Jul 18, 2011

Impractical religion & beatified bee bearders

In thinking about religion as therapeutic -- whether this is scholars or journalists giving this as the reason, or religious people themselves explaining why they do what they do -- one of the things that's lost is the sense of religion as something people do just because.

Made functional, religion is made rational, devoted and dedicated solely and entirely to human flourishing. Which, in a way, means it's only about that which is immanent. Certainly religion can be that and is about that, in some cases, but we ought not lose the sense of religion as sometimes oriented towards transcendence.

This is like the difference between food that's good and food that's good for you.

Religion can act just like the latter, something you bear down and just do, but there are lots and lots of examples where it's understood more like the former. Where it's actually understood to be kind of absurd, as good for itself, having no practical effects at all. There are cases in which a religious act can only be understood as experienced as having no reason beyond itself.

It's important to sometimes talk about religion as an activity that doesn't have a point.



In coming up with reasons for religion, with functions and practical effects, with explanations that go "it makes sense because it does X," we've made religion out to be a certain kind of activity. Out to be a kind of therapy.

It obviously is that, and does work that way, but perhaps not as exclusively as how we talk about it. There's another whole kind of human behavior that's interesting exactly because it has no reason at all. There's another category of things that we humans do that we do non-instrumentally. That have no point, no practical purpose.

Our reasons are: just because.

Or: for it's own sake.

Or something vague and abstract and not measurable at all, like joy, good, fun, or satisfaction.

There's an argument that's it's precisely these types of activities that orient one away from immanence and towards transcendence, towards a "more" or "beyond," and thus that these acts are more meaningful in some way, human in some way, and religious in some way that more practical endeavors are not.

Think about how art is talked about as non-functional. It's for it's own sake, and something that makes us human, and so on. Of course it also has a function, and can be understood materialistically, as having definite causes and practical effects, yet any account of why people write poetry or learn to play the cello that focuses exclusively on these thing probably misses an important part of what's going on.

A big part of what's interesting, for example, about the earliest evidence of human culture, a bone flute and a busty ivory woman (discovered about 70k from where I live), is how someone had to take a break from the hard work of stone age survival to do something so impractical. Which is to say -- so human.

Or think of the difference between food that's nothing more than instrumental -- we need a certain amount of calories to transform into energy, etc. -- and food that's more than that. Food as art form, as experience. It seems to make more sense to refer to the latter case as religious than the former.

There's something about the excess that can be talked about meaningfully as religious. The practical act appears to us, on some level, as not religious.

When religions is talked about or experienced as therapy and therapeutic, i.e., as having a practical point, the this-world reality is never breached, but breaching (or at least attempts at breaching) are crucial to that which we have called religion, and critical to the definition of that which is "religious."

Religions are -- religions have been -- specifically a human activity oriented towards something surpra-human, towards an extra-reality. Of course it's also the case that there are this-world causes and conditions and this-world results, for and from any given religious activity, but ignoring the hope of epiphenomenal effects is ignoring a key piece of what's going on with religion.

Of course, this is also what's absurd about religion.

Though we may well come up with quite plausible reasons that societies do apparently nonsensical things, like designate a day when no work can be done, or support a class of people who produce nothing, or devote an intense amount of resources to secret knowledge, the fact is those things are still, on the face of it, quite strange, and are sometimes experienced by those societies as having no this-world effect or purpose at all.

In many cases, the point is exactly that there isn't a point.

The argument can also be put into quite silly examples, which, nonetheless, may well be right in a certain sense. E.g., there's a way in which ritual sacrifices are more like extended periods of gaming than, say, they're like health-conscious yoga. It's possible to understand World of Warcraft as a religious act, i.e. an act of transcendence, of getting beyond one's self, in a way an activity dedicated to physiological, psychological and biochemical benefits is not.

Or, e.g., there's a way in which Mormon procreative sex, which is supposed to have effects in the realm of the spiritual, both now and into eternity, can be understood as religions in a way that Catholic sex, which is understood instrumentally and as being good only in so far as it is functional, cannot. Of course Catholic sex is still religious, and Mormon sex is still understood as practical and having a this-world reasons, but see what the difference is, and the different ways religious acts can be understood as being oriented.

Today we have such a strong sense of religion as therapy -- "moral therapeutic deism" is so strong and so accepted -- that the idea that a religious act or practice can be understood and experienced as having no point, no practical purpose, no function at all, is often quite baffling. Religious and non-religious people alike often resist any talk of religion being non-functional, and ignore the parts of religious acts that are experienced as being non-functional, as having an excess.

Yet, there are all sorts of human activities that are exactly like this.

Consider: isn't there a way in which religion and religious practice are sometimes a little like bee bearding?


As Peter Berger said, "the gestures of the clown have a sacramental dignity," in that there is this hope of transcendence, for "in playing, one steps out of one time into another."

Or, to misquote Enid Welsford is a useful way: "The bee bearder believes in possible beatitude."

And isn't that part of what has to be understood as "religion"?