What’s so special about religion?

Magic, Love, and Material Agency

I was in a discussion with an atheist on facebook today, and after commenting, was thinking about the whole situation, and a thought occurred to me that I’d like to explore.

First of all, it’s interesting that I was asked if I believed in gods to give my life a sense of comfort and meaning, when this person has no idea what my conception of the gods and their agency in the world might be. Just for the record, here’s a shot at tackling it, yes they’re long reads, sorry. They’re interesting and worth it, otherwise I wouldn’t be linking to them. First, read about The Ecology of Magic, then you can read a poem about the khomus to find out something of how I feel magic and the gods can work in the world.

What I find particularly interesting are arguments against magic, the intervention of gods in the world, Etc. Most of them boil down to two or three material causes. Hallucinations are popular, both mass and individual, which is peculiar because hallucinations, mass hallucinations in particular, don’t really seem to get invoked to explain any other phenomenon. I’ve never heard atheists claim they’re subject to hallucinations, or that humans in general are.

However, I’m not really here to tackle hallucinations, as such, so let’s move on. Suppose we have a claim, we’ll take healing, since it seems fairly popular. Suppose somebody claims they prayed and their god healed them, or they went to see a shaman and the shaman healed them, and so on. What often gets invoked is the placebo effect. Disregarding for the moment that it might not exist at all, which makes it irrelevant as an explanation, the basic idea is that your own mind healed you. It’s all material, you see, so the agency must be material, your own brain. Similarly with hallucinations and the like, we have a material cause, some sort of mistake or chemical reaction in the brain. So the response to, “I was healed by the shaman”, or even “I talked with a god”, is to assume some sort of material cause, it was the placebo effect, hallucination, your subconscious, Etc.

Suppose You said to me “I love my boyfriend”. I then replied, “no you don’t”. Your reaction would most likely be to ask me what I mean. Upon hearing the question, I launch into a lecture about how “love” is impossible and doesn’t exist, it is simply some particular state in the brain, and you could just as well love somebody else, other than your boyfriend. I elaborated further and insisted you were entirely mistaken, that “love” did not exist, it was simply a state of your brain. What do you suppose your reaction would be?

If I were to guess, your reaction to being greeted by a lecture on brain states would be something like, “so what”? Sure, it’s brain states and all, but that doesn’t deny the feelings you have for your boyfriend. But if we accept the sorts of arguments against magic and gods I mentioned earlier, then we’re forced to conclude that “love” doesn’t exist, and you can’t “love” anybody. Why? Because just as “talking with a god” is some sort of brain state I have, “love” is some sort of brain state you have. If brain states are “just” brain states, then that applies to all of them, equally.

My point here isn’t to make anybody say, oh magic is real then, or oh I can talk to gods/spirits, or whatever. What I’m suggesting however is that just because you can find a material cause, i.e. some particular brain state, that in no way reduces the potential significance of the experience in question. ALL experiences are brain states, if you’re a materialist. What I’m suggesting is that the argument against having experiences X Y and Z also applies to experiences A B and C, love in the example but it could be anything really.

So if we pursue this argument to its logical extreme, how do I KNOW anything? I just drank water, but maybe it was beer. Sure it didn’t taste like beer and I’m not drunk, but maybe my brain’s just hallucinating all of those things. Maybe I dislike beer so much that my brain tricks me into thinking I’m drinking water to protect me. It’s an argument that basically says, you can never trust your own experiences. Now clearly there are cases where this is so, various forms of mental illness, actual hallucinations, and so forth.

I am in no way suggesting that every thought or experience we have is absolutely 100% correct and to be trusted. What I am suggesting is that the vast majority of our experiences can be trusted, and I thus see no justification for doubting my own experiences without good reason. But accepting these arguments on hallucinations, the subconscious, Etc. would mean just that for me.

But there’s also another point. It puzzles me as to just what the people making these arguments suppose gods ought to do, precisely? We live, to quote the wondrous sage Madonna, in a material world. How else are the gods supposed to act, assuming for the sake of argument that they’re acting, save through said material world? Just as my love for my fiance is embodied in me, in my mind and spirit and body and feelings and so forth, how should say, conversation with a god, not be embodied in me just so? How else is it to manifest, save in brain states and the like? In other words, why would you assume the gods would work through some other thing than material agency? You do, why shouldn’t they?

If you’ve read “The Ecology of Magic”, then you’ve read the story about the ants. That makes tons of sense to me. People want to point at that and go, ah ha, see, they’re mistaken, it’s ants, idiots! I agree with the author, why can’t it be just so? Yes it’s the ants, that’s the point, idiots! Which brings us back to the khomus. When I say instruments have spirits, I’m not talking about some weird mysterious thing, at least not from my perspective. Let me give an example, involving a khomus, appropriately enough.

There’s a technique you can do with your tongue, that’s basically akin to rolling your R’s in Spanish. Now I had tried this with other instruments, and had failed utterly. But one day I got a new khomus, and poof!, it just popped out. Why? That’s the spirit of the khomus. Once it showed me how to do that thing, I can do it whenever, though it works better with some instruments than others. Some flutes only want to go to the start of the third octave, some only go a little above the second. Why? That’s their spirit, that’s what they want to do. You had better learn to work with them.

I find that certain instruments want to play certain things, some want to play happy, some want to play sad, some want to play meditative. Why? That’s their spirit. Maybe somebody else will do a different thing with them. What of that? Would you say my friend doesn’t exist because he and I talk music, while with his other friend he talks baseball? I should surely hope not. So why would you then say that because one flute plays sad for me but happy for somebody else, it has no spirit as I said it did?

I could write a lot more, I haven’t even tackled everybody’s favorite write off, coincidence. But I think this is enough to chew on for now. It gives a rough outline of my animistic conception, if you think of instruments in particular, and it shows my objection to reductionistic materialist arguments, e.g. everything reduces to brain states. If that’s so, then we come back to the question that is the title of this post.

What’s so special about religion? Why does it get this materialist reductionistic treatment, but love, art, politics, Etc. are all exempt? Because they all fall prey to it, eventually. In fact if you push it far enough, so does everything really. If the argument is that I think it’s gods, and not my subconscious/hallucinations because I believe gods exist, then that argument can be turned right back around, how do you know you’re not hallucinating these occurrences out of existence in your own life, and/or claiming they’re just brain things, to maintain the rationalistic order in which you so fervently believe?

Again, my point here is not to convince anybody that religion in general, or any religion in particular, is true, nor am I trying to convince you of the efficacy of magic, and so on. I’m just asking you to think about the arguments made against such things. Because as I’ve said, I think they apply to a lot of things humans do, and demolishing all of them would make it a pretty bleak world.

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