What is the role of religion in finding the meaning of life?

The next essay I am writing for the Meaning of Life course deals with the question whether religion can provide a grounding of values which make life meaningful. Here are some preliminary thoughts:

When searching for the meaning of life, this meaning needs to be grounded to something, it needs a vehicle. A vehicle for meaning is something that carries the value, the thing that is valuable, which in turn can provide meaning. The vehicles for meaning that religion can provide are numerous, for example: the church as a community, the relationship to a god, the promise of an afterlife etcetera. To answer the question whether religion can provide a grounding of values, we need to investigate what sort of vehicle religion is, compared to non religious values systems as means for providing meaning.

I believe that religion is not able to provide a solid foundation for values; religion as a foundation for meaning is a metaphysical sky-hook. It does not provide a solid foundation because it can not be rationally or empirically justified. The justification for religion is not based on rational thinking or observation, but on revelation. But, does this really matter?

Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem shows that not every true statement can be proven through rational arguments. The incompleteness theorem thus leaves some space for religious and other non-rational statements to provide truth. Religious knowledge can, however, not be verified, as it is based on revelation. Revelation is a very personal experience and therefore neither open to verification nor falsification.

Religion can thus not provide a solid (rational) foundation for the meaning of life

Rational thinking, mainly in the form of science, can, however, also not provide a solid foundation. David Hume has shown that some very basic assumptions we make about the world around us can not be rationally verified. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem also limits the reach of rational reasoning, as not all truth can be rationally justified. Hume’s scepticism, combined with Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem shows us that science is also not able to provide a solid foundation for meaning.

After 2,500 years of philosophical thinking we have come to a point were we are forced to realise that there are no rational justifications for the big questions (See my paper on Joske’s concept of futility).

For a lot of people, this understanding that life is essentially futile can be an agonising thought. The thought that life has no meaning whatsoever – the thought the our lives will end in blackness – has driven many people to suicide.

I think this typical human condition is something we have to live with and there are basically two possible reactions. First of all we can ‘invent’ – without any rational justification – a vehicle for meaning. This is what happens in religion. If there is no rational basis for these beliefs, how can we decide which vehicle is the better one, as there is no truth criterion. The individual systems can only be justified internally, as we have no value system outside religion to make a call.

The other option is to embrace the futility and meaninglessness of life. In this option we need philosophy to be able to cope with this. Our vehicle for meaning is a metaphysical hot-air balloon – not anchored to anything – enjoying a brid-eye perspective upon life.

Without Christianity there is no Satanism

Anthony Czandor Lavey (1930-1997), founder of Satanism.

Anthony Czandor Lavey (1930-1997), founder of The Church of Satan.

I have been writing some copy on Satanism for the Dutch Wikipedia in the last few weeks, which has been proven an interesting experience. I established articles on the work of Anton Czandor LaVey (Church of Satan) and Michael Aquino (Temple of Set).

I have come to respect the satanic philosophy developed by Michael Aquino. Satanism attracts a lot of negative attention as soon as the word is mentioned, because of its opposition to Christianity. It is, however, the Christians themselves that have created Satanism. The whole concept of Satan is nothing more than a counter-movement to Christianity. The knee-jerk reactions by Christians when the subject gets mentioned shows that it has the desired effect! LaVey’s Black Mass and Satanic Bible are meant to provoke responses from the establish religions.

Satanism and Christianity

The Satanic philosophy is anti-Christian in that it is a mirror image of Christianity, but because of relationship it is also inherently Christian as it defines itself in opposition. Satanism does not proclaim that one should go around and whack everybody on the head and other forms of unruly behaviour. Satanism a a philosophy embraces personal freedom and places the source of morality within ourselves, while Christianity seeks to find truth in a transcendent reality.

Some religious fellow authors on Wikipedia started to ‘enhance’ the articles I established with nonsense about human sacrifice and other myths about these contemporary churches. Satanism as a religion can only exist in the presence of Christianity. The Church of Satan, Temple of Set and similar institutions could not have existed without the presence of Christianity. Just like religious people create their gods in their own image, they also create the opposite forces.

The Philosopher and the Mystic: On the role of logic as the pathway to truth

A portrait of Indian philosophy saint Adi Sankara.

A portrait of Indian philosophy saint Adi Sankara.

Academic philosophy and mysticism do not go hand in hand. One of the first subjects in any philosophy course in the analytic tradition is logic. Students are taught the strict rules of reasoning, as applied by philosophers for about 2500 years. Students are also taught that every philosophy must comply with these rules.

These strict rules of logic are many times at odds with what mysticism teaches us. One of the foundation rules of ‘proper thinking’ is that there can be no internal contradiction, e.g. either A or not A—there is no third option. Mysticism, however, unites the dualism of opposites into a wider embrace, a higher truth.

As I wrote earlier, academic philosophy is forced through the politics of funding by governments to stick to the accepted rules of scientific logic. Mystical philosophy can therefore not be taught at university level, besides in neutral, non engaging, exsanguinated way.

One of the questions to be asked is whether philosophy can be merged with mysticism. Can the philosopher and the mystic be one and the same person?

In classical Indian Philosophy, tension between religion and reason is not as pronounced as in the West. Reason and religion were in a constant debate, which has led to a philosophy with clear strands of mysticism.

Philosophy and mysticism have been separated in the Western tradition since the beginning of philosophy. Early Greek philosophy contained some kernels of mystic thought, but slowly but surely, mysticism has disappeared from the philosophical landscape.

Can a truly mystical philosophy exist? The problem with mysticism is that anything seems to be allowed and every utterance can be true, as there are no rules concerning how to determine what is true and what is not. But maybe, the strict rules of logic accept to little as true knowledge? Many people find strength and inspiration in the mystic realm. The big question to be asked next is what is truth anyway? Isn’t truth just whatever complies with basically arbitrary rules?

The Validity of Religious Experiences

The Blues Brothers having a religious experience

The Blues Brothers having a religious experience

The question of the epistemology of religious experience deals with the issue whether information obtained through religious experiences can be considered valid knowledge. For a brief introduction into different forms of religious experience, see my paper on that subject.

Information obtained through religious experiences, which I shall further refer to as Revelation, is not considered valid knowledge in contemporary society mainly because the information obtained through revelation can not be verified. Religious experience is thus a very personal experience and unique knowledge, only available to the person receiving the revelation. The receiver of the information is the only one who is able to interpret the revelation and communicates it as thus to the wider world.

In pre-industrial society power was vested in the intermediaries between the transcendent and the immanent. The Latin word Pontifex (priest) illustrates this beautifully as it also means ‘bridge’. The priest as bridge builder between the material and the spiritual worlds.

Knowledge gained through revelation is unique and invests power into the person receiving that knowledge as they are the only ones capable of interpreting the information. Knowledge in this sense is esoteric, only available to a small group of people.

Empirical philosophy has, in combination with rationalism, revolutionised human knowledge of the material world. This combination has been an important and powerful tool. Where does this leave revelation? Can we simply say that revelation is not relevant and that religious experiences are mere delusions?

Because revelation is always esoteric knowledge, every experience is interpreted different, depending on the cultural and psychological dispositions of the person receiving the revelation. An important question to be asked is why a Hindu does not receive revelations concerning Jesus Christ or any other cross cultural experiences?

Religious experiences are particular and esoteric. In a society where knowledge is available to anyone through empiricism (although this is not completely true as we do not all have a particle accelerator in our backyard) the Pontifex has lost his power over society as the sole interpreter of knowledge.

The consequence of this, however, is that we have thrown the baby with the bathwater by ignoring religious experience as a valid source of knowledge.

I believe that religious experience can be a valid source of information to make decisions about non material things. It can people guidance about their life, which can have a very profound impact on their lives in the ‘real’ world. Religious experiences also have an effect on how we interpret the material world which shapes our world views.

Prehistoric Monuments of Avebury and their Spiritual Significance

Avebury is a village South of London where some of the most important Neolithic sites in Europe are located. In this paper, I will describe of some of the monuments in the area and discuss some interpretations of their use in ancient and recent days.

What fascinated me most about these ancient monuments is that they are in use by modern day pagans. Around the area, there are left over flowers and other signs of ritual offerings by the neo-pagans. I had a vivid discussion with Sam Fleming because I do not condemn the use of Neolithic monuments for ritual use. She wrote A plea to practising pagans, an article about the ritual use by neo-pagans of ancient monuments (Fleming, 2000), an article on psychic vandalism around prehistoric monuments. Sam opposes any neo-pagan use of the monuments. Her arguments are that it causes a lot of physical as well as spiritual damage to the monuments.

I will argue in this paper, that using these monuments for ritual purposes is the best way to preserve the monuments as it transforms them from mere ancient curiosities to places of meaning.

West Kennet Long Barrow

West Kennet Long Barrow.

West Kennet Long Barrow.

The West Kennet Long Barrow is one of 27 similar structures in the area. It is dated about 3,500 BC and was used in ancient times as a burial place. The barrow can be entered from the front and there are five separate chambers inside. The contents of the chambers included the bones of at least 46 individuals. Each person was represented only by a few, often scattered, fragments of bone. Many of the people buried were children or infants. It is interesting to note that young children had sufficient status in the society of ancient Avebury to qualify for burial in the tomb (Malone 1989, 76). In many other ancient and certain modern societies children below a certain age or before their formal initiation into adult society, are not considered to have enough status for inclusion in such collective burials.

Inside the barrow were many visible traces of the neo-pagan use of this site. This barrow, which used to be a place of death and mourning has become a contemporary temple for personal contemplation and group rituals.

West Kennet Avenue

The avenue originally consisted of about 100 pairs of standing stones. These stones form a corridor some 15 metres wide with a length of about one kilometre. The stones appear to have been carefully selected for their shape. Generally, stones of two different types are standing opposite each other. Some people interpret these as male and female stones.

West Kennet Avenue.

West Kennet Avenue.

Only a small part of the first avenue is visible today. Through the centuries, many stones have been removed to use for other, more profane purposes. Many stones have been demolished in the 17th century by religious fanatics trying to wipe out all connections with the ancient pagan way of life. On the spot where archaeologists have found traces of such demolished stones we now see small concrete markers. Thinking about all the demolition, the concrete markers are like gravestones, marking the place where the original stone once stood.

Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill.

Silbury Hill.

Silbury Hill is a remarkable feat of Neolithic civil engineering; standing almost 40 metres high and it is surrounded by a kind of moat which occasionally fills up with water. The depression is the silted up quarry for the material to build the hill. The reason the ancients built this gigantic monument is unknown to us today, and many speculative theories have been put forward: In some neo-pagan circles, this outline is believed to be a Neolithic figure of the squatting pregnant goddess with Silbury Hill itself as the fecund womb, giving birth to all things. To some Silbury Hill is a giant sundial or even a natural battery (Crystal, 2004).

None of these neo-pagan interpretations have a direct link with the intentions of the original builders of the site. They should be viewed as to give new meaning to these structures, within the context of neo-pagan religion. Attaching new meaning to these old monuments is a good way of dealing with ancient sites like this. It certainly gives the place more depth and interest as when one just looks at it as some gigantic Neolithic civil engineering project. The neo-pagan explanations of Avebury are contemporary mythology, countering the disenchantment of our technological world.

Avebury Henge and Stone Circles

Avebury henge.

Avebury henge.

The great circle is formed by a deep henge with a ditch on the inside. The irregular circle has a diameter of approximately 350 metres. The shape formed by the ditch is no way near the geometric perfection of the more recent Stonehenge circle, but more like an amorphous ‘D’ shape, divided by two causeway entrances into four unequal arcs. The bank on the outside of the ditch is also very irregular at the top and curls itself like a serpent around the village. On the inside of the ditch, there used to be a stone circle with erected stones, but most of these stones have disappeared. Inside the great circle, there are two separate smaller circles. Inside each of these circles, there are also erected stones. The original function of the monument is not known and just as in the case of the Silbury Hill; many speculations have been made about the role and use of the circles. The irregular shape of the circle rules out any astronomical function, like the Stone-henge circle. It most likely was used as a central meeting place for the community to celebrate festivals and perform rituals.

Inside one of the circles used to be a big stone called ‘the obelisk’, the original stone has disappeared and is now replaced by a concrete marker. The marker is the focus some neo-pagan activity. Quite a few small crystals, gemstones and other objects are put near the stone, as some offering. We can never know the original meaning of these monuments, but by using them in our way in present time, we can bring them back to life and turn these monuments into places of meaning instead of tourist attractions to keep people from being bored for a day or so. If we only rely on the scientific perspective of these monuments, then we can also easily be detached from them.

An ethical perspective

Neo-pagan offering in West Kennet Long Barrow.

Neo-pagan offering in West Kennet Long Barrow.

Using ancient monuments for neo-pagan rituals is a controversial subject. In modern society, we all agree that preserving ancient monuments is imperative and there are many reasons we do this.

Absolute preservation of monuments is impossible. Everything in the universe is subjected to decay and also megaliths will eventually crumble and disappear. But this damage is inevitable and therefore has to be accepted. Human usage of the monuments causes the greatest damage to any monument. In the case of the Neolithic monuments around Avebury, there are three different users: visitors, archaeologists and neo-pagans.

Archaeologists who research the sites and excavate artefacts from its soil cause considerable damage to the sites. Contemporary archaeologists, therefore, try to unearth as less as possible. The earth is an archive, but paradoxically, by ‘reading’ it, one has to destroy its original configuration. Inherent destruction through research is an ethical dilemma all archaeologists have to consider. One has to balance the benefits of scientific knowledge between the destruction of the original configuration of artefacts. To reduce the adverse effects of excavation, they are done in an extremely careful way, trying to record as much as possible. But one is never able to record everything and destruction is inevitable.

Culture is, always has been and always will be, a continuous process of destruction and creation. When performing neo-pagan rituals, we cause damage. The benefits of pagan rituals to our culture are more important than the damage caused by these activities.

Physical damage should, however, always be avoided, don’t leave rubbish behind, don’t make drawings on rocks or perform any other intentional damaging act. Leave nothing but footprints and take only photographs is a rule of thumb that applies very much to the monuments and their use in neo-pagan ritual.

Spiritual damage

Sam Fleming (2000) writes in her article A Plea to Practising Pagans that neo-pagan use of ancient monuments also causes spiritual damage. She writes how the ‘feel’ of a popular site like Stonehenge has deteriorated. She writes:

“Thus, for me, Stonehenge, while being an undeniably powerful place, has too many decades of tourism and strife etched into its original pattern, and I cannot feel the call of the Mother Goddess at Avebury, for the pattern is irreparably cracked and fractured and I suffer intense headaches whenever I am near the inner circle.”

Using an ancient site for ritual does change the energy of the place. But also this is inevitable like the physical deterioration. Ancient energies disappeared, even long before there was any neo-pagan activity. It is a romantic illusion trying to maintain the spiritual energy of ancient cultures. All we can attempt is to reconstruct these cultures and seek to learn from this, although every reconstruction will be laced with 21st-century cultural influences. The original intent of these monuments is lost forever.

Some final thoughts

It is impossible to make reliable inductions about the belief systems of the people who have built the ancient monuments. Most theories of ancient religion are based on analogies with modern day primal cultures as interpreted by anthropologists who have studied them.

The ideological subsystem of a long gone culture can be reconstructed by studying primal cultures which are still around today and comparing the known aspects of the ancient culture with the contemporary one, assuming that, cetis paribus, when the material elements are the same the ideological subsystem will be similar.

We must guard not to confuse the scientific reality of what we can know for sure about the ancient past and modern day interpretations. They both have their value but only together they can help towards a better understanding of our world. The photo below shows a contemporary work of art, designed by Robert Morris. The work is called Observatory and is inspired by ancient monuments such as Avebury and Stonehenge. For this monument, we do know the intentions of the artist who designed it. Morris clearly stipulated that this object is merely a work of art and should both be used in a ‘practical’ way for any ritual by neo-pagans. The intention of the work is to experience a sense of space when walking through it.

Robert Morris, Observatory (1977), Flevoland, the Netherlands

Robert Morris, Observatory (1977), Flevoland, the Netherlands

Some people also try to re-live the ancient times by constructing their stone circles. Go to the website of the Geo Group to find out more on this subject. How will future archaeologists and other enthusiasts interpret these objects? Will future neo-pagans write about mysterious cultures and magic rituals held at these sites? Ancient monuments have become new spiritual places with an almost entirely different function as in the ancient days.

Learning about the roots of Western culture, our pagan heritage, we can redeem a some of the mistakes that have been made in the name of Christianity (which is based on Judaic and Hellenistic concepts, rather then our own cultural history) of the past fifteen hundred years.

References

  • Bouquet, Comparative religion (Penguin Books 1962).
  • Dames, Michael, The Silbury Treasure: The Great Goddess Rediscovered (Thames and Hudson, London, 1978).
  • Fleming, Samantha, A plea to practising pagans, www.ravenfamily.org (2000).
  • Geo Group: Contemporary stone circles, www.geo.org.
  • Malone, Cardine, Avebury (English Heritage 1989).
  • Crystal, Ellie, Silbury Hill.