On questioning myths

Reason must resist religion. It’s the pathway to liberation. This is a basic premise of modern rationality. Except, all too often, this principle is used to replace traditional with secular religion. Instead of questioning form – the blind acceptance of just-so stories driving norms and behaviour – we question content, e.g. whatever myths, norms or rituals have been put forward as truthful or important by religious leaders. As if the problem lay not in our relationship to stories and inherited frameworks, but only their origin.

With this comes danger that we fall prey to different myths. At worst, that we join cults and conspiracy theories. More insidiously, that we believe the truth of modern mythologies, engineered in states and corporations. That value derives from the bold initiative of genius entrepreneurs. That Europeans brought civilisation to barbarian shores. And a range of other just-so stories.

Resisting those myths is a needed effort. We need to clear fabricated truths from our brains, through constant attention to facts, and the structure of narratives. Some books provide precious help in doing this. Howard French, David Graeber, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Amitav Ghosh. One step further, we might even apply the form of rational freedom to the content of religion – as enlightened spiritual masters from across traditions encourage us to do.

In a world that pushes unquestioned lies down our ears, maintaining rational thinking demands active resistance. We must make the time and effort. Failing this, we will tumble into folly.

values cards project – spirituality

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: When I hear ‘spirituality’, the first picture that comes to mind is the Virgin of Lourdes in a yoga pose. A bunch of ex-hippies, some sort of new age thing. A mix of tradition, moral education, Kumbaya community. A sort of, Canada Dry, it looks like religion, but it’s not religion.

B: I like that you’re articulate spirituality and religion. Let me try a definition. For me, spirituality is about relating to something greater than yourself. Buddhism, for instance, is a spirituality. Though now it’s also a religion in Japan, with established schools, and distinct symbols, and people who belong to it or not. So, yes, that would be the distinction. Religion is about formal schools, symbols, and a group with clear boundaries. You’re in it or you’re not. But spirituality, it’s looser. I’ve actually seen the word… there is this thing, this website called Kumbini, where you see two words, and you must pick one. One of the pairs that often comes up is religion vs spirituality. Most artists choose spirituality. It’s almost as if religion was an insult.

A: I’ve been associating spirituality with a form of new age commodification. And so, from a religious perspective, a Christian perspective if you want, there’s something sinful about it. It’s fetishism, idolatry. Then there’s this illusion of choice. That when you talk spirituality, you choose a tradition, like you can pick your favourite yoghurt at the supermarket. It’s the opposite with religion, tradition picks you, and then you can accept it, or you can refuse. Even when you convert, it’s about acceptance, rather than a proper choice. Spirituality, it’s not about conversion, it’s, yes, it’s consumerism.

B: Maybe, it’s a bit like, rationalism. Look at France and the cult of republic. It’s not just the cult of established power, there is a certain… ideal. We could call it French Republican monotheism, we replaced the kind with a president-king, and we have an atheistic dogma to replace the dogmatic church. And then there’s the rejection of communities, particularly Muslims, they’re too religious, too different.

A: I’ve always thought an enlightened Catholic is better than a dim atheist. And the question here is, do we fight religion, or dogma, or just stupidity? But there’s another take on this, when we were speaking, I started to think about this thing, the cult of the Holy Spirit, and mad preachers in the Church. They could qualify as ‘spiritual’, quite literally. That’s, those American mega-churches, then? Are they ‘spirituality’, while the more established rituals, they’re religion? And so, then again, maybe that’s the ultimate downfall, when monotheism meets commercial practice. So maybe yes, spirituality does represent an intrinsic corruption of religion?

B: I wonder, what do you think would be spirituality for a rational, atheistic society? I think, when we took political power away from the church in France, we took out the good, and there is nothing really to replace it.

A: Well, there is the cult of common ancestors, the Pantheon and the ‘Great Men’ of the Republic. The unknown soldier. War monuments as landmarks of atheistic, republican spirituality. But there is something, I don’t know, kitsch about this. It’s like those shops in Paris, they called them ‘boutiques de creation’, they were selling arts and craft supplies, beads, ribbons, paper, that kind of stuff. And I always thought, it corrupted the meaning of creation. Trivialised it.

B: For sure, New Age caused more harm than good to spirituality. Because now, we can no longer talk about spirituality without seeming like we’re about to call in a Hare Krishna.

A: Could it be that, if we look again at those American mega-churches, or Pentecost even, there’s a revolutionary potential in spirituality, when it becomes common practice. It can create new communities, almost instantly. But when it’s just an individual practice, then it’s only consumerism.

B: So, could we say that one goal of religion is to establish new norms of exchange, based on a gift economy. And so, when enough people join, that’s very challenging to structures of power. But if it remains a set of disconnected individual practices, then it’s not a problem. So, religion is dangerous to the powers in place, but not spirituality?

A: That may be true. That we’ve limited spirituality to just individualism, and it reduces its subversive potential. While if you can extend it to the community, then it becomes the basis for new forms of solidarity, and it can threaten the power of the state. And for individuals, it’s the end of slavery.

B: I’m thinking now about those religious practices that have a social impact, like Zakat among Muslims. You give 2% of your income either to the poor, or to the mosque. And that’s somehow in addition to tax, but also creates another pool of money, parallel to what the state gets from tax. And here, I don’t know, I think we could say the divine goes before the state, this religious duty trumps tax, and that’s not in the interest of the state. It’s a counter-power.

A: In the same way that the Christian martyrs were resisting the power of the Roman state. And what this shows you, maybe, is that non-violence always wins in the long term. Because it’s just about the refusal to obey. But – that’s the greatest paradox of political philosophy, that La Boetie put forward, why do we do what we’re told? And if people start to refuse obedience, then everything collapses. Power is based on voluntary serfdom. And for that, non-violence is the most threatening strategy. It’s undermining the very basis of power structures. And so, that’s what spirituality can achieve, even maybe for individuals.

On Sabbath

Last year, a couple o friends invited me to join them for a Shabbat lunch in Paris. All details had been set in advance, as they would not pick up the phone that day. The food had been made the day before, and kept warm overnight on a special hot plate. When I came in, there was a shawl over the TV screen, and the table was set, beautifully. My friends were smiling and happy.

We shared a delicious meal together, followed by a song, prayer, and a reading. Then we discussed history, current affairs, literature. We went for a walk to the park, deep in conversation, contemplating ideas, observing people, remembering the past. I escorted them back home, then turned on my mobile phone, jumped into the metro, and returned to my Goy life.

One of the beauties of Judaism, as I’ve seen it practiced and described, is the concrete clarity of the rules guiding daily life. On Shabbat – from nightfall on Friday to nightfall on Saturday – you shall not work. Rules debated over centuries define activities allowed and forbidden. What remains is not a vacuum of boredom or mindless ritual. The day we spent together had books, friendships, reflection, and joy.

I often struggle to rest. The idea of a Sabbath is appealing. But I find the boundaries of my work so fuzzy that I can’t imagine what it would exactly look like. Without the strict rules of a religion, not only guiding me, but also creating collective meaning – I find it difficult. I stayed in bed this morning, leisurely read books for my thesis, exchanged a few messages on Facebook, watched ‘Empire Strikes Back’, and wrote this piece. Next, I’ll be heading to a birthday party. I feel reasonably rested, but not certain this was a proper Sabbath.