The Problem of Religion
If you take Krishna to be a mere cowherd, a man of the world like others, then for you he will be just a cowherd! You too climb only up to that stage….You will have noticed that Uddhava who looked upon Krishna as his Guru benefitted more than Arjuna who looked upon him as a Sakha, a friend. If you have faith that he is God, He will be God to you; if you dismiss Him as a mere man, He takes on that role and becomes useless for you. Search for Him with the heart, not with the eye for externals. The superpower has to be sought in the super-state itself, not in the lower states. Then, if you have the eyes that are fit to see and the wisdom to understand, you will find Him. —Sai Baba
I chose to begin with this quote from Sai Baba for two reasons. First, it can be applied to a superficial western point of view towards religion, an inability or unwillingness to see anything as sacred, which will be discussed in what follows. And second, there is the unsavory fact, evidently supporting the aforementioned cynicism, that the late great Sai Baba, in addition to being worth billions of dollars at his death, was accused repeatedly, by many people around the world, of homosexual misbehavior towards boys and young men—despite his reputation for being not only a saint, but a sat-guru, a manifestation of God on earth, and with a much better-established reputation for performing what are vulgarly referred to as “miracles,” especially with regard to an ability to materialize solid objects out of thin air.
Sai Baba’s case is similar to that of another alleged rascal of a guru, the Baghwan Shree Rajneesh, alias Osho, who also was astronomically wealthy and who pretty certainly got first pick the prettiest young female renunciants at his ashram. In more than one post on my older, more ostensibly spiritual blog I discussed the possibility that a person can be operating at a much higher level of consciousness than the average person, possibly even being “enlightened” (whatever that means), and still be an unrepentant rogue. A monkey, for example, is operating at a higher level of consciousness than a sheep; yet a monkey can be a hell of a lot nastier than a sheep. Another consideration is that Māra, the Buddhist devil, doesn’t dwell in the lowest pit of Hell as Dante’s Devil does, but enjoys heavenly delights in the most refined of the realms of sensuality, in a heaven realm far above this earth. But I am beginning this discussion with a digression right off the bat, which is not so good. So here ends the digression.
As I’ve mentioned before, mainly as a way of setting up a platform for these blog posts, I have set up a channel on the social media site Minds.com. Consequently I am exposed to radical opinions of people who have been driven from the more mainstream Facebook and Twitter for indulgence in ideological wrongthink. Many of the people who subscribe to my channel are apparently neo-Nazis, with at least one member of the Klan and, the last I checked, at least one member of Antifa. Anyway, I see lots of rather radical opinions expressed, which is fine.
One brand of radical opinion which, I assume, is still quite acceptable on Facebook and Twitter, is a brand of atheism which doesn’t merely try to refute theistic religions, or just laugh at them, but which flat-out accuses them of the same sorts of evil which anarchists attribute to government. I have seen comments to the effect that the primary purpose of religion, or even its only purpose, is to control, oppress, and parasitize a gullible population. I do hope that all, or almost all, of the people who read this blog are aware that such commentators are mistaken; yet there really are people who sincerely believe that religion is nothing but a malicious sham, even pure evil, presumably with no exceptions whatsoever.
The way most secularists or anti-religionists operate is to adopt a very cynical and superficial view of religion which is very easily refuted, and then to refute that, considering that their cynical and superficial view of religion is accurate and exhaustive—which of course it is not. Such individuals, who may be very sincere and honest, nevertheless have no idea whatsoever of higher levels of consciousness, or genuine, profound spirituality, or real mysticism; they could not possibly know the mind of an advanced mystic or a genuine saint, and most likely would simply deny their existence, even the very possibility of their existence. They would attribute it all to superstitious misunderstanding of the mundane, or to deliberate fraud, rather than accept the real possibility that they simply don’t “get” that there is a depth to experience of which most people are only subliminally aware. Even most religious people are only subliminally aware of it, but they take its possibility on faith, generally derived ultimately from the teachings of people who may or may not have experienced these deeper states themselves. The denials of genuine spirituality from the secular anti-religionists tend to be like the sincere, vehement denials of the existence of light made by the inhabitants of Wells’s “The Country of the Blind.” There are some really philosophical radical anti-religionists, but not many; and even they are still chained up in Plato’s cave, watching the flickering shadows. Again, most people, including most religious people, simply lack the talent, or wisdom, or whatever, to experience fully and for themselves the exalted states of consciousness referred to in spiritual texts, to come anywhere close to escaping from the cave.
On the other hand, it is true that the original purposes of religion, and even the main purposes of it now, were/are not to help people become wise or good or liberated or enlightened or “saved.” It’s pretty likely that the very first purpose of religion was to explain the universe—people really hate not knowing the answers to basic questions—like, what are the stars, or where did the world come from, or what causes rain, or sickness, or good hunting? Furthermore, once some satisfactory answer to such questions was devised, such as the anger of Goddess So-and-So as the cause of fevers, then people could try to gain some control over the situation, generally by doing whatever the deity in charge of the situation liked. So religion became a ritualized system of pleasing, or bribing, or even extorting, invisible powers for the sake of getting good weather, many healthy sons, victory over enemies, and so forth. A primordial purpose for religion perhaps even more important than giving people some means of grasping the world in which they found themselves, yet a usually unintended purpose, was to keep everyone in a society “on the same page” ideologically, giving a community a single, unifying set of beliefs to bring everyone together into a cooperative “us.” No doubt another early purpose of religion was to help people deal with the frightening mystery of death: Some mythos involving an afterlife or spirit world would certainly be comforting to stone-age people surrounded by dangers, many of them utterly beyond their comprehension. It is common to pretty much all conscious beings that they don’t want to die; and humans are some of the relatively few kinds of beings intelligent enough to know that death is inevitable—hence a desire for some belief in continuation beyond the life of the body.
It was probably not until much later that people developed an idea of living a good life in order to go to some heaven world, or a good rebirth of some kind; possibly the first move in this direction was the martial belief that only brave warriors could attain a state of glory after death. And it wasn’t until much later still that religion developed ideas of true spirituality—escaping from Plato’s cave, releasing oneself from the wheel of birth and death, seeing Absolute Reality, merging with the Spirit of God…. Even now most people have no inkling of these higher stages of religion, and some entire religions, or sects of religions, remain clueless with regard to anything higher than pleasing God in order to get into heaven. One of the shortcomings of many western atheists is that they are mostly or solely acquainted with western Abrahamic religions (which tend to keep their higher levels secret even from most of their own followers), plus maybe some nutty New Age stuff.
The old religious purpose of providing everyone in a culture with a shared world view to bring them together has given way, especially in westernized societies, to a more philosophical and political viewpoint developed over centuries by the blessed white Patriarchy. So now, the ostensible primary purpose of religion, in the west especially, is to help people to be better and happier. Atheistic cynics may sneer at this—but atheists are more likely to sneer in general, which may be a point in favor of the just-mentioned religious purpose of making people better and happier. It is fairly evident to me that people who sincerely try, without fanaticism but with some faith and goodwill, to be honest and generous and caring and “good,” tend to have more peace of mind and to be more successful at being benevolent. My experience with devout Burmese Buddhist people over the years bears this out: although they tend to live at a much lower standard of living, their stoic Buddhist attitude toward life gives them a serenity lacking in most modern westerners. A relatively wise religious philosophy sincerely followed does confer advantages to the follower, even regardless of any hypothetical afterlife.
But largely because of the multiple purposes even of “good” religion, and the plain fact that the primary purpose of it is not the highest attainment of Nirvana or the Beatific Vision, it turns out that there is a certain dilemma regarding religion. There tend to be two kinds: those which are enlightened and so advanced that almost nobody can follow them correctly, and those which are relatively crude and unenlightened which almost anybody can follow—and the first type tends to degenerate into the second, if only because otherwise it would be too advanced and arcane to be popular enough to survive. If enough people do not follow it or at least appreciate it, a religion will die out, regardless of any wisdom it might have. And most people can’t reliably recognize wisdom even if they’re hit over the head with it. So, Darwinian natural selection works upon religions as well as species and just about everything else, and in this case it selects more toward what the average person likes than what actually gets someone liberated or enlightened. The second type of religion may prosper in a society for the same reasons that religion came into being in the first place: it may have very important social and political functions even if it is spiritually bankrupt.
To make matters worse, aside from the very difficult austerity and moral discipline required by some advanced systems like monastic Buddhism, which most people simply aren’t cut out to follow, there is an even greater iron cliff face standing in the way to which I’ve already alluded—namely, the fact that most people cannot even begin to comprehend really advanced spirituality. Even really brilliant intellectuals may remain clueless, as it is not a matter of “figuring out” anything, but of direct mystical experience. I always lose people at this point of the argument, so I will try to explain as clearly as I can.
Let’s speak in terms of western philosophy. According to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, there are two levels of reality—the phenomenon, or the thing as it seems, and the ultimate Thing in Itself, the thing as it really is. In Buddhism this would be expressed as the dichotomy of conventional truth and ultimate truth. Going with Plato’s simile of the cave, it would be illustrated as the flickering shadows on the cave wall and the sunlit world outside. In scientific terms we would say that our phenomenal world is really a complex system of symbols generated by our nervous system as a way of interpreting a truly inconceivable outside world—all we can know of the world is what our brain symbolizes for us. It is indirect interpretation, not direct awareness. Kant went so far as to insist that we can never know anything as it really is, and that no matter how far scientific empiricism advances, we humans will never get one iota closer to knowing an ultimate Thing in Itself, for the plain reason that everything we think we know is symbolized, and reality just is not symbolic. It may very well be that the symbols generated in our perceiving mind correlate in some reliable way with what is out there in the supposed “outside world,” and in fact modern scientific realism is based upon this assumption; but we can’t do any better than to suppose this. We can never know for sure.
But Kant was wrong in his assertion that nobody could possibly know an ultimate Thing in Itself: there is one Thing in Itself to which everyone has direct access, and that is the direct experience of consciousness itself. And thus what mystics have been practicing for thousands of years, often without realizing it intellectually, is a non-symbolic awareness of “their own” consciousness. In Buddhist yogic practice this is called jhāna; and in the contemplative traditions of Roman Catholic monasticism, of which even most Roman Catholics are totally oblivious, it is called high contemplation. After a lifetime of perceiving everything in symbolized form, experiencing Ultimate Reality directly can be an utterly profound, life-changing experience. Some people even try to make sense of it afterwards as having temporarily merged with the Spirit of God. Many ordinary people are blessed with some brief inkling of this kind of mystical state at some time in their life, but fewer are able to cultivate it, and very, very few are really able to master it. And practically by definition it is utterly inconceivable to the thinking mind. Hence the incomprehension and occasional derision of non-mystics. And most people aren’t mystics.
The reactionary, more-or-less fascistic philosopher Rene Guenon considered the achievement of such advanced spiritual states to be of crucial importance for the spirit of a civilization, and so he was very concerned with a return to some form of society that fostered it. He believed—and I happen to concur with him on this—that the best or even only way of ensuring that a society’s religion embraced really advanced spirituality, which would then have profound positive effects on society through a kind of “trickle down” effect, was by deliberately dividing religion into two levels: that of the masses of spiritual commoners, and a higher, “initiatory” level of a kind of spiritual elite. This is how many religions have existed in the past; and is in fact how Buddhism and the older forms of Christianity were designed. One of the fatal changes of western modernity in Guenon’s view, and I may concur with him on this too, was the advent of Protestantism, one of the first moves of which was to abolish monasticism and radical renunciation, along with the most advanced spiritual practices, in the name of equality and each person’s privilege of dealing with God on a one-on-one basis, without an ecclesiastical middleman. Guenon actually insisted that without this spiritual aristocracy or elite, this “initiatory” level reaching toward the Absolute and supported by society at large, true religion was impossible. Equality and everyone’s working out their own salvation, or not, is something I have no problem with, incidentally; but abolishing the highest levels of religion out of a Procrustean sense of equality, or just ignorance of the very possibility of those highest levels, was a grave mistake, and one that makes the job of modern cynical atheists much easier.
I offer one last consideration: It seems that a spiritual Renaissance, or at least a religious one, is beginning to occur all over the world, as people turn away from secular globalism and turn back to their cultural roots—in a great paradigm shift which has the promoters of the New World Order in a state of growing desperation. So it may very well be that western civilization, among others, will return to religion as global secularism exhibits the tragic results of its shallowness and moral relativism to the world. Consequently, this is a golden opportunity for entire populations to turn not only to some crude religion as a cultural unifying force, but to a real sense of divinity and wisdom, or at least some respect for it. But for Guenon’s spiritual ideal to be realized, and for the first type of religion to be supported by the second in a genuine wisdom culture, western egalitarianism (let alone cultural Marxist equity) may have to take a hit. We may have to return to a very conservative world for that to happen, or perhaps a new reformation of the old Reformation. Or maybe a whole new religion is ripe for entering this world, maybe led by some charismatic guru or messiah. That could be damned interesting.