One of the great personal clichés of our time is “I’m spiritual, not religious”. In that vein, “I hate organized religion” would come a close second, with “religion is responsible for all evil, war, and destruction” a clear winner for the “World’s Most Trite Dinner-party Observation” award. All to say, if there were no religion, we would be ok.We would also not be human, and we would be without one of our primary technologies of survival.
Before you reach for your Dawkins, let me explain. I am not talking about the existence or non-existence of big or little “G” god or gods. I am saying that religion is as fundamentally human as homo sapiens sapiens. The wise man knows that with or without God or gods, religion persists as a crucial technology whereby human society evolves and regulates itself.
The word religion was transplanted into English from the Latin language during the medieval period. The original Latin word is religio. There are two hypotheses for the etymology of this word. Each hypothesis assumes derivation of the word from two different verbal roots. The first, promoted by Cicero, carries with it the idea of being locked into scrupulous observation of “rites”. The second, promoted by writers of Late Antiquity (mostly early Christian), carries with it the idea of being “bound” to something divine or sacred. The word and its use in common language pre-date both of the ancient hypotheses. Whichever etymological hypothesis one privileges, the evidence suggests that religio connotes adherence to a pattern of rules that relate to the fear of and/or reverence to the divine.
When the word first appeared among English users during the Middle Ages, it was used almost exclusively in reference to the Christian context and, thus, was directly linked to codes of conduct and behaviours associated with worship of the Christian God. We use the word religion much in the same way today, but with the complication that we may or may not be relating it to belief in or fear of God or gods, or anything supernatural at all. This latter use of religion rose in popularity during the nineteenth century, particularly in the realm of psychoanalysis. We can use the word religion to refer to “an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group” that likewise requires or results in adherence to a pattern of rules governing behaviour. The twentieth-century German sociologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm observed that “every neurosis is a private form of religion”, reversing Sigmund Freud’s earlier assertion that religion is an expression of human neuroses (The Sane Society, Psychoanalysis and Religion). Ultimately, the religious are those who follow rules … religiously, whatever their object.
Twenty-first century anthropologists are beginning to argue that “the urge to worship sparked civilization”. The majority of anthropologists have long agreed that human settlement and agriculture came about roughly at the same time and that the one encouraged the other. According to the so-called Neolithic Revolution narrative, religion always came afterwards in the human cultural timeline. Göbekli Tepe, a ceremonial site in Turkey first discovered in 1963, has challenged this accepted sequence. The complex, which includes intricately carved standing stones and temple-like structures, is older than any other in the human record. Archeologists believe that it was developed and constructed by foragers. Experts think Göbekli Tepe is an example of how religion not only expressed a desire for mastery over the environment, but fomented the behaviours and skills that led directly to that mastery. Moreover, religion came before gods. In other words, religion is a key technology of the civilizing process.
Although we may be inclined to forget, we are the continuation of the journey our ancestors began when they took one last swing out of the tree and started waltzing in the wheat fields. We continue to elaborate and refine the rules, rites, and rituals that make us human. All to say, we may or may not be spiritual, but we are religious.
I believe that we are living in one of the most religious eras of human history. Although “God” may be dead-ish, the god of wealth, the god of eternal youth, and the god of eternal life are alive and well. And with every rule, rite, and ritual we can muster, we’re trying to stay on their good sides. Much as we claim to detest it, we continue to use the technology of religion to effect mastery over our destinies.
Whenever I check in with social media outlets like Facebook, I am blown away by the unabashed fundamentalism that makes up the majority of my “news feed”. Even Savonarola would blush. Who needs pulpits, priests, bonfires and God Squads when people everywhere are preaching cataclysm and conformity based on their chosen neurosis of the day? Normally I wouldn’t open the door to a goose-stepping, black-clad peddler of doom, yet somehow I have allowed the minions of various cults to invade my life on a daily basis. Their admonitory memes (they can’t really be called gospels) usually fit into a limited number of genres, and do the rounds in a fairly predictable, pervasive liturgical cycle. When not offering “the truth” about how things really are, these high-priests offer ways out by prescribing patterns of behaviour and modes of thought, which, if followed exactly, will lead to the desired outcome.
My personal favourite is the Morality Cult of Disease. You know. The one where if you drink what I tell you, eat what I tell you, think what I tell you, and do a bunch of counter-clockwise dances around a garden troll wearing red pants (and holding a little red umbrella) you will never get sick again. If you do get sick, you brought it on yourself. Of course there’s no such thing as being sick anyway, it’s all in your head. You should have listened to me when you had the chance! Confess your sins! We caught you eating industrial chicken wings at the bar last Tuesday. The same INDUSTRY that CREATED the DISEASE! The same industry WITHHOLDING the CURE! The same industry SELLING you the PILLS to make you even sicker! Their distributor-DOCTORS are priests of SATAN! YOU WILL DIE! Be like me! Be eternally undying! Follow my people to freedom!
Eternal reward if you send this article to 100 of your friends in the next 10 minutes. If not, you will die. Except for all the vegans and yogis, of course! As an alternative, place a rock-hard erection in a crop circle and wait for aliens.
Jen Reid is an academic and writer living globally. Read all of her posts here.