Saturday, July 25, 2009

I have a few volumes of guides to , or encyclopedias of, American religions. I am not a scholar of religion, but I am drawn to, and fascinated by them. Having grown up in the tradition of human secularism, with a bent toward condemnation of religion in general, this was, perhaps, inevitable. My indoctrination into the cult of “question authority” would lead me to question the “authorized” view that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” When you look at the vast and various manifestations of religions in America, let alone the world wide scope, some things become apparent. We seem to have an innate need to express ourselves religiously. By far the majority of religions originate via schism or break off and rebellion from a parent religion. The resulting “new religion” is very much related to the parent religion. The genesis of these “new religions” seems largely intellectually motivated. The differences often boil down to a “tastes great/less filling” level of division. Issues that divide a church and prove wrenching and cataclysmic to the individuals involved can look petty and ridiculous to the unconnected observer. Religions that originate via schism are far less interesting to me than the less common religions that are birthed by a claimed mystical experience. Usually the mystical experience is combined with a personality of persuasiveness and charisma. Another thing that becomes clear about religions when you look at them is that the criteria for becoming an official religion is remarkably vague and minimal. Any group can form themselves as a religion, designate a leader, a priest, a profit, or a messiah, register themselves at the county and, wala, they are a religion. This brings me to the issue of Star Trek. I have often thought that the Star Trek phenomena is ripe for religification. It seems to have all the necessary components, A story line, a following of devoted aficionados, morality, good and evil. Lots of good lessons. All that is necessary is a spark from a charismatic champion of the cause. My imaginings are that the deal would go something like this. A mystical experience involving a claimed visitation from a Star Trek character who discloses that the series is all true. The pretext of a television show was just a vehicle used to communicate with us the reality of what has been going on. The scripts are in fact real and legitimate and all the places are real. With such a visit and vision, the scripts from all the star Trek shows would become scripture, and the lessons and moral teachings, the doctrine. A fertile audience of willing subscribers to this idea would take hold and adopt this new prophesy as the one true religion, and the necessary priest and profits would be appointed. How far fetched is this? Sounds ridiculous and impossible until you consider the underlying premise of some of our established substantial religions. Religions are belief based. This is good in the sense that empirical evidence is limited and can’t provide the full context of reality, but it comes with the caveat that with out empirical evidence to support a belief system, all belief systems operate in the same realm of speculation. To be religious, you have to suspend your disbelief. You have to have faith in the ideas and notions being presented. In a land where the options for different belief systems are seemingly unlimited, the next criteria is that you become led to one belief system or another. This can be purely circumstantial or based on your own explorations and personal decision. This is were charisma comes into play. A persons decision about what to believe can be hugely influenced by charisma. Once a person has a testimony of belief (unless it is a belief in the diversity and complexity of all possible truths) that pretty much sets their mind in a mode of devotion to their notions. They now possess an ideology which means they are likely to look only for supporting evidence and reject all contradiction. They can become fact avoidant. Often this process is aided by the formation of tight knit communities of like minded believers. Group think. Costume and uniform are effective too. I love the dynamic involved in this phenomena because it creates a fantastic condition where a person can become completely impervious to the most obvious and irrefutable facts. No matter of evidence to the contrary can shake what they have decided to believe. This condition renders evidence completely impotent and castrates the very foundation of argument. Leaving a relativism of preference intact that opens the imagination to unlimited possibilities, and confounds the skeptic’s insistence on the validity of truth. So why not a Star Trek religion? The morals are good. The characters compelling. The basic message seems life affirming and healthy. It’s attributes are more likeable than some. Or how bout something based in Tolkien, or Sesame Street. Or Mr. Rodgers? These are all positive. What do we really have in a religion? History and tradition. Salvation and redemption. Ceremonialism. Community. Shared beliefs. Sometimes a transcendent mystical experience of the other (of non-duality). A set of rules and teachings. Moral guidance. Guided reflection. All of this is part of our human nature. It represents a need we seem to have to satisfy one way or another. Religion, essentially, is what comes about from our sense of, or desire for, or direct mystical experience of, a transcendent reality. We want to do something with what we have felt or experienced. What we do can follow very strict and traditional guidelines and structures, or it can become a sort of artistic expression. We can ceremonialize it or burry it somewhere in side our psychic fire wall. What we can’t do is minimize and ignore it away. Brush off the whole issue because it seems silly or bizarre. It’s better to take it on and look at what it is, what needs it fills and why, and try to distance ourselves from the trappings while learning to appreciate the fantastical multitude of expression this need creates in humanity.


Linda Pendleton said...


Religion appears to be innate in mankind. Mankind has always looked outside, beyond, and above themselves for answers about life, who we are?, why we are? etc. Don’t you wonder why? Is it in our DNA? I would like to think of spirituality being innate rather than religion, an idea propagated by a group of men (and sometimes but seldom by women LOL).

I like your idea of Star Trek, etc, but is there enough “guilt” in the myth to have a religious foundation?

I immediately thought of George Lucas’ story of Star Wars and the Force. He seemed to follow the religious ground rules in his stories. (Check out this interview of Lucas by Bill Moyers)

I prefer a belief system that is open and free to express the beauty and mystical aspects of life, and as you said, “appreciate the fantastical multitude of expression this need creates in humanity.”

Great post, Randy, full of insight and food for thought. Thanks.

Also I agree with your comments on the Birther’s. I say they are nuts along with being racist and frightening.

Randy said...

Hi Linda
I got a laugh out loud at your "guilt" comment. Bill Moyers is one of my true heros. And I have seen his interview with Lucas. I agree about spirituality vs. religion. We do seem, in general, to sort of mess up the spiritualism with the religion. That said, Some of my favorite spiritual people, have managed to do their thing with in the context of Religion. I am not sure how they manage it. But they do. Thanks for all the great comments.