Friday, December 07, 2012

Invocation of the Supernatural

"Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." - Seneca the Younger

I have come to the conclusion that most of religion has always consisted of the invocation of supernatural beings for material benefit. Sophisticated theology was never of interest to the rank and file of believers, but was to those who are, when you get right down to it, so far off the beaten path that they were heretics, or for all intents and purposes, atheists. I disagree with R. Joseph Hoffman when he claims that Spinoza and Einstein were not atheists. Spinoza was considered an atheist by the religious people of Amsterdam, who certainly knew a great deal more of what it means to believe in God than any of the atheist-buts in circulation today. As a former believer I can tell you that the dividing line is not whether you use the word God, but whether you believe you can pray to the thing and expect some sort of result. To be of the faithful, you must be open to the possibility of the miraculous. Close that door, and you have quit the church--all churches, forever. Both Spinoza and Einstein closed that door and locked it shut.

So much ink and invective is spent on the divide between those who believe religion to be true and those who consider it false that almost no attention is paid to Seneca's third party, the rulers. I'm talking about the likes of Karl Rove, Osama Bin Laden, and Vladimir Putin. Rove says in public that he is not fortunate enough to be a man of faith; in private, he calls his base "the crazies"--yet Rove can still play pied piper to that base, and deliver it reliably to you by playing a two note ditty of fags and fetuses. When W. met Putin, he said he knew he could trust him when he saw that he wore a crucifix. But a man who can easily exchange the hammer and sickle with a crucifix does not believe in God, he believes in nothing. And Bin Laden worshipped only himself, and called that Allah. The New Atheists never really concerned themselves with the dreams of the people, until it became clear that those dreams had became weapons in the hands of the rulers.

You might consider the invocation of supernatural beings pointless, given that they don't exist. But politicians invoke God to great material benefit, and it seems to work. They get elected, or gain power in other ways. It's a little bit of magical realism that intrudes upon the mundane. Now here's another bit of magical realism: you know that bit about not taking God's name in vain? I don't think that was about what you said when you hit your thumb with a hammer. I think that when those ancient Hebrews invented the whole damn business, they discovered that their leaders could not help justifiying themselves in the name of God, and this is what those surly, smelly old bastards wandering in from the desert were so upset about when they came up with that particular stricture. This has been going on a long time, long enough to get its own commandment.

Now, why this works has a great deal to do with one of the primary motivations for adherance to religion. Reason and evidence is great, but only if the person you're talking to has made an allegiance to the truth--that is, they are determined to know what's true regardless of whether they like it or not. Not many people have this conviction. This goes beyond science, beyond academic philosophy, and enters into the realm of philosophy as a way of life. Most human beings follow fashion; the loudest voice, the greatest number, the biggest celebrity, the most popular, the most successful, the biggest budget. If you speak for God, you are Oz the Great and Terrible, you speak with a Voice of Thunder, and you are always in fashion. And this applies whether you are a pundit, a politician, or just some idiot trying to shout down your neighbours.

All of which is terrible religion, and would have any self respecting prophet tearing their hair and gnashing their teeth. It's against the rules--their rules, as well as ours. But that's just sophisticated theology, and really, who cares? But it might be interesting to throw this in the face of the next believer who tries to shout at you with a Voice of Thunder.