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Friday, July 5, 2013

Michael and Lucifer


Religions have their angelic and their demonic sides.

One of the functions of religion even in its most primitive form is separating what is permitted from what is not. The concept of taboo or kapu or impurity is an important evolutionary adaptation to ensure health of the body extending to the psyche. And it seems that the demonic and angelic applies, not just to the outside world, but to the religion itself. Its teachings and practices can be benign but also destructive. One of the most difficult areas of discernment within religious movements is locating where, when, and with whom is salvation and damnation, clean and unclean. What is orthodox and what heresy? Who is the Christ and who the anti-Christ? Catholic or Protestant? The true desciple of the Prophet? Shia or Sunni?  Insiders and Outsiders, Angels and Demons, are found in every religion.

On the way home from Michigan, Bernie and I listened to an audiobook: Inside Scientology by Janet Reitman--an excellent study of a new religious movement from which you can grasp the nature of religion and its function in our culture. Showing both the destructive and creative aspects of a contemporary religion, this study is conducted by a neutral reporter who is neither an adherent or an opponent and who considers evidence from many diverse aspects. She tries to be the Alexis de Toqueville merely describing the movement as a phenomenon.

One could argue that no observor/reporter can be totally detached and neutral with respect to even a religion that is on a distant island or long gone. The most "objective" recorder has a point of view, an understnding of human nature including right and wrong which shapes her reporting, her selection of witnesses and evidence, her decision as to what to include and what to leave out. This is another reason why ethics, as a critical inquiry into human behavior and morality, is crucial to articulate and critique the assumptions and orientation guiding the inquiry.

After reading both the book and the Rolling Stone series of articles on "Inside Scientology," I have a picture of the Founder of the religion, its development, its teachings and practices, and its effects on people and society. This study furthers my insight into the general role of religion in society and in society's culture and future.

Founder Ron Hubbard was a man of tremendous imagination and a great salesman. Like Warner Ehrhard of EST, from his work in literature, his experience with counter cultural movements, and his readings of psychotherapists, he developed a doctrine of pop psychology which he promoted with great marketing expertise to a world experiencing disorientation.

The 50s to 80s of the 20th century were a time of existential angst. The Cold War with its pacifying balance of terror was raging. The war in Vietnam was also accelerating and, for most, without justification. The Civil Rights movement was trying to assert itself. Although a time of growing affluence or perhaps because of it, people, and especially young people, were searching for some meaning to their lives. They were encouraged to drop out and tune in. Drop out of the normalcy that leads to war, racism, and the culture of money. Tune in to a a new way of being human--one that heals the inner divisions, calms the fears, and provides some answers to the perplexities of life. The times were similar to the times of Caesar Augustus when the whole world, pacified and subject to the Roman Empire with limited political space, broke out in many religious and quasi-religious experiments, i.e. movements of personal and psychic salvation (rather than political) as a way to social change.

It was in this milieu that Hubbard wrote his book on Dianetics, an instant best seller offering a way to personal and psychic health for all and then a program that people could take to learn its doctrine and practice. How he decided to transition this program into a religion and then spread it worldwide into a formidable organization with a growing doctrine and ritual is well described.

Like many new religious movements by a charismatic founder, it started as a small tight community of enthusiastic followers with controls for maintaining purity of doctrine and practice (which is secretive--the meaning of "mystery"--and sometimes abusive), and clear boundaries between insiders and outsiders. Like a cult it was considered anti-establishment and encouraged both persecution and paranoia. As a religion, it gave and still gives its followers a place, a home and supporting community, a sense of meaning and purpose, an opportune time, a clear transcendent ideal in the often mucky real world. It develops its own special language with new words and phrases and with old words but new meanings.

Scientology is not Christian nor worships God or gods, but neither is it anti-christian or atheistic. It does have supernatural entities, bodiless spirits that take on bodies, but can become like gods as they progress in spiritual growth through greater purity. I would argue that the value it gives to money and its accumulation for members and for the church makes it an American religion. Its practice of "auditing" is very much like the examination of conscience I learned as a young Jesuit. "Clearing" is like confession. Those ministers who assist the aspirant are spiritual directors who lead themselves and others to greater enlightenment. It also has many of the characteristics of total institutionalization in prisons, mental hospitals, and monasteries that Erving Goffman described in Asylums.

My intent here is not to denounce Scientology but to understand religion in relation to ethics in all its profundity and silliness. Religion with or without a god is a product of our existence, an element of our culture, the "meaning element." It is important to recognize it for what it is and how it functions in our lives and culture, how it uses all the tools of culture including language, narrative, artistic expression, and ritual, how it expresses the transcending dimension of our existence, its drive for more fulfilling life, for beauty and meaning, and for truth. Religion expresses the moral content of culture--good and evil, what is forbidden and what is permitted, what is clean and what is unclean, who can be trusted and who can not. It therefore has been naturally selected to preserve the live of the individual, the clan, and the society.

But it is also important to recognize the demonic side of religion where it actually suppresses transcendence, diminishes existence, destroys persons and communities in its insistence on purity, its claim to be the whole or ultimate, its revolutionary desire to wipe out its opponents considered carriers of evil and falsity. Traditionally, the demonic side of religion has been expressed as "idolatry" and "iconoclasm" with the counsel to steer between them. Idolatry is taking your beliefs and others' too seriously, treating them as unchanging truths, revealed by the gods, or as gods themselves. Iconoclasm is also taking beliefs too seriously as evil falsities that must be purged. Both are a reversion from the analogical to the univocal mind in which faith is confused with beliefs. That can lead to all kinds of abuse and destructive behavior.

Religious reformers like Socrates, Jesus, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, John XXIII, Dorothy Day, Jim Wallace, and many others challenge a contemporary religion and its morality based on a higher standard outside of the religion they are criticizing.  Anthropologist Robert Redfield, discussing cultural relativity, discussed the son of an Aztec chief in Central America who broke the rules of the religion and morality by refusing to sacrifice a young woman to the gods. His father and the clan were furious. Redfield commented that he knew he should not take sides, and be a neutral observer; but he could not help but consider that the chieftain's son was pushing the religion and the culture to a higher plain of humanity. Indeed cultures and their religions play an important function is social cohesion and their mores should not be dismissed lightly or judged harshly. And yet, cruelty is cruelty whatever the rationale.

There are two significant orientations of religion and morality in history. One starts with the story of a broken world and humanity--the original sin. The other starts with the story of the wholeness of earth and humanity--the original blessing. Both are functional ways of dealing with the world. Their differences illustrates the differences in our orientation to the world and to each other.

Original sin cultures and religions are more revolutionary. They see the world as evil and humans born in sin. They express the need to rectify reality often by sacrifice to the gods, by confessing our brokenness, by a separation of matter from sporty, body and soul. Confession, penance, sacrifice will cleanse oneself and the world of evil. The liberated spirit leaves the body and disowns matter for a higher realm of truth and holiness.

Original blessing cultures are more progressive. They see the earth, matter, and the human body as fundamentally wonderful, the very symbols of goodness and the holy. Their task is not to overcome the world, body, and matter as impure, but to affirm their goodness. They celebrate the natural cycles of life and hope to get matter and spirit back in sync where they belong. They see spirit not as opposed to body or matter but as their transcendence.

Both religious sentiments and their expressions have roots in human existence and its cultural product. Both need to be accepted for what they are and who we are. The problem with Scientologists and most religious adherents is that they believe their bullshit and take themselves far too seriously.

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