By Mike Meyer ~ Honolulu ~ December 23, 2020
Our species is undergoing accelerating fundamental change in how we think, organize ourselves, and define our relationship to the universe around us. This can seem chaotic because of conflicting interpretations and the growing diversity of human modes of identity.
For the change-averse populations, traditional forms of social organization are fundamental, and religion is the external framework to which they align themselves. This segment of the population has more difficulty defining themselves independently and feels insecure in identifying trustworthy associates. They have a greater need for hierarchical social structure and authoritarian rules to support their insecurity.
Classical religions that arose from about 500 BCE to 500 CE were often the product of earlier mythical origin stories. These quickly came to provide the necessary justifications for the new regional empires. Concurrently they provided a social ethic for incorporating immigrants and conquered people into their societies.
The earlier mythic beliefs were specific to cultures, clans, or tribes and defined those groups. These were not primarily ethical or moral systems but only the defining stories for each generation’s socialization to the cultural group.
A primary break from the earliest mythic defining stories was removing a default tribe or clan grouping. People could move from place to place and from religion to religion tied to the dominant empire. The old mythic systems were identical to the universe of a specific tribe or group of tribes. As in preclassical Greek societies, religion was particular to the family and slowly developed a public aspect.
The original form was the mythic origin story that defined a clan and related tribal groups. All aspects of the universe that they knew was shared and defined by their ethnicity.
Classical religions broke this link and made it open to join an ethical and mythic system approved by an imperial culture. This was part of a cultural structure selected by choice either by immigration or imposed by conquest. In their conquests, Alexander’s Hellenic Empire, Babylon, and later Middle Eastern and Indian empires established this merger and incorporation pattern with individual choice options.
As empires rose and fell, and the mythical religious systems became more sophisticated, looser, and more abstract. The adoption of Christianity by the late Roman Empire broke the pattern returning to a harsher religious imposition until the Byzantine was overthrown by Islam that maintained its tolerance for any ‘people of the book.’ This was again lost as authoritarian rigidity replaced the earlier idealism and openness.
The acceptance of regional imperial religious forms became an assumed part of human migration and political change. You began to wear the clothes and accept the mythical stories and ethical/moral standards of the empire in which you lived. Depending on where you were, it was also possible for you to maintain, in some limited way, the costume of another empire’s culture. Imperial China was very sophisticated in accepting this, as they carefully adapted elements of the earlier forms given their uninterrupted history and consistent power. The result was a spiritual system with elements for populations with different backgrounds and intellectual needs.
The logical inclusion of Buddhist thought, based on techniques for maintaining mental health and limiting existential suffering from Indian Vedic traditions, profoundly expanded spiritual knowledge as it moved into China. This fostered the greatest development of Mahayana Buddhist thought in China, then Korea, and Japan from about 100CE to 1400. This is the primary catalyst for the growth of spiritual knowledge of our age.
Religion is very much a costume with external accouterments. In one sense, it became a form of armor for some while remaining merely a set of clothes for others. This worked for centuries and still does for the most risk-averse portions of society. But for the majority of humans, the next stage of spiritual evolution is well advanced.
This spiritual evolution stems from the further breakdown of traditional social structure and the increasing sophistication of personal identity. In a highly connected set of societies with great flexibility, rigid external identifiers are not appropriate. We are all many different people at different times and in various real or virtual social relationships.
Based on the rise of individualism and education, both identity and self-definition are internal to the individual. We must wear our armor and symbolic accouterments internally as they may change frequently.
This dynamic between imperial forms of rule and individualism is the difference between spirituality and old religions. Initially, as described above, religion was simply a family, tribe, or clan identity. As empires arose, it became a classical religion that was more abstract and could be changed based on who ruled and where you lived. Religion was either accepted or imposed externally on the individual.
In the 21st century, identity includes a spiritual definition of the person and that person’s universe model. While shared in family, social, and cultural groups, the old external forms were far too rigid for a planetary and networked species. Religion is now a symptom and symbol of social and spiritual insecurity.
Personal spiritual philosophies are steadily replacing the surviving forms of classical religions. The steady decline of classical beliefs resulted in some of those changing to reactionary movements’ politicized to ‘restore’ traditional imperial hierarchies. These are ways of justifying authoritarianist elites and rulers. It survives as a reactionary movement in opposition to the expansion of universal rights, the denial of racism or ethnocentrism, and easy manipulation of traditionalist populations.
This is a reality in the collapse of the modern Western civilization crystallized by the fall of the American empire to pseudo-religious fascism. The example of a troubled, completely immoral authoritarian dependent on fundamentalist and reactionary religionists for political legitimacy openly destroying the iconic democratic republic of the United States shows the power of reactionary desperation in the grip of change.
Simultaneously, much of the social structure of surviving religious institutions in modern societies is nearly identical to the postmodern personal spiritualism. Heavily influenced by modern, often secular, Buddhist thought, all spiritual tools are available for personal use. For those most comfortable with the accouterments of a culture’s traditional beliefs, rituals and forms can be maintained while the full range of spiritual components is available for personal use.
The classical religions, Abrahamic above others, are too steeped in exclusionary traditions to be useful as components of a personal belief system. But the older philosophical Buddhist practice is an open treasure chest of non-exclusionary tools for human comfort and well being.
Spiritual knowledge is expanding as an important element of the new model universe fully compatible with the expanding complexity and uncertainty inherent in our scientific-based understanding. Spiritual knowledge in diversity is replacing arbitrary faith of classical religions dependent on fixed mythologies as their foundation.
The price for this is the battle for the survival of the old belief systems as their mythic deities are steadily retired. Fear, based on ignorance producing desperation in a changing world, is an open opportunity for authoritarians. People caught in an antiquated paradigm are easy propaganda targets, but their desperation is a product of the new spiritual tools' growing ubiquity.