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The biggest problem imo with organized religion - Nothing New Under The Sun
(the ARX acta diurna)
The biggest problem imo with organized religion
is that it validates the very human impulse to think that we can "make up" for things - rewrite the past, undo what we have done, magic away the reality with something else - that we can fix our misdeeds and harms done by harming ourselves in some way.

And we can't. We really can't.

It's not that religions create this idea: as I stated above, it's there from the beginning, children barely old enough to speak have grasped from somewhere the idea that if they hurt another kid, they can balance the metaphysical scales by letting the other child hurt them back - "Quick, you bite ME now!" - or by hurting themselves - "See? I hit myself with the block! Now you mustn't tell!" - in order to escape the potential for worse punishment by parental involvement. The concept of buying our way out of unfairness seems to be as innately human as the notion of fairness is innate in many social animals.

But religions - at least all the ones that I am familiar with - having notions of atonement, let alone systems of atoning, codify and reinforce this belief, and I can't find it anything but a) wishthink, b) pernicious, upon long reflection and study. Pay off the gods to ritually pay off each other when you can't actually "pay back" what's been taken, and everything's okay now - at least until the next time, when you do it all over again. And pain and suffering are the payment methods, meted out on various installment plans.

To the extent that beliefs in future justice actually work as restraints on wrongdoing, to the extent that they serve to make people more mindful of their own behavior, of connectedness to a wider world, of responsibility to others - then no, that's not spiritually ruinous; but how well do they actually work?

Contra the very few who assert that the only reason they don't go out rampaging like miniature Apocalyptic Riders is their faith in their religion - and who have no clue as to why this makes most people recoil from them as if they had confessed to actual wrongdoing, or to being the Ticking Bomb - for most people who behave more-or-less decently, what restrains them from attacking strangers or relatives or stealing from customers or slitting throats or raping targets of opportunity is not fear of punishment either earthly or infernal, but because they just don't want to. Because that's not how their personalities incline, because they've been socialized not to respond to situations that way, and trying to untangle which comes first is a DNA strand-egg puzzle that makes the old chicken one look like a knock-knock joke.

I, in the course of my Arctic night of the soul (or rather night on one of those planets where night lasts many Terran years) was forced to admit that even if I came to the conclusion that there was no God and the cosmos was an empty uncaring waste that I would not go out and do the wrong* things I was tempted to do in my worst moments, even if I thought I could get away with them. It wasn't fear of Hellfire that was holding me back, ultimately, it was my own self-respect, where the wish to not hurt people wasn't enough.

There's ye olde logic chopping again - if/then as a blade to hack through the thornbushes a thousand feet tall - but it took me a lot longer even to tackle the whole mess of the idea that whether or not The Numinous Is Real, my - or anyone - either hurting ourselves, or being hurt and just putting up with it instead of doing what we could to end it, was a Good Thing that could right some sort of Cosmic Balance.

Books by famous theologians didn't help; they just tangled up the tangles even more. Different Christian denominations - and different traditions within each denomination - have different interpretations and stress different aspects, but you really can't get away from it, if you accept the Atonement doctrine. You start out with the premise that God has to engage in self-harming behavior to "pay the debt we owe for sin" and from there you pretty much roll inevitably into the pitfall of "if I fast and say fifty rosaries on my knees on the hard floor I can get myself/my loved ones/total strangers out of Purgatory/Hell/specific life problems X/Y/Z" and any number of possible points on the continuum from donating great big gold platters and/or herds of cattle to temples to punching holes in sensitive bits of your anatomy with sharp pointy things to donating other people to temples to have holes punched in their anatomies or, less bloodily but not necessarily much more happily in the long run, to pray umpteen hungry rosaries on cold and stony floors to keep Osiris from tossing your heart to the thing that looks like a hippopotamus crossed with a giant anteater--

It's a perverse notion - the idea that pain is currency, metaphysically speaking, that it's anything but, well, pain - that The Gods get something out of us suffering, and thus we can buy Heavenly favor with our own suffering, or even proxy sufferings. Any gods that get off on suffering aren't worthy of the name, imo, or at least not worthy of worship. If "Sick Fuck Above All Sick Fucks" is part of your deity's Litany, even if you never sing that part, then you'd be better off being not atheists but antitheists. --Morally speaking.

It's sick, it's destructive, and it's ultimately - from a Christian perspective, at least - heretical, and the worst kind of heretical behavior: attempted magic against God. I haven't read enough internal theological debate from other faith traditions to know how gravely trying to force divine assistance is regarded: I just know that a) we all do it no matter what religion we belong to, and b) it's not considered really great, spiritually speaking, any more than imperfect contrition is. But trying to make God/The Gods do what we want by paying up front for services is so inherently human that trying to talk ourselves out of it doesn't seem to work no matter how much we try.

The problem rests on a couple of key points: one is the feeling we have that we have a right to bribe anybody if the bribe is good enough, that a really good bribe really does obligate people to us, that there is no such thing as a gift of stuff or service with no strings attached; and the second is the feeling that feelings weigh anything outside our own heads.

They don't.

The first part, the feeling that gifting entails undefined & open-ended obligation (even if you assure the recipient it doesn't) is why the Sacrificial Impulse so easily becomes corrupted in religion (well, that and the whole showing-off-to-the-neighbors thing) and so rarely is a matter of Joy or even real Gratitude when things are "Given To [A] God", but either done out of a sense of fear that an insufficiently-bought-off deity will send His/Her minions around to slash a few tires, maybe burn the place down, like piqued and immortal Mob leaders, or out of hope that a deity pleased with the "gratuity" will not only not deal out grief but will perhaps send some good business our way. The second part is why the emphasis is on "Giving till it hurts" (at least towards those who are capable of being hurt through want) and this is what is boasted of, because the hurting is what makes it valuable.

Because our God is a sick fuck who gets off on people hurting themselves to prove how much they love him.

He isn't? He doesn't? Then what's the explanation of the whole offering it up business? Like the whole "God's masculine because of the Male Principle" mess, I'd really like to see some defense of it that doesn't boil down to "God's a dick", in the end. But I haven't found ary a one in all the great theologians and mystics that isn't either "Because He's the Biggest Dick around" or "It's okay because He hurts himself too!" and that's just more of the same illogical arguing that feelings can balance and pain is coin--

It doesn't have to be like this, but it usually is

It's possible - and even does happen, too - for people to be simply grateful and to dedicate things to deities without it being a bribe, a buying-off of punishment or an "encouragement" to provide favors; the worship relationship doesn't have to be one of a hanger-on at a corrupt Emperor's court, where all try to compete to give the nicest presents to the One Who Has Everything in hopes that He'll give them back something even better, or give them a leg up on a rival, or protect them from a rival's power - but it's so very difficult to purge this from our thought patterns, individually or collectively.

And it creates a God who is nothing but a Monster, a fickle, vicious, petty and depraved deity no better than a mortal tyrant - a god cast in our own image, very much so, molded into a mirror of humanity's worst flaws elevated to justify our flaws and put them beyond reproach as aspects of the Divine.

In short, it's blasphemous. Which only matters if you care about such things, of course.

For everybody else, it matters because it's effective in all kinds of nasty ways in our everyday lives. Forget about the pathetic and embarrassing spectacle of a Supreme Being whining I put so much hard work into making you people, I was in labor with you for twenty hours SIX WHOLE DAYS! I give and give working my fingers to the bone to make this nice universe for you, is it so hard for you to come spend two hours a week listening to all right, boring readings and mediocre music and nonsensical drivel but still, can't you just do it to be kind to your poor old Creator?, forget the no-less pathetic and embarrassing spectacle of disgruntled sentients indignantly declaring I gave and gave and gave until it hurt, I did without all kinds of things I would have enjoyed because I thought it would make You happy, I let people walk all over me and hurt me without resisting because that's what everyone said You wanted, I did all this because I was led to believe that eventually You'd shower me and mine with blessings as a reward - and instead we're all worse off than we would have been if we'd just ignored You and gone about our lives! and ignore as well the question of whether there is or isn't going to be Sky-Pie to make up the difference, because whether or not dharma affects karma in a future life is irrelevant in the here and now - and ought to be, from a theological perspective as well. If it isn't, it's nothing but craven bargaining and quid pro quo, Gimme-the-Potato-so's-I-can-get-outta-Hell-free, and yet again makes a mockery of the notion that there's anything ennobling in religious belief.

One of the most frequent arguments for the general benevolence and positive impact of religion, and Christianity in particular by Christians, is the Argument From Utility - which is inescapable, keeps cropping up even in the mouths of those who at other times and formally deny it, and was debunked by John Stuart Mill over a hundred years ago but as we all know, rebunking is like the tides and not to be stopped. What the Argument From Utility</a>s says, on one level, is that we need organized religion and specifically the Hope/Fear afterlife aspect regardless of whether it is objectively true, because it makes us better to each other as a society.

Again, trying to prove this from history is very difficult, and wanders very quickly into Tiger-Repelling Rock territory. But what it says on another level is - we don't even care about the Hell/Hells/Reincarnated-as-a-Rat part of it, we know that all that really matters is how things go in this life.

It's not just an argument of Unfaith** but an acknowledgment that Natural Science is the real Queen, and Theology only a decoy. You only ever appeal to a higher authority to validate a lower, and not the reverse. (This is also found in all the justifications for theologically-warranted gender-based discrimination, which inevitably turn to appeals to Nature and Science to "prove" that God isn't just a sexist bloke made in our own sexist-bloke image, but that's another essay.)

So let us look at whether or not this specific religious belief has any social utility - or rather, how wide and general a social utility it has. Convincing you that God wants you to do everything I say has a great deal of usefulness for me, but not so much for you.

I'm tempted to say "as below, so above" and vice versa, because I don't see that much of a difference in either causes or effects between the Metaphysical Emotional Blackmail column and the Temporal Emotional Blackmail one. But there may be important differences, so let's see.

Both of them "work" on the premise that you can obligate people towards you by hurting yourself and claiming it was meant as a prezzie for them which is a deeply fucked-up notion, not made better by the fact that certain ritual qualifiers are placed on the process - someone who claimed that random strangers "owed them" various unspecified things because s/he'd been hitting themselves on the head or hand with a hammer would be (ideally) taken away to a decent hospital and looked after both mentally and physically. But we accept something just as irrational when we claim someone is entitled to special privileges, immunity from prosecution or other consequences of their bad actions or rights to extra goodies, "because they've given up so much" or even because they've already suffered pain as a result of their actions. Think of all the people who say after someone kills or maims another due to reckless driving, "they shouldn't be punished because it's so hard on them, what they've gone through already" - as though the suffering which they caused to themselves somehow fills up the balance scale for the suffering inflicted on others by their actions, so that justice has already been done and anything further would be overkill, injustice as a result.

In Christianity we see this play out in several ways: the first and most obvious one is that according to Atonement doctrine, God, being a masochist as well as a sadist, has obligated us permanently and irrevocably and without any choice in the matter on our part by committing painful suicide "for our sake." It's okay, he's into unsafe/insane BDSM so that makes it all right for Him to subject us to non-con h/c, see? What's that, you don't? Well, neither do I, actually. But lots of people do.

Then there's the "I can obligate God towards me by suffering hard enough" which is theologically unsound but done even by theologians, q.v. St. Teresa of Avila complaining to God about how badly He treats His friends, and encouraged from an early age by religion teachers with the blithe assurance that God will reward our sufferings and time dedicated to Him with gifts on earth as well as in Heaven - if it doesn't work, then you just weren't suffering enough, you weren't throwing your whole soul into it, you just need to keep trying harder, hurt yourself some more to get His attention, only whoops, that's bad when pagans are doing it so let's just sort of handwave how it's supposed to work--

Then there's the lateral manifestation of this, which is really the earthly sort, but with a dragging-in of the vertical two-way binding ritual to rationalize it: this is the argument for why cloistered clerics aren't selfish for retreating from the world - they're actually acting as a sort of direct pipeline to get God's presents down to us, by depriving themselves to guilt Him into doing things for them, and passing those savings on to us, they obligate us in turn to support them and refrain from criticizing them because hey, they're hurting themselves to save our souls and obtain blessings for you, you ungrateful wretch, even if you didn't know that they were doing it, never asked them to and don't want them to do so, either.

Which is kind of like the whole "I gave up X for you and so you OWE me" thing,

Again, if someone were to go around with a ball peen hammer in their pocket and bang on themselves to get out of parking tickets or failure to obtain a burn permit or smacking their SO or kids around or raping their underage students, very few of us would accept this as an acceptable substitute for either punishment or stopping doing the bad stuff, even if bones were broken and blood spilled. This is clearly whacked. However, if someone tries to pass themselves off as morally superior because they hurt themselves more, actively or passively, through self-denial, but always deliberately, because that's what they like to do OR because they think the rewards they gain from doing so are worth it, and to claim authority as a result, we may or may not accept it. It all depends on the social status of the one playing the martyr, really. And that comes down to what, and who, we value most in society. Machismo plays as much a part of it as masochism, but so does relative social status, and it's fluid, dynamic, and complicated, varying across situation and subgroup. But it's given us a situation in which emotional blackmail and self-harming behavior are allowed to be used as social leverage in ways that have no objective logic nor reason to them.

And it's corrosive, it ruins the ability of persons to relate to each other honestly and graciously, and it enables all kinds of vile abuse to go on unchecked, what we have done and what we have failed to do.

I realize that one could go into a great deal of examination of the differences between pain suffered by being endured and pain suffered that is sought out, and also what is going on in the implicit attempt to equalize the status gap by suffering so much that you gain the benevolence and favor of a superior - the Grizelda Game being played with either God or a mortal who has legal or practical power and standing over one, there's something fascinating psychologically going on there in this attempt to weight the cosmic balance, but this sermon is already a week late (I meant to finish it last Sunday but it got all snarled up) and the thing which is most prominent to me, given this liturgical season and my upbringing, is the way that Repentance becomes an end in itself, and how the emotional sensations of suffering that accompany it become a hollow substitute for the actions of Being Repentant

Remorse is like Nausea - natural, but of severely limited utility

I'm not saying - don't be remorseful. (That is, if you've done something wrong.) For one thing, feelings aren't something one can (easily) command; they come or not, they're just there like the weather, so saying "don't feel X" is like saying "don't let it rain" - all you can do is work through it or not. But it doesn't mean anything; remorse doesn't make you superior, feelings of remorse won't repair whatever it was you're feeling remorseful for having done, so assuming that you're feeling justifiably remorseful and not unreasonsbly guilty, it still is pointless. It might be a necessary stage, like puking up something poisonous, but indulging it, staying in the feeling or even encouraging it, as if the emotional state of misery were itself virtuous, is very unhealthy...and can be used to justify things even less healthy than staying stuck in the Slough of Despond.

Hurting yourself? Doesn't do a damn thing to right the wrongs you're feeling bad about. Beating up on yourself physically, beating up on yourself emotionally, depriving yourself of nice things, even killing yourself won't fix whatever it was you broke. Nothing you can do can undo what you did. And nothing can "make up" for it - going out and doing good deeds to others won't undo the bad ones, won't repair the things damaged or destroyed, won't help restore balance and increase the sum total of Good in the world by any other than the mundane means of here is something, some situation left better than it was - there's no mystical Rube Goldberg linkage that will allow either your pain or your prayers to level Libra where it hangs in the hands of the Virgin--

Or maybe you can pay off your Cosmic Bar Tab that way - I'm a believing agnostic, I have faith that whatever Powers may be are not as mean, stupid and irrational as humans at our worst, but I could be wrong - but you can't provably make a penny's-worth of difference here in this worlds-realm, this life, for any other living person. It would be nice to think that such things were possible (for X values of "nice") but wishthink is weightless, worthless, not something you can take to the bank.

And using self-inflicted emotional suffering to try to get out of the other consequences of wrongdoing - is deeply and terribly twisted. So you're miserable because you've harmed - well, that's just just, isn't it? So you've recognized that you've fucked up, broken things that can't be fixed, and you're in anguish over this realization - well, that's the consequence of getting outside your own head, and it's a healthy one - IFF you use it as the starting point for not hurting people and wrecking stuff in the future. "I should be let off for the destruction I am continuing to cause as well as the destruction I have done in the past because my mortification and regret for what the havoc I have wrought makes me so unhappy" is just sick.

And yet we keep on doing this, feeling sorry for ourselves Sins and wishing we could stop being such Sinful Wretches, wishing we could love Ceiling Cat in spite of His masturbation fixation, wishing we could even like that blasted Crybaby Jesus, staying in the round of repetition, while we talk and pray endlessly about Change and Reform and A Season of New Beginnings, year after year after year after decade after century...

So what do we do, with our remorse and our repenting, what useful Good can we make of it? Nothing, in itself. It just is, a purgation and as repulsive and unpleasant as physical catharsis naturally is. It's what we do when we get up from kneeling over the toilet puking our guts out (or worse) that matters, really--

~Here pauseth the lesson~

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

* This includes both "subjectively" and "objectively" wrong, the merely-Unlawful, and the actually-Evil - things against The Rules which could not be construed to do any material harm to anyone except a hypersensitive and exceedingly-neurotic deity (Yes, Ceiling Cat really does get het up watching U masturbate!), and things which would hurt people, if done (or have the potential to harm, and done regardless) and the latter encompassing both harm done only to myself, and others on a spectrum from comparative innocence to guiltiness with respect to me. People thought I was joking in college when I said I'd be a Tyrant, if I could pull it off, if I ever went to the Dark Side, and never a Concubine. Then they freaked out, when they realized I wasn't.

** "If religion, or any particular form of it, is true, its usefulness follows without other proof. If to know authentically in what order of things, under what government of the universe it is our destiny to live, were not useful, it is difficult to imagine what could be considered so. Whether a person is in a pleasant or in an unpleasant place, a palace or a prison, it cannot be otherwise than useful to him to know where he is....The utility of religion did not need to be asserted until the arguments for its truth had in a great measure ceased to convince. People must either have ceased to believe, or have ceased to rely on the belief of others, before they could take that inferior ground of defence without a consciousness of lowering what they were endeavouring to raise. An argument for the utility of religion is an appeal to unbelievers, to induce them to practise a well meant hypocrisy, or to semi-believers to make them avert their eyes from what might possibly shake their unstable belief, or finally to persons in general to abstain from expressing any doubts they may feel, since a fabric of immense importance to mankind is so insecure at its foundations, that men must hold their breath in its neighbourhood for fear of blowing it down."

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16 comments or Leave a comment
yeloson From: yeloson Date: December 6th, 2009 11:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, so many people get caught in the transactional mentality when it comes to religion. Part of it is the desperate need to assign meaning to suffering, and that such suffering will be paid back, all things will be made right (and of course, they're going to be receiving the rewards and not the punishments...), etc.

Idries Shah had a great point about it: "When people are doing things they shouldn't be doing in the first place, then want a reward for ceasing to do so." - much like when the privileged want cookies.
bellatrys From: bellatrys Date: December 7th, 2009 12:37 am (UTC) (Link)

Yes, there's a terrifying science saying,

"in Nature there are neither punishments nor rewards, but only consequences," which I see is attr to Ingersoll - if you accept that, it's horrible because you don't get that, ahem, consolation of thinking that Well, At Least It Is All To Some Good End, or Well, At Least It's Happening For A Reason, where bad things can be ascribed to Poetic Justice or Ineffable Plans rather than Just Happening To Good People Because Shit Happens.

At the same time, it's incredibly liberating, because it frees you from the truly gruesome consequences of "Transactional Religion" (thanks for that coinage) which really hit home to me when I was studying Boethius (this is why I always wince, and never use seriously, the notion of "consolation" in Christianity) and his blithe "oh well, we/they must have done SOMETHING to deserve it, or else the people who are being harmed are just Extras being used as a Teaching Example to motivate those who are the Protagonists in this Cosmic Narrative" - I don't care if he was just trying to get himself through the night before his own execution, it's a vile theology and the mainstream embrace of it by Western Christianity for so long did us no good at all.

Somebody's little kid gets hit by a car to teach the parents a lesson? WTF? I'll never get over the Christians of my acquaintance (the ones online were bad, too, but the ones I *knew* were the most sickening) who were going on and on about how 9/11 was A Tragedy, but maybe there'd be a Silver Lining in that it would make people Turn To God - I, having both too much willingness to think the best for too long, as well as a Nasty Suspicious Mind, first tried to put some sort of benevolent construction on it, and then gave up and said "Fuckit, they're talking about using a horrible and far-ranging-with-no-end-in-sight catastrophe and loss of untold lives as a tool for increasing market share - this is damnable--" But at that time there wasn't anyone I could - or dared - talk to about that sickening realization.

Yes, it's worrying to think that you can't just drop enough quarters into the machine to win the Cosmic Jackpot - but it's also a relief to stop having to worry about if you're not dropping quarters in fast enough so to speak, if there were only a little bit more effective Magick that you could work to shove the Universe along into a more favorable place for you and your folks, too - and thus your fault if you didn't for whatever reason of weakness or ignorance or "selfishness"...

It inevitably does lead, I suspect, to the sort of mysticism and "heresy" found in Teilhardian theo and Sufiism and Taoism and Amidism and not thinking that The Divine can be worked like a Mafia Don to our own advantage, the kind of radical religious expressions found in Mark Twain's wrestlings with it all, frex. But Formalism is so much easier, for a given value of "easy", and nobody seems to be immune to it anywhere, ever. (Comparative Religion: just like first-hand-sourced History, great for making you realize that everybody has the same disfunctions, with radically different societal styles...I remember the intense feeling of relief and *connectedness* when I read a news article in the Nineties about a fierce doctrinal battle going on in Tibetan Buddhism over whether or not the Just Punishments of Hell ought to be de-emphasized for the Joy of Divine Grace - hey, it's not just us!)

Idries Shah had a great point about it: "When people are doing things they shouldn't be doing in the first place, then want a reward for ceasing to do so." - much like when the privileged want cookies.

Against which there's all that stuff about praying in closets and getting rewarded by the public applause but not getting any spiritual merit for ostentatious Acts of Virtue, which *I* at least remember hearing from the pews, but seem to be honored more in the breach!

There's something rattling around too, about Altar Calls and the repeated and ever-more-dramatic public professions of Sin in the American Evangelical tradition (also poss. British?) but it's not *my* tradition and I don't know enough about it to confidently try to map it onto the Catholic variants of Xtreme Penitentz that I'm familiar with.
yeloson From: yeloson Date: December 7th, 2009 01:59 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes, there's a terrifying science saying,

I tend to think of the mystical practices as preceding the organized religions - for example the various taoist practices predate nearly anything else in China, and then later, we saw organized orders and cults arise.

I think it has mostly to do with the fact that the usual mystical premise, "Change yourself" involves all work and no guarantee or obvious reward, while social groupings where people are looking up to you as holy, giving you money, sex, whatever has clear benefits.

It's the natural human tendency for greed plus magical thinking that creates organized religion out of anything. (For example, given the basic tenets of Buddhism, the idea that there should be orders of monks supported by the lay population? Makes no sense at all.)

It's also easy to make a living telling people what they want to hear:

"Good things happen to you because you earned it and you're blessed by God. Good things happen to THOSE people because the world is corrupt and rewards evil. Bad things happen to you because the world opposes good people. Bad things happen to THOSE people because they deserve it!"

Of course, the basic offer made by organized religion is kind of broken at heart:

"Pay/give status to someone else to show you how to be a better you." - it's like paying someone else to do pushups hoping you'll become healthier in the process...
bellatrys From: bellatrys Date: December 7th, 2009 08:54 am (UTC) (Link)


"Pay/give status to someone else to show you how to be a better you." - it's like paying someone else to do pushups hoping you'll become healthier in the process...

Well, the argument is that it's like hiring a personal trainer or a coach...but yeah, it often turns out like "You do the exercising, we'll reap the benefits!" Clericalism as a division of labor to appease predatory gods makes a certain amount of common sense; Clericalism in an ananda-based religious system becomes ever less theologically justifiable. But then, for all the talk of "joy" and "love" and "inner peace" it usually is a fearful one of old predatory gods, underneath. So you end up with the worst sort of feudalism, an elite supported by the labors and wealth of the "lower" classes and immune from the rules, in the name of "protecting" and "serving" as Spiritual Warriors and Lords Bountiful.

Or you can have the worst of both worlds: not just an an elite who gets away - as in the recently-revisted in light of the Murphy Report case of Bernadette Connolly with even murder, but who at least take on the "burden" of doing all that propitiation stuff, but also a populace who is haunted by the same fears of ritual impurity and impiety that the sacrifices of the priestly classes are supposed to be taking care of, though with no confidence in their own ability to take spiritual care of themselves. It may be an inevitable result of social pressures to justify supporting a Standing Clerical Army, in spite of the questionable theology, the need to convince the majority that yes, Virginia, there ARE armies of demons and that's why you need to subsidize the Watchers' Council and their Slayers resulting in a haunted & miserable populace who find no comfort in the Invisible Rat Catchers' assurances of their ability to whistle away the Invisible Rats - I don't know. It could just be simple human heirarchicalism born of innate authoritarian impulses, fixing on whatever target is at hand regardless of logic, too, combined with that need to feel *some* sort of control over life and the universe and everything.

IMO it comes down to what does more harm - "an it harm none" being a good counteractant against fanaticism of the sort that leads to Jansenism or mandatory atheism (I don't see much difference really) and attempts to purge out folkways in the name of purity and avoidance of superstition.

But the flip side of that is that you *do* have to ask if it's doing harm, and sometimes it is. Sometimes the comfort it gives is that of the barbituate bottle or the heroin syringe, and *damaging* to the one who holds on to it and to others.
bellatrys From: bellatrys Date: December 7th, 2009 09:07 am (UTC) (Link)

Oh, indeed

I only had a few years of Theo, but I have a glancing familiarity with Rudolph Otto - and then it only makes sense, from a purely practical historical perspective, that behaviors wouldn't be codified and systematized *before* the impulses that led to them.

I tend to think of the mystical practices as preceding the organized religions

Yes, I meant merely in the sense of a Personal Journey - those who have been raised in a legalistic faith and after study end up on a more mystical and less exclusionary path often do see it as a Return to a primeval spirituality, free of "accretions" as well as superstition and parochialism. Western efforts by the Establishment to resist this cutting into market share are notorious; but the realization for me that it *was* a Fight About The Stuff like most political battles (ie a political battle!) for all the conflicting dogmas on all sides, was helped along by reading about bloody (if less centrally organized) fights between Asian monasteries which sounded awfully familiar after reading about the purges and splintering and counter-accusations of heresy between orders in the European Middle Ages.

(Unfortunately my knowledge of Asian religious/political history is a lot sketchier and more scattered, and so I don't have a good feel for the extent to which thinkers over the centuries *engaged* with the problem of Clericalism in Buddhism and how that affected ordinary people who just wanted the Comforts of Tradition and the household shrine to help them get on with their lives and let the professionals take care of the high-level mediation and cosmic stuff; the bits I've read in Mencius and other Confucian school theorists remind me of the ancient internal debates over Piety vs Superstition in Magna Graeca which also inevitably start and roll back round to the whole Social Utility of Organized Religion. The pop cultural takes, full of snark and skewering of hypocrisies, in plays and folktales of lecherous monks, false ascetics and other holy hypocrites, those sound *way* familiar after reading medieval European poetry and song lyrics - or Tartuffe.

OTOH, while it's definitely a relief to realize that It's Not Just Us in that it allows for better diagnosis and hopefully, treatment of problems (if you think it's Just Us then, in my experience, a common result is fleeing from failed institution to as-yet-untried-&-thus-not-failed institution in search of the Real Authentic Pure Religion, which never works) as well as a we're-all-in-it-together commonality of humanity - still it's also very disheartening in that it shows that nobody's got a handle on how to deal with it, after all these millennia of trying... "Damn, we ALL have versions of the Prosperity Gospel!? We're all following Empress Fortuna, whether we call her Mother Church or Kwannon or Reason or Nature, the real target of human veneration is & has always been the 'bitch-goddess Success' it seems--"

(Oh, and thanks for reminding me that I forgot the intended epigraph to this post.)
From: violaswamp Date: December 7th, 2009 12:10 am (UTC) (Link)
Your theological posts are always fascinating.

I think we can take our remorse and channel it into benevolent action--but it never makes up for the wrong for which we feel remorse. There is no such thing as "making up for."
bellatrys From: bellatrys Date: December 7th, 2009 12:45 am (UTC) (Link)

I have been told on occasion that I should enter a seminary

of some more - ahem! - universal-tending denomination, of course. I won't say there isn't a certain temptation in it, but - well, for one thing the logistics are as impassable as any other grad school adventure, if for nothing else. And besides I can wreak more havoc as an Independent it's not like there's a scarcity of conflicted and questing clerics today that only I might fill.

There is no such thing as "making up for."

So how do we erase this habit of thinking feeling? Because I've seen it occur, this Transactional or Bribe-Based Justice, between children who were barely old enough for language. Shoot, it's wrapped right up in child-rearing: parents lead children to expect that "good" behavior (that is, behavior the parents favor, even if it isn't always objectively safe, sane, or beneficial to society or the child) will and ought to lead to rewards, and bad (ie disapproved) behavior to punishments, and then of course they go and create massive cognitive dissonance by not holding themselves to their own standards or being inconsistent in applying the rules, just like bad dog trainers do, but the creation of the internal wiring that, frex, a misdeed can be "made up for" by good ones, well, we're in that season aren't we? "Naughty or nice" and the Big Beard in the Sky--!
From: violaswamp Date: December 7th, 2009 03:01 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: I have been told on occasion that I should enter a seminary

I see a distinction between the idea that good (i.e. beneficial) behavior should be rewarded and bad behavior punished (which is an element of the biological instinct for justice) and the idea that bad behavior and its consequences can somehow be erased or washed clean by good behavior.

I think it ought to be fairly easy to make it clear to children that yes, it's good to say sorry when you've hurt someone, and it's good to do nice things for them because you feel bad about hurting them, but that doesn't take away the hurt. If you hit little Timmy with your dump truck, you should apologize, and it's nice if you let him play with the dump truck if he wants to. But he still has the bruise on his head.

But then, I've never raised children, so I don't know if this actually *is* easy to convey.
bellatrys From: bellatrys Date: December 7th, 2009 09:14 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm not sure, because it's so rarely tried - it's something that you'd have to really work very hard to eradicate and to inculcate a *mindfulness* that would stop people from doing acts of impulsive rage and wrong, *before* doing them, because there would be no catharsis in beating yourself up to be had. Guilt aka Remorse as a substitute for Empathy in social control mechanisms has *not* worked very well, judging by our history.
From: anna_wing Date: December 7th, 2009 08:07 am (UTC) (Link)
I suspect that the transactional basis to theism of all kinds, reinforced by the rise of monotheism, is why the insight that created Theravada Buddhism has never really caught on in the West. Epicurus was the only major figure ever to have reached it, as far as I am aware, apart from possibly a little burst from Spinoza (though I find Spinoza rather complex, so possibly I am simply not understanding him properly) a lot later. Both suppressed by monotheism, to which they were utterly antithetical.

Westerners who look to Buddhism mostly go to the prettier and more emotionally acceptable Mahayana schools. Being told that the Way of salvation from sorrow is for you and you alone to walk, that the Buddha does not bless, console, blame, reward, punish, protect or do deals of any kind - that's something that monotheists tend to consider intolerably harsh. Not to mention the doctrine of the non-existence of the self, which is the real deal-killer (sic) for anyone who clings to the idea of personal immortality.
bellatrys From: bellatrys Date: December 7th, 2009 09:20 am (UTC) (Link)

Nobody agreed on what Spinoza was really saying,

when I was in college. (Of course, nobody agreed on what Aristotle had been saying, or Plato, or Thomas, either...) But yeah, abstruse.

OTOH, the sense of a dissolution of self in a union with The Divine is a major and common theme in Western Christian mysticism, so not as entirely alien perhaps as surface appearances.

And (tho' like most things not absolute nor consistently-held) the notion of personal immortality is not accepted by all Jews, despite monotheism, and there's a lot of theological fusion going on between the Jewish and Buddhist traditions these last decades.
nancylebov From: nancylebov Date: December 7th, 2009 09:56 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm not sure whether this is special pleading, but I think the idea that suffering is pleasing to God is an especially strong theme in Catholicism.

It wasn't there in the corpse-like Conservative Judaism I grew up with, and my impression is that Orthodox Judaism is more about navigating a complex system of rules which includes some costs, but making yourself miserable isn't central. It's frequently legitimate to interpret the rules in ways which lower the costs, like setting up a region in a city in which it's allowed to carry things on the Sabbath.

Unitarianism is something like an organized religion, but I'm pretty sure it's explicitly not pro-suffering.

One place where I do see the sacrifice thing in full force is attitudes towards the military. As far as I can tell, we're supposed to believe that the more Americans get killed or crippled, the more we're supposed to respect it.

And there's something fishy in the idea of "serving"-- why is the same word used for what a soldier does and what a congress member does?

As for getting away from the idea that it's necessary and possible to erase one's bad actions, I think part of it is limiting punishment and not treating bad actions as permanent stains on people's souls. People will do a lot to get away from the idea that they're just plain bad. (On the other hand, I seem to be in the middle of a wild fit of self-punishment by procrastination, and I'm trying to figure out whether this theory has anything useful for me.)

I suggest an empirical approach-- who are the people you know who are least prone to using pain to buy off the universe? What do they remember about how they were raised? How are they raising their children (if any)?

bellatrys From: bellatrys Date: December 7th, 2009 12:10 pm (UTC) (Link)

No, I don't think it's special pleading at all

One of the most *interesting* in every sense of the word, including as in "-times", aspects of Christianity (or, possibly more accurately, The Christianities) is how Jewish tradition was, and continues to be, appropriated without any regard for either how Jewish theologians and faithful understood it in the past, *or* how doctrine and practice have continued to develop into the present. There's been a bit of an attempt lately, but it's not anywhere near as widespread as its opposites. So you get on the one hand, Christian conservatives of various denominations going on and on about how XYZ is mandatory because of Leviticus whilst ignoring ABC which are *far* more important in the Talmud, or in other commentaries, or in the local synagogue
and on the other hand atheist liberals going on about how horrible this "Old Testament Christianity" is and talking right over progressive Jews who keep pointing out that, you know, that stuff about feeding the hungry and protecting the widow and orphan from injustice and so on, where do you think it came from in the first place? So yeah.

(Unitarianism was very much a rebellion against the organized religion of the day, and continues so, to the point that most Christians I know and a lot of agnostics refuse to accept it as even being a religion, since there's no fixed dogma or rites or anything. Same with the Quakers, though mostly they get ignored where UUs arouse ire.)

OTOH, in terms of practical living, I'm not sure that guilt and a value on suffering are any less common in Jewish families than in Catholic ones - I hear way too much that sounds familiar in terms of familial guilting and hair-tearing, crazy-making stuff about self-denial that I suspect it's just part of the broader, religion-transcending cultural background. It may just be easier to get away with/harder to get away from, when you can explicitly justify it with a dogma? I've had RL conversations with ex-Baptists about how similar, under the surface differences, the spirituality we were raised with is.

And people feeling like they deserve to be punished and doing (or not doing) things to themselves, *is* a very common thing according to the psyche books I've read over the years. "I don't deserve better" is often going on there. But procrastination can also be about not wanting to admit that you really DON'T WANT to do something, even though you *know* you're "supposed" to want it. Or there can be some really bad association with the process, too. Sorting out which it is isn't easy since we can't just run another lab experiment on ourselves.

People will do a lot to get away from the idea that they're just plain bad

We'll also do a lot to get away from the idea that we're seriously or even terminally ill - "this cough doesn't mean anything" levels of denial among smokers of my acquaintance - or that no, this level of disability is *not* going to get better, this is just something one has to live with and work with from now on. But it's still counterproductive on all counts.

I suggest an empirical approach-- who are the people you know who are least prone to using pain to buy off the universe? What do they remember about how they were raised? How are they raising their children (if any)?

Well, the problem is that it's not something that comes up in casual conversation, usually, except when someone remarks about "offering it up" or "getting time off from Purgatory" which gives it away. Most of the time, you have no idea if that apparently-well-adjusted family is actually given to morbid Transactional spirituality or not. This is where writing is more likely to give insights into ourselves, because it's more likely to be mindful, and also freed of the awkwardness of face-to-face conversation with people you don't know that well or intimately.

Edited at 2009-12-07 12:19 pm (UTC)
From: violaswamp Date: December 7th, 2009 04:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm not sure whether this is special pleading, but I think the idea that suffering is pleasing to God is an especially strong theme in Catholicism.

I agree. There is a strong ascetic tradition in Hinduism, but it's not mandatory or even recommended for most people. And it's not the suffering that is valued--it's the self-discipline.
redrose3125 From: redrose3125 Date: December 7th, 2009 02:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
I tend to think to myself, "offer it up," only when the pain is unavoidable. Frex, I have a head cold with sinus pain right now, and if the ibuprofen doesn't knock the pain out, I might think to myself, "offer it up," but that won't stop me from taking the ibuprofen, or putting hot compresses on it, or trying to relieve the pain somehow. Then again, I come from the liberal end of the RCC, and never really heard people talk about offering up their suffering, or had it suggested to me.
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 7th, 2009 08:24 pm (UTC) (Link)

Official Church teachings

I see that you say various Christian religions teach these things, but could you show me in the official teachings of a mainline Christian religion where these unfortunate teachings are taught? I expect that fringe elements in any church might say such things, but I want to see where it is officially taught.

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