taking part would have enhanced the significance of the transcendence were it, rather than gun control or even sadness for the victims, emphasized by the clergy. Had they been oriented to changing the perspective to one that is more transcendent, they would have remained within the religious domain.  In fact, they would have been promoting it! Using the occasion to lobby or organize for gun-control legislation, on the other hand, shifted attention away from the more transcendent perspective onto one that is divisive or at least all too familiar in terms of partisan divisions.

Generally speaking, a religious perspective that is transcendent via symbol, myth or ritual can situate a horrible situation that seems total. Including the two “sides” of a conflict in a way that erases sides altogether by adding a transcendent dimension—which relativizes the conflict itself—can demonstrate the utility of transcendent experience itself, and thus religion. The point is not forgiveness. That new moral implications can ensue is also not the point. Nor does it mean that religion is morality (or even is bound to moral principles). Drawing a moral lesson from a tragedy is not in itself religious. Worse still, taking a side and promoting it—which from a religious angle could be categorized under self-idolatry—treats the conflict or issue itself as the background or basis rather than as relative or partial. Perhaps in wanting to cover more ground, the clergy oriented to gun-control legislation may actually wind up with less from the standpoint of their own native fauna. In wanting more, maybe we betray ourselves and, in so doing, can actually wind up with less.

For more, please see Laurie Goodstein, “Religious Leaders Push Congregants on Gun Control, Sensing a Watershed Moment,” The New York Times, December 20, 2012.

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Samuel Mullet Sr., bishop of his Amish sect, was convicted along with fifteen other people in September 2012 of hate crimes for having entered Amish homes in order to clip men’s beards and women’s uncut hair–both of which have religious significance to the Amish. The Amish men getting their beards clipped apparently went into hysterics as did the women getting the haircuts, even crying wildly and praying out loud. Apparently the “punishment” was meted out to Mullet’s foes, some of whom had refused to honor his shunning decrees against his foes. The Amish who dared to claim that such decrees constituted an improper use of Mullet’s power as bishop were met with shears used on horse manes. According to the New York Times, “Prosecutors argued that the attacks were intended to humiliate those who questioned [Mullet’s] cultlike methods.” Those devices included “forcing errant followers to sleep in chicken coops and pressing married women–including his own daughter-in-law–to accept his intimate sexual ‘counseling’.”

Both the devices and the revenge point to the danger that may be inherent as human beings assume religious office. Indeed, even the title “bishop” seems presumptuous for a man who would have his sons walk into peoples’ homes in order to clip their beards and hair. To be sure, crying wildly and praying out loud simply because one’s hair is being cut raises questions of how religious belief can have unhealthy psychological effects.

In other words, both the clippers and those clipped can be accused of reacting irrationally (i.e., overreacting). Religion can account for the loss of perspective that is in both Mullet’s presumptuousness and his victims’ reactions while getting the haircuts. Even if it were the case that a beard or long hair is salient in the preaching of Jesus, hair does grow back. It is not the end of the world (which, by the way, did not come “within this generation”). Therefore, in addition to the obvious danger in religious authority being assumed by people, a related and more subtle perceptual loss and related propensity to over-react may be said to come with religiousity. An alien from another planet studying our species would doubtlessly wonder why such adults had lapsed back into childhood. “They are religious,” one might reply. Doubtless the aliens would be utterly bewildered, and so should we.

It might be said that we are too used to the religious mentality that we give it too much of an excuse. Mullet should never have been allowed to get to such behavior, and the victims’ co-religionists should have told those with the clipped hair to grow up. Not that the crime can be excused, but to cry wildly and pray out loud indicates that the person has really “lost it,” albeit under the cover of religion. I contend that it is time to pull back the cover and expose the illness for what it is. Put another way, the manner in which religion interacts with the human mind should give us all caution both in terms of how carried away we as well as others get with our religious beliefs and practices. I suspect that part of the problem is that religion itself needs to be clipped back to its native fauna. Quietly focused on transcendence centered on a referent point beyond the limits of human perception and cognition (the accent thus being on the reaching rather than on the nature of that which is yearned for) need not involve putting other people in chicken coops or cutting off their beards (or crying wildly just because your hair has been cut). It can be said that religion itself can easily get out of control in the human mind without the latter having any sense of the gravity of the danger. The lack of any feedback loop in the brain with respect to religion magnifies the inherent danger that is in religion itself as it interacts with the presumptiveness of the human mind. If “bishop” Mullet was at all still steadfast in his conviction that he acted well and with good intention, in spite of having received the verdict of being guilty of “hate crimes” from a jury, then the depth and utter intractability of the sickness must surely be admitted. For to be so wrong and yet presume that one cannot be wrong in one’s religious rationale demonstrates just how dangerous religion can be to the human mind.

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A Unitarian minister told me matter-of-factly that “certain social structures” are part of his faith. Faith? Social justice, yes, but religious faith? I was skeptical. I replied that distinctively religious faith has the element of transcendence, and thus a Wholly Otherness quality, rather than being based in a human artifact such as a particular social structure. I think the minister was actually referring to social justice and mislabeling his passion for it as his faith. In other words, he was conflating ideology with theology, or, more accurately, treating his ideology as though it were his god.

While laudable in political activism, advocating a particular social structure does not constitute religious experience. In fact, from the point of view of the latter, an ideological agenda such as advocating a particular arrangement for a society would essentially be self-idolatry (i.e., self-worship). As Hume and even Augustine have pointed out, thinking of the divine in terms of things or relations in the human realm is idolatrous. Hume in particular points out in History of Natural Religion that it is difficult for the human mind to embrace divine simplicity without succumbing to constructing God in a visible form. Pure, invisible unity, beyond even God being a being (according to Plotinus), is difficult for the human mind to hold on to, let alone embrace. This is Hume’s main point regarding religion. I would add that it is difficult for a human being to achieve the distinctively religious intensity needed for religious experience, whether in worship, medication, prayer, or adoration.

We seem easily distracted, and thus tend to drag in other, less intense, “religious activities.” Religious functionaries and even institutions can inadvertently enable this proclivity, ironically even eclipsing religious experience itself. This may be why, according to the Barna Group (see USA Today below), in spite of about 95% of all Americans consistently saying they believe in God or a higher power, the percentage of Americans who have not attended a religious service (other than a wedding or funeral) within six months increased from 24% in 1991 to 37% in 2011. While religious functionaries may have no problem bringing themselves into religious experience, they may be missing the ball concerning how it can be part of a religious service. I suspect part of the problem may be an overemphasis on formal structure, or “the program,” in effect crowding out rather than isolating incubating and protecting religious experience within the structure or program.

For example, concentrated spiritual contemplation in stillness is rarely part of a Church service. In the Catholic Mass, for example, little time is allowed for just “intense transcending” following the distribution of the Eucharist. The consecration and ingesting are taken as the central acts of the second half of the Mass. I contend that the ritual and the theological-concept-applied-ingestion are means by which pure (i.e., nothing else going on) religious (i.e., transcendence) experience may occur. In other words, the smells and bells can prep or stimulate the worshipper to go into a state in which concentrated religious experience is itself the only action—transcending even the symbol, myth and ritual of the service, as well as the outside world (and even ourselves). The object of the transcending being by definition beyond the limits of human cognition and perception, it is the experience of the transcending that is the religious experience.

Sometimes religious functionaries can actually get in the way—mostly quite unintentionally I’m sure. At such times, they would be better off simply sitting down and trying to keep quiet—actively practicing non-attention-getting. I heard once about the vocations director of a Catholic diocese saying Mass as a visiting priest at a parish. After distributing Communion, as he was “doing the dishes” at the table/altar, he thought it appropriate to tell the congregation a joke—presumably to loosen the people up even though they were undoubtedly “somewhere else.” He might as well have said, “Hey, stop transcending! Pay attention to me!

I suspect that many priests simply are not aware of where religious experience is for the laity during the Mass; I refuse to believe that a priest would knowingly truncate the point of the ritual (in terms of religious experience) just because the Mass is nearly over. On the laity side, taking Communion and making a beeline for the door is also to eviscerate the opportunity thus afforded for isolating and concentrating on religious experience, such as in the form of intense prayer, meditation, adoration or felt-sanctification. Ritual can condition or prepare a person for such an experience while bracketing out all others. Similarly, thinking a mantra over and over in meditation ideally stops the train of thoughts such that “pure” awareness (i.e., nothing else going on) and even transcendence itself can be isolated and thus experienced in their “pure” states. Experience of time itself can be lost in such transcendence.  The Eucharistic ritual too can facilitate such a spiritual state unless cut short, which is typically the case. Lest the length of the entire Mass be a concern, priorities and time-allotment could also be revisited to reflect the value of isolated religious experience.

In worship services whose main elements are readings, songs and a sermon, these too can serve as prep for dedicated or raw religious transcending, assuming sufficient room is made in the program of activities. Once again, the key is sustained religious experience without anything else as a potential rarifying distraction. In some evangelical Christian services, for example, a song after the sermon is elongated to enable people to achieve a worship-state wherein one literally reaches out for Jesus directly. The period is long enough that the worshipper can “get into” the reaching itself and come to experience it more self-consciously. Unfortunately, as in the Mass (and Protestant services that include Communion), the worship in a “worship song” is rarely acknowledged as the pinnacle of the ritual, and thus what should be emphasized is typically truncated in the time allotted. Typically, the point becomes the sermon itself and the liturgy becomes, in effect, a class.

Moving even further away from religious experience, some churches gravitate to activities or topics in other domains even further away, and thus dilute the religiosity even more. Such churches essentially secularize religion. I suspect that this is a major reason for the increasing percentage of the “unchurched.”

For instance, the Rev. Michael Minor at Oak Hill Baptist Church in Hernando, Mississippi, “has waged war against obesity and bad health.” In fact, the National Baptist Convention “is ramping up a far-reaching health campaign devised by Mr. Minor.” Seek Well Baptist Church in Lula, Mississippi has a garden for members. To be sure, this is a good cause, particularly in Mississippi, which is first in the U.S. in the percentage of kids who are obese. That country is first in rates of heart disease, second in the number of adults with diabetes, second in adult obesity, and near last in the percentage of adults who participate in physical activity, according to the New York Times. So the cause is certainly needed, and of great value. However, it is not religious. More particularly, preaching on good diet is not prep for intense transcending experience, wherein everything else, including what is for lunch, is bracketed out. In fact, bringing other domains into the “worship” service—even in making announcements!—diverts or undercuts the “prep.” To more strongly serve as “prep,” a liturgy can itself be approached as sacred space and time. It is no accident that the ancient Greeks had their theatres at their temple complexes. Similarly, a liturgy, from start to end, can be encased in sacred time and space and not interrupted even for intermission.

As David Hume observed, it is all too easy—all too human—to get distracted in approaching the divine. Even focusing on religious experience itself while bracketing out everything else is notoriously difficult, given how we are hard-wired as a species to be oriented to concrete objects in the world. We may be in God’s image, but getting back to it without images from our experience can be quite daunting. Lest we suppose that we can afford our digressions and distractions and still worship, we might want to remember that pure religious experience transcends even the images we have of God. As Joseph Campbell said, one’s conception of God is the final obstacle in transcending to the religious experience. Campbell studied religious myth around the world and found common motifs and symbols, yet he knew that from a religious vantage-point they are not to be taken as ends in themselves. I suspect that worship services could be much better if we would dare to let go, if only while transcending, of our symbols, myths and even rituals. This would involve ritual standing outside itself to make room for something greater within itself. In Christian terms, such ritual can be described as self-emptying. One might even say that, as in forgetting about the door once inside a room, at some point on the way to entering into intense and isolated religious experience, religion itself must give way.

Sources:

 Campbell Robertson, “Preaching a Healthy Diet in the Deep-Fried Delta,” New York Times, August 22, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/22/us/22delta.html

 Cathy L. Grossman, “Ripples Touch Spiritual Lives,” USA Today, August 22, 2011.

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