Religion, spirituality and belief are the most universal of experiences and absolutely the least understood. I have over the years come to a way of thinking about these related, but different, human activities, a way that I have yet to find as an established theory although I owe the parts of it to many sources. I present it here briefly as a tool in understanding how, I believe, these activities are functioning in our present social, political and economic circumstances.
Biologists look at the structures and functions of organisms in terms of natural history: that is, the adaptive designs that change over time and circumstance forming as the present condition. Contrast this approach with the assumption that religion, for example, is an institution that designs its own function in economic and political terms, is at least in part guided by a superior non-human intelligence and has a ‘separate’ reality from human existence.
From the natural history perspective, belief is a function of the nervous system and the Consciousness System of Order, religion is a complex of social behaviors that take on different ecological, social and political functions under different circumstances and spirituality is both activity and state that relates living existence to the biophysical universe.
In our present day habit of thought many of us ‘believe in a God that gives rules for most, if not all, of the activities of life and explains our place in the universe.’ There are profound consequences to this paradigm. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher and others have liberally shotgunned many of those consequences in, what is to me, a somewhat misguided attack on religion. Religion has a natural function that, like every other natural human function, has become distorted by our vast numbers and the biophysical relationships (or lack there of) that result. (‘If there is no God, then there can be no religion’ is a silly argument whether made by a true believer or an atheist. If there is no God, then religion comes from the design of the human species, has an origin in that design, and is a functional, thus necessary, process in our existence.)
Institutional “religions,” today, are so powerful because they combine, actually conflate, the essential biological need for spirituality (connection to the universe) with economics, politics and social mores. This is a natural relationship arising from the historic role of structured systems of belief that formed and maintained ecologically stable relationships between human communities and the biophysical world.
An example might help: Animals evolve relationships with the plants that they use for food. This requires many generations and the death of many animals as a way of refining the genotype and spreading the physical changes and instincts to new individuals. The Consciousness System of Order can capture information about food or medicinal plants by allowing stored experiences to be combined into a ‘story’ or narrative. The story can be passed across individuals and down generations. If a particular plant is best (meaning, efficaciously) picked at a certain time and in certain amounts, then a story about the plant or a required action related to the plant would be effective to control its picking. Once the story exists, then it can change or be combined with other stories in the imagination or by “mutation.” The story might take on and maintain importance well beyond supporting the ecological relationship with the plant and even become the basis for a larger narrative long after its origin has been forgotten.
Religion began as the stories that adapted human communities to their ecologies; and then it escaped those bonds by combining with politics. A great loss in this combination was the trivializing of spirituality, once a natural and abundant result of living in communion with the biophysical space.
The institutional “religions” of today are like an abnormal growth of an organ. There is some of the original functioning, but these are dwarfed by the distended size and abnormal products. And yet, we humans are bound to these “religions” by their claim on ownership of spirit. We seldom discuss it, and certainly are confused by it, but we seem to require a sense of connection to the immediate processes of the universe.
Our “religions” today tell us to buy that connection, and we try. We are told to kill for that connection, and we try. We are told to reject our bodies for that connection, and we try. We are told to die for that connection, and we try. But these are stories, perhaps beginning thousands of years ago about when to properly pick a plant, that have grown into monstrous lies driven by a distorted greed for power.
The consequence of the conflation of religion, politics and spirituality is a societal Madness. Madness is universally understood to be the failure to function in reality. The ultimate reality is the biophysical universe. Religion, which had as its originating function in the Consciousness System of Order to attach human communities to that universe, has become a “reality of the imagination.” We have come to believe in imaginings that both deny the true function of religion and deny the personal ability to form valid spiritual connection. This is like making a chimpanzee live in a little cage or tying a hawk to a short chain. The vast majority of us seem to be left with only imagination, yet again, to escape these confinements — and that is madness added to the Madness.
I realize that I have rejected by omission the central tenet of most, but importantly not all, present religions; that is, some personified consciousness with powers beyond ours. When this personification came from the simple projection of our own consciousness onto the immediate environment we were safe from distortions of our experiences and ‘story’ summaries; the realities of daily events were the Gods that we made to speak the stories that guided our behaviors of ecological balance. And our contact with the daily events guided and corrected ‘misunderstandings’ natural to limited experience.
I am saying that there are no such things as Gods on high, in the pebbles on a path or in ethereal morning light glowing through the mist of the world’s most beautiful waterfall. We have projected these imaginings onto the world. So long as our real attachment and source was the biophysical reality the idea of a ‘ghost’ giving us information added force to the ‘story’ and made it more effective as a way to inform our human communities how to behave in the world. Today, the Ghost (and its political structure) is often considered more real than the Reality we created it to support in the first place.
What I believe we can take from this is that religion, but not a God, is still essential as a way to organize our actions; that sanity (non-madness) requires a spiritual connection to the universe, a connection that is natural to all other organisms without any special processes; and that this way of being is (almost) as available as it ever was if we can only find how to do it.
Seeing the world in this way is like looking at the set of a stage play from the wings. The Great ‘We’ have suspended our disbelief and have accepted the play as our reality: the audience, the actors, all but a few who are ultimately benefiting from the ticket sales. It is frightening to see the false fronts, the ropes and levers that create the action; it is disorienting to realize that the actors are only speaking lines — even if they do believe them.
But we cannot live in the Madness and become whole; all our decisions are tainted, from how we act socially to our political and economic responsibilities. And there seems to me to be unquestionable and absolute value in being, as fully as possible, of the human species, which both requires and revels in living in The Real. It is our one true greatness and it is what we must do to honestly confront the details of work, climate change, taxes, medical care, lies and truth, death, and all the rest of the events that seem to be of the play, but are ultimately a part of our reality.
(This is the third of four essays that look at the primary articles of faith that seem normal and essential to our present cultural life, but that are the underlying forces for damage to the biosphere, destruction of our specieshood and ultimately devastating to the most positive qualities of the cultural life we are trying to sustain.)