Ideal Religion, part 3

One of the most important aspects of religions that I haven’t yet discussed in this mini-series is the fact that they are inherently social and communal. Born Again Christians in particular often seem to forget this: it’s not only about a personal relationship with Jesus, having your sins forgiven, becoming a better person; it’s also about being part of a community of believers –– recognizing a sense of connection with others who, in spite of their weaknesses and outright stupidity at times, in some fundamental way share a sense of spirituality with you.

This is far easier said than done. The more you accept others as part of yourself, the more conflicts you risk internalizing. Yet for all the difficulties and problems inherent in loving others in this way –– in the broader, non-sexual sense of the word –– being able to do so is probably the most important aspect of religious observance. Various religions have various ways of doing this, and for overcoming the conflicts inherent in doing so. Thus no collection of writings exploring ideal forms of religion would really be complete without looking at this aspect of the question.

I must confess though that this aspect of religious life has probably been the most theoretical of all for me personally. I am a bit of a radical individualist in all aspects of my life, and somewhat to my shame, nowhere is this more true than in terms of my religious observance. I try to compensate for this lack of communal religious identity in my life with an openness to casual association with a rather broad range of religious communities, but I know that doesn’t really cover it. I’ll come back to addressing this particular form of “sinfulness” in my life in closing here. Meanwhile I’d like to look at what I think might make an ideal religion in terms of holding people together and creating a sense of communal belonging.

Could a perfect religious system better enable imperfect people to relate to each other, and to a transcendental purpose greater than all of them, in such a way that would bind them all together as a unit without causing all of the evils of tribalism? Perhaps not, but the possibility is worth exploring. And even if religion as we know it wouldn’t be able to fulfill such a task –– even if there would not be any god –– we would still need to find some sort of institution to serve this purpose if our species is to have any hope for the future.

After some contemplation I’ve come to the conclusion that there are essentially three means by which religious communities are socially bound together (and this is a new theory for me, so please, by all means help me shoot it down if it’s crap or work out the bugs in it if it’s worth saving). Even though the acronym is already taken, I’ll call this my DDR hypothesis, for Dogma, Discipline and Ritual.

The first means by which religious folks distinguish “us” from “them” is in terms of a “purity of faith,” a.k.a. dogma. In order to be accepted as a believer in most religions, one must make a certain standardized profession of faith, and thereafter follow the standardized teachings of this religion. These teachings are not taken to be subject to question or revision. One must be very careful not to “blaspheme” by saying things that go against the official dogma if one wants to be acceptable in such circles.

I have rather mixed feelings about the value of such dogmas. On the one hand they serve the same function within a religion that grammar serves within a language: they provide a sense of “properness” and order, making mutual understanding a much simpler process. On the other hand they frequently block the process of investigation, discovery and intellectual growth. When universities have religious authorities telling professors what they are and are not allowed to teach and investigate, more often than not that’s a sign that something is seriously wrong.

Religious people aren’t just expected to believe what their communities accept as true though; they are also expected to live up to the standards that they believe in as a matter of day to day morality and self-control. This I refer to as discipline.  For those who fail to do so, the religious community has various means of censor and punishment at their disposal, ranging from gossip and social isolation to actually going out and killing the person. (Islam is probably the only religion actively exercising the latter extreme, but there is a history of its use in the vast majority of the world’s older religions.)

Regarding this too I have rather mixed feelings. One needs to have some form of personal self-control to be part of any community, and a community needs to have some means of enforcing their norms in order to remain viable as a community. The problem comes when religious standards (or any other standards) for disciplinary procedures are used as an excuse for unthinking cruelty and for rejecting the value of other people as people. Of course every religious community claims to exercise compassion as part of their disciplinary process, and they all believe that the particular balance they have found between attempting to redeem and attempting to destroy the fallen individual is the right one; but inevitably those looking at such matters from the outside have a more difficult time accepting such dogmatic proclamations regarding how discipline should be carried out. Every religion has testimonies of people who have been saved from themselves through submission to their discipline, and every religion has its tragic victims who have been terribly damaged through the “discipline” inflicted on them.

Perhaps the most inherently and definitively social aspect of religion though is ritual. Rituals, in the strictest sense of the word, are routines followed by a community as part of their religious observance. These include rites of passage such as weddings and funerals; annual holiday observances involving periodic self-denial and self-gratification; ceremonial observances that are built into one’s daily or weekly schedule, such as gatherings for prayer, worship or meditation; and norms that are kept as part of the daily life of the community, such as protecting the ceremonial purity of one’s food, following set patterns in social interactions (e.g. bringing flowers to certain people at certain times) and keeping particular standards in one’s personal dress and hygiene.

The distinction between ritual and discipline as I use the terms here (and I recognize that there are other everyday uses for the terms as well) is that ritual is not a matter of ethical behavior as such. They are not things that it is understood that everyone –– regardless of their personal beliefs –– must do in order to be a good person. For example a good Jew, as a matter of living up to the standards of his faith, should never commit perjury, theft, murder or adultery; but he would also hold Christians, Hindus, agnostics and atheists to the same standard. He might take the offense more seriously if a fellow Jew cheated on his wife than if an atheist did the same –– and he would be less likely to consider the latter case to be any of his business –– but he would still consider the atheist to be a morally inferior person for doing so. But then a strictly observant Jew would also hold himself to standards of not eating beef broth and breakfast cereal from the same bowl, keeping his head covered in public and not wearing wool and linen at the same time; but on those he would not be inclined to morally condemn someone from outside of his faith who fails to keep such standards. These are matters of ritual, which bind together those who practice them as part of their identity, not things which those who practice them take to be general standards for human decency.

Obviously there are some rituals can be extremely harmful and dangerous –– such as Appalachian snake handling, Shamanistic use of hallucinogens and North African “female circumcision” –– but the vast majority of them are basically harmless. The thing that gives rituals a bad name is that they also tend to be senseless. That’s because they really don’t have to make sense to work. What they do is first and foremost to bind together those that follow them as a community, and any other influence they have on one’s practical life is secondary at best. If they serve no other purpose than that, so what? A.J. Jacobs makes an important point in talking about his “year of living biblically”: one should never disrespect the irrational when it comes to rituals. Of the thousands of rituals that we all live by a very small percentage can actually be rationally justified. Yet even so, those who have a certain amount of ritual built into their lives are probably happier and better adjusted than those who don’t.

Is there really any logic in the ritual of young children's birthday parties? Does there have to be?

The challenge with all three of the above is that in order to serve their purpose in holding the community together they can’t be optional. Dogmas are only valuable for holding a community together if everyone believes in them. Disciplines are only useful in building trust between believers if everyone follows them. Rituals are only capable of building solidarity if everyone observes them together. Nor is this matter of universalizing the DDR exclusively a religious concern: Marxist societies and other ambitious ideological groups have had their own dogmas, disciplines and rituals that citizens/members are not allowed to question or ignore. The unique strength –– and the essential failure –– of religions in this regard is that they tend to reinforce these three by telling people that they come directly from God (or the ultimate truth of the universe by any other name). This I have a problem with in principle. It might make religious community functionally stronger to have such a belief, but as I said in my address to all forms of fundamentalism in my last entry here, it’s just plain wrong. The almighty creator of the universe has never given any group an eternal and exclusive understanding of how life, the universe and everything are supposed to work. What we have at best are people who have grasped some small inkling of what is “out there,” how things work and how we can accordingly live in confident humility and mutual respect. To claim that any religious or ideological system of thought is any more than that –– out of fear of living in uncertainty –– is to live in blatant self-deception of the most common sort.

And this brings me back to my “sin” of individualism: Not accepting all of the dogmas and disciplines of any particular religious group as ultimate and eternal, and not following rituals carefully enough to please the faithful in such circles, has left me as a bit of an outsider within all such organizations. I remain a believing Christian in the sense that that tradition provides me with the greatest satisfaction in terms of the criteria I laid out in the entry before last here, but I have yet to find a community of faith that I have felt completely comfortable submitting myself to. In my experience they either tend to take their own systems far too seriously in a presumptuously exclusive sort of way, or they to lack hope and vision for working together to make our world a better place –– or both!

So for me the greatest improvement I could ask for in religion as we know it would be to have the sort of DDR set that builds a powerful and effective of believers without being divisive and without taking ourselves over-seriously. This should ideally enable people to bond with each other in a strong sense of searching for truth together, even while admitting to themselves how wrong they might be. It should provide believers with social support in being the best people they can possibly be, while still remaining open to new understandings of how “best” should be defined in this context. It should enable believers to build and maintain stable routines and celebrate special occasions together, without assuming that these rituals are based on anything more than our human need for routine and solidarity.

I believe that most religions could be practiced in this sort of way at. The shift away from a fundamentalist approach –– always searching for certainty and absolutes –– would be harder for some than for others, but I believe there is hope for sincere communities of all sorts in this regard. There’s nothing impossible about it. It just goes against the historical norm of how religious communities have always promoted themselves. But let me clarify in closing here that though I believe this perspective is applicable to pretty much any sincerely held set of dogmas, disciplines and rituals, I do not consider the specifics of the DDR set itself to be irrelevant. I believe that there certain understandings that are closer to the truth of what is “out there” than others, and we should search those out and take our guidance from them as much as possible. I believe that morality is more than just a matter of taste; that there are certain standards that we should hold ourselves and each other to, and these should not be taken lightly. I further believe that there are some rituals and routines which –– besides being random expressions of solidarity –– really can make us happier, healthier and more productive in and of themselves. All I’m trying to say here is that our understanding of such things will always be less than absolute; and that in terms of the practical matter of building social solidarity, how close our DDR are to the truth really isn’t all that critical anyway.

Beyond that I guess I could sum up by saying that in my personal life I’ve always erred on the side of sincere seeking and open-minded investigation rather than social conformity –– and I don’t regret that for a moment –– but I also see a deep value in the sense of community that hasn’t been among my priorities. In a perfect world I’d like to believe I could have both.  We’ll see.



Filed under Individualism, Priorities, Religion, Spirituality

4 responses to “Ideal Religion, part 3

  1. Lyman Grover

    The logic gets somewhat tangled here and there, but I understand your points. The lack of acceptance of other religions by those faithful who think their dogma is god-given reminds me of this quote, “Forgive him, for he believes that the customs of his tribe are the laws of nature.” George Bernard Shaw

  2. Lyman I appreciate the GBS quote, and see many places where it could be applied! As to the tangles in my logic, I do not doubt that they are there, but I worked on this long enough were I can’t see them myself any more (this week at least) without some outside help. If you’d be kind enough to help me try to untangle some things I’d deeply appreciate it.

  3. anna

    I am so impressed by these explorations. In this one, the ‘recipe’ of DDR strikes me as applicable to community coherence outside of religious groups, as well. And ‘community spirit’ struggles where they are absent.

    As for your self-criticism, I suspect this is the burden a person with leadership qualities has to bear. You cant serve the cake, have it and eat it.

  4. Carl A Stevens

    Good you have gone public with your thoughts.

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