Saturday, June 25, 2011

Why do religion?

I feel a need to apologize for or explain the recent excursion into mystical shit. Why, I'm not sure – who am I apologizing to? Myself I guess. Does anyone else care? In part it was motivated by a feeling that I have to put some money where my mouth is. If I really believe, as I've said here on occasion, that religion is an important and fundamental part of being human, then I have to do it. Whatever religion is, it's not just something you think about or believe, it's something you practice. So I'm doing, in a fairly random and haphazard way, to be sure.

The whole Omer/Kabbalah stuff really just served as way to nucleate my usual self-absorption along certain lines that happened to be the same as other people in our synagogue's little study group. The point of this was to do this collectively, as part of a social group, which is not something I normally do. It's hard to make sense of that communal act out of its context – it is at least as much about doing something together with a particular group of people as it is about the ostensible content. Last week I was at a scientific meeting on synthetic biology (crashing it actually), and I'm struck by what ought to be by now a banal truth, which is that more than half the point of these things is networking or simply being there and constituting a social group, rather than some kind of pure disembodied information exchange. This is a pervasive phenomenon, but it's just more obvious in the case of religion than it is in cases where there are rational reasons for people to be together.

So religion is fundamentally social, just like everything else. I am someone who is (or at least perceives himself as) fundamentally asocial and areligious, and constantly working on trying to fix that.

What I ask of the free thinker is that he should confront religion in the same mental state as the believer…He who does not bring to the study of religion a sort of religious sentiment cannot speak about it! He is like a blind man trying to talk about colour.

The most bizarre or barbarous rites and the strangest myths translate some human need and some aspect of life, whether social or individual…Fundamentally, then, there are no religions that are false. All are true after their own fashion. All fulfill given conditions of human existence, though in different ways.

Because society can exist only in and by means of individual minds, it must enter into us and become organized within us. That force thus becomes an integral art of our being…

There cannot be a rational interpretation of religion which is fundamentally irreligious; an irreligious interpretation of religion would be an interpretation which denied the phenomenon it was trying to explain.

From my standpoint...religion ceases to be an inexplicable hallucination of some sort and gains a foothold in reality. Indeed, we can say that the faithful are not mistaken when they believe in the existence of a moral power to which they are subject and from which they receive what is best in themselves. That power exists, and it is society...In this way, religion acquires a sense and a reasonableness that the most militant rationalist cannot fail to recognize. The main object of religion is not to give man a representation of the natural universe...religion is first and foremost a system of ideas by means of which individuals imagine the society of which they are members and the obscure yet intimate relations they have with it.

– Emile Durkheim (the son of a rabbi, I just learned), The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

Well, I could pull quotes from Durkheim all day, but the overarching point is that religion is about something real, and that whatever it is, is the same thing that animates social life in general. So, my interest in religion has two aspects: from the personal side, I do it to align myself with the social, something that I feel I need to do in order to be a mature adult (still working on that at my advanced age). And from the outside, I don't think you can understand politics without understanding religion, a point I touch on occasionally and is the subject of an interesting-sounding new book on "political theology".

We live in a dangerous time. The old gods are dead, the new ones have not sorted themselves out yet. I feel some sort of an obligation to be part of the sorting process.

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