Rational Religion

Contact the author:
tuppennyprofet - at - aol - dot - com
(translate into a real email address)

Where I am Coming From...


You may marvel at the ego it takes to try to start a religion; ego, or perhaps self-delusion.


On the contrary; I could not have done this until I was way past being blinded by ego; too far even to try to prove that I am not cripplingly delusional.


 It is a central tenet of my belief that we must have ego.  It is what keeps us getting out of bed every morning.


And we are all delusional.  The question is of degree and how we allow it to affect our lives and the lives of those around us.


My lifelong study of my predecessors in this Prophet-and-Messiah business reveals that they achieved their exalted status in a variety of ways. 


Some of them were just off the wall; persons whose peculiarities and insane energy attracted wide attention and whose wisdom happened to touch upon enough verities of the time, or timeless universals, to strike a chord in some critical mass of their time-line cohort. (Charles Manson is still a prophet to a small number of people, not all of whom - unfortunately - are in jail.)


Others were born into positions of economic privilege or political power, and used that vantage by more or less abandoning it.  That is, they simply shifted their prominence from the temporal to the spiritual; thereby achieving - calculatedly or not - immortality in the minds of succeeding generations instead of a decaying stone monument in a desert, somewhere.


Some of them were just good people, steadfast and exemplary, intellectual or not, to whom ethics and morality were simple, clear, and to be followed no matter what changed in their social or political environment. 


This kind of behavior, consistently applied over a lifetime of more than three or four decades, is sufficiently remarkable to attract attention.  If it happens to run counter to some prevailing social or economic wind of the time, it can attract a great deal of attention.  And if the purveyor is permitted to live long enough; or is denied life in some dramatic fashion or under noteworthy circumstances, his memory and example may become immortal.  (The species needs its heroes, to serve as guideposts for succeeding generations.  If they do not volunteer, we will draft them.  Or make them up.)


The distinction, by the way, between a hero and a prophet is verbal.  If the subject left record of a few utterances which, strung together, made more than pedestrian sense, his followers are sure to try to drag him across the line.  (E.g. the Cult of Elvis??  Who for all his mythological stature never said anything particularly profound or original, so is probably doomed to endure as an icon rather than a seer... vs. the devotees of John Lennon, who had a couple of actual Ideas and elucidated them passing well.)


There are equally many points of similarity among successful prophets.  For example; they were all larger than life, or larger than the lives of most of those around them.  They had charisma, (See "mana" later) which served to bridge the inevitable gaps in their understanding of the universe and their notions about the best way to live in it.  (This is the "when in doubt, pontificate" syndrome which plagues nearly all systems of belief.)


Also notable; none of them started from scratch. 


New wisdom cannot be wholly new or nobody will recognize it.  


The best tactic is to emerge from a matrix of established belief with a plan which corrects some historical, preferably glaring, errors in its doctrine or practice.  There are bound to be a number of fellow-believers who have identified the same inconsistencies but feared to question them; and a number more who are simply dissatisfied with what the prevailing tenets are doing for them and are ripe to follow any novel pathway out of the generations of smothering dogma.


And of course, way over 99 percent of these spiritual innovators have been men.  Most societies are patriarchal.  Women don't count for much.  Even when they are conceded to be exceptional, their genius has been to serve; not lead.   The exceptions come easily to mind and can be counted on one hand, with digits to spare. (After Elizabeth I and Mary Baker Eddy, where do you go?) 


This has nothing to do with intrinsic worth.  Intrinsic worth doesn't count for much, either.  It's all what the culture accepts and remembers.  Once again, remember:   We make it all up! As we go along.


The key point at which most religions begin to go awry coincides with the historical moment the prophet dies and can no longer protect himself from reinterpretation.  


The rest begin to deteriorate as soon as the Master begins to accept his followers' assessment of him.  One can believe in oneself, you see, without having any clear picture of who one is.   If someone else gives you a flattering definition while you are still alive, it's hard not to try to conform to it. 


Most of these people are innovators, not scholars and collators.  They make inspired leaps of intuition, and leave it to others to connect the dots.  There is plenty of wisdom lying around in any society to fill the gaps and with judicious selection and tailoring it can be made to fit: often, mirable!, without doing serious damage to the original vision.  If the prophet is unfortunate to live so long, he may be presented with a synthesis he can accept as his own.... especially if a lot of people already believe in it and seem to revere him for it.


Actually, prophetic longevity is irrelevant.  Even should he die young there will be close friends and adherents who know (or think they know) what he actually said and did.


There may be serious disagreements among them, human memory being as fragile as it is.  If there are individual demurrals, they will be suppressed, or they will die out along with the demurrers.


The operative term, here, is "authority" - which is unrelated to "truth."  Disciples who actually knew the Master have a certain provenance, which gives them authority, even if their memories are faulty or their understanding imperfect.  Anything they don't remember or didn't quite grasp, they can make up.   And after they die off, the faith is in the hands of whoever can grab the helm and successfully hang onto it. 


Remember that "spin doctor" is a new term; not a new profession.


Most nearly universal of all - to now - is the religious innovator's reliance upon the metaphysical component of belief.  Since not even the greatest thinker, or the most zealous pack of disciples and apostles, can claim to have figured out everything, it is essential to have "mysteries" and a supernatural realm to harbor them.


Inspecting any given religion from a distance, of course, reveals this to be the most abject of intellectual short-cuts. 


"This is what we know.  Everything else is God's."  --- or "the gods'."


The comforting implication often is that we aren't supposed to know it.  Whether it is forbidden knowledge or simply too abstruse for our finite human minds, we are thankfully recused from worrying about it.


Metaphysics, therefore, fills all blanks.  We don't need to believe in anything specific; we only have to believe that it exists.  It is a belief in belief itself, and therefore cannot be contradicted.


 As in "Cogito, ergo sum."


The thing is its own proof.


Unfortunately, when it becomes codified into dogma, and indoctrinated into the young as catechism, it walls off huge areas of intellectual exploration and creative interpretation.


Note, here!  I do not seek to rid the world of metaphysics! 


By my own basic principles of human cognition this would be impossible were it even desirable.


For the individual consciousness, which is the only one that counts!, metaphysics is the necessary interface between the central nervous system's wetware and the rest of the Universe.


For each of us it is comprised of our upbringing, education, environmental influences, prejudices, and (probably) a great deal more of our inherited DNA than most people are prepared to admit.  It is the net in which we catch all our new experiences and it leaves its considerable impression upon our interpretation of them as we incorporate them into our individual "life stories."


Metaphysics, per se, is not the enemy.  Dogmatism is the enemy -- and Conviction.  But metaphysics, being unprovable, demands such passionate, unquestioning, defensive adherence from most of us that dogmatism is its inevitable product.


Saint Augustine, being brilliant, was plagued by intractable inconsistencies between his astute observations of the world and his religion.  He came up with the most profound bit of elliptical reasoning in the history of thought.


"I believe," he decided, "because it is impossible."


Try to contradict that one.


One could argue, at least in retrospect, that it isn't particularly profound; just the ultimate abdication of intellectual responsibility.


My perfunctory grasp of the history of philosophy tells me that Augustine is regarded as a major player in the field on the strength of his reintroduction of intellectualism into what had become in his time a quite depressingly anti-intellectual Christianity.


Since Christianity is one of the great movers and shapers of human thought, to say nothing of human behavior (not always admirable but undeniably real), this is undoubtedly a valid conclusion, re the study of philosophy as a historical phenomenon.


As a matter of fact, since such a deal of modern Christianity is also abysmally - if not rabidly - against any kind of deep thought or introspection, it would undoubtedly behoove all Christian thinkers to study St. Augustine. 


One needn't be afraid of loosening one's faith by the application of logic or rationality.   Augustine begins and ends with Christ.  He is a believer first, so no matter what sophisticated and tortuous path his cerebrations take, they lead him back to the truth that he is certain of.


For this reason, the Rational Religionist can skip St. Augustine, on the same grounds that the interplanetary navigator can skip Claudius Ptolemy.


Leaping ahead to the 17th Century, the Rational Religionist can skip Bishop Berkeley, too.  The justification for this is the ancient chestnut of First Premise.   Berkeley himself, in the final paragraphs of his attack on Materialism, bragged that what he had done was to logically rehabilitate god; and not just ANY god, but the specific Anglican/Protestant God, with emphasis upon "the Gospel," by which I assume he meant the King James Version.


He further asserted that, although he consciously (SELFconsciously) employed the techniques of the hated "Enlightenment," it was always his intention to use them to prove the existence of God.  He even asserted that if one had listened to his arguments and remained an agnostic, then he had failed in his mission.


Sorry, Bishop! Your arguments may be logically sound but they remain irrational because you start by attempting to defend a metaphysical position rather than by seeking to approach objective reality.  We both may be doomed to deal with the Universe metaphysically, but I do so as a last, necessary resort; not as a first premise.


My purpose is not to trash other people's religions; or specific other people's religions.  Since I find all orthodox metaphysics irrelevant... at best an intellectual distraction  -- at worst a shuck and a delusion; I mention certain established beliefs only as examples.  (Please do not take it personally.)


I realize my definitions and assessments of them are simplistic; but only from their point of view; not mine. 


No matter how rich, complex and emotionally satisfying their dogmas may be to them, ornamented with great paintings and soaring upon the wings of the world's greatest music, I am not obliged to follow them into the morass of legends, rules, taboos, shibboleths and contradictions with which they confuse and control the minds of the Faithful.   In other words, I realize I'm not fairly playing the game. 


I don't have to.


I am even free to appreciate their art and glory in their music without feeling any obligation to buy into the metaphysical mindset, which produced -- or at least paid for it.  (One wonders how conventionally religious a mind such as Leonardo's could have been.   One suspects he must have been at least as agnostic as the average Jesuit.)


Look, I have enough trouble understanding the Universe without compounding my effort with layers of historical misunderstanding whose only recommendation is that somebody thought of it a long time ago when they had less objective fact to work with. 


Consider this!   Your mind is finite; it has a calculable number of nerve cells and a ridiculously short time to try to organize them.  Your only raw material is the best information you can sort from a scant three or four thousand years of human cerebration, imperfectly preserved. 


You will never glimpse more than a tiny segment of any truth if you live to be 100 and avoid Alzheimer’s. And this is your only crack at it. 


For God's Sake, get with it!