Monday, October 22, 2012

How Religion Works

Please don't assume I'm anti-religion or anything.  I'm not!  I think religion is a fine thing and that everyone should have some in moderation.  I would only not wish you to labor under any misapprehension about where religion comes from or what it means.   Or to assume that religion somehow endows you with extra rights and privileges, such as the "right" to blow up women, children and gynecologists with whom you do not agree.   Or the "right" to get your special religion passed into legislation.  Consider this post a sort of "getting started" user's manual for your experience with religion.

If your religion has been transmitted to you through the spoken words of another human, or in the form of printed material utilizing any sort of written language or "book," then you should be aware that the religion has been extensively filtered, shaped and influenced by humans (if not entirely fabricated by one, as in the case of Scientology).  Do not let this fact deter you, however.

But if your religion has been transmitted to your mind directly from the mind of God, you do not need to worry about the intervening influence of other humans.  In this case you only need to wrestle with the question of why God doesn't let others in on the secret also.  He may have a very good reason for keeping everyone but you out of the loop, or you could even have imagined the whole thing from the start. Just something to think about the next time you find yourself shouting and waving a big sign in public, or the next time you're mixing up chemicals for some new bomb "god" told you to build.

For example, you might just want to ask this "god" person why, if he's so powerful, he couldn't just miraculously make an explosion appear, and leave you out of it.  And if he is so just, why he would blame you for having qualms about the whole bomb project in the first place.  If you ever find yourself in such a predicament, I implore you to give these questions some serious thought, preferably while following all of your doctor's instructions regarding the use of various medications.

I should point out that not every "direct transmission" religious experience leads to atrocities. There are good reasons why we seldom see a Buddhist Zen Master being detained and strip-searched at the airport.  Usually the worst crime that results from this form of religion is excessive smiling and periodically emitting obscure statements.  Mormons, too, are known for smiling far more than common decency permits.  The next time you see one, . . . ask him where his companion has got to.  Ha, ha!  Just some harmless mormon humor there, because you never see just one, they're always in pairs.  Stop them as they pedal down your street, and if they are smiling indecently ask them about the direct Revelation that they personally have received from God.  Go on, I dare you.

Back to the main topic, if you have the ordinary kind of religion based on a book, TV show or Hollywood blockbuster movie, then it is important that you discuss religion only with people of your exact same religion.  Because every group has its own definitions for key words, its own hierarchy of values in order of importance, and because these things are often unspoken and implicit, a conversation about religion with someone of another faith can have disastrous consequences.  You might say something like, "Rhubarb is nice," but your listener might instead hear, "your church is like a pasture - loaded with sheep and full of . . ."

It is important in a multicultural world not to assume that your definitions or your values and their relative priorities are the same as everyone else's, even though that is the assumption upon which every major church, nation, school, or any level-4 structure is built.  Some people's religion is to believe in a God, while others' is to believe that there is no God.  If there were a way to objectively prove that one or the other is right, then it wouldn't be religion any more, it would be called Science and believing in it would have no purpose. Therefore it is vital that you not try to pass laws or elect candidates that mainly appeal to you on religious grounds.  If this were to happen often enough, you might wake up one morning and find that your religion has been taken from you and replaced with US Government Standard Issue All-Purpose Belief System Revision 2.1.d, by which point it will have long since lost all meaning or purpose.

And what, pray, is that purpose?  Well, I tend to look at it this way.  If one takes the bleak view of life as being like a sermon on Superbowl Sunday - rather pointless and short - then one is likely to be miserable in the world and unmotivated to even try to make a difference.  But if, on the other hand, one firmly believes he is a part of a greater divine scheme or plan, then that same person living in that same miserable world can have a totally different sort of experience with it.  For it to work, however, you have to be totally, completely, unquestioningly convinced of your special, unique, divine place in the universe.  The incredibly, unimaginably vast universe.

Thomas Jefferson is remembered to have said words to the effect that the purpose and goal of every life is to minimize pain.  If there were an ounce of truth to that curiously unenlightened example of "enlightenment" thought, then clearly the only logical course would be immediate universal suicide of the entire human species.  That is the only way of assuring that pain is in any way minimized.  What Jefferson got wrong were the words "pain" and "minimize."  If there is such a thing as a universal purpose and goal of every life, it would not be to minimize anything, and it wouldn't be at all interested in pain.  Instead, why not maximize your joy.

Therefore if someone has a religion that brings him joy and purposefulness, whatever you do don't try to talk him out of it and don't pity him.  Instead you should maybe try to find out what time the meeting starts.

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