OM240 - Bill W

This week, Ken and John talk about:

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"Presbyterians", "Britney Spears", "Best in Prayer", and "Priest Nearby" are anagrams of each other.

There are 20 million 7th day adventists, or 140 million 1-day adventists.

John would rather have a strawberry tart than a bean pie, but he is not actually a black Muslim (bean pies are associated with the Nation of Islam).

The state of religions in today’s world (OM240)

Ken considers himself a Christian (he is Mormon), which is one of the bigger religions, but Seattle is a secular city where it doesn’t seem like Christians are busy putting about, doing much self-flagellating or wearing of hair shirts.

John’s mom was raised a Methodist and she loves the hymns, but she believes in too much reincarnation and in UFOs and she has adopted a modern polyglot religion, although you can be a Methodist and believe in aliens. Ken was in a Methodist church on Christmas Eve and their ginormous hymn book has 600-700 hymns.

John is a non-practicing person. He doesn’t have a religion, although he has been a student of comparative religions as part of his Comparative History of Ideas education. His whole life he has been dissatisfied with any particular answer, including the particular answers of Agnosticism, Atheism, or even the Generalism of a generalized spirituality. Nothing has sated his curiosity, but his curiosity has also never dimmed. Churches provide answers and especially in tough times they see it as the best thing they can do, but Ken wonders if that is one way they are out of step with modern thought.

Today people are little J.J. Abramses: They just want the mysteries and when they get the answer they will say that they liked the suspense better. It is very difficult to maintain credibility when you are offering definitive answers because those answers have to conform across our whole spectrum of science and data-driven experience and if your claim doesn’t square with particle physics, molecular biology, and whatever the latest Johns Hopkins set of experiments is, it is very difficult for someone to suspend disbelief, but a lot of religions do depend on faith and a clear-cut suspension of disbelief. That was much easier at a time when most people didn’t have access to such a broad spectra of information as they have today.

Yet, religion is still enormously popular because it does fulfil a need. We no longer use it to explain the rain or why there is sadness, but our emotional lives remain unknowable to a certain extend. Our interactions with one another, our hopes and fears, and our dreams resist data-driven analysis and codification. They are extremely individual even within a family and therefore religion remains very popular.

John is very interested in religion, but has never found a doctrine that appealed even beyond the first blush of critical appraisal. He is looking for an explanation of the ineffable and unknowable, and religion tends to seek to make the unknowable knowable, but that is not what John or a lot of other modern people are looking for.

The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James was an attempt to compare and contrast religions and try to find what is essential about them across the broad scope. He had a lot of insights about the way a religious fervour takes ahold of someone who eventually will be known as a prophet, but who initially is known as a heretic. It took many instances of religious feeling and trying to compare religions as a post-enlightenment thinker to see where essential truths are.

The desire to compare religions is very seldom a desire to debunk them, but it is a post-philosophical enlightenment belief that by comparing them you can perhaps winnow the truth away from the dressing and from the liturgy and find if there is something fundamental there. John is an enlightenment guy, but he likes the ecstatic experience and the fervour of it, which is not the most fashionable thing about religion, but it is at the heart of some very crucial aspects of the power of religion. Only a very smart group of people actually have ecstatic experiences and they end up being totemic figures in their religion.

For every one of them there are 100.000 people who want to bask in the light of someone who has an ecstatic experience of God, but they also don’t want to get too close to that ecstatic person because they seem imbalanced and are often asked to leave the temple because they are threatening to existing power structures and only later are these people’s experiences reformed, codified, and turned into cannon. Those are the experiences that then shape and form religion and ultimately culture.

Right now we are living in a world where a lot of religion is used to reinforce real conservatism. The initial prophets were radical and revolutionary people in their own time who were overturning the entire power structure of their era. The practice of those religions doesn’t take that kind of form now, although it could, like in the example of the South American Liberation theology in Catholicism.

Today there is an association between conservative thought and religion, but there doesn’t have to be anything endemic about established religion. Religions often get more conservative as they collect money and followers. It is always the evangelists who have the least to loose and can get closer to the essence of whatever that ecstatic, transformative human experience is. Sometimes we need to shake the tree a little bit.

Even in a secular society people still want a totemic figure, but in the absence of a prophet it is going to be Frank Ocean, Bernie, or Trump. People still want a big head on the sign. We are also seeking an authentic personal experience, unmitigated by an intermediary, which is somewhat due to the admixture of all religions in a bubbling pot where people like one from column Christianity and one from column Buddhism and one from column New Age spirituality, your canonical cafeteria acolyte, all born out of a desire to see some shining light ourselves rather than to have a set of rules down from on high, but that is of course not incentivised in the major religious traditions because it would be dangerous if too many followers would have their own unmediated experience.

In the 19th and early 20th century a lot of American Christian sects arose, which reflects a native Americanism, the desire to have a new religion that takes into consideration all this new information that we have about the world. We have disrupted government with the American experiment, and next up: The church of England! The American tradition into the 20th century is a protestant American baptist tradition and the idea that there is no intermediary between you and God is a profound power of protest religions. The opposite is true in town square religions because you don’t want direct contact with God if all you do is sell hardware on Main Street, but you do want that if you are out on the frontier and you are experiencing an unvarnished, unmitigated life, if you have your nose in the wind.

The connection between religion and psychoactive drugs (OM240)

In contemporary society the mainstream has discovered and has access to psychoactive drugs, which have been used to facilitate religious experiences since prehistoric times. You can find evidence in cave paintings that Psilocybin mushrooms have been used by Neanderthals, a drug that is used to facilitate religious experiences and mimics the response in the brain when people have ecstatic religious experiences. Those drugs are called Entheogens and there is a lot of understanding within the drugs-as-religious-facilitators community.

Timothy Leary said it was very clear to the many people who experimented with LSD in the mid-20th century that the drug would give them a glimpse of what a lasting and methodical spiritual awakening and transformation would be like, but you couldn’t sustain it if you were just getting there by way of the dug. The curtains open and you see the light, but then the curtains close again and it is only accessible to you through a path.

If you are prepared to do the work you can see the light, but when lightning strikes it is not ever sufficient for the rest of your life to just have had lightning strike once. You have to then also pursue a practice. These drugs are able to engender that lightning strike sensation and you really do see through the gauze, but realizing that you then have to do the work is a component of it.

Religion as an answer in desperate times (OM240)

Religion isn’t just handwaving and money-collecting, but it performs a lot of actual functions. Mormonism for example provides personal improvement, community building, and focus on service on the individual and the community level. There is a great need for religion by people who are desperate and have reached the end of their rope. Conversion or profound religious experience often happens in times of tremendous suffering and deprivation when you are on your knees and casting up to heaven, saying: ”Why?”

Everybody who has served a 2-year Latter Day Saint mission sees this in practice. You never get to talk to anybody for whom things are going well because those people don’t want to talk to a proselytizer, but things are going okay for them first and foremost. You only talk to people for whom things are going badly and you spend two years with crisis people because religion is a lifeline to them and you are offering them a balm for their suffering.

There are a lot of different kinds of suffering. People who have lost a child and who are wondering "Why?" have a trauma that can never fully heal, but through religion or God there can be an acceptance that there is a higher purpose, that there is mercy in the world, and that the child maybe lives on in the ether, and these things become a comfort.

But there are other kinds of spiritual crisis that are ongoing actual living trauma in a person instead of being a traumatic events and those need an explanation or a vague sense of purposelessness as well. Before the advent of psychiatry real psychological problems like schizophrenia were seen as a spiritual malady, it wasn’t just that your mom and dad wanted you to find religion, but the hope that God could relieve you of this suffering drove you toward the church.

Other people in extreme situations hope for a truly transformative experience, a lightning strike, or something that will change their spiritual DNA and relieve them of what they feel is suffering. Someone with paedophilia who recognizes that it is a crime in practice, but it is an inseparable part of themselves in life, might bow before God and plead to be relieved of this suffering. ”Why was it put in me and how can I exorcise it?” It is not as simple as giving them a practice to keep them from sinning, but they are really suffering from a spiritual malady. In general religion does not have a great track record at some of these things, and they might even be exacerbating it.

To actually have a transformative religious experience and to actually be struck by a lightning is exceedingly rare. A lot of people exhibit signs of it or perform a profound transformation as part of some religious services, but it then requires that you put the rubber to the road. There is no lightning strike that transforms you instantly and then makes virtuous action effortless, but virtuous action is always going to be a difficult practice.

John listening to everybody’s story about how the world works (OM240)

In his young life John walked many paths and was eager to listen to anyone who spoke what they considered a truth. He spent a lot of time sitting cross-legged in Punk Rock squat houses, listening to guys explain to him how the world worked. If you had a story to tell, John was there, because he did believe that there was wisdom to be gleaned from listening to everyone. He spent a lot of time in airports listening to Hare Krishnas explain what their story was and if a guy was handing out Chick Tracts he would gladly spend an hour with them.

To Ken this is a story about how much free time John had, but it wasn’t just vacant curiosity. John believed that there were governing principles to the world and even as someone with a somewhat agnostic feeling about religion he could not be agnostic about the music of the spheres. He could not look up at the night sky and say anything conclusive about it at all, in particular when you think about the difficulty we have with unified theories of any kind, trying to square string theory with Einsteinian physics, and why does any of it exists? Why is there anything instead of nothing? Why do I have consciousness that I perceive as an individual? Are we alone in the universe?

All these questions are intriguing to any thinking person and when you combine them with the inscrutability of emotion and the fact that your emotion is real and is consistent at least within itself and within its own language. Even those of us who seem to be acting irrationally to someone outside, within their emotional lives it feels rational and they are internally consistent and acting according to what they perceive to be true. You not only need to square String Theory with Particle Physics, but also with Country/Western music because otherwise it is not a unified theory. The emotions you have listening to music seem like a very pure way to access these kind of questions, even though the rational link is hard to see, but you want to have an answer that meets it all.

John’s own history with alcohol and drugs (OM240)

John got very into drinking and drugs at a pretty young age. He got drunk for the first time when he was 9, but he didn’t continue to get drunk from 9 on. Ken wasn’t allowed to have chocolate cake until he was 10. By the time John was 15 he was a regular heavy drinker. He was growing up in Alaska and there is a lot of hard drinking, as there is all around the world, and John found that it suited him. His father, brother, and grandfather were alcoholics, although that doesn’t mean he saw it modelled because his father stopped drinking before John was born, his brother didn’t live with them, and his grandfather was dead.

There is a lot of writing, speculation and science trying to diagnose alcoholism and ascertain what it is. There are a lot of strong opinions on whether or not it is an inherited disease or a spiritual malady, and plenty of people will tell you that it is just a lack of willpower. Being a heavy drinker who is unable to control their drinking and be a normal person throws a lot of these questions into bold relief. Few people start out with the single-minded intention to destroy their lives, but it is a pretty slow, ugly, and expensive form of destroying your life when instead you could just drive your car off the road.

Typically people who drink heavily also have active minds and they tend to be a fairly curious class of engaged and creative people. In any group of alcoholics there are 1000 different explanations. In John’s own family alcoholism is used as the explanation to almost anything, just one person in the room going: ”Well, alcohol!” and then everybody nods sagely. It is even used to explain the movement of the planets, but John doesn’t believe that.

There is a moral component to alcohol and drug abuse because it affects a person on a moral level. It is very difficult to point to the human body and find where the disease of alcoholism is located, it is not one particular organ that is creating some antibodies to fight alcohol, it is not a disease like leukaemia, but it is a disease of the spirit. When you see someone affected by alcohol you are not seeing someone who is incapacitated by the decay of their cells, but their personality, their spirit, and their self is suffering from a malady.

The religious component of Alcoholics Anonymous (OM240)

John goes on to describe the history of Alcoholics Anonymous and Bill W. He is not advocating for it and he is not acting as a spokesperson for it, he doesn’t really even claim membership in it, but he has experience with it and he is trying to describe his foundation. Alcoholism and drug addiction are incredibly complicated and pernicious problems in a human being and if there were a cure that worked universally we would all know what it was. There is no one sure-fire cure, but the principles and the structure of 12-step recovery movements are good, and if you go into those rooms with a sincere desire to make a change or to be open to the prospect of change, then your prognosis is good, but the hardest step is the one across that threshold.

One problem is that in a more secular society it is a major barrier to entry to get a group of people to recognize a malady as one having a spiritual component. Reasons not to go to AA are easy to find, and a major one is that a lot of people do not want the religious component because it does have a tint of a cult. We are used to religious groups trying to get a toe-hold in our lives and gradually they introduce more and more strange performance and pretty soon you are wearing matching Nike tennis-shoes and are castrating yourself and are dying in a bunk bed.

Anyone living, even atheistic, has to acknowledge that there are aspects to our inner life that are very difficult to comprehend, and AA defines a higher power as anything higher or even anything other than yourself, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a Christian God. You make a special plea and say that your own ego, your own suffering, aren’t anymore apprehensible or solvable by yourself alone. That is a tremendously powerful admission and from it all things can follow, but it is the most difficult thing for someone suffering from a spiritual malady to do. From that small revelation a tremendous good has been accomplished and the traditions of AA are still alive.

People getting sentenced by court to 12-steps programs are missing the point. The whole miracle is the voluntary first step. It is not like the other people in the AA meeting don’t want those people there, but if it helps you, that is great! In every meeting there is always somebody who says they think they don’t belong there. It is part of getting there. John used to get drunk and go to AA meetings, and it was more fun that way.

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