Talk to enough Americans and, besides Wiccans, you’ll encounter Muslims, Hindus, Sufis, Branch Davidians, vampire cultists, Satanists, Charlie Manson-worshippers, Twelve Steppers, crystal gazers and crystal wearers, abortion-clinic-bombers and people who think the Internet is God. Religion pervades America’s consciousness in literally hundreds of forms, from extreme fundamentalism to extreme silliness -- and that’s before you get around to the people that hold what campaigning Republicans called “traditional Judeo-Christian American values.” There has probably not been such a profusion of religions, cults and fringe-sects active in a single society since Christianity sprouted from the seeds of the mystery cults during the Roman Empire.
Religion is a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate or please them. —James Frazier, The Golden Bough
Looking at the evidence above, it’s tempting to say Freud was right when he called religion “a collective neurosis.” Why is it that our culture’s religious beliefs and practices have become so fragmented? For that matter, do we still need religion at all, or has it become completely dysfunctional? Before attempting to answer these questions, we should first consider what religion is, why it came into being, and what role it fulfills in modern life, if any.
The belief in God, in itself, has virtually no influence over human behavior. Rather, it is the set of corollary beliefs about what God is and is not -- and about what God wants and does not want -- that both contributes to the evolution of human society and creates the problems associated with religion. Religion has played a very important role in the evolution of human culture. We owe the existence of music, visual arts, drama, philosophy and literature, as well as most of our values, ethics, and morals to those things Frazier called “attempts to please the gods.”
In the primitive, tribal society, the chief governed under the guidance of the shaman, who claimed to have special knowledge of the power higher than man and the ways in which that being should be served. The aim of primitive religion was to enable the tribe and its members to survive and, ultimately, to be happy, and modern religion is intended to serve the same ends.
All religions include a mythology, rites and rituals, and a moral code (which includes those “values” politicians keep talking about). A society cannot function successfully without a moral code -- taboos, laws, values and ethics -- and mythology helps to satisfy man’s desire to understand his natural environment and his relationship with it, to explain and define what God is, and to communicate, through allegory and fable, the meaning and importance of the moral code. The myths passed down from generation to generation of story-tellers and shamans became the basis of virtually all literature, their ceremonial acting-out and symbolic representation became the basis for virtually all other performing and visual arts, and the directions for propitiating the gods became the basis of law.
Groups rites and rituals, such as Communion, are the symbolic acting out of the mythology. This ceremonial acting-out serves to create a unified consciousness within a society -- a “common-mindedness” which gives the individual a sense of “belonging” and further reinforces the importance of the society’s mythos, and therefore its ethic. Private rituals, such as prayer, offer the individual psychological benefits -- the chance to feel better about his life and his role in the world through ritual communication with a higher power. Public and private rituals also help to prepare psychologically the individual or group for a difficult task. Any accomplished athlete knows that taking the time to visualize and focus on the goal will boost his performance. The prayer a coach leads the football team in before a game is like the men of the tribe dancing around the fire the night before the big hunt, ceremonially “killing” the bison-masked Shaman with their spears -- participation in the ritual convinces each man that a force greater than himself will help him perform a difficult deed, giving his confidence a boost.
Modern scholarship . . . has found just about everywhere legends of virgins giving birth to heroes who die and are resurrected. . . Now the peoples of all the great civilizations have been prone to interpret their own symbolic figures literally, and so to regard themselves as favored. . . However, today such claims can not be taken seriously by anyone with even a kindergarten education. —Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By
As human society has evolved, so has religion; virtually every major change in society has been accompanied by a parallel change in religious beliefs. The expansion of Rome forced previously isolated cultures into contact with one another and enabled sects to collide and mingle, ultimately to produce Christianity, which traveled the roads laid by the empire until it came to dominate most of Europe.
During the dark ages, kings owed their power to God and the Church. Ultimately, kings gained greater influence over larger groups of people, and the power of the church diminished, until, finally, King Henry VIII severed his ties with the Pope and declared himself the head of the Church of England.
When the Pope threatened to excommunicate Galileo unless he recanted his proof that the earth was not, as the church believed, the center of the universe, the rift between science and religion broadened. As science began to produce results -- useful technologies based on the workings of the universe as explained by the scientific method -- such as medicine and electronics, for example, people began to put more faith in science than in religion.
Just as the scientist has taken over from the Shaman the responsibility for explaining nature, psychotherapy has replaced prayer and confession, and, to a large extent, politics and sociology have replaced religious moral codes. All science is inexact, and the science of understanding human beings and establishing social controls that allow for the greatest amount of freedom necessary for individual success, while protecting us from each other’s “pursuit of happiness,” is perhaps the least exact. This is where the problems lie with both religious and secular social systems -- both are, at least at present, ineffective for communicating personal and social values that are truly and completely useful to modern society.
As a result, American religion has splintered into three varieties: traditional organized religion, which continues to succeed as an institution in spite of frequent predictions of its demise; extremist groups, including Christian “fundamentalists” and charismatic groups; and fringe movements, which include so-called “new-age” religions, 12-Step groups, bastardized versions of exotic and ancient religions (like Wicca and pseudo-Tibetan Buddhist yuppies), and silly computer-geeks who think the Internet is God.
According to Freud, religion is a collective neurosis (that) tends to sanctify bad human institutions with which it has allied itself; further, by teaching people to believe in an illusion and by prohibiting critical thinking, religion is responsible for the impoverishment of human intelligence. —Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion
Religion has been used to justify and rationalize racism, homophobia, war, political and economic oppression, and a host of other “bad human institutions.” Unfortunately, if the social guidelines provided by religion are inadequate, outmoded, or unrealistic, then they become counter-productive to the success of a society and the happiness of its members. Modern organized religion promotes a morality that is, in many ways, obscure and self-contradictory at best, and is, at its worst, irrelevant and counter-productive.
Traditional organized religion, by definition, functions by bureaucracy. As in virtually all organizations, the bureaucracy was created in order to support the mission of an organization. However, the mission of the bureaucracy eventually becomes its own survival, and the standards of behavior that were initially established to help achieve the mission become the mission itself.
The church is no exception to this. Religion eventually exists to perpetuate itself and its mission becomes to perpetuate the religion -- the laws, myths, and rites -- rather than to fulfill its primary function: to promote the well-being of its followers. The religious texts that organized religion is based upon are very open to misinterpretation, and the church will interpret the “sacred” words to serve its own best interests.
The concept of sin is so humanly inhuman...that I am inclined to reverse Voltaire’s famous dictum and to say that, from a mental-health standpoint, if there were a God it would be necessary to un-invent him. —Albert Ellis, Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy
Religion, being based on faith in God -- a concept that is immune from empirical validation or disproof -- is inherently irrational. That doesn’t necessarily make it “bad,” but it does make it possible for a group or individual to misuse religion to selfishly control others. The faithful can manage to justify nearly any idea. I was told by a fundamentalist that “fossils were put in the ground by Satan to deceive man into believing in evolution.” How can you argue with logic like that?
Once one has made the first leap of faith, that of joining a religious group, it is relatively easy to make the leap to faith in the leader himself, and eventually to be manipulated into doing stupid, insane things, like the Jonestown suicides, the Manson family murders, the Branch Davidian debacle, the Salem witch trials and the Inquisition. These examples may seem extreme, but the history of religion is filled with similar ones.
Cults and other extremist groups derive their membership from people who feel disenfranchised. Alienated from society, their minds are filled with thoughts of fear, of worthlessness, powerlessness, a lack of direction and purpose. Cults exploit these feelings by giving their initiates a sense of “belonging,” and, as Manson used the “piggies” and Koresh used the government, many further reinforce the belief in the necessity of belonging to the group by making the members soldiers in a battle against a “godless” enemy.
Many Americans have similar feelings of fear and isolation. The golden-age of Eisenhower materialism seems to be deteriorating and we face an uncertain future. The beliefs held by our grandparents -- that hard work would lead to a comfortable retirement, that scientific progress would lead us to a safer, healthier society -- has crumbled under the weight of a thinning ozone layer and the piling up of toxic and nuclear wastes, while the media assaults us with a steady barrage of threats of violent crime, both real and imaginary, and the retirement fund fades into a dim memory.
People whose religious beliefs and practices are outer-directed, that is, that practice a religion for the love and approval of their society, tend to be highly dogmatic in their beliefs. Religion gives the extremist relief from his constant fear, but the cost is that he must embrace a fragile dogmatism with no room for flexible or critical thinking. The religious extremist, living an irrationality assembled like a house of cards and hanging to his faith by a thread, becomes fearful when his black-and-white view of the natural order is challenged, because if one card is removed, the entire house will tumble.
While the “word of God” seems absolute and inflexible, the laws are not meant to be. Otherwise, “thou shalt not kill” would preclude war and capital punishment. The extreme fundamentalist, therefore, must keep his beliefs in logic-tight boxes. For example, consider the pro-lifer who believes in capital punishment—who wants to save a human life at all costs when the life is that of a cute little baby but loses all interest in that life when it belongs to a big, ugly criminal.
Instant karma’s gonna get you/Gonna knock you right on your face/Better get yourself together/Join the human race. —John Lennon, Instant Karma
Most problems do not have easy solutions, yet people always want quick, feel-good relief from their problems. This is one reason new religious movements like A Course in Miracles can gain a foothold -- they offer the promise of instant enlightenment -- immediate relief from the burden of being human.
Many new-age groups have their roots in quasi-pychology, self-help organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Codependents Anonymous, etc. Based on the twelve steps of AA, these organizations were originally meant to treat alcohol dependency, which they defined as a “spiritual disease” that required a “spiritual” treatment. With the blessing of the mental-health community, AA spun off countless other groups that hoped to treat adult children of alcoholics, gamblers, etc., until eventually it seemed that everyone in America needed a “spiritual cure” for something.
During the '80s, it seemed almost everyone was either “in recovery” from something or experimenting with some new pop-psychology/pop-religion. As are all movements with marketable potential, the self-help/new-age movement was quickly exploited by American business.
The old mythology -- the means of communicating traditional values and morality to our culture -- has fallen by the wayside; Hollywood, television and other mass media have siezed the American thirst for religion and slaked it with consumerism. It is easy to pity the old woman who, seeking a miracle-cure for her gout, sends her life savings dollar-by-dollar to the smarmy televangelist with big hair and a $10,000 smile. It’s a little harder to pity the yuppie housewife who, seeking a cure for her ordinary human existence, becomes a collector of angel figurines, dream-catchers and crystals. However, the mechanism of exploitation is identical, and the resulting miracle is the same -- some big-time con-artist gets a little richer.
When Zarathustra was alone, he spoke thus to his heart: “Could it be possible! This old saint has not yet heard in his forest that God is dead!” —Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Twentieth-century America, the wealthiest, best-educated, most scientifically advanced society in history, has become a battlefield upon which countless religious and secular factions fight for control over the minds and behavior of the people. The losers of this battle will relinquish their artistic and cultural freedoms and will see their values replaced by petty materialism.
If we are not to lose this battle, we must accept -- and force our leaders to accept -- that many of our values are changing. The “traditional American family” whose values our leaders want to return to has all but disappeared, and the values America needs now must include single working mothers and people of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds. With the growth of electronic communication and the multi-national corporation, MacLuhan’s vision of a “global village” is almost a tangible reality, and we must insist that our values include all the citizens of that village.
We should let our political and business leaders know we consider religious extremists to be nuts, and we won’t take it lightly if they cave in to well-funded groups of borderline psychotics; we should show support for businesses that don’t kowtow to extremist groups by, for example, pulling The Last Temptation of Christ or Playboy off their shelves.
As consumers, we must learn to be conscientious about our consumption of the new mythology and not let our values become driven by our desire for quick, easy solutions to our problems. Unlike in the movies, no angel is going to save us from ourselves.
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