The Post-Modern Religion

In response to a 10/28/2009 National Public Radio (On-Point) show on “Religion, Morality and Youth”, I wrote: It’s a shame that the discussion presented the available options as 1) being theistic or deistic and participating in organized (institutional) religion, 2) being atheistic (and in some sense ungrounded), or 3) being atheistic but grounded in a humanist ethic and community. There is a much deeper, broader, more inclusive, and far simpler option that gets lost in the debate.

History – both ancient and current – informs us of the dangers of organized religion, for it is the nature of all human institutions to become corrupt, self-serving, and destructive of their original intent. That there has been much good threshed from the chaff of religion – including ethics, art, community and spirituality – does not negate its great danger, which includes exclusivity, divisiveness, hatred, and self-righteousness.

The alternative, too often, for independent thinkers who strive for meaning or moral foundation, is the reactive one of abandonment of religion (and its ostensible god-source) and the recourse to what Western culture has long posited as its antithesis: logic, reason, science and materialism. European existentialism was one of many such intellectual reactions.

But finding purely rational alternatives to be lacking the spiritual and ethical depth of religion, some have begun a modern movement toward ethical humanism: the belief (it is a belief system) that it’s possible to be “good without god” and to recreate what has been missed from religion – ritual and community – without the clerical hierarchy and all its attendant foibles. This has been accomplished with some success, and it’s true that it’s no less possible to live an ethical life with a godless religion as with a god-centered one. But make no mistake about the religiosity of Humanism as a ritual community sharing an atheistic belief system, with the most reactionary elements (every faith has its fundamentalists) being overtly and aggressively anti-theist and evangelical. That radio guest Greg Epstein is an ordained humanist rabbi and an institutional chaplain makes evident the religious structure of ethical humanism.

As perceptive a social critic as journalist (and Doctor of Divinity) as Chris Hedges sees atheism as the new fundamentalism which reveals what Western culture has long denied: that rationality, science and technology has become the dominant world religion, proselytized no less aggressively than any other. In fact, it has been in opposition to that dominant secular religion that modern religious fundamentalisms have been born and against which they reacted.

“Secular” Humanism is an attempt to moderate the fundamentalism of rational atheistic culture with an ethics based on the (universal religious tradition of the) Golden Rule. But the Golden Rule is as misunderstood today – by both religious and secular – as Humanism’s attempt at ethics is misguided and ultimately futile. The “do unto others” rule was not originally meant as a commandment to encourage people to willfully do good so that others might be inclined to do the same in return – in other words, it was not a rationale for self-interested ethical behavior.

The pre-religious Golden Rule was a recognition of a law of the Universe no less inviolable than the force of gravity – reciprocity – but not the simple contractual reciprocity that we understand today as the social contract:”I will constrain my will so that you don’t constrain my welfare.” Reciprocity as a Universal law was a corollary of what we now dismiss as “animism” – the recognition of the sacredness of all creation: every living creature as well as every rock, wind and drop of water. If all is equally sacred and all are manifestations of a Universal Sacredness, then what one does to the “other” one brings back upon oneself – Instant Karma!

The futility of Humanism as a foundation of ethical behavior is that it relies on either selfishness (“I will be good so that others will be good to me”) or will power (“I will restrain my will so that others don’t restrain my freedom”). As we know both from human history and our personal stories, will power is a very limited commodity and inevitably wavers when confronted either with ambiguity or force (I deliberately used the term “commodity” because the will can be, and is often, purchased). Even a humanist ethics based on the “sacredness” of the person necessarily limits its scope to the human world and, for instance, would support the widespread use of antibiotics that kill trillions of living creatures that form the base of the pyramid of life in order to save – or simply improve the health of – a limited number of human creatures at the top of the food chain (and – because of the Law of Unintended Consequences – catastrophically undermine the health of humanity by creating antibiotic-resistant pathogens).

Without an unambiguous corner stone, any ethical edifice becomes a relativistic one: this war is wrong but that one is right (“Just War Theory”); it’s not OK to kill for political or economic reasons but it’s OK to kill in self-defense or as retribution for killing); it’s wrong to kill the innocent but OK to execute the guilty. Or, perhaps more significantly today: it’s wrong to undermine human well-being, autonomy, security and dignity but tolerable to “sustainably” undermine the rest of the web-of-life in order to preserve humanity’s prerogative.

What we have lost sight of is that such a cornerstone is not, and cannot be, God; for the gods of all historical and modern traditions, including the three great monotheisms, are transcendent ones – whether on Mount Olympus or in heaven, they are not immanent in the material world, the world that Humanism claims as the one and only. When divinity (sacredness) is immanent in all the things of the material world, including all living beings, then weak and variable human will is not necessary for ethical behavior. If all things, all creatures, all places and all people are expressions of a common sacredness, it requires inordinate willpower to harm them. It also becomes plain to see that the Universal rule of reciprocity makes it impossible to harm anything else, since there is no “other” – only other facets of the same sacred reality. To do harm is, literally, to injure oneself.

And, if all things and all beings are sacred, then humanity does not reside at the pinnacle of the web-of-life but rather in the most vulnerable and least important place at the top of a great pyramid of sacred entities. The authentic humility which comes from this understanding mitigates not only selfishness and arrogance but also the illusion of personal sovereignty and autonomy (the very basis of Humanism). As we very well may experience within a few generations of climate change, resource depletion and biodiversity loss – “last hired, first fired” will be Nature’s HR rule as Homo Sapiens drives itself toward extinction.

The most destructive human behaviors, such as substance addiction (materialism) and all its consequent harm to self and other, become transformed only when the addict surrenders the will (or rather, the illusion of autonomy) to a higher order of meaning and being (and it matters not what that is called). In truth, all of modern humanity is addicted to comfort, security and autonomy, and no rational ethics can prevent us from taking what feeds our illusions: our “fix”. That “fix” can be self-righteous religiosity (fundamentalism) or the rational (and hence relativistic) ethics that it stands against. For most of the dominant global culture, the “fix” is reason, science, technology and the world of things which it provides (which has “fixed” the world into catastrophe, which it still believes it can fix with more of the same).

Only when we re-sacralize the world and return to a humble place amidst the reciprocity of a holographic Universe will we live rightly on the earth without need of religion, ethics or belief. Like all the strands of the web-of-life, we will simply know our place, our purpose and our connectedness to the whole of the community, and need no artificial approximations of what was always our birthright.

Addendum:

It’s ironic that even some of those who advocate for organized religion, whether sacred or secular, acknowledge that there is both good and bad in such institutions. “Take the good and leave the rest” is the oft-offered advice.

This misunderstanding of what constitutes the “good” in a culture (the core of ethics) is what keeps us trapped in our institutionalized responses to humanity’s longings and needs.

Religion (theistic or humanist) offers, like modern medicine, a “cure” that has some unwanted side effects. In truth, the long history of institutional religion (and other cultural/political/economic institutions) reveals far greater harm than help, just as a recent meta-study of allopathic medicine in America reveals that doctor and hospital treatment results in more injury and death than any other cause.

In indigenous (animistic) societies, “medicine” has no “side effects”. Medicine is whatever restores health or wholeness. If it merely treats some symptoms (such as our existential loneliness and meaninglessness) but causes harm in the process, it is a drug (religion as the opiate of the people). We moderns are addicted to a wide variety of “drugs”, including our various cultural institutions and belief systems. That they also do some harm is not a “side effect” or a symptom of misuse – it is intrinsic to the nature of a drug.

When Hippocrates admonished “do no harm”, he meant to practice authentic medicine: to heal (make whole) without negative effect. Authentic spirituality, similarly, can be identified by what does no harm. Any tradition, ancient or modern, that has “side effects” is neither authentic nor wholesome.

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Some responses to others’ comments:

“I think the word “religion” actually means that which binds…Perhaps the link was better, more real, more sacred, before the linkage was organized…”

Yes, “religion” means to bind back. Of course, there was no need to bind back until we alienated ourselves from the Source. That alienation, as exemplified in the abandonment of the Garden of Eden (not expulsion, as it was precipitated by a conscious choice to break the law), was a gradual and increasingly willful separation from the Web-of-Life, necessitating an objectification of the “Other”.

When we, then, attempted to bind back to the lost Source, it could be only to an “Other”, a distant and transcendent God – one from whom we had walked away. Christianity tried to overcome the spiritual hollowness of a transcendent God by splitting the One into Three: with one being transcendent, one being personal and immanent and another being an all-embracing Spirit. Of course, accepting the One as also Three required, quite literally, an act of faith.

All attempts to “reform” religion, from Protestantism to Unitarianism and Universalism as well as Humanism, have been efforts to repair the failure of religious institutions with yet other institutions of faith, each permutation being another “fix” of what did not previously fix our alienation. Ultimately, there is no difference between believing in God or in human reason, for they both rely on faith in the supernatural – in what has been abstracted from nature.

Both cutting-edge science and ancient shamanic traditions understand that the heart is the primary organ of communication and the transmitter of wholeness or healing. Only by getting out of our heads (faith, reason) and back into our hearts will we restore the original connection to Source.

When we let go of faith and return to the deep cellular knowledge that we are all One, when we atone for our “original sin” of abandoning the Garden (Web-of-Life) and once again know that we are at-one with the Universe, there will be no alienation and we can live purposefully serving the community of life.

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“The contortions you undergo to try to explain Hippocrates create more confusion than clarity. As perhaps the first ‘scientific’ healer to separate medicine from religious superstition, Hippocrates understood disease to be a symptom of imbalance (in the four ‘humors’) and medicine as a method to restore balance, or wholeness. That his methodology was “primitive” and sometimes counterproductive does not diminish the value of his core theory.”

The aphorism “First, do no harm” (primum non nocere), did not originate with Hippocrates, but it is the basis for the notion of nonmaleficence, which means that it may be better to do nothing than to do something that risks causing more harm than good. In common parlance, the term would be “forbearance”.

You exhibit a similar confusion about the meaning and value of life: that “contrived or imposed” meaning is meaningful and that life “exist[s] simply to exist”, which you state as a question but is, in fact, the premise of your suggested ethics.

When you say that “to not act [to save a human life] because of some perceived greater order WOULD BE unethical”, you most certainly place a single human life above the “greater order” of the Universe and the Web-of-Life and, in so doing, turn ethics on its head. The premise for that belief is that individual biological life is valuable in itself and should be protected at all costs (even to the “greater order”).

Your statements also betray the death-denying nature of our alienated culture. In all pre-religious (indigenous) cultures, life-and-death was merely a truth of the cyclical nature of Nature. Death was as important as birth, both being necessary to the cycle and to the Web-of-Life, since nothing lives but by the death of others. When every moment of life is filled with purpose and meaning, death is not feared but welcomed and honored (“It’s a good day to die”).

Our culture undertakes “heroic measures” to postpone or prolong life unnaturally, and equate “quality of life” (at least at its end) with a pain-free existence (palliative care), as if pain – rather than a meaningless extension in time – is the enemy of life. This results in a “medicine” which – ironically – is the leading cause of pain and death in America.

We will know that we’ve recovered true meaning in life only when we can fully embrace death. But another great deficit of Humanism is its unwillingness to acknowledge that Life continues after the death of the ego (in what form it doesn’t matter), resulting in the absurd and life-denying mission of prolonging bodily life for its own sake or refusing death because one’s work in this body is not yet done. Believing that “this is all there is” is a setup for failure and incompleteness when death comes to greet us. Interestingly, religion (according to studies) does nothing to reduce the fear of dying, and sometimes the most fearful are the most religious (the “opiate” of the masses?).

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Ah… now I see the “faith” that so confuses you: mental health.

At least what Hippocrates and other early healers (particularly in the Eastern and shamanic traditions) tried to treat was the whole person. Separating the “elements” of humanity into so many parts and treating each individually is the scientific paradigm. Health, in the sense of wholeness, can never come through analysis and dissection.

If you’re active in the mental health field then you must know that there is now a new diagnostic category (Code V62.89) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-Fourth Edition (APA, 1994) for “spiritual emergency”, which can mimic (and is often confused with) schizophrenia. When the human spirit, so suppressed in our materialistic culture, attempts to emerge it requires a wise elder facilitator, not a mental health professional, to integrate the emergence into the soul of the person.

While I would in no way dignify Bush’s hypocritical “faith-based initiatives”, it is never-the-less true that there is more possibility for authentic healing in a religious community than in a psychiatrist’s office. You seem to equate charity with pity and exhibit the hubris of the “helping professions” in your denigration of the power of such simple attentions as the “works of mercy” within a loving community (in fact, studies indicate that much of the efficacy of medicine is in the placebo effect, or faith in outcome).

More alcoholics have been healed in pseudo-religious AA meetings than in all detox clinics combined. Faith healing is now incorporated into many nursing programs as hands-on or energy healing (an authentic form of medicine as it has no negative side effects). Dr. Larry Dossey has brought to public attention the hundreds of scientific studies documenting the power of prayer (focused positive intention) in healing. The Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) program has proven that focused intention can even alter the past (a necessary outcome of quantum theory).

The best healing offered today is through a revival of the ancient arts of plant medicine, including naturopathy, homeopathy, Chinese herbalism, and plant spirit medicine such as flower essences. Practitioners are relearning the ancient skill of communicating directly through the heart with plants for guidance (the HeartMath Institute is documenting the heart’s function in psychophysiological coherence, or health).

Science, for all its purported benefits, is both a symptom and a cause of our culture’s alienation and lack of coherence, or wholeness. A spiritually-based paradigm offers the potential for cultural recovery from the dismemberment that over-reliance on the rational mind has created. All that is required for personal and cultural healing is “re-membering” what the analytical mind and human ego has torn apart.

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“I thought Christianity was founded upon a man sacrificing his life, an act in some way validating both suffering and death itself, for all ages. By this act, humanity was healed.”

Of course, what we call “Christianity”, which almost certainly would be abhorrent to Jesus the man, has gone through many permutations as the worldly needs of its leaders and institutions demanded, and many original texts have been expunged in favor of a very few “orthodox” gospels, written generations after the life of its prophet (who lived and died as a Jew).

It’s quite true that the myth of a savior of virgin birth who was crucified and then rose from death after three days was common in the Middle East long before Jesus and was undoubtedly grafted onto his story just as much of pre-Christian (pagan) mythology and ritual has been co-opted by the Church to encourage conversions.

But if the life of Jesus had meaning, it was in his wanderings (apparently to the far East), his teachings and his example of authentic healing community. He was a rebbe (teacher) and a rebel who non-violently challenged the authority of the Roman empire in his own land. “Turn the other cheek”, “give him also your shirt”, and “whomever shall force you to go a mile, go with him two” were all exhortations to defiance of Roman law and taboos.

As for his suffering and death, though the later mythology suggests Jesus willingly sacrificed his life for his God, even the accepted gospels tell of his failure in faith: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). The subsequent mythology co-opted Isaiah’s much earlier prophesy that “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

And yet, it is clear through historical hindsight that nothing in humanity was healed by the alleged sacrifice; that the march of Christian soldiers left far more misery than healing in its wake. So, in fact, suffering and death were not redeemed but intensified. The thing that will redeem death is a full embrace of the universal sanctity of life, which entails an equal embrace of death. And suffering will be redeemed only when we abandon the supremacy of the ego (whose will shall always be frustrated, which is the definition of suffering) and surrender to the greater Mystery of Life – for there is no suffering but in the resistance to life, no resistance but through the will, and no will but from the ego (the isolated identity apart from the Matrix).

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Some common behaviors that characterize modern “faith-based” approaches to life, whether founded on religious faith or scientific faith are:

1) an inability to comprehend a radically different understanding of life, such that contradictions and paradoxes are perceived where none exist;

2) extreme defensiveness when challenged, resulting in a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing;

3) an inability to recognize the narrowness or weakness of one’s own perspective and the consequent projection of those limitations onto the worldviews of others;

4) and a tendency toward reaction, fundamentalism and extremism.

This is, of course, the history of the “civilized” incursion into indigenous cultures and the labeling of those millennial-old sustainable lifestyles as “primitive”. What we are beginning to realize, to the contrary, is that modern faiths – both secular and religious – are primitive in comparison to the natural spirituality of earth-based peoples. Moderns are so blindered by their assumed intelligence that they cannot comprehend straightforward wisdom when they encounter it, but must lash out at its messengers with a vehemence that betrays only their own lack of essential substance.

by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced with attribution for non-commercial purposes
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4 Responses to “Science and Secular Humanism”

  1. Thank You! — Your recognition of a fundamental origin of morality within the individual, instead of a coercive culturally driven set of rules acted out as a script, I feel reveals the only area of human perception in which any true transformational change may come. As a student of human behaviour surrounded by friends who are passionately focussed on the “how” of a new human contract with the planet and the subsequent frustration they have when confronted by apathy or hostility — I continue to share my observation that the “how” is so easy –its the “why” that must have the focus and effort—but that’s another story……….

  2. Riversong said

    I’m disappointed, but not surprised that my message was so completely misunderstood. Not surprised, because it’s the nature of enmeshment in the scientific paradigm to perceive the world through the filter of abstract and analytical concepts. And it’s in the nature of enmeshment in modernity to treat perception as a uniquely human phenomenon rather than as a quality of an alive and intelligent (and sacred) universe.

    Nothing in the above treatise would suggest that the “fundamental origin of morality [was] within the individual” – in fact, quite the contrary. What I stated was that the very notion of the individual is made possible only by abstracting oneself (and humanity in general) from the Web-of-Life, from the “environment” (that which surrounds).

    Alan Watts, that great populariser of Eastern thought, wrote a seminal book in 1966 called The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, in which he attempted to dispel the illusion of the individual as an “ego in a bag of skin”. Even the very word “individual” implies an irreducible and separate thing.

    What I did state above is that universal morality (the Golden Rule) derives from the cellular experience of reciprocity within an all-encompassing Web of interconnected sacredness, and that any attempt to individuate from that Whole is doomed to failure.

    The language of “a new human contract with the planet” is also representative of a gesellschaft or rule-defined relationship between separate entities which is emblematic of the modern mindset. We don’t need a contract with family or tribe to know our place and the limits of proper action. And all that is necessary is the “how” of proper behavior (the Golden Rule). The “why” is found (or rather invented) only in that rarified atmosphere of abstract rational, or faith-based religious, pontifications.

  3. I very much appreciate your article, Riversong, I’ve often filled in “animist” when asked what my religion was, ..or latitudinarian, (though I’ve never met one) Lately I’ve been defining religion the way my 1965 Funk and Wagnalls, College Edition, dictionary defines it: “The beliefs, attitudes, emotions, behavior, etc. constituting one’s relationship with the powers and principles of the universe….” (or God) I thought, this was great, it goes along with the idea of God being the self-creating universe, religion embracing science and visa versa. What most people call religion is “organized religion” which I’ve come to see as political, not religious at all, the same with their Books. Politics is “the art and practice of influencing others at any scale.” So, for instance, there is no “religious violence,” its all political. I heard some Muslim and Christian African women on PBS who were working together in Nigeria talking about the violence between Christians and Muslims there. They said “this violence is not religious violence, this violence is political violence by men and we are trying to protect our families and our churches and our mosques from this violence.” They knew the difference between politics and religion.

  4. Riversong said

    Howard,

    The term “religion” means that which binds together, so it is both a collective set of beliefs about the universe and a social institution which defends and propagates those beliefs. As a human institution, religion can not be cleanly separated from politics, and historically religion and politics have been bound at the hip (and that is when it becomes the most violent and destructive).

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