The Art of Creating Religion. Part I

The Art of Creating Religion. Part I April 23, 2016

I am willing to entertain the nondisprovable hypothesis that our religions are inspired by the Gods, but if so, the Gods always employ one or more of us to do the actual writing for them—and we are fallible. If they do send us messages, we rarely understand all of the message or manage to not contaminate it with our own unexamined assumptions, wishful thinking, or simple ignorance of what we would need to know in order to understand such messages fully. It is far more parsimonious to suppose that we create our religions and that all the phenomenology of creativity applies to the creating of religion as well as to creating poetry.  In other words, since one can learn to write better poetry, one can also learn to create better religions. The latter goal is worth pursuing, because, whereas a bad poem is highly unlikely to kill anyone, bad religions do kill people, and always have.

I have been diverted from pursuing that goal many times and in many ways during the last 35 years, but it was the focus of my doctoral program at the GTU, where I chose to go specifically because there I could and did design my own program instead of being forced to study what someone else was interested in. I began with three questions, which generated the topics for my comprehensive examinations. They were:

  1. How did Christianity get started? That became an exam covering all of Judaism and the varieties of Christianity up to the Council of Nicaea.
  2. What was the “secret” of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and how did they become established? That became on exam on Greek religion and literature.
  3. How are new religions created? That became an exam on sociology of religion, satisfied by the research in which I established a history of how Gardnerian Witchcraft was created.
  4. The fourth topic, implicit in the others, was on the psychology of creativity as such.

I believe I found adequate answers to all those questions. I will get around to explaining them later in this series. The major point I will be making is that we do know how all the major religions were created, although the details have been blurred with the passing of time; hence the details we can see in the way that religions have been created recently can be retrojected to reconstruct details about the older religions with a very high probability of being accurate.

I think it will be useful to provide a chronology of the major events and discoveries that have shaped the trajectory of my thinking.

1955: an Awakening (the Gnostic term, to be explained later) that relieved me of all obligation to believe in the truth of Catholic doctrine, that made me a militant agnostic for the next decade, and that set me off thinking about what sort of healthy religion would be needed to replace the toxic pathology about sex I has been taught in my catechism classes. I also discovered Leland’s Aradia.

1959: Discovered Gardner’s Witchcraft Today in the San Francisco public library.

1963: had a second Awakening experience; discovered Reich’s Function of the Orgasm and Alan Watt’s mystical theology; deduced from my anthropology classes the central role of religion in human cultures; and began keeping “Notes Toward the Possibility of Founding a New Religion.”

1967: co-founded the NROOGD.

1970: began working on understanding the origins of Christianity and the Gardnerian Craft.

1974: began my doctoral program at the GTU; received Gardner’s original BOS pages from Charles Clark via Carl Weschcke via Isaac Bonewits.

1975: found Gardner’s “Ye Bok of ye Art Magickal” at Ripley’s in Toronto; co-founded the Covenant of the Goddess.

1976: passed doctoral comprehensive exams; joined Alcoholics Anonymous and began learning the Twelve-Step discipline from the inside.

1977: resigned from the NROOGD; began process of becoming an active Catholic again, which experiment lasted for the following decade.

1985: presented papers on a general theory of new religious movements to the American Academy of Religion.

1987: became active in the Craft movement again.

Aside from my learning about the existence of modern Witchcraft and knowing that it looked like the kind of religion I wanted, my attitude during the years 1955-1963 tended strongly toward the belief typical of unsophisticated skeptics that all religion is bunk. In 1963, thinking about how to define religion, I realized that the one characteristic all religions have in common is that they provide a system of values, which we humans must have in order to make important decisions, importance itself being a value. That fact implies that whatever system of values a person may have, it provides the functional equivalent of a religion—whether the person chooses to label it a religion or not.

My helping create the NROOGD in 1967 was (in hindsight) an experiment to test whether the Craft might prove to be adequate as a religion for the future. My conclusion at this time is that the Craft seems far more likely than most alternatives to succeed in meeting human needs, but it is still far from ideal.

My AAR papers in 1985 arose from the controversy during the preceding decade over “cults” in America. The typical assumption behind such concerns was that a “cult” was a symptom of social dysfunction. Such an assumption is implicit in a religious conservative’s beliefs that all genuine religions are ancient, divinely mandated, and both necessary and sufficient for “salvation,” and that a new religion therefore is not genuine, similarly mandated, or capable of providing “salvation.” The “Satanic panic” of that era was an extreme form of such a belief.

In practice, among academics the controversy took the form of asking, “Why are there cults in America? What is WRONG with America?” Many suggestions were offered about what was wrong, all of them contradictory and logically incompatible. At some point in the early 1980s, I began to ask: What if there is nothing wrong with America? What if the creating of new religions is the normal state? What if it is the lack or new religions that needs to be explained? It quickly became obvious that I had asked a useful question, and I came up with an explanation based on a comparison with evolutionary theory. At the same time—a nice example of the phenomenon of simultaneous invention—Professor Rodney Stark of the University of Washington came up with what he called a “Free Market” theory.

We were both looking at the fact that in America, because of the First Amendment, people who are dissatisfied with a religion or church are free to vote with their feet, that is, free not only to find a new church, but also to create a new church. Looking at past history, one can then see that new religions in great numbers were created in the past; periods when they were not being created were exactly the periods during which a powerful religious bureaucracy was able to stamp out any competition. That is, anticipating some later conclusions, the movements that the official Roman church called heresies were in fact new religious movements, and what we can see about the phenomenology of current movements almost certainly sheds light on those earlier movements. Specifically, what we can know about the current Wiccan/Pagan movement does help explain what was happening with many of the groups lumped together under the label of “Gnosticism.” (And, by the way, all that the term “cult” meant, my colleagues agreed, was “a new religion that I don’t like”—although for some, the reasons for the dislike were valid.)

More will be revealed.

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