Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Why we can’t talk about religion

with 27 comments

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.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 November 2011 at 7:35 pm

Posted in Daily life, Religion

27 Responses

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  1. You may be over-thinking it. Perhaps the problem is simply that we all collectively agree that religious beliefs get special treatment, that they are somehow above being jostled by other ideas about the world, that to subject them to that marketplace of ideas would be rude and inappropriate.

    Except some of us are unwilling to make or honor this agreement at all.

    I treat religion (any religion) as a theory about the way the universe works. Like other theories, it must be subject to scrutiny, testing and challenge from competing ideas.

    We don’t need less talking about religion. We need more of it. We need to start treating it the same as other ideas about the world. Whatever can’t survive in that environment, let it go. And good riddance, I say.


    28 November 2011 at 7:50 pm

  2. Well, I disagree, mostly for reasons stated in the post. The question is: why does that agreement and feeling exist? what causes it? Your comment doesn’t touch on that, and that of course is the very thing the comment addresses.


    28 November 2011 at 8:01 pm

  3. For the average believer, religion isn’t something that organically grows up out of their own personal, awesome, transformative experiences. It is something far shallower and smaller than that. It is what one is taught from a young age. These ideas are too good to be questioned or scrutinized. People who believe them unquestioningly are good people. People who don’t believe them are not as good. Believing things without questioning and without thought is morally praiseworthy.

    Yes, there are some people whose religious feelings stem directly from their very own, private, esoteric, spiritual experiences. But I think much of what passes for religion is just a shadow of that. An inoculation, even; a little case of it sufficient that one doesn’t ever get the full blown disease.


    28 November 2011 at 8:17 pm

  4. Let me say it again: Everyone has those experiences. Everyone experiences grief and loss. Everyone faces death, and most see it nearby and know what awaits. Everyone who has held and comforted a small child. Everyone, in a word, experiences these very deep feelings. That’s the point. People do have these feelings.

    Those feelings have a common element that is quite profound and inspires a sense of awe. People who have the experiences and feelings I’ve described—i.e., everyone—has had such experiences, whether or not they connect them to their church services. Whether they do or not, they have, I believe, had such feelings. They encounter the basic human lot, of having to find shelter, food, a desire for sex and children, a growing understanding of danger and death, and the inevitable losses that occur along the way, including the great final loss of life itself. That sort of stuff is (a) inescapable, and (b) strong medicine.

    Now what they do with that experience varies, and I tried to describe that in the post. Some dedicate their life to this or that, others do other things. I don’t know. The point is that they have the experience.

    Some people go to church—willy-nilly, as you point out, forced by parents, grow up in it, rote, neighbors all do it, whatever. The point is that they are there in the church, and there’s a lot of talk about similar sorts of experiences and, more important, there is group singing and recitation, and a group solidarit regarding a fundamental sense of awe at a power greater than oneself—and you think that this would NOT be connected at some level within the individuals there with their own individual experiences of those awe-inspiring events? How could the two NOT be inevitably associated? Especially with words, music, chant, and—for all I know—dance is working to evoke those same feelings, magnified by having the group act as an amplifier, as it were. The whole thing has evolved as a meme to tap that power, to bring it back to use it to power the society.

    Is that a good idea? That’s not the question I’m addressing. The question I was addressing (and still am, as you see) is, “Why is it difficult for people to discuss religion without getting into trouble and raising each other’s hackles?” That was the question I asked, and then when I answered it (to my satisfaction) by the source problem being the effort to squeeze religious, pre-rational emotional/feeling entities—“thoughts” at a very low level of resolution and very long wave-length—into the high-res, ultra-precise, logical-rule-obeying network of language, and—surprise!—it doesn’t work, then I asked the obvious follow-up question, “How can people get the amplifying/sharing satisfaction of group religious sharing/evoking without the use of words?”. I then suggested that an effort could be made to fund experiments in forming religious “congregations” drawing people from multiple religions but barring the use of language—probably, for the experiment, no language use at all: just drumming, dance, music, painting, and so on. Would that satisfactorily answer the need to share and evoke these profound feelings we all have had?

    I just realized as I typed that last paragraph that this whole thing is a reworking of a portion of the dinner conversation in My Dinner With Andre; specifically, it’s the anecdote Andre Gregory tells of his interlude in the forest, in which he gather a group in which non-verbal communication was all that was possible—see the movie. Maybe I should watch it again and save myself some time.


    28 November 2011 at 8:54 pm

  5. I’m sorry, my friend. I sense that I am too eager to grind my own axe to hear clearly what you are saying.

    Still, for me the word “religion” does not mean “those profound and common experiences that we all have.” Or even “the ceremonies and community activities we associate and tie to those profound and common experiences we all have.” To me it means “the silly, supernatural things we believe, or profess to believe, without much evidence or thought.” If you mean something different by it, that’s cool by me. I don’t want to talk past each other, as it were.

    If only religion really was just community and ceremony around the big commonalities of human existence. I’d be the most devout religious person you know. Ordained clergy, even.

    Also, I should also re-watch My Dinner With Andre. Maybe I’ll bring it in to my movie club at work next time my turn comes to pick the flick.


    28 November 2011 at 9:14 pm

  6. First, you’re absolutely right that using “religion” to mean several different things, as I did, is a clear violation of one of the earliest Principles of English Prose, as specified by Graves & Hodge in The Reader Over Your Shoulder. I recognized as I was writing that I had trouble phrasing things so that the reader could tell one “religion” from a dissimilar “religious” (the former referring to the various churches operating around us now, the latter to those profound feelings/experiences), for example. I should simply have adopted a different term for each sense, and I should have found names from another context so that the reader could focus on the specific idea I wanted to convey rather than trying to discern what the word means to me through the screen of what the word means to the reader. If I take a word from another context entirely, or an abstract name, I could focus the reader on the exact intended meaning.

    So one conclusion: I should rewrite that at some point. And the thing you associate with the word “religion” (“the silly, supernatural things we believe, or profess to believe, without much evidence or thought.”) is exactly what I was meant when I wrote about how the actual feelings/awareness/knowledge of the religious experience cannot be put into words without really mucking it up, because words lead to discourse, misunderstandings (a prime example right here at hand, right?), and words allow chains of reasoning and deduction, leading to rules and restrictions and stories made up to paper over the gaps in the original set of words, causing new problems that call for more words and all the rest of the stuff you were talking about: that is all, it seems to me, the dire result of forcing a wordless—a pre-language—experience into words, and a problem that can be avoided, as Andre Gregory recounts, if one avoids communication through words. Feelings don’t argue, as it were: words argue. Feelings are just felt, and with non-verbal communication of them, there is no argument: how do you refute crying? what is the response to laughter? I know: it depends on the type and context of the laughter. But that shows the range of communication without words. And the kind of logical knots that words construct don’t happen in the non-verbal environment. And perhaps the nonverbal expression and communication of those profound feelings does not arouse the kind of hair-splitting counter-argument common in verbal expressions of the experiences. All people do, after all, share a common set of profound life experiences.


    28 November 2011 at 9:51 pm

  7. Perhaps you should get a djembe or a ukulele for Christmas. Do you play an instrument of any kind?


    28 November 2011 at 9:53 pm

  8. LOL. Good thought.

    I realized that what I’m saying amounts to this: If you in your mind remove all words and verbal elements of religion, do you object (or object so strongly) to what remains?


    28 November 2011 at 10:13 pm

  9. Well, well, I see that after our many vigorous discussions on the topic earlier this year, you have gone out into the desert and returned with a very accurate understanding of the issue! Very well put, BTW.

    OTOH, my understanding is that what you call “religious feelings” isn’t quite the same at the direct spiritual experience of God, which my many monk friends on Mount Athos will tell you comes more from stillness than from dance. The monks, BTW, do communicate about secular matters very competently, and generally don’t “talk” religion. They pray, chant, meditate, and even work mindfully; these all intended to get into the spaces between the words.

    Art, dance, math, music, are perhaps bridges to the transcendent unconscious for some. But generally, they generate way too much emotional passion, which itself can be counterproductive to the spiritual experience. But you are right that talk is a killer; it immediately engages the intellect and Ego, which transforms everything into a logical game from which there is, in this case, no emergence.


    29 November 2011 at 1:19 pm

  10. “If you in your mind remove all words and verbal elements of religion, do you object (or object so strongly) to what remains?”

    Certainly not. “What remains” is mostly just experienced feelings. Who could object to that? It just is.

    However, I’m not sure I’m willing to concede this part of the human experience to religion. After all, even nonreligious people experience them. Kind of the same thing for morality–another thing that the religious like to pretend they invented and own.

    Of course I think morality is important. Of course I think nonverbal feelings (even profound ones) are an essential part of what it is to be human. But these are not religion to me. I do understand the urge to refer to these things as religious. But ultimately I think it does more harm than good to think of them this way. I do not want them to unduly validate or prop up harmful and undeserving ways of thinking.


    29 November 2011 at 1:40 pm

  11. The spiritual experience isn’t a feeling. It is an unintuitive understanding that transcends feeling and ideas. Naming it “feelings” is just another effort to “name” it as something that can be understood intellectually because we understand “feelings”.


    29 November 2011 at 2:33 pm

  12. @Steve: I suspect the direct experience of God, as perceived, comes in many flavors and situations, and I was primarily discussing group worship in any event rather than solitary contemplation, and dance has long been a part of group worship: the Sufi dervishes are well known, and Gurdjieff used dance in his spiritual practice. Group worship is (I think) a way to recall and reconnect with the religious feelings, and at their best once again evoke the experience, but amplified by the group cohesion and participation—group flow, as it were.

    Just in looking at religious practices through the ages, drumming, music, dance, sculpture, and painting have routinely been involved—more than words, I would bet. Spiritual experiences seem connected to very deep feelings, and I would call those “profound emotions.” I don’t see the opposition between emotion and spiritual experience that you perceive.

    @Scott: What I am calling “religious feelings” is still, I think, not coming across—mainly because of the word “religious” in the phrase. Let’s call them “profound feelings usually associated with direct experience involving great life events: birth, love, death, loss, grief, and the like. The sort of feelings (as I note) that everyone has, religious or not: the direct encounters that make one recognize their place in the greater scheme of things. Those I call “religious feelings” without intending that the people experiencing them will go on to practice religion, and by “religion” I mean the social structures and practices specifically developed to deal with such feelings as a social group.

    I think that perhaps I have totally confused “religious feelings” (the feelings I’ve described, which everyone has) and “religion”, which is a social construct that deals with those feelings.

    I have not brought up morality at all—in fact, in this discussion it seems irrelevant to me: a new topic, if you will.

    I’ve pretty much explained my thinking on religious feelings, on religion, and how language gets introduced as one tries to bring religious feelings (private) into religion (public and group-oriented), and the introduction of language messes things up, being basically incompatible with the initial experience. But people will put language on the experience to get religion, with the result that conversation and discussion becomes quite difficult because the results, spelled out in language, make no sense—as even participants in religion recognize (though not for their own religion, just for the religion of others: their own religion is generally off limits to discussion and analysis, especially by “outsiders”). I do append the notion, cribbed (apparently) from Andre Gregory, of trying to do religion nonverbally, which I think would be interesting and might reduce conflict, which seems to come from the words part.

    I certainly believe that the religious feelings I’ve described are profound enough and significant enough to deserve a public way of observing, recalling, and evoking them: a practice of religion. I just think the current practices may have gone in a wrong direction by being too invested in language, rules, and the like.

    I understand that we do not agree. But I’m mainly trying to explain my position so you understand, not convince you to agree.


    29 November 2011 at 4:28 pm

  13. @ Steve: Good point: “feelings” does indeed miss the mark, as does “sensation”. “Awareness” might work, save it’s too broad: I’m aware I’m sitting in a chair, with Megs beside me on the arm, but that is not the same awareness that comes over one at those moments. And you’re right: it’s trying to do it with words that make it slip through our fingers. Communicating the experience with music works better, perhaps. Rudolf Otto wrote an excellent book, The Idea of the Holy, that tackles this general predicament. Fascinating book, highly recommended. I read it my senior year of college and a couple of times since.

    And in agreeing with you, I point out that the word “understanding” is also off the mark. “Experience” seems as close as we can get. (I know there is a sense of “understanding”, which is why the word is used, but I don’t think it’s “understanding” as we normally use the word. Otto calls it the mysterium tremendum.)


    29 November 2011 at 4:58 pm

  14. @Scott, as I made a new batch of pepper sauce (red fresnos, mostly, with a dozen habanero, three jalapeños, 2 dried anchos, and 8 dried chipotles, plus vinegar, 2 Tbsp olive oil, and salt—it’s simmering now), I thought of a better formulation:

    a. People, being living things with a long evolutionary history, respond deeply to certain events and experience those profoundly: birth, sex, death, loss, grief, and so on. The reason may in part that these were fundamental back way beyond anything we can call “human” in our evolutionary history: these guys run deep: at the animal level.

    b. People are social animals, so they will approach important things in social and socially conditioned ways. The group is capable of mimetic behavior, to lear and to teach, and memes immediately arose and began their own evolution. One highly successful meme was language, and language became a dominant meme—apparently it was invented only once, but it gave such an advantage that the originating group’s meme spread to all other groups, or (equivalently) the originating group vanquished and displaced those lacking the meme. This means that the social expression of such profound experiences—and I think you can see that social expressions must occur, for we are a social species: it’s our nature—will be in the medium of language.

    c. Language messed up everything. The language part of all religions are full of holes (take any religion and the other religions can readily point out the holes), and the thing is, I believe they are all celebrating the same type of experience/insight/awakening/callitwhatyouwill. The same thing, but when you try putting it into words, they’re at daggers drawn almost immediately.

    d. SO: given a, given b, and given c, it seems worthwhile to try the experiment of developing a satisfactory way of expressing what these experiences mean to people, and help recall and evoke the experience and benefit from group guidance while building group solidarity.

    The job is made easier by looking at the events that seem to be ceremony magnets: those will logically be keyed to these pivotal experiences—and lo! we see that there are indeed ceremonies for births, marriages, deaths, serious illnesses (in which one faces his/her mortality directly), and the like. Develop non-verbal ceremonies that work, and Bob’s your uncle: a religion without words—and so withut doctrine, without fixed rules, without insiders and outsiders: just the recognition, celebration, and worshipful respect in the face of those experiences and what they mean to us.


    29 November 2011 at 6:02 pm

  15. You seem to be saying that if we could only stop the verbal/rational part of our brains from getting in the way for a minute, we’d discover that all religion is, at its core, one. Or something pretty close to that. Am I right?


    29 November 2011 at 6:09 pm

  16. @Scott: You brought up morality earlier, and in the prototype neo-religion I’ve described, morality isn’t there: no words, no rules except nonverbal rules.

    It seems to me that morality and laws regarding behavior devolved on religion because that was the power center at the time. As soon as secular power arose, a struggle began that continues to this day on who will make the rules. At this point, today, I have to say that the secular mechanisms for rule-making and enforcement have evolved far beyond what religion can offer (for examples of the latter, the way the Church law has handled the Catholic pedophile situation; the way honor killings are required in certain tribal religions—even in defiance of secular law, as shown by some recent events). So I say, religion can relinquish this function completely: let secular society make and enforce rules, and if you don’t like a rule, you can work with your fellows to change that rule. Religion thus becomes divorced from rule-making and rule-enforcement—and, to tell the truth, it always was an uneasy alliance, calling for constant resolution of tricky ethical questions (and “love the sinner, hate the sin” doesn’t work, BTW). A religion freed of the burden of (essentially) replicating poorly a more highly evolved legal system can finally get down to the business of religion: focusing on the profound experiences.



    29 November 2011 at 6:30 pm

  17. Scott: I think you’re right: religion originates in and owes its power to a very primitive part of our brain and mind, and the later stuff is really of a complete other dimension: it’s incommensurable with this part of brain: they literally do not speak the same language, or follow the same processes, or “know” the same sort of things, and differ even in what “know” means. That’s where religion lives. So that is the part of your brain/mind to engage and enjoy and exercise and acknowledge as a group (since religion is the social aspect of how we, as humans deal with it: we have to experience it and grasp it privately, but then (being social animals) we must also share and communicate it publicly. Just avoid words: they’re too johnny-come-lately and they operate in a complete other universe.

    The Wife pointed out that this notion, of deliberately creating a religion and expecting it to have any legs, as it were, is nutso. Not so, I replied: look at Mary Baker Eddy, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard (and doubtless others I could name after 5 minutes alone in a room with Google): religion founders, every one. Why not I?

    And I have it easy: no doctrine to develop beyond “No words to memorize!” (doctrine doubling as advertising slogan), no management tasks because no organization: nonverbal. Thus precious hard to make money from it, but then that’s not the goal. Just get people to avoid any use of words or language, and you’re pretty much good to go. And that is certainly possible—cue the Andre Gregory story.

    The Wife said it sounded New Age-y: sillent communion, a gong, no doctrine, and so on. But I recall a lot of words at the time: New Age Babble. And there was no explicit “No Language” rule. And they didn’t have this sort of focus: “Let’s get together as a group and nonverbally express/explore/recall a religious experience”. I suppose it could be focused—the prospect of mortality at a funeral, the perception of growth and life and living at a birth, and so on—or it could be unfocused: what is there inside us when we stand in the dark alone under a clear and moonless night sky, looking at the waves of stars?

    The point is what happens in the group with the group interacting sans language. I would think new memes would quickly emerge and evolve, and (if there were inter-group gatherings) spread.

    All this is mere speculation.


    29 November 2011 at 7:16 pm

  18. Michael:

    I love this. Our brief “discussion” already has us knotted up in words and terminology: Is it emotion, or feeling? Or perhaps, “experience”, or maybe “understanding”. Many traditional writers on the topic have settled for the word “knowledge” as in something you know to be true but not necessarily why it is so. If you ever had a look at Carl Jung’s last interview for the BBC, when asked if he believed that God existed, he replied to the effect that he didn’t believe God existed, he “knew” it. To paraphrase: “If I know something to be true, I don’t have to believe it”, implying of course that belief is an act of rationalization.

    So again, the words have us in a tizzy and there is no exit from it other than more words.

    So, in the the words of the Bard: “Get thee to a nunnery”.


    30 November 2011 at 3:10 am

  19. @Steve: Yep. The very point I was making. Thanks. I think the ideas are indeed getting through the words. “Knowledge” is good, though one must careful to note that it’s knowledge of a special sort: an immediate, wordless, practical knowledge, like a practical skill: some acquired only through practice, not through words, though words can be enormously helpful in describing how to arrange the practice and what to watch for—but ultimately the actual practical knowledge is gained and contained within the individual, with no way to pass it on directly: like chicken sexing, for example, a prime example of training the unconscious self in a practical kind of knowledge.

    So it’s like that kind of knowledge, but it’s also more like an “encounter” of sorts: encountering a specific kind of deep feeling that shakes one to the core. So I sort of like “experience” as the general term.

    Unlike you, though, I feel that words and reason can help a lot. For example, I have a much better idea now of why it’s difficult to discuss religion, and I have a much better insight into how and why religions, which focus on the same sort of human experience, get so cross-ways with one another. So I think I’m still gaining.

    In fact, in the night I got to thinking about another mission that religion (as practiced: the social constructs around the religious experience) was saddled with early on and that also contributes to the difficulty—a mission that perhaps is unavoidable for a social species: using religion to reinforce group identity and to sort people into those who “belong” and are “one of us” and all the rest, who are “outsiders” and who “don’t count”: tolerated at best, enemies more likely.

    Given that the kind of experiences I am talking about as engendering a “religious feeling” are common to all humanity, one would want religion (the recognition and social celebration of these feelings) to be common as well, but religions notoriously view “non-believers” as not quite as good as “us”.

    Because social structures are built from culture, and cultural expressions vary, religion may be unable to avoid this kind of insider/outsider distinction. Social creatures put enormous stock in group identity: which group(s) you belong to, how to become a member, when to eject someone from the group, how to create a group from random individuals. Humans are not so mean about it as other social insects—ants, for example, treat outsiders harshly indeed. (President Lowell of Harvard who in granting an honorary degree to William Morton Wheeler, characterized him as a “profound student of the social life of insects, who has shown that they also can maintain complex communities without the use of reason.”)

    Indeed, innumerable movies, plays, and works of fiction, about humans at all ages and in all circumstances, focus on getting into a group, or being excluded from a group, or forming a group (sports movies, war movies, and others) from a collection of individuals, the moral issues of whether to oppose a group action or to be loyal to the group, a group’s loyalty to its members, and on and on: as social animals, we tend to see everything through the lens of the groups to which people belong or not.

    So this group-focus infects religion as well, so that instead of recognizing and celebrating the universality among humans of experiences of this “religious” nature, the focus is often on making sure who belongs to the group and who does not. That would likely carry over into even a nonverbal religion: people will be forming groups so they can exclude others and feel that they themselves belong.


    30 November 2011 at 7:12 am

  20. The more I think about it, the more I see how utterly group-oriented we humans are: groups abound, and group-related issues and moral quandries fill our daily lives as well as our literature. Fish in water are pikers compared to humans in groups. It’s quite astonishing how much importance groups have for us, but that’s social animals for you.


    30 November 2011 at 8:16 am

  21. One should be cautious in contemplating a new religion. Taking all known attempts into consideration, one will not be in good company.

    The elimination of language presents real hazards. Lao Tzu not withstanding, the naming of things is not the ultimate problem, although it is vexing. Before language we lived with “tumultuous ignorance” (HG Wells, THE OUTLINE OF HISTORY). A religious communion without words could be a more destructive scenario than the cultural vacuum depicted in THE LORD OF THE FLIES.

    Stephen Pinker was the subject of NYT Profiles in Science 11/29/2011.
    Among other things he advocates “evolutionary psychology” and attributes to language the most important advances in human nature. It seems counter intuitive at first glance, but he says “today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species ‘existence”.



    Bob Slaughter

    30 November 2011 at 12:36 pm

  22. @Bob:

    It’s not an either or situation. Language has produced many of the practical benefits of modern life (as well as many of its ills), from medicine, science, psychology, philosophy, etc. Even the monks speak very eloquently and effectively on secular matters. It’s simply that language is antithetical to the direct experience of the Universe precisely because it is so heavily linked to the practical and logical. The Ego’s main fuel is language, and the Ego will co-opt any endeavor for its own purposes; hence we have one set of religious believers certain that their religion is better than the next guy’s. The Ego takes over everything that is language-based, and the Ego’s sole purpose is survival, even at the expense of others; the Ego doesn’t want its fair share of the pie, it wants the whole thing!


    30 November 2011 at 1:20 pm

  23. On more reflection, I don’t much like using “knowledge” to know the kind of wordless awe at Otto calls the mysterium tremendum. For one thing, “knowledge” as I understand the term can/should be tested and confirmed. If the knowledge is nonverbal (e.g., a practical skill), it still is amenable to testing and confirmation.

    Confirmation is important because we humans often delude ourselves, thinking that we “know” something that, when we test the knowledge, we discover that we don’t. The canonical test for knowledge is to compare it to experience. If we believe we know how to sharpen a knife, we go get a knife, do our best, and compare it to other knives, and this little confirmation test will show whether our belief is well-founded and we do indeed possess the knowledge. Knowledge of the scientific sort is tested by experiment. And so on.

    What one experiences feels quite immediate, but I would not characterize it as knowledge. Our unconscious often gives us a feeling of certainty, which sometimes is justified and sometimes is not. These religious feelings that I describe doubtless originate deep in the unconscious, but the unconscious does make mistakes.

    @Bob: I hope you understand that I do not advocate an abandonment of language. Indeed, I’ve used it at length. My suggestion is merely that religion—celebrating and acknowledging as a group these profound experiences—would, on the whole, go better by avoiding all verbal communication. I agree with Pinker, and somewhere in the upstream discussion I talk about how important language has been as a meme. Indeed, it undoubtedly has affected human evolution: those lacking skills and ability in language suffered as the group began using this new tool more and more, and those who best used it probably did better, lived longer, and had more offspring (on average) than those who didn’t get it. So natural selection would then favor language ability because it become important to survival.

    @Steve: Re: “get thee to a nunnery”: I don’t especially long to experience the phenomenon, I simply want to understand it, in terms that make sense to me. I’m happy with the result.


    30 November 2011 at 1:28 pm

  24. Although the Ego is doubtless a force, it doesn’t really answer the question of why it’s hard to talk about religion specifically. After all, Ego is equally present in discussions regarding science, law, medicine, the military and other fields of human endeavor, and those do not have the prickly sensitivity and resistance to discussion that we find in the field of religion. My inquiry began with wondering why religion in particular is difficult for people to discuss.

    I do think that removing language from religion would give Ego less with which to work, but of course it will always be present.


    30 November 2011 at 1:32 pm

  25. @Steve, Michael: Maybe EGO is the problem. Just because ego does particular mischief in the realm of language, we should not blame language per se. In our early state of “tumultuous ignorance” ego certainly did it’s most damage to human progress.

    Bob Slaughter

    30 November 2011 at 4:00 pm

  26. I am on the periphery of this discussion, but still wanted to add: Maybe what bothers me the most about the discussion is that it lends reassurance about religion to those who might (quite rightly) be troubled by it. If only we could discard certain aspects of it, get down to what is fundamental, then perhaps we’d realize that religion does have some unmitigated good in it that we mustn’t abandon. I on the other hand, don’t want to reassure anyone about religion. I hope everything I say and write makes people worry about it. I don’t think there is a core of truth and goodness to preserve. Religion must be abandoned if our species is to thrive and progress. Of course, I don’t mean that we won’t have social means of expressing deep, important feelings about the human condition. Or that we won’t have–or actively seek out–transformative internal experiences which are often called “mystical.” (On the contrary, I think in the future everyone will do so.) But these things aren’t properly “religion.” They are things that religion has co-opted in the same way that it has co-opted morality and other activities. They do not belong to it and conflating it with them only muddies the water.

    Please feel free not to reply to my remarks. I realize that I’m an opinion outlier–AND not entirely on topic. 🙂


    30 November 2011 at 4:43 pm

  27. @Bob: As already noted, Ego is present in all discussions, so Ego alone is not why religious discussions are more difficult than discussions about other fields of human interest. While acrimony and anger can arise in any discussion, possibly prompted by Ego (and Northern Lights had an episode about such a discussion about hunting dogs), hunting-dog discussions, for example, do not so commonly devolve in anger or offense as do religious discussions). So “Ego” does not explain the peculiar sensitivity of discussions on religion.

    @Scott: I see: you are defining the core of religion differently. I see religion’s primary mission and essential core is the social recognition and expression of the solemn moments of awe we all, being human, experience from time to time, and this core, for various reasons, has accumulated distracting encrustations. First were the encrustations of language, which had to make a story and start to offer explanations of something not understood, quickly found itself in deep water, tried to fix it with doctrine (“just believe these things”), and in general mucked it up because the core is pre-verbal. In addition, the need for rules and law settled early on religion because it was a power center that could enforce the rules needed for social living. And, like practically all human endeavor, religion was subject to our social-animal instincts and used as a group identity, to mark “insiders” (believers) and “outsiders” (heathens), with all the appertaining value judgments.

    You, in contrast, see religion as already established as a power center before the solemn and awe-inspiring experiences were encountered by humans, alone or not, and took that for itself, to augment its primary mission of … what? In your view, I don’t understand how religion arose, or its primary purpose. What, in your view, is “pure” religion—religion without the later encrustations and add-ons? How did it start? and why is it perennially appealing? Those are the questions I was addressing.

    But I may well not grasp how you view this. Help me with some description of the origins and essence of religion as you see it, taking into account the universal popularity of religion.

    UPDATE: I should add that I take much of my understanding of religion’s evolution from The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, an interesting, informative, and enjoyable book. Recommended. Inexpensive secondhand copies at the link.


    1 December 2011 at 7:28 am

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