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On the Intrinsic Subjectivity of Religion

What the heck, a blog post, because Twitter is a pants medium for something this nuanced. (Don’t worry about the lack of meaningful context, I’m just not going to put these 2500 words on Twitter.) And I didn’t make it to church today so I might as well pontificate instead.

A starting-out note: I saw an article on a study a while back that showed distributions of religiosity in populations. Neurotypical people have a distribution that’s roughly even: each quintile had about a fifth of the population. Autistics, on the other hand, showed a distinct parabolic curve – low population in the middle, indifferent quintile, high populations among atheists and the strongly religious. I do not know how much of my process will be useful or even comprehensible to allistics; of the people who have gotten the stripped-down and idealized version, the ones who have explicitly told me they found it useful have been people I suspect of some form of neuroatypicality.

(The stripped-down and idealized version of the religious selection process goes like this. First pass selection: find what makes you a better person. From those choices: find what makes you a happier person. From those choices: select the most beautiful. A note: all of these are necessarily subjective evaluations.)

This is a post about effective seeking for religious structure from the perspective of someone whose early religious upbringing did not provide it. I can’t speak to finding satisfying religious experience from upbringing, personally; I can imagine versions of myself that might have done so, but that is not the actuality. (I can imagine myself having been largely satisfied with a Jewish, Hindu, Shinto, or Vodou upbringing, none of which are common cradle religions for my ethnic background.)

And I’m putting in a cut if I can remember how. Many long.

And from there, a lot depends on personal experience. I have, from childhood, memories of spiritualized experiences, of feeling something immaterial and Other in various circumstances, including, as it happens, in the church I attended. I also perceived those experiences as having different characters – one might metaphorise them as having different temperatures, different colors, different scents, though this is all, again, a matter of symbolic interpretation.

And “spiritualized experience” is not a universally accessible experience in part due to interpretation. I was once in a conversation (back in the days when the death of usenet was merely predicted) with an atheist, who did a beautiful and evocative description of an experience she had had. It was, to me, an excellent description of what a spiritualized experience felt like; it was to her a proof of a naturalistic lack of space for spiritualized experiences to exist. I am not sure that that gap is a bridgeable one; the same experience can be interpreted in mutually exclusive ways, and I do not know how much that is volitional.

Given the existence of events that can be interpreted as spiritualized experiences, then, and the option to do so, there follows the possibility of seeking them, evaluating them, categorizing them one way or another. In the Methodist church of my childhood, I felt a numinous reality around the process of hymn-singing, reliable and present, but the sensation was distant and impersonal. I could imagine that it was pleased enough that I was there, but it did not seem that it would miss me if I was not, or care particularly about my individual self. I looked at the other people around me, and thought I saw in their expressions that they got more from the experience than I did, that it was more intimate and loving to them, that they felt that it mattered that they, personally, were there.

I was a theistic agnostic before my age hit double digits – I knew with the certainty allowed by my own subjective experience that the numinous was a reality, but what it was and whether it gave a shit about me was unknown to me.

I’ve met people who had spiritualized experiences in a variety of contexts: interacting with the natural world in some way, gardening or the power in thunderstorms or the infinite velvet depths of the night sky or hugging trees or what have you; interacting with other people, individually or en masse, in the group mind induced by a rock concert or a baseball game, in the laughter of a child, in sex; in achievement and striving, in running, hiking, creating. The numinous is, in my experience and from talking to people who meet it, not picky about where it can manifest, but different people might have different places where it is easy to find.

But if one finds an indwelling sense of wonderment and awe as part of an experience, then that is a thing. And if seeking out that experience brings one into contact with that same numinous sensation, over and over again, then that is a thing. Even if the other people there don’t share that personal intimate and subjective phenomenon.

And one of the things that religion can do is offer up names. Things to call the rain and the madness of crowds and the space between stars in an attempt to point at that subjective and occasionally weirding numinous inner experience thereof, to ask other people the question, “Did you feel that too?”

(And I think of the time I went to a VNV Nation concert and stood, shivering, in the back of the warehouse crowd, as the thrumming beat of “Darkangel” seemed to me to summon up something potent and dangerous that only wanted to share the moment with us and, perhaps, dance. I saw a friend who had also been there a few weeks afterwards, and I asked him, “DID SOMETHING SHOW UP?” and he went wide-eyed and awestruck.)

But of course that skips a loop – “Did you feel that too?” not only presumes multiple people having the experience of “that”, but that it was the same “that”. The night sky might be one person’s Lovecraftian pit of the incomprehensible, and another person’s forgiving and predictable infinite, and if they do not get specific about their numinous experience there Hilarity Ensues.

All of which is to explain why I, personally, came at things from a framework where I wanted religion. It doesn’t cover what fits, the process of discerning.

It gives a framework for having a set of spiritualized experiences, some of which seemed to me to have personified traits, but not any sense of system or what to do about that.

And I’m going to hang a footnote here. Because there’s something I’m going to come back to. Watch this space. *

Another interesting experience: watching someone (again, on usenet) convert to Judaism without changing her atheism. She commented, several times, that adherence to the rituals was thought to create space for belief over time, but also said that if that did not happen, that wasn’t the important part. The inner discipline of the ritual worked for her in the way the other things hadn’t.

Which is, I think, a key thing, in this rambly narrative. In my questing time I wandered through a lot of things with a lot of different practice-sets. Part of what I was looking for was something that felt true – that had moral understandings and obligations and relationships to the numinous that were in accord with my experiential reckoning. Again, starting from subjectivity. But I kept finding things that seemed more true than what I’d found before, and trying them, and finding that the actual ritual practices made me feel ridiculous.

Questing for the numinous is, in my experience, very ineffective when one feels completely foolish doing it.

When I started out Kemetic, one of the things I said was, “Well, I’ll try this ritual and see how silly I feel afterwards.” And I did it, and I felt… calm, centered, serene. More functional, more capable.

Oh.

And presumably some of the rituals I had tried before, they worked for other people, they achieved useful ends with them, they didn’t feel ludicrous doing them. My own fussy ritualism is not right for others. These tools are different technologies and they solve different problems for different people.

But this is one of the things ritual deals with – the symbolic processes that get inside each person’s head are going to be different. And some of those processes can be gotten at from a social sciences viewpoint. Consider this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“Even semantics have conspired to make that which is black seem ugly and degrading. In Roget’s Thesaurus there are 120 synonyms for blackness and at least sixty of them are offensive, as for example, blot, soot, grim, devil and foul. And there are some 134 synonyms for whiteness and all are favorable, expressed in such words as purity, cleanliness, chastity and innocence. A white lie is better than a black lie. The most degenerate member of a family is a “black sheep.” Ossie Davis has suggested that maybe the English language should be reconstructed so that teachers will not be forced to teach the Negro child sixty ways to despise himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of inferiority, and the white child 134 ways to adore himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of superiority.”

A symbolic structure that riffs “black and white” is going to have different meanings, and different accessibilities, than one that riffs other colors. And if that seems far-fetched, consider some of the scope of consequences of the concept of the racialized versions of “The Curse of Ham” in the justification of slavery, or the association of the Satanic with blackness/darkness. A religious symbol-set that depends on that particular dichotomy will not produce the same cognitive results in people socially characterized by “blackness” as it will in people characterized by “whiteness”.

Symbolic processing goes deep into the brain – a lot of core stuff runs on it, and metaphor is one of the building blocks of cognition – but the results are inconsistent, never mind what one can read in all those dream diaries that say What This Symbol Must Mean. Religions are structured symbolic systems that try to place the symbols into arrangements that produce more or less consistent results – some do more of this than others. Religious witchcraft traditions try to bounce out people who aren’t already more or less aligned with the symbolsets in question; convert-seeking religions have a habit of reinterpreting local symbols to improve accessibility. Many options for dealing with symbolic processing.

Of course, with all this symbolic processing, there’s the question of what the heavy lifting is being done for. The answers to this are, as far as I can tell, primarily relational: producing functional people, functional communities, functional interactions with the environment (cosmic and otherwise). The governing ethos of a religious structure will encourage certain behaviors, discourage others, and promote a particular way of looking at the world.

And some religions will promote attitudes that are good for some people and terrible for others. Someone seeking to convert somewhere who already has a passive-aggressive self-martyrdom problem might become truly a horrible human being when exposed to one of the branches of Christianity that rides high on martyrdom and persecution, but might balance out to be a pleasant and functional human being when attempting to adhere to an ethos that focuses on developing an inner core of personal responsibility. Meanwhile, an egotistical asshole can escalate into a self-absorbed entitled catastrophe when encouraged by power-of-self religion, but might be tempered by a religion emphasizing service to others.

(Part of the problem is of course that many people seeking conversion look for things that reinforce their comfortable flaws rather than challenge and invert them. But this is basically why I start with “what makes you a better person” rather than “what makes you happy” in the narrowing process.)

Nothing about any of these processes produces something that has objective status, that is “factual”. Everything – from the presence of spiritual experience, the interpretation and identification of the spiritual experience, the efficacy of the ritual, the interpretation of the symbols, the selection of the ethos, the practicalities of practice – all of it is necessarily individualized.

Some kinds of religion, which embrace a variety of interpretations, paths, or cults, can include sufficient variety within a core ethos to support a full population – whether with a core set of practice and individual devotions or ritual practices or mystery orders to handle the range of specific needs. Others don’t, and people have to look elsewhere, either going to multiple religions or bouncing out entirely to find things that suit what they’re looking for in the world.

But, again, subjectivity reigns there too. And there is no factual basis on which one can say “which ritual is the right ritual to do”, “which god is the right god to worship”, “which ethos is the right ethos”. All of these depend on what one’s trying to achieve, what sort of relationship one is building with the cosmos, what supports community and functionality and health and what does not. **

Find the ethos that moderates your flaws and encourages your virtues, the rituals that uplift and sustain you, and the symbols that bring you joy. That’s all. That’s the closest you’re going to get to facts: “This makes me a better person, better able to take care of myself and others, a more effective presence in the world. This set of practices and relationships provide me with support. This is beautiful.”

* Now that footnote: one set of consistent numinous experiences I had involved what can be footnoted as “storm god”. When I wound up Kemetic, I wanted to know if that sense was Set, and I demanded an answer there; and of course it always had been. But, at the same time, had I wound up on a different course, it would always have been someone else. (And in fact I honor two storm gods in my practice, one of whom has the personal connotation of being The Road Not Chosen, Which Has Made All The Difference.) Being keenly aware of this makes the pretense that objectivity is possible ridiculous to me; everything depends on a standpoint in the end.

** Another footnote: I know a lot of people are Really Concerned with what happens when they’re dead, and I… genuinely can’t speak to that, even though I’ve written an entire fucking book on the Egyptian afterlife. It’s just not a question that’s interesting to me, and I can’t bring myself to consider it terribly relevant compared to the entire question of how to conduct a life. This notion of personal afterlife accomplishments as being the experimental result for living is a Bad Idea and I do not approve of it, also.

6 comments to On the Intrinsic Subjectivity of Religion

  • wyfwolf

    Note to self: turn this into something less blitheringly incoherent and put in in the pages sometime.

  • Crowess

    I’m mostly building off of something that I think you’re addressing in the spirit of rhetorically nuancing your points here (which, THANK YOU), but I would think that factual objectivity and some one true fact of faith, reality, and self are really rather less useful than a–and forgive the jargony word–polysemous experience of yourself, the spiritual, and the world, in general. Something means many different things, simultaneously and without contradicting the others. And you can have events that are literal and symbolic or metaphoric. I think we were told that we should WANT factual objectivity and some one true fact of faith, spiritual truth, whatever, or we may want that because then we don’t have to work much.

    Otherwise, given that movement you describe seems ultimately aesthetic–with a full acknowledgement that such a description doesn’t diminish anything about its significance or transformative power–our search for ritual, religious, and magical practice will necessarily be subjective and probably entail us finding vectors to embed ourselves into that expression of the world while doing our best to also simultaneously embody that reality in our lives. And the result has to have transformative consequences in our lives, our world, and more, or else it’s just a hobby or “merely” an aesthetic.

    Which are, I think, all things you said. And regarding **, there’s a reason why I think folks need to have some experience that cinches for them that there’s more than after now, but the trick is in figuring out how to live and thrive best here so you can also live and thrive best later.

    • wyfwolf

      I feel that the whole “factual objectivity” thing is a legacy of what a friend delicately refers to as “poor insecurity management”.

      Well, it’s not helped by Christianity’s historical habit of saying, “But our miraculous shit actually happened and let me tell you about a Friday in spring in roughly the year 30, okay, so where does that leave your phony made-up mythologies, huh? Our shit is the real deal!”

      But you get that heavy emphasis on factuality in religion kicking in in response to the development of modern science and the industrial revolution. (Stuff I get really clear on wallowing in movement history.) And so there’s that aspect of it that’s dealing with the disenchantment phenomenon by bullheadedly going “We will RE-ENCHANT THE THING BY INSISTING THAT MYTHOLOGY IS SUPPOSED TO BE HISTORICAL FACT, ALL THE WAY DOWN, LIKE THE TURTLES.”

      And of course the bias of modern society towards rationality-superior, objectivity-superior, the denial of the importance of inner life, all of that ugh, only layers over top of this, and you wind up with waves of people who can’t sort out that there isn’t an intrinsic god-of-the-gapsness to religion and religious practice such that it is required to come up with some sort of factuality involved.

      I tend to feel that reclaiming a religious life is reclaiming the validity, the importance of interior and subjective experience. I get frustrated by the idea that facts are even relevant to this question. It’s all disputable; the question is what do you do with things for which there aren’t these bloody answer things that can actually be made.

      I could claim it’s a fact that I’m performing ritual or praying to this god, that god, or the other god, but someone could argue that instead it’s so-and-so else in a funny mask, and that asshole Christian over there will claim it’s all demons, and someone else will argue from delusionality, and someone else will emit bafflegab about Jung, and none of that shit actually matters. Still a hard agnostic: I don’t know and you don’t either, getting hung up on knowing gets in the way. Do the tools work? Are the relationships sound, even if they’re with things that may not actually be there? Knowing is like trying. Do or do not.

      • Crowess

        Well, the objectivity component is also a control system–the political side of religion–intended to guide experience of the affective or numinous towards politically-acceptable ends. No surprise there. But it’s why mysticism and magic and actual experience of the Stuff has always been derided and denigrated by official culture and its religious apparatus and authorities. The emergence of materialism and modern capitalism relates to all this, too, as One Reality is ultimately a path to a Dead Reality with no meaning other than the immediately obvious, and for most folks, the physical is the immediately obvious. It’s also good for de-personing the world, humans, and more for commodification and abuse.

        Otherwise, yeah, there is also something to be said for doing it and then trying to understand it.

        Also…in regards to “reclaiming the validity, the importance of interior and subjective experience. I get frustrated by the idea that facts are even relevant to this question.”–I really would point you to diving into Rune Soup as you have the time and energy to do so. RS tends to be practical enchantment over explicit religiosity, but I feel like it’s generally compatible.

        Finally, yeah, we could argue about funny masks and shit like that, or we can treat spirits and gods as individual persons like I would human persons I meet. “Oh, that’s not Kevin–you can tell it’s Jacob. They’re both white with ginger hair, after all. Just masks.”

        • wyfwolf

          I generally think it’s politer to treat them on the terms they present with, overall. It’s like an agnostic version of Pascal’s Wager. ;)

    • wyfwolf

      I guess I wind up at “the nature of a fact is that it’s not reasonably disputable” and pretty much everything more than “You’re going to die and you should probably do something useful with your ass before then” is disputed.

      (I mean, that much is disputed but there are also flat-Earthers so whatevs.)