The Spiritual Self: The Bind of Religion

In The Future of Illusion (1927) Freud argues that humans create the idea of a Divine Father to take the place of a Human Father.  As children, we may see the Father as all-powerful, all knowing and all good.  Growing up, we realize that the Father is vulnerable and makes mistakes. Though disappointed, we cling to the idea that the Father will provide protection.  Freud’s story is like The Wizard of Oz.  The wizard, shaman, priest is behind a curtain, operating technologies of control over the people.  In the film, the dog pulls the curtain back to reveal how the wizard performs his tricks.  Once we see how things really are, we can no longer be held under the spell of illusion.  Freud concludes his essay with the following words:  “We shall tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was benevolent…and time were a moral order in the universe and an afterlife; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.”

            How often do so-called religious leaders beg for money while telling their congregation that the end of the world is near? Does anyone in the pew ever raise their hand and shout with in holy tongues, “ You have uttered a non-sequitor!” Philosophy teaches us to discover how we have been bound and what continues to bind us.  Religion from religare is that which tries us or attempts to fix us in one position.  A tie is a structural element that serves to link other elements together.  A tie is a connection, while a tether is that which controls.  Perhaps the tether can be broken so that one can become authentically spiritual.  Then the value of one’s life can proceed in the process of becoming what one is.

            Clifford Geertz, the American anthropologist trained at Harvard, agues that religion is a cultural system.  His famous definition of religion is “a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”  Geertz reveals the deceptive feature of religion that ties into social structures and psychological processes.  The Roman philosopher, Seneca, who was not trained at Harvard, made the following wise remark:  “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by wise men as false and by rulers as useful… .”  Seneca sees religion as a system of submission.  Religion can be viewed as a discipline of control. 

            Wittgenstein in his “Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough” writes, “we act in this way and then feel satisfied.” Mere satisfaction is only subjective. Religion is reduced to a cultural life style.  For example, even though we do not believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, we act as if they exist and feign this belief for our children.  The ceremonious animal does not over-simplify reality; reality is falsified.  How can something be meaningfully constructed when it rests on a series of mistakes.  How is it that millions continue to believe in rituals and practices when no evidence can be found to validate these beliefs?  How many more will sacrifice their lives and the lives of others, convinced that the hatred they preach is holy, sacred and fully justified?  In Nick Harding’s words from his book How to be a Good Atheist: “ Religion makes statements about the world that are inherently false with its adherents ready to act viciously upon them.”

            The bind of religion results in compliance.  That is the reason why the merely religious make excellent citizens who help to preserve the status quo.  When President George W. Bush states that God told him to invadeIraq, an army of believers followed him into the desert.  Religion is seen as useful because it offers comfort to those who believe.

            The film Contact shows us that being-alone may be the origin of religion. Religion can be seen as the search for the lost Father. Ellie searches the heavens for her lost Father and calls out, “Dad are you there?” The film shows, I think that religion is a return to the relative safety of the womb; the closed technological chamber which in the film is created by Japanese technology and American capital.

            The move from comfort to engaging in savagery is difficult to comprehend.  In the words of Thomas Paine,

Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half of the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it a word of a demon than the word of God.  It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize humanity.

Unamuno’s short story “San Manuel Bueno, Martyr” shows us what is at stake in regards to religion and faith.  Don Manuel was a priest in the smallvillageofValverde de Lucerna.  The villagers love him as if he were a living saint.  Manuel loved the villagers.  He was a good counselor and his actions gave meaning to the people.  The interesting thing about San Manuel is that he did not believe in God.  He was an atheist who did saintly work.  He tells us:

I am put here to give life to the soul of my charges, to make them happy, to make them dream they are immortal—and not to destroy them.  The important thing is that they live sanely in concord with each other, and with the truth, with my truth, they could not live at all.  Let them live.  That is what the church does, it lets them live.  As for true religion, all religions are true as long as they give spiritual life to the people who profess them, as long as they console them for having been born to die.

San Manuel gave meaning to the lives of others.  He argues it is better to believe in something rather than nothing.  Is this faith paradoxical or merely deceptive?  Notice the words chosen by San Manuel—he wants his people to be happy and consoled.  He does not want to tell them the truth.  He preaches eternal life, but knows we are all food for worms.  It is not the case that without believing Manuel believed, but rather, without believing Manuel deceived. 

            Would Unamuno argue with Pope Leo X who declared “It has served us well this myth of Christ… .”    This myth takes its narrative from Greek and Roman mythology. For example, Tammuz, the god of the Phoenicians was born of a virgin; died and rose again after three days.  Of course, Christians will say, “ Yes, but the Christ we believe in is the real one.” While Ramakrishna believes that “all paths lead to the same summit”, the Muslim expects that the summit will be inhabited by Allah, not Jesus, Mary and the John Paul II. Instead of truth and evidence, we have deception.  Religion is like coke zero.  Following Zizek, “we almost literally drink nothing in the guise of something.”

             What do I want? I want the real thing rather than the fake presented as the way, the truth and the life.  Didn’t Mad Max come to realize this point?  Max smiles when he realizes the absurdity of his situation.  He drives a tanker truck filled with sand.  He thinks it is filled with gasoline.  The veil is lifted.  The truth is known.  The sand flows.  The sun keeps on shining.  Max learns the spiritual truth that it is never too late to learn how to live and how to be human.  Max sees past the image and the illusion.  He is in touch with the real that no religion can bind.


About Mark Zlomislic

Philosopher. Writer. Artist. My Studio/Gallery Inscape Fine Art is located in Cambridge, Ontario. Viewing by Appointment Only. Please email:
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2 Responses to The Spiritual Self: The Bind of Religion

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