Thursday, 11 June 2009

Buttercup in the park - a treatise on our modern predilection for superstition and alternative beliefs over rationalism.

As I walked through Queens Park on a warm late spring afternoon recently, I passed a family - a mum and dad and their two girls. The elder girl, aged about seven, was holding a buttercup under her younger sister's chin. She had the air of someone conducting an important scientific experiment.

'Yes', she announced seriously, after a few moments of careful scrutiny, 'you like butter.'

The parents watched, amused. The pronouncement made, the family continued on their way. But it caused me to stop and think. Why is it that we are still drawn, almost inexorably, to the rites of old wives, to the rituals of superstition, instead of the calm clarity of rationalism, that was gifted to us during Europe's 'Age of Enlightenment' in the eighteenth century? Why do we still prefer the drama of the obscure to the common sense of reason? (Yeah, okay, forget the idea that it might simply be 'fun' for a moment, and bear with me, because there is something incredibly revealing in this).

Do you have an emotional reaction to this? Does the idea of reason irritate like a prickly burr? Why is that? How have reason and logic come to be seen as cold and heartless, compared to the apparent warmth of faith, superstition and religion?

I thought about this again while I was watching the latest Star Trek movie. Spok, as always, represents logic and reason - cold, and almost emotionless, his saving grace are his half-human genes. Kirk, on the other hand, impetuous, hot-headed and brave, is the warm-blooded hero we are drawn to. In Star Trek, emotion is seen as greater than reason. Love triumphs over logic. Reason and logic are essential and highly valued of course, but in the end, it is only the complex cocktail of intelligence and feeling, that constitutes a fully realised human being.

Yet reason is a great gift, especially because at its root, I propose that reason incorporates feeling. And by feeling, I don't mean dramatic emotion, I mean actual feeling.

How does something actually feel to you? Are you afraid to experience this? Why??

I believe the reason why is exactly the same as to why we prefer superstition and drama to reason and logic. And it is this:

For millennia, most early human societies (you'll have to take this as read because I'm not going to cite all my sources in this essay), were based on social values that included the freedom to feel and experience all human emotions, without fear, including of course, our sexual feelings and desires; the idea that these feelings were in some way wrong did not exist. Because, of course, they are not 'wrong'. They are simply natural feelings. Thus making any personal decision was far easier for people, because they were not afraid to express and feel their feelings.
(Try it next time you feel all tied up in knots trying to decide whether to do this or that, especially in relation to someone else; if you allow yourself to feel how you really feel about it, the decision is easy).

What happened? Organised religion happened. The reason why organised religion happened is admirably covered in a book that I urge you to read - 'Guns, Germs and Steel' by Jared Diamond. To précis Diamond, early societies that had access to an excess of resources - food and suitable animals (for transport, work and food), quickly developed social hierarchies, with a 'king' type character at the top. To maintain the king position of power, the (fiendishly clever) idea of the 'divine right' to rule was invented, supported by a bureaucratic class of priests, who interpreted and officiated over this divine right; in other words, they told people how to act and what to do, according to the words of 'God'.

Once you have a ruling elite in place, it's downhill all the way. Decisions are no longer tribally democratic, they are always determined by the best interests of the ruling elite. As your society grows, the need to control people becomes ever more important. And what better way to control people, than through fear?

If you make people fear the very essence of their being, if you tell them that their natural feelings are bad, and that they are, at their very core, 'wrong' ('sinners' in religious parlance), you have created a mentally enslaved population who you can manipulate at will.

As human cultures evolved, the interpretation of divine will become ever more sophisticated, and the systematic destruction of pre organised-religious societies took place. We were of course still happily rolling out this perverted ethos throughout the Victorian era and beyond, where missionaries set out to 'save' the ignorant savages across the globe.

Indeed, we can still see this power-play at work today, where the most powerful countries feel free to invade other sovereign nations, because they have a divine right to do so. Because they are 'superior'. We know of course, that their true motivations are more basic; ensuring access to wealth and resources for their resource-hungry nations.

The British Empire was predicated upon such a divine right; 'we' were just and noble, bringing democracy and justice and Christianity to the heathen. The fact that this was a license to plunder the resources and enslave the people of Africa, India, Asia and the Americas (other empires of course joined in) was somehow overlooked in our great crusade. The new American Empire happily followed this well-trodden path.

I have digressed slightly, but if you're still with me, I hope you'll see that because our natural ways and feelings, our easy relationship with ourselves and nature, were systematically suppressed to further the interests of a ruling elite, we lost the ability to trust our feelings. Instead, we had to base decisions on ever more complex systems of morals, theories, dictates and laws that were interpreted by self-appointed priests and enshrined in great tomes such as the bible and the koran.

This is not to say that there isn't much of huge value in these treatises (as well as a lot of archaic nonsense), but because at their root they are based on fear and control, they are, in my humble opinion, forever tarnished by this pernicious association. Oppression of feelings creates the uniquely human experience of perversion, sin and guilt. Before organised religions and social control came into being, perversion, as we know it, did not exist. There was no reason for it to exist.

Fast forward several centuries, and we reach the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, where science and philosophy unite to create rationalism; a way of looking at and experiencing the universe that is not based on superstition, or religious belief, but on reason.

But for most societies, trying to roll-out scientific rationalism, over the top of superstitious belief (religion), has only created more confusion, and more inner turmoil, because now a conflict has arisen between what was supposed to be (divinely) right and what reason tells us to be right. For ordinary people, losing the security of an all-knowing, all-powerful religion (After all, 'God' is supposed to be omnipotent), is a very scary thing. Which is probably why many of the citizens of modern societies are the most mentally disturbed in history.

The advances in science of the last three hundred years allowed for the technological advances of the industrial revolution and beyond, which, while benefiting us in so many ways, have also enslaved us even further (the surveillance society in Britain, for example, where almost your every move is tracked, recorded and potentially judged, as are your personal communications), and also possibly terminally harmed us (the destruction of the environment being one obvious example). Science and technology have been a double-edged sword, both a boon to humanity and a poisoned chalice.

Therefore, perhaps unsurprisingly, when we have through science and technology, an unprecedented opportunity to embrace 'reality' - as opposed to a dramatic and fear-based superstitious view of the world - we are drawn, inexorably, to the sense of an alternative reality, through which we think we can experience our true nature, and we reject science and technology, logic and reason, as cold, heartless and dangerous.

(Alternative medicine, and associated values and ideas, are often profoundly valuable of course, but it is the resort to them without any form of reason or understanding, but simply because they are alternative, that I am discussing here).

Our intrinsic fear of our true natures, which has been deliberately created by controlling elites, leads us to fear the very thing that can save us - direct, honest, rational experience.

What I am arguing is that, at its very root, direct experience is divine. There is nothing more real or perfect than this - the experience of our own nature. You don't need God, or a bible, to experience this. Indeed, you are free to experience this at will. Yet I wager you do not experience this at will, but rather, your more common daily experience is one of fear and confusion, mixed (if you're lucky), with moments of joy and clarity, but often only through resort to drink or drugs.
(If you disagree with this, and if you feel joy as your primary state, then I truly congratulate you on achieving liberation).

We need to see that rationalism and reason, rather than being some kind of enemy, are indeed our greatest friends. If we can unhook ourselves from the unhealthy addiction to drama and superstitious belief that perpetuates mental strife and discord in ourselves and in society, then we can liberate ourselves from a mental slavery that has blighted us for millennia.

We live on the cusp; as once mighty nations teeter on the brink of economic collapse, which way will the dice fall? We will revert to fear-based superstition and control and all that entails (fascism, for example), or will we embrace our deepest natures, which are the very things we intrinsically feel and know we lost, so long ago, and liberate ourselves from this long nightmare?

Over to you..

Peace out dudes.