This post started off as a comment in the discussion from the previous post. It started getting a bit long, and I wanted to add some references, so I decided to put it here as a separate post. It dives abruptly into the topic and assumes a great deal, so it’s meant more as a bunch of sign posts for discussion, rather than a finished or complete statement.
I see religion as being a bunch of psychological quirks which have been bundled together and labeled “religion”, and treated as if it’s a unified whole. Modern religion is a modern invention and bears little resemblance to the “religion” of previous epochs. The psychological quirks which modern religion exploits, however, are as old as the hills. Just don’t expect to find any sophisticated theology or philosophical musings to appear on the list. Those appeared much later, as a tool of political power. In Europe, for example, the unified philosophy behind Catholicism beat all other religious competitors in the dark & middle ages (according to Bertrand Russell), and despite all the professed sincerity of theologians, I see it as a “top down” ideology rather than anything to be equated with the ancient and primal impulses that make religion a virtually universal human trait.
After reading a bit and thinking over the last few years, I’d argue that the individual psychological elements that lead to religion include:
* Sacrifice – the idea of offering something to a higher power in return for protection seems a very straight forward extension of a social exchange within a hierarchy. (Animals who live in hierarchical groups seem to share this, eg., cats who bring their owners dead birds seem to be doing some form of this.)
* Life after death – seems a very straight forward continuation of “object permanence” (infants learn that an object continues to exist even when they don’t see it), linked with social cognition and memory of individuals. (Again animals have this too, though probably lack the ability to become theologians)
* Ideas about causation (/active agents) – we’ve only sorted this stuff out recently, but we still find ourselves imagining that the bus company deliberately draws up its timetable exactly so we’ll see the bus pulling away just as we come out the door. There need be no surprise that people have seen dragons in lightning, or a god in the western wind.
* Hierarchy – we’re basically happy and function well if someone says they’re the boss and starts ordering people around. If that person says they also have a boss who’s much bigger and grumpier, it works all the better. Like other animals, we have a whole set of behaviors related to our perception of our place within particular hierarchies, so it’s easily exploited.
* Male fear and anger towards women – men are stronger than women, and have difficulty understanding that this doesn’t automatically grant either the right or even the means to have dominion over women in the way they have dominion over cows and sheep. Religion in its modern form allows men to say that sex is wrong (and women who arouse them sexually are evil), so they don’t need to feel how much they desire it, nor risk feeling the pain and humiliation of rejection. Religion is the perfect vehicle for this form of male stupidity and cowardice. (See footnotes)
These single elements are found in the animal kingdom too, which I note in order to point out that these behaviors sit very deeply in our neuroanatomy.
People today often talk about all forms of religion as if it’s a single phenomenon. But its “unity” is a modern invention, These elements used to be deeply embedded in everyday life as well as in ritual events and artistic expression etc. Today, given that science has proved more useful at explaining and utilizing the forces of nature, thereby ripping the old culture of ritual etc to shreds, religion has learned to throw a blanket over the damage and maintain power for its priests, as well as on a personal level, maintain some kind of psychological satisfaction for people who find science a bit hard to swallow (or don’t have the time or inclination to try)
New Age spirituality has managed to distance itself from all the mainstream religions exactly enough to be seen as providing an alternative, without abandoning its access to the psychological wellsprings of religion. It has managed to avoid the worst excesses, while exploiting the same psychological quirks as mainstream religions for its own profit and maintenance of power:
* Sexuality/ Oppression of Women – The one area where New Age spirituality has contributed something positive is that it has a fairly healthy attitude to sex, and relations between the sexes. For this, I think, it deserves some acknowledgement. It could easily be written off as pandering to a market, but a case could be made that many have found its healthier attitude to sexuality liberating.
However, in every other element in the above list, it has basically pulled the same or similar tricks that the big religions have pulled over the centuries.
* Sacrifice – As well as the normal hope and optimism that makes people over-estimate their chances of success, this impulse is also specifically targeted by many New Age teachers. Paying up front with your credit card (aka “investing in your future”) with practically no recourse to a refund. James Ray’s promises of breakthroughs that follow hard work used this impulse as a cover for psychological manipulation and sadism.
* Hierarchy – chimps have to claw and tear their way to the top of the hierarchy; but New Agers have found an easier way: simply form a hierarchy underneath you. An upcoming post (don’t hold your breath) will look at the way Neale Donald Walsch has done this, but for now I’ll just note: invent your own teachings and you’re immediately a leading expert on them; invent your own God and you’re immediately sitting at his right hand. Thanks to the psychological frailties of human nature, some people will inevitably be drawn to you, and bingo, you’re at the top of a hierarchy.
* Belief in life after death, and ideas about causation – The New Age has been far more successful in incorporating science into its propaganda than any of the big religions. Where Christianity gets laughed at for promoting Creationism, the New Age has Deepak Chopra lecturing physicists about quantum mechanics. Nuff said.
This post, Medieval Quantum Theology, covers a debate between Deepak Chopra and Sam Harris. Chopra doesn’t quite seem to know what hit him, but scrambles out of a tight corner when confronted by a leading physicist in the question time. Eventually Chopra wrote a book with the physicist, demonstrating, for my tastes at least, that some people are way too accommodating when it comes to dangerous self serving bullshit like the quackery that Chopra serves up.
Regarding the use of religion as a tool of oppression of women, this post, Pakistani Actress Fights Fire With Fire, shows an extraordinary clip of an incredibly brave woman standing up to a Muslim cleric who is attacking her like a yapping terrier. She’d already received death threats from the Taliban, but she expresses her attitude clearly: “I’m more angry with you people than you are with me.”