The Agnostic's Survival Manual
Dear reader, are you really hoping for a book of ‘ifs’ and
‘buts’? Do you want gentle ideas and a comfortable corner in which to rest
your half-formed prejudices? Alas, you have come to the wrong place.
The truly employable in this world are
harmless blobs of not-quite-anything, or heroic knights of flaming conviction
(best employed by others after safe removal to a site of sacrifice), or good
old fashioned hypocrites with opinions for hire. This particular writer is
entirely unsafe to hire or to know, being addicted to a deadly combination of
moderation and candour. Luckily few people ever understand what he is talking
Readers will quickly notice that this is
not a "course", or even a coherent discourse. It is not especially
well informed about the patient, though (it seems to me) often futile
scholarship on religion which has consumed the lives of countless
academic-type personalities for several thousand years. The Agnostic's
Survival Manual is merely Thor May's survival manual in the supermarket of
the spirits, a collection of observations and self-reminders which make sense
to the author. Since the entries are a-ha!
moments jotted down over the years, there is a degree of repetition, for the
writer has sometimes been dim enough to think his sudden insight of the
moment personally original, instead of recognizing last year’s dinner
reheated. In fact, there might be a noisy crowd in heaven when I finally get
there, waiting to sue for breach of copyright. Diligent hunters after nonsense are also sure
to find plenty of inconsistencies. No problem, that's your call.
Since this material was first written in
1997 I have lived a couple of extra lives, notably in China and South Korea. Not surprisingly,
some of my ideas have developed or been modified, although the general tone
has not changed greatly. A small part of the content is more recent, and some
of the old content has been slightly edited. The original title of this
document was "The Atheist's Catechism" which was a bit too smug,
and probably misrepresented the extremity of my attitudes to religion. In December 2014 I published a further speculation separately, with the title "Does religion emerge as a product of complex systems? – exploring an allegory". A title like that will surely destine it to a small readership, and I'd be fired from any copywriting agency, but the concept it deals with, a kind of cognitive "god-space" in the systems of mind, does seem credible to me.
There is no attempt or intention here to
seek converts to a cause. I am perfectly happy if the reader has quite
opposing views. From a shockingly brief career as a law student, I still
recall the first words of the reigning professor's lecture: "You will
forget most of what you come across in this place, but if you learn just one
thing, learn to agree to disagree. Then you will have become a civilized
man." That sounded pretty good to me at the time. It takes all kinds of
people to make the world go around. Use this text as a striking iron for your
own concepts, pro and contra. Enjoy.
The Agnostic's Survival Manual: Table of Contents
# 2. Reader Beware! #
3. The Passionate
Skeptic # 4. Short Snips – a) Women, Men and Religion; b) A
Vocation; c) Riddle Time; d) Meddling Priests; e) The Ark of Common Belief;
f) Hidden Incentives; g) God Stuff; h) Grown-up Lies; i) The First Problem of
Politics; j) Public Belief; k) God talk; l) Werewolves; m) Creed Caper; n)
Trust; o) Rumours of Magic # 5. Myth and poetic imagination # 6. Religion is a
psychic bank # 7. Knowing religious mendacity #8. Supernatural or
Co-Natural? # 9. Supermarket of the Spirits # 10. The Buddhist Option #
Inscrutable Face of Lady Luck # 12 Winners and Losers # 13. The Stability of
Belief # 14. Guesswork Versus religion # 15. Part-time Space
The Lens of Emotion: synchronizing public and private illusions #
and the Treason of the soul # 18. Of Ideology and Control # 19. Cultural Pathologies #
the Mental Flow Charts # 21. The
Fundamentalist Religious Mind # 22. Easy Beliefs: can rationality survive? # 23. Is Morality a
Parasitic Virus? # 24. Public Religion: a failed experiment that won't roll over
# 25. An
Impotent God versus the God Zombies # 26. Religious Managers:
feminine dialectic and camp power-play # 27. Religious Uses and
Misuses: learning to live with the whole damned thing
Light is such a funny thing. I wish to fix it with words
like white or blue, which have a different flavour on the skin
from red or gold. But when I come to the sense of street lights
on my eyeball at a chilly 5.30am, just before night begins to get all wispy
grey, nothing seems certain anymore. The dawn can turn into anything, I feel.
It is better to shut my mouth for a while, stop being a poet, and wait to see
if I really need an umbrella.
This is a foolish discourse, written under street lights
in the lonely alleys of pre-dawn imagination. Or often when the day was done,
fled without reason before we were really introduced. Yes, it is these lost
chances that the words are cast for, like a net to catch moments that once
had colour. A game no doubt, a hopeless bouquet brought in pretense that
there was something I should have loved. I don't know about you, but I have
to write. Writing is my surrogate for understanding the world. Each day is
such a desperately short affair. Briefly you awake, eat, stretch and it is
done, with all your plans undone. I have to imitate it with words,
finger-written in the air, claiming to be me. Me, a daisy chain of
letters scratched in time. Pathetic, but there you are.
What does it all mean? I wail. Why the hell should I
care anyway? What is the point of understanding the weather cycle? With the
brain of an earthworm wet and dry earth might be the cusp of universal
truths. The soaring soul of an avatar must see so far above our horizons of
profundity that my solemn words can only yield laughter and pity. Why should
such a middle-minded creature as I toy with the common-sense of gods? No
choice, fool, the echoes cry. Did you ever try not to talk, even for five
minutes? No, not with your meaty tongue. In the electron corridors of your
brain. Do it now, be mocked. Hear the whispers unpick the gate-locks of your
silent centre, watch with inner despair as delinquent memories make a riotous
party of your rest.
I am the condemned host of eternal soliloquies, streaming
in from the dark factories of chemical glands, messages from distant
fingertips, drumbeats of pain on my retinas. Somehow from that chaos an
attractor emerges, ghostly, now here, now gone, calls itself I, grabs
for a hint of order, desperate to find its own continuity in the torrent of
sensation, calls each fleeting pattern meaning. Craves meaning, craves
life. That's what it's all about, idiot. The I thing can only live on meaning.
Let the avatars laugh. What can I do about it? Nothing. Have to talk, have to
write. So let's get on with it.
2. Reader Beware!
This is a partisan thesis, a catalogue of praise and
condemnation masquerading as personal truth. Or perhaps it is a quest for
personal certainty which keeps falling into quicksand. More likely, the
quicksand, the contradictions are necessary parts of a journey. I fear not for
myself, but for the occasional reader who in a careless moment may embed some
part of my fleeting observation in his own personal notion of universal
truths. Therefore, some honest admissions are in order.
When I was made, Faith was left out of the recipe. I lack
any stolid certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow. I step from ice floe to
ice floe, half expecting the next one to turn turtle and leave me drowning in
a frozen sea. There is no expectation of miraculous rescue, no prayer for a
silken cord from some propitiated helicopter god. The idea of worshipping
anyone or anything nauseates me. Choral hymns, national anthems and cheering
crowds make my gorge rise.
Why am I skeptical of everyone and everything? I don't
know if there is a gene for doubt. From the nurture angle, I guess the
shaping dynamic is that nobody has ever seriously believed in me, so the
starting point must be self-doubt. The best my parents could manage was that
kind of hope you hold out for winning the lottery, but barely concealed was a
deeper message. They invested in me the same kind of despair that they had in
The upshot of all this corrosive doubt is that if anyone
shows even a nascent tendency to trust my capacity, I immediately doubt
either their veracity or their judgement. Not that the situation arises
often. How I have hungered sometimes for one good friend.
Now you in your warm and welcoming world have many
friends. Treasure them, keep your beliefs intact with your feast days and
little rituals. My tale is from the borderlands where few travel and the
faces are unfamiliar. Read it in front of a warm fire on a winter's evening,
and count your blessings.
3. The Passionate Skeptic
I don't care what you believe in, so long as you don't
believe in it too strongly. A belief is a weapon in the armoury of your
heart, and its razor edge will murder the innocent. The ice, the fire of your
passion will seduce mundane men and women. Your clarity will excite respect.
And the first demagogue who comes along with a key to your heart's armoury
will wrest the weapon from your moral grasp. The first cause which wears the
colours of your belief will enlist you as a soldier in ravaging crusades.
Peace friend. Keep your passion to doubt with. Our civilization is a simple matter
of live and let live, of giving dreams a go, but stepping back with a wry
smile when we get it wrong. Let the fundamentalists perish in their own
pillars of fire. Spare a dollar for the living, and have a nice day. Doubt well,
do what you can, then let it be. Presidents, priests, wage slaves, hustlers,
men and women, kids, we all live by the grace of those we love to despise...
4. Short Snips on
has kept a collection of his blinding insights at a place called Thor’s Short Cuts (http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/aphorism.html),
and some of the more recent ones also on a blog of the same name (http://thorshortcuts.byeways.net/).
Altogether these fragments stretch back to 1988. Before that he just cursed
under his breath and chewed his fingernails. The whole selection surely says
more about the messed up inside of Thor’s head than anything definitive about
the mad outer world of men and women. Nevertheless, from time to time his
dystopian gaze has shifted to religion, and the following fifteen short
comments are extracted from that source. The original series numbers and
dates have been retained here for easy reference.
a) 240.Women, Men and
Men find security in physical
dominance. Without that dominance most men feel sexually castrated. Lacking
physical dominance (on the whole) women often seek security in deceit, or
failing that, in magic. Magic is broadly expressed as spirituality. Magic,
sorted as organized self-delusion, then better, a shared delusion, is what we
call religion. This religious magic is potent stuff for controlling human
beings, since few are driven by impartial evidence based thinking. Perceiving
the power of religious magic, men hijack the formula by force and kick women
out of the temple. Thus all religions which progress to governing the lives
of citizens are based on male sexual insecurity sanctified by the state. [a reference: http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/world/secrets-of-divine-women-exposed-20120407-1wi1j.html]
b) 227. A Vocation
The good face of organized religion
is that it creates a social space. This is a space which at its best lies
outside the thrall of daily economic contest and role play, a place where
people regardless of status, race, gender or occupation can meet and reflect
on their humanity. We all know that "at its best" is a fragile
condition, and in the case of religion has had a bumpy history. The
competition from other social spaces nowadays is fierce. Organized religion
also has crippling negatives. In most cultures, it has routinely been
controlled by old men, in individual cases with wisdom and tolerance, but in
the aggregate over time, as a power tool of social control and sexual
control, enforced by exclusion, persecution and war. In the aggregate over
time, the evidence is overwhelming that religion has never made good men and
wome from bad men and women. Its moral parade has been a pretence for other
agendas. The animal routines of strutting, preening, fighting, feeding and
breeding don't need a religion to sanctify them, and secular cultures have
been perfectly capable of managing them. We need to respect our biology, but
it is not what defines us as human. Surely it is time to grow up and find our
proper human vocation. If people must talk of a god, and many seem to feel
the need, then that vocation, the godly role if you like, is our choice to
make. The care and management of a small planet, with all the living things
upon it might not be a bad choice.
c) 206. Riddle Time
What do computer games, religion,
poetry and art have in common? Well, a kind of artistry perhaps. But let's
come down to artistry itself. All artistry is a public illusion in which we
are licensed to park our private delusions.
d) 199. Meddling Priests
One of the functions of religions,
together with their usual quota of gods, is to provide employment for certain
personality types. Priests in their many forms - pastors, imams, witch
doctors, missionaries, whatever .. - are characters who lust to exercise
moral power over other people. Indeed many, if not most people seem to want
someone to exercise that power, however nominally. Perhaps it comes from the
conditioning of parental authority. Anyway, the priestly class, having no
more imagination than average, pick up on some local dogma and sell it as
their own, claiming a moral imperative. A few are indeed saints. Sadly
though, on average, the moral calibre of priestly types is rarely better than
average, and pretty often worse. Above all, they are intolerant of any
challenge to their moral hegemony. Historically they have been a major source
of hatred. fratricide and oppression, whatever the dogma in their book of magic.
There is no reason to believe that will ever change.
e) 195. The Ark
of Common Belief
From the evidence of history,
religions are needed. Religions are supermarket explanations for the outer
limits of human understanding, and that is all the explanation that most
people seem to want. The supermarket status of the explanation itself is an
attraction, for it guarantees a fellowship of shared belief. Religions are
also social vehicles through which individuals express their ideal moral
character, sometimes even when their daily lives allow little space for the
ideal. That moral expression will find an outlet, regardless of the religious
brand chosen from the local supermarket of the spirits. Thus religion is a
licence to do good. The seven deadly sins, and plenty more, will also be
justified and rationalized by individuals and social groups, using whatever
religious brand they happen to have chosen, and regardless of what the dogma
of their religious texts proclaim. Exclusion, persecution and unkindness will
all be available for members of the chosen religion to inflict on non-group
members - those who have chosen another brand. Thus religion is a licence to
do evil. When the outer limits of human understanding are expressed with a
human rather than a supernatural reference, the religion is named an ideology
instead (communism, Confucianism, capitalism etc). In the end this matters
little, for all the same psychological mechanisms for belief and action
f) 187. Hidden Incentives Tue
So you want to change the world ? You
have invented a wonderful new system/method/ideology/religion ? Yes, it works
for your friends and admirers. Let's sell it to the mass marketers : the
politicians, the corporations, the professional promoters. But wait a minute
The mass manipulation of populations
by governments, mass education, populist religious promotion etc. often has
horrendous outcomes. We have a recorded species history of around six
millennia of terrible outcomes with this kind of stuff. Why? Well it's partly
because the **incentives** any system or ideology or 'method' or 'approach'
sets up apply quite differently:
a) to the target
group (citizens, students, devotees, whoever..);
b) to the agents who deliver it (e.g. civil servants, corporate employees,
priests, teachers ...);
c) to the controllers (so-called administrators, politicians .. and the
It is almost always true that the
incentives and rewards flowing to controllers are the strongest predictors of
outcomes, those accruing to the delivering agents, the second most powerful
predictors, and those applying to the target group (i.e. the explicit content
of the ideology, system etc) are the least effective, and frequently
g) 182. God Stuff
God is to human language as the zero
is to mathematics. Thus god in an infinitude of isolation is without
substance or value, but makes the most useful of all digits when dreams are
multiplied by words. There is no doubt about the power of the god digit in
any discourse amongst humans, and we cannot discount it there, for human
actions follow where thought leads. Yet when our voices cease, my bet
(another empty value to be sure) is that all kingdoms of heaven and hell will
come to a zero sum game.
Grown-ups tell lies for a living.
They are also required to lie that they tell the truth. This second bit goes
by lots of names, like corporatism, or keeping your job, or religion, or Mao
Zedong’s little red book of wickedness. No matter. The big mystery is why
real truth-telling still hangs on by its fingernails, and from time to time
claws open the door to the abyss by a crack. It seems that all the
lie-telling cyclically brings individuals, companies and cultures to
collapse. Then there's a moment of truth, a big bang, an Armageddon, a
bankruptcy ... and the whole trick starts again in a different party suit.
Same old lies though.
i) 175. The First Problem of Politics
The first problem of politics has
always been how to trap wandering minds into a holding pattern of shared
For hunter-gatherers and peasant
farmers, a basic need for food and the procession of seasons set the mould.
Every lifestyle since has had its rituals and ceremonies - deliberate
structures to organize routines of behaviour. Religions and ideologies are
extensions of the ritual process, drastically inflated with solemn nonsense.
The common thread in all of this
stuff is that doubt and whimsy are not welcome.
j) 168. Public Belief
Wherever religion or ideology have
claimed a strong hold on the public mind, the political consequences have
been mostly evil. The conditions which make possible this failure of civil
life are based in child rearing and education, though the catalyst for
disaster may be economics.
k) 167. God Talk
God is the trickster alter ego of
self-talk. This chameleon gent is a partner needed, perhaps, by lots of folk,
but when he gets control of the asylum, things tend to get apocalyptic, so
the common sense of merely human judgements, and the tolerance that comes
from knowing one's own frailty -- these qualities are lost in the rush to
follow the trickster Harlequin's confident deceptions.
l) 160. Werewolves
I meet you on the street, ask some
simple favour. You are generous in unexpected ways, noble perhaps. You are a
private man or woman, free to be entirely human. I meet you as the agent of
an institution. You are a beast. Gathered to a group, a religion, a nation,
your mind is a pack mind, your lust is a blood lust; any tolerance is a
weakness to the mission. Fearful of your incapacity to murder alone, you bay
for a leader or a god to absolve your evil with all the lies of power.
m) 155. Creed Caper
Saturday 17 May, 2003
Whatever the creed, there are
believers. Wherever believers exist, there is the chance for power of some
kind. Whenever power can be scented, predators gather like jackals. That is
the human story. What kind of creed? Any at all -- religion, politics,
ideology, sport, company policy, a book on how to grow petunias... . What of
the believers? They crave the idea of a comfort zone, a path already hewn, a
promise of future pleasure. Most of all, they fear to be original, and
strangely, for the permission to follow, they will suffer any hardship and
commit almost any atrocity. What of the predators? They are at all levels of
the food chain, some only slightly less enmeshed than the entirely credulous.
But in small ways or large, they will break the faith for advantage. At the
top of the hierarchy, they are apt to be lifetime hypocrites. Such leaders
are certain that public piety and private cynicism is 'the reality of power',
and despise the candid. By and large, they rule the human world.
This all began with creeds. A creed
on growing petunias is less virulent than a creed on eternal salvation. Why?
The petunias grow or they don't grow. Visitors from the dead with an inside
story on salvation are not a daily event. Even the rumour of such visits has
kept entire religions in business for millennia. For lifetime hypocrites, it
is smart to pick a bullet-proof cover. Eternity is the best deal going, when
it can turn a profit. Wasn't it Saint Thomas Aquinas who said, "never
trust a man of one book" ?
n) 140. Trust
That state of mind which gives us
freedom to act is governed by trust. Trust is the first pillar of civilized
living. It is fairly easy to maintain trust in a village society, difficult
in a city, and extremely difficult in a complex modern economy. Religion is a
wishful super solution to the trust problem. I for one trust in no god. The
best mortal answer I can find is to seek in others that honesty which I
expect of myself. Without trust in our environment, in human relationships,
and in the institutions of our cultures, we are reduced to a savage horde. It
follows that those who counterfeit trust for short term gain are the enemies
o) 134. Rumours of Magic
@20 December 2001
Religions are organized rumours of magic for Muggles.
and Poetic Imagination
The human psyche craves an imaginative space within which
all the mysteries, disappointments and wonders of experience may be stored.
That space must have borders at the very edges of perception, and a light
that is colder than sunshine yet warmer than dusk. Those who dwell within
this realm are to be known, yet barely known. They will have names for their
parts, but the whole may be unspeakable. Here, good will never be entirely
lost, no more than we can believe ourselves to be wholly bad, yet the memory
of catastrophe will never be less than a shadow and may at times bear down
with the weight of a mountain. In every landscape of our faery land a spark
of courage will light the path of hope, but the rank evil of despair will be
a dark rider on our heels.
In this mythic place we find the Bible and Laotian
dragons, the Icelandic Eddas, the Dusun creation myths, the Qur’an (القرآن ), the Rainbow Serpent, the Torah (תּוֹרָה), the
Vedas (वेदा), the Inca cosmology, the Communist Manifesto, ancestor spirits,
Tolkien's Ring of Power, the astrological almanac, Gaia, records of the
Gautama Buddha and Darwin's Origin of the Species.
6. Religion is a Psychic Bank
A religion is a kind of psychic bank, created by fear and
hope, wherein are stored all those things which an individual finds most
vulnerable: the authority to judge right from wrong, the traffic rules for
getting along with other beings, the guarantee of self-worth, a rationale for
the miracle of creation and the barren waste of death. Above all, an
assurance of sanity when other certainties fall away. God is the gatekeeper
who holds dreams within bounds, chastises the spirit for its hubris, and
keeps its seed alive in the furnace of self-doubt. Since this construct of a
psychic bank is declared inviolate from personal frailty, the investor is
desperate to attract like-minded believers.
A religion of one has walls so permeable that its creator
and client must live in constant terror of self-betrayal. With a religion of
two it can safely be said that all the world art mad but thou and I. A
religion of millions, with a millennium of history, so sustains the majority
of its clients that they may background it in the routines of survival, save
for icons to mark life changes. Yet for these icons they will fight to the
death. Curious that the keeper of dreams should extract more loyalty in the
end than consciousness itself.
Knowingness is like the Wayang Kulit, a Javanese shadow
play flitting from one half guessed reality to another, where the audience,
the puppets and the puppet master are forever merging ambiguously, one into
But we are greedy, insecure children, wanting love and a
sure home. Where there is no certainty, we proclaim there is one certainty
and call it faith. Where there is no compassion, we proclaim that there is
supreme compassion and call it the spirit. Where there is no wisdom, we
proclaim omniscient wisdom and call it god.
Let us be candid. Religious dogma is mumbo jumbo. The archbishop
and the witch doctor practice the same trade. Clearly there has always been a
demand for their services, and by the look of it there always will be. The
doctrine, in the end, doesn't matter so much, though it may be a rationale
for fewer murders if the surface text is benign.
Whatever the doctrine, it will be subverted to a hall of
mirrors, reflecting all the psychodramas of human hope, from revenge to
self-righteous legalism to gentle self-indulgence. Religion is an opaque brew
of self-deception and mendacity. At what point does the salesman begin to
believe his own spiel that he has the best insurance policy to sell? The
truth can never be known except in fleeting moments of private insight. A
claim to piety is an easy option for every dude who wants to climb the greasy
pole of ambition.
Leading the multitudes of accepting souls is a small army
of hypocrites. At least, I am convinced of this from watching the human
cavalcade for decades. Nor can the hypocrites be beaten, for it is a
conspiracy reborn in every generation and in every culture among the sharp,
bright, ruthless minds of those who would claim the mantle of power. The
Marxist cadre, the bishop, the imam, the industrialist, the politician, are
one man and one woman.
What should a man do? Should he wear the mitre of the
archbishop, and smite the non-conspirators to a purgatory of cultural
exclusion? Should he clothe himself in the fellowship of shared belief and
the comfort of simple ritual, become one of the flock? Should he remain an outlander,
riding the boundary of doubt, forever barred from the largesse of power or
the comfort of cultural acceptance? How should a man keep his humanity and
remain a free spirit?
Almost all religions deal with the concept of a reality
which is not the reality of normal human perception. The sociology of this
other reality is, in many ways, what separates the religions. At one extreme,
some animists conceive of an almost simultaneous co-nature, effectively
occupying the same space and at least overlapping the time dimension on our
side of the divide. Life forms in the alternate world have, as it were, a
different biology, so that animals may have higher intelligence, while "inanimate" objects such as hills or rocks may also have
It is not necessarily the case that these alternate life
forms can wholly control their own fate, or freely move across the divide of
the worlds. However they are held to be aware of a symbiotic relationship
with our world, and may be damaged by human misbehaviour. Central to the
co-dependence of worlds is the notion of equilibrium, the unpredictable
consequences which may arise from disturbing that equilibrium, and the
central role of humans in preserving natural systems in balance.
Human societies with this kind of belief structure tend to
be hunter-gatherers, intensely aware of seasonal cycles and their own
precarious role in the ecostructure. Their sensitivity and emphasis on
natural balance has preserved them across vast stretches of time.
Changing patterns of human settlement, with more
established centres of power than the nomadic lifestyle, invited an evolution
of the spiritual world. Greeks, Persians, Nordic peoples and others developed
pantheons of super-gods who were unabashedly humans writ large. Special godly
qualities however went along with exclusive accommodation on Mount Olympus, Asgaard (across the rainbow
bridge), and so on, from whence the gods would make periodic raids on earthly
domains to claim allegiance or wreak havoc.
Whereas the mortality of co-nature was scarcely an issue,
the immortality of egotistical super-gods was seen as a gift, which in
certain circumstances might be diminished. And whereas it was foolish for a
mortal to challenge the gods (hubris),
a canny human might certainly play one god against another. In short, the
religions which cameoed families of super-gods were perfect foils to earthly
societies which centered around regional warlords and endemic banditry.
So-called "established" religions, especially
those in the Judaic tradition (Judaism, Christianity, Islam etc.),
reinterpret the geography and sociology of the alternate world with carefully
delineated domains of heaven and hell. In this they built on intermediate
belief systems of super-god families. In another sense they drew directly
from the total dependence of desert nomads on a sparse, harsh, almost
featureless natural desert environment. Clearly desert nomads were dependent
upon an unseen power, and equally clearly such a power would claim superior
accommodation for itself elsewhere.
The squabbling families of super-gods serving peasants and
regional warlords on the fertile plains must have seemed effete to free
ranging tent-dwellers. At the same time they had come to understand the power
of concentrated authority. The resultant god is an unseen power, omnipotent,
omniscient, living elsewhere but somehow with a constant command of local
human events. In other words, he (certainly he) was the chieftain who would,
his lackeys felt, be aware of all transgressions and infidelities even though
his tent was ten day's camel ride away across the sand dunes.
As it happened, the unseen engulfing tyranny of a
monstrous single god would prove to be transportable to almost all human
societies, difficult to reason against, perilous to ridicule and a standing
defence for patriarchal authority everywhere. The focus of religion had
clearly moved from the need to balance parallel worlds to a requirement to
propitiate a remote authority. With this shift went a loss of the previous
intense personal responsibility of each man and woman as a warden for their
local environment. The remote god, lacking a local zoo to keep it amused, is
presumed to interfere in the personal minutiae of individual human behaviour.
Thus co-nature has become super-nature to which human immigration is only
possible by submitting to the peculiar behavioural proscriptions of the
Of all the modalities of human society, the urban
industrial and post-industrial variants are not proving terribly hospitable
to theistic tyranny. For one thing, the tendency to democracy itself, with
all its messy compromise, is antithetical to unaccountable power. But most
critically, the whole technological and scientific foundation of modern societies
is built upon finding answers to matters which had been considered the
province of god and his agents. Moreover, the scientific and technical
answers have turned out to be overwhelmingly more effective and congenial
than the theistic proscriptions. This is not a comfortable situation for an
all-knowing, all-powerful god.
Curiously, the old notion of co-nature, balance, the human
as nature's warden is much more appealing to men and women in the late
twentieth century, and most so-called new-age religions seem to be heading in
9. Supermarket of
There usen't to be much choice about it. You took the
religion of your fathers or you burned, if not on the stake, at least in
hell. That is a proposition still facing a large segment of the world's
population in one form or another. Yet in the heartlands of our
post-industrial cultures you can take your pick in the supermarket of the
There's a good likelihood that mum and dad cleave to
different sects, or different religions. There is a hazy continuum from your
shroud-wrapped enthusiasts for Middle Eastern desert gods (the so-called
Judaic religions and their cousins), to crystals and tarot cards, to the
neo-religious sects of fringe conservationists, political ideologues and
You would think that with this cornucopia of quick magic
on display, the customers would make some rational comparisons, go for the
biggest bonus coupons, or even maybe wonder aloud about the bottom line value
of the whole business. Not a bit of it. If we look at contenders in the race
of the saviours, three market leaders are pretty clearly Buddhism,
Christianity and Islam. They hit the market in that order, with separations
of up to a thousand years. A funny thing is that the sophistication of their
guiding philosophies shows a linear decline in the same order.
The Islamic view of the universe is (in my view) pretty
simple-minded stuff as cosmology, but seeks social cohesion through an adherence
to shared ritual prohibitions. Christianity doesn't do much better with its
cosmology, but leaves some space for unconditional compassion, which is a
definite social asset. Judaism, the antecedent of both, can be marginally
more intelligent in a modern interpretation, but is still handicapped by
notions of ethnic exclusivity and tribal vengeance. The oldest of all seems
to me to embed the wisest exploration of consciousness. Buddhism, in its historically
original expression, does have some impressive philosophical insights
(familiar to Indian thinkers of its era), and significantly, keeps the whole
supernatural bit at arms length. The public presentation of Buddhism across
centuries and cultures has, of course, also had to come with all the spirits
(avatars), gimmicks and trinkets demanded by popular taste. So what is the
state of competition between these products?
There is not much doubt about it. Islam had been winning
hands down amongst the needy, at least before its latest embrace by jihadi (جهادي) assassins. The voodoo end of Christianity is a hit where white
picket fence suburbia reigns . The bread & circuses, crowd pleasing,
ritual front end to a god-story is what counts for public approval. An
appendix of good causes acceptable to the creed – say some help for widows,
orphans or the poor – can also assist wonderfully with marketing. The lessons
are clear enough.
10. The Buddhist Option
Religions as cultural artifacts have always been weapons.
The ring of piety is a dangerous power game. Nevertheless, that reflection
which gives rise to religious ideas, however warped they may be, is embedded
in the design of our psyches and will not be denied. There is much challenge
in directing the religious tendency towards humour, tolerance and
beneficence, and preserving its currents from poisonous infusions of dogma,
manipulation and hierarchy.
As established religions go, Buddhism has seemed to me for
some time to be the most promising vehicle for broad religious expression.
Its best precepts appear more mature and sophisticated than those of
Judeo-Christian religions, and its tendencies less able to be stolen as
vestments by power crazy politicians. They try of course, and the suburban
Buddhist priesthood in, say, Japan,
is as corrupted as any papal nuncio. Buddhist factions in a nation as unhappy
as Myanmar (Burma)
have sometimes shown a murderous intolerance of other creeds and ethnicities
as deadly as any Moslem jihadi or Christian fundamentalist. But the
discipline of self-knowledge implicit in Buddhist practice has preserved its
essential integrity in a way that appeals to the textual integrity of a Qur’an
or Bible or Torah can never match.
For these reasons, among others perhaps, a Western form of
Buddhism has been attracting some exceptional minds to its shelter. Cognitive
aspects of this neo-Buddhism are explored in a fascinating book by Varela,
Thompson & Rosch. They note that:
".. all of the reflective traditions in human history
- philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, religion, meditation - have challenged
the naive sense of self. No tradition has ever claimed to discover an
independent, fixed, or unitary self within the world of experience." [Varela J, E Thompson & E Rosch The
Embodied Mind : Cognitive Science and Human Experience , pub. Cambridge, Mass: MIT
This dilemma is confronted directly in Buddhist
philosophy, where the struggle to accept the perceived non-reality of self is
a major part of Buddhist practice. Drawing on Buddhist traditions, Varela,
Thompson & Rosch mount a quite persuasive argument (for me anyway) that
by learning to discipline the human mind in a principled way which involves
subduing illusions of selfhood, one can in fact analyse many of mind's
Inscrutable Face of Lady Luck
Humans are practical about their superstitions. A
superstition, of course, is somebody else's religion, and religion is a
psychological device for the management of luck. So what is luck?
- Luck is a convergence of desirable
(or undesirable) effects from an indeterminate source via inexplicable
- The management of luck is a heuristic
process of channeling power in ways that are known or believed to be
effective, even though the medium is not understood.
- The medium and the source of
religious luck are claimed to be supernatural, and each religion claims
to channel the power which instantiates that luck.
- Every religion without exception
seeks to bolster its quota of inexplicable supernatural power with the
more certain temporal power of human authority.
- There is always a fusion of temporal
power and imputed supernatural power, so that any real absence of the
latter can be indefinitely covered by assertion of the former.
- The focused power of a religion can
indeed deliver "luck" to individuals in a constituency of
believers through the covert and overt support of constituency members
for each other.
If you ask someone who can't make much sense of the idea
of a god (say, someone like me) whether they believe in Luck, most will
scratch their heads and admit that in some sense they do.
If you ask further as to what they mean by Luck they will
be even more troubled, but conclude that too often events just don't fall out
according to their calculation of chance. With some warmth they will recall,
if they are like me, that time and again events seem to conspire to
exasperate, or handicap them, or to waste time, or just to go wrong when they
shouldn't. My own life (your life?) has been a catalogue of mishaps of this
kind, mixed often with an odd kind of saving grace where one misfortune forestalls
an even greater disaster. Those who know me for any length of time (not many)
soon develop the expectation that I am disaster prone. Nowadays I merely
sigh, telling myself that the indulgence of fury will only provoke the warped
humour of my guardian angel to further outrages.
When I look around, some others seem unreasonably touched
by good Luck, like gamblers who never lose, whatever their personal
transgressions. Others attract major catastrophe from no fault of their own,
which leaves me counting my blessings.
This brings us back to the god thing. Does it have a moral
core? Contemporary North Asian folk, the Chinese and Japanese are, as
cultural groups, steadfastly skeptical about moral gods yet altogether
obsessed with propitiating Luck, whatever it is. Of course, superhuman
morality has been road tested in various Asian philosophies - for example in
parts of Chinese belief dating from the Chou Dynasty - but it has rarely had
a defining role. So what is a religion?
I suspect, strongly, that God as projected by the
Christians and similar cults, is preeminently a device for managing Luck, and
that by proposing a moral, personal deity they are laying on this god some
kind of pressure to come up with a world favourable to the godly. The evidence
for their success is pretty patchy. After a couple of thousand years it is
less than self-evident that the godly have been any more fortunate than
Another angle could be that as immensely complex dynamic
systems, we individuals are bound to engage the other systems of nature with
certain biases. Everything from the arch of one's eyebrows to the electrical
field around one's body must set up trains of probabilities. From the arcane
effects of complexity theory on all of this, currents and events must be
triggered in ways that are beyond the analysis of any human being.
If the argument from complexity theory makes any sense,
then it must also be possible that under certain circumstances Luck must
permute for good or ill. For example, if two people form an intimate
relationship it is conceivable that the whimsies of Luck might impact upon
their joint experience in entirely new ways for them. Actually predicting the
direction of that change is another matter. There is an equation to defy any
Whatever its origins, Luck defies reason. Reason may be a
poor weapon to with which to slay supernatural challenges of any kind. Reason
after all is no more than the principled use of our existing biological
equipment. While cool common sense may deny it, the sense of another Presence
can nevertheless be persuasive. Take the simple matter of socks, gremlins and
the Laundry God. Now no experience has ever convinced me of the close company
of gods with a working interest in human affairs. Gremlins though, that is
Socks are the conclusive evidence. It is irrefutable. I
have never made a visit to a laundromat without losing at least one sock.
Today it was three. This was in spite of taking the utmost care to count the
damned things, running a finger around the inside of the washing machine, and
peering into the stuffy gloom of the tumble dryer's innards. All rational
processes were exhausted. The disappearing socks are definitely a
12. Winners and Losers
If religion is a device for the management of luck, then
we would have to expect at least some of its followers to take a punt when
the time comes to choose between one creed and another. Of course, religion
is a vehicle for many other needs and emotions as well: a manifesto of
defiance for the oppressed, a dictat of justification for the
oppressors, a rationale for suffering to the deprived, a community of contact
to the shy or lonely, and a licence for sexual management to the
psychologically immature. This list is scarcely exhaustive, but explains well
why religious phenomena are so tenacious.
Yet for all the personal needs and illusions that they
satisfy, there remains the fact that religions are also mass movements which
have their moments in history. Those mass movements, as with all tides of
ideology, have inevitably been vehicles for atrocity, especially when
sanctified by the state.
For example, hostility to non-believers has been
historically characteristic of all Abrahamic religions and often used
ruthlessly where the political possibility existed. The chronicle of savage wars
and persecutions in the name of Christianity began from the time it was
adopted as a state religion by the Roman Empire.
Islam was militant from its inception, and remains so. It
swept into the Middle East on a tide of
military victory, social renewal and shrewd tax breaks for the converted.
That the next thousand years was a tale of stagnation and repression is
perhaps another story. Yet the embers of enmity to outsiders never died.
Here is a quotation discussing the Euro-American problem
with Barbary Coast (north African) pirate
attacks in 1786:
time, thousands of American and European trade ships entering the
Mediterranean had been targeted by pirates from the Muslim Barbary
states (modern-day North Africa).
More than a million Westerners had been kidnapped, imprisoned and enslaved. Tripoli was the nexus
for these operations. … Thomas Jefferson, then the U.S. ambassador to
France, reported to Secretary of State John Jay a conversation he'd had with
Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, Tripoli's envoy to London, in 1786:
The ambassador answered us that [their right] was founded on the
Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who
should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their
right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to
make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who
should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.” [ Ali
A. Rizvi in the Huffington Post, 5 May 2013 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ali-a-rizvi/an-atheist-muslims-perspective-on-the-root-causes-of-islamist-jihadism-and-the-politics-of-islamophobia_b_3159286.html?utm_hp_ref=world
The current perspective on Islam hardly seems more hopeful
in those latitudes where whole populations are under stress. This, from
Bangaladesh (May 2013):
“Hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding a new
blasphemy law blocked highways and fought running battles with police on
Sunday, leaving at least 10 people dead and hundreds injured in the
Chanting "Allahu Akbar!"
("God is greatest!") and "One point, One demand: Atheists must
be hanged", activists from Hifazat-e-Islam marched along at least six
highways, blocking transport between Dhaka and other cities and towns. (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia/2013/05/20135510413485449.html )
Today, when we look at the Islamic resurgence and its new
tide of converts we see in many ways a religion which continues to be a tool
of the politically ambitious while posing as a populist path to liberation. In
a capitalist world, the missionary drive is fueled on Saudi petrodollars and
misused Irani public funds, not to mention the power games of Western
imperialism and Israeli manipulation.
The zealot’s passion might be moved by Wahabi (وهابية) fundamentalism
(in the Sunni case), and the hand behind the curtain might belong to that
universally amoral 5 star hotel species, the political control junkies. At
street level though, what we see is the pain of social change from cultural
and industrial upheaval (the Middle East is even more polluted than China),
desperate economic insecurity, and a perceived outlet in revenge for a thousand
years of humiliation. The scapegoats are many, but scratch the paint off this
fury and you are likely to find self-loathing and despair. History has been
Large swathes of central, south and south east Asia have
long been Islamic, and few areas are prospering. Who are today’s new converts?
Largely African, both continental and American-African. The most unlucky of
all peoples. In short, the losers. Who can blame them for grasping at a creed
that at this moment in its history is so manifestly the property of oppressed
peoples? Conversely, why would the educated and successful in any numbers
choose Islam? To this day it resorts to primitive mechanisms of coercion,
such as forced conversion through marriage, and the punishment by death for
those who simply want to walk away from its version of faith.
Even their most abject apologists could scarcely claim
that Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran,
and the rest are free societies (although they are also very different from
each other). Pakistan a generation after partition into an "Islamic state" is a nightmare
of corruption, incompetence and fratricidal murder.
Turkey is a more
promising case. 98% Muslim, in many ways Turkey incubated the Islamic
religion to maturity. Yet early in the twentieth century Kemal Atatürk cast
off the suffocating cloak of state theism with only limited success. Turkey
is still a nation racked by cruelty and corruption, but now gradually finding
some Islamic form of moderation in the daily life of an emerging middle
class. We can only wish this social evolution every success. It seems that
education and economic opportunity for everyman and especially for everywoman
is the surest guarantee of less virulent religious practice. Simply outlawing
some brand of religion does not abolish the cultural habits which support it.
Thus the failed secular Ba'athist (البعث) experiments in Iraq
delivered under conditions of tyranny, could not easily yield a dividend of
tolerance and growth.
What about Malaysia,
and the largest Islamic nation of all, Indonesia? Culturally these are
very different societies than those in central and south Asia,
and as in most places, plain people live ordinary lives of cheerful good
will. But again we see that much of the national financial prosperity has
been buttered on by a small, despised, mercantile Chinese class. Well
intentioned proscriptions against usury in the Q'ran have, like so many
common sense directives in holy books, sometimes backfired, working to stifle
any sensible philosophy of enterprise, while fostering corruption. In such
cases however it is very hard to separate older patterns of cultural attitude
from the syncretic influence of introduced religion (which may merely become
a rationalization for existing behaviour). There is nothing inherently
anti-commercial in Islam, if the Prophet's own wife was any guide, and in
various cultural settings Islamic traders have had outstanding success across
In summary, beneath a wide umbrella of Moslem cultures, there
are qualities of hospitality, self-discipline and tolerance in the daily
lives of countless ordinary Moslem people which are admirable. However it
remains true that the translation of Islam on the scale of the nation state
has not usually been a happy one. The official separation of church and state
was a game changer for Christianity, but has not yet found the necessary
interpretation through Islam, even in Turkey.
What sort of modern outcomes have the areas of Buddhist
influence yielded up? Again, underlying cultural patterns have led to very
different outcomes. For example, although the Indic cultures of South Asia
and the Sinitic cultures of East Asia have
drawn much from each other, they remain utterly distinct in outlook and
Without the monotheistic intolerance of Judaic/Ahrahamic
religions, Buddhist cultural ideas, moving eastward from India, have generally continued
to accommodate much older co-pantheons of spirits and minor gods. Yet for
over a century some rather odd European-American influence has been impacting
on East Asia, but taken far longer to backwash at a popular level in South Asia.
In the first half of the twentieth century the Japanese
combined Western materialist imitation with a state Shinto revival. The
result was a militarist state that collapsed in flames. Since then most
Japanese have backed off public ideologies, elected political fixers, not
visionaries, and concentrated on pursuing prosperity. Shinto gods have
largely retreated to the status of backyard good luck charms. This worked for
a while, but the mercantile success of neighbouring countries has taken the
edge off self congratulation, the political class is sclerotic with overtones
of suppressed fascist attitude, the population is declining, and it is
becoming clear that Japanese people as a group are wishing for some new
cultural or religious certainties to give them direction. They have
conspicuously rejected the latest South Korean solution of planting Christian
churches on every empty intersection.
The experience of Sinitic Asia has been substantially
different from the that of the Japanese. It is a long and bloody story, but culminating
in 1949 the Chinese and others punted on Marxism to supply both rice and
spiritual uplift. It was a catastrophic gamble, and we are still watching the
conversion of state Communism into a form of Capitalism which can look
uncannily like the National Socialism of Germany’s Third Reich.
Yet ideology is not dead in Asia or anywhere else. Ideology is that engine of illusion in the mind which imparts
energy and direction towards invisible goals. Humans seem to need it. My own
guess is that human infants take so long to become independent adults that
their long-suffering parents are genetically programmed to live on hope, and
provide sustenance & protection where no repayment is obvious. The
ideology of care for the aged is a first extension of this.
So we are seeing newly prosperous Sinitic cultures casting
around for an ideology. Shinto is a Japanese possession, and Japanese are not
well liked in the rest of Asia. Popular
Buddhism is preeminently a creed of suffering, and the new Asians don't want
to know about misfortune or resignation. Confucian ideology was eulogized by
the likes of Singapore’s
modern founder, Lee Kuan Yew and other political fixers, but their brand of
it represents a patriarchal authoritarianism which fits ill with the young's
yearning for self-expression and freedom. Many also blame it for the
straightjacket that repressed China
for two millennia.
Islam has never been on the Chinese agenda as a national
proposition, notwithstanding that many Muslims have played prominent roles in
China’s history, especially since the Yuan Dynasty (元朝 1271-1368)
when there was a large influx of Persian traders. Within modern China
there are at least ten different kinds of Muslim populations whose total
numbers are hazy (the CIA World Factbook estimates 27 million), but still
miniscule within the Chinese mass. They range from Uigers (ئۇيغۇر , 维吾尔) in
Xinxiang, whom the Chinese state treats as incipiently subversive terrorists,
to millions of thoroughly Sinicized Muslims known as Hui (回族). Extracting the history of these peoples is tricky
(especially on the subject of massacres) since Chinese history, ancient and
modern, is thoroughly massaged for propaganda purposes. We can say with some
certainty though that China
will never be an Islamic state.
Christian missionaries historically had a tough time in China.
They were agents of a cultural imperialism that went hand in hand with
Western commercial piracy and political thuggery. Now, over a period of a
half century or more, common people have had an indelible lesson that
exploitation, thuggery and repression are no monopoly of imperial powers. The
home grown variety has proved to be even worse. Meanwhile they have seen the material
success of the West, and through the media of film, television and magazines
have formed an impression that Western peoples live much better lives
(discounting TV homicides!) All these things they seek to imitate with
untempered enthusiasm. The rich are busy emigrating, or at least sending
their pampered children to schools in America,
Canada, Australia, England etc.
It is scarcely surprising that the ideological antennae of
many have also swung in the direction of so much apparent good luck. Surely the
god(s) have smiled on the Western peoples. If you are going to propitiate a
deity, why not choose one with a proven track record? Anyway, the appeal can
still be made to ancient authority. It happens that Confucius, who was fairly
circumspect about religion, did seem to believe in a personal god.
Korea was the
first east Asian nation to recently go Christian in a big way; (I discount
which has a different history altogether). Christianity in Korea is not the creed of the
oppressed. It is worn on the sleeve of the new yuppies, the young, educated
and upwardly mobile. And so it is turning out in Taiwan
and mainland China.
The neo-Confucian reaction of authority figures in Singapore is unlikely in the end to contain the Christian infection. I predict that the
social and political consequences over a couple of generations could be very
significant. Christianity in these latitudes is a successful vehicle for
positive thinking, a lucky charm. For a brief moment it is a religion for the
winners. Once established on the political landscape it will, of course,
become a channel for all those other seasons of the human soul that have
claimed religious attention.
13. The Stability of Belief
Rituals and beliefs of all kinds are self-adjusting devices.
What they stabilize may be as varied as the self-respect of the individual or
the perpetuation of a criminal organization. Perpetuation is actually a major
thread, for whatever has some definition in our consciousness will attract an
expectation that it might, should or even must continue. The expectation
easily becomes ideological and then religious (when it is kicked upstairs to
the realm of universal truth).
In every class that I have ever taught, each student
chooses a seat on the first day, and thereafter most can only be budged from
it by something approaching aggression. This behaviour is preservative in the
sense that the routinization of behaviour saves us from constant,
time-consuming choices. It is therefore not surprising that we seem programmed
to attach moral propriety to the familiar. Religion and its gods is a
projection of this process, a set of rules for a shelf company that can be
turned to whatever purpose opportunity presents.
Static rules, rituals, and beliefs work best of course in
stable social orders, amongst people whose daily behaviour has changed little
over generations. The religiosity and conservatism of most immigrants to the New World reflects such a background. In a whirlwind of
change, temporary employment and short term dwelling, a strong set of
established rituals can become part of the problem (though some would argue
that it preserves core values).
When an individual is faced with new social and economic
surroundings which no longer support his values (and may challenge them
openly), then three possibilities arise. That individual can suffer stress,
psychotic disjunction and perhaps physical breakdown. He can declare the
world hostile and evil. Or he can embrace new beliefs more consonant with new
conditions. This last, the betrayal of old values, might be a source of guilt
for the reflective, but for the vast majority it is marked by a kind of
selective forgetting and denial. I have seen my own relatives undergo such a
transformation as they unconsciously blend with the newly encountered mores
of upper middle class neighbours.
A few of us seem to be almost predestined outsiders. From
the earliest memories, I have been repelled by ritual and routinized belief.
From the very beginning this has put me beyond the ambit of community. The
separation is not based on the outrage at betrayal felt by the fundamentalist
fanatic. It is not that I find the world evil because it does not conform to
my own notions of proper order. The way of the terrorist is not my way, for I
claim no monopoly of wisdom, not any certainty that one ritual would be an
improvement on that which it replaced. Those who find the outsider dangerous
are presuming an attachment in him to some foreign, hostile ritual, since
they themselves require attachment to their own creed. But this particular
outsider merely surveys their rituals wearily, recognizes the engine behind
them, but for himself finds all equally superstitious. He envies those who
find comfort in their hymns, their prayers, their cricket matches and their
loves, but in the end can only walk a personal, whimsical, unattached
14. Guesswork Versus Religion
As an explanation of natural phenomena all religious dogma
is superstition. This is the atheist speaking, yet is atheism merely insensitive
to the mysterious? At the heart of a believer's contempt for the atheist is a
mistaken idea that an atheist finds nothing in the universe which requires
exceptional explanation. I am an agnostic, temperamentally inclined to
atheism, who freely concedes that we exist in a tiny pool of light amid an
ocean of darkness. Thankfully, that light has expanded from a pinpoint of
consciousness to a dwelling area almost sufficient for a civilization.
Without doubt there is more between heaven and earth than is
ever dreamed of in our philosophies. The courses of our daily lives, not to
mention the rise and fall of our cultures, give hints of patterns
fractionally revealed, of causes and consequences beyond our conception. Like
an insect, blind to the universe save for our primitive sense organs, we seek
to explain the fragments of interstellar order and chaos that impinge upon
The invention and propitiation of gods, or the more
diffuse attempts to divine the course of fortune or luck through chicken
entrails, biblical prophecies or astrological charts are a natural
consequence of reflection. Our own cognitive mechanisms impose order on the
universe of biological colonies we call a body (microbes constitute 90% of
our cell count: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_microbiome ). These
mechanisms are bound to project a similar assumption of sentient order to
their own superordinate control. To understand the source of this process is
no reason to accept the validity of its projection into galactic explanation.
I might not know what is going on when the sky falls in,
but neither do the pundits. When serious men and women look me in the eye and
talk about the will of God I am forced to conclude a) that they are
hypocrites, or b) that they have achieved some extraordinary degree of
self-deception, or c) that there is some fundamental block in their mental
processing which prevents a sound assessment of the arguments, or d) that I
myself suffer from some or all of the above.
The investment in (a), hypocrisy, is probably very
widespread indeed, for the social rewards are so substantial. We see a
similar suspension of honest self-analysis in secular politics again and
again. Why should religion be any different?
The argument from faith (as opposed to logic) seems to me
to be a variant of b) above. We probably could not live with ourselves
without a measure of self-deception. The aging rake has to believe in his own
charm, or become alcoholic; our fearful and petty acts of daily cowardice
have to rationalized as strategic retreats in a nobler enterprise (like
feeding the family). Our naked fear of capricious mortality has to be covered
with the star-cloak of an all-knowing, all-wise god.
Religious belief based on c), a failure of intelligent
thought, institutionalized stupidity, would be a minor aberration in a
perfect world (for a wickedly funny account of stupidity by Guo Du in English
and Chinese, see http://blog.hiddenharmonies.org/2013/04/the-mystery-of-stupidity/). If thirty-five
years as a teacher and lecturer has taught me anything however, it is that
you can never underestimate the naïveté of the general population, even that
part of it which aspires to tertiary education. People who are clever in
other ways can be absolute morons when faced with a search for larger causes.
It is the rare computer programmer who makes a good computer systems analyst.
The largest number of people, alas, can neither program
nor analyse. They are coaxed through educational processes on the saliva
trail of accepted wisdom, and rewarded for regurgitating this predigested
mush in approved ways. Ergo, superstition will always be with us, and
Socrates would be asked to take poison in every likely human society.
At least in my Anglo-Australian culture, most people most
of the time are not terribly comfortable talking about "big
picture" issues like religion. There used to be a social rule that one
avoided politics, religion or money as potentially divisive conversational
topics. The avoidance goes deeper than that though.
In nominally Christian communities like mainstream Australia and the UK, Heaven and Hell have become
wry metaphors. To actually believe in Dante's Inferno, or in some misty
Heaven with angels' harps, is rightly seen by the majority as pretty loopy.
The transfer of Sunday radio time by the government broadcaster to religious
charades is an instant turn-off for most normal people. Pressed, many more
citizens will confess to a vague suspicion that spirits of the dead hang
around the TV set, than those who count on regular commuter departures to a Heavenly Kingdom. In other words, the contemporary
folk geography of supernatural worlds is much closer to traditional animism
than to medieval Christianity.
Folk notions of Creation in the Western industrial
economies are equally slippery. Few have yet made that leap which questions
the need for explanations of an ultimate "Creator" at all. However,
the Christian biblical story of Genesis gets little credence: a lovely
parable, but as a literal explanation its absurdity has become a downright
embarrassment. Indeed, the apparent attachment of most Muslims to literal
belief in a similar traditional heaven is scoffed at as evidence for a lack
You could probably say that even amongst those who dislike
the idea of hominoid genetic evolution, more would claim to descend from the
survivors of a wrecked interstellar space craft than be the long lost kin of
Adam and Eve; (there are more spiritual space travellers with every new Hollywood blockbuster). The practice of modern
religion, especially Christianity, thus tends to promote a philosophy of
living while tacitly disowning the supernatural geography which is supposed
to back it up.
Although mainstream Australian culture is now dominantly
secular, having supplanted the sermon with football commentary, large numbers
of people will still admit to "believe in a god" ... of some sort.
This is sincere enough, but when challenged the thinking is rarely deeper
than the Cosmic Clockmaker logic: "somebody must have made all this, and
have kept it in order". As the global environment falls out of order,
the second clause is wavering. Having accepted the premise implicit in the
argument -- i.e. that universal Creation is a self-evident necessity-they are
primed to accept any Creation story which seems reasonable (and may be argued
into a larger theological package to go along with it). To most of them
though, nowadays Star Trek looks a better bet than the Bible.
corruption of reason in this substitution of new myths for old had an extreme
and macabre expression in 1997 when thirty-nine American computer programmers
who, all dressed neatly in Captain Kirk uniforms, committed mass suicide,
presumably in order to rendezvous in cyberspace with the starship Enterprise
). Were they unique? By no means. In
2012 two hundred cultists gathered in France waiting for the end of the
world: “… the group has gathered
around Pic de Bugarach waiting the date, believing they will be taken aboard
a star ship hidden inside the mountain”. ( http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2120869/Heavens-Gate-cult-committed-mass-suicide-15-years-ago.html#ixzz2SVplveu6 ). At any
given time somewhere in the world the same sort of mass delusion is going on.
16. The Lens of Emotion: synchronizing public and
Religion, nationalism and ideologies are always seized by
political elites as devices to synchronize private dreams with a mass
psychology. They are lenses to focus social values.
Though they claim to try, no public ideology can in
practice quite determine inner desires. I have to surmise that the dreams of
my contemporaries are often dark and violent, far more so than public
sweetness can admit. Cinema is dreadfully honest in this respect with its
orgies of revenge and violence.
The lens of ideology has the ghastly effect of mobilizing
and legitimizing those private fantasies which machine gun their way across
the silver screen. Every culture has some pathological characteristics, and
every ideology (amongst which I count religions), no matter how benign its
canon, finally becomes a vehicle for sanctifying those pathological
characteristics. An ideology is a doorway into hearts and minds, and through
that doorway, once opened, the agents of power and oppression will always
and the Treason of the Soul
The young believe in ideologies. Ideologies have the
cachet of moral purity and sexual power. Yet every ideology without fail is
seized and betrayed by the articulate, ambitious leaders of the age. And as
these moguls of opportunism rape the values which nurtured their power, they
are followed by an army of pious imitators who, quoting chapter and verse, commit
every atrocity to cover their small daily acts of cowardice.
Perversely, the success of an ideology can be measured by
the durability of its betrayals. The lackadaisical slouch of Australian
socialism was destroyed in a political term or two by a clutch of
chocolate-cream yuppies, while the intoxicating fumes of Soviet vodka
communism covered eighty years of murder and misery. For true ideological
success however, we have to turn to the established religions.
When Mohammed rode out of the desert with answers fit for
the civilizing of some desert Bedouins, he set the scene twelve hundred years
of stagnation, hypocrisy and cruelty in the urban societies of the Middle East. With all the cleverness of self-interest,
potentates and imams have plastered layers of prejudice on the Prophet's
plans for the sensible management of a pre-literate society. The Christian
process has been messier, more convoluted, but victim to exactly the same
process. The perversion of Christ's message, whatever it was, certainly began
with the gospel writers, and became a major industry with its
institutionalization in Roman authority.
What is so depressing is that betrayal is a process
without end. No denouement, no two thousand year failure to save humanity
from itself, no scandal or atrocity will prevent a hot gospeler in Texas or a
mass-murdering dictator in central Africa or eastern Europe from declaring
that they have finally got religion right. He or she will flourish a personal
telegram from God. Then a million ardent protoplasms with credulous brains
will rush into the abyss. Ideology is truly a treason of the soul.
18. Of Ideology and
An ideology is a set of ideas for governing values,
decisions and actions. With a following of one, an ideology is relatively
harmless unless its owner is a psychopath. Where two are believers, one man
invariably has power over the other. As a cult for millions, the ideology
will sway and drive them like a herd of cattle, and he who wields the dogma
wields the whip.
Religions may have been the first ideologies; now we have
the secular dogmas of economics, psychiatry, Darwinian biology, physics ...
the list is long, and its very diffusion gives us some relief. Amongst these
secular ideologies, communism and capitalism are overtly obsessed with
political power, but all of them, regardless of content, become instruments
In a great part of the world, organized religions are
still the primary instruments of social management. Take Islam, which welded
the Arabian tribes for one hundred years of glory, then held them in chains
for another thousand years at the whim of Persians, Seljuks and Ottomans. Or
the obscure Essene sect, remoulded by Paul (Παῦλος ) and his
successors into the Christian hegemony of European power for a handful of
bishops and princes, and a burden of guilt for the "flock" to be
steered by: the "flock" as compliant men and women are so quaintly
called from the pulpit.
From the earliest times religion and moral philosophy have
been used as vehicles for persuasion, equally by good people and by
scoundrels. The good would have been good with or without religion. The
scoundrels have been given an impenetrable cover for their hypocrisy. Since
the corruptible always outnumber the fair-minded in governments and
instrumentalities of power by a wide margin, it is scarcely surprising that
the net effect of religion has been a negative one.
The claim of most religions on our allegiance is that the
world is imperfect, but that adherence to the faith will make it, at some
future time of deliverance, perfect and a paradise for the believers. This is
idealism of the most extreme kind, and no instance of its application in the
last five thousand years has given any sound proof whatsoever that the
promise of redemption will be realized through such faith. Where the world
has improved at all, it has been where men and women have accepted a
personal, secular responsibility to treat those within their community in a
fair and humane manner.
We accept without question that there are psychological
pathologies in the behaviour of some individuals. Societies take steps to
protect their members from the afflicted person, and the person from himself;
(the effectiveness of such measures is another question).
For a long time it has seemed self-evident to me that
cultures also suffer from pathologies. We could say in fact that all cultures
have tendencies (different for each culture) which when taken to an extreme,
result in large scale social dysfunction. Cultural relativism is a poor excuse
for such dysfunction. Obvious examples would be sanctions for revenge,
proscriptions on marriage, institutional racism, myths of being a chosen
people (with permission to eliminate lesser mortals) and so on. Cultural
pathologies are complex questions which require study, and I suspect, could
be the basis for a whole new academic discipline.
It may be that the sheer complexity of human societies
ensures a certain dynamic of incompetence. Poverty, war, suffering, hubris,
self-destruction … that is, human misery and failure, are overwhelmingly
products of human cultural practices and beliefs. Nor is external correction
an easy option: the whole cultural machine is an interlocking mechanism. The
bulk of actors are invariably committed to their model and can conceive of no
other options. Foreign aid or well-intentioned foreign advice will make
little useful impact on a dysfunctional culture. Colonial coercion may have a
certain effect for a time, but creates other, longer lasting distortions.
Societies do change, even remaking their core values for
many members. It may no longer make sense however, to talk of core values for "whole societies" when the homogeneity of belief found in static
traditional societies is reshaped into tapestry of individuals with access to
very different levels of knowledge.
Two centuries of an industrial revolution have radically
divided an educated elite from their ancestors' conceptions of world's end,
New Age mumbo jumbo notwithstanding. Whether or not we are happier - a moot
point - there has been at least some change in the competence of this elite
of individuals, and the freedom to exercise competence, has been their
salvation. Change has not been free. The global wars of the last century
have, in a way, been projections of gross psychological disturbance to
populations undergoing rapid change.
More universally, wherever hierarchies develop to stand
between a man and his exercise of practical daily living, there lies the germ
of conflict. You could whimsically say that our brave new world has generated
hierarchies of exhaustion. The getting of a little competence by the few has
left an army of wounded and deformed in its wake. The air is shrill with a
rhetoric of "productivity", "efficiency" and
"progress". When these clarion calls to advanced ideology fade into
the brutal reality of fixing an engine, passing an exam or raising a family,
it is not at all clear that many more folk are smarter, nobler or more able
than their ancestors were three generations ago.
Electricity, polymers and futures markets are for the
majority utterly mysterious miracles of faith. Self-selected rejects from the
technical age flounder in a miasma of uncomprehended "scientific
certainties" which for them are as oppressive as any medieval religious
dogma. Covert revolt, cargo cults, the ritualization of education, and
similar manifestations of unreason must be expected, and may finally bury us.
the Mental Flow Charts
It is the computer program in people's heads which has to
change before civilizations becomes more substantive and enduring than their
artifacts. Are we wholly defined by familiarity with using shrink wrapped vegetables
and the digital watch? Isn't it rather more challenging to engineer a
widespread understanding of the technologies that give rise to these wonders,
not to mention re-jigging a new grasp of humanity's role in nature? Why is
this so little recognized?
Perhaps some of the problem is that a truly educated
citizen of the post industrial world is an immensely more complicated being
than a typical functional being in a tribe or even a traditional nation
state. There are huge new demands on our time and comprehension, yet there
are not so many members of existing communities who have mastered even the
simpler skills within culturally homogeneous groups and low-level
A new world citizen needs more than an abstract knowledge
of comparative religions. To interact as an artisan rather than a victim he
needs to wield a screwdriver, a keyboard, and half a dozen technical jargons.
Then he needs the wisdom of Solomon to at once assert ancient values of human
decency, and yet live cordially among folk who march to very different drums.
It is a liberal indulgence to pretend that cultural
tolerance is a matter of not only of being colour blind, but also of being
culture blind. The history of civil wars should teach us that rose coloured
spectacles, blinkers and the ostrich position are no final defence in the
real nitty-gritty of living together. No, worthwhile tolerance is the much
harder business of seeing difference and learning to live with it, of
recognizing good will beneath the disguise of diverse and even repugnant
We need to understand and work with (though not
necessarily to like) sensitivities to difference, not only of colour,
religion and cultural practice, but also to aptitude, knowledge, competence,
energy, wealth and luck. The human task of surviving in such rocky terrain
gives equal Darwinian value to the much disparaged gift of compassion, and to
necessary qualities of tough minded fair judgement.
The most utterly vicious examples of intolerance have not
come from the confused proprieties of remote cultures. Expressions of
intolerance which still populate our mass media and political announcements
are entirely traditional. Their substance has been around since humans came
down from the trees. Fratricidal violence and sexual repression begin in the
family, not in the electron dance of television worlds.
Murder has commonly been practiced by brother on brother
in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Ireland,
Cambodia, China, Japan,
Korea, Russia, Kashmir,
Germany, Indonesia ... in fact by a role
call of the United Nations. These barbarisms are not about genetic
differences, but are failures of cultural design. Every culture carries the
seeds of self-destruction, which under particular circumstances bloom and
contaminate all else. Cultural pathologies are, more often than not, official
virtues in the dogma of the political elite; (there is a whole discipline of
study here which needs to be developed).
The Chinese philosopher, Xúnzǐ (荀子; Hsün Tzu; Hsün
K'uang; 312-230 B.C.) believed that people are naturally selfish and have to
be guided to virtue; (you would have to say that this project has scarcely
succeeded in the intervening two millenia). Xúnzǐ
understood the power of religion and ritual in enforcing social order, and
was prescient in grasping the significance of agreed definitions in language
stream of belief embodied by Mèngzǐ (孟子; Mencius; Meng4
BC) held that people tend to natural goodness. That is, the inherent goodness
of the child can be led astray by the bad influence of surroundings (nature
Vs nurture). The contrasting assumptions of Mèngzǐ and Xúnzǐ are themes we see played out in
almost every human group. Whether it is a Zoroastrian heaven & hell, or
arguments for "nurture" versus the biologist's "selfish
gene" in the late twentieth century, templates of belief like this seem
to universally separate "liberal" from "authoritarian" minds.
With such bedrocks of belief dividing my own students, I
often wonder if a preference for tolerance can be taught. A skillful teacher
may parade a fragment of history and sometimes change the class consensus of
goodies & baddies for the moment. But if a student believes in his bones
that people are, say, inherently evil, are we really able to teach him
tolerance and compassion for that time when he comes to wield the whip of
Template views on human goodness are of course at one
remove from actual behaviour. For example, dishonesty is usually taken as a
form of badness. Apparently, ten percent of (Australian?) people are
chronically dishonest, and eighty percent are opportunistically
dishonest-according to a securities analyst quoted in The Australian newspaper's
financial pages, April 23, 1997. Is Xúnzǐ right
then? It would be intriguing to know whether this was an objective
evaluation, based on a fair sample of commercial behaviour, or merely a
reflection faith in human evil. It would also be interesting to know, after
several millennia of supposedly religious moral improvement, what component
of such honesty is practically influenced by moral exhortations.
In practical daily life, some of us have the dilemma of
how to behave with fascists. If one expects the world to work by fairness, or
at least according to the rule of law, how does one cope with parties who
only respect force, who expect to be blackmailed and find a moral virtue in
kicking heads when their chance comes? This is an acute problem because of
the disproportionate number of leaders who fall into the fascist (might is
right) category. Their survival advantage is the calculation that fairness is
weakness. Should one therefore compete according to the rules of the
competitor: fairly for the civilized and brutally towards the barbarians?
Whatever the "true" cast of human nature, in a
cosmic time scale the species has changed with astonishing speed. There may
be hope or despair that perceptions of morality will be part of the
evolutionary process. On this scale, further change may well overwhelm all of
our philosophies and "eternal truths".
Most people are shocked to learn that almost all of our
gene pool is shared with the great apes. It is amazing to find that some very
late, minor modifications have so radically separated homo sapiens
from other animals. We overlook the critical information that the vast bulk
of the shared genetic code is apparently discarded junk (is it, actually?). A
lesson may be in that. My Chinese and Arabic friends talk airily about five
or six thousand years of recorded history. That is a blink in the eye of
time. I look in vain for the superior development of their civil societies.
It seems that, like the overburden of useless genetic memories, accumulated
cultural practice is a doubtful asset. Our oldest civilizations sink ever
closer to barbarism amid the detritus of their ancient inhibitions.
Someone once said that the price of forgetting history was
to relive it. They were talking about learning from the mistakes. Sometimes
it seems to me that the price of remembering recorded history, or our
manufactured recollections of it, is to be forever stricken with illusions of
a golden past that somehow justifies a sordid present. Cultural hubris
embalms the social pathologies of our forefathers.
Fundamentalist Religious Mind
There is some preservative drive in human psychology which
will collect and classify old ideas with the same enthusiasm that less
ambitious folk reserve for collecting old wine bottle labels or stamps.
Another familiar corner of the human mind will preserve ideas past their
use-by date as signposts to a golden age.
When old ideas were new ideas, they invariably spread
across a spectrum encompassing the wise, the timid and the deranged. With the
cockeyed hindsight of nostalgia they take the colour of the lens that views
them. And if the eye behind the lens is especially humourless, has trouble
with play and metaphor, then we are in fundamentalist territory.
Jewish fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists, Christian
fundamentalists, Hindu fundamentalists, Shinto fundamentalists, Marxist
fundamentalists .... all tend to think and act alike. The creed by which they
happen to be possessed is merely an accident of time and circumstance. Their
view of the human condition is essentially the same: legalistic, intolerant,
and homicidal when it comes to innovation. Innovation was something
sanctioned or performed by God in another age. The present age is a kind of
purgatory, the waiting room before Armageddon, in which it is too late to
change the wall paper. Fundamentalist conservatism of this religious kind is
typically built on fear. "God fearing" is the password, extended to
fearing authority in general. Authority in this context is required to be
The fundamentalist types amongst us are not going to go
away. They may be our own children. The challenge for the rest of us is to
contain, accommodate and civilize their tendencies in a balanced global
22. Easy Beliefs: Can
Seven hundred years ago, when a third of Europe's
population was being wiped out by bubonic plague, and the shroud of ignorance
was at its most opaque, it must have seemed like a necessary conspiracy for
the wise to advertise that at least God knew what it all meant. It must have
seemed that there was no other way to keep hordes of illiterate, simple
people from destructive panic.
So where are we seven hundred years later? More of us live
longer, in less pain, though the net gain in happiness remains unclear. The
shadowy demons and monsters whom our forefathers spoke of in whispers are now
translated into runaway best-selling films, are good for a bit of a giggle.
Their market niche in psychic terror is displaced by weak men emboldened with
new technologies of death: guns, landmines, poison gases and suchlike
instruments of cowardice.
Ominously, there are countless millions more of us on the
planet than even a century ago. The rational faculty that has hastened our
journey here points grimly to a future of mass extermination from
overpopulation and a host of derivative causes. Given the known premises, the
logic is inexorable, needs telling from no divine voice to a prophet in the
wilderness. Yet literacy has not delivered logic to the greater part of
humankind. 80% of supposedly educated people can't reset a digital watch.
They monkey with the buttons of knowledge, but have neither understanding nor
insight. It is basically all as magical to them as the world was to a twelfth
When apocalypse makes it to the Sunday papers and the
evening news we get that ancient lemming rush to fundamentalist religion. The
universities are full of clever twits manufacturing scholastic trivia for
this or that clique's bias, but whom, under the layers of data, are as naive
as shop assistants about real cause and effect. The media rat pack, starved
of imagination, reruns a sort of pornographic movie of manufactured heroes,
villains and pompous politicians. The technology that carries it, beyond the
ken of chattering journalists and their main readership, is reduced to a "human interest" angle. We have replaced superstitious theology
with a superstitious data overload of white noise. Clear thinking is as
feared as it ever was.
So whatever happened to the Age of Reason? Maybe it was
always a beat up. After all, reason was not invented in the seventeenth
century. Reason has been implicit in human behaviour since the day someone
lit a fire to cook dinner. The impressive jump has been from "little
reason" - the repertoire of rational personal behaviours that get us a
meal and friendship - to the management of "big reason", the
understanding and control of complex processes needed to make a polymer,
program a million lines of computer code, or run a multinational business.
That is, there should have been an important jump
in general reasoning skills, but most folk have never quite made it. They
remain infinitely clever about small problems of instant gratification, but
indifferent to or baffled by larger contexts. Meanwhile, the ruling classes,
the power junkies, saw perfectly well what extended reasoning could do for
their animal appetites, but remained indifferent, as most of them have always
been, to generating just and sustainable human societies.
The clever ones, most of them, grasped the potential of
the reasoning process and then, true to form, they fudged it. From Prince
Machiavelli to the Jesuits, to Richelieu, to
the contemporary clones of so-called management schools, they have learned
the art of generating implacable arguments from warped premises. A crowning
contemporary perversion by the hijackers of reason is, of course, economic "rationalism", but their fingerprints can be seen on a multitude of
activities such as tobacco advertising, mass education, and the
Between astrological charts and economic rationalism lies
a continuum of mis-reason that entangles and engages the energies of all but
a small part of the world's population. One morning they will wake up, find
the digital controls of civilization on sick leave with a computer virus, and
reason from their own loopy ignorance that God has arrived for a brief
annihilation ceremony before catching the 4.30pm space drifter to the next
23. Is Morality
a Parasitic Virus?
There is an argument that religion is the only suitable
vessel for consciously transmitting a culture's values across generations. It
is a weak argument. The relationship between religiosity and morality is
quite arbitrary. After 2000 years the Christians have not produced a better
class of human being. Nor has any other cult. Religious conviction is no
index of restraint from crime. On the contrary, for those addicted to the
narcotic of power, religion or ideology of any sort is a cloak of hypocrisy
which is both irresistible and deadly. It is for this reason perhaps that
overtly religious societies tend to become mass prisons of intolerance,
proscription and persecution.
Bereft of religious conviction, an agnostic tending to
atheism, I'm still a passably decent human being. My maternal grandfather. a
Methodist lay village pastor, would have claimed smugly that I am nonetheless
a product of Christian values. Well, I have taught Buddhists, Moslems,
Hindus, animists and rock worshippers who were also passably decent human
beings. Most would claim some superior moral educative role for their
The possibility remains that moral decency is a sort of
parasitic psychic virus that can only spread through the medium of religious
belief. Since most beings claim a brand of religious belief this is a bit
hard to disprove, especially if the argument for the moral inoculation even
of atheists in a religiously benign environment is accepted.
I don't accept the virus argument. It seems to me neither
provable nor disprovable, which renders it pretty close to inane. Further, it
I pick up all sorts of other information without recourse
to religious belief, and some of it has a clear bearing on my moral
responses. For example, I observe that certain actions and statements can
excite feelings of injustice and even lead to violence. This leads me to
conclude that by and large it is not a good idea to kill, rape or steal. I
find that compassion is its own reward and that greed cannot be satiated, so
is best denied. And so on. Why do we need recourse to the graveyards of
It is true that at the margins, competing cultures
may embrace somewhat different ideas of what is good or bad, decent or
indecent, moral or immoral. Yet both between cultures and within cultures we
find a statistical bell-curve of acceptability. A "normal", sane,
decent person by the standards of most communities will be recognized in
almost all other human cultures as "normal", sane and decent. The
truth of this is demonstrated by the extraordinary mobility of contemporary
peoples, and the relative ease with which hundreds of cultural types have
come to live together in countries like Australia.
If competing religions are the well-spring of all this
consensus, then you would have to say that at bottom they are getting their
message from the same sponsor. You can attribute this commonality to the will
of whatever god you wish, or if an agnostic like me, say that it is the
natural outcome of shared human biological and environmental configurations.
In my view, religiosity has no positive effect on the
aggregate behaviour of populations in matters of ethical, moral or lawful
action. In fact, the evidence for this seems overwhelming. Where is the
actual, superior ethical or lawful condition of those communities which
proclaim their attachment to this religion or that?
Americans are claimed to be far more religious people on
the whole than Australians, but the causes of simple humanity may be much
better served in Australia than the United States, if social trust and
welfare security are anything to go by (the US has seven times Australia’s
murder rate). The Islamic posturing of Saudi Arabian and Irani political
elites are a dark veil over ghastly, oppressive and hypocritical behaviours,
both public and private. The polytheism of Japan or the pantheism of
Australian aborigines may fill social and psychological needs, just as
monotheism does, but they are equally short on demonstrating the nurturing of
a better class of human being.
Whatever human need established religions may have filled,
I find little indication that their gradual abandonment has made my own
society in Australia a less fulfilling place in which to live a useful life. On the other hand,
established religions are often a gross interference in the business of being
a decent human being. The central point is worth repeating. The history of
every established religion over millennia shows no clear causal link between
professed piety and the emergence of better societies. In short, it seems to
me that those individuals in any society who are well disposed to peace and
decency (in normal times, the majority), and those who are disposed to moral
heroism, will continue to express their tendencies well in a secular
community. None of this means that individuals in my society or any other
will cease to search for spiritual expression.
This little book itself is a quite idiosyncratic spiritual
journey. The mass of people will continue to imbibe mass-marketed philosophy
as they always have. It is entirely likely that the old religions will be
revisited and reinterpreted long into the future because whatever their
transgressions, the public memory of real events is rarely deeper than two
generations. The memory of concocted political glories and humiliations is
another matter. Once beyond living recall we are back in the hands of
myth-makers, testament writers and shamans.
24. Public Religion: a failed experiment that won't roll
Public religion as a panacea is a failed experiment. The
Buddhists have had 2500 years to prove their case, Hindus even longer;
Christians have been promising salvation for 2000 years, and Muslims about
1400 years. They all operate from the premise that a devotee is a better
human being than a non-devotee, and that a society of devotees will create a
finer culture than a society of non-devotees. The propaganda is impressive,
and there is never a lack of worthy model persons to parade as examples to
the unwashed. However the supporting cast, the converts in their millions,
retain the moral frailty of their infidel cousins.
If life is less nasty, brutish and short than it used to
be, the bonus has more to do with penicillin and a 40 hour working week than
propitiation of the gods. Much of the evidence of history suggests that when
protestations of piety have been loudest, the growth of the human spirit has
been most stunted, oppression most vicious, and progress most constrained.
Look at the human bonfires of supposed witches in Europe 600 years ago, or
decapitations in Saudi
Arabia today. Look at the secular religion
of Communism in China,
circa 1958, for unsurpassed meanness, and a dogma that could starve thirty
million people to death. Look at the routine harassment of women in countries
parading behind the cloak of religious morality.
Given the dismal history of organized religion, you have
to ask why each new generation picks up the religious and other ideological
precepts of their forefathers. There seem to be a variety of reasons, partly
connected with the inertia of cultural institutions, but mainly as a product
of flaws in human psychology. Here are what seem to me to be the main
rationales for practising a religion:
- 1) Loneliness. Almost all religions
offer some sort of community, a regular meeting place, a sanctioned
venue for human interaction outside the extended family, an excuse for
certain kinds of celebration, and usually nowadays a world-wide network
of support in foreign environments. Historically this social network has
been the best available, and doubtless many people have put up with the
mumbo jumbo for the sake of a little body warmth. Lately however the
competition has been getting stiffer.
- 2) Coercion. This has been the
traditional way to get converts fast, and there is no extant major
religion which has not used it as a short cut to control. The more
persistent agents of coercion however are likely to be found within
family units and close communities. Going along with the forms of a
religion is frequently less damaging to the individual than putting up a
- 3) Mental frailty. There are those
with weak analytic and logical ability in the social/psychological
domain; people who are swayed by simple arguments and who lack the
wisdom to draw sound lessons from history. Believing that their culture
must have an explanation for all things, they will swallow some
available magic-god-creation story from authority figures.
- 4) Delusion. Very large numbers of
people choose to willfully delude themselves in many areas of life (e.g.
love, career etc), and on the subject of mortality, mostly (I suspect)
out of fear of taking responsibility for their own life and death.
- 5) Opportunism. There are those who
use religion as an instrument of power for social or political
advantage. The level of conscious hypocrisy in this game varies in kind
and degree, from self-righteous citizens, to would-be saints, to pompous
church deacons, to the princes of the church. Nevertheless, all of them
find the magic incantations of their dogma to be a superb instrument for
manipulating other human beings, and this intoxicates them with power,
often to the point of hubris.
25. An Impotent God versus
the God Zombies
In a world of omnipotent deity, God was/is the great pilot
in the sky who radio-controls all living things. Living beings are dumb
terminals, automatons without final responsibility. Even today, "the
will of God" is still tried on as a legal defence. Satan presumably runs
a rival radio frequency and can re-tune your receiver under certain
conditions. I interact with a surprising number of people who continue to see
themselves as such diminished agents. I find them mostly pitiful, but
potentially dangerous in zombie mode. Luckily, a good deal of the time they
forget to turn on the supernatural brain receiver and are able to act like
sensible human beings.
God zombies are dangerous because:
a) believing the world to be populated by other zombies rather
than incredibly complex, unique, wonderful and responsible beings, they must
have far less compunction about killing those who appear to be rogue escapees
from the Master's voice;
b) being mere zombies, they feel must feel little personal
responsibility for the destruction, deception or betrayal of those not
obeying their Master's supposed will.
c) you can never be quite sure what desperate command a God
zombie is suddenly going to receive from head office.
The one redeeming feature of God zombies is that they
usually have a rule book which strictly states the conditions under which
they are allowed to kill, lie or rape. Like all the creations of symbolic
language however, such rule books are open to a reinterpretation of symbols,
usually to suit the political moment.
Back in the universe where I live, religion is an attempt
to extend the bounds of reality within which an individual makes decisions.
In this sense supernatural phenomena merely add to the controls on a decision
in the same way as rituals such as not eating meat. However this extended
reality must also coexist with every earthly condition, such as the need to
make a living, coercion by family and officials and so on. An individual
makes choices with reference to the total smorgasbord, and the relative
weighting of imperatives, whether local or supernatural, can shift
You could say that a medieval Englishman gave much greater
conscious weight to the coercive power of the divine over the coercive power
of the secular than his contemporary does, even though both "believed" in the supernatural. The fact is that most contemporary
religious believers give so little weight to the supernatural in their
pragmatic assessment of reality when making choices that their actual
behaviour is hardly different from that of an atheist.
My own observation of those who claim to be heavily
influenced by religion is that their actual moral choices are still only
(very) marginally influenced by the religious "reality", but still
dominated by the trade off between their own appetites and personalities on
the one hand, and their interpretation of whatever worldly
"reality" is bearing down on them on the other. What does happen
with the pious is that favourable moral choices are attributed to a religious
condition, and unfavourable choices to "evil" forces. This post
hoc attribution is a mental construct which serves to validate the
religious structure, but has little true bearing on what would prevail anyway
without its presence.
Although real human actions may be only marginally coded
by religion in daily living, the rationales attached to those actions are
another matter. When it comes to reflection, ideologies and religions make
false claims to be mirrors held up to our souls, if soul is the sum of inner
tendencies. The finer the sentiments each religion whispers in our ears, the
brighter that inner mirror seems to shine, catching reflections in every
accidental act of living. Yet being mirrors, possessing no radiant power of
judgement or creation, religions and ideologies magnify the petty, the
vindictive and vengeful in us, as well as the luminous, generous and warm.
The priests and shamans of each orthodoxy have the clarity
of these polished reflections coded on their tongues. Coolly they take now
this fragment of a reflected idea, now that one, as the premise to their
amoral opportunism of the moment. Skillfully they attach old dogmas to our
daily needs and acts. Rational within the bounds of each task, they are
indiscriminate in choosing the foundation of argument, and indifferent to the
execution of its victims.
The one thing which is anathema to these Platonic fixers,
these Jesuitical conspirators, is that erratic brilliance which we find in
the truly creative mind. The mechanic who makes a better mouse trap is
clapped on the shoulder for being practical, but woe betide him if he is
literate enough to enunciate a revolutionary principle underlying his
Luckily, in many places at present mechanics or even
scientists are thought more valuable and more reliable than priests from the
old religions. This need not be mourned. While priests are humble enough to
live on charity and the loneliness of old ladies we are probably fairly safe.
Alas, new shamans have arisen in their place, well-fed tricksters in dark
suits and white shirts who flourish scrolls of economic babble and call
themselves consultants or managers. Their new god is greed - probably some
incarnation of Satan in the old language - and although his breath is
perilous, his agents are easily swayed and subverted by the moment with
competing bribes. Being a rabble, the economic shamans are hard to slay in
single, heroic battles, but they are vulnerable to well-directed guerrilla
If significant numbers of people out there in the wide world
do indeed feel themselves to be autonomous and responsible beings, then the
god of omnipotence is dead. Omnipotent deity cannot coexist with even
partially autonomous men and women. One senses that the largest number of
contemporary humans have made an implicit decision about this. Maybe the
achievements of rational science have armed us with a certain hubris. In any
case, in my neighbourhood the deity has shed complete authority, and having
surrendered a little, will for many folk diminish to the stature of a garden
26. Religious Managers:
feminine dialectic and camp power-play
Self-preservation is a curious thing. Chaps have their
biceps, while young rascals have reckless enthusiasm. Little girls have the
superb natural protection of being cute. Bigger girls trade on the power of
sex, and ladies of a certain age radiate loving kindness and maternal concern
as they arrange to have you pushed down a stairwell; (a hefty percentage of
my employment managers have been women, so I know all about the uses and
abuses of power in this constituency).
What strikes me as intriguing are parallels with secular
structure to be found in the management of organized religions. Organized
religions are ancient and socially embedded vehicles for the promotion of power,
normally dominant male power, or very occasionally, feminine power. This
unstated but pervasive gender power role may be a prime reason for their
survival. The body warmth of shared prejudice is addictive. Anyway, it seems
likely that where a sect does tend to gender equality, its days are numbered.
The whole thing dies of apathy and arguments about who has to wash up the
Given the mundane egotism of real priestly behaviour, it
is fascinating that religious discourse is always promoted in the name of
compassion, forgiveness, love and other such trinkets. In other words it
deploys the verbal armoury of feminine seduction to achieve power in
precisely the same way as your average feminine corporate manager, real
estate saleswoman or debutante.
The difference is that typical religious discourse is
conducted by a collection of querulous, righteous males with the covert goal
of preserving dispensations for their social position. For a long time I've
wondered vaguely at the absurdity of shamanistic posturing. Now I can put my
finger on it: the whole performance is a kind of high camp parody of standard
male advice to lay back and enjoy the assault. So folks, atone for your sins
and pass the altar wine, while doctor Strangelove e-mails God for you in the
special language of Eternity.
Uses and Misuses: learning to live with the whole damned thing
Religion at its best is a vehicle for community. It
creates a set of rules and values within which people may direct their
thoughts, their behaviour and their plans. It sets the ground rules to feed
and breed by. It provides a reason and usually a venue for ritual, for
celebration, and most of all, for groups of people from every walk of life to
come together for fellowship. These are the undeniable benefits of religion
and the real source of its durability. The trouble is, the storylines
sustaining known religions are becoming less and less credible to more and
more people. Also, the debit side of the ledger in social costs is becoming
too burdensome to ignore.
Take the problem of storylines. Most established religions
claim to be a gateway to unseen, supernatural, controlling forces. These
forces are normally reified as a god or gods. Religions claim through their
theology to explain the beginnings and the ends of life, and usually they
claim to give each individual a unique, enduring position in the life cycle. Often
nowadays they claim to offer each individual a personal telephone line to
God, with a promise of special treatment in return for certain kinds of
No religion offers a standard scientific proof which is
based on credible premises for its supernatural doctrine. Rational
personality types go for rigorous proofs sourced in a priori premises
which they find self evident and cannot therefore believe that others remain
unimpressed. For the more mystically inclined, proof is said to come from
personal revelation, or the reputed revelation of prophets. That is, there
are claims to a special audience with an unseen god, and the intervention of
miracles. Doctrine is usually written in a book, and the book itself is said
to have magical properties (an idea stemming from the time when most people
All such theological argument is, in my judgment, utter
humbug. One man's religion is another man's superstition. What religious
dogmas have in common is the confidence trickery of a snake-oil medicine
peddler, and the exploitation of fear, ignorance and cupidity. Well, there
have always been characters who think like me. Once they got banished, or
burnt on bonfires. Unfortunately for the shamans, much of my view has now
become the default opinion amongst huge numbers of literate people.
Mass cynicism is not good news either for those who purvey
religion as a path to power. Conventional religion at the deepest
psychological level is often about power and control.
Between human and god, this is a matter of exerting some
control over destiny by placing power in the hands of a beneficent god. It is
a way of denying the death of the individual, that is, of one's own imminent
death. Such a contract between one man and an imaginary god could be thought
psychotic (and every mental asylum contains individuals who claim to be God,
or his special agent).
Instead, established religion becomes the conspiracy of a
whole society to mitigate its fear by living a lie, the lie that some God has
revealed itself to many people. Those who deny this lie are treated as
psychotic and dangerous.
In the domain of social behaviour, religion is also,
inevitably, about power and control. Its hold on whole communities has made
it an irresistible instrument for personal gain by all those who hunger for
The lust for power and control over others operates at
every level in most societies, from the family to the priesthood to the
state. Thus religion has historically been the most potent of all vehicles
for intolerance, persecution, oppression and fascism. It is the implacable
enemy of innovation. Religion corrupted to the ends of power - and sooner or
later almost every religion is used in this way - becomes an evil human
So what is to be done? Marx may have been right that
religion is the opium of the masses. If so, the withdrawal symptoms have been
too much for most societies to tolerate. Certainly communism, which shared
many of conventional religion's worst properties, proved to be no substitute
in the end.
We might suppose that competition for time and attention
in the age of mass media would lead to an attrition of religion's hold. It
hasn't always worked out that way. Other cultural ingredients affect the
The re-mythologizing of Hindu epics in television series
has led to a resurgence of Hindu fundamentalism in India. The United States remains fertile
ground for religions of all kinds, and no President would dare claim to be an
atheist. The Japanese, on the other hand, retain a sort of limited
spirituality with thousands of Shinto gods which fill an emotional need in
their special narrow domains, but are not allowed to interfere with life in
general, while general rules of behaviour are set by non-theistic Buddhist
philosophy. Perhaps that is a good argument for polytheism.
The vast majority of British people (82% apparently) have
given up on organized religion altogether, and a healthy percentage of
Australians have gone the same way.
Some religious dogmas seem to be easier to misuse than
others. The claimed omnipotence of monotheistic gods (e.g. in Judaic
religions) appears to give them a special potency for oppression. This is
particularly true where dominant males identify with the God-figure, as they
often do, and oppress women.
Religions which define community by rigidly excluding
outsiders (by birth, marriage, race or whatever) can be both virulent in the
hands of the power-hungry, or alternatively, mark their own kind for
extinction when it is a minority in a dominant other culture.
Rewriting out-dated creed has been a major industry for
centuries, but doesn't really seem to have improved the product for any major
religion. Dogma which contains any ambiguity whatsoever will be
misinterpreted to suit the political ends of the ambitious, the hopeful or
the cowardly (and there we have covered most of humankind).
There is no safety in a liturgy which says at one point
that "the meek shall inherit the earth" (a promise of power
anyway), while at another point offering parables about enemies who are
stigmatized as sub-human or not "chosen" by God.
What a dilemma. Religion won't go away. It satisfies
definite needs. Yet its realization magnifies the very worst, as well as the
best, that humanity is capable of. We must have a religion, you say. Well, if
we must have a religion, then let us keep it flexible, humane and practical.
The sensible use of reflective activities like meditation
can be taught non-dogmatically, on the same plane as other self-management
techniques. There is no value and much danger in making simplistic claims
about supposedly supernatural forces. As Buddhism shows, God can be kept out of
the exercise altogether.
We can be responsible for the care of humanity, living
creatures and the planet earth. Let us be specific about the ethics of power
and control. We could say, for example, that any human being has the right to
strive for that amount of power, no more and no less, which will permit him
or her to maintain the personal integrity of his choices about what to say,
what to do, whom to associate with and how to earn a living.
Any political state (while states remain) shall have the
right to seek that amount of autonomy, no more and no less, which will permit
its citizens to satisfy the conditions of personal autonomy just described.
But let us direct the main focus of this newly incarnated religion away from
power and control altogether.
As to myself, I march to a different drum. Probably no
mass movement will ever capture me. I strive for well-being, for myself and
others, and I strive for competence. I treasure humour, and try not to take
myself or anyone else too seriously, for this is the best way to keep balance
and a sense of proportion. It seems to me that a person who is healthy in
body and mind, a member of a well-functioning community, and who is good at
what he or she chooses to do, will obtain the very best of rewards which life
has to offer. My "religion" then, is the pursuit of well-being and
competence, and its vision, its name if you like, I call Serendipity
About The Author
Thor May is an undistinguished person. He can't remember
the last time he successfully seduced a woman, won a pub raffle or got an
offer that he couldn't refuse within thirty nanoseconds. He has a genius for
failing job interviews, but has somehow stumbled in and out of many jobs. His
expertise includes picking the chewing gum off pub carpets and teaching
grammar to people who don't want to know about it.
He started then gave up two doctorates, before
finally scratching another one over the finish line at the absurd age of 64.
He has started to learn then more or less forgotten a clutch of languages,
and started, then lost track of whatever a career was. At sixty-seven (2013)
he is seriously deciding what to do when he grows up.
At the moment, the author is trying out being the new
messiah. This began when he walked into the biggest book shop in town and
couldn't find a section for agnostics. There were sections for tarot card
readers, economists, and computer networkers. There was even a corner for
Christians, Muslims and Buddhists. But not a whisper about agnostics. He
thought he was agnostic, or even occasionally an atheist in a vague sort of a
way. He reckoned that when most punters weren't watching football they were
probably being vaguely vague like him. It smelled like a market opening.
So the author got down to writing his smash hit on agnosticism.
Alack, he suffered the kind of debilitating attack of honesty that has kept
him irrelevant for half a century. His slim volume won't cure your warts, or
give you honorary membership of a master race. However, you are guaranteed at
least one idea to disagree with, and the right to make as many anagrams as
you like from the name of god.
copyrighted © Thorold (Thor) May 2013, all rights reserved
bio: Thor May's PhD
dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity.
Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and
lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries
in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with
tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students
and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia,
Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life,
prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of drifting through unskilled
jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).