The etymology of the word “religion” has been disputed, but most modern scholars, including Joseph “Smokin’ Joe” Campbell, favor the derivation from the Latin “ligare”, meaning “bind” or “connect”. The prefix “re-”, “again”, yields “reconnect”. Religion, then, reconnects things which were once together, but have become separated. What things? On one side of the equation is the individual, whosoever that may be; on the other side, there are four things: self, society, nature, and the Mysteries. A religion must function on these four levels if it is to be a functional religion.
I Yam Wot I Yam
Every human being is a seething mass of conflicting desires. The stomach wants one thing; the sexual organs something else. The legs, which have held the body upright all day may be sympathetic to the stomach, but have no intention of going along with the genitals. The intestines are invested in an entirely other agenda and the pancreas has something else going on. As if this situation wasn’t bad enough, people also have brains, which are somehow the same thing as, but different from, their minds, which can be divided into two parts, the “conscious” and the “unconscious”, the former of which suffers from the egotistical delusion that it is running the whole show. That this is patently untrue is obvious from the fact that the unconscious mind knows everything about the unconscious mind while the conscious mind knows nothing about the unconscious mind. The conscious mind may be willing to give the legs what they want, only after they perform certain chores; the stomach part of what it wants, but not all; the genitals exactly what they want, only if certain conditions can be met; doesn’t really know what the pancreas is; and sometimes goes so far as to doubt the very existence of the unconscious mind. Furthermore, the conscious mind frequently enters into conflict with itself, worrying itself sleepless about mutually exclusive desires, the “right-” or “wrong-” –ness of any given course of action, and the possibility that some unspecified others will think something that may or may not be true. Then there’s the problem of identity, which isn’t a problem, but can be made into one if sufficient motivation is present.
I had a girlfriend, once, who was prone to existential crises. “I don’t know who I am!” she would wail, to which I would respond, “I know who you are: you’re you. You’re standing right there. That’s who you are.” Not surprisingly, that didn’t help. Nevertheless, it was true. She was exactly who and what she was and her trouble was that she didn’t really want to be that person. She, like most of us, wanted to be the person she was, but a little bit better. Smarter, taller, less accident-prone, and without so many difficulties.
For better or worse, I, you, and everybody are exactly who we are. We can take some steps to change our habits, appearances and attitudes, but we’ll never stop being who we are any more than we’ll continue to be who we are. Every one of us will change and change and change again before we die, which may just be another change. What any one of us loves and believes in today will seem stupid and misguided twenty years hence. That’s why it costs so much more to have tattoos taken off than put on. As Saint Mark said, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand”, so a person in constant conflict with her/himself cannot live happily.
If the Spotted Opossum had her druthers, she would eat nothing but blueberries, lollipops and “strawberry pie-cake”; she would take anything she wanted whenever she wanted, regardless of ownership; and she would never wear clothing, with the possible exception of pink tutus. As the Daddy, I have to occasionally explain and enforce rules which probably seem arbitrary and senseless to her. Honestly, some of them seem arbitrary and senseless to me, too, but we have to go along with it. I’ve been engaged in this process with her for over three years now. It’s gone pretty smoothly. She’s a smart little critter who wants to learn; she potty-trained herself; but we do have our occasional conflicts when I have to pull the I’m-the-Daddy card. This is a necessary part of parenting. The wee people have to learn to control their functions and impulses, and to act in accordance with social norms if they’re going to be able to get along with others and function in the world. I try to interfere with her natural drives and desires as little as possible, but I have to do something sometimes. The unintended consequence of teaching children to behave at least somewhat acceptably is that the process inevitably creates some internal conflict. The call of nature simply cannot be heeded wherever and whenever it occurs, and the call of nature isn’t always about poop. Even the best of parents may unintentionally plant some well-intentioned seeds which will sprout decades later into cognitive dissonance, and that’s above and beyond the guilt that comes from rebellion against, and rejection of, the disciplines of the parents, a normal and healthy part of establishing independence.
Reconciling oneself with oneself is one of life’s tasks. All of us must do it, somehow, and while I’m not claiming it is the only way, religion has been helping people to accomplish this task for a long time. But before I go any further that way, I want to continue to outline the four things from whence the individual has become separated and to which s/he needs to be reconnected.
Society Is A Hole
Human beings are pretty pathetic as far as animals go. We can’t fly or run very fast. We don’t have fur or feathers, claws or teeth big enough to be dangerous. A solitary human can survive in the wilderness only if they have advanced technology, like a .30-06 or, at least, a bow and some arrows. The only way for human beings to survive long enough to develop advanced technologies was by banding together into social groups. A dozen men with sticks and rocks can bring down an aurochs. Twenty-five men waving leafy branches and yelling can cause a herd of bison to stampede toward a precipice, which some of them will tumble down. Social units formed for hunting purposes then discovered other benefits to being together. A group of people generate more body heat than one, which makes co-sleeping desirable during an ice age.
The problem with living together is that people can be hard to get along with. Rivalries over mating partners and disputes over ownership are bound to occur. Constant bickering and occasional bludgeoning deaths tear social units apart, so they must be avoided. The way most people have kept their social groups together is by coming up with basic ground rules. Everybody in the society is given to know the rules that everybody is expected to obey and the punishments for breaking them. The rules have to be backed up by some authority that everyone in the society respects. Chief Mugumboo or King John might have some authority, but those guys are bound to die and a society can’t function well if every successor to the throne changes the rules. God doesn’t change. Call him Coyote or Wenebojo or Glooscap or whatever you want. The Creator or culture hero establishes the social mores and that’s that. Every society that has succeeded has developed the same basic set of rules. No killing people who are part of our group – killing others is fine. No stealing the possessions of people in our group. No raping the women in our group. No sex, even consensual sex, that is going to cause hassles in our group. Some of the more recent and advanced religions went so far as to say that killing, stealing and rapine were bad things to do, even to outsiders, but most haven’t been that extreme.
The rules, Commandments, whatever, exist to make it possible for people to tolerate each other long enough to benefit from being together. They are not the final goal. Every elementary school has rules: no running in the hall, no chewing gum, no handguns, &c. The rules exist to facilitate the real purpose of the school: reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. So the Commandments exist only to ensure the survival of the group so the individuals can develop spiritually without having to worry about starvation or murder. Carving the Commandments in stone is fine enough, but comparable to having RAISE YOVR HAND IF YOV NEED TO GO TO THE POTTY etched in marble in kindergarten classes. I guess some people need that kind of reminder.
Having established the behaviors people should avoid, religion then goes on to create bonding opportunities. Joining forces with a bunch of guys to beat an antelope to death with rocks might give you a fuzzy feeling toward them, but if you then sit down together to eat the still-warm liver of said antelope, chanting a little chant and reminding yourselves and each other that what you’ve done is in harmony with the natural order of the Created world, following the model of the First Ancestor, of whom you are all the descendents and therefore related to each other in a divine way. Puberty rites transform children into adults and bind them to each other. The word “congregation” refers first to a gathering of people and only secondarily to worship.
I spent ten days at Dhamma Dharā, in Shelburne Falls, MA, a few years back. For the first nine days, we were asked to be silent, avoiding all contact with each other, even eye contact, in order that we might better focus on our inner workings. On day ten, we were invited to speak again and I sure wanted to share thoughts and insights with the people who I’d been avoiding looking at the whole time, but nobody seemed quite able to form sentences about it, so we settled for what usually passes for conversation.
“That was intense.”
“My knees sure are sore.”
“Hey, remember a few days ago when somebody farted real loud during morning meditation? I tried really hard not to, but I couldn’t help giggling.”
Of course, I didn’t continue the practice when I got home. I’m not a Buddhist. Yet, I feel there’s a connection between myself and anyone else who’s done a ten-day Vipassana sit, wherever they went, but especially if they were at the Massachusetts center. Going through an intense experience with other people reinforces shared bonds, whether it’s baptism, N/um Tchai, or the homosexual orgies of the Sambian warriors. People who go to the same church, mosque or temple see each other week after week. They watch each other age, marry, and have families. They stand around chatting about the weather while the kids play in the churchyard. That goes on for a few generations and you got yourself a community, which is like a family in that, while you may not like everybody, you’re involved in their lives, you care about them, you’ll help them if they need.
I recently watched The Grey, which was pretty decent. Not my favorite Liam Neeson movie (Rob Roy), nor the best survival movie I’ve ever seen (The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, which has the advantage of being true), but a good example of the man vs. nature genre, nonetheless. I watch survival movies for the same reason I assume everybody does: I enjoy thinking about how I would fare in the situations they present. Would I be able to find fresh water? Kill a wolf with a sharp stick? Hike across the Andes with no food but frozen strips of flesh cut off a Bolivian soccer player’s thigh? I flatter myself by thinking I’d do alright, which isn’t too farfetched. I’m rugged enough, was in the Boy Scouts, and have spent a good bit of time in the local National Forests.
I live in the post-modern er(a/ror). It would be pretty difficult for me to get lost in the wilds and have to carve a spear, build a lean-to and amputate my frost-bitten, gangrenous toes. The fact that I know how to do those things isn’t likely to pay off
. Ninety-nine percent of human history took place during the Stone Age, an epoch which was still going on in some remote corners of the world well into the twentieth century. Every human living today is descended from countless generations of hunter-gathers whose lives depended on wresting some form of sustenance from the wilds around them, as well as finding shelter from the elements and bigger animals. Our bodies were shaped by natural forces: reaching up for fruit led to standing which freed the hands for grasping sticks and stones for throwing which made it easier to get food and lessened the work load of the jaw which needed less musculature which allowed the skull to get bigger which allowed the brain to expand. Differences in skin color, stature and facial structure were made by exposure to different climates and diets. We are of nature as surely as any conifer or dolphin and only recently started pretending otherwise, six-thousand years being pretty recent. There’s no way of knowing how Neanderthals conceptualized the world around them, but it is reasonable to assume that they viewed themselves the same way modern hunter-gathers do/did: as parts of a larger whole, members of an extended family of living things, each one created and given its role by whoever it was who made everything. Really though, one’s conceptual world-view doesn’t matter much when one is starving and there’s a saber-toothed tiger breathing down one’s neck, so man versus nature is probably how it frequently seemed.
The general tact taken by atheists is that early peoples didn’t know how the world came into being so they just made some shit up. Crazy shit. Shit like talking snakes, sleeping giants suckling from self-arising cows, cosmic eggs which were cracked by well-hung gods. Then, these totally batshit crazy stories were handed down from generation for millennia and the same peoples who explored and conquered the entire planet never, ever, questioned what they’d been told because they were dumb, or they have “child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them”, to quote Dick Dawkins’ article “What Good Is Religion?”
Socrates? Child brain. Pliny the Elder? Child brain. Thomas Aquinas? Mohandas Gandhi? Oh yeah, child brains. Genghis Khan? Alexander the Great? Martin Luther? Martin Luther King? What a bunch of tribal-elder-believing child brains. I could go on cherry-picking examples all day. Or I could start naming people who, like Dickie, stopped believing the mumbo-jumbo their parents and elders taught them and became adult-brained atheists, people like Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao Zedong. Or I could just be done with it and move on.
I find it impossible to believe that the Creation myths of the world’s religions are nothing more than fanciful tales concocted by some storytellers to entertain people and “explain” the origin of the planet, trees, animals, rivers and all the other ten-thousand things. Sure, some people no doubt took them seriously and literally, as many still do, but maybe those people were engaged in other activities, like inventing metallurgy, agriculture and written language. They certainly weren’t stupid. The human brain has been the same size it is now for 45,000 years, give or take, and capable of all kinds of abstract thinking and logical conclusions, as Franz Boas made exhaustively clear in The Mind Of Primitive Man, published in 1911, when the word “primitive” was still acceptable in the titles of anthropological works. Mr. Boas did much to correct the racist and ethnocentric beliefs of anthropologists in his time, who basically believed that Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans – North and South – and Pacific Islanders were like children who believed everything they were taught by their tribal elders and parents.
I find it much more likely that the Creation myths of the world’s religions were developed and edited by centuries of telling and retelling, and that they evolved into the forms they now have because those forms resonated with the people who told them and listened to them. The talking snake of Genesis means something. Auðumbla, the primeval cow of Norse mythology, who nourished Ymir, the sleeping giant, from whose body the world was made, represented something to the Norsemen and Norsewomen, something which mattered. The symbols of myth may seem bizarre or ridiculous to the intellect of the modern, educated person, but they hold meanings for our unconscious minds and they will resonate within us if allowed to. A determined individual can refuse to allow the magic to occur, or as John Heywood paraphrased Jeremiah 5:21, “there is none so blind as those who will not see”.
I find no contradiction in believing the Big Bang Theory and attending church. Science and religion address two different subjects: science, the world of gross matter; religion, the world of subtle matter. There is no conflict between them unless and until one starts stepping on the others toes. Of course, I believe in evolution. I also tell the Spotted Opossum that the world is the way it is because that’s how God made it – and keeps making it. Creation is still going on. Go out in the woods and look at the ferns growing out of rotten logs, if you don’t believe me. Creation is an ongoing process. Among the Aboriginal Australians, the time of Creation was, and is, the “dreamtime”, a sort of time zone running parallel to the one in which we spend our waking hours. Hunter-gatherers enact rituals to ensure the return of the animals they depend on for food. Agricultural peoples make offerings and hold ceremonies to renew the fertility of their fields for the next years’ crops. These rites may not actually affect the migratory patterns of bison of the mineral content of soil, but they do reinforce the idea that the people are participants in the physical world, interacting with it in sacred ways. Rain dances don’t bring rain, but they do direct the attention of the people toward their own dependence on the natural forces and give them a way of joining together in union with those forces.
So, religion deals with nature. Some religions promote harmony with nature and others just give humankind dominion over nature and then go on, but they all deal with it in some way.
Your Mystery Date
The Mysteries are those mysteries that can’t be solved: what happens when we die? Where did the universe come from? Why are we here? That kind of stuff. Lots of people like to claim they have the answers to these questions, but they don’t. I’ve known a few people who were dead and then revived and they’ve reported a variety of experiences. Some testified that there was something; others nothing. The evidence is inconclusive. The Mysteries are capitalized because they’re of the ultimate type. Where is the cat? is not a Mystery.
People have been burying their dead for 35,000 years or so. We don’t know exactly why, of course, but there are easier ways of disposing of a body than digging a hole several feet deep with sharp sticks, placing the deceased into the hole in a fetal position, with the head toward the East, the direction where the Sun rises, adorning the body and supplying it with tools, clothes, flowers, foodstuffs and weapons and covering it up to be excavated by archeologists later. The only reason to go to that much trouble, correct me if I’m wrong, is the belief that some aspect of the individual may continue after the death of the body.
Science is great as far as it goes, but science is not very good at answering the questions that most people get stewed up about. I have never lain awake at night wondering about the atomic composition of anything or the phylum of anything or how long it would take light to travel from anyplace to anywhere and whether one twin would age more or less than the other if they traveled that route faster. I find all that shit fascinating, sometimes, but I am far more concerned about how I should conduct myself in this shitstorm called life. What should I do next? is the question that plagues me. Was a time, I was twisted up about the destiny of my eternal monad, but that one has been taken care of. Death isn’t anything to dwell on. It’s going to happen. Unless it’s likely to occur in the immediate future, why sweat it? There are far more important things to think about than some inevitability which isn’t yet. All religions handle the death problem and most of them handle it the same way: they provide a moral code to live by, certain rituals to participate in and some prayers to recite and then they’re done with it. Do these things and your position in Heaven is assured. Don’t worry about death. Seriously. Call on the name of Amitabha one time in your life and you are guaranteed to be admitted to the Pure Land. You never need to worry about death again and can get on about the business of living.
I was walking along Main Street with a friend one time, many moons ago, when some crazed-looking guy stopped right in front of us, handed my friend a tract, started into his eyes and said, “You don’t have to go to Hell.” Then he walked away. I shouted after him, “Hey, what about me? Do I have to go to Hell?” The rural South is lousy with those goons, roaming around fucking up religion by convincing everybody who will listen, as well as many who won’t, that religion is only concerned with death. (Matthew 8:22/Luke 9:60)
On life: religion tells us over and over to maintain our commitment to our individual paths. Parzival was discouraged, but he kept searching for the Graal because that was his path. Jesus didn’t want to be crucified, but He went to the Cross anyway, because that was His path. Arjuna didn’t want to start the battle that would wipe out his family, but he did it anyway, because that was his path. Jonah promised to serve God and then chickened out when he got the call to go to Ninevah. That’s a twist on the story. Follow your path and you go to Heaven. Turn aside because you’re afraid and get swallowed by a whale. I’ve got personal experience with that, but I’m not going into it here.
Another Mystery is What is my place in all this? That one completes the circle, takes it back around from the Mysteries to the self again, which is appropriate, since the self is among the Mysteries. In Hinduism, Ātman is Brahman, that is, the soul of the individual is the same as the Soul of the Universe. Earlier, I made up four categories, self, society, nature, Mysteries. That wasn’t totally arbitrary, but it wasn’t perfectly accurate either. They are four distinct things, but they also criss-cross all over the place. A Navajo staring at the parched land is concerned about his own survival as well as that of his tribe and wondering why Tó Neinilii isn’t sending rain, i.e. he’s experiencing conflict on all four levels simultaneously. Any given myth should be able to address concerns on all levels simultaneously. Some individual parables don’t cover all the corners, but individual parables do not a myth make. You have to look at the whole structure.
Which is what this is about. This blog. It’s about religion and myth, The Big Drum In The Sky Religion being one of the means I employ in pursuit of my real goal, which is: to change the world. Religion and mythology and the study thereof changed my perception of the world for the infinitely better. I’m trying to pass that on.
(This blog will surely also touch on many other things – my daughter, politics, weird music, the joys of caffeine addiction, tattoos, poon, obscure movies, urban exploration, the kooky things I saw and did while under the influence of massive amounts of drugs, Finnegans Wake, recipes, self-righteous diatribes about the general idiocy of the average individual, things I find in the woods and then take home to keep in bottles, my truck, anthropology, art….really, there’s no end to the list of subjects that I may randomly come up with an ill-informed opinion about while there’s a laptop in front of me. Religion and myth are the main things, though. And poon.)