Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Power of Religion

I want to talk about something subtle here. I know it will probably be misunderstood by some who are prone to take offense at almost anything, but I assure you, no offense is meant, and if you feel offended, it is only because I have not explained myself well enough and so you misunderstood. What I want to say is perhaps difficult to articulate, but I feel somehow compelled to try anyway. Please bear with me as I struggle to navigate to a core, but subtle, truth.

Religion is power. About this, there can be no question. What is power if not the ability to sway large groups of people to act in a certain way? And who can deny the times throughout the history of civilization when political and religious leaders used religion to start wars, continue wars, to enslave people, to build large cathedrals and monuments, to feed people, help the poor, educate the ignorant, treat the sick, to discover new lands, to conquer new countries, to achieve great and terrible things. Many of the biggest things humans have done, both wonderful and horrible, have been because they were compelled by their religion to do them.

Please note that I am not talking about any specific religion, but rather the generic concept of religion itself. I am referring to all the major religions, including Christian faiths from Catholicism and the various protestant denominations to the orthodox Christian religions of Greece, and eastern Europe, and Judaism and it's denominations and degrees, to the various types of Muslim faiths, to Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Zoroastrarianism, Hinduism, Pagan beliefs, as well as older religions such as the gods of the Romans, the Greeks, the Babylonians, the Sumerians, and the Egyptians, the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Incas, even the most primitive and earliest faiths such as Animism, etc..

These all have certain things in common. They have leaders, and followers, and rules, there is a core belief system, and there is usually a book that includes the legends, stories, and mythology of that belief system, and there is the core essence of power in the two forms I want to acknowledge here, including the more subtle form that intrigues me the most.

Why is religion so powerful? It doesn't seem to matter what the specific faith or denomination is, they all seem to have a remarkable ability to empower their followers. Many people have talked about how religion has a power to bring about change because it influences the actions of large groups of people. But I don't really want to focus on that aspect so much. I want to talk about the sense of power that it seems to give a specific person who believes in a faith completely.

On Thursday, I was interviewed for my input on business strategies by a man named Brian, who, besides being a business analyst and marketing specialist, is a very religious Christian evangelist who showed me pictures of his recent trip to the Amazon with his church as they went to spread their faith to the native peoples of that region. It was interesting. They brought fishing line and fish knives for the men, toys for kids, simple jewelry for the women, they brought medicines, and they set up little booths where they could give haircuts, and a dentist to help with their teeth, and eyeglasses to help people with eyesight problems. And they handed out bibles to everyone. I asked how successful they were and he said that they managed to convert 385 people over to their faith. They brought help in real tangible ways, as well as in trivial trinkets to get their attention and win their trust and support, all in order to proselytize their religion and spread its influence to that remote corner of the world.

I looked at Brian closely. He was tanned, healthy, clear-eyed, he spoke well, was intelligent and articulate. He looked like an executive. Strong, sure of himself. Politically correct. A man accustomed to positions of leadership over others. Conscious of his image and his appearance. Good-looking, well-dressed, crisply clean and professional. Most women would be attracted to him, I think. He smiled when he should, and was serious when he should be. His questions were on target and he understood my answers well - including the more subtle implications, which was why I could penetrate his professional persona and talk to him on a personal level about his trip and his faith, and other things.

What I was most impressed with was his sense of utter confidence. But this confidence was not due to his education, or his job, or his resume of past accomplishments. I think it was due to his religious convictions. His unshakable faith in the religion he belonged to. He has power because he is absolutely sure of his vision of how the world works and his place in it. In his mind, there are no ambiguities. There are no questions. He understands that there are other religions and people that follow them, but in his mind, they are simply wrong. They are misled or misinformed about the TRUE path and the TRUE religion. I won't say which one he belongs to except to say that it is one of the American protestant Christian religions. This is not about the religion itself, and I don't want you to either identify with him or reject him based on whether you've already decided he is right or wrong. That's not the point. His specific denomination is irrelevant to this discussion. What IS relevant is his sense of personal power. THAT is what I want to get at and understand.

I was given a secular education. Although I did go to Catholic schools for elementary levels, I went to normal public schools for high school and college /university. And during that, I studied about some religions, Tibetan Buddhism for instance, but I was never indoctrinated into the teachings of a religion other than simply to understand how they work.
I could not seriously follow a religion because I have seen too many. I have seen them from the outside, and so once you have that larger perspective, it is not possible to ignore what you know and continue within it. It's like being in a dream. Once you become aware that it is only a dream, you cannot continue in it very far, because it loses its integrity. The constructs of its belief system collapse around you.

I was educated to believe that Science was the best way to determine the answers to the big questions in life. The scientific method seemed most logical and reliable to me, and that has formed the core of my belief system. To me, logic is extremely important. I cannot believe in or trust something that is not logical, or that at least does not have some empirical evidence to support it. The presence of a UFO on the ground in front of me would be enough empirical evidence to override the logical guess that travel from another planet is impractical and therefore unlikely and therefore the sightings of UFOs are quite probably something else.

Nevertheless, there ARE intangibles in our universe that we come up against all the time. Logic and empirical evidence, and repeatable experiments under controlled conditions don't cover everything, and so there are some fuzzy areas where we must extend our perceptions and our rational thought to try to perceive and understand what we can, with fewer clues. Here, in this realm, is where faith is born. It provides answers to those questions that are left unanswered by science and rational thought. Different religions have different answers, so there is no guarantee of being correct, but it is a club of like-minded people.

From a scientific perspective then, religions are organizations and movements based upon faith. And faith is based upon.... ignorance. (now, don't go getting upset, just listen for a minute....) Science and logic and reason fills in most of our understanding of the world around us and the universe beyond that through observation and analysis. For those areas beyond what Science can reliable predict, we are ignorant. That is the region of ignorance. Faith steps in to supply answers to that ignorance. Are they reliable, testable, reasonable, logical answers? No. But are they useful nevertheless? Well, yes. Perhaps so. Because they give you power.

What are these intangible areas I'm talking about that science has no answers for? They are things like the following:
No one doubts that you have a mind, but where is it physically in the body? Can you surgically remove it or change it? Can you change someone's opinion of a subject by tweaking a specific nerve in his brain? How does science explain this? Or can you just change the brain in some physical plane, and the mind is at some higher, more intangible level?
How, exactly are the mind and body connected? Why is it that when a person is sad and depressed, that can make them physically sick? How can bravery and determination overcome pain? Why do some people like pain? Why do some people hate chocolate?
What happens after you die? Is there a soul that lives on? If so, what happens to it? Where does it go? Does it come back to live again in another body?
Is there payback and retribution for when we do bad things? What about when we do good things?
What is 'Good"? What exactly, precisely, is "Evil"? How do we explain or understand extraordinary abilities like telepathic abilities? Or telekinesis? Or clairvoyance? Or prescience? The ability to predict the future? If the universe was created by a 'big bang' 13 billion years ago and literally nothing existed before that, then what event in the nothingness happened to cause the actually original explosion to occur?
If science says that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, then how did the universe suddenly pop into existence from a mathematical singularity?
Or was that just the entry point into this universe of a wormhole that opened up from a different universe, which emptied immense quantities of matter into this universe in a sudden rush of creation? If that's the case, then where is that other universe physically? And what contains both of them? and are there others beyond that? And before that?
Science explains very well "how" the universe exists. But it doesn't really explain "Why" the universe exists. For these larger questions, we have no solid answers from science that can be explained by observation, analysis, and reliable experimentation, except perhaps at the fringes of these questions. So, a person who is 'only' equipped with science can only cover the areas that science explains, with any confidence. Beyond that, he/she is ignorant. Usually, they feel that it is irresponsible to speculate about those areas, much less construct entire belief systems to chart those territories.

But religious people feel differently. They do not dismiss it as irrelevant or as trivial, or as irresponsible to speculate. They try to understand these areas. Each faith has it's own understanding of them, and in providing their 'answers', they seem to imbue their followers with a sense of confidence and power, that gets them elected to offices of power and influence, or allows them to be effective in their daily lives, and grow to positions of influence where they can make a difference in the world. Maybe it's not so bad to follow a religion. The specific answers to the big questions might not be correct, but having a belief system to cover them seems to offer some advantages.

Now for some irony. The power that flows from a person having their religion explain the intangibles, disappears if they begin to learn about other religions. Once they are exposed to the actual details of multiple perspectives and multiple religions, they begin to see the flaws in their own religion and they see how arbitrary the answers given by their own leaders really are, and so they lose faith in those answers, and that means they once again have holes in their understanding of the universe and so they lose their power of confidence and assuredness. So on some level, their power is based on their ignorance. Knowledge removes their personal power.

Tangible advantages from intangible answers? Ignorance brings power and knowledge takes it away? The universe really IS just messing with us, isn't it? That is just precisely the kind of counterintuitive trick this universe likes to pull. It has such a twisted sense of humor.

2 Comments:

At 8/09/2007 8:29 PM, Anonymous Igor said...

sorry, off the topic:

FYI:

http://www.counterpunch.org/roberts08082007.html

 
At 9/18/2007 7:04 PM, Anonymous Joe said...

Val,

Interesting thoughts. I would challenge you on one aspect. You say that you can't be religious if you've been exposed to more than one religion and that once exposed, you lose your power. I believe this is the case only with that small percentage of people who are so 'hard core' in 'their' religion that they can't accept that someone else can believe something else. They are also typically the ones who are more wrapped up in the rules and rituals than in the actual spirituality. As you said, they believe that the other person is just plain 'wrong'. In reality, that's a small percentage of the religious people in this world. The much larger population of religious people in the world understand that all religions at their core ultimately believe the same thing - That a supreme being of some nature created the world and continues to influence it's existence and at some level has an expectation of how we live our life. That's really a pretty simple concept and one that every Christian, Muslim and Jew would all agree upon. It's also a concept that, in itself, is empowering. After all, once you believe that concept, you will live your life accordingly. It doesn't have to be a situation where if you're right then I must be wrong. Although, granted, that is how a small percentage of every religion views the world. As with everything, it's that small percentage that cause all the problems. They are the Christians who are blowing up abortion clinics and the Muslims flying airplanes into buildings. I grew up a Catholic and still believe the core tenants of the church but that doesn't preclude me from accepting that someone else can view the world differently. Whether you call your supreme being God or Jesus or Muhammad or Confuscious or Budha or whatever, ultimately you believe that supreme being can impact your life on this earth and whatever life may follow. So, I'm not sure where I'm going with this rambling except to say that, if your point is - you can't be a single minded religious zealot once you've studied other religions then you're absolutely correct. But I do believe you can be religious and even believe in a specific religion after you've been exposed to other religions. All it takes is the understanding and acceptance that religion is faith, it's not fact and at the end of the day it's more about how you live your life than about which particular ritual you decide to follow.

 

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