Saturday, August 13, 2011

Layers of an Onion and Monty Python

Dear Kiley,

It's been a few days or so since we last exchanged letters. You were completely spot on with your last post on Mormons and obedience. I thank you for that! So you shared this quote by M.L. Mencken, “[Religion’s] single function is to give man access to the powers which seem to control his destiny, and its single purpose is to induce those powers to be friendly to him… Nothing else is essential.” I just wanted to comment on it.

But first: Monty Python clips!

I love Mony Python, ha ha!

So, to break down his comments (for my sake), Mencken claims that religion's sole function is for the individual to gain favors whatever they believe by seducing the divine in that individual's favor. The second claim by Mencken is that this is all that is essential.

I will agree with Mencken that one of religion's functions is to assist the individual in gaining favor from whatever they believe that controls the destiny of mortals. Judaism has Abraham bartering with God on saving Sodom and Gomorrah, Gideon with the fleece, Jeremiah and the whale, and so on. Greeks have such characters too with their demigods, gods, powers, and mortals. Catholicism today as the Saints that intervene on behalf of mortals in God's plan, Bodhisattvas work the same in Mahayana Buddhism, and so on. Individuals do interact with the divine in such a way. It is a perfectly rational explanation for why the individual believer interacts with institutional religion.

However, to say this is the sole function of religion is, in my opinion, a bit overly simplistic. Religion is not only about what M.L. Mencken states. Religion is also about acquiring and maintaining power, creating a coherent (and even incoherent) explanation of the metaphysical and physical universe, and providing a cause for existing.

Religion, like so many complex and diverse organizations, have layers to them. The motives of the individual, lowly believer can and are quite different from leaders, groups, and the entirety of the organization. So, yes, religions are like an onion (a stinky one). In my opinion, religions exist independent of the beliefs and will of the believers. They may influence it and direct where it goes but that cannot compare to how much the religion pushes them to believe and do.

So, to keep this letter short, I just want to give an abbreviated history of religion when it comes to politics and religion.

History or Yesterday's Hip Trends

This whole notion of separation of Church and State is relatively new in the history of civilization. Theocracies are rather an old (albeit tired) idea of how governments should run. To use a Mormon example, it is quite likely the "political structure" implied in the Nephite civilization derived its laws from the Laws of Moses (making the story of Korihor and the judges a bit ironic from this lens). Jewish civilization derived its laws and political structure from "divine" sources. Egyptian Pharoahs, Japanese emperors, European monarchies, Sumerian kings, and even Roman emperors all either claimed a divine birth-right or maintained some kind of divinity during life and after death. You wanted to rule people? You had to give people a reason to follow you.

Rulers in the ancient world were pretty much the head of their state religions. You couldn't be a king unless the gods were on your side. Another example of this is the Mandate of Heaven with China. Emperors were only safe as long as the mythical Mandate of Heaven was in place. Natural disasters and stronger enemies were your worst nightmare as a king. And crop failure was a bitch!

Things changed in Western civilization with the dawn of the Reformation. Those annoying Protestants challenged Catholic (meaning universal) rule throughout Western Europe. They had the audacity to argue that the Pope was not the sole authority on scripture. Nationalism began with this, local leaders in the German lands took advantage of this by consolidating their power away from The Vatican. Independence always creates problems for your former rulers. King Henry VIII used the Supremacy Act to severe ties with the Pope. It gave rise to greater British nationalism.

From this point on, governments made their power and jealously guarded it. They didn't trust religion (with the exception of the Spanish, Italians, Portuguese, and to some extent the French). Protestants and the new governments that were being formulated during the Reformation and the centuries that followed employed the idea that government should start to separate the idea of government and religion. Under President Jefferson, he wrote his famous letter.

My point in bringing all this up is to point out that religion, especially authoritarian style religions, have had a long history of sharing power with government. The Islamic Shari'ah Law movement and the Christian Dominionism are both modern examples of this effort. These movements are efforts to impose a particular set of views upon entire societies. I would argue that some religions, especially ones that have authoritarian forms of structure, do seek for more power, particularly political power. The function of religion is to acquire and maintain power.

Your friend,
That Crazy MoFo