Man is the religious animal. He is the only religious animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion--several of them.
Mark Twain, 1962
This paper argues that humans are, as Mark Twain noted, a religious animal. It assumes to some extent vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit ("Invoked or not invoked, the god is present." (Jung, in Wehr, 1989)), though perhaps not exactly as Jung had intended, not archetypally per se, but insofar as a person without religion is an unwell person. Religion is as much a part of being human as is the genotypic arrangement of our limbs. While there are a wide variety of religions in the world, within all we will find the same three levels of functioning present, arranged along a continuum from fundamentalist to mystic in orientation. It will be necessary to expose the dominant religion of our time, scientism, because being dominant it is essentially invisible as a religion, being represented instead as 'truth'. Finally, at the end of the paper, I'll try to make the case that these issues are important and not just so much philosophical twaddle.
Religion is concerned with the ultimate order. Not uncommonly, as in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is an object of worship, but if so this object is typically worthy of worship by virtue of its place in the cosmos, as a creator, or at very least a judge and ruler, a mover of the spheres, perhaps even the absolute author of cosmic order. Not all religions are theistic, and in such cases it is the order itself which is venerated, the absolute, even where this absolute cannot be adequately defined in words, for example, the Tao, Brahma, or simply that which is behind "life, the universe, and everything". "42" was the answer Douglas Adam's computer 'Deep Thought' arrived at, then pointed out that if it was incomprehensible it was because the philosophers hadn't defined the question properly, a much tougher assignment (Adams, 1995)).
Religion is a system whereby sense is made, meaning constelated in myth. It is ultimately about order and orientation. This human species, Homo whateverwhenever, has long had an aversion to chaos, and with good reason. Chaos is death to a social naked ape, especially one whose instincts have been largely subordinated to social learning and cognition. Order is essential, and there will be a correspondence between any functioning religious system and reality, both social and environmental. Note that this does not mean that 'all religions are true', but simply that all religions are functional. If they did not have a pragmatic value they would not exist. However, the argument that they are merely tools of manipulation invented by the ruling class is inadequate, since if there was not something primary valued by the individual preceding priestly show, the tool would be useless. Indeed, in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience William James devotes very little space to organized religion, regarding it as secondary, something which arises through the institutionalization of a much more primary, much more personal, experience (James, 1994).
In addition to addressing the individual's existential need for a sense of meaning and order, religion for most of its history has also served the need for group cohesivity and cultural identity. It has served both the individual and the collective.
The dominant religion of modern man is scientism. This is how he sees the world and orders it. Scientism is a religion which includes dogmatic assertions which are over-extensions of good science. An example would be a scientismic evolutionist stating that life arose by chance. There is no evidence for this, but we seem to have good evidence that new species develop as new features convey adaptive advantages within the ancestral environment of the organism, or more simply, that creatures evolve in step with nature. There is no need of a divine hand in the process. A scientist might speculate that it is possible that life could have arisen equally naturally. The characteristic of the religion of scientism is the dogmatic assertion 'Life arose by chance', as opposed to the scientists' more qualified statement of probability or likelihood, subject to the understanding that "All of our present interpretations of the universe are subject to revision or replacement" (Kelly, 1955) in the presence of more compelling evidence. A true scientist welcomes evidence which calls into question the most popular theories of the day, whereas a scientismist will typically strongly resist any such thing, at least until some Kuhnian paradigmatic switch has progressed sufficiently to allow for its popularity and acceptance into the scientismic canon (Kuhn, 1970).
In his book The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade states that "The religious exists in the unconscious of nonreligious man and affects his behaviour. However, not being conscious, it does not constitute a paradigmatic worldview." (1957). Scientism, though it has been identified for awhile, is still largely unconscious for most. The term James Hillman uses for the dominant paradigm of a time is 'myth', and notes that the dominant myth of the day is always invisible (Hillman, in Segaller, 1989). I prefer the term religion to myth, since so often myth is a term we use to describe dead religions, whereas a religion seems to be by consensus something living, still at work in the world.
I would argue that if you want to find out the "paradigmatic worldview" of a person, get their response to a phenomenon whose origin is unknown, even if they must for a moment suspend disbelief. Unidentified phenomenon in the sky (UPITS, a term I've coined since it's less presumptuous than UFO) would be useful for this exercise. If your subject says "I don't know", then the experiment fails, but chances are they will have an explanation. For the religious, there is always an explanation. Everything has a place in the cosmology.
Scientism exists as well on a cruder level whose chief feature is an all embracing belief that all phenomenon are capable of being explained in materialistic terms readily available for immediate application. It may be very far from good science and both scientists and scientist scientismists may regard it with contempt (sometimes refering to it as 'pseudoscience'). The UPITS which have appeared throughout recorded history are a good example of this. These will tend to be interpreted by those who see them in terms of the dominant religion of the day. In the west 500 years ago the interpretations would likely have been something which fit into the Christian mythos, devils or angels. Now, of course, they are seen as representing a technology far greater than our own which can only have come from somewhere else in the material universe. Wildmen in the wood, and lake monsters alike are no longer interpreted in supernatural terms, but rather as breeding populations of some type of animal which if we could only capture and study would be amenable to Linnaean classification. The scientismist who has not strayed so far from good science will assert with equal zeal that these are all hoaxes or hallucinations, or perhaps lament the inability of so many to tell the difference between weather balloons and extraterrestrial phenomena. The most difficult words in the world for religious man to utter are simply "I don't know", especially when clearly there's something going on, but insufficient evidence to make any clear statements. Something must be, and it is intolerable not to have a story or a theory (same thing functionally) to explain it.
Mainstream scientism regards the universe as being material (which includes energy by definition, e=mc2) and entirely comprehensible (or at least potentially) from where science is now. There the material universe is so much matter and that which is useful is utilized, and that which is not is discarded or disregarded. A materialist religion which is very clear about that is Ayn Rand's 'Objectivism' (1990). In her work environmentalists are actually portrayed as villains standing in the way of progress (1957)!
A theistic parallel is to be found in the tradition of Judaic origin where God is not immanent in his creation. He is above us, and everything under us is material for our use.
Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion that the world has seen. . . . Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia's religions . . . not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.
Lynn White, Jr., 1966, in Sessions, 1995
At best from a Judeo-Christian perspective of lower or middle levels we may see in nature evidence of God's handiwork. Scientism may be a subcategory of a larger materialist perspective whose origins clearly predate science.
In chapter three of The Sacred and the Profane (1957) Eliade maintains that all nature is embued with "religious value." "[The gods] manifested the different modalities of the sacred in the very structure of the world and of cosmic phenomena." and "The cosmos as a whole is an organism at once real, living, and sacred." (1957). However, once again, Eliade attempts to make the case that the modern secular man has lost that. And again this is not so, not universally at any rate.
At the higher level of mysticism in the contemporary world, regardless of the specific religious context if any, this is apparent in the 'just so-ness' of things, and the unity of the Whole, of Universe. On a more secular level, there is almost a form of green scientism, where without acknowledging explicitly any 'divine' element to Universe, the ecology of the planet becomes 'sacred'. Examples include "Deep Ecology", a term coined by Arne Ness and largely popularized by George Sessions and Bill Devall (Sessions, 1995). The aspirations of the Deep Ecology movement are well expressed by Thomas Berry in the statement that "the community of all living species is the greater reality and the greater value."
Also notable is the Gaia theory of James Lovelock, where 'mother earth' isn't just a metaphor, she may very well exist as a being in her own right!
The entire range of living matter on Earth from whales to viruses and from oaks to algae could be regarded as constituting a single living entity capable of maintaining the Earth's atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts....
For many this is the higher calling, the 'transcendental' in the sense of that which is beyond the self, higher purpose, cause, whatever that exists as much in environmentalism, Marxism, Darwinism, whatever, as it does in the more conventional religions, theistic or atheistic (such as Buddhism). However, environmentalists like Sessions and Lovelock are members of a minority, hopefully a growing one, and at the mid and lower levels of psychoreligious functioning there is some truth in Eliade's claim that modern humans regard the earth more as matter than mater.
Of religious man Eliade notes that he "can live only in a sacred world, because it is only in such a world that he participates in being, that he has a real existence .... His terror of the chaos that surrounds his inhabited world corresponds to his terror of nothingness .... for religious man, this profane space represents absolute nonbeing." (1957). This is true also of the scientismist, for whom everything is explainable in materialist terms. There is no void, even in disorder there is order, a cause, an origin, a place. If anything, he has gone beyond Eliade's religious man. There is no chaos ultimately, no corner of the universe into which science cannot peer, if not today, then certainly tomorrow, as humanity progresses in its "boundless search for improvement.", as stated in one of the most enthusiastic expressions of scientism, The Extropian Principles 2.5:
Extropianism is a transhumanist philosophy: Like humanism, transhumanism values reason and humanity and sees no grounds for belief in unknowable, supernatural forces externally controlling our destiny, but goes further in urging us to push beyond the merely human stage of evolution. As physicist Freeman Dyson has said: "Humanity looks to me like a magnificent beginning but not the final word." Religions traditionally have provided a sense of meaning and purpose in life, but have also suppressed intelligence and stifled progress. The Extropian philosophy provides an inspiring and uplifting meaning and direction to our lives, while remaining flexible and firmly founded in science, reason, and the boundless search for improvement.
SCIENCE VS. SCIENTISM
The bottom line according to our experience is that a lot of stuff exists and a lot of things are happening all the time and we are born naked into all this commotion. How do we explain it? Where are we in relation to it? How does it work, and how can we make it work for us? These are religious questions, and they are also questions which motivate us to use science as a tool. It's very important to understand that science can be used effectively as a tool without making it into a religion. Indeed, making it such does nothing but impair its efficacy and create this sterile debate between 'science' and 'religion'. Only science as religion has any real compulsion to compete with other religions.
Ken Wilber's definition of science is "empirical-sensory knowledge, instrumentally tested." (Wilber, 1984). The method involves testing hypotheses in such a manner that the experiments are repeatable and the results publicly verifiable. It is not restricted to exploration of physical-sensory data, but may also be applied to internal or symbolic processes such as meditation or mathematics. Consequently its domain is the experientially testable. This includes some aspects of religion, essentially those elements which do not depend on dogmatic assertions to be taken on faith (in Wilber, 1984). For example, the four noble truths of Buddhism are testable. Indeed, they are practically structured as a problem and a method. The problem is that life is full of unsatisfactoriness (dukha, often translated as "suffering"). It is hypothesized that this suffering is caused by craving, attachment, aversion (all essentially regarded as the same thing, aversion simply being the flip side of craving, desire), and that therefore the solution is to get beyond those things, essentially solving the problem by eliminating its cause. Finally a method, the eight fold path, is presented as the means or method. It is all clearly outlined, and any who have the desire can try it. It could even be done as a formal experiment with a group of test subjects over an extended period of time. Even if this craving reducing method/experiment did not result in the complete transcendence of suffering (a tough assignment!) in the time allotted, we could correlate diminished craving with overall sense of well being.
A criticism of such approaches has been that the experience is 'phenomenological', that is, uniquely the province of the individual experiencing it and therefore not satisfying the criteria of public verifiability. However, as Anand Paranjpe notes of yoga in his book Self and Identity in Modern Psychology and Indian Thought (in press), the veracity of the experience can be tested by anyone willing to follow clearly explicated procedures:
This Yogic approach to validation of its claims by repeating a set procedure has an uncanny concordance with the concepts of testability and confirmability of propositions, and of replicability of results, which have been extensively discussed in the history of the philosophy of science. For a proposition to be testable, its concepts and principles must be clearly stated, the conditions under which the putative results are obtainable must be specified, and the procedures leading to those conditions must be clearly laid out and be in principle repeatable. The principles of Yoga are clearly stated in texts that are widely available around the world, the preparations and procedures leading to the samadhi states have been clearly spelled out, and they can be followed by anyone who is interested -- and has acquired the stated prerequisites. Adequate preparation -- including training in the discipline as well as acquisition of appropriate skills -- is of course a necessary part in the discovery and validation of knowledge in any field.
Paranjpe, in press
Wilber likewise notes an implicit qualification on public verifiability in relation to advanced mathematics, where without requisite training and shared background a member of the general public can have no hope of comprehension (1984). At best experts in science can translate their findings into language the public can understand, but only at the expense of precision. The public, to the degree which precision is lost, will simply have to have faith in the authority of its scientists. As regards this reliance on authority, I may be more dependent on it when it comes to science than I am in relation to Eastern practices.
.... in Buddhism those not as far along on the path look to the authority of teachers, just as the authority of peer reviewed journals is important to the scientist who, if only for practical reasons of time and resources, does not replicate all the experiments he reads of so that he can see for himself. Lay persons in the scientific West are actually more at the mercy of the authority of scientists than Buddhist lay persons who can see for themselves.
I have faith in the authorities which tell me that humans have landed on the moon, even though it is a journey that I am unlikely ever to make myself, and even though the production values of the footage taken there are far below those of the movie Star Wars. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. However, if I relied solely on Western scientific expertise for my understanding of Universe, I would be very much impoverished.
There seems to be an implicit tendency in Western science to require that the subject in question have available experts with requisite experience not only in the subject, but with credentials that satisfy a conservative set of criteria which are familiar and convey a solid sense of authority, such as a Ph.D. in the subject from a prestigious Western university. I qualify this tendency as 'implicit', because it isn't really a part of the strict definition of the method, and many would be resistant to calling attention to it, since it suggests a bias which is at worst racist, at best a confession of ignorance of what constitutes adequate authority in areas not traditionally the domain of western science. Even the concept of a 'domain' may be uncomfortable, since that domain clearly should be the experimentally testable in general, and not just that which is familiar and comfortable for Western intellectuals.
Ideally science should not be subject to the fashion of the day, nor constrained to cultural standards, yet clearly the history of science to the present has been exactly so constrained. A scientist would agree with this, because it is so. A scientismist would suspect me of subverting the 'church of reason' in order to open the door to foreign flights of fantasy that could threaten the very foundations of the hard won order of science over the ignorant superstitions of an earlier, darker time. There is almost an emotional tone of righteousness which characterizes scientism, as opposed to the comparatively simple delight of the scientist in discovery, even the discovery of error, perhaps especially in such discovery. If you show me my error I am indebted to you for bringing me nearer to a better understanding, whereas before I was right up a blind alley without even knowing it.
When theorizing it's so tempting to cut things into neat little categories and classifications, even though we know that real life is not so neat. A person may consciously or unconsciously incorporate beliefs from several religious systems into a kind of eclectic stew that works well for them. These days in this society you might find scientismic Buddhistic Christian environmentalists whose perspective on the world is largely materialistic, whose psychology is influenced by Buddhism, and who believe that Jesus loves them, forgives all sins, and that they will be reunited with departed loved ones when they die, and that the environment and its creatures are as worthy in the eyes of the Creator as we are. Not all elements will necessarily be equal. If you ask explicitly they might say their religion is Christian. If you ask about their Buddhist beliefs they might say that they regard Buddhism more as a philosophy than a religion. But when their eyes light up at the topic of ecology and they go on enthusiastically about natural processes, balances, and interconnections in the web of life, then you will have found the true heart of it. And that's just one example, one possible combination.
LEVELS OF RELIGIOUS UNDERSTANDING
Complicating matters further, within any religion there will be various levels of understanding from the most concrete to the most mystical. Whether we speak of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam or any major religions we will find people who are operating at a magical level (prayer for specific material items, possibly in exchange for a positive change in behaviour), a practical level (God helps those who help themselves), or on a mystical level (direct perception/union with Universe, God, Brahma, whatever you want to call It.) (Skynner and Cleese, 1993). In the materialistic realm we may see a spectrum stretching from the shopaholic for whom the mall is a holy place, to a deep environmentalist who believes that ultimately the earth constitutes a single organism (Sessions, 1995; Lovelock, 1979). However, true to the revelation of the Normal Distribution, most will be operating at a middle level, whatever their religions.
There will be some contextual variation in levels at times, for example, the environmentalist mystic who is so totally at One with it All while hiking a mountain trail, but who due to a fear of flying finds herself at 30,000 feet bargaining for her life with whatever deity is most available to her! There is a spiritual equivalent of Maslowian regression to deficiency needs, and likewise there will be days when the middle level is transcended through some sort of peak experience where the middle level person will catch a glimpse however fleeting of something higher (Maslow, 1968, 1987).
Exceptionally healthy folk tend to have a more accurate perception of reality, as evidenced not only by the work of Abraham Maslow on self actualization (1968, 1987), but also research conducted by J. Lewis and F. Walsh into the functioning of exceptionally healthy families (Lewis, Walsh, in Skynner and Cleese, 1993). This also corresponds with the results of Buddhist practice, and mysticism in general. It's a bit of a let down, since when we think of 'mysticism' we tend to conjure up romantic images of still ponds and pacific people sitting in the full lotus position. Likewise there is intimation of hidden knowledge. However, much of the hidden knowledge is summed up by Skynner when he says, "Everything is exactly like it is, only more so." (Skynner and Cleese, 1993) Or more poetically...
Inside our chapel
with beings of wood and stone
seeds from a birch tree
Sister Bendicta (in Strand, 1997)
Of this haiku, Strand comments:
.... there are many ways of expressing the truth of incarnation, but in haiku we always say it in the ordinary way. Something like "seeds from a birch tree." They also are beings. Their lightness and beauty fill the poem. And yet, the real beauty -- and the thing that makes it haiku -- is that the seeds remain merely seeds. They are not symbols, or a metaphor for something else. We may say "incarnation," but really that is only birch seeds. They are beings too. Artists, poets, monks and nuns -- anyone who spends a lot of time in contemplation -- will understand this point. It is nothing esoteric -- the seeds are not something else. Just as they are, they are holy.
Strand, 1997 (my italics)
Maslow's "B-values" (being values) provide a good listing of qualities attributable to people at this level of functioning;
The qualities may be found in any religion at its highest levels. Examples that spring to mind are Christian mystics, the Sufis of the Islamic tradition, and of course the Eastern traditions. However, at this level religion becomes very thin, approaching the truth seeking level of science.
The function of finding order in Universe is less strained, more in accord with the facts of Universe, and the consolatory elements of religion become less needed. It should not be surprising to learn, therefore, that many of the top physicists of this century were mystics in their religious outlook. Included in this number are Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Einstein, De Broglie, Jeans, Planck, Pauli, and Eddington (in Wilber, 1984). This could be looked upon as scientism if these physicists were overextending the findings of physics, saying, as is not uncommon in some new age contexts, that the findings of quantum physics support mystical traditions, but this is not the case. These scientists know what they are doing well enough to recognize first hand the limits on science, the second hand nature of the shadows of symbols and equations cast on the wall of Plato's cave (Wilber, 1984). However, they did not recognize limits on the human spirit, nor the need to Know.
When a person first glimpses this level of functioning, they may be tempted to declare that this is the best perspective for everyone, and that approaches with a large measure of consolatory elements (Jesus loves you even if nobody else does, when you die you go to heaven or are reborn in a better situation, all sins are forgiven so you're not responsible/guilty, etc.) are just crutches and should be thrown down. While Einstein understood that ".... the existence of an omnipotent, just, and omnibeneficent personal God is able to accord man solace, help, and guidance; also, by virtue of its simplicity, it is accessible to the most underdeveloped mind.", still he went on to state that "in their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God .... " for the benefit of the "true religion" that is "enobled and made more profound by scientific knowledge." (in Wilber, 1984)
A similar wish is expressed in Stephen Batchelor's book Buddhism Without Beliefs wherein he makes the case for agnostic Buddhism (1997). He is defining agnosticism in the original terms of the word's coiner, T.H. Huxley. Huxley saw it as "a method realized through "the rigourous application of a single principle." He expressed this principle positively as: Follow your reason as far as it will take you," and negatively as: "Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable." (in Batchelor, 1997). This being advocated by a Buddhist recalls Wilber's point made earlier that scientific method can be applied to spiritual matters, provided they are potentially demonstrable (1984). Wilber seems to hold the 'throw down the crutches' position as well:
.... the only real battle is between genuine science and bogus science, and between genuine religion and bogus religion ("genuine" meaning "experientially verifiable/refutable"; "bogus" meaning "dogmatic, nonexperiential, nonverifiable/refutable"). There is bogus or pseudo-science just as much as there is bogus or pseudo-religion, and the only worthwhile battle is between genuine and bogus, not between science and religion.
(Wilber, 1984, original italics)
Since the consolatory aspects of religion tend to fall into the category of dogmatic assertions I think it would be safe to say that Wilber would unsympathetically classify them as "bogus".
Middle level religion is characterized by rules and by a kind of practicality -- God helps those who help themselves. The relationship between the divine and people tends to be that of parent to a child, and the dogma of the religion is more concrete, though not taken as literally as at the lower levels. Scientism at this level may be complimented by other beliefs. This is not as incongruous as it might seem at first, since, as Hillman noted (in Segaller, 1989), it is so pervasive as to be invisible to many. Where it fails, perhaps in the area of consolatory beliefs, it may be complimented by a more conventional religion.
Einstein in his paper 'Cosmic Religious Feeling' (in Wilber, 1984) outlined all three levels of religious understanding, and characterized this level as the one which arose from the "desire for guidance, love and support . . . This is the God of Providence, 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 life itself; the comforter in sorrow and unsatisfied longing; he who preserves the souls of the dead. This is the social or moral conception of God." Einstein is talking from a Western perspective, but even the Eastern so often associated with mysticism has a vast middle level; the Hindu pantheon is huge and colourful, Buddhisms exist where if not a god Buddha is the next best thing, accompanied by various saints and bodhistavas of renown, and so on.
At the lowest level of functioning there is a strong emphasis on rules and judgement. The dogma is strictly interpreted and there is a tendency to regard symbolism as literal truth. Einstein believed this to arise from fear, and a desire to control. Certainly there is this sense that the consequences for violating the letter of the law are most dire, and since in the Judeo-Christian tradition God is everywhere watching and noting everything, you won't get away with it. Especially wicked is contradicting his Word which must be taken literally down to the crossed 't' and dotted 'i' (strange in the case of Christianity, since the King James version of the Bible is very popular at this level, and is not the most accurate translation).
Most fundamentalist approaches are at this level, including 'atheistic' scientism. While top level physicists may be able to distinguish between their symbolic interpretations and reality, those who venerate them do not often have the same facility. The fierce debate between the Darwinists and the Creationists concerning evolution is essentially two religions annoying the hell out of each other in a way that would be humourous if it weren't for the serious implications in the schools, where one dogma or another will be taught as the truth in a way that is tragic if the goal of schools is genuine education. At this level there is a very low tolerance for individuality or imagination, something stressed highly by Batchelor if a religion is to be a living one and not ossify into an archaic preserver of an outmoded status quo (1997).
A corollary of the dogmatic assertions of scientism is that all other explanations are false, something it shares with most religions except perhaps at the highest, most 'mystical', levels of their expression. Much of tolerant interfaith relations is based not upon accepting the truth of the other's religion, but rather good naturedly allowing others to be wrong, something the fundamentalist is incapable of, since clearly this means smiling while your neighbour not only goes himself to hell, but spreads false doctrines which will lead others there as well. Clearly quite intolerable.
Superficial details of specific religions will be determined by culture, but all will have these levels of functioning present. Cultural components are most emphasized at the lower levels where things are taken very literally. At the higher levels a Buddhist talking about Buddha-nature with a Christian mystic who understood the Christ within would have no problem getting along (though the Christian mystic might have a harder time with fellow Christians operating at lower levels!).
Clearly, the "True Religion" (or rather, religious modality) is that of mysticism, with it's de-emphasis on consolotory beliefs, it's value on clear perception and identification with that which is, and its several varieties of method which can be confirmed or disconfirmed by anyone willing to undertake them. It would seem that this should be the one path which all should follow.
Assuming that all persons were operating at the same level of proficiency and health, and those who had fallen into fundamentalist dogmatism had done so only through some error to which their attention could be easily called, then it would be so. Fortunately the world is not so dull. We are not created equally, nor do we develop so. The apparent injustices of Nature's lottery which assigns this child to those parents of such and such genetic, economic, psychosocial circumstances, and that child to others and the infinite variety of such circumstances a child may be born into, as well the twists and turns along the way (some volitional, some less so), dictate the futility of prescribing an ideal which is inaccessible to many if not most. Contrary to what is at very least implied in Batchelor's advocacy of agnostic Buddhism (1997), Wilber's dismissal of nonverifiable religions as "bogus" (1984), Einstein's exorcism of the personal god (in Wilber, 1984), it is neither wise nor compassionate to take from people that which works for them.
By way of illustration, a fundamentalist Christian sat next to me on the bus one day and began to evangelize as they are wont to do. He had proof of his religion. Seven years before, his life had been a total mess, drug addiction, in trouble with the law, and on and on. Then he discovered Jesus and started going to church and miraculously his entire life was turned around by the love of God. I am not a Christian, but I was glad for him of his experience and would say nothing to even attempt to disavow it. It had been a major tranformative event in his life with continuuing efficacy in determining its meaning and quality.
Others who have been dabbling in the new age and wandering about half uncommitted to a half dozen things may suddenly turn to scientism. Suddenly they can see things in very concrete terms with absolutely the same certainty as the fundamentalist on the bus. The world becomes less complicated, more ordered. They may adopt as patron saints such figures as Carl Sagan and James Randi (a magician self-appointed to debunk supernatural claims wherever they may be). They are not alone but part of a vast network of people who may call themselves 'skeptics', the moral guardians of the Truth of Science which diminishes Chaos and uncovers the Order of the Cosmos.
Clearly, religion has a great pragmatic value. This is not only true of this cultural manifestation or that, but also of the levels of understanding corresponding to psychological health. Religion serves to order and orient. Any religion at any level. If the best a person can do to stave off chaos is to become a fundamentalist Christian or a believer in atheistic scientism then that is much better than nothing. If a person requires a religion with clearly defined rules, consolation, and personified religious entities to have order and meaning of some kind in their life, then Batchelor's agnostic Buddhism (1997) is going to seem like a thin cold soup. It is unlikely to be embraced or be of any value. It is not a question of truth, ultimately, but of meaning that is accessible. It is practical, not ideal.
The only exception, of course, is the mystical perspective. I say "of course", because this is the perspective I subscribe to, and consequently have no choice but to regard it as do all others of their religious perspectives as 'the truth'. It is so hard to say "to each his own", I can almost feel my teeth clench.
I first seriously began considering these ideas upon reading Skynner and Cleese's Life and How to Survive It (1993). Therein they examine social structures from the family through business, the state, and religion from this three tier perspective of psychological health and functioning. What Skynner seemed to be suggesting in the section on religion was something which seemed to me to be radically pragmatic -- that any religion is better than no religion.
The test case for me has been (and I still wrestle with this), the Jehovah's Witness, due to their literalness of mind, poverty of imagination, and obedience to the institution over any kind of self-directed thinking or exploration, but most especially the cruelty behind their ultimate tool of discipline which is 'disfellowship'. Apparently the Jehovah's Witness (JW) community is very close, and disfellowship is essentially the same fate that exile would have been to an ancient Greek, the fate Socrates chose death over. It is to be totally cut off from one's community, from friends, family, anyone. This sentence is imposed by a council of elders in a process that would not be tolerated in any secular court of law (for a transcript of one such case, see 'Jim Rizoli's meeting with 'Jehovah's Witness Judicial Committee on May 19 1996 Northbridge MA USA' at http://www.caic.org.au/stories/jimrizol.htm . Likewise a web search on the terms "Jehovah's Witness" and "disfellowship" will bring up related material.).
"How could belonging to a religion like this be better than no religion at all?", I ask myself. Then I remember the man on the bus, the born again scientismist, and a woman I worked with for a time who told me that she would commit suicide, but she was living for Jesus now. She had survived a suicide attempt, and members of a Christian church had been very supportive to her while she was in hospital. Without Jesus she might be dead. The pain of JW disfellowship exists precisely because they have strong sense of community, purpose, and destiny. Skynner measures the overall health of any system by its degree of inclusivity, and the JW's don't score very high here being very elitist in their outlook. 144,000 of their number will be kings in heaven, the rest subjects, whilst the rest of us have our souls destroyed and all memory of us erased entirely. Still, for that formerly lost soul on the bus, even a religion like the Jehovah's Witnesses is indeed better than nothing.
The reader might well object (as I have to myself) that this is fine for the individual, but these folk don't confine themselves to themselves. Aside from knocking on doors, the religious right in the United States, though a minority, has political influence by virtue of money and campaign contributions. They can also afford to run candidates. Money is perhaps the primary influence in the US, once thought to be a democracy. How tolerant and liberal should we be while these folk seek to impose their beliefs on us?
The value of 'to each his own' applies equally here as well, in that clearly it doesn't stand for one group subordinating another to its beliefs, not a majority dominating a minority, nor the reverse in the case of the religious right. The religious right is a force to be resisted if you wish to live in a secular liberal society and not a theocracy. While we're arguing along these lines, however, we may have to consider reintroducing discussion of Creationism in science classes! After all, if we're going to teach Darwinism.... In truth, if science is taught in science classes both perspectives can be presented and evaluated from a scientific perspective. It would be a good place to introduce Occam's razor as a device for the evaluation of competing theories, always understanding that this heuristic principle of parsimony is exactly that, a 'rule of thumb', not any kind of guarantee or divine law. Also the emphasis must be on method, since "If we teach only the findings and products of science -- no matter how useful and even inspiring they may be -- without communicating its critical method, how can the average person possibly distinguish science from psuedoscience? Both then are presented as unsupported assertion." (Sagan, 1996). Creationism may serve as a very good example of a 'scientific' theory so bad for its reliance on appeal to authority as to not be a scientific theory at all. The danger, of course, is that students might develop a taste for questioning authority, but if schools are to be primarily concerned with education rather than just babysitting it's not only an essential risk, it's a laudable goal.
Eliade's extreme division of religious man and profane man is impossible if, as I (and Mark Twain (1962)) maintain, humans are religious animals. There are indeed differences in the "true religions", but the nature of the beast remains the same. This may be difficult to appreciate in a Western society where gods may be regarded as definitive of religion, but religion is defined more by its function than by its cast of characters. That function is to provide a framework and interpretive scheme which orders reality and keeps chaos at bay. This is not some rarified intellectual gobbledy-gook: Without a sense of meaning in their lives, people will actually kill themselves. The question is of life and death importance.
This is as true culturally as it is of the individual, as can be seen in comparing the Ik of Uganda whose primary preoccupation was food and survival at any cost (Turnbull, in Skynner and Cleese, 1993) to the highly functional Tibetan Buddhist Ladahk people of Northern India (Skynner and Cleese, 1993). The Ik were transplanted from their traditional lands by the government to an area where it was a very great struggle even to survive. Their behaviour is marked by brutality, lack of respect for others (including right to life), and delight in the suffering of others. The Ladahk, on the other hand, have lived a life which was until very recently quite secluded, all of their basic needs satisfied and getting along well together, though more recently with the influx of outsiders Western materialism has been an unhealthy influence. The hierarchy of basic needs outlined by Maslow seems to play a role in the level of understanding that is achievable not only by individuals, but by societies as well. I don't know if Einstein read Maslow, but the hierarchy is there as well in his characterization of the levels: low -- fear of starvation, sickness, death (physical needs); middle -- social and moral (affiliative needs); and high; cosmic religious feeling (Self Actualization) (in Wilber, 1984; Maslow, 1987).
For better or worse at this point the world has become small, and no one, not even the Ladahk, can escape exposure to a variety of ideas and perspectives. If we place our emphasis on the function of religion (starting by recognizing our own), perhaps we can avoid a myopic intolerance and see 'the other' as essentially engaged in the same exercise that we are. It is a challenge, but I would argue that those who are capable of it are morally obligated to take it up.
Another area where an awareness of the dominant religion behind perspectives being presented as truth is important is in education. I alluded earlier to the debate between fundamentalist Christians and Darwinists on the issue of creation and evolution as a specific example, but if we are to have schools which are dedicated to education rather than indoctrination we had better have a clear idea of the source of all statements which are being presented as truth. Wherever we find an unqualified statement of 'truth' we would be wise to seek the religion from whence it arises, since in the case of scientism it isn't always obvious, and in the case of good science just about everything is qualified in terms of probability. The good scientist who leaves such qualifications out for fear of confusing students or laypeople does them a disservice. He of all people should know better.
In A Christmas Carol Dickens has the ghost of Christmas present display a boy and girl cowering at his feet: "This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, . . . but most of all beware this boy..." (Dickens, 1992). History perpetually looks back on the unconscious assumptions of the time as being founded in ignorance, both religious and 'scientific'. Given the developmental course of human knowledge, this is inevitable to some extent, but it is also to some extent avoidable. "The criterion is consciousness." (Jung, in Fadiman and Fragar, 1994, page 82). Man is a religious animal, but to whatever extent we are capable of lifting our heads from cultural routine and taking a look around, we must. Just a little conscious benevolent skepticism on the part of those capable of it could go a very long way, especially in positions of leadership, in teaching, and in the helping professions.
For the rest, there is no 'true religion', only perhaps a 'best' religion for each.
To each his own.
©1998 Eric Pettifor
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