Sunday, January 11, 2004

I hope you aren't expecting a well documented and constructed post along the lines of Dave regarding religion and the propensity to violence, but it did start me thinking this morning. It swirled and mixed together with a conversation I had at work Friday about the propensity to violence in the U.S. compared to some other countries. The Friday conversation went like this: I asked: "What was your experience living in Japan?" He answered: "Everything is so well organized. And SAFE! At least when I lived there some years ago, there was no where near as much crime as I was used to here in the U.S.... Except that which we (he was a former Airforce maintenance guy) brought with us and introduced where we were stationed." Me: "I noticed the same thing traveling in Denmark. I could walk home from the bus at night and feel completely safe and it was so freeing!" Him: "Yeah, I wonder what it is about Americans that we have so much violence here." Me: "Yeah, what is it about our culture that allows that? Is it our willingness to allow such a huge degree of noncompliance, that it allows things to get out of control with certain kinds of people?" Him: "It does seem somehow related to our culture here."

I then read Dave's post, and started to wonder if or how religion plays into this. So I went looking on the web for something about the rates of people who attend some sort of church service and find this: "Even though some Americans worship only once a year, weekly church attendance is higher in the United States than in any other nation at a comparable level of development, according to a worldwide study based at the University of Michigan." Japan and Denmark are on the bottom quarter of the list, while the U.S. and several other countries I think of as being rather prone to violence are in the top quartile of church attendance. (wouldn't you love to see this data correlated against the crime per capita data for these countries?) (but then I'd be accused of using statistics out of context to prove a point and I'd be the first to point out that you can't take those two things and draw a conclusion on it's own.) (but still what if?)

So then today I read Dale's post about seeking comfort or challenge when turning to religion/spirituality. Damn I know there's a thread here somewhere connecting it all in my head, but frankly I'm probably afraid to follow it to its conclusion. I'm really such an optimistic person and the sun was out today and everything! but...

a. I tend to subscribe to the idea that many religions have taken on a structure that was designed to control people to non-spiritual ends rather than enhance the followers' connection with something greater than themselves (God if you wish to name it.) I like a lot of what Daniel Quinn's work has to say about this.

b. I also subscribe to the belief that when people don't have some sense of deeper inner connection with something greater than themselves, when people start to believe that they are superior to all other beings, when people start to think their own (including their children's own) fulfillment is of greater importance than any other goal, that they crash into an ocean of discontent attempting to earn and buy their way into happiness -materially - via status - via power over others.

c. At this point I start my internal belief struggle, because I also believe that to reach our potential, each individual has a unique set of values, talents, abilities, and that we need to provide as much freedom as possible to achieve their potential. Why does this create struggle for me? Because if I continue my train of thought in b. to it's conclusions, I would have to propose that some conformity and sublimation of the personal is necessary for the greater good. I get stuck because much of what I'm about in the world is supporting personal freedoms, equities, and individuality at the cost of people's discomfort with the unfamiliar, or fear of the unknown. But I have to question whether this might lead to a certain amount of self-centeredness which contributes to a cultural breakdown.

d. If I examine people who are deeply spiritual, many seem to have found a way to look at life and it's purpose, to follow a set of values about "right action" which stresses caring for our neighbor, caring for the hurt, caring for the poor, compassion, giving. But I do have a problem that so many of these paths seem to require a belief that their path is the only right path. There is a disdain, an arrogance that goes with that belief that I can't stomach. (*small smile arising from the recognition that so many of these religions claim humbleness as a core value*) But I have to go back to a point Dave makes which I agree with - most people need support to follow a spiritual path, most people need teachers, and so then how do you remove the evils of the structure, the temptation to be strict with the guidelines for right action, the need to put "punishments" in place to motivate followers, and yet allow for something consistent in intent and meaning to spread across thousands, millions of people you might wish to help? Is it surprising that religions become corrupt? Is it surprising that religions become controlling? Is it surprising that followers start to blindly follow?

e. Truly people turn to religion for many reasons, and for some there isn't a turning, it's a simple act of being born that way. Do people turn to religion to rationalize the horrible things that happen on the way to living and dying, and thereby find comfort? Or do they turn to religion as a means to perpetuate the violent power-oriented controlling nature of being human? It seems as many people use religion to positive ends as negative. When Dale talks of finding a challenge, is it not a challenge to live more compassionately in the world? This surely does not seem controlling or violent. But so often religion is the rationale for judging others as "less than", which then rationalizes discrimination, hatred, wars, terrorism. Do we blame a pursuit of God for that? If I need comfort in this world exactly because it is so violent, where do I turn? If our culture is soul-less, where do I seek my soul? If Mother Teresa was such a beacon of light, do we condemn her for following a religion that damns those that do not follow the straight and rigid path it prescribes?

I hit the wall right here in my thinking. If I believe we need to feel a connection with some sort of greater being, if I believe in the basic need for humans to have something more than their own self-centered need and want fulfillment to feel happiness, then I end up endorsing religion and thereby judging those who don't follow a path. And if I'm skeptical of organized religions and how they use power to control people and if I hate the presumption they can prescribe the one path to enlightenment, I still have to concede that people also need teachers or at least other people to help them follow a spiritual path, the support of a community, even of only a few, to stay afloat in a culture that more and more stresses the universal importance of the superficial, to the detriment of the soul. I am sure not going to learn about spirituality at Walmart (although I did have a pretty deep spiritual moment at a Walgreen's a few weeks back, but that's another story.) But I'm unwilling to judge those that don't seek something more. If I believe that diversity in being is the key to our success as a species, then I have to throw my supposition about faith out. Or do I? And if structured religions lead to so much harm, do I have to assume they are incapable of helping fill this cultural morass? Is conformity the price we pay for peace? If the Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus hadn't started to emphasize their individual histories, beliefs and cultural practices, would we have the long years of violence in India? If conformity is the antithesis of diversity, the diversity which I believe leads to innovation, creativity, and the ability to maximize a person's potential then is unrealized potential the price for peace? Is there a suicide rate in Japan that counterbalances the lack of crime? Is there a way we can appreciate the differences so much that our diversity doesn't work against us? Is there a way to pursue spirituality without it turning into a power struggle for our allegiance?

We humans as a group seem broken. We're selfish, more and more compelled to violence, expanding our population without control, trying harder and harder to buy happiness and buy escapes, working more and yet producing less that matters. But the cause and effect seem so entwined as to obscure any clear answers for me. What do you think?

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