Sunday, April 22, 2007

God Said, "Let There Be WHAT?"

I have often wondered why someone from China would choose to be Christian, or why a Californian would become a Buddhist. I have strong and well established views on religion, so I'll sidestep that part of this discussion. I want to discuss how we choose religions, and how we choose to practice the ones that we choose.

I have spent several years living in Asia, in Taiwan and China. I have known people of many faiths there, and in other countries as well including the U.S., Mexico, and Brazil. Something that strikes me over and over is that practicing the same religion in a different place inevitably changes the culture of the religion itself. Or perhaps more accurately, the way a religion is followed will be different when it is followed in different cultures, even though the source texts may be near identical.

For example, Chinese Buddhists often feel that the religion is part of their history, their family, their traditions. But an American who is intellectually drawn to Buddhism (or drawn for other reasons) is intentionally seeking a religion that is foreign to her own culture. Inevitably, part of the appeal is the exotic nature. Futhermore, in the vast majority of cases, the collective character of people who choose to follow a religion is different from those who are taught as children to follow it.

Most practitioners of religion would object to what I am about to say, but in almost every way organized religion operates as a business. It requires money to create its infrastructure - a place to worship, operation capabilities, etc. Member donors by definition have great power of the way in which the religion is taught and practiced locally.

Practicing a religion (as opposed to a philosophy) essentially involves a leap of faith. Faith is the act of accepting a body of formal teachings that cannot be proven. But to practice a religion publicly, you will learn/practice in the context of the way that the religion manifests in your local culture. The practice of Daoism in a group in Manhattan may be similar to a group in San Diego, but they will likely have substantial differences.

Seventy years ago it was common for white southern preachers of Christianity to publicly claim that people with dark skin were not the equals of their white counterparts. This seems ridiculous in hindsight and would be scandalous today - but it illustrates the point. Because religious texts offer contradictory teachings that are open to arbitrary interpretation, the way in which any religion is practiced takes on the character of the practitioners.

I strongly believe that even without making any assumption as to the existence of a higher power, it can be clearly argued that the way we choose to map the teachings in historical religious texts to our society is largely a reflection of that society at a given place and time. The way in which we practice is fluid and is simply an instrument of our subconscious. "We" use it to promote whatever behavior we believe will best suit us, and "we" is a wealth/power weighted average of the self-identifying group in question. I

f you don't believe me ask someone in the American Anglican church about homosexuality. Or the Mormons that practice polygamy about the ones that don't. Or a baptist in Dallas about a gay baptist in San Francisco. Just as a species diverges when it is divided into geographically separted groups, so does a religion diverge when a cultural barrier separates its practitioners.

5 comments:

Jamie said...

I agree. Love this post

Team mangaKITTY said...

Interesting post. I'm afraid I can't comment but will be looking forward to your next posting.

Joe
www.teammangakitty.com

Mike Riley said...

It's nice to see someone throwing ideas on the table in one of these blogs.I agree that cultural differences affect transplanted religions. But I wonder how much of that is changes to the original added by those trying to make THE NEW palatable to those unfamiliar with the concept [concider how the Jesuit missionaries changed Catholicism to make it a more viable option to Japanese natives, for instance]. Just a thought...

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Gregory A. Becerra said...

I think many people relate to religions based on their depth of understanding of the entire structure of the religion. As people learn more about their religion they discover this political-economic system that you mention and I think this discourages them.

So the reaction is that they hear about other religions that share some surface views, or do something they relate to (like yoga or tai chi or oneness) and fully jump into it, instead of just picking up the one thing, and not realizing that it is a religion with its own political-economic structure like the one they just left.

I believe most people maintain a surface knowledge of their religion, not just the belief system, but the entire religion and its structure, and that is enough to keep them anchored. Others become part of the system, so are anchored within the structure itself. And then there is a small group that earnestly try to learn all they can, but then religion hop until they fall into one of the two prior groups or hop indefinitely feeling forever unfulfilled.

(BTW: For sake of argument I consider a lack of religion on par with a particular religion in terms of what I posted, so one of the religious hops could be to non-religion.)