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The Need for a New Kind of Religious Fundamentalism

06/28/2010 06:31 pm 18:31:20 | Updated May 25, 2011

No single question should fire a thinking person's imagination more than: "What is the origin and nature of human life?" It has driven, provoked, or plagued the greatest minds in history. Yet despite the fact that Western culture is philosophically grounded in a Socratic search for truth, based on logic and reason, when we look for answers to the fundamental question of life itself, we take a leap from our senses into the realm of the supernatural. We quite literally lose our minds. And at the heart of these magical, even childish notions is the omnipotent, omniscient Old Testament God, a.k.a. Yahweh, Jesus' absentee Father or, as we like to think of him here, the CEO of America.

The notion of the anthropomorphic God is the single greatest intellectual crime in the past 2,500 years. Worshipping the Old Testament God is little more than a hangover from polytheism. According to the Old Testament, Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on Sinai but smashed them when he saw his people dancing around a golden calf. Many religious people think they're on the mountain with Moses when they're actually on the ground dancing around a statue -- or, in this case, an invisible idol. Religion, as popularly discussed and understood in our culture, is virtual idolatry. Monotheism with a polytheistic mindset.

Chronologically this may be the 21st century, but intellectually it's the Middle Ages. What passes for religion is occasionally primitive, laughable and, on occasion, lethal: politicians claiming global warming isn't real because "God's still up there"; people flocking to psychics who claim they can hook them up with the dead, as if the dead were actually somewhere waiting to get online, like Skype for the recently departed; people murdering abortion doctors in defense of the sanctity of life; and so-called religious leaders hawking the notion that a Mercedes in the driveway of your McMansion is God's reward for a pious life. Only in America could we unite the two things we worship: God and money.

The mainstream media are similarly useless, as they flog the same atrophied categories with endless "faith vs. science" or "religion vs. reason" pseudo-philosophical explorations, which only serve to further obfuscate the issue. Hardly a day goes by without a news story on religion that isn't grounded in faulty metaphysical, ontological, and epistemological assumptions: God as creator of the universe who controls all human events from wars to the minutiae of individuals' daily lives. The afterlife in either heaven or Hell. Mind/body dualism. The presence of angels and existence of miracles. Prayer as an adjunct or even a replacement for medicine.

The educational system is no help, as any intelligent discussion has been banished from schools. Instead we're ushered into our respective traditions via private indoctrination camps, where we're laden with a rigid mindset and set of assumptions not only about our own religion but about the nature of religion itself, among them the notion that the basis of religion is faith, as in the belief in things unseen, and that therefore whatever someone believes is valid because he or she believes it. It's philosophical relativism run amok. When it comes to religion, what most people call common knowledge is in fact common ignorance.

But the question is: Is this where the discussion has to remain? The first rule in any philosophical debate is to define one's terms. This helps unearth any assumptions held by either side and subsequently get to the heart of the matter. It's called getting down to first principles. It's something we rarely do in this country, but it's particularly difficult here because we've been trained not to tread on anyone's beliefs. But for all the protesting, proselytizing, and pontificating about religion, for and against, no one stops long enough to define the very subject under discussion by asking one single fundamental question: what is religion? What purpose is it supposed to serve? What human impulse is it trying to convey?

To arrive at this definition, what is needed is a 21st-century fundamentalism, but one that is grounded in the proper fundamentals. Call it neo-fundamentalism: getting back to what William James called "these experiences we can only find in individuals for whom religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever."

Per Joseph Campbell, the world religion comes from the Latin word religio, meaning to reconnect -- in this case, to reconnect with an experience of life that is lost as we mature, a transformative psychological experience with aesthetic, moral and social ramifications. Call it mystical. Spiritual. Purely psychological. At the end of the day, they're just labels for the same human phenomenon. The purpose of religion is to light a path back toward that breakthrough experience and to communicate its inherent goodness and value. The problem is that most people aren't aware of this because religion is never explained to us in this way. There's a word in Sanskrit, Avidya, which means ignorance. Literally, it means "not seeing." It's not that we're stupid; we just don't see it, because we don't know it's there, because no one taught us to look. Religion says: don't let this go; re-link; reconnect; become re-aware of this experience of life, not as a replacement for our everyday consciousness but as an enhancement of it. Religion is higher education in human life. It's about becoming a genius in life, in the sense of the word expressed by Dr. Cornel West: "Genius. In the deepest etymological sense of geniality. A largeness not just of mind, but of heart and soul."

At the end of The End of Faith, Sam Harris writes that "mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not." But focusing on mysticism as a valuable, human experience does not negate religion; it defines it, at least as it should be defined. What has been called spiritual or mystical experience is the big bang of every tradition, their intellectual and experiential core. And buried within every tradition is a path to this understanding, whether via monastic life or rites and rituals in daily life.

In order to re-focus the discussion of religion, we need to put away childish things. We need to bring religion back down to earth. Dispense with the anthropomorphic God, along with the concomitant fairytale stories, superstitions, cosmologies, angels, miracles, promised lands, chosen people, and heavenly virgins, and strip religion of all fear and worship. We need to shed the trappings of the Jesus cult. The worship of someone who lived 2,000 years ago, if not cloaked in religion, would be considered insane. It's iconophilia. Or iconomania. Jesus was a mystic, not the product of some imaginary deity having magic sex with an earth lady. His rebirth was psychological, or spiritual if you prefer, and occurred while he was alive. The more human he is seen, the more religious he becomes.

We need to permanently retire the false conflict between science and religion. This is a non-argument. The book of Genesis is poetry, not history. It is not the linchpin of the Bible. Science explores the origin and nature of the physical world, whereas religion explores a deeper experience of human life. With respect to the former enterprise, they have absolutely nothing to do with one another. And as to the latter, they should enhance one another.

Religion is not something that has been handed down from above; it's something that erupted from within, an activity that arose out of the collective unconscious. And even if every single tradition were to disappear tomorrow, in time a new one would erupt around a new set of myths and symbols, intended to convey the identical human experience.

Alfred North Whitehead famously remarked that "the development of western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato." Similarly, the development of theology should be footnotes to mysticism. To the extent that the various traditions -- eastern and western -- are in line with this is the extent to which they are religious. When they veer off into superstition and idol worship, they become irrelevant and destructive. And not religious.

When people begin to understand religious language, art, and symbols as metaphor, and God as an experience, not a magic man in the sky (who for some reason only seems to converse with the dumbest, greediest and most hateful among us), we can begin to put much of the nonsense that fobs itself as religion behind us. Whether one engages in the practices of a particular tradition, either in the monastery or woven into the fabric of day-to-day life, or ignores it completely is a matter of personal choice. But at least let's understand what the phenomenon is and, almost as importantly, what it isn't, so that we can drag the discussion out of the intellectual dark ages and into the light of 21st century reason.

This post is adapted from an excerpt from a book I just published: Deconstructing God: A Heretic's Case For Religion.