Why we can’t talk about religion
For the last while, I’ve been pondering why religion somehow gets special privileges (over, say, science, law, the military, medicine—any other field of human endeavor): why writing a parody, or a logical critique, or a statement of strong disagreement works well in fields other than religion, but in religion trouble is quickly encountered—in religion, manners are more easily breached, feelings more sensitive, offense more readily taken, physical counterattacks more likely. This aspect of religion seems to hold (so far as I can tell) for every religion, regardless of the content of their teachings.
I now have an understanding of a reason—one that satisfies me for now. First recognize that one cannot deny that we have feelings that all normal persons share: a profound sense of awe at certain events, at the time of the event and in later recollection, generally events that are fundamental to our humanity, and beyond that to our animalhood, and even to being a living entity. Birth. Death. Love. Death of someone you love. The end of love. Grief. These are events and memories that take one deep into a cluster of feelings and a primitive sort of pre-verbal knowledge and awareness that together are such that the only reasonable term for the experience is religious. It is clearly a powerful experience, the kind that changes people’s lives—the particular change depending on the person’s character, choices, previous experience, genetic predispositions, and who knows what, and the direction of change can be positive or negative or a mix: say the death of a parent causing changes in the direction of anger or bitterness but also in the direction of greater self-reliance and increased ability to come to a decision. (I’m making these up: they don’t reflect me or anyone I know, just examples to show the kind of thing I’m talking about.)
So far, so good. I think at this point we have universal agreement: we’ve had those feelings, we’ve had that experience, and we sense the profundity of the power.
The problem arises, as Lao Tzu would say, in the naming of things. So long as we knew without naming, we were fine. But when we started naming, we starting to try to put into words these wordless—these pre-word, unconscious, pre-cerebral—feelings/experiences/knowledge/emotions/awareness, then we really muck it up.
For one thing, words are the elements of ratiocination, and as soon as you start to reason—logically, rationally, based on actual experience—-about any religion, you quickly run into the fact that it makes no sense at all and also the precepts in the documents usually are far from daily practice. (Example: Left as an exercise for the reader.) That such a problem arises is totally understandable: what became “religion” as documented in words grew up in the swamps (as Rationality would view it), in the depths of wordless experience, so when it is put into words, it doesn’t work worth a damn.
Interestingly, each religion can see this clearly about every other religion. Just to be parochial and Western for a moment: the Baptists can see the problems in Mormonism, Mormans can see the things that don’t make sense in Catholicism, Catholics completely see what’s wrong with the Unitarians, the Unitarians see the difficulties of Scientology, and the Scientologists can see what’s wrong with all the others (and Scienitologists are not unique in having a clear perception of the wrongness of “the others”).
So one can’t talk about religion and it has special rules because “religion” as done in society is a quivering, fracturing, shaky pancake of words, a different pancake for each religion, but each sitting over the same profound awe-inspiring power of individual religious experiences. As soon as you start talking about it, it becomes obvious that the words don’t make sense, but those are secondary: the key is the power of the religious experience, which people want to share and, unfortunately, the language meme is so all-encompassing that words become the primary way to share—and words lead directly to conflict.
So one way to solve it is to skip the words: have and recognize the religious feelings and experiences and treasure them, but shut up about it already.
Not possible, unfortunately, for most people. Certainly it’s possible for hermits, religious and otherwise, and monks in monasteries, and various other examples of separating the religious experience from words—but this separation is too much. By not talking about anything, religious or secular, they’re throwing away the baby with the bathwater. There’s no problem using words in science, law, medicine, the military, and so on. Indeed, these human (and recent, evolutionarily speaking—much more recent than the core of religious experience, for that goes back to birth, sex, loss, death, and the like, all occurring from the very beginning, thus the depth of their power) endeavors are veritably built on langauge.
So: no talking about religion, but talking about everything else. That would work, except for one thing: we are a social species, and people want to do things together and to share.
So that brings us to drumming and and dance and music and painting and sculpture: all tied to religion ab ovo, I imagine. None need involve words at all, all are (or can be, or work best as) communal. And all can be used to communicate and share the experiences I have called “religious.” Indeed, theater presents the (simulated, evoked) experiences without words of a religious nature: Oedipus Rex arouses feelings of the nature and depth of religious feelings, but no religious “teachings” are conveyed in words. The ideas come from our active contemplation, as it were, of the actions/experiences of the players/characters.
Music, of course, is another medium through which to express the experience of religion, as is dance and the others. So let those be the media through which religious experience is shared and communicated, not words. Bach’s music is enjoyed by believers of diverse faiths, including secular—and note that those who hold that there is no God, still experience the profound feelings of awe and the depth of emotions at the aforementioned basic life experiences. I do think “religious feelings” is a good name for feelings of that sort, and the staunchest atheist will acknowledge having such feelings (adjective aside), simply because he is a living animal, and that’s the level of these feelings.
So my understanding leads to a way to test the idea: a large group of people of different faiths, not permitted to communicate anything about their particular religous (word) beliefs, but allowed to drum, dance, chant wordlessly, play musical instruments (have to avoid faith-specific hymns: only original works, how’s that?), sculpt, paint, …
I guess someone should apply for a grant. The Templeton Foundation?
UPDATE: The Wife reminds me that some religions forbid the use of graven (i.e., figurative) images, so their painted art is more abstract. It occurs to me if a particular religion can simply ban one of the social media that we use—no graven images, or (in the case of others) no music—then it would seem quite feasible to ban words, restricting expression and communication to the non-verbal and non-discursive arts.