What is(n’t) Religion?

This may be one of my favorite posts from John Michael Greer in a while (and he has had a few really good ones lately, so that says something). It and the comments have set me thinking. In general, I tend to agree with Greer almost as much as I disagree with him (I’m stubborn, ornery, and peculiar, so that says more about me than Greer). Some of that is temperamental, some of it philosophical. Like Thjis in the comments to this post, though, I think that accepting the sort of model Greer describes here makes it more difficult to accept some of his previous accounts of progress as a religion.

The reason for that is pretty straightforward. If you see in the religious sphere a set of behaviors that developed in response to the the experience of spiritual beings, calling civil practices ‘religious’ because they bear some resemblance to religious ones is a bit suspect. Even if the morphological similarities hold, that doesn’t actually mean that there is an identity of use. While you can say that form follows function, you have to keep in mind that both form and function respond dynamically to use. Think of penguins. While their wings have a clear morphological relationship to those of the albatross, they are also quite distinct, too.

Think of the wings in the context of the whole organism and the picture becomes even clearer. The differences in their wings there appears in relationship to the differences in their bodies. The albatross is lightly built for flight, while the penguin is heavier, thicker, better suited to spending longer periods in cold water.

Civil religions, if Greer is correct, don’t orient themselves toward the theosphere, but to the world of things and ideas alone. Spiritual experience is a context, an environment, not unlike the water into which penguins dive. If you transform the object toward which the organic unity of religious practice is applied, you introduce a profound transformation in its operation. While it may still use the ‘wings’ it developed relating to the theosphere, it will have to adapt them to its new environment. If organic evolution can be taken as a model, we should then expect transformations in the entire structure of it, not just in incidental aspects. As the spiritual elements are diminished, the elements of it directed to human sociality will intensify, something akin to the thickening of the penguin’s body.

All of this presumes, of course, that the morphological similarities between civil and spiritual religions are more than superficial. We can’t lay them out as neatly as an animal specimen and it is possible that superficial similarities in behavior have lead us into false comparisons. Between one bird and another, or between one bird and a bat, perhaps, we might find meaningful enough comparisons but what if the comparison were more akin to that between the birds and the bees? Both fly, but they exploit very different mechanisms to do so. The tired myth that physics can’t explain how bumblebees fly has a grain of truth to it. Bumblebees fly by exploiting different aspects of the atmospheric environment. I’m no physicist so I won’t subject you to my efforts to describe it, but here’s a helpful link to get you started if you care.

Of course, if spiritual religions ‘fly,’ then they ‘fly’ in the theosphere. Can we even say that civil religions fly? This is one of the dangers of a morphological approach–function and form exist in a fluid relationship to each other mediated by use. Use shifts and both form and function shift with it. We can find wings becoming more like fins, for example. While form limits function, it does not entirely determine it. If the ‘civil religion’ has wings that don’t fly, we should be asking why it still has wings at all.

We should also ask if it even has wings. What if spiritual religion and civil religion have little more in common than both being found in association with human sociality? The similarity between the two may reside in a contingent trait that is common to both, but not to the traits that distinguish them. If that were the case there might be nothing properly religious about civil religion, anymore than there is something inherently human in a chicken’s bipedalism.

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One thought on “What is(n’t) Religion?

  1. Pingback: More things between heaven and earth | Disrupt & Repair

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