Thursday, March 08, 2007

Thoughts on Religiosity

praying hands

When my grandma, a woman who, since her conversion to Christianity in her 40s, boasts that the number of times she's missed church on Sundays can be counted on a single hand, heard Bill Maher discussing James Cameron's "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" she didn't skip a beat. Instead of mentally engaging in the debate, she began talking in her "prayer language." For the uninitiated, a prayer language or "speaking in tongues" is what she believes to be a secret, untranslatable phrase God gives the faithful to use during times of duress or times of communion.

This typifies a certain variety of troubling behavior religiosity induces. Notice I didn't say religion but specified the fanaticism generated by a strict adherence to a particular spiritual hierarchy. Dialogues which attempt to disprove or discredit God are, in my mind, fruitless. No matter what truths science illuminates it will never grant us complete insight one way or the other into the existence of God. There will always be a distance between the dimensions of logic and the murky ether of the Eternal.

One place science has fixed its gaze is the study of the origins of religion. Although far from conclusive, researchers have devised some exciting answers to the question of why people believe in God. One of the most controversial positions is the proposal that religion is an accidental collision of primary evolutionary adaptations. Not at all a social adhesive, religion is simply a "byproduct" of other, more functional traits. This is a tripartite theory. First emerged our "flight or fight" impulse. Instant reactions would have been rewarded over curiosity to ancient man. This puts into place our ability to imagine a force greater than ourselves animating the functions of the universe. Second, our tendency toward coherence. The human mind detests disorder so it takes events and organizes them into tidy narratives. Even though it may be satisfying this at times fails to produce a realistic picture of our environment. And lastly, and most important, comes the "Theory of Mind." This allows us to anticipate another person's feelings and ultimately their actions. Here we have the component which aids us in forming human bonds. From this springboard we can easily remove the physical form and inflate the remaining invisible presence to create an entity matching the attributes of an infinite Creator.

Does this explain away religion altogether? Not at all. It's just one of several theories to account for people's faith. But suppose it is correct, still it doesn't matter. Religion is a useful set of ideas to help enunciate deep human fears as well as a celebration of the mysterious. It satisfies that need for a really good story. Besides, plenty of honorable movements condensed and gained speed due to the coordinating virtue of a strong religious groundwork. Some of the most famous and politically cogent forces of the Twentieth Century were propelled by belief: Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, etc. If not for this reason alone it would be a shame to witness the death of God.

Which brings me back to the topic at hand. Voltaire said of this sort of thinking: "Fanaticism superstition, what delirium is to fever or rage to anger." It is of little surprise that this mentality is a handy means of control. When the rich and powerful need to direct the population in a particular direction they appeal to that population's zealot class. This is how the neocon movement, birthed by Leo Strauss, sprouted legs. According to Strauss, the perfect anecdote to the '60's failed liberal policies was to inspire nationalism in the people. He intended on accomplishing this through a well-told story. As a country we needed an enemy big enough to appear as an existential threat. We would be the embodiment of good and the enemy would be the embodiment of evil. The only way to protect the world from the diseased fangs of this rabid beast would be through direct confrontation. If you haven't guessed by now the multi-limbed monster of the former Soviet Union became our invented threat. But for the longest time neoconservatism was merely intellectual. It wasn't until its adherents appealed to the "God, guns and gays"-minded community, to be known later as the religious right, did it accumulate any level of note, crystallizing in the '80s with Reagan.

The notion of the "prayer language" is the perfect metaphor for the kind of cerebral arrest religiosity can inflict. When presented with an opposing thought one counters with a torrent of babble to shield their faith. This is the distinguishing feature between Gandhi's religiosity and Jerry Falwell's. The Mahatma approached everything with open-mindedness, he dabbled in meat-eating, western culture and even violence before settling into his own ideas. But he never forgot there was another side, or multiple sides, each airing grievances which warranted understanding. This is my point, the venomous religiosity of neocon Christianity, Wahaabi radicals, etc. is a different species when compared to peace-loving leaders. The former live insular, myopic existences, the latter an informed, all-embracing philosophy. If all forms of religiosity were defined by love then everyone would do well to put it into practice.

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