A Brief Defense of Religion: The Double-Standard Argument [Repost from The Magical Messiah]

Any important or powerful idea is potentially dangerous to the very degree to which it is important or powerful. It is as foolish, therefore, to blame mechanized industry for Hitler and Stalin — or to blame advanced physics for Hiroshima and Nagasaki — as it is to blame the message of Jesus Christ and the sacraments established for our spiritualization for the Crusades and the Inquisition. Why, then, is this such a common foundational argument for atheists and materialists?

The faulty assumption of materialist reductionism notwithstanding, religion is treated as a separate entity, a thing apart from “the rest of life.” There is contradiction, here, on the part of materialists, but also on the part of “religionists.”

Materialists, for their part, want to have their cake and eat it. On one hand, we have atheists like Sam Harris who propose to study religion as any other “natural” phenomenon. That is, Harris wants religion to be a strictly sociological, anthropological, and neurological event, codifiable and quantifiable, but without the qualia of real experience. The religious person would balk at such an approach, not entirely without reason. To study the physical attributes of red light, or the biochemistry of a raspberry, is yet quite distant from the experience of redness or the feel and taste of a fresh raspberry. In answer to the faithful, however, there is surely something to be learned from, say, studies of the neural correlates of religious experience. The materialist will be forever barred by the nature of things from his true goal: religious experience cannot be explained away by mere brain states. Though not the place to go fully into the topic, it is relevant at least to point out the relationship between drugs like mescaline and DMT and religious experience. Drugs like these may provide a “sneak peek” into the world of mysticism, but do not produce — outside of traditional, sacramental contexts, at any rate — the lasting constructive shift in perspective and behavior which arise quite naturally from meditation and deep prayer. Even the so-called “God helmet”, touted by unsophisticated atheists as proof that God is all in the brain, seems to produce nothing but a hazy sense of “presence” with literally none of the hallmarks of authentic contemplative experience, and certainly no lasting change in the participant. If anything is proven thereby, it is only that there are indeed brain-states correlative with religious experience, but that tells us precious little about the nature of that experience. Seeing how the brain responds to the color blue would give a colorblind scientist no notion of the feeling of “blueness”.

Even with this desire to study religion from the outside, as it were, and to treat it as a fully “natural” event (leaving aside the purely Western need to distinguish with absolute sharpness between nature and supernature), the materialist still wishes to hold religion at arm’s length from human culture-at-large. This distinction is artificial and quite unnecessary, but the secularist will call it justice.

It is from this violent analysis of human nature that arises the attack of atheists like Richard Dawkins that the religious person is mentally deranged and that religion is a psychological anomaly requiring eradication or cure. (For mercy’s sake, we will not here delve into the proposition of Sam Harris and others that Muslims ought to be conquered or killed for the crime of being Muslims; this would take us far afield. It is enough to mention it as a possible extravagance of atheism, and that it is not representative of the majority atheist belief). It is obvious, and not enough as arguments go, to say that this is quite the reverse of the historical pattern, so far as “mental health” is defined by social functionality and statistical normalcy.

The back-alley stabbing attempted here against reality is quite easy to thwart. Study after study by “dispassionate” science shows the very real usefulness of religious faith — or even mere belief — in maintaining healthy attitudes during convalescence, old age, and life’s many trials are too clear to ignore: religion appears to aid, rather than hinder, psychological health. Taken to extremes, religion is as liable as anything to produce imbalance and extravagance, but when properly incorporated, it seems to be factually beneficial. This is, as a materialist will be quick to point out, little or no help in proving the truth-claims of religion, but it does kick a leg from under the claim of the inherent destructiveness of religion to the human mind.

Medically beneficial or not, there is something inherent to the place of religion in the human psyche; rare indeed is the person with no religious impulse at all, and even atheists tend to see something pitiable in a void of any sense of mystery and awe when staring into a starry sky, walking along the ocean’s edge and gazing at its vastness, or listening to the majestic peals of thunder approaching with black clouds in train. Like it or not, this very sense of grandeur and beauty is as “religious” as anything. Those students of religion-as-phenomenon often say that religion is an attempt on the part of the “primitive” mind to understand and participate in this majesty. The religionist might well respond: by the very suchness of things, we will participate in this suchness in any case at all, but only religion permits us to do so consciously, deliberately, and fully. This is the difference between the non-action of the Sage, on one hand, and the blind action of the passion-filled and the inaction of the lazy, on the other.

The mistake of the religionist referred to previously is also based in the false separation of religion from “the rest of life.” This separation is absurd. Religion is for humanity, for life, and not the reverse. If it could only meaningfully apply to quiet evenings alone, religion would be no different than watching television (except, perhaps, for the fact that we are socially encouraged to publicly discuss television, but not religion). A saying has it that faith is personal, but not private. Forgiving the inadequacy of a merely personal faith, the saying is useful in that it points to the need to fully live one’s religion without needing to violate the freedom of conscience of those around. In order to fully live one’s faith, one must first have faith to begin with. Faith is an investment of trust in a process, not mere ascent to a set of precepts and abstractions. Insofar as doctrines are necessary, they serve as foundational pointers to the process in which one might place faith, but they do not themselves make up that process. The religious process may begin in one specific arena — say, politics (Confucianism), collective worship (Judaism), or private contemplation (Buddhism) — but it must inevitably bear fruits which spread further seeds upon the soil of every other arena of life. In essence, all religions lead to the unicity of individual life, of collective society, and, eventually, of all existence. “He to whom all things are One, and who draweth all things to One, and seeth all things in One, can be steadfast in heart, and remain peaceable in God.” (The Imitation of Christ, I.3) The error of separation, of division, of dualism is one shared by many among the religious and secular alike, but it is still an error.

To draw the circle closed, the power inherent in any authentically religious perspective is, then, also its danger. But nuclear technology can provide cheap electricity as easily as it can vaporize millions of lives; it is entirely a matter of motivation. We may draw the analogy out a bit further: the amount of raw power made available by nuclear technology comes with the corresponding risk of that power going out of bounds and causing destruction purely accidentally. So, then, with ideas. Religion has been a powerhouse for enslavement of individuals and nations, but also a dynamo of freedom in the hearts and hands of the wise and charitable. It is the nature of Revelation to point the way to Liberation for those with eyes to see and ears to hear (and, despite New Age and other post-modern claims to the contrary, there is little enough evidence that real, lasting, organic, and responsible freedom is possible without dogma). This very capacity to break chains, though, may be redirected by the unwise, shortsighted, egotistical, or downright malicious among us to the cracking of bones. The same key will lock and unlock. When you lift an axe, shall you split logs, or skulls?

Joining the Hindu Community: Names

I’m at the stage of trying to decide upon my Saivite name. I will then start using it, “feeling it out”, as it were, and will eventually have my name legally changed leading up to a formal name-giving ceremony with a priest. This will surely be an interesting process. I know some very open-minded people, and have a loving family, so I know I’ll get through this, but I also feel like I’ll lose a few along the way.

The Metaphysics of Polytheology

In his important 1922 study on Thoth, the Hermes of Egypt, Egyptologist Patrick Boylan states that

Egyptian theology does not show, in general, any clear tendency towards system. The great mass of religious texts in Egypt is marked by vagueness and even inconsistency. Individual gods are very rarely clear and well-defined personalities. Indeed, it is a feature of Egyptian theology that nearly every one of its gods is capable, in one way or another, of being fused with others. (Oxford University Press, pg 107)

This could just as easily have been said about the theology of any number of so-called “polytheistic” religions, from Hinduism to Shinto Japan to regional Amerind cultures. Gods and spirits merge into one another, separate as “emanations” or “aspects”, serve as the organs of more primitive deities, and so forth, in a constant process of reevaluation. Throughout his book Boylan complains of the muddling of Egyptian theology and insists — against all evidence — that it is not a sign of metaphysical speculation as much as it is a consequence of cultic politics and sloppy thinking. In point of fact, though, there is as much sophistication to Egyptian theology as there is to Indian or Tibetan Buddhist theologies (or “boddhisatvologies”, if one likes), and it happens to manifest as this very sort of unsystematic and flexible approach to divinity.

Authentic or traditional polytheism — over against what modern Neopagans and Neoheathens call “hard polytheism” — resists all attempts at rigid systematization by virtue of its inherent understanding that the Divine is itself beyond the defining concepts of number and name. This transnumerality manifests in some revelations as monotheism, in others as transpersonal nontheism, and in others as henopolytheism. (See Various “Theisms” in the Perennial Wisdom for more on this.) It is only the monotheistic traditions, however, in which strict systems are required. Judaism and Islam have the Names of God, while Christianity has its hypostases. Hierarchies of angels and saints serve a similar, though subordinate, purpose in these theologies. These lists and hierarchies serve to preserve the monotheism and emphasize the Supreme Godhead, all the while acknowledging the metaphysically necessary powers, influences, and theophanies. It is thus that each form of the Revelation places emphasis on one or more faces of Truth, while still acknowledging other necessary fundamentals.

The so-called polytheisms have symbolic names and forms for the various divine functionary powers, acknowledging them as individual entities with at least as much reality as those who worship them. It has been said of the Hindu murtis (statues and other images of gods found in temples and shrines) that they do not constitute idolatry because, while they may be literally constructed by human craftsmen, they are based in divine prototypes; Ganeśa has the head of an elephant, for instance, to indicate His connection to intelligence, memory, and compassion, while His belly is large to point to His being the field in which the created universe has its existence. One could go on with each feature, from the number of His arms, to what He holds in His hands, and so on, down to small details. Similarly, the Egyptian Thoth is usually depicted with the head of an ibis to demonstrate dignity, concentration, and a calm soaring over the “ocean of heaven”, while the beak of the ibis is reminiscent of the scribe’s stylus (much as the broken tusk Ganeśa often holds). Again, one could expand endlessly upon such an analysis. These images, then, constitute a form of divine writing, just like the hieroglyphs and other writing systems themselves gifted by Thoth-Ganeśa.

Though symbolic, these entities are not “merely” symbolic; speaking in terms of the Perennial Philosophy, symbols are living things and, being closer to the Center of the Mind of God, these Great Symbols whom we call Gods and devas, Archangels and angels are more real and more sentient than we are ourselves — at least from the perspective of contingency, where this sort of differentiation of degree is meaningful and necessary. Thus, in Saivism, we pray to Ganeśa and to Karttikeya, and make offerings to the host of devas and ganas, without in any way conflicting with our understanding of Śiva as Godhead. Ganeśa, Karttikeya, et al, are simultaneously emanations from, aspects of, and children to God. More familiar to most Westerners, this is a very similar scheme to that of the Christian Savior, Who is the man Jesus, the cosmic Messiah, and the primitive-creative Logos at one and the same time, without any conflict or contradiction. The “unsophisticated” Egyptian theologies are largely the same.

Western and Western-influenced academics and scholars have tried to systematize polytheologies for centuries. Whether the purely hypothetical categories of comparative religion courses, or the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s take on the kabbalistic Tree of Life as “filing cabinet of symbolism” (a dubious interpretation, to be sure), all of these attempts end up cutting out the sophistication which does exist in these philosophies by shoehorning vast metaphysics into conceptual cubicles having little or no relation to the original ideas involved. In books on archaeology, religious history, or Western occultism, we often read references to “solar” and “lunar” deities, as if this were an absolute trait recognized universally by worshipers across the globe. This does little justice to those deities, however. Apollo is not god of the sun; instead, he is a god of poetry, music, scientific inquiry, beauty, and athletics — he is “solar” in the sense of being a “luminary” and patron to human luminaries. He is not, then, identical with Rê, even if they share some traits and symbolic associations. Apollo was sometimes equated by Greeks with their “other” sun god, Helios, and this is accurate insofar as Apollo is the “subtle sun”, while Helios is the body of the sun. Helios is the luminous body which we see each day, while Apollo is the reality behind it. Similarly, Rê, Ptah, and Horus are all Egyptian “sun gods”, but with different significance. Rê is the materially creative power of the sun, the sun as life-giver, but his “mind” is Thoth — a “lunar” god. Ptah is also a creator god, but more in the vein of an artist; the ancient Egyptian word for “sculpture” is, in fact, equal to the phrase “Ptah-formed”. So, Ptah has more in common with Apollo than with Helios or even Rê. Horus is a warrior, the transcendent Light who defeats darkness; he has more in common with the Saivite Karttikeya, even with the warrior aspect of Hermes and the Archangel Michael, than with any of his fellow Egyptian sun-gods. The most ancient descriptions of Horus have the sun and moon as his eyes rather than identifying him exclusively with either body. To the Western academic, this all looks rather sloppy, but that is only because it is at least as meaningless to try to categorize deities as strictly “solar” or “jovial” — or even the popular “mother goddess” — in nature (maintaining the possibility of meaningful associations) as it is to categorize individual men and women as rigidly “hungry” or “asleep”. (Please note, here, that it is a different thing to call a deity “hermetic”, as this term — far from pointing only to a planetary association — points more to that entity’s status as representative and communicator of the Perennial Wisdom and is, thus, a much broader and deeper label.)

Metaphysics is very flexible as to its expression, as long as it is truly expressed rather than glossed. The “hard polytheism” of popular approaches to, say, Germanic and Celtic reconstructionism misses the esoteric significance of the death of Baldur or the sacrificial runic mission of Odin just as much as Protestantism fails to read the inner process signified by the Book of Revelation; they drop metaphysics in exchange for artificial “system”. A fear of Chaos — misinterpreted as “disorder” — leads not to Cosmos, but to mere legalism. The authentic theologies of Revelation, whether monotheisms with their heirarchies of angels or heno- and polytheisms of Luminous Beings flowing from the Ontological Core, have nothing to fear from Chaos and cannot conceive of a Law separate from its Spirit. The very purpose of the true polytheism is to grant access to Infinity.