80. The Agnostic’s Survival Manual

The Agnostic’s Sur­vival Man­ual

Thor May
Bris­bane, Aus­tralia
April 2013


Dear reader, are you really hop­ing for a book of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’? Do you want gen­tle ideas and a com­fort­able cor­ner in which to rest your half-formed prej­u­dices? Alas, you have come to the wrong place.

The truly employ­able in this world are harm­less blobs of not-quite-any­thing, or heroic knights of flam­ing con­vic­tion (best employed by oth­ers after safe removal to a site of sac­ri­fice), or good old fash­ioned hyp­ocrites with opin­ions for hire. This par­tic­u­lar writer is entirely unsafe to hire or to know, being addicted to a deadly com­bi­na­tion of mod­er­a­tion and can­dour. Luck­ily few peo­ple ever under­stand what he is talk­ing about.

Read­ers will quickly notice that this is not a “course”, or even a coher­ent dis­course. It is not espe­cially well informed about the patient, though (it seems to me) often futile schol­ar­ship on reli­gion which has con­sumed the lives of count­less aca­d­e­mic-type per­son­al­i­ties for sev­eral thou­sand years. The Agnostic’s Sur­vival Man­ual is merely Thor May’s sur­vival man­ual in the super­mar­ket of the spir­its, a col­lec­tion of obser­va­tions and self-reminders which make sense to the author. Since the entries are a-ha! moments jot­ted down over the years, there is a degree of rep­e­ti­tion, for the writer has some­times been dim enough to think his sud­den insight of the moment per­son­ally orig­i­nal, instead of rec­og­niz­ing last year’s din­ner reheated. In fact, there might be a noisy crowd in heaven when I finally get there, wait­ing to sue for breach of copy­right. Dili­gent hunters after non­sense are also sure to find plenty of incon­sis­ten­cies. No prob­lem, that’s your call.

Since this mate­rial was first writ­ten in 1997 I have lived a cou­ple of extra lives, notably in China and South Korea. Not sur­pris­ingly, some of my ideas have devel­oped or been mod­i­fied, although the gen­eral tone has not changed greatly. A small part of the con­tent is more recent, and some of the old con­tent has been slightly edited. The orig­i­nal title of this doc­u­ment was “The Atheist’s Cat­e­chism” which was a bit too smug, and prob­a­bly mis­rep­re­sented the extrem­ity of my atti­tudes to reli­gion. In Decem­ber 2014 I pub­lished a fur­ther spec­u­la­tion sep­a­rately, with the title “Does reli­gion emerge as a pro­duct of com­plex sys­tems? – explor­ing an alle­gory“. A title like that will surely des­tine it to a small read­er­ship, and I’d be fired from any copy-writ­ing agency, but the con­cept it deals with, a kind of cog­ni­tive “god-space” in the sys­tems of mind, does seem cred­i­ble to me.

There is no attempt or inten­tion here to seek con­verts to a cause. I am per­fectly happy if the reader has quite oppos­ing views. From a shock­ingly brief career as a law stu­dent, I still recall the first words of the reign­ing professor’s lec­ture: “You will for­get most of what you come across in this place, but if you learn just one thing, learn to agree to dis­agree. Then you will have become a civ­i­lized man.” That sounded pretty good to me at the time. It takes all kinds of peo­ple to make the world go around. Use this text as a strik­ing iron for your own con­cepts, pro and con­tra. Enjoy.

The Agnostic’s Sur­vival Man­ual: Table of Con­tents

  1. Intro­duc­tion # 2. Reader Beware! # 3. The Pas­sion­ate Skep­tic # 4. Short Snips – a) Women, Men and Reli­gion; b) A Voca­tion; c) Rid­dle Time; d) Med­dling Priests; e) The Ark of Com­mon Belief; f) Hid­den Incen­tives; g) God Stuff; h) Grown-up Lies; i) The First Prob­lem of Pol­i­tics; j) Pub­lic Belief; k) God talk; l) Were­wolves; m) Creed Caper; n) Trust; o) Rumours of Magic # 5. Myth and poetic imag­i­na­tion # 6. Reli­gion is a psy­chic bank # 7. Know­ing reli­gious men­dac­ity #8. Super­nat­u­ral or Co-Nat­u­ral? # 9. Super­mar­ket of the Spir­its # 10. The Bud­dhist Option # 11. The Inscrutable Face of Lady Luck # 12 Win­ners and Losers # 13. The Sta­bil­ity of Belief # 14. Guess­work Ver­sus reli­gion # 15. Part-time Space Trav­el­ers #16. The Lens of Emo­tion: syn­chro­niz­ing pub­lic and pri­vate illu­sions # 17. Ide­ol­ogy and the Trea­son of the soul # 18. Of Ide­ol­ogy and Con­trol # 19. Cul­tural Patholo­gies # 20. Reset­ting the Men­tal Flow Charts # 21. The Fun­da­men­tal­ist Reli­gious Mind # 22. Easy Beliefs: can ratio­nal­ity sur­vive? # 23. Is Moral­ity a Par­a­sitic Virus? # 24. Pub­lic Reli­gion: a failed exper­i­ment that won’t roll over # 25. An Impo­tent God ver­sus the God Zom­bies # 26. Reli­gious Man­agers: fem­i­nine dialec­tic and camp power-play # 27. Reli­gious Uses and Mis­uses: learn­ing to live with the whole damned thing

1. Introduction


Light is such a funny thing. I wish to fix it with words like white or blue, which have a dif­fer­ent flavour on the skin from red or gold. But when I come to the sense of street lights on my eye­ball at a chilly 5.30am, just before night begins to get all wispy grey, noth­ing seems cer­tain any­more. The dawn can turn into any­thing, I feel. It is bet­ter to shut my mouth for a while, stop being a poet, and wait to see if I really need an umbrella.

This is a fool­ish dis­course, writ­ten under street lights in the lonely alleys of pre-dawn imag­i­na­tion. Or often when the day was done, fled with­out rea­son before we were really intro­duced. Yes, it is these lost chances that the words are cast for, like a net to catch moments that once had colour. A game no doubt, a hope­less bou­quet brought in pre­tense that there was some­thing I should have loved. I don’t know about you, but I have to write. Writ­ing is my sur­ro­gate for under­stand­ing the world. Each day is such a des­per­ately short affair. Briefly you awake, eat, stretch and it is done, with all your plans undone. I have to imi­tate it with words, fin­ger-writ­ten in the air, claim­ing to be me. Me, a daisy chain of let­ters scratched in time. Pathetic, but there you are.

What does it all mean? I wail. Why the hell should I care any­way? What is the point of under­stand­ing the weather cycle? With the brain of an earth­worm wet and dry earth might be the cusp of uni­ver­sal truths. The soar­ing soul of an avatar must see so far above our hori­zons of pro­fun­dity that my solemn words can only yield laugh­ter and pity. Why should such a mid­dle-minded crea­ture as I toy with the com­mon-sense of gods? No choice, fool, the echoes cry. Did you ever try not to talk, even for five min­utes? No, not with your meaty tongue. In the elec­tron cor­ri­dors of your brain. Do it now, be mocked. Hear the whis­pers unpick the gate-locks of your silent cen­tre, watch with inner despair as delin­quent mem­o­ries make a riotous party of your rest.

I am the con­demned host of eter­nal solil­o­quies, stream­ing in from the dark fac­to­ries of chem­i­cal glands, mes­sages from dis­tant fin­ger­tips, drum­beats of pain on my reti­nas. Some­how from that chaos an attrac­tor emerges, ghostly, now here, now gone, calls itself I, grabs for a hint of order, des­per­ate to find its own con­ti­nu­ity in the tor­rent of sen­sa­tion, calls each fleet­ing pat­tern mean­ing. Craves mean­ing, craves life. That’s what it’s all about, idiot. The I thing can only live on mean­ing. Let the avatars laugh. What can I do about it? Noth­ing. Have to talk, have to write. So let’s get on with it.

2. Reader Beware!


This is a par­ti­san the­sis, a cat­a­logue of praise and con­dem­na­tion mas­querad­ing as per­sonal truth. Or per­haps it is a quest for per­sonal cer­tainty which keeps falling into quick­sand. More likely, the quick­sand, the con­tra­dic­tions are nec­es­sary parts of a jour­ney. I fear not for myself, but for the occa­sional reader who in a care­less moment may embed some part of my fleet­ing obser­va­tion in his own per­sonal notion of uni­ver­sal truths. There­fore, some hon­est admis­sions are in order.

When I was made, Faith was left out of the recipe. I lack any stolid cer­tainty that the sun will rise tomor­row. I step from ice floe to ice floe, half expect­ing the next one to turn turtle and leave me drown­ing in a frozen sea. There is no expec­ta­tion of mirac­u­lous res­cue, no prayer for a silken cord from some pro­pi­ti­ated heli­copter god. The idea of wor­ship­ping any­one or any­thing nau­se­ates me. Choral hymns, national anthems and cheer­ing crowds make my gorge rise.

Why am I skep­ti­cal of every­one and every­thing? I don’t know if there is a gene for doubt. From the nur­ture angle, I guess the shap­ing dynamic is that nobody has ever seri­ously believed in me, so the start­ing point must be self-doubt. The best my par­ents could man­age was that kind of hope you hold out for win­ning the lot­tery, but barely con­cealed was a deeper mes­sage. They invested in me the same kind of despair that they had in them­selves.

The upshot of all this cor­ro­sive doubt is that if any­one shows even a nascent ten­dency to trust my capac­ity, I imme­di­ately doubt either their verac­ity or their judge­ment. Not that the sit­u­a­tion arises often. How I have hun­gered some­times for one good friend.

Now you in your warm and wel­com­ing world have many friends. Trea­sure them, keep your beliefs intact with your feast days and lit­tle rit­u­als. My tale is from the bor­der­lands where few travel and the faces are unfa­mil­iar. Read it in front of a warm fire on a winter’s evening, and count your bless­ings.

 3. The Passionate Skeptic


I don’t care what you believe in, so long as you don’t believe in it too strongly. A belief is a weapon in the armoury of your heart, and its razor edge will mur­der the inno­cent. The ice, the fire of your pas­sion will seduce mun­dane men and women. Your clar­ity will excite respect. And the first dem­a­gogue who comes along with a key to your heart’s armoury will wrest the weapon from your moral grasp. The first cause which wears the colours of your belief will enlist you as a sol­dier in rav­aging cru­sades. Peace friend. Keep your pas­sion to doubt with. Our civ­i­liza­tion is a sim­ple mat­ter of live and let live, of giv­ing dreams a go, but step­ping back with a wry smile when we get it wrong. Let the fun­da­men­tal­ists per­ish in their own pil­lars of fire. Spare a dol­lar for the liv­ing, and have a nice day.  Doubt well, do what you can, then let it be. Pres­i­dents, priests, wage slaves, hus­tlers, men and women, kids, we all live by the grace of those we love to despise…

4. Short Snips on Religion

Thor has kept a col­lec­tion of his blind­ing insights at a place called Thor’s Short Cuts (http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/aphorism.html), and some of the more recent ones also on a blog of the same name (http://thorshortcuts.byeways.net/). Alto­gether these frag­ments stretch back to 1988. Before that he just cursed under his breath and chewed his fin­ger­nails. The whole selec­tion surely says more about the messed up inside of Thor’s head than any­thing defin­i­tive about the mad outer world of men and women. Nev­er­the­less, from time to time his dystopian gaze has shifted to reli­gion, and the fol­low­ing fif­teen short com­ments are extracted from that source. The orig­i­nal series num­bers and dates have been retained here for easy ref­er­ence.


  1. a)Women, Men and Reli­gion
    Sun 08-Apr-2012

Men find secu­rity in phys­i­cal dom­i­nance. With­out that dom­i­nance most men feel sex­u­ally cas­trated. Lack­ing phys­i­cal dom­i­nance (on the whole) women often seek secu­rity in deceit, or fail­ing that, in magic. Magic is broadly expressed as spir­i­tu­al­ity. Magic, sorted as orga­nized self-delu­sion, then bet­ter, a shared delu­sion, is what we call reli­gion. This reli­gious magic is potent stuff for con­trol­ling human beings, since few are dri­ven by impar­tial evi­dence based think­ing. Per­ceiv­ing the power of reli­gious magic, men hijack the for­mula by force and kick women out of the tem­ple. Thus all reli­gions which pro­gress to gov­ern­ing the lives of cit­i­zens are based on male sex­ual inse­cu­rity sanc­ti­fied by the state. [a ref­er­ence: http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/world/secrets-of-divine-women-exposed-20120407-1wi1j.html]


  1. b) A Voca­tion
    Sun Oct-03–2010

The good face of orga­nized reli­gion is that it cre­ates a social space. This is a space which at its best lies out­side the thrall of daily eco­nomic con­test and role play, a place where peo­ple regard­less of sta­tus, race, gen­der or occu­pa­tion can meet and reflect on their human­ity. We all know that “at its best” is a frag­ile con­di­tion, and in the case of reli­gion has had a bumpy his­tory. The com­pe­ti­tion from other social spaces nowa­days is fierce. Orga­nized reli­gion also has crip­pling neg­a­tives. In most cul­tures, it has rou­tinely been con­trolled by old men, in indi­vid­ual cases with wis­dom and tol­er­ance, but in the aggre­gate over time, as a power tool of social con­trol and sex­ual con­trol, enforced by exclu­sion, per­se­cu­tion and war. In the aggre­gate over time, the evi­dence is over­whelm­ing that reli­gion has never made good men and wome from bad men and women. Its moral parade has been a pre­tence for other agen­das. The ani­mal rou­ti­nes of strut­ting, preen­ing, fight­ing, feed­ing and breed­ing don’t need a reli­gion to sanc­tify them, and sec­u­lar cul­tures have been per­fectly capa­ble of man­ag­ing them. We need to respect our biol­ogy, but it is not what defines us as human. Surely it is time to grow up and find our proper human voca­tion. If peo­ple must talk of a god, and many seem to feel the need, then that voca­tion, the godly role if you like, is our choice to make. The care and man­age­ment of a small planet, with all the liv­ing things upon it might not be a bad choice.


  1. c) Rid­dle Time

What do com­puter games, reli­gion, poetry and art have in com­mon? Well, a kind of artistry per­haps. But let’s come down to artistry itself. All artistry is a pub­lic illu­sion in which we are licensed to park our pri­vate delu­sions.


  1. d) Med­dling Priests
    Sun 04-06-2006

One of the func­tions of reli­gions, together with their usual quota of gods, is to provide employ­ment for cer­tain per­son­al­ity types. Priests in their many forms – pas­tors, imams, witch doc­tors, mis­sion­ar­ies, what­ever .. – are char­ac­ters who lust to exer­cise moral power over other peo­ple. Indeed many, if not most peo­ple seem to want some­one to exer­cise that power, how­ever nom­i­nally. Per­haps it comes from the con­di­tion­ing of parental author­ity. Any­way, the priestly class, hav­ing no more imag­i­na­tion than aver­age, pick up on some local dogma and sell it as their own, claim­ing a moral imper­a­tive. A few are indeed saints. Sadly though, on aver­age, the moral cal­i­bre of priestly types is rarely bet­ter than aver­age, and pretty often worse. Above all, they are intol­er­ant of any chal­lenge to their moral hege­mony. His­tor­i­cally they have been a major source of hatred. frat­ri­cide and oppres­sion, what­ever the dogma in their book of magic. There is no rea­son to believe that will ever change.


  1. e) The Ark of Com­mon Belief
    Sun 05-03-2006

From the evi­dence of his­tory, reli­gions are needed. Reli­gions are super­mar­ket expla­na­tions for the outer lim­its of human under­stand­ing, and that is all the expla­na­tion that most peo­ple seem to want. The super­mar­ket sta­tus of the expla­na­tion itself is an attrac­tion, for it guar­an­tees a fel­low­ship of shared belief. Reli­gions are also social vehi­cles through which indi­vid­u­als express their ideal moral char­ac­ter, some­times even when their daily lives allow lit­tle space for the ideal. That moral expres­sion will find an out­let, regard­less of the reli­gious brand cho­sen from the local super­mar­ket of the spir­its. Thus reli­gion is a licence to do good. The seven deadly sins, and plenty more, will also be jus­ti­fied and ratio­nal­ized by indi­vid­u­als and social groups, using what­ever reli­gious brand they hap­pen to have cho­sen, and regard­less of what the dogma of their reli­gious texts pro­claim. Exclu­sion, per­se­cu­tion and unkind­ness will all be avail­able for mem­bers of the cho­sen reli­gion to inflict on non-group mem­bers – those who have cho­sen another brand. Thus reli­gion is a licence to do evil. When the outer lim­its of human under­stand­ing are expressed with a human rather than a super­nat­u­ral ref­er­ence, the reli­gion is named an ide­ol­ogy instead (com­mu­nism, Con­fu­cian­ism, cap­i­tal­ism etc). In the end this mat­ters lit­tle, for all the same psy­cho­log­i­cal mech­a­nisms for belief and action apply.


  1. f) Hid­den Incen­tives Tue 18-10-2005

So you want to change the world ? You have invented a won­der­ful new system/method/ideology/religion ? Yes, it works for your friends and admir­ers. Let’s sell it to the mass mar­keters : the politi­cians, the cor­po­ra­tions, the pro­fes­sional pro­mot­ers. But wait a min­ute …

The mass manip­u­la­tion of pop­u­la­tions by gov­ern­ments, mass edu­ca­tion, pop­ulist reli­gious pro­mo­tion etc. often has hor­ren­dous out­comes. We have a recorded species his­tory of around six mil­len­nia of ter­ri­ble out­comes with this kind of stuff. Why? Well it’s partly because the **incen­tives** any sys­tem or ide­ol­ogy or ‘method’ or ‘approach’ sets up apply quite dif­fer­ently:

  1. a) to the tar­get group (cit­i­zens, stu­dents, devo­tees, who­ever..);
    b) to the agents who deliver it (e.g. civil ser­vants, cor­po­rate employ­ees, priests, teach­ers …);
    c) to the con­trollers (so-called admin­is­tra­tors, politi­cians .. and the rest).

It is almost always true that the incen­tives and rewards flow­ing to con­trollers are the strongest pre­dic­tors of out­comes, those accru­ing to the deliv­er­ing agents, the sec­ond most pow­er­ful pre­dic­tors, and those apply­ing to the tar­get group (i.e. the explicit con­tent of the ide­ol­ogy, sys­tem etc) are the least effec­tive, and fre­quently over­whelmed.


  1. g) God Stuff
    Mon 01-08-2005

God is to human lan­guage as the zero is to math­e­mat­ics. Thus god in an infini­tude of iso­la­tion is with­out sub­stance or value, but makes the most use­ful of all dig­its when dreams are mul­ti­plied by words. There is no doubt about the power of the god digit in any dis­course amongst humans, and we can­not dis­count it there, for human actions fol­low where thought leads. Yet when our voices cease, my bet (another empty value to be sure) is that all king­doms of heaven and hell will come to a zero sum game.


h) 179. Grown-up Lies
Wed 29-06-2005

Grown-ups tell lies for a liv­ing. They are also required to lie that they tell the truth. This sec­ond bit goes by lots of names, like cor­po­ratism, or keep­ing your job, or reli­gion, or Mao Zedong’s lit­tle red book of wicked­ness. No mat­ter. The big mys­tery is why real truth-telling still hangs on by its fin­ger­nails, and from time to time claws open the door to the abyss by a crack. It seems that all the lie-telling cycli­cally brings indi­vid­u­als, com­pa­nies and cul­tures to col­lapse. Then there’s a moment of truth, a big bang, an Armaged­don, a bank­ruptcy … and the whole trick starts again in a dif­fer­ent party suit. Same old lies though.


  1. i) The First Prob­lem of Pol­i­tics
    Wed Dec-29–2004

The first prob­lem of pol­i­tics has always been how to trap wan­der­ing minds into a hold­ing pat­tern of shared pur­pose.

For hunter-gath­er­ers and peas­ant farm­ers, a basic need for food and the pro­ces­sion of sea­sons set the mould. Every lifestyle since has had its rit­u­als and cer­e­monies – delib­er­ate struc­tures to orga­nize rou­ti­nes of behav­iour. Reli­gions and ide­olo­gies are exten­sions of the rit­ual process, dras­ti­cally inflated with solemn non­sense.

The com­mon thread in all of this stuff is that doubt and whimsy are not wel­come.


  1. j) Pub­lic Belief
    Wed 03-11-2004

Wherever reli­gion or ide­ol­ogy have claimed a strong hold on the pub­lic mind, the polit­i­cal con­se­quences have been mostly evil. The con­di­tions which make pos­si­ble this fail­ure of civil life are based in child rear­ing and edu­ca­tion, though the cat­a­lyst for dis­as­ter may be eco­nom­ics.


  1. k) God Talk
    Sat 23-10-2004

God is the trick­ster alter ego of self-talk. This chameleon gent is a part­ner needed, per­haps, by lots of folk, but when he gets con­trol of the asy­lum, things tend to get apoc­a­lyp­tic, so the com­mon sense of merely human judge­ments, and the tol­er­ance that comes from know­ing one’s own frailty — these qual­i­ties are lost in the rush to fol­low the trick­ster Harlequin’s con­fi­dent decep­tions.




  1. l) Were­wolves
    Thu Dec-18–2003

I meet you on the street, ask some sim­ple favour. You are gen­er­ous in unex­pected ways, noble per­haps. You are a pri­vate man or woman, free to be entirely human. I meet you as the agent of an insti­tu­tion. You are a beast. Gath­ered to a group, a reli­gion, a nation, your mind is a pack mind, your lust is a blood lust; any tol­er­ance is a weak­ness to the mis­sion. Fear­ful of your inca­pac­ity to mur­der alone, you bay for a leader or a god to absolve your evil with all the lies of power.


  1. m) Creed Caper
    Sat­ur­day  17 May, 2003

What­ever the creed, there are believ­ers. Wherever believ­ers exist, there is the chance for power of some kind. When­ever power can be scented, preda­tors gather like jack­als. That is the human story. What kind of creed? Any at all — reli­gion, pol­i­tics, ide­ol­ogy, sport, com­pany pol­icy, a book on how to grow petu­nias… . What of the believ­ers? They crave the idea of a com­fort zone, a path already hewn, a promise of future plea­sure. Most of all, they fear to be orig­i­nal, and strangely, for the per­mis­sion to fol­low, they will suf­fer any hard­ship and com­mit almost any atroc­ity. What of the preda­tors? They are at all lev­els of the food chain, some only slightly less enmeshed than the entirely cred­u­lous. But in small ways or large, they will break the faith for advan­tage. At the top of the hier­ar­chy, they are apt to be life­time hyp­ocrites. Such lead­ers are cer­tain that pub­lic piety and pri­vate cyn­i­cism is ‘the real­ity of power’, and despise the can­did. By and large, they rule the human world.

This all began with creeds. A creed on grow­ing petu­nias is less vir­u­lent than a creed on eter­nal sal­va­tion. Why? The petu­nias grow or they don’t grow. Vis­i­tors from the dead with an inside story on sal­va­tion are not a daily event. Even the rumour of such vis­its has kept entire reli­gions in busi­ness for mil­len­nia. For life­time hyp­ocrites, it is smart to pick a bul­let-proof cover. Eter­nity is the best deal going, when it can turn a profit. Wasn’t it Saint Thomas Aquinas who said, “never trust a man of one book” ?


  1. n) Trust
    @30 June 2002

That state of mind which gives us free­dom to act is gov­erned by trust. Trust is the first pil­lar of civ­i­lized liv­ing. It is fairly easy to main­tain trust in a vil­lage soci­ety, dif­fi­cult in a city, and extremely dif­fi­cult in a com­plex mod­ern econ­omy. Reli­gion is a wish­ful super solu­tion to the trust prob­lem. I for one trust in no god. The best mor­tal answer I can find is to seek in oth­ers that hon­esty which I expect of myself. With­out trust in our envi­ron­ment, in human rela­tion­ships, and in the insti­tu­tions of our cul­tures, we are reduced to a sav­age horde. It fol­lows that those who coun­ter­feit trust for short term gain are the ene­mies of civ­i­liza­tion.


  1. o) Rumours of Magic
    @20 Decem­ber 2001

Reli­gions are orga­nized rumours of magic for Mug­gles.

5. Myth and Poetic Imagination


The human psy­che craves an imag­i­na­tive space within which all the mys­ter­ies, dis­ap­point­ments and won­ders of expe­ri­ence may be stored. That space must have bor­ders at the very edges of per­cep­tion, and a light that is colder than sun­shine yet warmer than dusk. Those who dwell within this realm are to be known, yet barely known. They will have names for their parts, but the whole may be unspeak­able. Here, good will never be entirely lost, no more than we can believe our­selves to be wholly bad, yet the mem­ory of cat­a­stro­phe will never be less than a shadow and may at times bear down with the weight of a moun­tain. In every land­scape of our faery land a spark of courage will light the path of hope, but the rank evil of despair will be a dark rider on our heels.

In this mythic place we find the Bible and Lao­tian drag­ons, the Ice­landic Eddas, the Dusun cre­ation myths, the Qur’an (القرآن‎ ), the Rain­bow Ser­pent, the Torah (תּוֹרָה), the Vedas (वेदा), the Inca cos­mol­ogy, the Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo, ances­tor spir­its, Tolkien’s Ring of Power, the astro­log­i­cal almanac, Gaia, records of the Gau­tama Bud­dha and Darwin’s Origin of the Species.

6. Religion is a Psychic Bank


A reli­gion is a kind of psy­chic bank, cre­ated by fear and hope, wherein are stored all those things which an indi­vid­ual finds most vul­ner­a­ble: the author­ity to judge right from wrong, the traf­fic rules for get­ting along with other beings, the guar­an­tee of self-worth, a ratio­nale for the mir­a­cle of cre­ation and the bar­ren waste of death. Above all, an assur­ance of san­ity when other cer­tain­ties fall away. God is the gate­keeper who holds dreams within bounds, chas­tises the spirit for its hubris, and keeps its seed alive in the fur­nace of self-doubt. Since this con­struct of a psy­chic bank is declared invi­o­late from per­sonal frailty, the investor is des­per­ate to attract like-minded believ­ers.

A reli­gion of one has walls so per­me­able that its cre­ator and client must live in con­stant ter­ror of self-betrayal. With a reli­gion of two it can safely be said that all the world art mad but thou and I. A reli­gion of mil­lions, with a mil­len­nium of his­tory, so sus­tains the major­ity of its clients that they may back­ground it in the rou­ti­nes of sur­vival, save for icons to mark life changes. Yet for these icons they will fight to the death. Curi­ous that the keeper of dreams should extract more loy­alty in the end than con­scious­ness itself.

7. Knowing Religious Mendacity


Know­ing­ness is like the Wayang Kulit, a Javanese shadow play flit­ting from one half guessed real­ity to another, where the audi­ence, the pup­pets and the pup­pet mas­ter are forever merg­ing ambigu­ously, one into the other.

But we are greedy, inse­cure chil­dren, want­ing love and a sure home. Where there is no cer­tainty, we pro­claim there is one cer­tainty and call it faith. Where there is no com­pas­sion, we pro­claim that there is supreme com­pas­sion and call it the spirit. Where there is no wis­dom, we pro­claim omni­scient wis­dom and call it god.

Let us be can­did. Reli­gious dogma is mumbo jumbo. The arch­bishop and the witch doc­tor prac­tice the same trade. Clearly there has always been a demand for their ser­vices, and by the look of it there always will be. The doc­trine, in the end, doesn’t mat­ter so much, though it may be a ratio­nale for fewer mur­ders if the sur­face text is benign.

What­ever the doc­trine, it will be sub­verted to a hall of mir­rors, reflect­ing all the psy­chodra­mas of human hope, from revenge to self-right­eous legal­ism to gen­tle self-indul­gence. Reli­gion is an opaque brew of self-decep­tion and men­dac­ity. At what point does the sales­man begin to believe his own spiel that he has the best insur­ance pol­icy to sell? The truth can never be known except in fleet­ing moments of pri­vate insight. A claim to piety is an easy option for every dude who wants to climb the greasy pole of ambi­tion.

Lead­ing the mul­ti­tudes of accept­ing souls is a small army of hyp­ocrites. At least, I am con­vinced of this from watch­ing the human cav­al­cade for decades. Nor can the hyp­ocrites be beaten, for it is a con­spir­acy reborn in every gen­er­a­tion and in every cul­ture among the sharp, bright, ruth­less minds of those who would claim the mantle of power. The Marx­ist cadre, the bishop, the imam, the indus­tri­al­ist, the politi­cian, are one man and one woman.

What should a man do? Should he wear the mitre of the arch­bishop, and smite the non-con­spir­a­tors to a pur­ga­tory of cul­tural exclu­sion? Should he clothe him­self in the fel­low­ship of shared belief and the com­fort of sim­ple rit­ual, become one of the flock? Should he remain an out­lander, rid­ing the bound­ary of doubt, forever barred from the largesse of power or the com­fort of cul­tural accep­tance? How should a man keep his human­ity and remain a free spirit?


8. Supernatural or Co-Natural?


Almost all reli­gions deal with the con­cept of a real­ity which is not the real­ity of nor­mal human per­cep­tion. The soci­ol­ogy of this other real­ity is, in many ways, what sep­a­rates the reli­gions. At one extreme, some ani­mists con­ceive of an almost simul­ta­ne­ous co-nature, effec­tively occu­py­ing the same space and at least over­lap­ping the time dimen­sion on our side of the divide. Life forms in the alter­nate world have, as it were, a dif­fer­ent biol­ogy, so that ani­mals may have higher intel­li­gence, while “inan­i­mate” objects such as hills or rocks may also have intel­li­gence.

It is not nec­es­sar­ily the case that these alter­nate life forms can wholly con­trol their own fate, or freely move across the divide of the worlds. How­ever they are held to be aware of a sym­bi­otic rela­tion­ship with our world, and may be dam­aged by human mis­be­hav­iour. Cen­tral to the co-depen­dence of worlds is the notion of equi­lib­rium, the unpre­dictable con­se­quences which may arise from dis­turbing that equi­lib­rium, and the cen­tral role of humans in pre­serv­ing nat­u­ral sys­tems in bal­ance.

Human soci­eties with this kind of belief struc­ture tend to be hunter-gath­er­ers, intensely aware of sea­sonal cycles and their own pre­car­i­ous role in the ecostruc­ture. Their sen­si­tiv­ity and empha­sis on nat­u­ral bal­ance has pre­served them across vast stretches of time.

Chang­ing pat­terns of human set­tle­ment, with more estab­lished cen­tres of power than the nomadic lifestyle, invited an evo­lu­tion of the spir­i­tual world. Greeks, Per­sians, Nordic peo­ples and oth­ers devel­oped pan­theons of super-gods who were unabashedly humans writ large. Spe­cial godly qual­i­ties how­ever went along with exclu­sive accom­mo­da­tion on Mount Olym­pus, Asgaard (across the rain­bow bridge), and so on, from whence the gods would make peri­odic raids on earthly domains to claim alle­giance or wreak havoc.

Whereas the mor­tal­ity of co-nature was scarcely an issue, the immor­tal­ity of ego­tis­ti­cal super-gods was seen as a gift, which in cer­tain cir­cum­stances might be dimin­ished. And whereas it was fool­ish for a mor­tal to chal­lenge the gods (hubris), a canny human might cer­tainly play one god against another. In short, the reli­gions which cameoed fam­i­lies of super-gods were per­fect foils to earthly soci­eties which cen­tered around regional war­lords and endemic ban­ditry.

So-called “estab­lished” reli­gions, espe­cially those in the Judaic tra­di­tion (Judaism, Chris­tian­ity, Islam etc.), rein­ter­pret the geog­ra­phy and soci­ol­ogy of the alter­nate world with care­fully delin­eated domains of heaven and hell. In this they built on inter­me­di­ate belief sys­tems of super-god fam­i­lies. In another sense they drew directly from the total depen­dence of desert nomads on a sparse, harsh, almost fea­ture­less nat­u­ral desert envi­ron­ment. Clearly desert nomads were depen­dent upon an unseen power, and equally clearly such a power would claim supe­rior accom­mo­da­tion for itself else­where.

The squab­bling fam­i­lies of super-gods serv­ing peas­ants and regional war­lords on the fer­tile plains must have seemed effete to free rang­ing tent-dwellers. At the same time they had come to under­stand the power of con­cen­trated author­ity. The resul­tant god is an unseen power, omnipo­tent, omni­scient, liv­ing else­where but some­how with a con­stant com­mand of local human events. In other words, he (cer­tainly he) was the chief­tain who would, his lack­eys felt, be aware of all trans­gres­sions and infi­deli­ties even though his tent was ten day’s camel ride away across the sand dunes.

As it hap­pened, the unseen engulf­ing tyranny of a mon­strous sin­gle god would prove to be trans­portable to almost all human soci­eties, dif­fi­cult to rea­son against, per­ilous to ridicule and a stand­ing defence for patri­ar­chal author­ity every­where. The focus of reli­gion had clearly moved from the need to bal­ance par­al­lel worlds to a require­ment to pro­pi­ti­ate a remote author­ity. With this shift went a loss of the pre­vi­ous intense per­sonal respon­si­bil­ity of each man and woman as a war­den for their local envi­ron­ment. The remote god, lack­ing a local zoo to keep it amused, is pre­sumed to inter­fere in the per­sonal minu­tiae of indi­vid­ual human behav­iour. Thus co-nature has become super-nature to which human immi­gra­tion is only pos­si­ble by sub­mit­ting to the pecu­liar behav­ioural pro­scrip­tions of the for­eign host.

Of all the modal­i­ties of human soci­ety, the urban indus­trial and post-indus­trial vari­ants are not prov­ing ter­ri­bly hos­pitable to the­is­tic tyranny. For one thing, the ten­dency to democ­racy itself, with all its messy com­pro­mise, is anti­thet­i­cal to unac­count­able power. But most crit­i­cally, the whole tech­no­log­i­cal and sci­en­tific foun­da­tion of mod­ern soci­eties is built upon find­ing answers to mat­ters which had been con­sid­ered the province of god and his agents. More­over, the sci­en­tific and tech­ni­cal answers have turned out to be over­whelm­ingly more effec­tive and con­ge­nial than the the­is­tic pro­scrip­tions. This is not a com­fort­able sit­u­a­tion for an all-know­ing, all-pow­er­ful god.

Curi­ously, the old notion of co-nature, bal­ance, the human as nature’s war­den is much more appeal­ing to men and women in the late twen­ti­eth cen­tury, and most so-called new-age reli­gions seem to be head­ing in that direc­tion.

9. Supermarket of the Spirits

There usen’t to be much choice about it. You took the reli­gion of your fathers or you burned, if not on the stake, at least in hell. That is a propo­si­tion still fac­ing a large seg­ment of the world’s pop­u­la­tion in one form or another. Yet in the heart­lands of our post-indus­trial cul­tures you can take your pick in the super­mar­ket of the spir­its.

There’s a good like­li­hood that mum and dad cleave to dif­fer­ent sects, or dif­fer­ent reli­gions. There is a hazy con­tin­uum from your shroud-wrapped enthu­si­asts for Mid­dle East­ern desert gods (the so-called Judaic reli­gions and their cousins), to crys­tals and tarot cards, to the neo-reli­gious sects of fringe con­ser­va­tion­ists, polit­i­cal ide­o­logues and foot­ball groupies.

You would think that with this cor­nu­copia of quick magic on dis­play, the cus­tomers would make some ratio­nal com­par­isons, go for the biggest bonus coupons, or even maybe won­der aloud about the bot­tom line value of the whole busi­ness. Not a bit of it. If we look at con­tenders in the race of the sav­iours, three mar­ket lead­ers are pretty clearly Bud­dhism, Chris­tian­ity and Islam. They hit the mar­ket in that order, with sep­a­ra­tions of up to a thou­sand years. A funny thing is that the sophis­ti­ca­tion of their guid­ing philoso­phies shows a lin­ear decline in the same order.

The Islamic view of the uni­verse is (in my view) pretty sim­ple-minded stuff as cos­mol­ogy, but seeks social cohe­sion through an adher­ence to shared rit­ual pro­hi­bi­tions. Chris­tian­ity doesn’t do much bet­ter with its cos­mol­ogy, but leaves some space for uncon­di­tional com­pas­sion, which is a def­i­nite social asset. Judaism, the antecedent of both, can be mar­gin­ally more intel­li­gent in a mod­ern inter­pre­ta­tion, but is still hand­i­capped by notions of eth­nic exclu­siv­ity and tribal vengeance. The old­est of all seems to me to embed the wis­est explo­ration of con­scious­ness. Bud­dhism, in its his­tor­i­cally orig­i­nal expres­sion, does have some impres­sive philo­soph­i­cal insights (famil­iar to Indian thinkers of its era), and sig­nif­i­cantly, keeps the whole super­nat­u­ral bit at arms length. The pub­lic pre­sen­ta­tion of Bud­dhism across cen­turies and cul­tures has, of course, also had to come with all the spir­its (avatars), gim­micks and trin­kets demanded by pop­u­lar taste. So what is the state of com­pe­ti­tion between these prod­ucts?

There is not much doubt about it. Islam had been win­ning hands down amongst the needy, at least before its lat­est embrace by jihadi (جهادي) assas­sins. The voodoo end of Chris­tian­ity is a hit where white picket fence sub­ur­bia reigns . The bread & cir­cuses, crowd pleas­ing, rit­ual front end to a god-story is what counts for pub­lic approval. An appen­dix of good causes accept­able to the creed – say some help for wid­ows, orphans or the poor – can also assist won­der­fully with mar­ket­ing. The lessons are clear enough.


10. The Buddhist Option


Reli­gions as cul­tural arti­facts have always been weapons. The ring of piety is a dan­ger­ous power game. Nev­er­the­less, that reflec­tion which gives rise to reli­gious ideas, how­ever warped they may be, is embed­ded in the design of our psy­ches and will not be denied. There is much chal­lenge in direct­ing the reli­gious ten­dency towards humour, tol­er­ance and benef­i­cence, and pre­serv­ing its cur­rents from poi­so­nous infu­sions of dogma, manip­u­la­tion and hier­ar­chy.

As estab­lished reli­gions go, Bud­dhism has seemed to me for some time to be the most promis­ing vehi­cle for broad reli­gious expres­sion. Its best pre­cepts appear more mature and sophis­ti­cated than those of Judeo-Chris­tian reli­gions, and its ten­den­cies less able to be stolen as vest­ments by power crazy politi­cians. They try of course, and the sub­ur­ban Bud­dhist priest­hood in, say, Japan, is as cor­rupted as any papal nun­cio. Bud­dhist fac­tions in a nation as unhappy as Myan­mar (Burma) have some­times shown a mur­der­ous intol­er­ance of other creeds and eth­nic­i­ties as deadly as any Moslem jihadi or Chris­tian fun­da­men­tal­ist. But the dis­ci­pline of self-knowl­edge implicit in Bud­dhist prac­tice has pre­served its essen­tial integrity in a way that appeals to the tex­tual integrity of a Qur’an or Bible or Torah can never match.

For these rea­sons, among oth­ers per­haps, a West­ern form of Bud­dhism has been attract­ing some excep­tional minds to its shel­ter. Cog­ni­tive aspects of this neo-Bud­dhism are explored in a fas­ci­nat­ing book by Varela, Thomp­son & Rosch. They note that:

.. all of the reflec­tive tra­di­tions in human his­tory – phi­los­o­phy, sci­ence, psy­cho­analy­sis, reli­gion, med­i­ta­tion – have chal­lenged the naive sense of self. No tra­di­tion has ever claimed to dis­cover an inde­pen­dent, fixed, or uni­tary self within the world of expe­ri­ence.” [Varela J, E Thomp­son & E Rosch The Embod­ied Mind : Cog­ni­tive Sci­ence and Human Expe­ri­ence , pub. Cam­bridge, Mass: MIT Press 1991:59].

This dilemma is con­fronted directly in Bud­dhist phi­los­o­phy, where the strug­gle to accept the per­ceived non-real­ity of self is a major part of Bud­dhist prac­tice. Draw­ing on Bud­dhist tra­di­tions, Varela, Thomp­son & Rosch mount a quite per­sua­sive argu­ment (for me any­way) that by learn­ing to dis­ci­pline the human mind in a prin­ci­pled way which involves sub­du­ing illu­sions of self­hood, one can in fact analyse many of mind’s impor­tant prop­er­ties.

11. The Inscrutable Face of Lady Luck


Humans are prac­ti­cal about their super­sti­tions. A super­sti­tion, of course, is some­body else’s reli­gion, and reli­gion is a psy­cho­log­i­cal device for the man­age­ment of luck. So what is luck?

  • Luck is a con­ver­gence of desir­able (or unde­sir­able) effects from an inde­ter­mi­nate source via inex­plic­a­ble means.
  • The man­age­ment of luck is a heuris­tic process of chan­nel­ing power in ways that are known or believed to be effec­tive, even though the medium is not under­stood.
  • The medium and the source of reli­gious luck are claimed to be super­nat­u­ral, and each reli­gion claims to chan­nel the power which instan­ti­ates that luck.
  • Every reli­gion with­out excep­tion seeks to bol­ster its quota of inex­plic­a­ble super­nat­u­ral power with the more cer­tain tem­po­ral power of human author­ity.
  • There is always a fusion of tem­po­ral power and imputed super­nat­u­ral power, so that any real absence of the lat­ter can be indef­i­nitely cov­ered by asser­tion of the for­mer.
  • The focused power of a reli­gion can indeed deliver “luck” to indi­vid­u­als in a con­stituency of believ­ers through the covert and overt sup­port of con­stituency mem­bers for each other.

If you ask some­one who can’t make much sense of the idea of a god (say, some­one like me) whether they believe in Luck, most will scratch their heads and admit that in some sense they do.

If you ask fur­ther as to what they mean by Luck they will be even more trou­bled, but con­clude that too often events just don’t fall out accord­ing to their cal­cu­la­tion of chance. With some warmth they will recall, if they are like me, that time and again events seem to con­spire to exas­per­ate, or hand­i­cap them, or to waste time, or just to go wrong when they shouldn’t. My own life (your life?) has been a cat­a­logue of mishaps of this kind, mixed often with an odd kind of sav­ing grace where one mis­for­tune fore­stalls an even greater dis­as­ter. Those who know me for any length of time (not many) soon develop the expec­ta­tion that I am dis­as­ter prone. Nowa­days I merely sigh, telling myself that the indul­gence of fury will only pro­voke the warped humour of my guardian angel to fur­ther out­rages.

When I look around, some oth­ers seem unrea­son­ably touched by good Luck, like gam­blers who never lose, what­ever their per­sonal trans­gres­sions. Oth­ers attract major cat­a­stro­phe from no fault of their own, which leaves me count­ing my bless­ings.

This brings us back to the god thing. Does it have a moral core? Con­tem­po­rary North Asian folk, the Chi­nese and Japan­ese are, as cul­tural groups, stead­fastly skep­ti­cal about moral gods yet alto­gether obsessed with pro­pi­ti­at­ing Luck, what­ever it is. Of course, super­hu­man moral­ity has been road tested in var­i­ous Asian philoso­phies – for exam­ple in parts of Chi­nese belief dat­ing from the Chou Dynasty – but it has rarely had a defin­ing role. So what is a reli­gion?

I sus­pect, strongly, that God as pro­jected by the Chris­tians and sim­i­lar cults, is pre­em­i­nently a device for man­ag­ing Luck, and that by propos­ing a moral, per­sonal deity they are lay­ing on this god some kind of pres­sure to come up with a world favourable to the godly. The evi­dence for their suc­cess is pretty patchy. After a cou­ple of thou­sand years it is less than self-evi­dent that the godly have been any more for­tu­nate than any­body else.

Another angle could be that as immensely com­plex dynamic sys­tems, we indi­vid­u­als are bound to engage the other sys­tems of nature with cer­tain biases. Every­thing from the arch of one’s eye­brows to the elec­tri­cal field around one’s body must set up trains of prob­a­bil­i­ties. From the arcane effects of com­plex­ity the­ory on all of this, cur­rents and events must be trig­gered in ways that are beyond the analy­sis of any human being.

If the argu­ment from com­plex­ity the­ory makes any sense, then it must also be pos­si­ble that under cer­tain cir­cum­stances Luck must per­mute for good or ill. For exam­ple, if two peo­ple form an inti­mate rela­tion­ship it is con­ceiv­able that the whim­sies of Luck might impact upon their joint expe­ri­ence in entirely new ways for them. Actu­ally pre­dict­ing the direc­tion of that change is another mat­ter. There is an equa­tion to defy any rocket sci­en­tist.

What­ever its ori­gins, Luck defies rea­son. Rea­son may be a poor weapon to with which to slay super­nat­u­ral chal­lenges of any kind. Rea­son after all is no more than the prin­ci­pled use of our exist­ing bio­log­i­cal equip­ment. While cool com­mon sense may deny it, the sense of another Pres­ence can nev­er­the­less be per­sua­sive. Take the sim­ple mat­ter of socks, grem­lins and the Laun­dry God. Now no expe­ri­ence has ever con­vinced me of the close com­pany of gods with a work­ing inter­est in human affairs. Grem­lins though, that is another mat­ter.

Socks are the con­clu­sive evi­dence. It is irrefutable. I have never made a visit to a laun­dro­mat with­out los­ing at least one sock. Today it was three. This was in spite of tak­ing the utmost care to count the damned things, run­ning a fin­ger around the inside of the wash­ing machine, and peer­ing into the stuffy gloom of the tum­ble dryer’s innards. All ratio­nal processes were exhausted. The dis­ap­pear­ing socks are def­i­nitely a super­nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non.

12. Winners and Losers


If reli­gion is a device for the man­age­ment of luck, then we would have to expect at least some of its fol­low­ers to take a punt when the time comes to choose between one creed and another. Of course, reli­gion is a vehi­cle for many other needs and emo­tions as well: a man­i­festo of defi­ance for the oppressed, a dic­tat of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the oppres­sors, a ratio­nale for suf­fer­ing to the deprived, a com­mu­nity of con­tact to the shy or lonely, and a licence for sex­ual man­age­ment to the psy­cho­log­i­cally imma­ture. This list is scarcely exhaus­tive, but explains well why reli­gious phe­nom­ena are so tena­cious.

Yet for all the per­sonal needs and illu­sions that they sat­isfy, there remains the fact that reli­gions are also mass move­ments which have their moments in his­tory. Those mass move­ments, as with all tides of ide­ol­ogy, have inevitably been vehi­cles for atroc­ity, espe­cially when sanc­ti­fied by the state.

For exam­ple, hos­til­ity to non-believ­ers has been his­tor­i­cally char­ac­ter­is­tic of all Abra­hamic reli­gions and often used ruth­lessly where the polit­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity existed. The chron­i­cle of sav­age wars and per­se­cu­tions in the name of Chris­tian­ity began from the time it was adopted as a state reli­gion by the Roman Empire.

Islam was mil­i­tant from its incep­tion, and remains so. It swept into the Mid­dle East on a tide of mil­i­tary vic­tory, social renewal and shrewd tax breaks for the con­verted. That the next thou­sand years was a tale of stag­na­tion and repres­sion is per­haps another story. Yet the embers of enmity to out­siders never died.

Here is a quo­ta­tion dis­cussing the Euro-Amer­i­can prob­lem with Bar­bary Coast (north African) pirate attacks in 1786:

At the time, thou­sands of Amer­i­can and Euro­pean trade ships enter­ing the Mediter­ranean had been tar­geted by pirates from the Mus­lim Bar­bary states (mod­ern-day North Africa). More than a mil­lion West­ern­ers had been kid­napped, impris­oned and enslaved. Tripoli was the nexus for these oper­a­tions. … Thomas Jef­fer­son, then the U.S. ambas­sador to France, reported to Sec­re­tary of State John Jay a con­ver­sa­tion he’d had with Sidi Haji Abdul Rah­man Adja, Tripoli’s envoy to Lon­don, in 1786:

The ambas­sador answered us that [their right] was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was writ­ten in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their author­ity were sin­ners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as pris­on­ers, and that every Mus­sul­man who should be slain in bat­tle was sure to go to Par­adise.” [ Ali A. Rizvi in the Huff­in­g­ton Post, 5 May 2013 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ali-a-rizvi/an-atheist-muslims-perspective-on-the-root-causes-of-islamist-jihadism-and-the-politics-of-islamophobia_b_3159286.html?utm_hp_ref=world ]

The cur­rent per­spec­tive on Islam hardly seems more hope­ful in those lat­i­tudes where whole pop­u­la­tions are under stress. This, from Ban­galadesh (May 2013):

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of pro­test­ers demand­ing a new blas­phemy law blocked high­ways and fought run­ning bat­tles with police on Sun­day, leav­ing at least 10 peo­ple dead and hun­dreds injured in the Bangladeshi cap­i­tal.

Chant­ing “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is great­est!”) and “One point, One demand: Athe­ists must be hanged”, activists from Hifazat-e-Islam marched along at least six high­ways, block­ing trans­port between Dhaka and other cities and towns. (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia/2013/05/20135510413485449.html )

Today, when we look at the Islamic resur­gence and its new tide of con­verts we see in many ways a reli­gion which con­tin­ues to be a tool of the polit­i­cally ambi­tious while pos­ing as a pop­ulist path to lib­er­a­tion. In a cap­i­tal­ist world, the mis­sion­ary drive is fueled on Saudi petrodol­lars and mis­used Irani pub­lic funds, not to men­tion the power games of West­ern impe­ri­al­ism and Israeli manip­u­la­tion.

The zealot’s pas­sion might be moved by Wahabi (وهابية) fun­da­men­tal­ism (in the Sunni case), and the hand behind the cur­tain might belong to that uni­ver­sally amoral 5 star hotel species, the polit­i­cal con­trol junkies. At street level though, what we see is the pain of social change from cul­tural and indus­trial upheaval (the Mid­dle East is even more pol­luted than China), des­per­ate eco­nomic inse­cu­rity, and a per­ceived out­let in revenge for a thou­sand years of humil­i­a­tion. The scape­goats are many, but scratch the paint off this fury and you are likely to find self-loathing and despair. His­tory has been here before.

Large swathes of cen­tral, south and south east Asia have long been Islamic, and few areas are pros­per­ing. Who are today’s new con­verts? Largely African, both con­ti­nen­tal and Amer­i­can-African. The most unlucky of all peo­ples. In short, the losers. Who can blame them for grasp­ing at a creed that at this moment in its his­tory is so man­i­festly the prop­erty of oppressed peo­ples? Con­versely, why would the edu­cated and suc­cess­ful in any num­bers choose Islam? To this day it resorts to prim­i­tive mech­a­nisms of coer­cion, such as forced con­ver­sion through mar­riage, and the pun­ish­ment by death for those who sim­ply want to walk away from its ver­sion of faith.

Even their most abject apol­o­gists could scarcely claim that Saudi Ara­bia, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and the rest are free soci­eties (although they are also very dif­fer­ent from each other). Pak­istan a gen­er­a­tion after par­ti­tion into an “Islamic state” is a night­mare of cor­rup­tion, incom­pe­tence and frat­ri­ci­dal mur­der.

Turkey is a more promis­ing case. 98% Mus­lim, in many ways Turkey incu­bated the Islamic reli­gion to matu­rity. Yet early in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury Kemal Atatürk cast off the suf­fo­cat­ing cloak of state the­ism with only lim­ited suc­cess. Turkey is still a nation racked by cru­elty and cor­rup­tion, but now grad­u­ally find­ing some Islamic form of mod­er­a­tion in the daily life of an emerg­ing mid­dle class. We can only wish this social evo­lu­tion every suc­cess. It seems that edu­ca­tion and eco­nomic oppor­tu­nity for every­man and espe­cially for every­woman is the surest guar­an­tee of less vir­u­lent reli­gious prac­tice. Sim­ply out­law­ing some brand of reli­gion does not abol­ish the cul­tural habits which sup­port it. Thus the failed sec­u­lar Ba’athist (البعث) exper­i­ments in Iraq and Syria, deliv­ered under con­di­tions of tyranny, could not eas­ily yield a div­i­dend of tol­er­ance and growth.

What about Malaysia, and the largest Islamic nation of all, Indone­sia? Cul­tur­ally these are very dif­fer­ent soci­eties than those in cen­tral and south Asia, and as in most places, plain peo­ple live ordi­nary lives of cheer­ful good will. But again we see that much of the national finan­cial pros­per­ity has been but­tered on by a small, despised, mer­can­tile Chi­nese class. Well inten­tioned pro­scrip­tions against usury in the Q’ran have, like so many com­mon sense direc­tives in holy books, some­times back­fired, work­ing to sti­fle any sen­si­ble phi­los­o­phy of enter­prise, while fos­ter­ing cor­rup­tion. In such cases how­ever it is very hard to sep­a­rate older pat­terns of cul­tural atti­tude from the syn­cretic influ­ence of intro­duced reli­gion (which may merely become a ratio­nal­iza­tion for exist­ing behav­iour). There is noth­ing inher­ently anti-com­mer­cial in Islam, if the Prophet’s own wife was any guide, and in var­i­ous cul­tural set­tings Islamic traders have had out­stand­ing suc­cess across the cen­turies.

In sum­mary, beneath a wide umbrella of Moslem cul­tures, there are qual­i­ties of hos­pi­tal­ity, self-dis­ci­pline and tol­er­ance in the daily lives of count­less ordi­nary Moslem peo­ple which are admirable. How­ever it remains true that the trans­la­tion of Islam on the scale of the nation state has not usu­ally been a happy one. The offi­cial sep­a­ra­tion of church and state was a game changer for Chris­tian­ity, but has not yet found the nec­es­sary inter­pre­ta­tion through Islam, even in Turkey.

What sort of mod­ern out­comes have the areas of Bud­dhist influ­ence yielded up? Again, under­ly­ing cul­tural pat­terns have led to very dif­fer­ent out­comes. For exam­ple, although the Indic cul­tures of South Asia and the Sinitic cul­tures of East Asia have drawn much from each other, they remain utterly dis­tinct in out­look and style.

With­out the monothe­is­tic intol­er­ance of Judaic/Ahrahamic reli­gions, Bud­dhist cul­tural ideas, mov­ing east­ward from India, have gen­er­ally con­tin­ued to accom­mo­date much older co-pan­theons of spir­its and minor gods. Yet for over a cen­tury some rather odd Euro­pean-Amer­i­can influ­ence has been impact­ing on East Asia, but taken far longer to back­wash at a pop­u­lar level in South Asia.

In the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury the Japan­ese com­bined West­ern mate­ri­al­ist imi­ta­tion with a state Shinto revival. The result was a mil­i­tarist state that col­lapsed in flames. Since then most Japan­ese have backed off pub­lic ide­olo­gies, elected polit­i­cal fix­ers, not vision­ar­ies, and con­cen­trated on pur­su­ing pros­per­ity. Shinto gods have largely retreated to the sta­tus of back­yard good luck charms. This worked for a while, but the mer­can­tile suc­cess of neigh­bour­ing coun­tries has taken the edge off self con­grat­u­la­tion, the polit­i­cal class is scle­rotic with over­tones of sup­pressed fas­cist atti­tude, the pop­u­la­tion is declin­ing, and it is becom­ing clear that Japan­ese peo­ple as a group are wish­ing for some new cul­tural or reli­gious cer­tain­ties to give them direc­tion. They have con­spic­u­ously rejected the lat­est South Korean solu­tion of plant­ing Chris­tian churches on every empty inter­sec­tion.

The expe­ri­ence of Sinitic Asia has been sub­stan­tially dif­fer­ent from the that of the Japan­ese. It is a long and bloody story, but cul­mi­nat­ing in 1949 the Chi­nese and oth­ers punted on Marx­ism to sup­ply both rice and spir­i­tual uplift. It was a cat­a­strophic gam­ble, and we are still watch­ing the con­ver­sion of state Com­mu­nism into a form of Cap­i­tal­ism which can look uncan­nily like the National Social­ism of Germany’s Third Reich.

Yet ide­ol­ogy is not dead in Asia or any­where else. Ide­ol­ogy is that engine of illu­sion in the mind which imparts energy and direc­tion towards invis­i­ble goals. Humans seem to need it. My own guess is that human infants take so long to become inde­pen­dent adults that their long-suf­fer­ing par­ents are genet­i­cally pro­grammed to live on hope, and provide sus­te­nance & pro­tec­tion where no repay­ment is obvi­ous. The ide­ol­ogy of care for the aged is a first exten­sion of this.

So we are see­ing newly pros­per­ous Sinitic cul­tures cast­ing around for an ide­ol­ogy. Shinto is a Japan­ese pos­ses­sion, and Japan­ese are not well liked in the rest of Asia. Pop­u­lar Bud­dhism is pre­em­i­nently a creed of suf­fer­ing, and the new Asians don’t want to know about mis­for­tune or res­ig­na­tion. Con­fu­cian ide­ol­ogy was eulo­gized by the likes of Singapore’s mod­ern founder, Lee Kuan Yew and other polit­i­cal fix­ers, but their brand of it rep­re­sents a patri­ar­chal author­i­tar­i­an­ism which fits ill with the young’s yearn­ing for self-expres­sion and free­dom. Many also blame it for the straight­jacket that repressed China for two mil­len­nia.

Islam has never been on the Chi­nese agenda as a national propo­si­tion, notwith­stand­ing that many Mus­lims have played promi­nent roles in China’s his­tory, espe­cially since the Yuan Dynasty ( 1271–1368) when there was a large influx of Per­sian traders. Within mod­ern China there are at least ten dif­fer­ent kinds of Mus­lim pop­u­la­tions whose total num­bers are hazy (the CIA World Fact­book esti­mates 27 mil­lion), but still minis­cule within the Chi­nese mass. They range from Uigers (ئۇيغۇر , ) in Xinx­i­ang, whom the Chi­nese state treats as incip­i­ently sub­ver­sive ter­ror­ists, to mil­lions of thor­oughly Sini­cized Mus­lims known as Hui (). Extract­ing the his­tory of these peo­ples is tricky (espe­cially on the sub­ject of mas­sacres) since Chi­nese his­tory, ancient and mod­ern, is thor­oughly mas­saged for pro­pa­ganda pur­poses. We can say with some cer­tainty though that China will never be an Islamic state.

Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies his­tor­i­cally had a tough time in China. They were agents of a cul­tural impe­ri­al­ism that went hand in hand with West­ern com­mer­cial piracy and polit­i­cal thug­gery. Now, over a period of a half cen­tury or more, com­mon peo­ple have had an indeli­ble lesson that exploita­tion, thug­gery and repres­sion are no monopoly of impe­rial pow­ers. The home grown vari­ety has proved to be even worse. Mean­while they have seen the mate­rial suc­cess of the West, and through the media of film, tele­vi­sion and mag­a­zi­nes have formed an impres­sion that West­ern peo­ples live much bet­ter lives (dis­count­ing TV homi­cides!) All these things they seek to imi­tate with untem­pered enthu­si­asm. The rich are busy emi­grat­ing, or at least send­ing their pam­pered chil­dren to schools in Amer­ica, Canada, Aus­tralia, Eng­land etc.

It is scarcely sur­pris­ing that the ide­o­log­i­cal anten­nae of many have also swung in the direc­tion of so much appar­ent good luck. Surely the god(s) have smiled on the West­ern peo­ples. If you are going to pro­pi­ti­ate a deity, why not choose one with a proven track record? Any­way, the appeal can still be made to ancient author­ity. It hap­pens that Con­fu­cius, who was fairly cir­cum­spect about reli­gion, did seem to believe in a per­sonal god.

Korea was the first east Asian nation to recently go Chris­tian in a big way; (I dis­count the Philip­pines, which has a dif­fer­ent his­tory alto­gether). Chris­tian­ity in Korea is not the creed of the oppressed. It is worn on the sleeve of the new yup­pies, the young, edu­cated and upwardly mobile. And so it is turn­ing out in Tai­wan and main­land China.

The neo-Con­fu­cian reac­tion of author­ity fig­ures in Sin­ga­pore is unlikely in the end to con­tain the Chris­tian infec­tion. I pre­dict that the social and polit­i­cal con­se­quences over a cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions could be very sig­nif­i­cant. Chris­tian­ity in these lat­i­tudes is a suc­cess­ful vehi­cle for pos­i­tive think­ing, a lucky charm. For a brief moment it is a reli­gion for the win­ners. Once estab­lished on the polit­i­cal land­scape it will, of course, become a chan­nel for all those other sea­sons of the human soul that have claimed reli­gious atten­tion.


13. The Stability of Belief


Rit­u­als and beliefs of all kinds are self-adjust­ing devices. What they sta­bi­lize may be as var­ied as the self-respect of the indi­vid­ual or the per­pet­u­a­tion of a crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tion. Per­pet­u­a­tion is actu­ally a major thread, for what­ever has some def­i­n­i­tion in our con­scious­ness will attract an expec­ta­tion that it might, should or even must con­tinue. The expec­ta­tion eas­ily becomes ide­o­log­i­cal and then reli­gious (when it is kicked upstairs to the realm of uni­ver­sal truth).

In every class that I have ever taught, each stu­dent chooses a seat on the first day, and there­after most can only be budged from it by some­thing approach­ing aggres­sion. This behav­iour is preser­v­a­tive in the sense that the rou­tiniza­tion of behav­iour saves us from con­stant, time-con­sum­ing choices. It is there­fore not sur­pris­ing that we seem pro­grammed to attach moral pro­pri­ety to the famil­iar. Reli­gion and its gods is a pro­jec­tion of this process, a set of rules for a shelf com­pany that can be turned to what­ever pur­pose oppor­tu­nity presents.

Sta­tic rules, rit­u­als, and beliefs work best of course in sta­ble social orders, amongst peo­ple whose daily behav­iour has changed lit­tle over gen­er­a­tions. The reli­gios­ity and con­ser­vatism of most immi­grants to the New World reflects such a back­ground. In a whirl­wind of change, tem­po­rary employ­ment and short term dwelling, a strong set of estab­lished rit­u­als can become part of the prob­lem (though some would argue that it pre­serves core val­ues).

When an indi­vid­ual is faced with new social and eco­nomic sur­round­ings which no longer sup­port his val­ues (and may chal­lenge them openly), then three pos­si­bil­i­ties arise. That indi­vid­ual can suf­fer stress, psy­chotic dis­junc­tion and per­haps phys­i­cal break­down. He can declare the world hos­tile and evil. Or he can embrace new beliefs more con­so­nant with new con­di­tions. This last, the betrayal of old val­ues, might be a source of guilt for the reflec­tive, but for the vast major­ity it is marked by a kind of selec­tive for­get­ting and denial. I have seen my own rel­a­tives undergo such a trans­for­ma­tion as they uncon­sciously blend with the newly encoun­tered mores of upper mid­dle class neigh­bours.

A few of us seem to be almost pre­des­tined out­siders. From the ear­li­est mem­o­ries, I have been repelled by rit­ual and rou­tinized belief. From the very begin­ning this has put me beyond the ambit of com­mu­nity. The sep­a­ra­tion is not based on the out­rage at betrayal felt by the fun­da­men­tal­ist fanatic. It is not that I find the world evil because it does not con­form to my own notions of proper order. The way of the ter­ror­ist is not my way, for I claim no monopoly of wis­dom, not any cer­tainty that one rit­ual would be an improve­ment on that which it replaced. Those who find the out­sider dan­ger­ous are pre­sum­ing an attach­ment in him to some for­eign, hos­tile rit­ual, since they them­selves require attach­ment to their own creed. But this par­tic­u­lar out­sider merely sur­veys their rit­u­als wearily, rec­og­nizes the engine behind them, but for him­self finds all equally super­sti­tious. He envies those who find com­fort in their hymns, their prayers, their cricket matches and their loves, but in the end can only walk a per­sonal, whim­si­cal, unat­tached path.

14. Guesswork Versus Religion


As an expla­na­tion of nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena all reli­gious dogma is super­sti­tion. This is the athe­ist speak­ing, yet is athe­ism merely insen­si­tive to the mys­te­ri­ous? At the heart of a believer’s con­tempt for the athe­ist is a mis­taken idea that an athe­ist finds noth­ing in the uni­verse which requires excep­tional expla­na­tion. I am an agnos­tic, tem­pera­men­tally inclined to athe­ism, who freely con­cedes that we exist in a tiny pool of light amid an ocean of dark­ness. Thank­fully, that light has expanded from a pin­point of con­scious­ness to a dwelling area almost suf­fi­cient for a civ­i­liza­tion.

With­out doubt there is more between heaven and earth than is ever dreamed of in our philoso­phies. The courses of our daily lives, not to men­tion the rise and fall of our cul­tures, give hints of pat­terns frac­tion­ally revealed, of causes and con­se­quences beyond our con­cep­tion. Like an insect, blind to the uni­verse save for our prim­i­tive sense organs, we seek to explain the frag­ments of inter­stel­lar order and chaos that impinge upon our lives.

The inven­tion and pro­pi­ti­a­tion of gods, or the more dif­fuse attempts to divine the course of for­tune or luck through chicken entrails, bib­li­cal prophe­cies or astro­log­i­cal charts are a nat­u­ral con­se­quence of reflec­tion. Our own cog­ni­tive mech­a­nisms impose order on the uni­verse of bio­log­i­cal colonies we call a body (microbes con­sti­tute 90% of our cell count: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_microbiome ). These mech­a­nisms are bound to project a sim­i­lar assump­tion of sen­tient order to their own super­or­di­nate con­trol. To under­stand the source of this process is no rea­son to accept the valid­ity of its pro­jec­tion into galac­tic expla­na­tion.

I might not know what is going on when the sky falls in, but nei­ther do the pun­dits. When seri­ous men and women look me in the eye and talk about the will of God I am forced to con­clude a) that they are hyp­ocrites, or b) that they have achieved some extra­or­di­nary degree of self-decep­tion, or c) that there is some fun­da­men­tal block in their men­tal pro­cess­ing which pre­vents a sound assess­ment of the argu­ments, or d) that I myself suf­fer from some or all of the above.

The invest­ment in (a), hypocrisy, is prob­a­bly very wide­spread indeed, for the social rewards are so sub­stan­tial. We see a sim­i­lar sus­pen­sion of hon­est self-analy­sis in sec­u­lar pol­i­tics again and again. Why should reli­gion be any dif­fer­ent?

The argu­ment from faith (as opposed to logic) seems to me to be a vari­ant of b) above. We prob­a­bly could not live with our­selves with­out a mea­sure of self-decep­tion. The aging rake has to believe in his own charm, or become alco­holic; our fear­ful and petty acts of daily cow­ardice have to ratio­nal­ized as strate­gic retreats in a nobler enter­prise (like feed­ing the fam­ily). Our naked fear of capri­cious mor­tal­ity has to be cov­ered with the star-cloak of an all-know­ing, all-wise god.

Reli­gious belief based on c), a fail­ure of intel­li­gent thought, insti­tu­tion­al­ized stu­pid­ity, would be a minor aber­ra­tion in a per­fect world (for a wickedly funny account of stu­pid­ity by Guo Du in Eng­lish and Chi­nese, see http://blog.hiddenharmonies.org/2013/04/the-mystery-of-stupidity/). If thirty-five years as a teacher and lec­turer has taught me any­thing how­ever, it is that you can never under­es­ti­mate the naïveté of the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, even that part of it which aspires to ter­tiary edu­ca­tion. Peo­ple who are clever in other ways can be absolute morons when faced with a search for larger causes. It is the rare com­puter pro­gram­mer who makes a good com­puter sys­tems ana­lyst.

The largest num­ber of peo­ple, alas, can nei­ther pro­gram nor analyse. They are coaxed through edu­ca­tional processes on the saliva trail of accepted wis­dom, and rewarded for regur­gi­tat­ing this predi­gested mush in approved ways. Ergo, super­sti­tion will always be with us, and Socrates would be asked to take poi­son in every likely human soci­ety.


15. Part-time Space Travellers


At least in my Anglo-Aus­tralian cul­ture, most peo­ple most of the time are not ter­ri­bly com­fort­able talk­ing about “big pic­ture” issues like reli­gion. There used to be a social rule that one avoided pol­i­tics, reli­gion or money as poten­tially divi­sive con­ver­sa­tional top­ics. The avoid­ance goes deeper than that though.

In nom­i­nally Chris­tian com­mu­ni­ties like main­stream Aus­tralia and the UK, Heaven and Hell have become wry metaphors. To actu­ally believe in Dante’s Inferno, or in some misty Heaven with angels’ harps, is rightly seen by the major­ity as pretty loopy. The trans­fer of Sun­day radio time by the gov­ern­ment broad­caster to reli­gious cha­rades is an instant turn-off for most nor­mal peo­ple. Pressed, many more cit­i­zens will con­fess to a vague sus­pi­cion that spir­its of the dead hang around the TV set, than those who count on reg­u­lar com­muter depar­tures to a Heav­enly King­dom. In other words, the con­tem­po­rary folk geog­ra­phy of super­nat­u­ral worlds is much closer to tra­di­tional ani­mism than to medieval Chris­tian­ity.

Folk notions of Cre­ation in the West­ern indus­trial economies are equally slip­pery. Few have yet made that leap which ques­tions the need for expla­na­tions of an ulti­mate “Cre­ator” at all. How­ever, the Chris­tian bib­li­cal story of Gen­e­sis gets lit­tle cre­dence: a lovely para­ble, but as a lit­eral expla­na­tion its absur­dity has become a down­right embar­rass­ment. Indeed, the appar­ent attach­ment of most Mus­lims to lit­eral belief in a sim­i­lar tra­di­tional heaven is scoffed at as evi­dence for a lack of sophis­ti­ca­tion.

You could prob­a­bly say that even amongst those who dis­like the idea of homi­noid genetic evo­lu­tion, more would claim to descend from the sur­vivors of a wrecked inter­stel­lar space craft than be the long lost kin of Adam and Eve; (there are more spir­i­tual space trav­ellers with every new Hol­ly­wood block­buster). The prac­tice of mod­ern reli­gion, espe­cially Chris­tian­ity, thus tends to pro­mote a phi­los­o­phy of liv­ing while tac­itly dis­own­ing the super­nat­u­ral geog­ra­phy which is sup­posed to back it up.

Although main­stream Aus­tralian cul­ture is now dom­i­nantly sec­u­lar, hav­ing sup­planted the ser­mon with foot­ball com­men­tary, large num­bers of peo­ple will still admit to “believe in a god” … of some sort. This is sin­cere enough, but when chal­lenged the think­ing is rarely deeper than the Cos­mic Clock­maker logic: “some­body must have made all this, and have kept it in order”. As the global envi­ron­ment falls out of order, the sec­ond clause is waver­ing. Hav­ing accepted the premise implicit in the argu­ment — i.e. that uni­ver­sal Cre­ation is a self-evi­dent neces­sity-they are primed to accept any Cre­ation story which seems rea­son­able (and may be argued into a larger the­o­log­i­cal pack­age to go along with it). To most of them though, nowa­days Star Trek looks a bet­ter bet than the Bible.

The cor­rup­tion of rea­son in this sub­sti­tu­tion of new myths for old had an extreme and macabre expres­sion in 1997 when thirty-nine Amer­i­can com­puter pro­gram­mers who, all dressed neatly in Cap­tain Kirk uni­forms, com­mit­ted mass sui­cide, pre­sum­ably in order to ren­dezvous in cyber­space with the star­ship Enter­prise (http://www.findingdulcinea.com/news/on-this-day/March-April-08/On-this-Day–39-Heaven-s-Gate-Cult-Members-Found-Dead-after-Mass-Suicide.html ). Were they unique? By no means. In 2012 two hun­dred cultists gath­ered in France wait­ing for the end of the world: “… the group has gath­ered around Pic de Bugarach wait­ing the date, believ­ing they will be taken aboard a star ship hid­den inside the moun­tain”. ( http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2120869/Heavens-Gate-cult-committed-mass-suicide-15-years-ago.html#ixzz2SVplveu6 ). At any given time some­where in the world the same sort of mass delu­sion is going on.


16. The Lens of Emotion: synchronizing public and private illusions


Reli­gion, nation­al­ism and ide­olo­gies are always seized by polit­i­cal elites as devices to syn­chro­nize pri­vate dreams with a mass psy­chol­ogy. They are lenses to focus social val­ues.

Though they claim to try, no pub­lic ide­ol­ogy can in prac­tice quite deter­mine inner desires. I have to sur­mise that the dreams of my con­tem­po­raries are often dark and vio­lent, far more so than pub­lic sweet­ness can admit. Cin­ema is dread­fully hon­est in this respect with its orgies of revenge and vio­lence.

The lens of ide­ol­ogy has the ghastly effect of mobi­liz­ing and legit­imiz­ing those pri­vate fan­tasies which machine gun their way across the sil­ver screen. Every cul­ture has some patho­log­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics, and every ide­ol­ogy (amongst which I count reli­gions), no mat­ter how benign its canon, finally becomes a vehi­cle for sanc­ti­fy­ing those patho­log­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics. An ide­ol­ogy is a door­way into hearts and minds, and through that door­way, once opened, the agents of power and oppres­sion will always travel.


17. Ideology and the Treason of the Soul


The young believe in ide­olo­gies. Ide­olo­gies have the cachet of moral purity and sex­ual power. Yet every ide­ol­ogy with­out fail is seized and betrayed by the artic­u­late, ambi­tious lead­ers of the age. And as these moguls of oppor­tunism rape the val­ues which nur­tured their power, they are fol­lowed by an army of pious imi­ta­tors who, quot­ing chap­ter and verse, com­mit every atroc­ity to cover their small daily acts of cow­ardice.

Per­versely, the suc­cess of an ide­ol­ogy can be mea­sured by the dura­bil­ity of its betray­als. The lack­adaisi­cal slouch of Aus­tralian social­ism was destroyed in a polit­i­cal term or two by a clutch of choco­late-cream yup­pies, while the intox­i­cat­ing fumes of Soviet vodka com­mu­nism cov­ered eighty years of mur­der and mis­ery. For true ide­o­log­i­cal suc­cess how­ever, we have to turn to the estab­lished reli­gions.

When Mohammed rode out of the desert with answers fit for the civ­i­liz­ing of some desert Bedouins, he set the scene twelve hun­dred years of stag­na­tion, hypocrisy and cru­elty in the urban soci­eties of the Mid­dle East. With all the clev­er­ness of self-inter­est, poten­tates and imams have plas­tered lay­ers of prej­u­dice on the Prophet’s plans for the sen­si­ble man­age­ment of a pre-lit­er­ate soci­ety. The Chris­tian process has been messier, more con­vo­luted, but vic­tim to exactly the same process. The per­ver­sion of Christ’s mes­sage, what­ever it was, cer­tainly began with the gospel writ­ers, and became a major indus­try with its insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion in Roman author­ity.

What is so depress­ing is that betrayal is a process with­out end. No denoue­ment, no two thou­sand year fail­ure to save human­ity from itself, no scan­dal or atroc­ity will pre­vent a hot gospeler in Texas or a mass-mur­der­ing dic­ta­tor in cen­tral Africa or east­ern Europe from declar­ing that they have finally got reli­gion right. He or she will flour­ish a per­sonal telegram from God. Then a mil­lion ardent pro­to­plasms with cred­u­lous brains will rush into the abyss. Ide­ol­ogy is truly a trea­son of the soul.


18. Of Ideology and Control


An ide­ol­ogy is a set of ideas for gov­ern­ing val­ues, deci­sions and actions. With a fol­low­ing of one, an ide­ol­ogy is rel­a­tively harm­less unless its owner is a psy­chopath. Where two are believ­ers, one man invari­ably has power over the other. As a cult for mil­lions, the ide­ol­ogy will sway and drive them like a herd of cat­tle, and he who wields the dogma wields the whip.

Reli­gions may have been the first ide­olo­gies; now we have the sec­u­lar dog­mas of eco­nom­ics, psy­chi­a­try, Dar­winian biol­ogy, physics … the list is long, and its very dif­fu­sion gives us some relief. Amongst these sec­u­lar ide­olo­gies, com­mu­nism and cap­i­tal­ism are overtly obsessed with polit­i­cal power, but all of them, regard­less of con­tent, become instru­ments of con­trol.

In a great part of the world, orga­nized reli­gions are still the pri­mary instru­ments of social man­age­ment. Take Islam, which welded the Ara­bian tribes for one hun­dred years of glory, then held them in chains for another thou­sand years at the whim of Per­sians, Seljuks and Ottomans. Or the obscure Essene sect, remoulded by Paul (Παῦλος ) and his suc­ces­sors into the Chris­tian hege­mony of Euro­pean power for a hand­ful of bish­ops and princes, and a bur­den of guilt for the “flock” to be steered by: the “flock” as com­pli­ant men and women are so quaintly called from the pul­pit.

From the ear­li­est times reli­gion and moral phi­los­o­phy have been used as vehi­cles for per­sua­sion, equally by good peo­ple and by scoundrels. The good would have been good with or with­out reli­gion. The scoundrels have been given an impen­e­tra­ble cover for their hypocrisy. Since the cor­rupt­ible always out­num­ber the fair-minded in gov­ern­ments and instru­men­tal­i­ties of power by a wide mar­gin, it is scarcely sur­pris­ing that the net effect of reli­gion has been a neg­a­tive one.

The claim of most reli­gions on our alle­giance is that the world is imper­fect, but that adher­ence to the faith will make it, at some future time of deliv­er­ance, per­fect and a par­adise for the believ­ers. This is ide­al­ism of the most extreme kind, and no instance of its appli­ca­tion in the last five thou­sand years has given any sound proof what­so­ever that the promise of redemp­tion will be real­ized through such faith. Where the world has improved at all, it has been where men and women have accepted a per­sonal, sec­u­lar respon­si­bil­ity to treat those within their com­mu­nity in a fair and humane man­ner.

19. Cultural Pathologies


We accept with­out ques­tion that there are psy­cho­log­i­cal patholo­gies in the behav­iour of some indi­vid­u­als. Soci­eties take steps to pro­tect their mem­bers from the afflicted per­son, and the per­son from him­self; (the effec­tive­ness of such mea­sures is another ques­tion).

For a long time it has seemed self-evi­dent to me that cul­tures also suf­fer from patholo­gies. We could say in fact that all cul­tures have ten­den­cies (dif­fer­ent for each cul­ture) which when taken to an extreme, result in large scale social dys­func­tion. Cul­tural rel­a­tivism is a poor excuse for such dys­func­tion. Obvi­ous exam­ples would be sanc­tions for revenge, pro­scrip­tions on mar­riage, insti­tu­tional racism, myths of being a cho­sen peo­ple (with per­mis­sion to elim­i­nate lesser mor­tals) and so on. Cul­tural patholo­gies are com­plex ques­tions which require study, and I sus­pect, could be the basis for a whole new aca­d­e­mic dis­ci­pline.

It may be that the sheer com­plex­ity of human soci­eties ensures a cer­tain dynamic of incom­pe­tence. Poverty, war, suf­fer­ing, hubris, self-destruc­tion … that is, human mis­ery and fail­ure, are over­whelm­ingly prod­ucts of human cul­tural prac­tices and beliefs. Nor is exter­nal cor­rec­tion an easy option: the whole cul­tural machine is an inter­lock­ing mech­a­nism. The bulk of actors are invari­ably com­mit­ted to their model and can con­ceive of no other options. For­eign aid or well-inten­tioned for­eign advice will make lit­tle use­ful impact on a dys­func­tional cul­ture. Colo­nial coer­cion may have a cer­tain effect for a time, but cre­ates other, longer last­ing dis­tor­tions.

Soci­eties do change, even remak­ing their core val­ues for many mem­bers. It may no longer make sense how­ever, to talk of core val­ues for “whole soci­eties” when the homo­gene­ity of belief found in sta­tic tra­di­tional soci­eties is reshaped into tapes­try of indi­vid­u­als with access to very dif­fer­ent lev­els of knowl­edge.

Two cen­turies of an indus­trial rev­o­lu­tion have rad­i­cally divided an edu­cated elite from their ances­tors’ con­cep­tions of world’s end, New Age mumbo jumbo notwith­stand­ing. Whether or not we are hap­pier – a moot point – there has been at least some change in the com­pe­tence of this elite of indi­vid­u­als, and the free­dom to exer­cise com­pe­tence, has been their sal­va­tion. Change has not been free. The global wars of the last cen­tury have, in a way, been pro­jec­tions of gross psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tur­bance to pop­u­la­tions under­go­ing rapid change.

More uni­ver­sally, wherever hier­ar­chies develop to stand between a man and his exer­cise of prac­ti­cal daily liv­ing, there lies the germ of con­flict. You could whim­si­cally say that our brave new world has gen­er­ated hier­ar­chies of exhaus­tion. The get­ting of a lit­tle com­pe­tence by the few has left an army of wounded and deformed in its wake. The air is shrill with a rhetoric of “pro­duc­tiv­ity”, “effi­ciency” and “pro­gress”. When these clar­ion calls to advanced ide­ol­ogy fade into the bru­tal real­ity of fix­ing an engine, pass­ing an exam or rais­ing a fam­ily, it is not at all clear that many more folk are smarter, nobler or more able than their ances­tors were three gen­er­a­tions ago.

Elec­tric­ity, poly­mers and futures mar­kets are for the major­ity utterly mys­te­ri­ous mir­a­cles of faith. Self-selected rejects from the tech­ni­cal age floun­der in a miasma of uncom­pre­hended “sci­en­tific cer­tain­ties” which for them are as oppres­sive as any medieval reli­gious dogma. Covert revolt, cargo cults, the rit­u­al­iza­tion of edu­ca­tion, and sim­i­lar man­i­fes­ta­tions of unrea­son must be expected, and may finally bury us.

20. Resetting the Mental Flow Charts


It is the com­puter pro­gram in people’s heads which has to change before civ­i­liza­tions becomes more sub­stan­tive and endur­ing than their arti­facts. Are we wholly defined by famil­iar­ity with using shrink wrapped veg­eta­bles and the dig­i­tal watch? Isn’t it rather more chal­leng­ing to engi­neer a wide­spread under­stand­ing of the tech­nolo­gies that give rise to these won­ders, not to men­tion re-jig­ging a new grasp of humanity’s role in nature? Why is this so lit­tle rec­og­nized?

Per­haps some of the prob­lem is that a truly edu­cated cit­i­zen of the post indus­trial world is an immensely more com­pli­cated being than a typ­i­cal func­tional being in a tribe or even a tra­di­tional nation state. There are huge new demands on our time and com­pre­hen­sion, yet there are not so many mem­bers of exist­ing com­mu­ni­ties who have mas­tered even the sim­pler skills within cul­tur­ally homo­ge­neous groups and low-level tech­nolo­gies.

A new world cit­i­zen needs more than an abstract knowl­edge of com­par­a­tive reli­gions. To inter­act as an arti­san rather than a vic­tim he needs to wield a screw­driver, a key­board, and half a dozen tech­ni­cal jar­gons. Then he needs the wis­dom of Solomon to at once assert ancient val­ues of human decency, and yet live cor­dially among folk who march to very dif­fer­ent drums.

It is a lib­eral indul­gence to pre­tend that cul­tural tol­er­ance is a mat­ter of not only of being colour blind, but also of being cul­ture blind. The his­tory of civil wars should teach us that rose coloured spec­ta­cles, blink­ers and the ostrich posi­tion are no final defence in the real nitty-gritty of liv­ing together. No, worth­while tol­er­ance is the much harder busi­ness of see­ing dif­fer­ence and learn­ing to live with it, of rec­og­niz­ing good will beneath the dis­guise of diverse and even repug­nant cus­tom.

We need to under­stand and work with (though not nec­es­sar­ily to like) sen­si­tiv­i­ties to dif­fer­ence, not only of colour, reli­gion and cul­tural prac­tice, but also to apti­tude, knowl­edge, com­pe­tence, energy, wealth and luck. The human task of sur­viv­ing in such rocky ter­rain gives equal Dar­winian value to the much dis­par­aged gift of com­pas­sion, and to nec­es­sary qual­i­ties of tough minded fair judge­ment.

The most utterly vicious exam­ples of intol­er­ance have not come from the con­fused pro­pri­eties of remote cul­tures. Expres­sions of intol­er­ance which still pop­u­late our mass media and polit­i­cal announce­ments are entirely tra­di­tional. Their sub­stance has been around since humans came down from the trees. Frat­ri­ci­dal vio­lence and sex­ual repres­sion begin in the fam­ily, not in the elec­tron dance of tele­vi­sion worlds.

Mur­der has com­monly been prac­ticed by brother on brother in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Ire­land, Cam­bo­dia, China, Japan, Korea, Rus­sia, Kash­mir, Iran, Palestine, Ger­many, Indone­sia … in fact by a role call of the United Nations. These bar­barisms are not about genetic dif­fer­ences, but are fail­ures of cul­tural design. Every cul­ture car­ries the seeds of self-destruc­tion, which under par­tic­u­lar cir­cum­stances bloom and con­t­a­m­i­nate all else. Cul­tural patholo­gies are, more often than not, offi­cial virtues in the dogma of the polit­i­cal elite; (there is a whole dis­ci­pline of study here which needs to be devel­oped).

The Chi­nese philoso­pher, Xúnzǐ (荀子; Hsün Tzu; Hsün K’uang; 312–230 B.C.) believed that peo­ple are nat­u­rally self­ish and have to be guided to virtue; (you would have to say that this project has scarcely suc­ceeded in the inter­ven­ing two mil­lenia). Xúnzǐ under­stood the power of reli­gion and rit­ual in enforc­ing social order, and was pre­scient in grasp­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of agreed def­i­n­i­tions in lan­guage (正名). Another stream of belief embod­ied by Mèngzǐ (; Men­cius; Meng4 Tzu3; 373–288 BC) held that peo­ple tend to nat­u­ral good­ness. That is, the inher­ent good­ness of the child can be led astray by the bad influ­ence of sur­round­ings (nature Vs nur­ture). The con­trast­ing assump­tions of Mèngzǐ and Xúnzǐ are themes we see played out in almost every human group. Whether it is a Zoroas­trian heaven & hell, or argu­ments for “nur­ture” ver­sus the biologist’s “self­ish gene” in the late twen­ti­eth cen­tury, tem­plates of belief like this seem to uni­ver­sally sep­a­rate “lib­eral” from “author­i­tar­ian” minds.

With such bedrocks of belief divid­ing my own stu­dents, I often won­der if a pref­er­ence for tol­er­ance can be taught. A skill­ful teacher may parade a frag­ment of his­tory and some­times change the class con­sen­sus of good­ies & bad­dies for the moment. But if a stu­dent believes in his bones that peo­ple are, say, inher­ently evil, are we really able to teach him tol­er­ance and com­pas­sion for that time when he comes to wield the whip of power?

Tem­plate views on human good­ness are of course at one remove from actual behav­iour. For exam­ple, dis­hon­esty is usu­ally taken as a form of bad­ness. Appar­ently, ten per­cent of (Aus­tralian?) peo­ple are chron­i­cally dis­hon­est, and eighty per­cent are oppor­tunis­ti­cally dis­hon­est-accord­ing to a secu­ri­ties ana­lyst quoted in The Aus­tralian newspaper’s finan­cial pages, April 23, 1997. Is Xúnzǐ right then? It would be intrigu­ing to know whether this was an objec­tive eval­u­a­tion, based on a fair sam­ple of com­mer­cial behav­iour, or merely a reflec­tion faith in human evil. It would also be inter­est­ing to know, after sev­eral mil­len­nia of sup­pos­edly reli­gious moral improve­ment, what com­po­nent of such hon­esty is prac­ti­cally influ­enced by moral exhor­ta­tions.

In prac­ti­cal daily life, some of us have the dilemma of how to behave with fas­cists. If one expects the world to work by fair­ness, or at least accord­ing to the rule of law, how does one cope with par­ties who only respect force, who expect to be black­mailed and find a moral virtue in kick­ing heads when their chance comes? This is an acute prob­lem because of the dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of lead­ers who fall into the fas­cist (might is right) cat­e­gory. Their sur­vival advan­tage is the cal­cu­la­tion that fair­ness is weak­ness. Should one there­fore com­pete accord­ing to the rules of the com­peti­tor: fairly for the civ­i­lized and bru­tally towards the bar­bar­ians?

What­ever the “true” cast of human nature, in a cos­mic time scale the species has changed with aston­ish­ing speed. There may be hope or despair that per­cep­tions of moral­ity will be part of the evo­lu­tion­ary process. On this scale, fur­ther change may well over­whelm all of our philoso­phies and “eter­nal truths”.

Most peo­ple are shocked to learn that almost all of our gene pool is shared with the great apes. It is amaz­ing to find that some very late, minor mod­i­fi­ca­tions have so rad­i­cally sep­a­rated homo sapi­ens from other ani­mals. We over­look the crit­i­cal infor­ma­tion that the vast bulk of the shared genetic code is appar­ently dis­carded junk (is it, actu­ally?). A lesson may be in that. My Chi­nese and Ara­bic friends talk air­ily about five or six thou­sand years of recorded his­tory. That is a blink in the eye of time. I look in vain for the supe­rior devel­op­ment of their civil soci­eties. It seems that, like the over­bur­den of use­less genetic mem­o­ries, accu­mu­lated cul­tural prac­tice is a doubt­ful asset. Our old­est civ­i­liza­tions sink ever closer to bar­barism amid the detri­tus of their ancient inhi­bi­tions.

Some­one once said that the price of for­get­ting his­tory was to relive it. They were talk­ing about learn­ing from the mis­takes. Some­times it seems to me that the price of remem­ber­ing recorded his­tory, or our man­u­fac­tured rec­ol­lec­tions of it, is to be forever stricken with illu­sions of a golden past that some­how jus­ti­fies a sor­did present. Cul­tural hubris embalms the social patholo­gies of our fore­fa­thers.

21. The Fundamentalist Religious Mind


There is some preser­v­a­tive drive in human psy­chol­ogy which will col­lect and clas­sify old ideas with the same enthu­si­asm that less ambi­tious folk reserve for col­lect­ing old wine bot­tle labels or stamps. Another famil­iar cor­ner of the human mind will pre­serve ideas past their use-by date as sign­posts to a golden age.

When old ideas were new ideas, they invari­ably spread across a spec­trum encom­pass­ing the wise, the timid and the deranged. With the cock­eyed hind­sight of nos­tal­gia they take the colour of the lens that views them. And if the eye behind the lens is espe­cially humour­less, has trou­ble with play and metaphor, then we are in fun­da­men­tal­ist ter­ri­tory.

Jew­ish fun­da­men­tal­ists, Islamic fun­da­men­tal­ists, Chris­tian fun­da­men­tal­ists, Hindu fun­da­men­tal­ists, Shinto fun­da­men­tal­ists, Marx­ist fun­da­men­tal­ists …. all tend to think and act alike. The creed by which they hap­pen to be pos­sessed is merely an acci­dent of time and cir­cum­stance. Their view of the human con­di­tion is essen­tially the same: legal­is­tic, intol­er­ant, and homi­ci­dal when it comes to inno­va­tion. Inno­va­tion was some­thing sanc­tioned or per­formed by God in another age. The present age is a kind of pur­ga­tory, the wait­ing room before Armaged­don, in which it is too late to change the wall paper. Fun­da­men­tal­ist con­ser­vatism of this reli­gious kind is typ­i­cally built on fear. “God fear­ing” is the pass­word, extended to fear­ing author­ity in gen­eral. Author­ity in this con­text is required to be fear­some.

The fun­da­men­tal­ist types amongst us are not going to go away. They may be our own chil­dren. The chal­lenge for the rest of us is to con­tain, accom­mo­date and civ­i­lize their ten­den­cies in a bal­anced global com­mu­nity.


22. Easy Beliefs: Can Rationality Survive?


Seven hun­dred years ago, when a third of Europe’s pop­u­la­tion was being wiped out by bubonic plague, and the shroud of igno­rance was at its most opaque, it must have seemed like a nec­es­sary con­spir­acy for the wise to adver­tise that at least God knew what it all meant. It must have seemed that there was no other way to keep hordes of illit­er­ate, sim­ple peo­ple from destruc­tive panic.

So where are we seven hun­dred years later? More of us live longer, in less pain, though the net gain in hap­pi­ness remains unclear. The shad­owy demons and mon­sters whom our fore­fa­thers spoke of in whis­pers are now trans­lated into run­away best-sell­ing films, are good for a bit of a gig­gle. Their mar­ket niche in psy­chic ter­ror is dis­placed by weak men embold­ened with new tech­nolo­gies of death: guns, land­mi­nes, poi­son gases and such­like instru­ments of cow­ardice.

Omi­nously, there are count­less mil­lions more of us on the planet than even a cen­tury ago. The ratio­nal fac­ulty that has has­tened our jour­ney here points grimly to a future of mass exter­mi­na­tion from over­pop­u­la­tion and a host of deriv­a­tive causes. Given the known premises, the logic is inex­orable, needs telling from no divine voice to a prophet in the wilder­ness. Yet lit­er­acy has not deliv­ered logic to the greater part of humankind. 80% of sup­pos­edly edu­cated peo­ple can’t reset a dig­i­tal watch. They mon­key with the but­tons of knowl­edge, but have nei­ther under­stand­ing nor insight. It is basi­cally all as mag­i­cal to them as the world was to a twelfth cen­tury peas­ant.

When apoc­a­lypse makes it to the Sun­day papers and the evening news we get that ancient lem­ming rush to fun­da­men­tal­ist reli­gion. The uni­ver­si­ties are full of clever twits man­u­fac­tur­ing scholas­tic trivia for this or that clique’s bias, but whom, under the lay­ers of data, are as naive as shop assis­tants about real cause and effect. The media rat pack, starved of imag­i­na­tion, reruns a sort of porno­graphic movie of man­u­fac­tured heroes, vil­lains and pompous politi­cians. The tech­nol­ogy that car­ries it, beyond the ken of chat­ter­ing jour­nal­ists and their main read­er­ship, is reduced to a “human inter­est” angle. We have replaced super­sti­tious the­ol­ogy with a super­sti­tious data over­load of white noise. Clear think­ing is as feared as it ever was.

So what­ever hap­pened to the Age of Rea­son? Maybe it was always a beat up. After all, rea­son was not invented in the sev­en­teenth cen­tury. Rea­son has been implicit in human behav­iour since the day some­one lit a fire to cook din­ner. The impres­sive jump has been from “lit­tle rea­son” – the reper­toire of ratio­nal per­sonal behav­iours that get us a meal and friend­ship – to the man­age­ment of “big rea­son”, the under­stand­ing and con­trol of com­plex processes needed to make a poly­mer, pro­gram a mil­lion lines of com­puter code, or run a multi­na­tional busi­ness.

That is, there should have been an impor­tant jump in gen­eral rea­son­ing skills, but most folk have never quite made it. They remain infinitely clever about small prob­lems of instant grat­i­fi­ca­tion, but indif­fer­ent to or baf­fled by larger con­texts. Mean­while, the rul­ing classes, the power junkies, saw per­fectly well what extended rea­son­ing could do for their ani­mal appetites, but remained indif­fer­ent, as most of them have always been, to gen­er­at­ing just and sus­tain­able human soci­eties.

The clever ones, most of them, grasped the poten­tial of the rea­son­ing process and then, true to form, they fudged it. From Prince Machi­avelli to the Jesuits, to Riche­lieu, to the con­tem­po­rary clones of so-called man­age­ment schools, they have learned the art of gen­er­at­ing implaca­ble argu­ments from warped premises. A crown­ing con­tem­po­rary per­ver­sion by the hijack­ers of rea­son is, of course, eco­nomic “ratio­nal­ism”, but their fin­ger­prints can be seen on a mul­ti­tude of activ­i­ties such as tobacco adver­tis­ing, mass edu­ca­tion, and the mil­i­tary-indus­trial state.

Between astro­log­i­cal charts and eco­nomic ratio­nal­ism lies a con­tin­uum of mis-rea­son that entan­gles and engages the energies of all but a small part of the world’s pop­u­la­tion. One morn­ing they will wake up, find the dig­i­tal con­trols of civ­i­liza­tion on sick leave with a com­puter virus, and rea­son from their own loopy igno­rance that God has arrived for a brief anni­hi­la­tion cer­e­mony before catch­ing the 4.30pm space drifter to the next uni­verse.

23. Is Morality a Parasitic Virus?


There is an argu­ment that reli­gion is the only suit­able ves­sel for con­sciously trans­mit­ting a culture’s val­ues across gen­er­a­tions. It is a weak argu­ment. The rela­tion­ship between reli­gios­ity and moral­ity is quite arbi­trary. After 2000 years the Chris­tians have not pro­duced a bet­ter class of human being. Nor has any other cult. Reli­gious con­vic­tion is no index of restraint from crime. On the con­trary, for those addicted to the nar­cotic of power, reli­gion or ide­ol­ogy of any sort is a cloak of hypocrisy which is both irre­sistible and deadly. It is for this rea­son per­haps that overtly reli­gious soci­eties tend to become mass pris­ons of intol­er­ance, pro­scrip­tion and per­se­cu­tion.

Bereft of reli­gious con­vic­tion, an agnos­tic tend­ing to athe­ism, I’m still a pass­ably decent human being. My mater­nal grand­fa­ther. a Methodist lay vil­lage pas­tor, would have claimed smugly that I am nonethe­less a pro­duct of Chris­tian val­ues. Well, I have taught Bud­dhists, Moslems, Hin­dus, ani­mists and rock wor­ship­pers who were also pass­ably decent human beings. Most would claim some supe­rior moral educa­tive role for their reli­gion.

The pos­si­bil­ity remains that moral decency is a sort of par­a­sitic psy­chic virus that can only spread through the medium of reli­gious belief. Since most beings claim a brand of reli­gious belief this is a bit hard to dis­prove, espe­cially if the argu­ment for the moral inoc­u­la­tion even of athe­ists in a reli­giously benign envi­ron­ment is accepted.

I don’t accept the virus argu­ment. It seems to me nei­ther prov­able nor dis­prov­able, which ren­ders it pretty close to inane. Fur­ther, it seems redun­dant.

I pick up all sorts of other infor­ma­tion with­out recourse to reli­gious belief, and some of it has a clear bear­ing on my moral responses. For exam­ple, I observe that cer­tain actions and state­ments can excite feel­ings of injus­tice and even lead to vio­lence. This leads me to con­clude that by and large it is not a good idea to kill, rape or steal. I find that com­pas­sion is its own reward and that greed can­not be sati­ated, so is best denied. And so on. Why do we need recourse to the grave­yards of reli­gious moral­ity?

It is true that at the mar­gins, com­pet­ing cul­tures may embrace some­what dif­fer­ent ideas of what is good or bad, decent or inde­cent, moral or immoral. Yet both between cul­tures and within cul­tures we find a sta­tis­ti­cal bell-curve of accept­abil­ity. A “nor­mal”, sane, decent per­son by the stan­dards of most com­mu­ni­ties will be rec­og­nized in almost all other human cul­tures as “nor­mal”, sane and decent. The truth of this is demon­strated by the extra­or­di­nary mobil­ity of con­tem­po­rary peo­ples, and the rel­a­tive ease with which hun­dreds of cul­tural types have come to live together in coun­tries like Aus­tralia.

If com­pet­ing reli­gions are the well-spring of all this con­sen­sus, then you would have to say that at bot­tom they are get­ting their mes­sage from the same spon­sor. You can attrib­ute this com­mon­al­ity to the will of what­ever god you wish, or if an agnos­tic like me, say that it is the nat­u­ral out­come of shared human bio­log­i­cal and envi­ron­men­tal con­fig­u­ra­tions.

In my view, reli­gios­ity has no pos­i­tive effect on the aggre­gate behav­iour of pop­u­la­tions in mat­ters of eth­i­cal, moral or law­ful action. In fact, the evi­dence for this seems over­whelm­ing. Where is the actual, supe­rior eth­i­cal or law­ful con­di­tion of those com­mu­ni­ties which pro­claim their attach­ment to this reli­gion or that?

Amer­i­cans are claimed to be far more reli­gious peo­ple on the whole than Aus­tralians, but the causes of sim­ple human­ity may be much bet­ter served in Aus­tralia than the United States, if social trust and wel­fare secu­rity are any­thing to go by (the US has seven times Australia’s mur­der rate). The Islamic pos­tur­ing of Saudi Ara­bian and Irani polit­i­cal elites are a dark veil over ghastly, oppres­sive and hyp­o­crit­i­cal behav­iours, both pub­lic and pri­vate. The poly­the­ism of Japan or the pan­the­ism of Aus­tralian abo­rig­i­nes may fill social and psy­cho­log­i­cal needs, just as monothe­ism does, but they are equally short on demon­strat­ing the nur­tur­ing of a bet­ter class of human being.

What­ever human need estab­lished reli­gions may have filled, I find lit­tle indi­ca­tion that their grad­ual aban­don­ment has made my own soci­ety in Aus­tralia a less ful­fill­ing place in which to live a use­ful life. On the other hand, estab­lished reli­gions are often a gross inter­fer­ence in the busi­ness of being a decent human being. The cen­tral point is worth repeat­ing. The his­tory of every estab­lished reli­gion over mil­len­nia shows no clear causal link between pro­fessed piety and the emer­gence of bet­ter soci­eties. In short, it seems to me that those indi­vid­u­als in any soci­ety who are well dis­posed to peace and decency (in nor­mal times, the major­ity), and those who are dis­posed to moral hero­ism, will con­tinue to express their ten­den­cies well in a sec­u­lar com­mu­nity. None of this means that indi­vid­u­als in my soci­ety or any other will  cease to search for spir­i­tual expres­sion.

This lit­tle book itself is a quite idio­syn­cratic spir­i­tual jour­ney. The mass of peo­ple will con­tinue to imbibe mass-mar­keted phi­los­o­phy as they always have. It is entirely likely that the old reli­gions will be revis­ited and rein­ter­preted long into the future because what­ever their trans­gres­sions, the pub­lic mem­ory of real events is rarely deeper than two gen­er­a­tions. The mem­ory of con­cocted polit­i­cal glo­ries and humil­i­a­tions is another mat­ter. Once beyond liv­ing recall we are back in the hands of myth-mak­ers, tes­ta­ment writ­ers and shamans.


24. Public Religion: a failed experiment that won’t roll over


Pub­lic reli­gion as a panacea is a failed exper­i­ment. The Bud­dhists have had 2500 years to prove their case, Hin­dus even longer; Chris­tians have been promis­ing sal­va­tion for 2000 years, and Mus­lims about 1400 years. They all oper­ate from the premise that a devo­tee is a bet­ter human being than a non-devo­tee, and that a soci­ety of devo­tees will cre­ate a finer cul­ture than a soci­ety of non-devo­tees. The pro­pa­ganda is impres­sive, and there is never a lack of wor­thy model per­sons to parade as exam­ples to the unwashed. How­ever the sup­port­ing cast, the con­verts in their mil­lions, retain the moral frailty of their infi­del cousins.

If life is less nasty, brutish and short than it used to be, the bonus has more to do with peni­cillin and a 40 hour work­ing week than pro­pi­ti­a­tion of the gods. Much of the evi­dence of his­tory sug­gests that when protes­ta­tions of piety have been loud­est, the growth of the human spirit has been most stunted, oppres­sion most vicious, and pro­gress most con­strained. Look at the human bon­fires of sup­posed witches in Europe 600 years ago, or decap­i­ta­tions in Saudi Ara­bia today. Look at the sec­u­lar reli­gion of Com­mu­nism in China, circa 1958, for unsur­passed mean­ness, and a dogma that could starve thirty mil­lion peo­ple to death. Look at the rou­tine harass­ment of women in coun­tries like Pak­istan, parad­ing behind the cloak of reli­gious moral­ity.

Given the dis­mal his­tory of orga­nized reli­gion, you have to ask why each new gen­er­a­tion picks up the reli­gious and other ide­o­log­i­cal pre­cepts of their fore­fa­thers. There seem to be a vari­ety of rea­sons, partly con­nected with the iner­tia of cul­tural insti­tu­tions, but mainly as a pro­duct of flaws in human psy­chol­ogy. Here are what seem to me to be the main ratio­nales for prac­tis­ing a reli­gion:

  • 1) Lone­li­ness. Almost all reli­gions offer some sort of com­mu­nity, a reg­u­lar meet­ing place, a sanc­tioned venue for human inter­ac­tion out­side the extended fam­ily, an excuse for cer­tain kinds of cel­e­bra­tion, and usu­ally nowa­days a world-wide net­work of sup­port in for­eign envi­ron­ments. His­tor­i­cally this social net­work has been the best avail­able, and doubtless many peo­ple have put up with the mumbo jumbo for the sake of a lit­tle body warmth. Lately how­ever the com­pe­ti­tion has been get­ting stiffer.
  • 2) Coer­cion. This has been the tra­di­tional way to get con­verts fast, and there is no extant major reli­gion which has not used it as a short cut to con­trol. The more per­sis­tent agents of coer­cion how­ever are likely to be found within fam­ily units and close com­mu­ni­ties. Going along with the forms of a reli­gion is fre­quently less dam­ag­ing to the indi­vid­ual than putting up a spirited resis­tance.
  • 3) Men­tal frailty. There are those with weak ana­lytic and log­i­cal abil­ity in the social/psychological domain; peo­ple who are swayed by sim­ple argu­ments and who lack the wis­dom to draw sound lessons from his­tory. Believ­ing that their cul­ture must have an expla­na­tion for all things, they will swal­low some avail­able magic-god-cre­ation story from author­ity fig­ures.
  • 4) Delu­sion. Very large num­bers of peo­ple choose to will­fully delude them­selves in many areas of life (e.g. love, career etc), and on the sub­ject of mor­tal­ity, mostly (I sus­pect) out of fear of tak­ing respon­si­bil­ity for their own life and death.
  • 5) Oppor­tunism. There are those who use reli­gion as an instru­ment of power for social or polit­i­cal advan­tage. The level of con­scious hypocrisy in this game varies in kind and degree, from self-right­eous cit­i­zens, to would-be saints, to pompous church dea­cons, to the princes of the church. Nev­er­the­less, all of them find the magic incan­ta­tions of their dogma to be a superb instru­ment for manip­u­lat­ing other human beings, and this intox­i­cates them with power, often to the point of hubris.

25. An Impotent God versus the God Zombies


In a world of omnipo­tent deity, God was/is the great pilot in the sky who radio-con­trols all liv­ing things. Liv­ing beings are dumb ter­mi­nals, automa­tons with­out final respon­si­bil­ity. Even today, “the will of God” is still tried on as a legal defence. Satan pre­sum­ably runs a rival radio fre­quency and can re-tune your receiver under cer­tain con­di­tions. I inter­act with a sur­pris­ing num­ber of peo­ple who con­tinue to see them­selves as such dimin­ished agents. I find them mostly piti­ful, but poten­tially dan­ger­ous in zom­bie mode. Luck­ily, a good deal of the time they for­get to turn on the super­nat­u­ral brain receiver and are able to act like sen­si­ble human beings.

God zom­bies are dan­ger­ous because:

  1. a) believ­ing the world to be pop­u­lated by other zom­bies rather than incred­i­bly com­plex, unique, won­der­ful and respon­si­ble beings, they must have far less com­punc­tion about killing those who appear to be rogue escapees from the Master’s voice;
  2. b) being mere zom­bies, they feel must feel lit­tle per­sonal respon­si­bil­ity for the destruc­tion, decep­tion or betrayal of those not obey­ing their Master’s sup­posed will.
  3. c) you can never be quite sure what des­per­ate com­mand a God zom­bie is sud­denly going to receive from head office.

The one redeem­ing fea­ture of God zom­bies is that they usu­ally have a rule book which strictly states the con­di­tions under which they are allowed to kill, lie or rape. Like all the cre­ations of sym­bolic lan­guage how­ever, such rule books are open to a rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of sym­bols, usu­ally to suit the polit­i­cal moment.

Back in the uni­verse where I live, reli­gion is an attempt to extend the bounds of real­ity within which an indi­vid­ual makes deci­sions. In this sense super­nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena merely add to the con­trols on a deci­sion in the same way as rit­u­als such as not eat­ing meat. How­ever this extended real­ity must also coex­ist with every earthly con­di­tion, such as the need to make a liv­ing, coer­cion by fam­ily and offi­cials and so on. An indi­vid­ual makes choices with ref­er­ence to the total smor­gas­bord, and the rel­a­tive weight­ing of imper­a­tives, whether local or super­nat­u­ral, can shift con­stantly.

You could say that a medieval Eng­lish­man gave much greater con­scious weight to the coer­cive power of the divine over the coer­cive power of the sec­u­lar than his con­tem­po­rary does, even though both “believed” in the super­nat­u­ral. The fact is that most con­tem­po­rary reli­gious believ­ers give so lit­tle weight to the super­nat­u­ral in their prag­matic assess­ment of real­ity when mak­ing choices that their actual behav­iour is hardly dif­fer­ent from that of an athe­ist.

My own obser­va­tion of those who claim to be heav­ily influ­enced by reli­gion is that their actual moral choices are still only (very) mar­gin­ally influ­enced by the reli­gious “real­ity”, but still dom­i­nated by the trade off between their own appetites and per­son­al­i­ties on the one hand, and their inter­pre­ta­tion of what­ever worldly “real­ity” is bear­ing down on them on the other. What does hap­pen with the pious is that favourable moral choices are attrib­uted to a reli­gious con­di­tion, and unfavourable choices to “evil” forces. This post hoc attri­bu­tion is a men­tal con­struct which serves to val­i­date the reli­gious struc­ture, but has lit­tle true bear­ing on what would pre­vail any­way with­out its pres­ence.

Although real human actions may be only mar­gin­ally coded by reli­gion in daily liv­ing, the ratio­nales attached to those actions are another mat­ter. When it comes to reflec­tion, ide­olo­gies and reli­gions make false claims to be mir­rors held up to our souls, if soul is the sum of inner ten­den­cies. The finer the sen­ti­ments each reli­gion whis­pers in our ears, the brighter that inner mir­ror seems to shine, catch­ing reflec­tions in every acci­den­tal act of liv­ing. Yet being mir­rors, pos­sess­ing no radi­ant power of judge­ment or cre­ation, reli­gions and ide­olo­gies mag­nify the petty, the vin­dic­tive and venge­ful in us, as well as the lumi­nous, gen­er­ous and warm.

The priests and shamans of each ortho­doxy have the clar­ity of these pol­ished reflec­tions coded on their tongues. Coolly they take now this frag­ment of a reflected idea, now that one, as the premise to their amoral oppor­tunism of the moment. Skill­fully they attach old dog­mas to our daily needs and acts. Ratio­nal within the bounds of each task, they are indis­crim­i­nate in choos­ing the foun­da­tion of argu­ment, and indif­fer­ent to the exe­cu­tion of its vic­tims.

The one thing which is anath­ema to these Pla­tonic fix­ers, these Jesuit­i­cal con­spir­a­tors, is that erratic bril­liance which we find in the truly cre­ative mind. The mechanic who makes a bet­ter mouse trap is clapped on the shoul­der for being prac­ti­cal, but woe betide him if he is lit­er­ate enough to enun­ci­ate a rev­o­lu­tion­ary prin­ci­ple under­ly­ing his inven­tion.

Luck­ily, in many places at present mechan­ics or even sci­en­tists are thought more valu­able and more reli­able than priests from the old reli­gions. This need not be mourned. While priests are hum­ble enough to live on char­ity and the lone­li­ness of old ladies we are prob­a­bly fairly safe. Alas, new shamans have arisen in their place, well-fed trick­sters in dark suits and white shirts who flour­ish scrolls of eco­nomic bab­ble and call them­selves con­sul­tants or man­agers. Their new god is greed – prob­a­bly some incar­na­tion of Satan in the old lan­guage – and although his breath is per­ilous, his agents are eas­ily swayed and sub­verted by the moment with com­pet­ing bribes. Being a rab­ble, the eco­nomic shamans are hard to slay in sin­gle, heroic bat­tles, but they are vul­ner­a­ble to well-directed guer­rilla attack.

If sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of peo­ple out there in the wide world do indeed feel them­selves to be autonomous and respon­si­ble beings, then the god of omnipo­tence is dead. Omnipo­tent deity can­not coex­ist with even par­tially autonomous men and women. One senses that the largest num­ber of con­tem­po­rary humans have made an implicit deci­sion about this. Maybe the achieve­ments of ratio­nal sci­ence have armed us with a cer­tain hubris. In any case, in my neigh­bour­hood the deity has shed com­plete author­ity, and hav­ing sur­ren­dered a lit­tle, will for many folk dimin­ish to the stature of a gar­den god.


26. Religious Managers: feminine dialectic and camp power-play


Self-preser­va­tion is a curi­ous thing. Chaps have their biceps, while young ras­cals have reck­less enthu­si­asm. Lit­tle girls have the superb nat­u­ral pro­tec­tion of being cute. Big­ger girls trade on the power of sex, and ladies of a cer­tain age radi­ate lov­ing kind­ness and mater­nal con­cern as they arrange to have you pushed down a stair­well; (a hefty per­cent­age of my employ­ment man­agers have been women, so I know all about the uses and abuses of power in this con­stituency).

What strikes me as intrigu­ing are par­al­lels with sec­u­lar struc­ture to be found in the man­age­ment of orga­nized reli­gions. Orga­nized reli­gions are ancient and socially embed­ded vehi­cles for the pro­mo­tion of power, nor­mally dom­i­nant male power, or very occa­sion­ally, fem­i­nine power. This unstated but per­va­sive gen­der power role may be a prime rea­son for their sur­vival. The body warmth of shared prej­u­dice is addic­tive. Any­way, it seems likely that where a sect does tend to gen­der equal­ity, its days are num­bered. The whole thing dies of apa­thy and argu­ments about who has to wash up the dishes.

Given the mun­dane ego­tism of real priestly behav­iour, it is fas­ci­nat­ing that reli­gious dis­course is always pro­moted in the name of com­pas­sion, for­give­ness, love and other such trin­kets. In other words it deploys the ver­bal armoury of fem­i­nine seduc­tion to achieve power in pre­cisely the same way as your aver­age fem­i­nine cor­po­rate man­ager, real estate sales­woman or debu­tante.

The dif­fer­ence is that typ­i­cal reli­gious dis­course is con­ducted by a col­lec­tion of queru­lous, right­eous males with the covert goal of pre­serv­ing dis­pen­sa­tions for their social posi­tion. For a long time I’ve won­dered vaguely at the absur­dity of shaman­is­tic pos­tur­ing. Now I can put my fin­ger on it: the whole per­for­mance is a kind of high camp par­ody of stan­dard male advice to lay back and enjoy the assault. So folks, atone for your sins and pass the altar wine, while doc­tor Strangelove e-mails God for you in the spe­cial lan­guage of Eter­nity.


27. Religious Uses and Misuses: learning to live with the whole damned thing


Reli­gion at its best is a vehi­cle for com­mu­nity. It cre­ates a set of rules and val­ues within which peo­ple may direct their thoughts, their behav­iour and their plans. It sets the ground rules to feed and breed by. It pro­vides a rea­son and usu­ally a venue for rit­ual, for cel­e­bra­tion, and most of all, for groups of peo­ple from every walk of life to come together for fel­low­ship. These are the unde­ni­able ben­e­fits of reli­gion and the real source of its dura­bil­ity. The trou­ble is, the sto­ry­li­nes sus­tain­ing known reli­gions are becom­ing less and less cred­i­ble to more and more peo­ple. Also, the debit side of the ledger in social costs is becom­ing too bur­den­some to ignore.

Take the prob­lem of sto­ry­li­nes. Most estab­lished reli­gions claim to be a gate­way to unseen, super­nat­u­ral, con­trol­ling forces. These forces are nor­mally rei­fied as a god or gods. Reli­gions claim through their the­ol­ogy to explain the begin­nings and the ends of life, and usu­ally they claim to give each indi­vid­ual a unique, endur­ing posi­tion in the life cycle. Often nowa­days they claim to offer each indi­vid­ual a per­sonal tele­phone line to God, with a promise of spe­cial treat­ment in return for cer­tain kinds of behav­iour.

No reli­gion offers a stan­dard sci­en­tific proof which is based on cred­i­ble premises for its super­nat­u­ral doc­trine. Ratio­nal per­son­al­ity types go for rig­or­ous proofs sourced in a pri­ori premises which they find self evi­dent and can­not there­fore believe that oth­ers remain unim­pressed. For the more mys­ti­cally inclined, proof is said to come from per­sonal rev­e­la­tion, or the reputed rev­e­la­tion of prophets. That is, there are claims to a spe­cial audi­ence with an unseen god, and the inter­ven­tion of mir­a­cles. Doc­trine is usu­ally writ­ten in a book, and the book itself is said to have mag­i­cal prop­er­ties (an idea stem­ming from the time when most peo­ple were illit­er­ate).

All such the­o­log­i­cal argu­ment is, in my judg­ment, utter hum­bug. One man’s reli­gion is another man’s super­sti­tion. What reli­gious dog­mas have in com­mon is the con­fi­dence trick­ery of a snake-oil med­i­cine ped­dler, and the exploita­tion of fear, igno­rance and cupid­ity. Well, there have always been char­ac­ters who think like me. Once they got ban­ished, or burnt on bon­fires. Unfor­tu­nately for the shamans, much of my view has now become the default opin­ion amongst huge num­bers of lit­er­ate peo­ple.

Mass cyn­i­cism is not good news either for those who pur­vey reli­gion as a path to power. Con­ven­tional reli­gion at the deep­est psy­cho­log­i­cal level is often about power and con­trol.

Between human and god, this is a mat­ter of exert­ing some con­trol over des­tiny by plac­ing power in the hands of a benef­i­cent god. It is a way of deny­ing the death of the indi­vid­ual, that is, of one’s own immi­nent death. Such a con­tract between one man and an imag­i­nary god could be thought psy­chotic (and every men­tal asy­lum con­tains indi­vid­u­als who claim to be God, or his spe­cial agent).

Instead, estab­lished reli­gion becomes the con­spir­acy of a whole soci­ety to mit­i­gate its fear by liv­ing a lie, the lie that some God has revealed itself to many peo­ple. Those who deny this lie are treated as psy­chotic and dan­ger­ous.

In the domain of social behav­iour, reli­gion is also, inevitably, about power and con­trol. Its hold on whole com­mu­ni­ties has made it an irre­sistible instru­ment for per­sonal gain by all those who hunger for polit­i­cal power.

The lust for power and con­trol over oth­ers oper­ates at every level in most soci­eties, from the fam­ily to the priest­hood to the state. Thus reli­gion has his­tor­i­cally been the most potent of all vehi­cles for intol­er­ance, per­se­cu­tion, oppres­sion and fas­cism. It is the implaca­ble enemy of inno­va­tion. Reli­gion cor­rupted to the ends of power – and sooner or later almost every reli­gion is used in this way – becomes an evil human insti­tu­tion.

So what is to be done? Marx may have been right that reli­gion is the opium of the masses. If so, the with­drawal symp­toms have been too much for most soci­eties to tol­er­ate. Cer­tainly com­mu­nism, which shared many of con­ven­tional religion’s worst prop­er­ties, proved to be no sub­sti­tute in the end.

We might sup­pose that com­pe­ti­tion for time and atten­tion in the age of mass media would lead to an attri­tion of religion’s hold. It hasn’t always worked out that way. Other cul­tural ingre­di­ents affect the out­comes.

The re-mythol­o­giz­ing of Hindu epics in tele­vi­sion series has led to a resur­gence of Hindu fun­da­men­tal­ism in India. The United States remains fer­tile ground for reli­gions of all kinds, and no Pres­i­dent would dare claim to be an athe­ist. The Japan­ese, on the other hand, retain a sort of lim­ited spir­i­tu­al­ity with thou­sands of Shinto gods which fill an emo­tional need in their spe­cial nar­row domains, but are not allowed to inter­fere with life in gen­eral, while gen­eral rules of behav­iour are set by non-the­is­tic Bud­dhist phi­los­o­phy. Per­haps that is a good argu­ment for poly­the­ism.

The vast major­ity of British peo­ple (82% appar­ently) have given up on orga­nized reli­gion alto­gether, and a healthy per­cent­age of Aus­tralians have gone the same way.

Some reli­gious dog­mas seem to be eas­ier to mis­use than oth­ers. The claimed omnipo­tence of monothe­is­tic gods (e.g. in Judaic reli­gions) appears to give them a spe­cial potency for oppres­sion. This is par­tic­u­larly true where dom­i­nant males iden­tify with the God-fig­ure, as they often do, and oppress women.

Reli­gions which define com­mu­nity by rigidly exclud­ing out­siders (by birth, mar­riage, race or what­ever) can be both vir­u­lent in the hands of the power-hun­gry, or alter­na­tively, mark their own kind for extinc­tion when it is a minor­ity in a dom­i­nant other cul­ture.

Rewrit­ing out-dated creed has been a major indus­try for cen­turies, but doesn’t really seem to have improved the pro­duct for any major reli­gion. Dogma which con­tains any ambi­gu­ity what­so­ever will be mis­in­ter­preted to suit the polit­i­cal ends of the ambi­tious, the hope­ful or the cow­ardly (and there we have cov­ered most of humankind).

There is no safety in a liturgy which says at one point that “the meek shall inherit the earth” (a promise of power any­way), while at another point offer­ing para­bles about ene­mies who are stig­ma­tized as sub-human or not “cho­sen” by God.

What a dilemma. Reli­gion won’t go away. It sat­is­fies def­i­nite needs. Yet its real­iza­tion mag­ni­fies the very worst, as well as the best, that human­ity is capa­ble of. We must have a reli­gion, you say. Well, if we must have a reli­gion, then let us keep it flex­i­ble, humane and prac­ti­cal.

The sen­si­ble use of reflec­tive activ­i­ties like med­i­ta­tion can be taught non-dog­mat­i­cally, on the same plane as other self-man­age­ment tech­niques. There is no value and much dan­ger in mak­ing sim­plis­tic claims about sup­pos­edly super­nat­u­ral forces. As Bud­dhism shows, God can be kept out of the exer­cise alto­gether.

We can be respon­si­ble for the care of human­ity, liv­ing crea­tures and the planet earth. Let us be speci­fic about the ethics of power and con­trol. We could say, for exam­ple, that any human being has the right to strive for that amount of power, no more and no less, which will per­mit him or her to main­tain the per­sonal integrity of his choices about what to say, what to do, whom to assoc­iate with and how to earn a liv­ing.

Any polit­i­cal state (while states remain) shall have the right to seek that amount of auton­omy, no more and no less, which will per­mit its cit­i­zens to sat­isfy the con­di­tions of per­sonal auton­omy just described. But let us direct the main focus of this newly incar­nated reli­gion away from power and con­trol alto­gether.

As to myself, I march to a dif­fer­ent drum. Prob­a­bly no mass move­ment will ever cap­ture me. I strive for well-being, for myself and oth­ers, and I strive for com­pe­tence. I trea­sure humour, and try not to take myself or any­one else too seri­ously, for this is the best way to keep bal­ance and a sense of pro­por­tion. It seems to me that a per­son who is healthy in body and mind, a mem­ber of a well-func­tion­ing com­mu­nity, and who is good at what he or she chooses to do, will obtain the very best of rewards which life has to offer. My “reli­gion” then, is the pur­suit of well-being and com­pe­tence, and its vision, its name if you like, I call Serendip­ity


About The Author

Thor May is an undis­tin­guished per­son. He can’t remem­ber the last time he suc­cess­fully seduced a woman, won a pub raf­fle or got an offer that he couldn’t refuse within thirty nanosec­onds. He has a genius for fail­ing job inter­views, but has some­how stum­bled in and out of many jobs. His exper­tise includes pick­ing the chew­ing gum off pub car­pets and teach­ing gram­mar to peo­ple who don’t want to know about it.

He started then gave up two doc­tor­ates, before finally scratch­ing another one over the fin­ish line at the absurd age of 64. He has started to learn then more or less for­got­ten a clutch of lan­guages, and started, then lost track of what­ever a career was. At sixty-seven (2013) he is seri­ously decid­ing what to do when he grows up.

At the moment, the author is try­ing out being the new mes­siah. This began when he walked into the biggest book shop in town and couldn’t find a sec­tion for agnos­tics. There were sec­tions for tarot card read­ers, econ­o­mists, and com­puter net­work­ers. There was even a cor­ner for Chris­tians, Mus­lims and Bud­dhists. But not a whis­per about agnos­tics. He thought he was agnos­tic, or even occa­sion­ally an athe­ist in a vague sort of a way. He reck­oned that when most pun­ters weren’t watch­ing foot­ball they were prob­a­bly being vaguely vague like him. It smelled like a mar­ket open­ing.

So the author got down to writ­ing his smash hit on agnos­ti­cism. Alack, he suf­fered the kind of debil­i­tat­ing attack of hon­esty that has kept him irrel­e­vant for half a cen­tury. His slim vol­ume won’t cure your warts, or give you hon­orary mem­ber­ship of a mas­ter race. How­ever, you are guar­an­teed at least one idea to dis­agree with, and the right to make as many ana­grams as you like from the name of god.
copy­righted © Thorold (Thor) May 2013, all rights reserved
http://thormay.net; http://independent.academia.edu/ThorMay; thormay@yahoo.com;

Pro­fes­sional bio: Thor May’s PhD dis­ser­ta­tion, Lan­guage Tan­gle, dealt with lan­guage teach­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity. Thor has been teach­ing Eng­lish to non-native speak­ers, train­ing teach­ers and lec­tur­ing lin­guis­tics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven coun­tries in Ocea­nia and East Asia, mostly with ter­tiary stu­dents, but with a cou­ple of detours to teach sec­ondary stu­dents and young chil­dren. He has trained teach­ers in Aus­tralia, Fiji and South Korea. In an ear­lier life, prior to becom­ing a teacher, he had a decade of drift­ing through unskilled jobs in Aus­tralia, New Zealand and finally Eng­land (after back­pack­ing across Asia in 1972).





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