What is religion: How to completely miss the point

Since we’re coming out of a big ‘religious’ holiday, and since I chat occasionally about religion, I figured it might be interesting to say something briefly about what I use the word ‘religion’ to mean. In particular, I wanted to say how I take it to be different from something else that I’ll call ‘sprituality’. (I’ve kind of done this before in places but whatever.)

To use the most extreme sort of example, contrast what are often called ‘mystical’ or ‘religious’ experiences, whatever their cause, with everyday awareness. Common features of the former include a sense of oneness or that boundaries are unreal or superficial, and relatedly, a sense of a meaningfulness, a goodness, and a ‘mine-ness’ that somehow applies to everything. Every event and detail is somehow beautiful and important.

By contrast, everyday life is chracterised by a sense of separation, of the world containing a great number of distinct things, of which some are meaningful and some meaningless, some good and some bad, some ‘mine’ and some alien or ‘other’.

This is related, I think, to the prominence of action in everyday life: when we act, we do so by means of what is ours (starting with our body, of course) as opposed to what is other, and we have to choose what to focus on (and what to ignore as irrelevant) and what to aim to promote (good) or avoid (bad).

So I tend to envisage this thing I call ‘spirituality’ as the tendency towards the former and away from the latter. ‘Mystical experiences’ are the extreme case, but other experiences can approach it to a greater or lesser degree, insofar as they are characterised by this sense of 1) oneness or universal ‘mineness’, and 2) abundant meaning and goodness suffusing that unity.

Ok, that’s the hippy shit out of the way. How do I think ‘religion’ relates to this? Well, while granting the word can be used in different ways, I think that what best characterises the things most commonly called ‘religious’ is something like ‘fetishistic spirituality’.

That is, in ‘religion’ that sense of universal meaningful oneness etc., is attributed exclusively to certain very specific things, usually on an apparently arbitrary basis. All other things are not only excluded from this, but are as a result felt as less important and less valuable.

For example, religions typically

  • identify certain people, and not others, as having the authority to speak on behalf of the transcendental oneness;
  • identify certain texts as being produced by and conveying it, and not others;
  • identify certain sets of ritual actions, certain buildings, certain items, certain sets of words, as having a special connection to it;
  • and of course, very commonly posit that this meaningful oneness (now no longer, of course, really such a thing) is actually a specific entity distinct from the rest of the world, an invisible, fire-breathing, masturbation-policing fundamental reality.

There are exceptions, and qualifications, of course, but why expect there not to be?

So in essence, spirituality is a sort of mindset characterised by a sense of universality and oneness, and activities that aim to cultivate it; religion is the subsuming of this oneness under one side of a division. I think this makes religion not only absurd from the ‘mundane’ perspective (e.g. scientifically wrong) but also absurd from the spiritual perspective that it’s supposed to best represent. It is perhaps the most spectacular way to miss the point.

On the other hand, it’s psychologically very useful – since we can generally live entirely in neither the spiritual or the mundane, action-centred mindset, dividing them into “one is for Churches, Bibles, priests and stained glass, the other is for the rest of life” minimises cognitive dissonance. And, of course, its incredibly politically useful because it allows spirituality, a fairly widespread and normal aspect of human life, to be appropriated – to be controlled by particular groups for their particular purposes.

Anyway, that’s how I use the words, and that’s what I mean when I say I both value spirituality and condemn religion.

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