Marx is endlessly requoted as saying religion is the opiate of the people. In light of recent history a modern Marx might say religion is more akin to the cocaine or meth amphetamine of the people. Has religion changed so much it has gone from being a pacifying drug to an exciter of drama?
We take drugs to make up for something lacking in our lives: happiness, calm, excitement, meaning. People know they are missing something in life. They look to balance themselves on the evidence presented, they look to stabilise using publicly available information. They try to become exoterically stable. But it’s impossible. The exoteric is composed of families, tribes, states, corporations- all of which give voice to ‘their’ own need for survival through people who have been sucked in to become inadvertent mouthpieces for these supra-human entities. Ever had a cause ‘take you over’? I have, briefly, it’s a delicious feeling of empowerment without guilt, doubt or confusion. But we are human individuals, linked with everything at an invisible, esoteric, level, not through the gross alliances of family and nation. Not that these aren’t important, they are, they provide the nutritional framework for life- what they can’t do is supply a real sense of ultimate purpose. Because what is most real (in many senses) is also hidden, then its concepts and ideas – when they become publicised- always run the risk of becoming traduced and cheapened, turned from being gold coins into metal discs good as a washer or a weight of some sort. The real meaning is lost and the esoteric concept becomes yet another item used by the exoteric world. The other day I was looking at a 19th century travel book about Iraq- it showed a drawing of the copper peacock of the Yezidis- a religious cult that still exists. Four of these copper birds were used to rally the people and were only revealed on special occasions. But from the drawing it was obvious that this was a sculptural representation of the path to personal enlightenment- the decorated handle indicating the different stages of growing awareness. Yet this item had become a kind of political device- rather like the mace wielded by western monarchs. It has been watered down to help the exoteric- the tribe- to survive. It happens with symbols- look how the yinyang symbol has become the flag of Korea, reduced from a meditation object to an emotional rallying point.
The esoteric is always having to reinvent itself, find new untainted ways to preserve and represent the kind of truths we need to make personal progress in this and future lives.
The exoteric world’s failure to supply meaning is further complicated because the same groups that fail to supply meaning distort things in order to appear as ‘supplying meaning’. In the current world a lack of involvement (caused by the disintegration of ‘traditional’ structures) means there are widespread feelings of worthlessness. Involvement supplies ‘A’ grade attention. If you have children compare the effect playing a board game has on them with merely asking to see their latest painting or lego toy. Involvement, as my friend Ramsay Wood informed me, is indeed the higher form of attention.
But involvement is hard to conjure out of thin air. And the modern westernised world undermines structures that served very effectively to involve people in the past. These can’t be revived, alternatives are appearing all the time, but slowly and quietly. Meanwhile vast numbers of people do not get enough attention and drama in their everyday lives. So, if, in the past, when there was enough drama and attention in life, exoteric religion could function as something encouraging contemplation and patience, now more pressing concerns are forced upon its malleable form. In the exoteric world ‘religion’ is the first and most famous tourist destination for ‘meaning’. It’s the Tower of London. But now the ‘meaning’ people require includes this undigested need for involvement. Involvement that will generate high levels of attention and drama. Until we find a way of integrating that into the modern westernised version of life currently sweeping the globe, then expect religion to supply it in various grotesque and distorted ways. If the people need cocaine to get attention and involvement, they’ll find it.