For all the controversy surrounding it, the purpose of art is
simple and obvious -- it exists to arouse powerful feelings
in the viewer. Sometimes it succeeds, and sometimes it doesn't,
and whether it does depends as much on the viewer as the artist.
While religion is more complicated than art, there are strong
Once representational perfection is achieved in an art form
such as painting or sculpture, further evolution usually
removal of information to reduce images or scenes to their
essential, pure elements. The reason for this is that it
can produce a more vivid, startling impression than a true
Like art, religion exists to produce a powerful feeling, usually
(but not always) an
Epiphany is a powerful, specific, and for most people rare
experience. Just as humans have feedback systems
(called "feelings") to let us know we are hungry or tired or
cold and satisfied or alert or comfortable, we appear to have
a specific feeling which rewards the act of learning.
It is probably tied to the biochemical procedures by which new
nerve processes and synapses are grown.
Sometimes, we realize that a new experience ties together many
old ones in a vast web of neat relationships; the result is a
powerful euphoric rush comparable to (but noticeably different
from) an orgasm. There is a positive feedback because the
epiphanic rush is itself a startling and new result which must
be processed, enhancing the experience. Because I think this
event is mediated by dopamine (as are the effects of cocaine
and amphetamine), I personally also call this a "dopamine
Epiphany is a powerful altered state of consciousness which,
if you've never experienced one before, can literally change
your life. While an epiphany can happen by accident, it can
also be triggered deliberately by certain devices. This is
one of the things a religious system will usually try to do.
The epiphany (or other altered state of consciousness) is half
the formula for a religion. The remainder is a nearly universal
observation among humans that such altered states can be
used to reach forces which can reveal or affect the world of
normal perception (the "World of Form" in neopaganspeak).
Please note that it doesn't matter whether this observation is
correct. It is the fact that, subjectively, it
appears to be true which is important to us here.
Methods for Producing an Epiphany
The most obvious way to produce an epiphany is to contemplate
and fully comprehend a marvelously complex yet internally
complete symbolic system. This is the purpose of symbolic
systems like the Qabala; the Tarot; the Greco-Roman, Hindu,
and similar pantheons; the Yin/Yang duality of Chinese
religious thought (incorporated into the I Ching);
and so on.
These systems all supply a library of symbols by which nearly
everything in the world can be neatly described, and which
also seem to neatly describe some real thing no matter how
the symbols are arranged. They can be used for divination
(communication with unseen forces) by allowing random
forces to arrange the symbols, as well as for magic
(manipulation of unseen forces) by using the system to make
coded requests or commands. Because of this double-pronged
utility the complex interlocking symbolic system was
once a universal feature of religion.
You can also trigger an epiphany by simple meditation. Stare at
a common word like "stork" until it appears to be completely
different, spelled wrong and alien in meaning. This is the
purpose of the
Zen koan, to comtemplate some absurd paradox until
it actually appears to make sense. (It seems that
some aspect of consciousness causes anything. to seem
to make sense if we stare at it intently long enough.)
Christianity, which lacks an interlocking symbolic system,
relies on koans like the idea of salvation
through Jesus' crucifixion and the intentionally meaningless
three-in-one-in-three nature of God.
A related technique is to submerge yourself in meaningless,
repetetive ritual. Your mind will eventually create meaning for
your activities in a kind of meatspace koan effect. This is the
method of Islam (Salat and Shahada) and of a divergent array of
Sometimes you can trigger an epiphany by simply placing
yourself in a new and unfamiliar environment. Like any
pleasurable experience the epiphany can be addictive, and
those who get their fix through newness of scenery have
Methods of Magic and Divination
Unlike the artist, who simply seeks to create an impression,
the religious seek to use that impression to change either
the world at large or themselves.
The most robust and obvious version of this is practiced by
pagans (of both the neo- and paleo- variety); they conduct
full-blown rituals in which the symbolic system is used as
a language in which statements are constructed. These
requests or commands are directed at the hidden forces
which have power over the world, whose existence is revealed
within the altered state of consciousness. The affair is
powered by dancing, chanting, incantation, drugs,
meditation, ritual sex, sacrifices, and anything
else consistent with the symbolic system and alien to
Even religions which don't appear to have magic
usually do. Catholic Christians have a variety of strong
rituals ("sacraments") such as communion, confirmation, and confession
which tend to focus one's attention on the central koans.
The Protestant reformation ditched many of these rituals
but replaced them with a more central emphasis on the
personal epiphany of "salvation." And even protestants
have prayer, turn to random pages of the Bible for advice
(divination!), and make sacrifices (the abstract but
Rituals and such which don't appear to be directed externally
are usually intended to change and perfect the querant.
Many Christian rituals are meant to foster humility and awe
in the worshipper rather than to influence the outside world.
Eastern meditation exercises are meant to build up self-
control. Taoist Tai-Chi and Confucian propriety rituals are
meant to harmonize one's self with the natural and social world,
though in diametrically opposite ways.
And, as we have re-learned recently, religious methods can be
used to steel you for battle in the manner of the Viking
"berserkers," al-Hasan ibn-al-Sabbah's
"assassins," and modern suicide bombers.
It's worth noting that a large percentage -- In My Experience at least
half -- of American Christians don't practice religion at
all. They belong to a social club called "Church." The
rituals have had no effect on them, and they are secretly
a little bewildered by some of the emotionalism they've
seen there. Meanwhile they network and pass out business cards
and act like the message in the sermon is important to
them even though it goes right over their heads.
On the other hand there is a large population in the Western
world who think they aren't religious, but who are fiercely
devout to a very fundamentalist belief system. These are
the scientific materialists, whose symbolic system is the
Handbook of Chemistry and Physics and whose epiphany
was the rejection of a social club whose teachings didn't
make sense and acceptance of the One True Scientific Method.
Chances are, if you've rejected the religious system you
were taught as a child, it's only because you found one that
works better for you. Some find David Koresh, some find Isaac Asimov
and James P. Hogan. Much of it depends on the rest of your
personality; what "words" have you learned that might form
part of an interlocking, comprehensive, Explanation Of It
All. If those "words" express qualitative feelings, you'll
probably find a religion. If you've focused on quantitative
"hands-on working" explanations and math, traditional
religions will make no sense to you, but that doesn't mean
you have somehow transcended your own humanity.
Scientists tend to get hacked off when their discipline is
compared to religion, but science has all the trappings, up
to and including a priesthood with sacred white coats. The
fact that science magic is so immensely more reliable than
the traditional kind is only marginally important. If
the Scientific Method admitted the importance of inspiration
and included standardized brainstorming rituals with LSD
and meditations where you take on the "personalities" of
equipment and phenomena, science would pose a serious
challenge to other religions even among normal people.
(And before someone says that would ruin it, don't forget
how many scientific advances, from the structure of Benzene
to the possibility of nuclear chain reaction, have come from
dreams and inspirations. And that's not even to get into the
case of Nicola Tesla.)
People acting under the influence of religion sometimes do
stuff that sucks.
Christians don't like to be reminded of it but their faith
is among the worst offenders. Constantine's ink was barely
dry on the order Christianizing the Roman Empire before the
internecine squabbling turned lethal. Later there would
be the Massacre of the Cathars, the "burning times," and
most notoriously of all the Inquisition. The central koan
of the agonized saviour tends to make the agony of one's
enemies seem a bit, well, abstract.
Then there is Islam.
Islam is not as "advanced" and abstract a system as Christianity;
it is ritual rather than koan driven. Neither religion has
a symbolic system comparable to the I Ching, but where
Christian texts and myths tend to speak elliptically of God's
imponderable superlativeness, the Koran is quite concrete
with its (sometimes loony sounding) promises and advice.
Mohammad also clearly created Islam and its scripture in
a climate of war, so the religion reflects the realities
of such an environment. It was further refined and
divided into quarrelsome factions during internecine squabbling
after the Mohammad's death. (This is where distinctions
like Sunni and Shiite Islam came into being.) Unlike
Christianity, Islam had no clear winner in this conflict
and so all the players are still around to bicker and fume today.
Yet Islam is a religion which is clearly capable of
producing tremendously contemplative, studious, and peaceful
people. Muslims burned the Library of Alexandria in 640 A.D.,
but then they kept the light of knowledge alive during the
Christian Dark Ages. Muslims introduced us to one of the most
important foundations of science and technology, the "Arabic"
numbering system, which was actually invented in India but quickly
adopted and brought to Europe by Muslims.
What is difficult for any of us to contemplate -- one risks
an epiphany :-) -- is that to a Japanese Shintoist, a Taoist,
or a Hindu... Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are all
minor variations of the same religion. Similarly,
a Muslim cannot easily differentiate between the beliefs of
an Irish Protestant and a Catholic. And to an aboriginal
shaman, all modern religions are hopelessly abstract and
remote from the real work.
Is a Particular Religion Really the Problem?
Religion is a tool, like a hammer. You can use a hammer to
build a house or to kill your neighbor; nobody can really
design a hammer that can't kill, if the hammer is to perform
its more positive function.
And religion, like a hammer, surely has positive functions.
This may reflect our deficiencies as a species more than
any absolute truthfulness of the belief systems used,
but history shows that religion can make people happier and
more productive and catalyze truly useful breakthroughs.
Any tool becomes a weapon when turned against your enemy.
There is a real problem with the "sacred passages" in Islam
and Christianity which advocate stifling other religions.
One could interpret around these if one was so inclined;
both Christian and Muslim believers have found ways to do this.
One can cut the spikes off the hammer that was meant for murder
and use it to pound nails.
No religion can ever be completely "safe," and that includes
the antireligion Science with its atomic bombs and purified
anthrax. But trying to
ban religion is like trying to ban hammers. It's a tool
that works, if you are a human being. Trying to legislate
the Standard Hammer doesn't work either, because you need
different hammers for different jobs. One religion just
doesn't work for everybody.
Religions can change. In particular, fusion religions can
form where the epiphany is that two different religions
have common ground. Buddhism is the most
religion, having even formed hybrids even with the
intrinsically xenophobic Christianity and Islam.
But it's instructive to look at the most syncretic religion
ever known, that of the ancient Egyptians.
Their idea was simple. Any god or deity which you can
think up actually exists. Whatever you say its rituals might be
are its rituals. There was a central symbolic system,
which was used by the State and certain important "cults"
(not the modern idea, but more like "standardized
sub-religions"). But if you decide that the local hawk is your
totem animal and that it speaks to you in its own language
which only you can understood, that
was just OK too. You'd probably find it more fun to join
one of the mid-level cults where the "sermons" had the
quality of a modern TV soap opera, but if you were a real loner you
could still have your beliefs validated as long as you
didn't step on anyone else's.
Christians need to remember that their ancient founders were
themselves instructed to worship "no other gods." That does
not invalidate the idea of other gods, or that it is inherently
wrong for certain others to worship those gods. The original
instruction was actually given to the Jews, and doesn't
even apply to most Americans. But we're all adaptable here.
We've adapted before, and I'm confident we could do it again.
Muslims need to remember that they have much more in common
with American Christians -- and even the Jews -- than
any of us do with most of the world. The house divided
against itself falls apart. The vacuum created by a semi-
official religion that does not work is filled by people
like Jim Jones and Osama bin Laden. And I'm sure that in
India the Hindus will be amused at this spectacle of nearly
identical monotheistic religions squaring off while they
spectate, until somebody pulls the first nuke and it stops
It All Comes Down to People
In America, and probably everywhere else, the vast majority
claim to be religious. But we probably have the largest subgroup
who don't really know what religion is and are just socializing.
The truth is that only a minority are really devout and
getting out of their religion what religion was invented for.
Ironically, among that minority are a lot of scientific/materialistic
self-proclaimed nonbelievers who don't realize that they are
practicing a religion.
Religion itself is amoral. Morality is a standard accessory,
usually found, but it can be unbolted when it's inconvenient.
Religion works without it.
Morality can act like a supercharger for religion; it's an
artificial limitation that can enhance rituals and meditations.
It can be especially important to an evolved modern religion like
Christianity, which doesn't work for a lot of people without some
kind of boost. But the religion doesn't really need it,
if the other components are in place. And a truly entrenched
religion can readily violate its own precepts, as Christianity
did during the Massacre of the Cathars and the Inquisition, and
as some Muslim extremists are doing now with suicide bombings.
The ancient religious understood that religion follows the
epiphany. Modern religions in their art-nouveau purity have
forgotten where they came from, which is why they lose
followers to people as diverse as David Koresh, Jerry Falwell
(Christian apostate by any real definition) and Arthur
C. Clarke. Sometimes you don't want the fancy sauce, you just
want a piece of cheese or meat. If the meal isn't satifying
you go to the next restaurant. There are things you expect
to accomplish by eating or worshipping, and if you aren't
satisfied you will turn elsewhere.
The Purpose of Religion
...is to make you, the believer, feel good and empowered.
There are many ways for it to do that. How does yours work?