The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Concept of Religion

July 27th, 2003 · No Comments · Illuminations, metaphysics, ritual

There are two ideas that made a profound impact on my conceptualization of religion: the concept of the ‘selfish gene’, and the recognition that humans are still animals.

If you want to understand your purpose in life, understand that the genome that built you wants to reproduce, and everything about you and all of nature is centered and focused on reproduction. While this may not be something you have a personal, conscious desire towards, it is what you were ‘built’ to do. It explains a lot about why our society does what it does, and why parents and children behave the way they do. We are a very successful species in that we have managed to cover our globe, filling many disparate ecospheres, and driving out most other genomes from our populated areas.

The second idea is the realization that humans are animals. We evolved, along with many simian cousins, over time from a common species that didn’t walk, talk, or play Parcheesi. There was not a magic day when some bountiful, immortal and pre-existing being designed and built a few humans. Other than playing Parcheesi and a habit of covering our hairless bodies, we are not all that dissimilar from our simian cousins. Whatever we have, we, as humans, have created or built it from the materials provided by nature and the complexity and flexibility of our own minds — this includes all religion.

These ideas eventually led me to the understanding that religion is an internal process utilized to deal with events and activities outside of one’s own control. Said another way, religion is a set of entirely subjective ideas and experiences with little to no objective reality with which to relate it. Whether you get it from your grandmother, or a book, the McChurch in your neighborhood or the Buddhist temple, only the pieces that you internalize actually become a part of your religion. You might identify strongly with one type or another, but this is an internal decision, albeit frequently based on social pressures. You can choose to let someone else tell you what your religion should be, or you can find the elements of religion from all of history and human experience and take on the parts that satisfy you. What you cannot do is lack religion: by this definition, religion is just part of the toolkit of the brain, and you’ve either taken the time to develop it, or you neglect it. But even a neglected religion has something in it. No one needs a stamp of approval from anyone else to validate one’s religion, no matter how meager.

Religion can have many uses: it can bring hope in the face of a hopeless situation; it can bring comfort in the shadow of loss, pain, or fear; it can help celebrate individuals, families, towns, societies — even ancestors! The of religion can be a healthful thing for mind and body (and presumably, even, the soul). What religion really comes down to, for me, is the communication with deity for advice or assistance. The brain conceptualizes deity as an anthropomorphic creature, almost as a default. When thinking about the divine nature of a thunder storm or a flock of geese or an ocean, my praise, humor, or awe would be applied from a human perspective, using values meaningful only to humans.

The thought of the deity is the deity. Communicate with this thought as you would another human. Yes, it’s just all in your head, but this is how you can allow your unconscious mind to really interact with your reality. The brain is astoundingly more complex that you can imagine, and personality occupies such a small portion as to be nearly insignificant. Your brain doesn’t care how you’ve conceptualized reality, if you believe in UFOs or ghosts or believe you’ve seen Jesus or Elvis. Religion is a tool that works closely with the unconscious mind to gain awareness of reality. Any tool that you can use that allows you to better navigate your reality should be exploited.

Here’s some ideas to help you get started building your own religion (if you haven’t already done so):

  • The sacred is everywhere
    Look for the sacred around you all the time, recognize it, and let yourself be in sacred space. If you don’t think there is enough sacred space where you’re at — create some! Altars and statuary are nice where you can get away with it, but plants, aquariums, comfortable seating, and some source of pleasant odors or sounds can go a long way towards defining sacred space. The point is to allow yourself to feel relaxed, comfortable, and unencumbered by stress by providing an area that is free of unpleasant distractions, or at least stocked with a few pleasant distractions. This is the first step to communicating with deity.
  • Deity is everywhere
    Any way you would want to define a group of people or anything else defines a god. Gods are how religions conceptualize non-human components of reality. A god may not necessarily be all knowing or all powerful, or even immortal. But to recognize the god (or the ‘genius’) of a group of people or a grove of trees is to have a new way to understand and work with the group or the grove. Recognizing deity is the second step to communicating with deity.
  • Everyone is a God
    Each person is a god — recognize the divinity in yourself and in others and work to communicate and socialize at that level. Don’t look for a hierarchy of divinity, just accept the divinity of others as being the same as your own. Give yourself credit for your own divinity. Learn to master your own super-powers. Grant yourself permission to do that which seems difficult, unlikely, even impossible.
  • Love everyone
    This seems trite, but it’s easy, and it really is a key. Love your neighbor, love yourself; love your family, friends, and relations. Love the people you don’t know and the people you disagree with. Love, in this context, means acceptance, patience, and care. Start with yourself: love yourself. Once you love yourself, you will find that you automatically love everyone else. Love is the third step to communicating with deity.
  • Theatrics help memory
    Something as small as the use of a word, or a particular turn of a phrase, can help remind one, or even a group, of religious ideals and convictions. A series of actions and behaviors could be used to denote a special anniversary, sacred day, or momentous event. People typically enjoy performing and observing familiar rituals, and do so to feel the joy, satisfaction, love, or compassion of others sharing the ritual.Rituals can be very small, and need not even be traditional, and can even be made up on the spot. It can be handy to practice such memory tools for those days when life seems grim or unbearable. A reminder to seek out divinity, sacred space, caring friends, and a warm hearth will go a long way towards mediating depression and sadness. Rituals can be used to create sacred space, recognize deity, and even initiate conversation with deity.
  • Observe everything, absorb what works
    Look carefully at other religions and the religious practice of others. Identify what elements please you and adapt them into your religious practice. For best results, seek out religious ideas and practices outside your current range of experience, then come back and re-analyze the ones you grew up with.
  • As life changes, religion should change
    Religion cannot be an unchanging, unresponsive thing. Religion is not authentic because it is ancient, it is authentic because it is used. For it to be used, it must change to accommodate the actual living situation of the believer. Another handy use of the ‘God’ concept is to provide role models in the different stages of life. As we age and experience different events and changes in life, seeking out a powerful example of what you think you are or should be can be helpful when it’s time to make decisions or weather the storm. Periodic analysis of one’s own religion can be a good thing, as well, to promote changes that more accurately reflect one’s life and ideals.
  • Know where you come from
    Celebrate your dead ancestors: learn their names and histories, and in the process, discover just how many cousins you really have. Learn the languages, culture, and rituals of your ancestors. Take a journey to visit the ‘home’ countries. Hint: communication with ancestors works just like communication with deities.

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