20. What do I mean by Religion

People famously used to argue that when it comes down to the line, if you’re a soldier taking artillery fire in the bottom of a foxhole, you’ll pray to some higher power to save you. The argument claims that there are no atheists in foxholes.

The implication is that atheism is a kind of fairweather philosophical belief which crumbles when faced with cold hard reality. This is a general form of argument that could be applied to a lot of things, eg “there are no libertarians in hospitals”.

Ultimately there are stated atheists in foxholes. I don’t know if they shout “oh jesus, oh f@k, oh god” when they’re taking fire like I imagine I would, and I don’t know if that implies they’re lying about their (lack of) faith and are actually believers. I think it comes down to a surface level disagreement , and a transcendent-level inherent unapproachable jargon-unsynchronized vagueness. The former is something like: I’m not christian because I don’t go to church and don’t care about the sunday-school children’s version of Christianity. I haven’t studied the theology of the saints enough to know how my internal conceptualization of transcendence meshes with that of the officially stated position of the church, or even if my position aligns more with stated christians that aren’t part of the church, like the Gnostics or Hermeticists or Buddhists)

It’s really hard to tell what even the church means by god, or what a different church might mean, or whether that aligns with my internal ineffable and possibly under-explored conception of the transcendent. I’d call myself atheistic when faced by some kind of academic literalism about the wine literally becoming blood, or about the specifics of isn’t/isn’t/isn’t/is relationship and the conclusions made at Nicaea. I don’t care about how many angels fit on the head of a pin, or how exactly Jesus moved the literal boulder blocking the tomb when he literally stood up exactly how many ever days after dying. Hell as the sunday-school conceptualization was invented by Dante in the 1300s and is no more related to the bible than the Lord of the Rings novels are. The list goes on.

A lot of the christian story really speaks to me, and especially so in terms of really powerful metaphor and conceptualization of the ideal, the importance of the logos, the heroic sacrifice… but evangelical literalism is a huge turn-off, and makes the whole thing seem kooky and exploitative.

But even putting religion-as-such aside: I still have ideals and virtues that I don’t always empirically know to be true but still hold dear and hold above all else in my heart and mind.

Belief in science, and the knowability of the universe is like this. There’s an element of faith in much that we do. Even if I claim that I could go and verify the research done by the physicists, ultimately I do not (and due to lack of mathematical knowledge, cannot), and so I trust what they tell me in a way similar to the trust people place in the priests and monks who’ve studied theology and meditated longer. There are differences, but there are similarities too. Political ideology is like this too. Plenty of people hold the free market as their god (whether or not their idea of it even exists), but wouldn’t call it god.

There’s the ‘common conception’ of what it means to be in a religion, which focuses on dogma, community gatherings, and woo-woo talk about the afterlife. It feels cheap and leaves an unsatisfying taste in the mouth. This is what I’ve been calling the sunday-school version.

There’s a ‘historically accurate’ version of what it meant to be in a religion, which is that it was a way of life, a piece of the community operating system that helped people know what was good and what to do and how the world is. There was no question of “what religion are you?” there was just the way things are, the way we do things here.

And there’s a ‘theosophical’ version, which is trying to get to the bottom of How Things Actually Are, by study and reason. The religion of Meister Eckhart involves questioning and exploration and active pursuit of what’s true and is closer to a kind of metaphysical philosophy than the other versions of religion. It takes a degree of curiosity but I think more people would appreciate some of the transcendental philosophy without the crufty propagandistic trappings of the common conception.

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