Saturday, April 07, 2007

Religion: Opiate or Stimulant?

Picture of an innocent looking poppy flower. Ironic that something so beautiful could cause so much damage

For those who've been reading this blog for a bit, you know that religion is something that I am passionate about. As a Baha'i I believe that true religion is the most powerful force for personal transformation and social change in history, which makes it something pretty important to try and understand. I've recently offered a few Baha'i thoughts about the problem of political religion, and the importance of both integrity and flexibility to mature religious faith. Now I'd like to comment on something that I've been thinking about a great deal lately: Is religion an opiate or a stimulant? Working in the addictions field, I see the human cost of both opiates and stimulants everyday, but in this case I'm speaking metaphorically, similar to the must-read document, One Common Faith, commissioned by the Universal House of Justice:

In large measure, the individual was left free to maintain whatever relationship he believed connected his life to a world transcending material existence, but society as a whole proceeded with growing confidence to sever dependence on a conception of the universe that was judged to be at best a fiction and at worst an opiate, in either case inhibiting progress. Humanity had taken its destiny into its own hands. It had solved through rational experimentation and discourse-so people were given to believe-all of the fundamental issues related to human governance and development.
(Commissioned by The Universal House of Justice, One Common Faith)

While I believe that true religion acts more as a stimulant than an opiate, opiate religion is very real and its influence on the soul and society are just as destructive as political religion. I define opiate religion as religion whose focus is on increasing the comfort and/or personal pleasure of those who adhere to it. While followers of opiate religion may display some level of social consciousness and commitment, their actions, both individual and collective, are guided ultimately by the seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain. Opiate religion is the faith-based version of the cultural tendency I discussed in The Pursuit of a Pain Free America:

Generations of Americans who have grown up conditioned by a materialistic, consumption-driven culture have come to believe that they are entitled to a life free from pain or discomfort of any kind. According to this view of life, pain is pathological, even worse than death. The "pursuit of happiness" recognized by our Founding Fathers as an important aspect of freedom has mutated into an egocentric sense of entitlement to happiness on demand, 24/7. Our whole society has become increasingly organized around "feeling good" and if that doesn't work not "feeling" at all. If a pill can make either of those things happen reliably, "PASS ME THE PILLS!" This attitude is widespread and impacts every challenge America is facing at this time. The solution to these challenges requires a willingness to sacrifice, but that would involve pain, which has become unacceptable to the American psyche. This is not to suggest that there are not millions of Americans making sacrificial contributions every day for the betterment of our society and the world. But in my experience even well-meaning people have a "pain threshold" beyond which they are not willing to go even when achieving their well-meaning goals clearly demands it. Why? Because the right to happiness in the final analysis trumps everything else.

The psychological preoccupation with acquiring and maintaining comfort is something that can be found among all strata of American society. Both privilege and oppression have narcotic influences on the human soul. For the privileged, their capacity to tolerate pain and make sacrifices that might be necessary for spiritual growth and the advancement of society become progressively dulled as the development of those latent capacities of the soul is neglected. For the oppressed, the pain they are made to endure because of their oppression perverts a legitimate desire to be free, transforming it into a desire to get the same comforts they see the privileged enjoying, even if it means sacrificing their spiritual integrity to do so.

In a religious context, these dynamics get played out in a few ways. The privileged tend to create or be attracted to narco-congregations that gratify their need for comfort and either provide a rationalization for or at least do not seriously challenge, their privileged status in society. The privileged may engage in some form of charity towards the less fortunate, but this is largely paternalistic and has little to do with transforming the social order in any meaningful way that might require some pain on their part. For the oppressed, their narco-congregation provides a space where the pain of oppression is alleviated through an emphasis on either a personal relationship with God or promises of reward in the next life. In such settings, neither one's personal relationship with God, nor the promises of heavenly reward demand transforming society, or letting go of lusting after what one's more privileged neighbors possess. Opiate religion in some ways functions as the pods did in that movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. While one is sleeping their way through a dream world of material or heavenly delights, a noble and dynamic soul, capable of moral excellence and revolutionary action, becomes replaced by a narcissistic zombie, shuffling around moaning, "Make me feel gooooooood."

My point is not that joy and happiness are unimportant in religious life. Joy and happiness are significant in Baha'i teaching, as I have addressed in the past. Like integrity and flexibility in mature faith, it is a question of embracing both pain and joy as necessary aspects of spiritual development and social change. Faith without pain is like progress without struggle:

"If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. "
Frederick Douglass

I want a religion of thunder and lightning of joy and pain. I refuse to fall asleep. I refuse to become a zombie.

How about you?