Posts Tagged ‘the evolution of religion’

SERMON: “The Challenges of Faith” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 19th, 2012

It’s easy to believe in something greater than ourselves.  I say this understanding that it is the act of “surrender” to such an idea that marks a believer’s turning point from a “self-centered” life to one focused on God and others.  But with it being the case that: a) it is easy to believe in God, and; b) discovering a belief in God is supposed to change the direction of one’s life, why do we seem to see so little change in human behavior over all?

Now I have just breezed over at least two assertions in one paragraph that need to be addressed, the first being that it is easy to believe in something greater than ourselves (generally — God).  This can hardly be a debatable point, as we are surrounded on all sides by religious belief, whether it be traditional Christianity (in our country) or “spirituality” (a belief in more small-scale personal, invisible attendants — be they angels or our own “higher self” — or even belief in aliens or “energy”).

(The Christian may protest that he or she does not merit inclusion in the same category as those who — for example — think that Martians brought us our technology in the distant past, but I would reply that all belief in anything external to our own consciousness is the exact same phenomenon — at least on a broad scale of classification.  Yes, there are differences in belief, but there are also differences in trees, but all trees (no matter how exotic or rare) are still classified as related species of trees).

“Thou Shalt Not.” Illustration by Bob Diven.

The second assertion is more of a reference to what many “converts” experience when they find God: a shift in their awareness.  Now I suggest that a critical part of any conversion experience is the adoption of a narrative about what one has just experienced.  I like to call this “branding”, as one reason for the success of any religion (in my view) is it’s ability to re-frame any normally-occurring human experience into a confirmatory tale of their particular story.  So to one person, finding the right parking space will mean that God knew they were in a hurry and intervened on their behalf, to another it may mean that an angel led them to the right space at the right time, while another will believe that they found the right spot because their karma was good.

So despite the cosmetic (or even substantive) differences between the many forms of belief, the underlying cognitive “technology” is the same: when it comes to irrational religious belief, trees is trees.

Almost every human has experiences that we can describe as “numinous” — those moments of awareness of  something beyond our usual, day-to-day sense of consciousness — the sensation of something existing (or communicating to us) from the “outside”.

(As an artist, I can tell you that the arrival of a seemingly unbidden “inspiration” or idea can have all the qualities of a small miracle.  But the fact that these experiences have been — and continue to be — common to all artists in all times of all beliefs, makes it tough to make a case for it being anything other than the result of a creative brain’s regular activity).

At some point in our history, then, we clearly started making up stories to explain such numinous moments.  (The fact that such stories “stuck” seems a pretty good indication that the experiences that inspired them were (and are) universal — otherwise no mystic or preacher would have ever found and held an audience).  I think this storytelling is wonderfully creative of us, but it does nothing to make anything that we categorize as spiritual a reality that exists outside of our own consciousness.  One thing is clear, however: some of those stories that “stuck” have become a part of our cultural DNA.

Why and how religion began is not difficult to understand.  But why does it persist in the face of ever-mounting evidence that explains almost everything that religion once claimed to explain?  Somehow this just doesn’t matter to believers.  If religion has lost it’s explanatory power, it has by no means lost its hold on our hearts and minds.  There is a certain comfort to be had in familiarity and history, and in the face of the assault of modern knowledge, many believers abandon ground to science and simply fall back to a more reliable line of defense.  Perhaps because religious belief itself is prehistoric, the major religions — then and now — plant their flag of authenticity in their very ancientness, as if longevity automatically equaled veracity.  Of course it doesn’t (flat earth, anyone?), but the appeal of history to we short-lived humans remains viable, modern science be damned.

Like evolution itself, religions have had a long time to evolve into their present state.  And like all evolved living creatures, religions, too, surely share a common ancestor.  This is not hard to accept if for no other reason than all religions share so many traits in common.  And just like the (false) claim that evolution cannot be observed occurring, the evolution of religion — supposed to be sourced in eternal, unchanging sources — can, it turns out, also be observed.  Think about it: where and when the hell did Scientology show up?  Or Mormonism?  Or Seventh Day Advent-ism?  But note that with each attempt to establish a new “brand name” of religion, connections are almost invariably made to the past (Scientology claims we are ancient, higher beings, Mormonism ties itself to the tribes of Biblical Israel).  The most brand-spanking-new religion (though few would want to call themselves such) will claim to be a revelation of ancient knowledge.  All of this is, to me, rather telling.

Yet unlike trees (who do not seem to spend any time denying their “tree-ness”), almost every religion is constantly bending over backwards to distance themselves from every other religion.  So let’s ask the obvious question here:  “why?”  If any one of these belief systems were truly THE revelation of TRUTH from a DIVINE SOURCE, wouldn’t it stand out among the rest like a red rose in a manure pile?

Some rather diplomatically detour around this question by taking the (much more humane, I would say) approach of saying that all religions are manifestations of a single set of universal truths.  This is taking a more deistic than theistic path (and the folks that believe this way are ever so much more pleasant humans to be around than their more fanatical brethren).  But such open-minded believers are hardly the problem now, are they?

What I’m working toward here is the more committed believer: the individual who takes it all very seriously and (poor bastard) tries to make life work according the particular faith story he or she has been told.  This, of course, is where things start to break down.

For like I said, believing in something greater than ourselves is easy — in the sense that it comes quite naturally to us humans — but faith, with a capital “F”, turns out to be another kettle of (walking) fish altogether.  If people were to be completely honest about their experience, we would find that few, if any, are able to actually make their “faith” work as they were told or taught it should.

Again, the most obvious (if least-explored) answer to this is that there is nothing (no-thing) out there to believe in, which means there are no actual external, invisible agents working on our behalf.  Which means that the believer who is trying to put his or her faith into practice is, as it were, carrying both ends of the sofa up some very steep and narrow stairs (while the buddy that is believed to be on the other end carrying his half of the load is A.W.O.L).  No wonder living a Christian (or other religious) life as it is supposed to be lived is so challenging.

I have known (and know) people who make a very good go of it, nonetheless.  But those that are “successful” (in my experience) either learn to temper their expectations in order to avoid becoming completely out of sync with the reality of life, or isolate themselves in a community of like-minded believers that have little (if any) tolerance for deviation from the mutually-agreed-upon religious story they are trying to live out.

And those are the “successful” ones.  But, of course, they are not “successful” at all, because the religion they bought into simply cannot supply what it promised.  No.  In a very real way, maintaining religious faith is a ongoing project of managing disappointment.

And yet relatively few believers take the ultimate step of leaving their religion (and its impossible challenges) behind.  It could be, as Christopher Hitchens posits, that the very impossibility of living the perfect religious life is part of its appeal to us humans, as it provides some circular confirmatory evidence of our status as flawed creatures in need of such salvation from above.  I think there is merit in this notion of religion’s appeal to the fervent believer.  But every once in a while even one of those believer says “enough” and breaks ranks.  I was one of those.  (But I can tell you it took a lot of disappointments before I took that step, and even when I did — after 15 years of serious belief, and a lifetime of a casual belief in God — it was more as if God left me than I left Him: I woke up one morning in a universe absent one Supreme Being).

There is an ongoing tension among the religious between those who live their lives in a “simple” (easy) belief in the existence of God and those who are working their asses off to live (impossibly) according to whatever religious text they take as gospel.  You can hear it expressed on Christian radio any day of the week, this railing of the “true” against the “lukewarm” believers (taking here the Evangelical Christian example I know best).  I get this: the fundamentalist feels like he or she is doing all the work (like the TEA Party folks who see themselves as doing all the work while imagined “illegal-imigrant-welfare mothers” just pick up check after check from the government).

No wonder the idea of ultimate judgement in the “next” world is so appealing: all such unfairness will be redressed, and the poor believer’s thankless task of making the impossible workable will at last be rewarded.

But will it?.  There is — when it is all said and done — absolutely no evidence for the existence of anything invisible, intelligent or active outside of our own consciousnesses.  In the end, the only “evidence” we have for our faith is, well, our faith.  And the absence of any active partner in the endeavor is, I think, what makes faith itself so difficult to maintain.

t.n.s.r. bob