A significant difference between humans and other primates is that humans require significance and meaning in their lives. We humans need more than just bodily instincts for physical survival. We also need symbolic survival. We are the only part of creation that will sacrifice ourselves and/or sacrifice others for entirely symbolic reasons. For example, unlike other primates we humans will kill or die for the flag, or for honor or for a belief or a cause.
We human primates live and die for symbolic ultimate concerns. These concerns are our religion. For example, America’s religion could be defined as the market or through the mythic story that America is a benevolent and necessary nation. Every civilization and culture defines itself through myths, rituals and allegiances that call forth our willingness to sacrifice either our own self or others. Every civilization and culture hangs a sacred canopy over its way of life and divides the world between us and them.
Indeed, religion is a sociological and psychological necessity. It is a human invention, a fabrication that protects us from our terror of physical death and symbolic insignificance. Religion is very powerful, and we easily fall under its spell, obeying its dictates and its beliefs even though they are only human constructions, a fictive lie that we tell ourselves. In other words, religion is a necessary illusion that helps us organize our life and evolve into a future.
Religion, as I’m defining it, is the ritual, story and social organizing that every civilization and culture create to help it sleep at night. It doesn’t need a god. It just needs an enemy. Religion can exist only in a binary world of us and them, right and wrong, sacred and profane, sinner and saint. Without these opposing forces religion loses its power and its capacity to claim allegiance.
The irony is that the majority of religious adherents don’t seek out religion or religious comfort for protection against the enemy. The majority experienced something extraordinary in their lives. They experienced a world beyond belief, an oceanic feeling of transcendence that lifts them out of the body, or an experience of ecstatic joy, or creative rapture, or simply have been overwhelmed and undone by the sheer mystery and majesty of creation in all its beauty and horror. Most religious adherents have experienced life outside the boundaries of binaries, they have experienced freedom and grace, yet religion keeps reintroducing laws and conformity. Religion keeps people under control.
I think we need to escape the constrictions and violence of religion. Maybe the best thing is to refuse to believe in binaries. Instead, we could start befriending the sinner and welcoming the profane. Maybe introduce ourselves to the enemy and dare to offer peace. Maybe we could start a movement of ecstatic wilding. Maybe the religious clubs might take notice. n
Rev. Rich Lang is the district superintendent of the United Methodist Church in King County. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more Faith, Culture & Politics by Lang.
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