Monday, May 05, 2008

The art of religion

Henry Neufeld is a really nice guy. He's one of those folks who, if he was a church leader in my area, I'd probably go to church with just for the sake of having more fun discussions. It helps that he has a fair amount of respect for skeptical atheism - and, unlike 99.99% of religious people, he actually understands what it means to be a skeptical atheist.

As a result, my discussions with him tend to throw up a significant number of conceptual gems. In particular, I draw your attention to this post on his site: Believing in Words and Symbols. The underlying theme is that he really only has one core belief: that there is Something out there. Everything else - the Trinity, the Resurrection - is really just a language, a set of myths that seem to convey the feelings he experiences.

It was only once I'd heard this concept expressed clearly that I realised I'd come across it before. Looking back, a number of books I've read and people I've spoken to have touched on the same thought: that the important part of religion is the central Mystery, and the rest is just the clothes we put on it. It seems to be a fairly common theme in the more mystical variants of religion - consider the Gnostic creation myths, for example, or the Buddhist koans. This kind of religion isn't a science - it doesn't claim to describe the universe exactly. Rather, it is an art that allows people to express their deep feelings more clearly.

Possibly the only reason I'm seeing this common thread so clearly is that I've reached a point in my personal journey where I'm able to appreciate it. When I was younger, I spent an inordinate amount of time making what I might describe as a scientific sweep of religion, searching through the stewpot of superstition for anything that might have real applications. I wanted to dissect demons, bottle angels, and unleash whatever power the mind might have.

Sadly, I was born too late. Whilst the early scientists might have deduced vaccines and antibiotics from old wives' tales, in this day and age almost anything useful in religion has already been ripped from its clutches and absorbed into the realm of science. There are no demons, no angels, and the only consequence of trying to "unleash the mind" is a mild headache.

These days I'm attempting a more sophisticated analysis of religion - what might be described as a psychological sweep. Religion is a wonderful resource for students of psychology. Since very little reality-based testing occurs, it tends to attract and retain superb examples of cognitive bias and glitching. I'm of the strong suspicion that some of these are universal bugs features of the human brain - the question is which ones and why.

On a more complimentary note, religious traditions often contain ways of dealing with common cognitive issues that more "rational" approaches leave out. To quote Anton LaVey:

"One of the greatest of all fallacies about the practice of ritual magic is the notion that one must believe in the powers of magic before one can be harmed or destroyed by them. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as the most receptive victims of curses have always been the greatest scoffers. The reason is frighteningly simple. The uncivilized tribesman is the first to run to his nearest witch-doctor or shaman when he feels a curse has been placed upon him by an enemy. The threat and presence of harm is with him consciously, and belief in the power of the curse is so strong that he will take every precaution against it. Thus, through the application of sympathetic magic, he will counteract any harm that might come his way. This man is watching his step, and not taking any chances.

On the other hand, the 'enlightened' man, who doesn't place any stock in such 'superstition', relegates his instinctive fear of the curse to his unconscious, thereby nourishing it into a phenomenally destructive force that will multiply with each succeeding misfortune. Of course, every time a new setback occurs, the non-believer will automatically deny any connection with the curse, especially to himself. The emphatic conscious denial of the potential of the curse is the very ingredient that will create its success, through setting-up of accident prone situations. In many instances, the victim will deny any magical significance to his fate, even unto his dying gasp - although the magician is perfectly satisfied, so long as his desired results occur. It must be remembered that it matters not whether anyone attaches any significance to your working, so long as the results of the working are in accordance with your will. The super-logician will always explain the connection of the magical ritual to the end result as 'coincidence'."

Ever since reading this, I've taken to "warding off bad luck" by drawing a favourite symbol on my chest whenever I feel I'm tempting fate. It works surprisingly well.

Evidently this useful little trick was incorporated into Catholic doctrine a while back, and has lurked there ever since. What other gems of wisdom are waiting to be separated from the dross of accumulated memes?

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