Sunday, 26 August 2012

Sunday Sermon: Religion Review: "Join Me"

Everything, good morning. Thank you for another week of life, love and consciousness. Bless the memory of your son Neil Armstrong now that his body has failed. For his footprint is a part of the story of all of us for all time, and is part of your story. May thy will be done. Amen.


In the very first Sunday Sermon I defined 'religion' as, "that part of ideography that deals with personal and collective meaning as contrary to everyday survival." There are reasons why I made it so broad but when I look at it now I think the definition is far too broad - so broad that there isn't much meaning to work with at all.

My reasons for wanting a broader definition of religion which is not limited to supernatural narratives are not just intellectual but have to do with my own story. For when I joined a Christian cult at the age of 14 (and stuck around for three years) I learned, if nothing else, that I have a religious nature, a nature vulnerable to the group-narrative and the cult. This is something I've had to come to terms with. It is something I've been obliged to know about myself.

But when I left Faith Assembly (that was the church's name; I'll tell you more about it one day) I thought I'd learned my lesson. No more organised religion for me. I should be right so long as I avoid superstitious bullshit, right?

But the lesson was a long time coming precisely because the religious nature, at least in my own case, was not dependent on supernatural narratives. I had no problem finding myself part of a hippy commune movement (which still refers to itself as 'the tribe' and has many cult-like social and belief features) and later a radical political (libertarian socialist) organisation. In each case the same parts of what I call my 'religious nature' were touched. In each case there was a system of identity, history and meaning which was shared and perpetuated by group-think more than reasoned consideration. In each case leaving the situation was socially and emotionally traumatic, reminding me of the social and emotional experience of leaving Christianity.

Reinforcing these very personal impressions was a very broad and obsessive study of the respective movements and their history. Part of my 'religious nature' I suppose is to study like a geek. At 15 I had painted in large letters on my bedroom wall, "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (II Timothy 2:15)" and I never lost the habit. Studying revolutionary movements in history is so similar to studying religious movements that it is probably useful for them to be included in the same research. At the same time the best way for me to comprehend very early Christianity is as a political, communalist movement. In general, religious and political theory can learn a lot from one another, in my view. They may be the same thing and, in a way, I'm looking for a definition which can describe both.

All of this is a background to why the supernatural-based definitions of religion that the new atheists polemicise against are not adequate to describe my purview or for me to make sense of my own lifepath. But at the same time, my original working definition was too broad.

Clifford Geertz, one of the best known anthropologists of religion, probably did better, and his definition seems to work. For him, religion is a "system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men [sic] 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." Where he says, "system of symbols" I would like to include the bigger idea of common narrative, but with this proviso the definition is now describing all of my religious life (including later becoming a Brisbane Roar - soccer - fan) and not just a part of it.

All of this is based on a bit of self-consciousness - that it is the same religious nature in me that has been engaged and satisfied by all these various chapters of life. Now whilst I am aware that I am a bit of an extremist nut when it comes to these sorts of things, it has to occur to me as well that what I am identifying as my 'religious nature' is not unique to me. I have no way of speculating that all people have such a nature, but I don't have to look far in any direction to note that it is very common, to one extent or another, and disturbingly, most are not so self-conscious, and many uncritically stay within a particular bubble of shared symbols for life.

And this broadening of the definition and hence the observation of religion also forces me to challenge Christopher Hitchens' observation that "religion poisons everything." It seems more useful, if religion is such a broad - perhaps effectively universal - phenomena, to be able to distinguish between benign or harmless religious behaviour and dangerous, potentially destructive religious behaviour. "All religion is bad" seems to give us the proverbial Hegelian, "night in which all cows are black" - ie. merely a new form of ignorance. As I've noted on several occasions now, what these critics really seem to be criticising is supernature, and in that criticism they have my solidarity.

But how far might we go in identifying human behaviour as religious? The question is important when we go to interpret census and survey data. The Australian census for example shows that traditional Christianity is losing influence and that 'No Religion' has gained. But unless we know what kind of behaviour we're observing it's hard to be sure whether this is not just shifting religion rather than declining religiosity.

There is sports fandom of course which appears to have arisen in the West in parallel with secularisation. And there are candid belief systems like the Church of the Holy Molecule or The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which are growing. There's also The Jedi Knights (some take themselves seriously) with full consciousness that their text is a science fiction story. It is only this consciousness which differentiates them from Scientologists, incidentally. Serious movements like Wicca are also growing significantly.

Political participation (joining political parties and the like) has also waned alongside church attendance which raises the possibility that all that is being observed is alienation rather than declining religiosity. I add my own observation that political parties have become more like religions in their group-think and us-and-them polemics based around questioning the morality of the opposition. In my view we should be aware of religious-type behaviour wherever it arrises. Groupthink and other religious type behaviours are as evident as anywhere among atheists. Here's a quote from the midst of a debate between atheist partisans: "sceptic-atheists like nothing more than arguing the equivalent rational version of how many angels can dance on a pin head and getting fuck all done. Well these people pushing atheism+ want a movement with some influence and like it or not you need direction, common goals and to some extent group think." Whatever, really. Sounds like someone pursuing their religious needs, to me.

And so I come to my 'Religion Review'. "Join Me" is a movement begun when the comedic writer Danny Wallace put an add in a paper saying "Join Me." Joinees, as they came to be called, have to send a passport photo to Danny as a step of faith, but apart from that it began with no doctrine at all. To me that makes it an interesting test of a definition of religion. If a religion can grow with no doctrine or narrative at all, then we should broaden the definition even further to basically just describe humans grouping around a thought.

In practice that wasn't enough though. But because the extra features - a mission for joinees, a growing tradition of stories and the development of a calendar of days - were added by the pressures of praxis and the accident of time, and as the religion after a decade is still apparently growing and going strong, we might find here the most minimalist religion possible. The least possible features with which you can call a movement a religion, perhaps. If not, it's a fun example of a movement to think about anyway.

As Join Me got to about 100 members the pressure from joinees for some sense of what they joined built up, not just through pointed questions but through the dialectics of organisation - Danny felt that another joinee would attempt to take over if he didn't provide some leadership (very likely). So he invented a purpose, which was a fairly ingenious pop mix of a bit of Christianity and a bit of Hinduism. The practice of joinees, to this day, is to perform random acts of Kindness on Fridays - called 'good Fridays'. In this regard they get together on Fridays and on particular days of the year, and in mass actions call themselves 'The Karma Army'.

They really do lots of random nice things, every Friday. By report the practice helps them have a nicer attitude through their whole week, which makes sense. It sounds strangely fulfilling if anything, and perhaps it actually would be. Wallace's thesis is that people really want to be nicer to each other but need an excuse. In this case it appears that religion is fulfilling people's need to be able to be randomly nice to each other.

As it turns out this was plenty for people to mobilise around. The traditions they developed were through practice, such as the strangely messianic importance of one Raymond Price, one of the first old men to be helped by joinees, who turned out to be a crook who ripped them off. The way Danny and the movement moulded this apparent blow to their whole reason into a narrative of selfless compassion shows, frankly, theological genius. Danny and the joinees would not call this a religion I don't think (with typical candour they are more likely to call it a cult - less threatening I guess), but in my mind it is working because it is providing for the religious needs of joinees. If it wasn't a religion, it wouldn't work and grow, in the way I'm understanding the term.

After reading Join Me's main text (Danny Wallace: Join Me - The True Story of a Man who Started a Cult by Accident, 2003) I am tempted to join! Here is the place to do so if you're interested. It is a very funny book, but touching on a very serious aspect of human nature. And let's face it I have to admire Danny's courage. Here I am attempting to develop a viable theology for a new religion, but do I have the guts to say, "Join Me"? Not yet.

Watch this one if you want a smile plastered across your face all day:
Everything, thank you for the entirety of your world and all its possible meaning. Thankyou for the fellowship we find with our fellow-humans, your people, however we find it. Bless us with wisdom and discernment Everything, but also bless us with a sense of humour. So be it.

1 comment:

  1. Oh that's brilliant, Hamish! What a great read. I'll rave about it to you in person when I see you. Here I will say that the mix of personal biography, with reflection on your own meaning of religion, and the review of Join Me (as a religion), and finally the Queen song 'Good Comapny' all combine to create a good read and coherent sermon. I will be thinking about my own religious nature, my desire to belong (or be included), and the human need for an excuse to be kinder for some time to come I'm sure!