Collie Creating
Codex Firestarter

What is religion? part II

by Collie Collier
July 2005 Firestarter column

In last month's Firestarter, What is religion? part I, I examined a particular, unusual religious ceremony which caused quite a bit of controversy. I experienced it on-line, then analyzed the critiques and accusations leveled at it, as well as exploring a few possible religious ramifications of the ceremony and the critiques.

In the process of doing so, I also figured out what I myself thought of the ceremony. This time around, in this Firestarter, I'd like to consider on a broader cultural canvas the possible reasons for the fury and claims of religious invalidity which this ceremony aroused.

In order to most effectively examine any cultural artifact, it's best to start by defining terms, so at the very least we know we're talking about the same thing. As I am a cheerful amateur anthropologist who was exposed in college to a great many of the writings of the great French sociologist and philosopher Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), and he did a ground-breaking and revelatory study on the basis of human religion, I shall refer to his studies. I strongly suggest you do your own readings on him as well, as he's quite fascinating, but for now let's confine ourselves to his views on religion.

In 1912 Durkheim published The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Durkheim's intent in so examining religion was both practical and modern: "If we have taken primitive religion as the subject of our research, it is because it has seemed to us better adapted than any other to lead to an understanding of the religious nature of man, that is to say, to show us an essential and permanent aspect of humanity. (emphasis mine)" So what does this mean, in reference to our necessary definition?

First of all, it helps defines the parameter's of Durkheim's study: religion is created by society as much as society is shaped by religion. As this has been my personal experience as well, I have some empathy for this position. It is true there are other anthropological studies undertaken from a more individualist viewpoint, but I know of no individuals who experience religion as something they personally create and interpret, free of societal influence. Therefore I shall use Durkheim's definition as the basis of my exploration of why some members of our society became so enraged by the clown mass.

Defining religion

According to Durkheim, religion in its most basic form consists of three necessary elements: a set of religious beliefs (which explain what is sacred or profane), a set of religious rites (which explains how to handle both types of phenomena in daily life), and a church (which is made up of a morally united community). The evolution of a religion is dependent on, and intrinsically linked to, the basic cultural structures of the society it is an integral part of. In its simplest form, religion is a manifestation of society attempting to validate itself.

Religion stabilizes a culture, aiding the society's members to come together as a unified community. Through implementation of the society's religiously-validated rules for proper conduct and moral discipline, this created belief system helps a society define itself -- that which is sacred must be set aside and revered, while the profane becomes that which is merely everyday or mundane. The religion's rituals help create intense emotions and bonding between its participants, binding individuals into a collective by means of shared, validating experience. In its simplest form, a religion offers a unifying emotional catharsis.

Acts of worship serve the manifest purpose of strengthening the ties between the faithful and their god, and since the god is a figurative representation of the best of that society, worship at the same time strengthens the ties between the individual and the society. Through these highly charged, shared rituals the audience reaches its expected and desired emotional catharsis, symbolically placing their belief or energy into totemic symbols of what they define as sacred. These holy totems can be physical (such as a crucifix or the sacraments) or emotional (such as the belief that only men should be priests).

Most holy texts generalize recurrent cultural motifs, and most of them also define as sacred the hypostatised cultural norm 'Man.' This religious totemization of Man allows the community (ruled and defined primarily by men) to create and worship itself, and justifies a collective effervescence that somehow always seems to place women into the category of every-day, common, profane. Man becomes the sacred object which commands respect and obligation; thus the society's totemic objects and symbols (including both Man and the religion itself) end up containing the society's sacred energy, invested via the society's religious rituals.

Through this ritually unchanging paradigm the audience reaches its expected emotional catharsis. The religious service is a societal allegory; as one of society's totemic objects it allows the audience (and through it, society) to justify and worship itself -- it is structured according to its deity's desires; it is sacred.

By this point the structure of the religious tradition itself has become iconic; it denotes identity representation for the society's members. It cannot occur in any other fashion, for to do so would be to derail the collective effervescence, dissipating the mutual social energy and sentiment it inspires, and call into question the hegemonic assurances of the sacrality of Man which the religious service's totemistic nature implies.

Holy clowns?

This is why the clown mass created such outrage: for some people it sacrilegiously conflated the sacred and the profane, thereby calling into doubt their own sacred societal collective. That which is sacred (or highbrow) maintains a separation between performer and audience, and participation in the sacred is an elite symbol of refinement and being superior, elite, and "saved."

Signs of the Sacred

There are several components in this process of sacralization: rigidification of the original work (in this case fundamentalist views on Biblical interpretation and infallibility, and the accompanying religious rituals); belief in the religious version of the "trickle down" theory (i.e. proselytizing, or attempting to conflate one's politics with one's religious morality); the need for education in order to 'understand' that which is sacred (which invariably means your accepting their religion as the sole possible Truth); the belief in the religion's ethics and morality as unique civilizing forces which alone teach 'purity' and 'truth' and maintain 'order.'

The sacred also receives several environmental aids to increase its apparent worth or purity: it is performed in large, beautifully appointed, imposing buildings with accompanying educational handouts passed out by reverently quiet and watchful church employees who manage the audience, forcing it to behave as desired, thus assisting in this process of sacralization.

Accordingly, with the decline of the sacred as a publicly appreciated and participative forum (when was the last time you went to a church service where audience members sang and danced in the aisles along with the clergy?) there's been a corresponding decline of powerfully orated preaching and emotional audience reaction.

"Proper" appreciation and creation of the sacred now seems to involve -- practically demand, in fact -- an increasingly introverted attitude. To perform or emote too broadly is melodrama, which is mundane, embarrassing and ridiculous; to orate or testify with an excess of passion or hyperbole is considered pandering to hysteria and over-emotionalism.

Today the performance of that which is Sacred requires reverent, attentive quiet by the audience, towards the equally calm and dispassionate cleric-performer. The Sacred is absorbing, renewing, and illuminating; it is supposed to edify and uplift, to be appreciated by only those "saved" individuals, rather than the profane, unappreciative "common" masses of humanity.

Pitfalls of Profanity

At the other extreme, there are clowns: mundane, every-day, common -- they appeal to the masses, and they definitely aren't sanctified by society-created holy ritual. Because they aren't sacred or elite, a clown-run church service becomes mass produced; an art form for the masses no matter how reverent or educational. Because it is appreciated by the masses it cannot possibly be truly creative, nor truly uplift or ennoble.

Nothing mass produced can be truly sacred, according to the culture's 'high priests' -- it is merely participative or 'low-brow' popular culture. Further, anyone can be a clown, and often those of the masses who enjoy clowns become clowns themselves. Thus clowns as a subset of the common man -- as well as the participative nature of the religious service -- function to prevent a clown mass from being considered as Sacred by those with fundamentalist views of religion.

Fundamentals of religion

To the offended, the clown mass shattered their unquestioning belief in societal hegemony and dispelled the certainty of their sacred correctness within their shared rituals. They invariably blamed the clown mass for introducing postmodern "evil" into society, but its greatest evil was to introduce personal uncertainty into their sacred collective. In order to correct that the offended must work even harder to isolate themselves from the mundane, and to more rigidly interpret and perform their supposedly more holy, more correct religious rituals.

What is the basis of this horrifiedly offended emotional reaction? It's a form of fundamentalism -- the selective (mis)use of a religion or cultural beliefs, based on claims of historical and/or cultural 'authenticity,' to promote a particular hegemonic societal norm. As in this case, fundamentalism frequently takes holy texts out of context, applying and teaching only those verses which support their particular view. Fundamentalists also routinely insist upon the incontrovertible and divinely infallible proof offered by these holy texts, and demand unquestioning submission (defined as faith) from the religion's adherents.

Fundamentalists appear to distrust the 'common man,' finding humans incapable of governing themselves either politically or religiously. Fundamentalists further distrust secular education as a means of civilization, instead believing only hierarchical religious force will suffice -- and curiously, they seem to always place themselves at the top of that hierarchical pyramid. I suspect these religious dogmatists base their beliefs of infallibility and moral rectitude upon both fear, and distrust of their own subsumed desires. Like any subculture, they fear being swallowed up and forgotten -- or worse, ignored -- of becoming part of the (to them) vast, frightening, homogenous 'masses.'

Current fundamentalist (and unfortunately sometimes also hegemonic) thought wishes to remove both agency and power from women and minorities -- both of which are clearly profane, not sacred. It blames the fading of strong, stifling social boundaries (such as gender roles and isolated priesthoods) for the loss of some idyllic, selectively remembered fictional historical golden age.

There is a lack of flexibility inherent in these fundamentalist views, which freezes a perceived historical past to justify a present or desired reality. Such a comforting, created world view therefore may not change with changing reality, for it was first conceived as a defense against too-rapid change in the modern day world.

To them the elite male priesthood should always lead the masses, and believers will always be superior to non-believers, for so it has always been in their limited memories, and so their religious totems tell them it should always be. As in the totem, so should it be in society; as in society, so in the religious service. Like many subcultures, I suspect their increasingly hysterical assertions of individual or priestly elitism will in the end make them hollow, ritual-bound keepers of sterile and heartless products which inspire no one; that doom them to becoming an out-moded and/or forgotten back-eddy in the ever-moving river of cultural development.

This is, frankly, intellectually limiting. Imposing such restrictive religious and cultural roles inhibits us, forcing a hierarchical, oppositional set of religio-cultural meanings that stifle the true breadth of human response. Such a narrow view of life imprisons the individual as well as the religion, forcing mutually exclusive, limited roles where one group inevitably dominates the other.

Cultural sacralization

Religious dogma is not utterly unchanging, of course. Given enough time it too follows cultural modification, just like any other artifact or structure. To see this sort of change occurring more rapidly (and thus more recognizably), we can usefully examine art, as a good example of this sort of cultural change and sacralization.

Today we regard Wagner's stirring operas, William Shakespeare's witty plays, the stories of Charles Dickens, or the lush sculptures of Michelangelo as magnificent examples of the "classics," as cultural treasures. They are considered "fixed," perfect and immutable in form. Their proper observation and comprehension is believed to designate you as part of the cultured, intellectual elite, your disciplined thoughts raised to properly metaphysical speculations, your behavior correctly reverent and appreciative of the wonders you experience.

That is now. Then, however, things were a little different. Dickens was a hack writer for newspapers and magazines, churning out penny-dreadfuls on a weekly basis to make a living. Shakespeare could best be described as a soap opera writer, creating plays which appealed to the illiterate masses as well as to their not-much-more-educated masters. Michelangelo, while an artistic genius, was apparently an under-socialized and rude individual who struggled with money problems most of his life, while Wagner was described at the time as bombastic and intellectually self-serving.

So it's clear our artistic cultural standards, as well as our religiously totemic imagery, change meaning and importance over time. None of the artists I mentioned above were bad at what they did -- but appreciation of their creations by various cultures changed over time. So too has a small, then-peculiar, and disreputable cult led by a wandering, begging wise man grown to be one of the major organized religions in the world today.

Society's structuring of myth

When it comes right down to it, religious services embody and inform cultural mythology, attempting to conflate society with the religion, and establishing a socially patterned mode of action among the people as a whole. Religious services become embodiment of the myths of the society -- in this case, a form of mythic language that normalizes the middle-class religious society it both creates and is created by.

Myth-making by the religious middle class today sacralizes and defines itself -- it is both cultural domination and ideological absorption of non-believers and the lower class, and a way for the religious middle class to become the unnamed standard of normality. Mythology is by its nature fundamentalist -- it is concerned only with phenomena at a particular time period, and usually not with historical antecedents. One of its least known and most powerful attributes is its ability to strip an idea of its history.

Thus those outraged by the clown mass have either forgotten or never knew that Jesus himself was supposed to have created similar religious and societal outrage by attempting to re-interpret his society's religious laws. However, currently his church has been so completely absorbed into society as to now be the definition of sacrality, and any deviation whatsoever from the church's created rituals is perceived as profanity.

And this has occurred, sadly, despite the church supposedly being about the teachings of a man who himself struggled to re-define for his society what was sacred and what was profane.

Reader comments

07.05.05: Erin's thoughts

(and my replies)

I just read the Religion: Part II essay. You've done an excellent job of defining fundamentalism and the role it plays in society. I think you've hit the nail on the head in regards to the attitudes about the clown eucharist.

Thank you! I was hoping it was clear; I've been told on occasion I write too technically or formally.

You did say one thing I wasn't sure I agreed with. You said that insular fundamentalism of that kind is doomed to become a cultural anomaly - to make itself less and less relevant to the society it lives in. So far, I'm not seeing that.

What I'm seeing is fundamentalist forms of several religions becoming the dominant forms of their faiths. This seems to be happening because of the political connection.

Everywhere that fundamentalism is taking over, it's doing so by putting one of its own into the position of most power. That person then surrounds himself with like-minded individuals and directs policy to reflect fundamentalist values - at least, some of them. He also engages the public relations department to sell these values, which has the effect of turning more moderate believers who agree with him into near-fundamentalists.

In the long run, you're probably right - this will fall by the wayside. But right now, it's getting bigger, not smaller.

I quite agree with you that in the short run this problem will possibly loom quite large. It is, after all, a very common and modern-day issue which we're dealing with here: the fear of, or inability to cope with, rapid cultural change.

In the short term, huddling into simple hierarchical social forms (which actually worked in another time) may seem like the safest way to handle the frightening (to them) onslaught of social change.

However, it's my hope eventually everyone will learn how to handle change smoothly and without fear. At that point perhaps they'll realize atavistic social forms which worked in a simpler time just aren't appropriate or relevant any longer, and we can move on to thoughtfully creating something better.

In the long term, of course, we know such fearful, reactive behavior has never worked, and I'm a firm believer in the old adage about those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. This is why I try to look at both cultures and religions with a long term view -- to see if we've done this before.

As it happens, and as I note in the final paragraph, we have! This is good; it means if we're smart and thoughtful then we can learn from our ancestors' experience. It's a little sad the current fundamentalists have missed that it was their own religion which was the "shit disturber," but eventually hopefully they'll gain enough confidence to not need knee-jerk reactions in order to feel comfortable.

Thanks again for replying -- I so love interesting discourse! ;)

07.05.05: Jonathan's thoughts

(and my replies)
[note for my readers: I post my Bestiary updates in my Live Journal as well as on the Bestiary mailing list. That's what Jonathan is referring to in the following comment.]

Interestingly, two entries below this one on my 'journals-I-read' page is someone who uses an image from the clown mass as an icon (for when they're in a cynical mood, I think.)

*sigh* Yes, I know of that unhappy gentleman; he's one of the horrifiedly offended whom I quoted in the What is religion? part I Firestarter. I feel a bit sorry for him -- he's coming late to the clergy while they're mired in a painful struggle to decide whether the church becomes stagnant or remains relevant to today's world.

The clown eucharist struck me as... odd. I wasn't offended, per se, since it was not done to mock. But it made me feel kind of odd. I'm not entirely sure what they were hoping to show, prove, or demonstrate with it, and I think that a lot of the "sound and fury" directed at the clown mass is from people who don't understand what the heck was up with it. I'm not entirely sure I know, either.

And so without that understanding, it only strikes me as odd, a curiosity, and (unfortunately) makes it little more than ammunition in an us-vs-them conflict that's currently tearing the Anglican Church apart at the seams. I would have been able to understand it if the clergy were skyclad in a grove, and I know there's some sort of deeper cultural symbolism to clowns, but as it is... it kind of baffles me.

Have you watched the entire service? I'm curious, too -- why would "skyclad" have been all right, but "clown-clad" is not? Am I missing something here in your words?

I'd have to say if the clown mass made you feel odd, it was doing its job, just as Jesus did his job -- to do his best to disturb and unsettle the emotionally settled or religiously complacent of his time. Further, I think if you take the time to think about it, reflect on it, and try to come to some understanding of what
you think the clown eucharist meant -- then you too will have done your job as a conscientious religious or spiritual person.

Please note, this emphatically does not mean you have to agree with me! To my knowledge Jesus never said anything about me in particular, or anyone else in general, being the absolutely definitive translator of his words (although if I were, I would
certainly have words to spare for certain folks! ;-). What I was given to understand religiously was that you (generalized you, in this case) have free will, and it is up to you to exercise it responsibly!

So whichever way you decide, whatever conclusions you arrive at concerning the clown mass or your personal religious beliefs... blessings on you from whatever deities you have -- and
think! ;)

Reply to Jonathan from Erin:

Maybe they were hoping to validate the clowns' faith and their use of their art to further it? As far as I'm concerned, it had very little to do with the rest of the Anglican church - it was a holiness service for clowns, and any other purpose would naturally be secondary to that one.

Reply from me to Erin:

The impression I got was it was an attempt to break down some of the boundaries between the clergy and the audience, and between ritualized dogma and Jesus's actual teachings.

For example, I know there is an "Old Guard" in the clergy which is fundamentalist in the way I described in this month's Firestarter -- rigid, dogmatic, hidebound, believing only men can be clergy, gays are anathema, men are better than women, hierarchies are good and god-installed -- that kind of thing.

On the other hand there's a sort of "New Guard" in the clergy as well, which wants to implement what they see as Jesus's actual teachings: Love, inclusiveness, forgiveness, tolerance, dependence on Jesus's actual words rather than poor translations or later ethnocentrisms which have been frozen into current dogma, the church as a group of peers gathered in Jesus's name rather than a hierarchically superior clergy and a supplicating inferior laity -- that sort of thing.

It'll be interesting to see what happens in the Christian church. I do hope kindness and love wins out, although as you noted, Erin, it does seem fear and intolerance has the current upper hand. Still, I try to keep faith in deifically inspired human nature. We'll see. ;)

07.05.05: Jon's thoughts

(and my replies)

Regarding singing and dancing in the aisles during a service:
That actually happens yearly in many congregations, at the end of the cycle of reading through the Torah. And at Purim, it's not only considered permissible but vital to get up and dance or make noise during the religious holiday. Judaism can be a very hands-on religion; it's too bad that we have our own better-than-thou contingent, and downright shameful when those fundamentalists eagerly join other right-wingers.

That is so cool to hear! Considering Christianity was born of Judaism, and Jesus was a nice Jewish boy, it's a darned shame Christians seem so assiduous in forgetting their roots.