Wednesday, December 29, 2004

What Is Religion?

For quite some time now, my blog posts have focused on Christianity and the nature of my beliefs about Christianity, beliefs which evolved from the context of the somewhat secular middle class cultural milieu of Southern California. To wit, Christianity, morality, and religion seemed synonymous to me while I was growing up, and it seemed quite normal for me to consider the religious beliefs of other people, or their lack thereof, in a highly ethnocentric fashion. Even as I began to realize that the secularized version of Christianity that I inherited from my family and peers was highly ethnocentric, I did not appreciate just how important it was for me to transcend my ethnocentric bias when pondering religious and theological questions, at least not at first.

One of the most basic ethnocentric assumptions of people in Modern Western Culture is that religion is synonymous with morality. However, as pointed out to me by one of my undergraduate mentors in cultural anthropology, many religious belief systems are bereft of any moral code whatsoever. In the final analysis, I believe that religious beliefs are based on fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality rather than commonly accepted notions of right and wrong, and in most instances people will unfairly characterize religious beliefs exotic to their own are being mere superstition. Similarly, science and reason have emerged as the adversaries of religion in Modern Western Culture.

Science and reason are wonderful tools for discovering truth, but they have some very obvious limitations. To wit, both science and reason presume that there is an objective reality that is synonymous with what we perceive it to be, when in reality the only truth that one can perceive is, "I think, therefore I am." For all any of us know, our brains might be plugged into a mainframe computer like the one in The Matrix, or we might simply be dreaming a reality that we are experiencing in our own mind. Indeed, the essence of Hindu religious beliefs is that the entire universe that we know and love is simply the dream of a Supreme Being -- i.e., God. Taking it one step further, God may be dreaming that He/She/It is one of us. Indeed, like Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, God may be playing all the roles in a drama that He/She/It began dreaming billions of years ago, and is playing those roles so well that He/She/It has forgotten that He/She/It is dreaming. This theoretical framework was outlined by Alan Watts quite well in his book Beyond Theology: The Art of Godsmanship.

As I alluded to above, the nature of our existence is a basic religious question that science and reason cannot answer in any satisfactory way. All we really know is that one day we came into existence and began to perceive the universe as being something that we are both a part of and separate from, and we trust our perceptions about the nature of the universe as being accurate because we find agreement about those perceptions among most people whom we encounter. Assuming that our perceptions are correct -- and that is a very big assumption -- we proceed to interact with the universe in a more-or-less goal oriented fashion. To wit, other things being equal, we pursue those things that give us pleasure and we avoid those things that give us pain. Moreover, we seek answers to existential questions about where life came from, how and why we came into being, and what the future holds in store for us, humanity, and the rest of the living universe. That, in a nutshell, is what religion is for most people.

As I have been wont to say, religion is an explanation for and a reaction to the supernatural. And I am not the first to say this, but I am one of the few people with a college degree in anthropology who stands by this once popular anthropological definition of religion. And for me, the supernatural is best defined as those phenomena that defy rational explanation. On this note, let me state, most emphatically, that I do not for once second believe that the laws of nature can ever be violated. Moreover, I am inclined to dismiss virtually all claims of paranormal phenomena as being pure unadulterated humbug. Even so, I wholeheartedly believe that the power of faith can alter reality for the people who witness an event. In other words, I believe that one can always find a rational, scientific explanation for any phenomenon if one looks hard enough, but the existence of a rational, scientific explanation does not necessarily invalidate the validity of a religious explanation. Rather, an observer with a rational and scientific world view will create a reality for him-or-herself that is consistent with his-or-her own world view.

Intellectually, I can accept the possibility that there is a reality deeper than everyday reality, an ineffable spiritual realm that, for the most part, transcends my conscious awareness. At the same time, I am not prepared to dismiss a rational and scientific world view that has served me so well within the confines of my mortal existence. What I am prepared to do is accept a world view that embraces mysticism as the most daring and radical consequence of rationalism. To wit, I believe that when one has reached the limits of rational and scientific thought, one can transcend those limits by embracing prayer and meditation as sources of inspiration and revelation. I am even willing to suspend my rational skepticism and accept the efficacy of magic and ritual as empirical forms of divination and manipulation of the natural world through supernatural means, provided that one does not purport to trump the laws of nature by appealing to such supernatural means.

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