In talking about various lifestyles, it’s hard not to see commonalities between fashion and thought. The twentieth century may be easily divided into its prevailing Western philosophies, each decade pigeonholed for its own flavor-of-the-month philosophical fad, such as Bertrand Russell in the Roaring Twenties, Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteen-fifties, or Jean-Paul Sartre in the nineteen-sixties, though others could suffice as well. People tend to take their philosophical fads about life, the universe, and everything very seriously, and I can’t abide “seriously.” I regard seriousness as an intellectual plague of the modern day.
The hardest people to prove wrong are usually laughing — and they’re usually laughing at themselves. Even Shakespeare’s wise men were all court jesters, and I for one don’t blame them. The funniest thing about humanity is its nearsighted self-importance, and laughing at people when they’re passionately convinced of themselves amuses hell out of me, like turning a vicious, snapping turtle on its back.
What follows amused me thoroughly to write, an indictment of three sorts whom I no longer naively expect to present consistent logic in casual conversation. Each of them easily deserves their own post, but I like to examine a variety of topics, so this will have to do. It should be noted (and I say this with an uncharacteristic twinge of tenderness in my voice) that I consider the following social groups fragile in one or more crucial ways, and I wouldn’t say these things to them unless they asked for it — or had the ability to stop reading.
I. Socially Ambitious Spiritual Leaders
If there’s anything atheists and agnostics seem exceptionally good at, it’s automatic distrust. The secular paradigm does not depend on faith as immediately as most religious perspectives do. It’s not surprising, therefore, that when spiritual leaders run for office or hold massive conventions in sports arenas, atheists and agnostics refuse them “the benefit of a doubt.” Since typical spiritualism and religion are against fame, large-scale material gain and power over one’s fellow man, it is often difficult for the secular world to trust spiritual leaders who appear on television, magazine covers, or the jumbotron digital screen at Anaheim Stadium. Non-believers have no patience for spiritual leaders who ignore their own religious tenets. Go figure.
Believers, though, they have no problem practicing George Orwell’s concept, doublethink. Pat Robertson’s a great big jackass because he said horribly racist things to the media recently, but Jerry Falwell’s memory will remain untainted by his own shortcomings because they’ve been conveniently forgotten by people who desperately want to believe in their representatives. Jimmy Swaggart’s biography, “Thrice-Born: the Rhetorical Comeback of Jimmy Swaggart,” says his public applauded the reasons he gave for his moral failings. How’s that for accountability? Spiritual leaders, it would appear, can abuse the public trust as much as they like without serious, lasting repercussions. The only people who remember when they lie or steal or otherwise transgress their own moral standards are the same people who thought these leaders were crooks to begin with.
There’s much paradox in large-scale spiritual leaders, anyhow. Throughout history, hardly any of their burgeoning number have been founders of their particular brand of faith. The majority have been little more than charismatic persons with evocative ideas and perspectives regarding preordained doctrine, which would be fine if that were all these leaders had to offer. Once they’ve garnered sufficient attention, though, they tend to inflate their office like a wartime American president and commence making changes of all sorts and sizes, great and small, changes to the traditions of their faith, their practices, their creed, even their holy texts or ultimate doctrines themselves. If the reader fails to see paradox in this, he or she will be kind to note that it is only upon these traditions, creeds, texts, and doctrines that the leaders attained their positions. Fine joke, that.
If this argument seems dubious, one has only to consider the lists and lists, branches on branches of religious schisms and sects, denominations and cults. Each of these represents an example of the above paragraph in action. For instance, Martin Luther was not Christ, and yet. . . Sai Baba was not Swami Vivekananda (let alone Ghandi, let alone Ramakrisna) and yet. . . All that remains to be said is: don’t read Josh McDowell to understand the philosophy of Jesus Christ, read Jesus — and don’t read Alan Watts to grok Taoism, read the Tao-Te-Ching. Socially ambitious religious leaders all either attain to power or have it heaped upon them, and anyone can tell you what affect power has on people.
II. Golden Years Relapse and AA Christians
Anyone can tell you that many elderly humans return to God (big G). Alcoholics and druggies do, too, and in fact are ushered to it by groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. It isn’t bad math or inconsistent logic, if one looks at it. Many religions offer amnesty in the form of baptisms, confessionals, or amoralism, and promise eternal life and love for virtually nothing in return; when faced with oblivion — well, one almost has to err on the side of a possible paradise rather than risk eternal suffering. Of course, many non-believers see no risks or possibilities whatever, so they go about their business and simply snuff it at some point or other, tilled and ready to fertilize the daffodils. Golden-years converts and addict converts, they revert to what took some of them decades of soul-searching and introspect to escape, namely, the same damned worldview they had when they were still being punished by their parents. What a fucking way to go.
The main frustration comes from their immediate desire to proselytize and witness to non-believers or believers of other faiths. There’s nothing for one’s confidence in a doubtful matter like convincing someone else that it’s true. Try it! You’ll like it. It’s a sad shame that so many of the world’s most beautiful systems of thought have no standard at all governing the earnestness of their converts, because there’s narry a congregation in the world without a solid percentage of confused persons, people having no business at all swearing oaths, speaking prayers, and outwardly worshiping symbols and icons with serious doubt in their minds all the while. That sort of thing is definitely not good for everyone else in the congregation who stakes his or her own faith on the support of so many other steadfast believers. If a fella learns to operate Windows XP on Monday, ought he to be given a job in information technology on Friday? Do your beliefs a favor, you golden-years and A.A. converts: keep your gods to yourself until your faith outlives your reputation.
III. Spiritualists and Neo-Hippies
So-called spiritual people do not call themselves religious, and do not abide anyone else calling them religious, kindof like a Frenchman insisting that he be called a Parisian. Religions control people, they say; spiritualism, though, frees minds like in a Bob Marley song. Self-proclaimed spiritual people say that religions siphon money from believers, and that offerings and donations do not reach the poor and disadvantaged when they come from churches. Of course, if the money were given to Hari Krisna dancers, “Save Tibet,” or the aforementioned Sai Baba, it’s global change in pocket change. This is one example of dualistic spiritualist thought, but a mere one of hundreds, and the differences betwixt spiritualism and mainstream religion have more to do with the size of the congregation than with anything else. But you knew that, already.
One annoying difference (or similarity) is the spiritual persons’ habit of maintaining a salad-bowl paradigm. Today’s new-age and spiritual believers do not have a consistent set of beliefs, but rather pick and choose as though the fundamental principles of the universe were a produce section in the local supermarket. While this may well be true of the universe and its principles, little effort is taken on the part of many spiritualists to reconcile one belief with another, so that while tarot cards might predict a fine day, Y Ching sticks may proclaim tumult while astrology declared perfect balance throughout the cosmos, and the modern spiritualist will find a way to accept the resulting conclusion — an admittedly shallow example, but a suitable one for our purposes.
Perhaps worst of all, few spiritualists really give a fuck about the authenticity of their beliefs. The easiest American instance of this is the widespread abuse of the Hindu concept of karma. Since spiritualism’s rise to flower-child popularity, the word karma has been used to describe a sort of cosmic vengeance which, were one to drop a brick on someone else’s head, would bring ten bricks down on one’s own. This is a gross misinterpretation likely born from the Western need for a holy fist of heavenly justice. Karma in the Hindu traditions is the effect of this life on the next life. It is inextricable from the concept of reincarnation. The effects of this life on this life are called dharma, and are much closer to the scientific concept of cause-and-effect than anything else, which pretty much takes all the magic and mysticism out of it — much like a large portion of other twisted metaphysical and hermetic philosophies. The closest spiritualists in America typically get to understanding (or caring to understand) this crucial distinction, however, is a giggly aha! moment when the title of the mediocre sitcom, “Dharma and Greg,” comes to mind.
That’s a fantastic image of modern spiritualists, in fact: imagine a group of people dressed like fashionable, anachronistic hippies, smiling at their recognition of a word they don’t have any compunction to really comprehend. Oh, also? Also make them shake their head ‘no’ while smiling. That’s the spiritualist version of disagreement. They’re as peaceful as Ghandi and as passive as apple pie, so they have to wait until their detractors have left the conversation to agree with one another about how much they disagreed with what that last guy said. They could have to enjoin real conflict otherwise, and that just wouldn’t be natural.
* * *
What leads people to spontaneously become acolytes of a new system of beliefs? Is it an immediate and crucial yearning for not just one dire answer, but a network of interlacing answers? Is it a need to belong, a desire for a ready-made society of comrades united toward a common cause? Nobody can say without being equally presumptuous, but there is a thread of similarity that connects these tenderfoot believers which is hard to ignore, one which their members would likely not bother to refute, and that is the vulnerability present in the spirit of each, the meek, affrighted lamb attempting to appear a lion by proudly waving its humble timidity like a glorious banner of courage. Terror must abate — it must — and everyone hides under the covers under certain circumstances.
I’m afraid, too, afraid of men with guns, afraid of car accidents, afraid of both heights and spiders. . . But I try to remind myself that these fears are usually irrational and childish. I try not to massage my oft-bruised ego with salves of irrational, childish behavior like bandwagon belief systems, not that there’s anything wrong with being childish — so long as one doesn’t take oneself seriously, of course. So what’s my problem? What the fuck is it I want from people?
Consistency, sucka. I want some goddamn consistency.
I want loudmouthed Christians to study their fucking books — all of them, apocryphal or not. I want neo-hippies to study a little Hinduism if they’re going to start talking pop-culture reincarnation, want them to show genuine interest in all the yogas, karma, raja, jnana, and bhakti, too, rather than presuming they learned all there is to know from a hatha yoga session at 24-Hr Fitness. The cults of Kali, for instance. There’s a side of Hinduism I doubt the Beatles would have endorsed. I want grandparents who find God again (big G) to keep their dignity and pass on the altar call for the first few visits on Sunday.
But most of all, I just want people to re-evaluate their silly confidence in their best guesses at the secret of life. We don’t know. We don’t know.
Hey. We don’t know.
With All My Cheerful Tidings,