Religion is weird. It involves doctrines and sets of ideas that, when looked at from outside, just sound bizarre. If you have any doubts about this, just reflect on the fact that the majority of the people in the United States, people who are able to do things like bathe themselves without going batters and cracking their skulls open on purpose, people who can drive and fuck and generally function in a normal way, believe that developing a personal relationship with a corpse on a stick will expiate the bad mojo created by a primeval fruit eating incident. And that’s just the mainstream varieties of Christianity, totally forgetting the large numbers of people who think that they eat said corpses flesh and drink its blood. Sure, it’s all metaphorical (for most), but still, it’s just damned odd.
I would wager that the “weirdness” is what makes religion work. Were I the kind of guy who likes to spew academic jargon at you, I’d throw in some terminology from William James, Jung, or people like that. But I’ll just say that the cognitive dissonance produced by ritual activities helps us jump the “gap” between ourselves and whatever we conceive the Divine to be.
Now, for about two thousand years, the cognitive dissonance was dealt with in a way that doesn’t really help it function. “Faith” was supposed to make the untenable tenable. Folks like Augustine and Aquinas spent a great deal of time trying to justify the mythos rather than simply treating it as the Greeks did, as something to mull over and ponder philosophically. So “religion” came to mean believing whole heartedly in something that one knows, deep down, not to be literally true.
This, I think, causes a divorce between one part of a person’s life and the rest. People who seriously try to follow the literal interpretation of the Bible and its moral injunctions simply don’t live. They remain biologically alive, but the constant tension between the intuitively felt absurdity at the core of their system and reality cannot help but make a person neurotic.
I lived from the time I was eleven until about the age of twenty-two on the Navajo Reservation. It was there that I was introduced to the idea of religion and spirituality not as something you put in a box or that makes you into a prig, but as a way of living and being in the world. In the general view that white people can get introduced to, the rocks and bushes, and every living thing are guides to help you. Messages from the Great Mother Earth. This, I felt, was something I could get with, if not in the indigenous form I was initially exposed to. (I thought this would be disrespectful and more than a little tacky.) Which is how I became Pagan, or rather the short version of that change.
Most people in our society don’t get exposed to this notion of religion as a way of life, or if they do it’s presented by people whose life a sane person wouldn’t want to emulate. So, they hear “religion” and think of an activity that is at best done as a sideline to one’s regular activities.
This is one of our biggest problems, I think. It allows us to foul our own nest, engage in idiocy like the arms race and the War on Some Terrorists, and torture our fellow human beings. We’re disconnected, alienated. Spiritually dead.
The Fundamentalists play on this like Tartini. So any mention of “spiritual death” probably brings up associations with their insidious dogmas. Which is what they want. Anything to keep people from figuring out who pulled the trigger on their soul.