Wading through the shallows of intellectual thought I not surprisingly find myself reading the Independent’s website, and in particular, a piece entitled “Why are supernatural beliefs so important to religion?” In it, Jared Diamond is summarised as first talking about famous religious stories of miraculous occurrences such as the story of Hanuman in Hinduism, and the events of Jesus’ life in Christianity. The article goes on:
The grand question here is: what purpose do these [beliefs] serve? Diamond sets out the interesting theory that religious beliefs were initially supernatural so that believers had to show their commitment to the faith by taking on – and not questioning – core ideas that went beyond anything they had ever seen before, or would ever see in their lifetime.
“[gods’] powers surpassing human powers are projections of our own personal power fantasies”, they’re harder, better, faster, stronger. “Thus”, according to Diamond, “religious supernatural beliefs are irrational, but emotionally plausible and satisfying.” Hence why they’ve hung around so long.
In my opinion, however, this is a rather superficial argument, and does Diamond no credit whatsoever. From my point of view I can see at least two major flaws: the first is
The Importance of Symbolism
Diamond appears to be setting up a straw-man argument by assuming that 100% of accounts of the miraculous are intended by religious adherents to be taken 100% literally 100% of the time. Honestly, this is such a retarded line of reasoning that it is almost beneath me to respond to it but, hey, that’s what I get for reading The Independent. And plus I need the site traffic. My response to this is going to be brain-numbingly obvious to anyone who is familiar with initiatic traditions, but please bear in mind I’m writing for first-time visitors to my site who might be unfamiliar.
What if, right, what if, some or all of all the stories told by religions are meant to be Symbolic rather than Literal? By “symbol” I specifically refer to a concept or idea which has a potential unlimited number of layers of meaning, and which leads the mind progressively deeper the more one contemplates it. What if, rather than trying to create Dogma, these stories were meant to create Mystery – which in its original meaning referred to teaching given out to initiates – ? The former represents the end of inner inquiry, the latter, because it deliberately arouses curiosity – its beginning.
Symbolism is the basic building block of the world’s mystery traditions into which the founders of the various religions were almost certainly initiated. Jared Diamond, a physiologist and geographer, has ignored the work of Jung, the first analytical psychologist, who devoted so much of his writing to myth and symbolism. If, per Jung, symbolism is so important to human psychology, is that not more of a credible reason why supernatural beliefs remain important in religion?
The other argument against the irrationality of the supernatural is
The Reality of Mystical States of Consciousness
Mystical states of consciousness are real – in the sense that they exist, people experience them from time to time, and descriptions of them have tended to be fairly consistent for several thousand years or more. I would suggest that many examples of Supernatural phenomena in religions are mostly accounts derived from mystical episodes. In some cases it is blatant – e.g. the Book of Revelation – though in others it is less so, unless one looks at them from the vantage point of experience. E.g. the account of the Transfiguration.
I would further posit that many accounts of the supernatural which form the basis of religion are in fact pre-rational – but not irrational – responses to perfectly genuine mystical experiences. Such experiences are powerful forces for personal motivation. I say pre-rational though because the motivation to found one’s own (dogmatising) religion would arise from not being aware of the full nature of the mystical – or confusing something which everyone could be taught to experience with a divine revelation meant exclusively for oneself. From my own observations I would say that established traditions both exoteric and esoteric would encourage those having mystical experiences to interpret them as personal experiences in the light of those particular traditions.