My returning reader and blog follower probably has a good handle on why I keep coming back to the topic of religion. But if this is your first visit, you may well wonder why I would mount any kind of apology for religion, in a time when it happens to be a source of a lot of our social conflicts, personal suffering, and fixation on things that aren’t even real.
Can’t we just be done with religion, now that we know better?
True enough, we’d be much better off without the backwards thinking and baptized bigotry that have leeched into many forms of religion in our day. Even if I were to argue that superstitious belief and a self-righteous moralism are not inherent to a proper definition of religion, the fact remains that these are prevalent today – just as they have been for many centuries.
But simply to throw religion itself under a single categorical judgment and presume we can move on without it is dangerously short-sighted.
The diagram above provides a simple framework that can help us recover a critical appreciation of religion and its place in the longer view of human evolution. My basic working definition of religion as a driving force in human transformation proposes that the advancement towards what we can call our fulfillment as a species is not something that merely happens on its own, as it were.
Instead, it depends on the facilitation provided by a system of interlinked practices, beliefs, aspirations, and commitments – a functioning religare.
From this basic definition we should predict that the dysfunction and breakdown of religion – where it falls out of alignment with its deeper design intention – will result in the arrest of human progress and a potential foreclosure on our future as a species. If “salvation” literally refers to the process of being made whole or coming to fulfillment, then it feels warranted to say that there is no human salvation outside of or without healthy religion.
I’m not advocating here for any particular name-brand religion, but only for “an interlinked system of practices, beliefs, aspirations, and commitments” that can effectively facilitate our human progress.
My diagram identifies the four major stages of consciousness, to be understood not only as distinct “chapters” in the temporal evolution of consciousness but also as distinct “platforms” on which it engages with reality.
- Primal consciousness is centered in our body, in its animal instincts, biorhythms, and metabolic urgencies.
- Tribal consciousness is centered in our social group and its moral frame, where we learn how to fit in and behave ourselves.
- Personal consciousness is centered in our identity as an actor (ego) of roles, with a subjective life all our own.
- Communal consciousness is centered in the transpersonal realm of genuine community and higher wholeness.
Historically speaking, we can understand these four stages of consciousness as projecting the path of human cultural development over many millenniums, but also of our own individual development through a single lifetime. Each of us has “made it” to some stage and are preparing for the next – or perhaps we are stuck here for some reason.
Broad cross-sectional cultural studies suggest that a large number of us are currently in a transition of existential exile, lost and disoriented in a phase between a secure group membership (tribal stage) and our own creative authority (personal stage).
Lacking a sense of belonging, but for the most part still deficient in personal agency, we are like dazed spectators watching the world fall apart around us.
Already we should be able to see how what I’m calling healthy religion effectively facilitates human progress: in providing for a centered stability at each stage, and by offering guidance and support through each transitional phase between stages.
In fact, it is in these disruptive and disorienting phases that religion can make its most important contribution. I will go so far as to say that religion’s interlinked system of practices, beliefs, aspirations, and commitments has the design intention of supporting us through these developmental and evolutionary phases – rather than helping us find a permanent home in whatever stage we happen to be.
For that reason I have placed each major type of religion in my diagram at the critical phase-transition where its principal contribution to human progress is made.
Thus, animistic religion facilitated human progress from an original embeddedness in the natural realm, supporting us in our transition from primal to tribal consciousness. It’s important to remember that progressing from one stage to another doesn’t mean that the earlier stage is left behind in some archaic past. Instead it continues to provide a distinct mental location for consciousness to engage with reality.
In moving into the social realm of tribal and personal consciousness, in other words, we don’t leave our body behind – even though some forms of religion conjure up fantasies of doing precisely that, in their departure narratives of life after death.
It’s in the cultural space between tribal and personal consciousness that theistic religion does its work, prescribing and enforcing the moral frame of society, but also inspiring our gradual individuation as free and responsible agents (or actors). As I explore in other posts, theism itself can be analyzed into its early (ritual magic), high (orthodox belief), and late (ethical virtue) forms.
When it does its job well, theistic religion will instill in us a devotion to expressing and living out the divine virtues of patience, compassion, mercy, benevolence, and forgiveness – qualities that were earlier believed to belong uniquely to the deity and bestowed on us in our formation as believers.
Post-theistic religion intends to facilitate our further progress toward fulfillment in the transpersonal (“beyond the personal”) realm. The accent of late theism on ethical virtue is now transferred from the deity (the idea of god as represented in myth, art, and theology) into our own awakened self-understanding as makers of meaning, world creators, and visionaries of optional futures.
As the name implies, post-theistic religion picks up our evolution after – or on the other side of – god (post-theos). It is not at all interested in debating (either affirming or denying) the objective existence of god, which only amounts to a needless metaphysical distraction from the real work and deeper truth of religion anyway.
Communal consciousness is participatory and consilient, where we surmount and leap beyond tribal affiliations and individual identities into the spirit of genuine community, properly conceived as the “breath” (the etymological root of spirit) that animates us, connects us, flows through us, and unites us together.
We need healthy religion to realize the full potential of our nature as human beings. If we don’t give attention to fixing what’s broken but merely toss it aside in the interest of lightening our load, the final ascent of our spiritual journey might remain forever out of reach.