Old-Time Religions

If you have access to Salon, I recommend the interview of Karen Armstrong by Steve Paulson. In particular I recommend the interview to those of you who hate religion, although I believe you’d enjoy it if you don’t hate religion.

Armstrong is a former nun-turned-agnostic and religious historian who has written some excellent books, including A History of God, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism, and a lovely biography of the Buddha.

In this interview Armstrong makes several points near and dear to me. One point is that religion isn’t primarily about belief in some Big Daddy God. Nor is it about miracles or belief in an afterlife or in supernatural beings, like angels. The problem is that westerners, and no doubt Americans in particular, cling to a very narrow and mostly infantile definition of religion that focuses on belief in a Big Daddy God, heaven, miracles, etc. So most of us in the West think that’s what religion is. That, and the fact that the world seems infested with warring religious whackjobs, makes religion easy to hate. I understand that.

But the problem isn’t with religion. The problem is that, somehow, we’ve allowed religion to be defined by the stupid and the warped, resulting in stupid and warped religion at war with all things rational and humane.

At the same time, Armstrong argues, hatred of religion is a pathology. She says that some people who hate religion are “secular fundamentalists. They have as bigoted a view of religion as some religious fundamentalists have of secularism.” I can relate to that, but I think many people in western culture have been exposed only to the most ignorant, dogmatic, low-level kinds of religion, and have no clue religion can be any other way. Some commenters to Mahablog will write that all religion is superstition or even mental illness, which saddens me.

How do good religions go bad? Armstrong’s newest book, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, looks at the Axial Age, 900 to 200 BCE, during which the world’s great religious traditions developed, independently of each other, in four regions of the world — Confucianism and Taoism in China; Hinduism (I would have narrowed that to Vedanta), Buddhism, Jainism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece.

Armstrong says,

Without any collusion, they all came up with a remarkably similar solution to the spiritual ills of humanity. Before the Axial Age, religions had been very different. They had been based largely on external rituals which gave people intimations of greatness. But there was no disciplined introspection before the Axial Age. The Axial sages discovered the inner world. And religions became much more spiritualized because humanity had taken a leap forward. People were creating much larger empires and kingdoms than ever before. A market economy was in its very early stages. That meant the old, rather parochial visions were no longer adequate. And these regions were torn apart by an unprecedented crescendo of violence. In every single case, the catalyst for religious change had been a revulsion against violence.

First of all, they all insisted that you must give up and abandon your ego. The sages said the root cause of suffering lay in our desperate concern with self, which often needs to destroy others in order to preserve itself. And so they insisted that if we stepped outside the ego, then we would encounter what we call brahman or God, Nirvana or the Dao.

But by “god” the sages didn’t necessarily mean a big daddy in the sky:

In my book “A History of God,” I pointed out that the most eminent Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians all said you couldn’t think about God as a simple personality, an external being. It was better to say that God did not exist because our notion of existence was far too limited to apply to God.

“God” in this sense is not a person or spirit. “God” might represent the ground of being, for example. But if religion isn’t about worshipping gods, what is it? Armstrong says,

Religion is a search for transcendence. But transcendence isn’t necessarily sited in an external god, which can be a very unspiritual, unreligious concept. The sages were all extremely concerned with transcendence, with going beyond the self and discovering a realm, a reality, that could not be defined in words.

The mystical traditions of most religions are about disciplining oneself to transcend “I” and directly experience beingness outside of space and time. Some neurobiologists suggest that some of the older meditation practices — which are nothing like “transcendental meditation” or the relaxation techniques that pass for meditation these days — cause some parts of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain to shut down so that the seeker experiences being without the boundaries of “I” and the passage of linear time. However it happens, through this experience the mystic’s perception of self and other, life and death, time and space, etc., changes. With the guidance of a skilled teacher or guru, the mystic becomes more at peace with himself, and he develops more selfless compassion for others.

The problem with mysticism is that it’s a ton of work. So over the years religions developed myths and rituals as learning aids. The myths may have begun as guides to the ineffable, not meant to be taken literally. But over time myths become beliefs and harden into dogma, and the ineffable ground of being is given a personality and parameters, and it becomes Big Daddy God.

IMO religion that defines itself by doctrine and ritual is not religion at all, but a cheap substitute thereof.

A theme that runs through several of Armstrong’s books is that, before the modern era, people didn’t take scripture literally. Even though fundamentalists think “old-time religion” means taking every word of the Bible literally, in fact this rigid literalism is a newfangled thing that arose in the past couple of centuries or so.

Well, faith is not a matter of believing things. That’s again a modern Western notion. It’s only been current since the 18th century. Believing things is neither here nor there, despite what some religious people say and what some secularists say. That is a very eccentric religious position, current really only in the Western Christian world. You don’t have it much in Judaism, for example. …

… I think we’ve become rather stupid in our scientific age about religion. If you’d presented some of these literalistic readings of the Bible to people in the pre-modern age, they would have found it rather obtuse. They’d have found it incomprehensible that people really believe the first chapter of Genesis is an account of the origins of life.

A mystic might say that Genesis is a parable about the development of human consciousness, for example. Adam and Eve become self-aware, and after that come shame, greed, and other unpleasant things they weren’t aware of before. The original moral might have been that the cure for shame, greed, etc. is to transcend ego.

Armstrong says that scripture should be read like poetry. “It’s an attempt to express the inexpressible.” She also makes the interesting point that science sometimes uses mythological language — e.g., “Big Bang,” “black hole” — for realities that dangle just outside the scope of most human cognition. “I think some scientists are writing a new kind of religious discourse, teaching us to pit ourselves against the dark world of uncreated reality and pushing us back to the mysterious.”

Armstrong goes on to call belief in an afterlife a “red herring” (the Buddha said pretty much the same thing in one of the early sutras). Also,

Sometimes, I think the way monotheists talk about God is unreligious. … people very often talk about him as a kind of acquaintance, whom they can second-guess. People will say God loves that, God wills that, and God despises the other. And very often, the opinions of the deity are made to coincide exactly with those of the speaker. … God transcends personality as God transcends every other human characteristic, such as gender. If we get stuck there, this is very immature. Very often people hear about God at about the same time as they’re learning about Santa Claus. And their ideas about Santa Claus mature and change in time, but their idea of God remains infantile.

One of the things I came to appreciate about Buddhism is the attitude that all teaching is provisional. The student may be taught myths or doctrines or initiated into some esoteric practice, but always it is understood that the lessons are like rungs in a ladder; to get to the next rung you have to leave the old one. In some religions belief in a god or gods is such a provisional step. But monotheists too often get stuck at Santa Claus God level, and even the churches have forgotten what comes after believing in Santa Claus God. And limited, fearful people who feel threatened by the modern world have twisted religious beliefs into something hard and ugly. Instead of practicing religion as a guide to transcendence, they’ve reverted to primitive, tribal forms of religion to protect themselves from whatever it is they are afraid of.

In the 1930s, Albert Einstein wrote that religions seem to have three levels. Level one is religion practiced to assuage fear; believers perform rituals and pray to imaginary gods to protect them. At level two, people form a social or moral concept of God. “This is the God of Providence,” Einstein wrote, “who protects, disposes, rewards, and punishes; the God who, according to the limits of the believer’s outlook, loves and cherishes the life of the tribe or of the human race, or even or life itself; the comforter in sorrow and unsatisfied longing; he who preserves the souls of the dead.”

But there is a third stage, with “no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it.” Einstein called it a “religious feeling” — I think he might have bumped into the limits of language, as that sounds pretty lame — but he continues,

The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. The beginnings of cosmic religious feeling already appear at an early stage of development, e.g., in many of the Psalms of David and in some of the Prophets. Buddhism, as we have learned especially from the wonderful writings of Schopenhauer, contains a much stronger element of this.

The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it. Hence it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with this highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as atheists, sometimes also as saints. Looked at in this light, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi, and Spinoza are closely akin to one another.

How can cosmic religious feeling be communicated from one person to another, if it can give rise to no definite notion of a God and no theology? In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.

Einstein goes on to argue that those who have dedicated their lives to scientific inquiry are “the only profoundly religious people” in this materialistic age. And, truly, there is no reason for science and religion to be at odds with each other. It’s not religion, but the fear, ignorance, and superstition that passes for religion, that’s the problem.

New Media, New Politics

Jonathan Alter gets it

Bob Schieffer of CBS News made a good point on “The Charlie Rose Show” last week. He said that successful presidents have all skillfully exploited the dominant medium of their times. The Founders were eloquent writers in the age of pamphleteering. Franklin D. Roosevelt restored hope in 1933 by mastering radio. And John F. Kennedy was the first president elected because of his understanding of television.

Will 2008 bring the first Internet president? Last time, Howard Dean and later John Kerry showed that the whole idea of “early money” is now obsolete in presidential politics. The Internet lets candidates who catch fire raise millions in small donations practically overnight. That’s why all the talk of Hillary Clinton’s “war chest” making her the front runner for 2008 is the most hackneyed punditry around. Money from wealthy donors remains the essential ingredient in most state and local campaigns, but “free media” shapes the outcome of presidential races, and the Internet is the freest media of all.

No one knows exactly where technology is taking politics, but we’re beginning to see some clues. For starters, the longtime stranglehold of media consultants may be over. … just as Linux lets tech-savvy users avoid Microsoft and design their own operating systems, so “netroots” political organizers may succeed in redesigning our current nominating system. But there probably won’t be much that’s organized about it. By definition, the Internet strips big shots of their control of the process, which is a good thing. Politics is at its most invigorating when it’s cacophonous and chaotic.

I’m not sure about Alter’s example, Unity08, which is an organization dedicated to elected a “unity” ticket of one Dem and one Republican in the 2008 presidential elections. The “crashing the gate” netroots initiative to reform an established party — the Dems — seems more practical. We’ll see how that goes.

Last week Jamison Foser called media “the dominant political force of our time.” Foser and Eric Boehlert, in his new book Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush (which I’m currently reading) make essentially the same point: In the past several years the media has made right-wing extremism seem “centrist” while progressivism, which has a long and respectable history in mainstream American politics, has been marginalized as something alien and weird and looney. Media enabled the Republicans to become the dominant party in national politics even though the Dems are more representative of American public opinion on issue after issue.

Certainly much of media does little more than act as a conduit for right-wing propaganda. The reasons for this are complex. Many media personalities (passing as journalists) are ideologues pushing their dogma with an evangelical zeal. But others of them are, I suspect, unconscious of the role they play in the noise machine. Matt Bai comes to mind. He seems sincerely oblivious to the power of mass media politics even though he is immersed in mass media politics. (Which may be the problem; does a fish perceive water?)

We can’t reform American politics without either reforming media or breaking its stranglehold on the political process. Using the Internet to strip big shots of their control of the process seems the way to go.