Not all religions are created equal. In past articles I have argued that religion can be a powerful force for the transformation of humans, both individually and collectively. This is not to say that religion is necessarily and always a tool for the improvement of the human species. Religion in many times and places has been anything but helpful. For example; the Roman Catholic Church in the medieval period deliberately suppressed new knowledge, oddly enough, in favour of pagan Greek philosophers.
The worst excesses of religion are most often found when religion becomes enmeshed with the ruling powers of the day and chooses to support the ideology of the ruling class. While religion is a useful pathway to transcendence, it makes a very poor force for effective government.
The reason that religion is a poor force for government is that their goals are different. Religion, for the most part, has the goal of creating or strengthening relationship with “God” however that is defined. There are secondary goals of transcending human frailties and advocating for a certain morality, often justice for the poor and marginalized. Tertiary goals include the continued existence and administration of the religion itself.
Government is primarily concerned with keeping order to allow its citizens to go about their lives mostly unaffected by negative forces. Taxes are collected and spent to create a greater or lesser amount of social safety net and to regulate forces that might be damaging to the community. When religion becomes government it flips the priorities of religion and continued existence becomes the primary goal. This flip means that the poor become even more marginalized and relationships are increasingly fractured.
The present day sees much of the world living in a secular society unconstrained by any one religion. Laws are set by the prevailing government within the context of global understanding of ethics and rights. Most of the people in modern industrial nations would say that they do not live in a religiously run nation.
Most of them would be wrong.
There are powerful ideologies acting on both nations and individuals that are in everything but name, religions. We are taught from an early age that, in spite of anything you might hear to the contrary, you must buy happiness. Commercials start targeting children as young as two and continue until we die; even after we die, if you look at the sale of life insurance. Our entire existence is centered on what we own and what we want to own. The motivators for us to buy stuff are the promise of happiness or the guilt of not doing our part. Both of these motivators are common to religious thinking.
Studies on happiness show that after our basic needs have been met that income is irrelevant to our sense of wellbeing. Still we are told we must strive to earn more money because it will make us happier. The message of consumerism is directly opposed to what actually will make us happy, but we believe it anyway. It is a matter of faith. If we follow the tenets of the religions closely enough perhaps this beer, this car, this trip will save us.
The guilt is the corollary of the happiness. If we don’t buy our children the right clothes, then they will be laughed at. If we don’t get them the most modern technology they will fail at school. We have to give them vitamins to replace the vegetables they refuse to eat because they aren’t as cool as sugar coated cereal. We spend so much time earning the money to feed our addiction that we neglect our children, so we buy them more stuff to compensate. Again the emphasis on guilt has a religious aspect. We are told that children want stuff, and assuaging our guilt is as simple as taking them to McDonalds. It is atonement and penitence, consumerist style; and like the attempt to buy happiness, it is contrary to the reality of what children really need, which is present and involved parents.
This consumer message is flipped at the government level. Individuals must be free to spend as much money as possible in the marketplace, so higher taxes are anathema. Government regulations are also in the way of unlimited consumer spending so shrinking government becomes a goal. The belief is that with the minimum amount of government and lowest taxes that the economy will work to make everyone rich. People continue to try to sell this concept in austerity budgets even though experts say that it is exactly the wrong thing to do.
Government are producing austerity budgets and cutting taxes like someone running desperately from one faith healer to another trying to find the one that will cure them. The problem is that this faith will destroy us all, well not all, there are some who are doing very well with the economy working the way it is. The high priests of consumerism are getting fatter.
If we are going to put religion under the ethical microscope we need to ask whether this particular religion is going to offer good to the largest number of people. This consumerist faith only benefits a few very rich people at the top of the pile. The rest of the people are left with piles of junk that can’t bring happiness and a world that is starting to unravel. Consumerism is unethical in that it is built on a lie and continues to tell lie after lie to cover up the reality. Everybody on the planet, with the possible exception of the very few ultra-rich would be happier, healthier and safer if we simply started saying “enough” and concentrating on being happy rather than trying to buy it.
So how do we move past the short-lived ecstasy of buying the newest desire of our heart? The answer is to move away from consumerism and find more authentic ways of giving meaning to life. Religion has for centuries preached the movement away from worldly possessions, but for many people the message is old and tired, and more importantly, does not connect with their understanding of life.
Jonathon Haidt and Alain de Botton both talk about the importance of transcendence in a non-religious context. They argue that it is not only possible, but necessary for humans to rediscover the transcendent for us to move forward. The transcendent is what lifts us above the selfish, survival centered being to be able to have compassion for others and be concerned for the global community. Haidt refers to this transcendent experience as entering the sacred mind. He suggests that large crowds, music and art, and some geographic locations have the possibility of opening the door to the sacred mind.
I would suggest that it will be possible at some time in the future to artificially produce this experience through technology. Stanley Koren’s “God Helmet” used by Michael Persinger to produce religious experiences was a first attempt. There was much controversy surrounding the helmet and some good stories that came out of it. Richard Dawkins tried it out and failed to find God. The difficulty with the God Helmet is that it attempts to activate a “god spot” in the brain, but research suggests that religious experience is a complex occurrence that uses many different areas of the brain. This is the prime argument of Mario Beauregard in The Spiritual Brain.
As external stimulation of the brain to aid in learning improves, I think that we will also learn to stimulate more complex responses from the brain, including possibly a way to create the experience of Haidt’s sacred mind on demand. Given his claims for the sacred mind, it would be beneficial to have a way for people to experience it without needing to claim a religion or religious belief. It isn’t that religion doesn’t work, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Having a way to stimulate selflessness and compassion would lead to people being able to cooperate more effectively and use diversity as a positive contribution to the health of the species. Ethically we can’t force people to experience transcendence but if the possibility is there a few will want to try it, either to improve themselves, or just for the new ‘high’. Even if only a small fraction of people are able to change their perception of what is truly of significance in the world it will produce a global change.
World religions will continue to offer enlightenment to people who desire the spiritual growth that is possible through religious discipline. Yet religion is being increasingly marginalized as people sell themselves to fulfill the tenets of consumerism. The ultimate irony may be that the most effective response to the secular gods of our time may not be classic religion but sacred machines built to try to prove or disprove the existence of God.
Alex McGilvery is currently living in Flin Flon, Manitoba, Canada. He is an author and serves as the minister of a thriving United Church congregation.