Thursday, May 06, 2004

The Big R

Ok, I have to face the topic that I dread, the topic that I think about almost every day. Religion. Religion in my view underlies everything. Religion is the most important factor in studying human history and human motivation. Not religion in the formal sense. That religion seems to occupy an ever-shrinking share of Americans' activities, the worst fears of the Coastal Elites to the contrary. No, what I'm talking about is real religion, the kind of belief that really makes us tick. The thing that motivates us to roll out of bed in the morning and face that corporate world.

We humans have an enormous need, a life-consuming need, to believe that our lives are important. This is a fundamental and inalienable component of our basic makeup. We crave a sense of importance. Once our basic needs for food and sleep have been satisfied, our craving for a sense of importance may be the most important psychological drive we have.

Unfortunately, we're not important. Even the President of the United States. Or so it would seem from our current knowledge of cosmology. We're sitting on an insignificant little speck in an unimaginably enormous universe. Even from the vantage point of Jupiter the Earth is an invisible microscopic dot. From the viewpoint of our own galaxy we'd be impossible to find. Multiply that by hundreds of millions of galaxies.... And that's if you're the President. When it comes down to somebody like me....

This then is the fundamental religious dilemma: how can we gain a sense of importance when we live unimportant little lives in an indifferent world?

It doesn't matter that we are unimportant because it is the very nature of our beings that we need to feel important. Not just feel it; believe it deeply, subconsciously. Each person must find a sense of importance, a sense of destiny. This sense of importance, this sense of deciding that certain activities or thoughts or customs are the ones that really matter--that is religion. And each person has a different religion, by this definition, because each person has a sense of global importance that is tailor-made for him or her.

I hasten to point out that I wish to distinguish here between religion and mere belief-system. The difference was captured by a famous rabbi who once said that to the believer there is never a question while to the skeptic there is never an answer. I would characterize religious belief as that fundamental belief in the meaningfulness of things which is below the level of conscious thought. It consists of the unspoken and perhaps unutterable axioms upon which conscious rational thought is able to build its edifices. (It is this insight into the nature of religious belief, I imagine, which rendered it blasphemous to utter the name of God in the days of the ancient Israelites, but who knows.)

A few examples are in order. I live in a town which is filled with fanatic bikers, people who will ride their expensive exquisitely crafted bicycles in every kind of foul weather come hell or high water. When a particularly nasty day happens by, is it really necessary to ride that day? Couldn't one day be taken off the schedule? Would it really impair their exercise program? Arguably, some of the exposure they are subjecting themselves to is diminishing their health. No, the point here is that they have become convinced that riding their bike is the work of God. They have become convinced of this on a deep subliminal level. For these people, the angels sing when they ride their bikes. For them, there is never a question of not riding their bike.

Similarly, I have a friend who is extremely worried about "the Environment". He reads books on the subject continually. Two events bother him in particular. Many of his neighbors have bought single storey houses and added on an extra storey. And yards that have had all their native grasses and plants ripped out and replaced with uniform lawns of Kentucky Bluegrass are a special source of despair for him. So what if some people have Kentucky Bluegrass in their lawns you ask? But for my friend this is not a trivial matter. The angels sing when he works his crusade for species diversity in our back yards. There is never a question as to its importance.

There are those who argue that they are not religious, that religion is irrelevant to the modern world. By my belief, it is simply not humanly possible to not be religious. We all are because we all seek a sense of importance and because the human self-conscious mind is simply unable to function on a purely rational level. "Purely rational" doesn't actually make any sense, rationally, because all reasoning must proceed from assumptions. This is no other way to function. Some assumptions are explicit. It is the unvoiced, implicit ones, the religious ones, upon which all else rests.

The enormously interesting thing to an amateur anthropologist is that religious beliefs are social. My unspoken beliefs are very likely to match the unspoken beliefs of the people around me, of my tribe or group. This has the important implication that a coherent set of religious beliefs can take on a life of its own. It can "live", in essence, independently of any particular person or even small group of people. Thus we see the mainstream religion of Christianity for example passing from person to person and from place ot place, even though particular people may die or lose their faith, or entire institutions like the Catholic Church may come apart at the seems. The religion itself survives all that with ease.

This has the important implication that a religion can and does function as though it itself is an organic being. A religion can be born, can give birth to other religions, and can die. The Zend religion of Ancient Persia seems to be dead. So is the Roman religion. Judaism gave birth to Christianity, which seems to have given birth of sorts to Islam. This leads the interested observer to pursue the life-history of religion. But that must remain the subject of a separate note.

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