Sunday, July 5, 2015

Ode to Life Or How Religion is Opposed to Living

Waterfall hidden in green
On a sunny day on my way to the confines of work I was struck with swirling ideas and floating feelings. In other words, I felt alive. There was a sense of - metaphorically speaking – running around through wild grass and jumping into clear rivers filled with colored fish. No, I was not on drugs, far from it, but those sensations could be classified as being “high” or in tune with nature and all that pulsates and throbs with life.

In that moment, everything fell away and apart like dust. The intellectual ceased and gave way to unadulterated and spontaneous outbursts of feelings. I imagined myself bursting out into operatic songs. And I re-evaluated the meanings and connotations attributed to our notion of life.

What is life? It seems that the most relevant aspect of life are the senses. It is the sensual cues that make us vividly aware of our surroundings. To be alive is your heart beating profusely, your eyes taking in visual beauty, your ears attuned to the musical sounds of nature, your nostrils filled with the odor of all that is emitting hues of scents.

Being alive means seeing and feeling and digesting in color. This was shown in cinematic experiments where the black and white of the dead gives in to the colored perception of the living. The most striking example is the masterpiece Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders, in which an angel used to see the world in shades of grey but when he becomes human, everything is converted into color. He feels cold and rubs his hands with glee. He is delighted to taste his blood or a cup of hot coffee.

It is those natural and often ignored sensations that make us alive. We are too often immersed in our imaginary talk and limit ourselves to the tiny space within our heads. We are worried about the past, the present and the future, our jobs and our families and in such an unhealthy state, life passes us by. It just happens to us and floats away unnoticed while we are busy making other plans as John Lennon sings, or we do not breathe and do not stay home to watch the rain only to realize that we are nearing our own demise, as Pink Floyd exclaims.

So life can be subsumed to two things: the present and our senses. If we base our definition on these two aspects, there are things that are against life and others that promote it. For example, philosophy, as much as I love it, is for the most part, anti-life. It mistrusts the senses and puts on a high pedestal the tiny voice in our head that prides itself and feeds off on logic and reason.

When we look at the arts, cinema, music, fiction and poetry, we see that they, again for the most part, embrace life. They accentuate feelings and sensations, perceive them under the magnifying glass and help us to spill over those insights into our daily life. A seemingly dreadful life of routine and hardship may turn into a blossoming flower and affirmation of human existence.

Where does religion end up? It again depends on our brand. But if we look at what is given as mainstream religion, then we sense that it is notoriously anti-life. The senses and natural instincts are not only mistrusted but seen as evil temptations. All that makes us alive we are told to cut out like a budding cancer or withered leaves and instead we ought to rely on something vaguely defined as soul. Our eyes are not focused on this life, the here and the now but an after-life in the realms of the far future, a place that we eventually might not even be able to see with our physical eyes.

All this ties in with some of my beliefs on life and sacrifice. As much as I think it would be heroic to give one's life for a cause, I also deem it foolish and the most anti-life act one can imagine. If religion asks you to give up your life, then it is opposed to all things living, and I do not wish to subscribe to it. Also if its constant focus is on death and destruction, such as the end of all life or the apocalypse without taking into account the beauty of life that lies within this same period, then it is equally misguided in its outlook.

So if we constantly and consistently suppress our natural desires, then we are becoming dead. Death is the end or lack of sensations; it is the endless sleep that has no dreams and hence no feelings whatsoever. What mainstream and organized religion, especially in its radical form, is often asking us is to become eunuchs to life; to suppress our passions and sexual desires and everything else that makes us human.

This may seem harsh, but I am not equating God with religion at this point, the same way we cannot equate Jesus with being a Christian. In fact, Jesus has stood up for all that which makes us alive and has opposed all that which is keeping us stagnant, but his teachings have become strangely crystallized into motionless, limited and limiting dogmas and doctrines. Those teachings have been put on their heads and under the banner of religion, the religious representatives are asking people to do things, which Jesus himself was criticizing in the first place.

If this seems contrary to most people's experience, then I would like to point out that Jesus was not averse to food and wine nor the occasional dance at weddings (he even turned water into wine not merely to show off with a miracle but to add to general merriment). He hung out with prostitutes and openly defied authorities, the priests and the Roman oppressors. The only reason he embraced death because he deemed it as necessary for his purposes, something which I will not comment upon at this point.

So how should we live? One thing I am opposed to and am not condoning here is hedonism, at least in its extreme form. I do not think anarchy would be the strongest expression of life. Anything in its excess will lead to negative consequences. What I prefer is a mild form of hedonism, where you partake in good food, wine, and sex but in good and healthy measure.

At the same time, I am not saying that one should throw ethics and morals out the door. Quite the contrary. I think having an ethical life is compatible with one that is life-affirmative and positive. One should, of course, control sexual instincts and desires wherever and whenever it is deemed inappropriate, but one should not give it up altogether nor control it too strictly or unduly.

Slight hedonism is the best way to go in my view. One should feel life to the utmost, but also not become a slave to one's passions. As the Buddhist says the best way lies in moderation. Yet that moderation is often lacking in our daily existence, and we either diet or binge on life, hence never seeming to find the right and healthy balance between the two.


Vincent said...

I admire your first part, both the point of view and the clarity with which you express it; and I agree with what you say too. In fact what you write is a summary of something which it took several years of my blog to explore and report upon.

But then you start a paragraph “Where does religion end up?” which from the evidence of your title is linked with your first part as the antithesis of “life”, in the images and feelings you have invoked.

I imagine you would not be surprised by some sort of rebuttal, if only from supporters of “mainstream religion”. I shan’t do that, but note in passing that your phrase is clearly a term from an outsider looking in, a kind of exonym. Those who identify themselves as being religious Christians, Buddhists, Jews etc will have a subjective sense of what this means in their life individually, and may think of it as the most precious thing in life, that gives it meaning and colour as you did in your first part. And they might practise it in such a way as to enhance their sensual experience, without being inhibited by a bunch of “thou shalt nots”.

I find it always necessary to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. It is more difficult in my case, as I live in a district of town almost next door to a place of worship where the faithful come to prayer several times a day and on Fridays there are several hours when streams of worshippers attend in their Friday best, often overflowing to adjacent spaces outdoors . And it’s been their fasting season for several weeks now, a rule which seems to be applied rigorously, and conceived as a virtuous deed to compensate for other sins (for all I know). And there are many aspects to that religion that I don’t understand. But I cannot say what their experience is, or to what extent it is anti-life. Why do they pray so often? Does it truly come from the heart? Does it give them some kind of ecstatic union? And so on. Of course I can observe from the outside, and I do, and draw my own conclusions. To speak publicly about those conclusions, I suspect, would be against the law of these islands, which proscribes any expression which might foster hate, etc.: quite rightly so, in the circumstances. But one effect of my living here and being thus forced to a close observation of what goes on, like a stranger in a foreign land, is to look upon all the other religions more benignly, as well as the British way of life, from which some of my neighbours exclude themselves.

Having said all this, I find your main point entirely valid, while insisting that by lumping “mainstream” religion into a singular category, we will miss important details and distinctions.

What you have not touched upon, I think is “Why?” and I cannot blame you for that. Ultimately we cannot blame religions themselves because they are human constructs, usually not invented in our generation but attaching themselves to individuals or cultural groups like bacteria, not all of which are necessarily toxic; but perhaps participating in some symbiotic exchange.

Vincent said...

Please forgive me, Arash, for clogging your comments column with thoughts on this matter which may not directly relate to your (stimulating as ever) post, but I would like to add a brief postscript.

I see religion as a clothes horse for hanging people’s hopes, prayers, fears, aspirations & magical encounters for which the prosaic and atheistic world may have no explanation. All too often, I think, the ones who dismiss religion are propped up by worldly advantage, whether earned or inherited, and have little empathy with the downtrodden, for whom hope, even when you and I may agree it is false hope, provides sustenance and strength.

So that is one side of the symbiosis on which religions depend. The other side may be venal and toxic: exploitation of those hopes etc for evil deeds at worst, and for manipulation and control at a lesser but still potentially harmful level.

That religions become corrupted, again and again, is historical fact. But it’s just as true, surely, that religion has inspired great deeds and great lives.

One has to take a long view. One can see a killjoy element in religious history too, but then one has to study the context too.

Arash Farzaneh said...

You can clog up my column anytime with your insightful and well-written comments, dear Vincent! And for the most part I do agree with you, but there are some clarifications I would like to make as well.

To begin with, if I had not added the passage of religion being the antithesis of life, then I would have thought my post to be rather tame or "lame." See I need to stir up some (but not too much) controversy or at least to have a slight edge or twist to my writing.

I am aware that I am lumping terms when I speak of mainstream religion. But the thing is anything that is mainstream is pretty much conforming to similar ideals and sets of beliefs and therefore, this is not a misnomer. There are, I accept, exceptions to the rule, of course.

Now you claim that I am judging from the outside, but I am not sure you can make that claim. In fact, this may be an insider's look and criticism; I may be a believer who is simply stating that the stronger focus of death and suffering should be softened with harmony and love, which I believe are the true and unfiltered messages of almost all religions out there.

Yes, there is abuse, and yes there is hope, the latter of which may or may not be false. But the moment where these things interfere with the general enjoyment of life, there is a problem. My own experience of religion is that there are more thou shalts and shalt nots than actual acceptance of life. The concept of sin is the real killjoy of religion.

Again I do not have anything against religion. What I am talking about is the "venal and toxic" aspects of it. When religion tries to become scientific, that is when it is doomed. For example, at a science exhibit my son overheard a woman tell her daughter that dinosaurs are a figment of the imagination. So is global warming, whereas marriage ought to be only between a man and a woman. This is where I believe that we have the right or rather the duty to disagree with those voices.

My final concern is that God and religion are not one and the same. But that is an upcoming post so I will not give away too much at this point...