The devil and the deep blue sea

We were discussing religion over a curry, as one does. The one I discuss religion with (and have curries with, for that matter) expressed the view that religion is incompatible with science. He is reading Dawkins at the moment. NLPer that I am, I started challenging the generalisations: “All religions?” “Entirely incompatible in every way?”

What bugs me about evangelical atheists, and I’ve drunk wine and broken bread with a few in my time (secularly of course) is that they assume that all religions are based on The Book and slag them off accordingly. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all monotheisms and in that direction – if you ask me – madness lies. The problem with monotheisms is the dualities they set up: Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, Heaven and Hell, Sheep and Goats, God and the Devil. Someone once said to Abraham Lincoln “I am so glad that God is on our side” to which he replied “I don’t set my sights that high, Ma’am. All I hope is that we are on God’s side”. Bush and Blair and Bin Laden all know god is on their side, and so they have far more in common than they have differences. I’ll stop wandering off in that direction now, before get so enraged I forget to breathe.

I know very little about Hinduism which seems polytheistic (though the one I was having curry with knows a bit about it). I know barely more about Buddhism and Taoism, which are atheistic. Isn’t that a thought to conjure with? An atheistic religion. A religion without a god. Roll it around your mind’s tongue. Taste it, savour it, find out what you think.

If you strip god out of religion you are left with a whole load of other stuff which (because it is my post and I can do what I like with it) I am going to put broadly into four categories:


Ceremonial / Rites of Passage / Social glue / Social contribution / Ritual


Creation myth / Higher purpose / Why bad things happen / Why are we here

The supernatural

Spiritual practice / The shamanic / Good luck charms

Social control

Ethical precepts / Moral guidance / Greater cause

Jesus as ShamanThe one that interested me the most, as we were discussing it over our curry, was the Shamanic. This is all mixed up with ritual, energy, altered states of being, sexual power and the power of the personality. In the 60s and 70s Rock stars were our shamans; in the 80s there was even a band which took the name. I’m not sure who our shamans are now, but I am pretty sure that the popularity of fantasy films appeals to our need for the shamanic. Looking at that list of nouns again – ritual / energy / altered states / power – maybe terrorists view themselves as shamans. I dunno. Which reminds me. The obvious thing that that is missing off that list is Sacrifice, which is common to so many religions. I’m not sure where it fits though.

It is interesting to see what is happening now to those areas of human life.

The societal stuff (ceremony, rights of passage, social contribution) is pretty hollow without religion. Don’t get me wrong, it is all much better done with integrity by atheists than with hypocrisy by those who claim to be religious, but I am not sure how well atheists do it. I’d rate the ceremonial of a Russian Orthodox Eucharist over the Oscars any day of the week. Mind you, I prefer my schools, hospitals, orphanages and childrens’ homes to be run by the state, so maybe I am arguing myself out of that one after all.

Structures and explanations. This is the scary one. This is the one that gets Dawkins’ blood boiling. “Where is the evidence?” the atheists cry. And they are right of course. There is no evidence that the world is the result of Egyptian gods masturbating or of great cows licking the ice, and plenty that it isn’t. Sane Christians yield this ground gracefully admitting that the world is not flat and does in fact go round the sun. Insane ones promote something which is neither intelligent nor design and call it science. (Breathe, Aphra, remember to breathe). Unfortunately these follies lead evangelical atheists to throw the baby of spiritual practice out with the bathwater of creationism. Or something like that.

The supernatural. This one is trickier than it looks. It’s a mixture of stuff which has quite clearly demonstrable effects such as meditation, and other stuff which is just wishful thinking. Add in the human need to seek patterns, mix it with the human inability to estimate odds, and sprinkle with the human responsiveness to spontaneous hypnotic suggestion, and you end up with all sorts of nonsense like numerology, astrology, Bach flower remedies and (goddess help us all) spiritual channelling. Scientists can now see the parts of the brain which fire off when someone is having a spiritual experience. The question is, of course, whether the brain is responding to an external stimulus analogous to its response to sounds, or whether the sparks are flying at random or for some electro-magnetic or chemical reason. The fact that stuff like meditation works doesn’t make it spiritual any more than the fact that the world exists proves that it was hatched out of a giant egg.

Social control. This is the one where religion leaves the biggest gap behind it. Ethical precepts just aren’t the same if they aren’t backed up with violent weather, rugged mountain scenery, Charlton Heston and the threat of everlasting damnation. (This is the place where I point out that I rather like the idea of terrorists achieving martyrdom and waking in Paradise to find that their sherbet will be delivered by 70 Ann Widdicombes). We’ve lost our moral compass and don’t appear to be able to adopt irreligious ethics in the way the Greeks did. They took pantheistic shamanism to blood-thirsty extremes, but came over all rational and philosophical when considering ethics. The Norse gods couldn’t be bothered with all that Good and Evil stuff either so far as I can make out. Monotheism makes me spit.

I rather like the idea of a Schroedinger Deity; a god comprising the sum of an increasingly complex and sophisticated life force, evolving in power and sophistication in the way that the chemical richness of our world is based on elements which evolved from hydrogen and that all living things have evolved from random amino-acids losing their randomness and forming RNA. This would be a god who may or may not exist, whose existence will only become apparent at the end of the universe at which point in time (and space) it will turn out has existed all along. Or not, as the case may be.

Sorry to whitter on for so long. It was a good curry. Thank you for asking.

13 responses to “The devil and the deep blue sea

  1. Oh, I skipped right down here to comment before I finished your whole post. Don’t you think that “sacrifice”, which is common to so many religions, belongs under “Social Control?” Now, back to the post.

  2. It may take me a while to digest this whole post. This subject is such a loaded one.

    I was thinking as I read your section on “societal stuff” that much of those sorts of functions are not provided by modern religions. When was the last time you saw a young woman go through a rite of passage when she began menstruating? “Confirmation” does not even come close to the sort of meaning in terms of a rite of passage. Where is the celebration of our puberty? Where is the celebration of our beginning of motherhood? At the Christening rite? I don’t think so, that is all about God’s relationship to the baby. And I missed being “croned” when I had finally ceased menstruating for a whole year. I believe that churches could provide some sort of feeling of community, but they don’t even do that any more.

    Then there is the “control” aspect: we are taught ethics by religion using the tools of fear and guilt. “Do the right thing, follow these rules I have laid down for you,” we are taught,”OR ELSE.” Or else you will go to hell and burn forever after. I have always wondered why that was such a potent threat when what happens after our deaths is so completely unknowable.

    And the ethical precepts that many religions teach are fluid, when to my mind if they are truly an ethical precept they should not be the slightest bit fluid. For example, the rule “Thou shalt not kill” seems pretty clear to me. So why is it okay to go on the crusades and kill a bunch of people on your way to Liberate Jerusalem from the Infidel? Why is it okay to rain bombs down on any population?

  3. I’m still not sure where sacrifice sits. I was thinking of ritual murders such as practiced by the Norse and the Celts and now, it seems, by politicised Muslims, rather than the personal sacrifice of becoming a nun.

    Rites of passage. We do them far less ceremoniously of course. Mind you, my Ma was churched after I was born, but I doubt whether either of my sisters were Churched when they had children. I should ask them. I was thinking of how the Vicar still gets asked to do the baby, and how many marriages are still performed in Church (in the Uk at least) and how often there’s someone in robes performing at funerals. You are right, of course, we celebrate rites of passage far less than even our immediate ancestors did. 100 years ago young girls wore their hair down, grown women wore it up, and pinning it up for the first time was just such a rite of passage. Somehow trainer bras don’t do it in the same way.

    Regarding social control, we should tease out the monotheisms from the atheisms. Karma is not about guilt, it is about cause and effect, a subtle distinction but an important one. Christianity in particular emphasises sin and guilt, but not all religions do.

    To be honest, I think all ethical precepts are fluid. I was studying ethics a while back when someone who didn’t know this told me proudly that their three year old knew the difference between right and wrong. I wanted to get the child to write my assignment for me, but was informed that this would be – um – wrong, for some reason.

    Thanks for reading and thanks for commenting at such length hmh. I’ll now retire and see what other pigeons I have put the cat amongst.


  4. Actually, I was thinking about sacrifice in terms of the ritual killings rather than becoming a nun. Isn’t the notion of that sort of sacrifice another way of controlling people? If you are the virgin chosen to be sacrificed, it is a great honor. So people try very hard to be worthy of the honor, and yet at the same time not wanting to be chosen either — after all, you are going to die. Then you can be filled with guilt about your two-mindedness.

    Perhaps I am stuck in my Western Civilization upbringing. I was unaware that there was an organized religion out there that did not use some sort of fear or guilt in order to maintain its power over its adherents. I am not an atheist, but I do not belong to any organized religion. I do believe in karma, and also reincarnation.

  5. Re 4. Dawkins argues very eloquantly that our moral compass comes from our societial Zeigeist rather than from religion.

    For instance many of the things in the Bible are now considered immoral, and many things we consider immoral (for instance killing endangered animals) would be Ok in the Bible.

  6. What a very interesting post.
    As a ‘born again’ atheist I have but one belief, and that is that people should be free to believe in whatever gives them comfort, as for many people religious belief seems to be nothing more than a ‘hereafter insurance’ policy.
    All I ask is that the evangelists leave me in peace, and that the ‘believers’ of this world stop killing those who they see as following the ‘wrong kind’ of religion.
    Now that you’ve got me started … Umm! Well perhaps another time ? 🙂

  7. The basic fallacy of so much religious and philosophical thinking is dualism. We humans are always falling into the treacherous “me/you”, “us/them”, “natural/supernatural” trap of false contrasts and unnecessary conflicts. We need to foster wholistic, unifying thinking instead. The concept of the supernatural adds nothing to our wisdom except a load of dubious assumptions which are highly debateable and engender endless strife. Spiritual growth has nothing to do with the mythical “supernatural”, and everything to do with the development of self-awareness through meditation and rational thought.

  8. It seems unreasonable to expect a paternalistic religion (mono or poly theistic) to pay attention to female rites of passage. But then there has not been a paternalistic religion which has done much for humanity as a whole. They are all about control and the killing of dragons. Which is not such a non sequitur as it may seem on first reading.

  9. My problem here is, Archie, that the paternalistic religion is not really paying attention to ANYBODY’s rites of passage. There aren’t a whole lot of celebrations for little boys either.

  10. Ouch, I feel an attack of the cynics coming on! My apologies to those who genuinely believe the Catholic Church is the One True Way.
    [cynicism] Oh yes there is – In the Catholic Church the priests kick the boys out of the choir or replace them as altar boys at the first sign of puberty. [/cynicism]

  11. Pingback: On humanity. « Verbosity leads to unclear, inarticulate things.

  12. Today’s problem with Rites of Passage, being, possibly, that today one’s age and gender have much less to do with one’s life-choices, and therefore the Rite of Passage will not be relevant, but NOT celebrating it marks one out as different in a way one would rather not everyone knew about.

    I am an atheist. But I do love the ritual of Christmas and Easter and Purim and Yom Kippur, so I tend to celebrate the festivals anyway, telling everyone who asks that I’m celebrating my heritage, actually, so there. But I still feel uneasy. I think it’s more to do with a lonely outsider child’s desire to belong, sometimes, than my actual heritage. I note I don’t do many of the private personal rituals or observances.

    *Tries to think of deep and intelligent point to make at this juncture. Fails*

  13. Pingback: If you are so critical, why don’t you think? « Aphra Behn - danger of eclectic shock

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