If there is a problem with religion, it is that it has long been a great speculation based on limited knowledge, and the more we know, the more obvious that becomes. The myths of the past were an attempt to orient us in the mystery of life, using patterns and phenomena that we experienced, and necessarily using metaphors and symbols as language for that orientation. Even today in science, we are limited to the use of metaphors because we still find that our mathematical formulas require unseen forces to explain their results. The assumptions we have formulated and hold on to have turned out to be constructs under new circumstances – what a surprise!
The biggest problem, however, is the fact that people are still being coerced, oppressed, beaten, or killed because of their religious ideas. The violence that comes from militancy is based on fear, that primal motivation, whether we fear for ourselves or for others, and tends to show our own split character that wants to be more than our primal feelings allow. Every time it is felt that humanity has made some progress or learned a lesson, we are brutally thrown back to the reality of our split character. There is a reason that the wisest people who have ever lived have called humility wisdom. “Know thyself, nothing to excess, and certainty brings insanity” remain maxims that we still have, to a large degree, to follow.
Of course, there are other ideologies that are equally disturbing, and just as lethal. Ideologies can be pseudo-religions even if they come from politics or science, and include liberalism, conservatism, socialism, communism, theocracy, agrarianism, totalitarianism, democracy, colonialism, and globalism. Some of these ideologies sound reasonable and have guided the world in recent times. Others have been declared bad, and yet they continually rise their heads. Whatever has been dominant, we seem to be in quite a mess with a multitude of problems, suggesting that single ideologies or religions haven’t been the solution that purists have claimed they would be, but the confusion of multiple choices haven’t been either.
I would say that our greatest challenge is to come to terms with the diversity of life itself and the different circumstances it brings, which require a differentiated response. We have just passed a period in history when hard rationalism led to machine-like efficiency, the effects of which are as devastating as letting an out-of-control automatic excavator drive through a botanical garden. We are still suffering the consequences, and so is our planet – the garden. Our rationality has tried to simplify the complexity of life, not understanding that this complexity IS life. The planet as a realm of diversity cannot be anything else, and we exist because of the very inherent seed of diversity.
In the West, where individualism amongst people is almost rampant, diversity is taken to extreme levels, and strangely, also an almost religious adversity towards heresy. The most recent area of conflict is that of sexual preference, of which there seems nothing that the imagination has left out. Men in the West struggled in the first half of the century to accept women as equal and struggled even more to accept homosexuality. It seemed as though when this happened, a door was broken down rather than opened, and all kinds of inclinations came bursting into the public area, demanding acceptance from society and unconditional Inclusion became a new ideology.
This wave of acceptance spread faster than many of us had expected, and the past areas of conflict in which feminists and homosexuals had gained concessions, such as safe spaces and refuges for women suffering under domestic violence, and acceptance that homosexuality wasn’t just a phase that could be altered, were caught up in the deluge. Suddenly women, whether heterosexual or homosexual, found themselves exposed again, with demands being made that they accept that men who ‘identify’ as women be accepted in their spaces, which allowed the predatory perverts access to the victims of their obsessions. The attempts to revoke this were met with aggression typical of inquisition type religious fervour, and the women who were vocal were deemed heretics to the cause. The ugly side of (pseudo-)religion had appeared where one had least expected it.
So, it seems that the doors of convention had a reason for their being closed to certain elements of society, and to use a well-known saying, we threw the baby out with the bathwater. Social constructs have a purpose, even if they are not perfect, but above all they are there to protect people who are under coercion and oppression. Of course, in the above situation there are many conflicts going on, not least the continued assertion of men that they have the right to dictate to women, but it seems to me that it also illustrates that the problem with religion is not piety at all, but issues that arise in all areas of communal life. When the religious institutions have had problems, it seems that the aggression of men has had a part to play.
It is probably for this reason that the gentleness of some male figures in religion is so welcome and the occasional religious zeal of women so disturbing. They turn experience on its head to some extent, although we must also consider that the “soft” type of man who is now accepted also has weaknesses in areas where his disagreeableness would be helpful. The accepted behaviour of men has changed over the last 100 years, and as always, not always for the better. I think the religious role models have presented us with this predicament, in which we must find our way out of depending on the situation.
So, religion has its problems, but does it also have its benefits? I think we can answer with a resounding “yes”! Religion still offers us a collection of experiences of the human dilemma, and as long as we understand Scripture as “a finger pointing to the moon” (as I mentioned last time), we can learn to look beyond our immediate experience and become more aware of our interactions with the world. In my experience, this has been lost, largely because of technology, which has made our lives so much faster and more confusing and has shortened our time. We have become lonely in our attempts to avoid discussion and go our own way, and we suspect we are missing something until the next distraction comes along and we are whisked away again. The point of feast days and commemorative days is to slow down, but we’ve neglected that in our busyness and often don’t notice until later in life how the days have vanished like a puff of smoke.
The problem is that religion is so often a bundle of travails, like a ball of yarn that is full of knots. Or it is so redundant and superficial that people detect no need. I often have sympathy for D.H. Lawrence criticism of Benjamin Franklin’s idea of religion:
“It’s a queer thing, is a man’s soul. It is the whole of him. Which means it is the unknown him, as well as the known. It seems to me just funny, professors and Benjamin’s fixing the functions of the soul. Why, the soul of man is a vast forest, and all Benjamin intended was a neat back garden. And we’ve all got to fit in to his kitchen garden scheme of things.”[i]
But it is the neat version of religion that many have in mind. Lawrence saw mankind in its rawness:
“The soul of man is a dark forest. The Hercynian Wood that scared the Romans so, and out of which came the white-skinned hordes of the next civilization. Who knows what will come out of the soul of man? The soul of man is a dark vast forest, with wild life in it. Think of Benjamin fencing it off!”
However, despite the criticism, Lawrence displays a thoughtfulness that is lacking in many of us. To many, practising religion is just a habit that gets in the way of other, preferable habits, like lying in on Sundays. We also have seen and known the little ladies and men who tried to control others by means of religion, although they were working their own private agendas, and struggling with their own demons. Very few people were genuinely affected by the love of God, and when they were, it stood out as a humility seldom seen.
That is why it is difficult to define religion without fencing people in, intervening in other people’s lives, and disallowing dissention. We have a tendency to seek adherence to convention, which is observable, rather than allowing people their own “special place of tranquillity”, or their “chamber” in which they practise their introspection via meditation, contemplation or prayer in solitude. The latter is clearly what Jesus wanted, and Buddha, and many other personalities of religion, but it has become a feature of modern-day Christianity to only practise at given times together.
Perhaps if religion was allowed to be this personal issue, and we were more aware of the nature of mankind, we could gather with fitting humility, and meet each other as peers, equal in each having our own angels and demons to contend with, and sympathetic towards our common needs. Maybe then we would return to such maxims as “Know thyself, nothing to excess, and certainty brings insanity!”
[i] Lawrence, David Herbert; Lawrence, David Herbert. Studies in Classic American Literature (S.5).