Musing on “We Need a New Religion”

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, Baram repeatedly claims “We need a new religion”. This is a trending assertion. Maybe it’s something in the overly hot air, but this idea that we need something else to guide us in day to day life, something maybe to reign in the excess, but something definitely to give meaning in the midst of mindless mess, this idea that we need religion in particular slips in like hopeful whispers in many conversations around the globe. I tend to agree. But I want to clarify my thoughts. What I mean by new religion and what I think most mean by this contention is not what is traditionally meant by the word religion — though it may be close to the actual definition. We need a new religion, but we probably don’t need new gods. And the two ideas — religion and belief in deity — are not the same thing.

Religion is not a system of belief in the supernatural. It may not incorporate any beliefs at all. Religion is a system of rules. Those Ten Commandments are more elemental to the religion of the Church than all the words of the afterlife and salvation, and honestly, several of them are not a bad place to start for a system that is mutually beneficial — especially if “thou” is all humans and the object of “shalt not” is all beings. Religion comes from the Latin religare, meaning to re-bind. Religion is a verb. And an interesting thing to note is that there is this presupposition of a formerly bound state that is being remade. Things used to be bound; now they are not. Religion puts them back together. I like to think of it as a mending of the ways. Something that used to be whole is broken in our way of life. Religion is the tool we use to fix ourselves, put all the pieces back together. Perhaps it could be thought of as a way to put our society back together. To re-bind us to each other. We used to be family. We used to be neighbors and friends. We used to be humans  — the people — without color or distinction. We are broken now. Religion mends those fractures.

This happens through rules, though, and rules are not in vogue. EuroWestern males in particular don’t like rules that bind us together because those rules make it very difficult to use and abuse other humans and to waste our beautiful home planet for personal profit. Personal profit is the antithesis to a bound society. A bound society does not allow individuals to step outside the rules, to break the rules; and it is nearly impossible to be acquisitive, to acquire more, to accumulate wealth, in a bound society without breaking many rules. Hence there is much made of the idea of freedom — freedom for a very few people to act however they want with no rules to interfere in their accumulation of wealth. Those who are in privileged positions in this society of freedom from rules are there because there are no rules to limit their behavior — and only their behavior. It should be noted that those who are not in privileged positions are not free from rules and are certainly not free from the constraints imposed upon them by those in positions of “freedom”. Most people in our “free” societies are not free. Freedom is for property not for people. And property is free to those who have stolen it — against all the rules that used to bind us together as humans living on an interdependent planet.

I don’t know if this is what Baram means. Is he saying that we need rules to bind us back together? To make those in power less free to enact their will on the rest of us? Perhaps.

Baram is a mystic. This, I think, is important. Because I don’t think we mean to simply throw up a new set of commandments. Commandments are problematic in an unequal society. Who gets to make those proclamations and who is enforcing them? Rules, per se, are not what we are seeking. We want the system that supports the rules, the binding. We want the structure. We want meaning. And meaning is a mystical thing. 

I’m not tripping off into the hills with the faeries here. Meaning is mystical in fact. It does not exist except in our minds. It is mysterious. We don’t truly understand or comprehend things like meaning. We can’t quantify or observe it. We can’t dissect it to see how it functions. We can’t analyze it except also in our minds. It does not have physical form that we can sense. Like love and truth and goodness, meaning is without form — but not without reality. Meaning is real even if for now it is only in our heads. It may be that all these things that we can’t sense but yet feel are real do have some physical bases beyond our comprehension — but they remain beyond our comprehension likely because we lack that capability. It’s hard to comprehend the water when you are a fish after all. Nevertheless, we feel that there is some impetus, some root, some Primal Cause to existence. We feel a great need for meaning to be true. We desire some glimpse of it. We want to live our lives in accordance with it. We crave it as much or more than food. We strive for meaning and this striving gives meaning its reality. Regardless of whether meaning has some material basis beyond our comprehension, we behave as if it were real and therefore make it so. Just like love. Just like truth. Just like goodness.

All these mysteries are in rooted in one idea — interdependence. Being bound together. Merit is not intrinsic; it is relative. There must be a web for there to be meaning. There must be wholeness, togetherness. Meaning by itself is meaningless. This is the crux of our matter. When Einstein envisioned the idea of relativity, he was not merely talking about speed and distance and perspective. He was talking about the matrix of the universe and how all things are relative — not subjective, but related. Bound and bonded. Often in mysterious ways that even he admitted we probably can’t comprehend. Mysterious but nevertheless real. We are bound and we are bonded together — and when we act like we are not, we cause harm. The worst thing we can do to another living being is not killing, it is isolation. Cutting us off from the binding, from the matrix, from the togetherness — isolation destroys us, unmakes us, deadens us. It is the worst pain imaginable. It is pain beyond comprehension. And our society of free individuals, our cult of person-ality, is directly engaged in isolating us all. For profit.

So we whisper. We need a new religion. We need to be bound. We need a mending of the ways. We need to be whole.

I’m a trained geologist. It might seem like this is one of the most solid, most physically factual of intellectual pursuits. But geologists are all mystics. We tend to have mysterious ideas about all sorts of things. I have thought much on this. What is this relationship between solid rock and ethereal spirituality? I think it is the scale. Geologists are engaged in the study of something they can never comprehend. Never. The Earth is too big, too old, and too hidden from our probing intellects. We can’t ever hope to see, feel, hear, or sense most of what we study. We can quantify only in bits and pieces, isolated snapshots of time and earth-matter. A slab of sandstone an inch thick represents millions of years of living and dying, building and eroding — just in the formation of the rock, never mind all the eons that have passed since it became that slab of sandstone. Millions of years is longer than humans have existed in any form. How can we comprehend something so vastly beyond us? And yet here it is right in our palm. This is literally mind-blowing. 

It is also humbling. And a constant source of wonder! These are excellent preconditions for a mystical mindset. Yet geologists are rooted in ways that many other physical scientists are not. We deal with the living Earth in its wholeness. You can’t break out any part of the hydrosphere and have it function properly in isolation, for example. It must be studied in whole, in situ. The information a geologist gathers is radically relative. It only makes sense in relation to the rest of the system — in its entirety! There is no rock that is not intimately related to an incomprehensible number of other being states. Microbes, mountains, rivers, hurricanes, dinosaurs, stars, protons, summer breezes, babies, and on and on and on. Geologists study the Earth in its wholeness. And in that we know our place.

So I wonder some days, do we need a new religion? Or maybe do we need an old one? Maybe we need one that is not one. Maybe we need to be geologists. To be rooted. To be bound. To know this Earth. 

Because in that knowing we will find the meaning of our lives.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021