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Mysticism, Religion, and Atheism

With the Tree of Knowledge I have an illustrative tool at hand to describe my ideas and thoughts concerning the huge topic “religion”. The following reflections must be regarded as a more than crude sketch since a “complete” overview of the matter would fill a shelf in a library. I will try to stick to the crucial aspects to make my viewpoint clear. I will not go into detail in the various historical manifestations of particular religions. A great overview can be found here (pinterest) or here (facebook), comprised in this illustration by Simon E. Davies:

treeofreligions2-0

We have to go back to the very roots of mankind. What must it have been like for our ancestors at the transition from moment-bound situational utility-driven cognition (of an ape) to an aware self-reflective past- and future-oriented mind (of a homo)? The conscious perception of the world in terms of its potential – not only the situational exploitation of the given but the creation of opportunity by active and purpose-directed intervention – co-arose with the drive to understand that world that homo found himself in. The quest for knowledge began. The understanding of time is a necessary precondition for that, I guess. Past experiences are stored and processed in order to use them for present actions which are future-directed in the sense that specific outcomes are anticipated and extrapolated from trustworthy past experiences. Physical deficiencies – homo was not the fastest, strongest, perceptually best skilled – were outweighed by knowledge and its successful application. Here, the enterprise of constructing meaning from experience began. But what did it look like when the knowledge base was still very small? I imagine it like this:

I move. I am alive and I can die. The bird and the mammoth move. They are alive and they can die (and I eat them). The stone is cold and doesn’t move. It is inanimate (and I can’t eat it). The sun moves. It is alive but obviously can’t die (and I can’t catch and eat it)!

This is the birth of mysticism, the personification of unexplainable and sometimes frightening phenomena, the separation of “things under the sun”, “the myriad of creatures” on the one hand from “the heavenly realm” with all its powers brought upon us on the other. A quick search across known ancient cultures from all around the globe reveals that almost all of them worship entities that are in one way or another related to astronomical or meteorological occurrences: sun gods, rain gods, thunder gods, star fairies, wind ghosts, etc. An important impact was certainly the development of spoken language to communicate abstract ideas, thoughts and feelings. The members of a clan or society could discover that they share certain fears, concerns, worries and also explanations and meanings. We can imagine how the new possibility of exchanging viewpoints and debating pushed the advancement of culture as the glue that keeps a clan together and creates identification. “You are one of us because you think like we do!“. This might be the turning point from more or less individual mysticism towards organised religion.

Despite the common view that the discovery of spoken language was the most impacting achievement of mankind, I claim that the invention of alphabets – written language – had an even bigger impact. Spoken language was still situational and “out of the moment”. Capturing thoughts in written words, in contrast, requires a deeper reflection on what the thought actually was. The speaker lets out what is on his mind in the moment of talking. The writer is able to move back in time and reproduce streams of thought, modify and refine them, and reflect on consequences and implications. In terms of the Tree of Knowledge: Whereas before the predominant channel of meaning-construction was the default setting (driven by self-made experiences and their emotional context, mostly well-being and fear), the invention of writing facilitated the opening of new channels such as education and dogmatism. Social and moral codes and possible world explanations could be written down by those who are intellectually capable of it. Knowledge became power and the formation of social hierarchies as we still experience it today began. Those who suffered more – from existential threats, diseases, losses, tragedies – were able to find ease (to a certain extent) in those who gave them understandable and plausible explanations and meanings of the experiences they face. With the help of knowledgeable “masters” the ordinary people were able to “survive” existential threats and tragedies – sometimes by following down-to-earth rules, for example on hygiene, sometimes by simply having hope and trust in the future course of the world.

Let’s take, for example, the Bible: The old testament is full of rules that, when violated, imply horrible punishments such as chopping off hands or death by stoning. Does that mean that the God that is described in the Bible is a cruel dominant ruler? I think, it is much more pragmatic. The Bible is written by many contributors from various regions and epochs. The old testament is a collection of advises and rules for daily life, intended as guideline for people who have no education and no other source of rules for a successful life (=survival). For example, it is written that a man is not allowed to sit on a chair that was occupied before by a woman in her menstruation period. If he does, he will receive 20 hits with a birch. This sounds ridiculous from our perspective, but it made sense for a society in which the common people had no knowledge about infectious diseases or hygiene standards. Guess what is more efficient: explaining to them the pathways of infections and the hygienic importance of keeping furniture clean, or the paternalistic and clear rule “if you do that you’ll be punished!”? Compare that to how I protect you, little baby, from harm: Instead of explaining the physics of electricity and the effects of an electric current on your body system, I simply tell you “Don’t touch the power socket!” or I just block it from your access. In this way, as a father, I have power over you because I know better (currently). And in the same way, knowledgeable leaders know better than the common people and, therefore, have power over them.

Here, religion is interwoven with politics. And where is politics there are also people who misuse it to satisfy their greedy and unscrupulous needs for power and influence. The goal to support common people with helpful rules in a paternalistic way turns into a motivation to “keep people small and stupid” by inflicting doctrines and dogmas upon them. Instead of soothing people’s fears with hope and warm narratives, the church (as the political manifestation of religion) exploits these fears for their own selfish purposes. The Bible, then, is not a sourcebook for codes of life conduct and morals stabilising the social community anymore, but an instrument of threat and indoctrination. Today, we learn at school that texts have to be interpreted in the context of the author’s era, social realm and political situation. This is, of course, also the case for the Bible. The church, however, is built on the dogma of “The Word” that is divine, eternal, never-changing and true. There is no room for interpretation, because – as soon as believers start thinking about the meaning of the narratives presented in the Bible – the church would lose its justification as an important social institution. With other words: The church claims the one right way of meaning-construction for itself and requires believers to follow that one way.

I’d like to give two examples from the very beginning of the Bible. The first story that is told is the creation of the world by God within six days and a rest on the 7th day. The church claims that this is the exact truth, taken literally. A mind- and careless follower will, therefore, believe that it happened like that. Today we know that it didn’t happen like that, so we think that those who still believe it must be entirely stupid, brainwashed, or simply foolish idiots (mostly found in the USA). Does that mean the Bible is “wrong”? Let’s see it from a hermeneutical perspective: This story made it into the old testament around 3500 years ago, but is probably even older. At that time, people had no idea of evolutionary processes or of cosmic constellations. Yet, they ask themselves where all this (the world they see) came from. The “best explanation” was this story. Today we have better explanations, but we may admit that an important principle – a certain timely order of sophistication – is also found in the creation narrative: first God made the sun (night and day) and the earth, then plants, then water animals and land animals, and finally mankind. This rough order of development is more or less confirmed by insights into evolutionary processes, just that the Bible puts that into words that are easy to understand and reflect the possible degree of knowledge of that time. The “mistake” is to take this as an eternal truth, as if we would never increase and sophisticate our degree of knowledge.

The second story of the Bible is the “original sin”: Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise after eating from the “tree of knowledge”. Now, this is interesting, because I depict my idea of meaning-construction as a tree of knowledge, too. Christians (I mean those who really believe in God and practice Christian religion, not those German Christians who are actually non-religious) interpret this episode as “Don’t challenge God but trust in his benevolence! If Adam and Eve hadn’t challenged him, we would still live in paradise!” (therefore: original sin). Anti-Christians (for example atheists) interpret the story as “See! God wanted man to be stupid, without any knowledge, just following his orders!”. These are two ways of meaning-construction: one through the channel of (religious) dogmatism (take the Bible literally and worship God), one through the channel of scepticism (arising from scientism, liberalism, or others). However, also the latter takes this story literally in a way that it doesn’t ask for its narrative and hermeneutic dimension. We have to ask: Why did this story make it into the Bible at this prominent place, presuming that the authors (or “compilers”) saw an important significance in it? Man’s experience was that he was different from other living beings. Animals didn’t talk, didn’t invent tools and didn’t develop “culture” that is in any way comparable to human culture (also this insight changed meanwhile due to new deeper knowledge about other animal species). Why are human so different? And why, even though we are so special, are we not free from suffering but share it with the animals? Explanation 1: God made human with a special intention. Explanation 2: We must have disappointed God so much that he gave up on us. Explanation 3: Maybe once we actually were like the animals, but then we discovered our ability of (self-)consciousness, (self-)awareness and (self-)knowledge and stepped out of our biological niche. Thinking explanation 3 further, we might arrive at conclusions that are meaningful from a modern anthropological perspective: How important is “ecological balance” and “natural harmony” for the biosphere of this planet? Is it really a blessing for humankind to be knowledgeable, or might it turn out as a curse (see, for example, the global environmental destruction as a result of human inventive activity)? Would it be better to remain forever in the default setting, as in “blessed are the ignorant“? No matter what the outcome of such reflections actually is, we see an important difference from the other two alternatives: The construction of meaning from the story is channelled to rational, up-to-date, current state-of-the-art knowledge based reasoning. It leaves room for interpretative change, can be challenged and contested by critique and good argumentation, and appreciates the constructive character of all knowledge.

That’s why religion appears so outdated in enlightened and educated societies. Religious institutions that are built on power hierarchies don’t want to allow space for interpretation. They want people with a limited set of channels to generate meaning. This became especially obvious when the scientific method gained the power and influence that it has today. “Truth” is believed to be found in science, not in dogmatic religions. Therefore, the claim for absolute truth by the church appears nothing but ridiculous or despicable. That’s why many people want to disempower the church as an institution of “truth”. That is understandable, overdue and – given the many lapses and aberrations of institutionalised religions – probably a good idea! However, I think it is important to distinguish carefully between organised religion that is manifested as church or other respective religious institutions and religious spirituality in the sense of a source for orientational knowledge. Then, it is worthwhile to get aware of the epistemological difference between factual knowledge that explains the physical world and its entities, and orientational knowledge that guides normative choices and decisions made by humans as actants in a social community. Who is justified to claim a knowledge domain for oneself? We handed the creation of factual knowledge to the social institution “science” and its methodologies and strategies. The century-long conflict between religion and science arises from the mistaken view that the knowledge domains of science and religion overlap but that only one of them can come to valid conclusions. However, I believe that religion doesn’t compete with science because it is mostly focused on orientational knowledge on normative issues of human behaviour. Therefore, it competes with philosophy or other forms of spirituality as an alternative channel of meaning construction, but not with (natural) sciences. Certainly, orientational knowledge must be fed by factual insights. That’s why, with increasing factual knowledge, our interpretations of orientational narratives (such as the Bible) might change over time. However, discarding sources of orientational knowledge (religions, arts, philosophy) as irrelevant is as dangerous for humanity and humankind as rejecting scientific insights and evidence-based knowledge as foundation for normative conclusions. Realising the constructive character of both of these knowledge realms might serve as a good starting point for a dialogue between them. This “informed” way of meaning-construction might play an important role in the future of mankind – in case there is any…

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