Why I Love Religion


I'm too much of a materialist to agree with people like Ricky Gervais, Bill Maher and Sam Harris. They see world problems such as war, sexual repression, the oppression of women, terrorism, and so on as being caused by religion. As a materialist, I find the notion that an idea could cause these things to happen rather dubious. Dig a little deeper, and one always finds economic forces behind all of these problems.  Rather than scapegoating and blaming the existence of systemic problems on the interior beliefs and thoughts of individual human beings, I think it's a better use of our time to focus on how privilege and oppression can be embedded in structural institutions.  Religion isn't the enemy.  Indeed, by vilifying religion, we risk alienating ourselves from potential allies in the struggle against real material economic interests that run contrary to our own.

My name is "Ian."  When I was growing up, this was an extremely unusual name.  No one that I met had ever heard of it, and they usually had difficulty pronouncing it.  Nowadays, we see Ians all over the place.  In fact, it is apparently the 83rd most common boy's name of 2021, right behind Jordan, which is my brother's name.

Sometimes I think my perspective on religion is a bit like my name.  That is, it was something very strange and unusual when I was young, but it is becoming more common.  How common?  I'm not sure.  I guess I'll put this essay out there, and see how many people feel the same way I do.

I grew up without religion.  My parents weren't religious, and they didn't teach me to be religious.  So this gave me what was, then, an unusual perspective.  Most people at that time were either religious, or, if they weren't religious, they were angry at religion.  But I am neither.  I'm not religious, and I've never been religious, but I don't have a problem with religion.  Indeed, precisely because religion is so foreign to me, for that reason, for a long time, I've been very curious about religion.  I love learning about people's religions.  None of them feel like "home" to me, but they are all deeply fascinating to me - especially certain religions.

I didn't always feel this way.  When I was young, surrounded by believers, I was outspoken about my unbelief.  In 3rd grade, I defiantly told my classmates in my mostly Catholic suburb that the Bible was "a beautiful work of fiction."  Later I was in a punk band and I wrote a song entitled "Spirituality is Bullshit."  The entire lyrics were "Spirituality is bullshit / spirituality is bullshit / spirituality is bullshit / your poem sucks."  (There are other parts of my adventure that I won't get into right now, like when I as a teenager developed a whole weird thing about the concept of what I called "faith," which had little to do with religion.  And now I've had further thoughts about that.  But that's a topic for another time.)

But nowadays I like religion.  It's so interesting, and so human.  I suspect that if aliens were studying humans, religion would be one of the most fascinating things about us - alongside humor and music.

And as I said, just as there are more and more Ians around, I suspect that there are more and more people who feel like I do - people who are not religious, who were perhaps not raised with religion, but who respect religion and are curious about religion and fascinated by religion and love religion.  I hope that there are more people like me.  Because, nowadays, I see religion as something to preserve, something that is endangered, like cultures and languages.  Think of Native American cultures: before Columbus, there were over 300 different languages spoken in North America.  Now, only 175 remain.  We have to do everything in our power to keep these languages alive, before they are completely drowned in monoculture.  And the same goes for all of the religions that once flourished here.  We have to do what we can to preserve these traditions, which are being flushed out by capitalist culture.

It would be a terrible loss if all of the religion disappeared from the Earth.  It would be like if all the freckles suddenly disappeared, or all the ice cream, or all the card games.  Or again, it would be like if all the humor or all the music disappeared.  Religion is one of the quirks of humanity, one of the our most distinctive human creations, one of the features that make us who we are, and it is valuable not in spite of its quirkiness but because of it.  If you want to put it this way, you could say that what is essential about it is its absurdity.  

Not that I think this is very likely.  Religion will probably never disappear.  And if it did somehow disappear, someone would probably just invent it all over again.  Religions disappear.  This happens all the time.  There are relatively few worshippers of Ninhursag or Mictlanticuhtli or Thor today.  Specific religions come and go.  But religion itself is here to stay - at least until humans take another form, either through genetic engineering, cybernetic enhancements, or some other transformation of the physical substrate of our brains.

So it is extremely unlikely that religion will end within the foreseeable future.  What is far more likely is that the big religions will eat up the small religions.  Indeed, it is already happening, and has been happening for a long time.  Today, it would be fair to say that the religions that have more fully integrated themselves into capitalism are wiping out the religions that are less integrated into capitalism.  As that happens, as more and more of these small religions are wiped out, and only the giant monolithic religions remain, there become fewer and fewer available perspectives from which to interpret our reality.  The result is that consciousness becomes impoverished, becomes shallow and one-dimensional for all of us.  It's the consensus reality or nothing.  

So, just in order to preserve our own ability to think, in order to preserve the fecund richness of potentiality of our own imagination, it becomes incumbent upon us to protect and preserve the less powerful religious traditions.  It's in our informed self-interest to do so.  There has to be some kind of check and balance against the power of Big Religion.  And the only way to do so, if religion itself will not cease, is to strengthen the small religions.


*     *     *


What makes some people religious and others not religious?  Of course, part of it is how you were raised.  But I think that is mattering less and less today.  The way I generally think of it now is that it is a matter of personality.  Psychologists have studied personality quite extensively, and the results are worth researching.  I think it's possible that in every culture, there are some people who have religious personalities, and some people who don't.  Religious personalities will likely always be religious, though they may call their religion "Marxism" or "Freudian psychoanalysis" or "Austrian economics" or something else.  They may convert from one religion to another, but they will continue to be religious, because this has more to do with the form of their personality than the content of their particular tenets or beliefs.  Moreover, I think that there is more than one type of religious personality.  For some people, religion works one way; for others, it performs quite a different function.  It satisfies quite different needs, depending on the person.

Let's take a look at one of those kinds of personalities, one of those kinds of needs, and one of the ways that religion can satisfy that specific need.  Religion can be a brilliant compromise between the arduous burden of thinking and deciding for oneself and the natural tendency of social animals like us to conform.  Submitting to an authority is hard on us - it wears us down and makes us into nervous wrecks - but refusing all external authority and insisting on absolute independence (which amounts to being a kind of authority) is even harder and more stressful.  We are thus trapped in a horrible double-bind, with the promise of suffering on both sides.  But religion solves this vexing problem ingeniously and elegantly: a religious person is enabled to settle down and submit to an external authority, but an authority that is never here, never in your face, always absent.

Submitting completely to a person that you know may be sexy for a while but it will eventually become tedious, annoying and grating.  The reality of such a situation, after the passage of years or even months, will either diminish in intensity or become intolerable, and in any case will never measure up to the fantasy.

But submitting to a person that is always high up and far away can be done easily and painlessly, and can be done again and again in ever-increasing intensity and depth, with less disappointment, because the person that is submitting is, at least partially, participating in the creation of the object of worship.  This participation, I suspect, is partly what is meant by "communion" - the great work of a collective art project, what in the Christian tradition is known as becoming a part of the "body of Christ".

Or, more truthfully, we could say that religion authorizes a person to be the final authority, while protecting that person from knowing it, thus preventing them from feeling the anxiety of such responsibility.  The religious mind is, in truth, creating meaning more or less spontaneously, but in the form of an imaginary submission.  

The result is, somewhat paradoxically, greater confidence and self-possession.  The idea that religious people become meek doormats that are more easily controlled by the powers that be, is, I think, largely mythical.  Contrary to the popular conception, I think atheists tend to be far more humble, and religious people, if anything, tend to exhibit unchecked pride.  In fact, rather than becoming wimpy yes-men, I think the greater danger is that religious people will become self-righteous bullies.  For many people, for better and for worse, having a firm foundation in faith gives them power.

What could be more prideful than the certainty that you are in possession of the absolute truth, and that anyone who disagrees with you is not only absolutely wrong but will be forever damned?  (Or, equivalently, that they will be forced to live again and again in cycles of rebirth in a world where existence is suffering, etc.)  A person who is in the grips of fervently felt and believed dogma has the luxury of experiencing their subjective choices as an external and objective truth.

Of course, something very much like this is true for everyone, including non-religious people.  For instance, we like to think of our memories as things that happened in the past, when in reality they are mostly stories we are making up in the present - and, if you attend carefully to the experience of remembering something, it's actually not that hard to notice this happening in real time.

So this kind of lack of circumspection is a danger to us all, not just those who call themselves religious.  (Something very similar can be observed, for instance, among some self-described Marxists, and some Ayn Randian Objectivists.)  

Besides, it is quite possible, I think, for a person to be religious without becoming certain that they are right.  Faith is not knowledge - it is something more akin to hope.

Depending on their personality and disposition, some people need to feel this sense of submission.  Others may not need it, but will generally do them no harm, if they can perform this work of imagination skillfully enough.

What's the difference between an anarchist and a Christian who declares that his only ruler is Christ?  Only a slight shift in perspective, if any.

See also: my one-sentence summary of some major world religions


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