Of all the cultural phenomena we share as a species across divisions of land and language, religion stands out as perhaps the most common. Its characteristics are similar everywhere. It is the expression and the enjoyment of a bi-valent relationship that has many of the characteristics of a family. Like a family, religion binds together a number of individuals on one level, who, on another level, claim to be related to the same source of their organic life ― as the offspring of the same parents are brothers and sisters to one another. This two-directional characteristic is common to all religions. Even though some may emphasize one or the other of the two components, religion, as suggested by its Latin root re-ligere, “to bind,” celebrates the mutual binding of those who are all bound to the same source of life.
The claims of Religion, like the family, are based on objective, physical reality: the generation and survival of the living human organism. The expressions that religion creates ― creeds, rituals, moral behavior ― are all, in theory, designed to support and enhance those relationships that bind those bound to LIFE.
What sets religion apart from other families, however, is that the relationship to the source of life is disputed, not only with regard to its character, but also to its very existence. The foundational source of the religious relationship ― the “parent” ― is not visible. There is no known cause of human life beyond the reproducing human individuals. As far as human knowledge is concerned, no one directly knows who or what the ultimate, originating source of our life is.
Despite that, the great majority of humankind seems to have always had a conviction that such an ultimate source not only accounts for our abilities and dispositions as humans, but is responsible for our continued existence as a family in the here and now, and plays a determinative role in the direction of human social affairs, especially the macro-political. (Political power has been believed since ancient times to be a direct result of divine selection and conferral; and the chosen ruler has been taken to act in the place of the absent “god.” That means that religion and politics are intimately linked. Indeed, in the history of humankind most governments have been theocracies, and even our supposedly “secular” American system is grounded on tacit religious assumptions which many feel should be made explicit.) A implication is that the state is a religious entity. This is not an insignificant aspect of our history as a species.
This conviction of a common organic source has led religion to claim that its common destiny as a family is not gratuitous, but has arisen naturally and inevitably from its origins which continue to sustain human social existence here and now. In other words Religion, as a global phenomenon (disregarding local exceptions), is not a self-defense mechanism, a “circling the wagons” by terrified human beings who find themselves naked and alone in an alien and hostile universe. In the aggregate it has assumed just the opposite. Religion is the attempt to extenuate into adulthood the sense of family that naturally arises for every individual during the long period of nurturing that follows birth. Psychologically speaking, religion is simply the expected continuation ― the unsurprising furtherance ― of a lived reality in which the individual is loved, cared for and directed by the people who gave it life. As the individual continues its identity, it continues to expect that a protective, familial context will enwrap it.
Sigmund Freud in his 1927 book The Future of an Illusion, identifies the child’s fantasy of always having a hovering, protective parent providentially overseeing every event of its life ― a source of psychological security and optimism ― as the ultimate source of (western) religion’s projection of an imaginary Father-God. This dove-tails with the family view suggested above. But, basing itself on science, it denies the perennial claims of western religion that it is grounded on the creation and continuation of life. Western religion has always made a quasi-scientific claim about the origin and nature of the universe. It has always assumed the Biblical book of Genesis to be a literal rendering ― a kind of science ― which said that “God” made this universe of matter. It is precisely religion’s physical, material claim that was denied by Freud that makes religion an illusion.
The fact of the matter is we now know that the Genesis account is not literal; it’s an imaginary reconstruction. But at the same time, logically speaking, it seems Freud overreached, because modern science hardly has much more to offer. All science can verify is that there is no rational teleology ― no discernible purpose ― functioning in our universe, and as far back as its origins in the “big bang,” there is no evidence that there ever was. The universe and its evolution are a function of the autonomous evolution of material energy, not the work of a rational craftsman no matter how omnipotent and omniscient it is said to be. But as to the source of life, science admits that it does not know.
The conflict here between Freud and the traditional view is representative of the way we have generally approached religion: as a question of knowledge. Traditional religion claims it knows “God” created the world, and Freud claims that science knows that there is no cosmos-constructing “God.” But, in fact, no one knows. Western religion did not know that “God” created the world, it believed someone’s imagined narrative; and Freud did not know the origins of LIFE; he simply believed science would “someday” discover it. But regardless of the collapse of his premise, Freud’s decision to explore the psychological origins of religion as a semi-pathological clinging to childhood ― a refusal to grow up ― is now generally acknowledged to have revealed a distortion of religion’s family sense: he correctly saw that western religion involved the projection of “God” as a micro-managing parent. I do not consider religion an illusion, but I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment.
This conflict has divided humankind’s self-perception, and sense of family, in profound ways. But it turns on our reliance on knowledge, and knowledge cannot solve this conflict. But if we approach the question from a different angle altogether ― from human experience ― a way opens that bypasses knowledge and apprehends reality affectively. By “affective,” I am referring to sensory features of the human organism that have emerged precisely to provide a direct and consistently reliable contact with the entire material environment for the purposes of securing survival. What makes this type of contact objectively valid is that it works. Affectivity is a term that I am using to acknowledge the multiple pathways to the apprehension and embrace of reality other than the conscious thinking associated with the use of words, the symbols of human mental images. A large and complex observational apparatus is available to the human organism that provides individuals with a much wider and richer “picture” of the reality around them ― a picture that cannot always be put into words ― but that is not based on fantasy and projection. The information these less acknowledged pathways supply to the organism is often absorbed subliminally, which the conscious mind is unaware of but the organism as a whole “sees” and reacts to in ways that we call “instinctive.”
By “instinct” I do not mean guesswork, a parallel pathway to knowledge that avoids the hard work of research and testing. I mean the unrecorded somatic reactions that direct a quarterback, for instance, to anticipate with amazing accuracy exactly where his moving receiver will be when his pass arrives; or the unthinking but infallible gyrations changing the center of gravity that occur when someone slips on a banana peel and keeps themselves from falling. In introducing these instinctive pathways, I do not mean either to exclude the more conscious conceptual connections or to trivialize them. I am merely trying to broaden our usual imagery about ourselves to include what science now knows to be an array of unconscious and semi-conscious receptors that enhance our survivability within our environment by giving us a more complete objective picture of reality. The organism as a totality “sees” more than the mind; and what it “sees” is absolutely factual: it helps it to survive.
The fact that these many tentacles to the things around us are not all conscious draws attention to our seamless unity with the world. We are not bodiless “minds,” alien spirits wandering on a planet of hostile matter; we are multifaceted biological organisms immersed in our earth matrix like a sponge in the sea. We are the spawns of this planet, its offspring. We remain connected to it umbilically for life-support; if you separate us from it we will die. We belong here and nowhere else.
When we allow ourselves the affective contact with reality that the entire sensory apparatus of the human organism is designed for ― transcending the narrow, myopic, truncated, word-based mental operations traditionally considered “knowledge” ― suddenly “reality” takes on a new and unexpected dimension. We “see” things as perhaps never before. For the material human organism finds itself in a state of a deep and quiet joy simply being embedded in and connected to the life support systems for which it evolved its particular forms and features. When the human being is allowed to be what it really is: a biological organism fully enjoying its perfect adaptation to the earth’s environment from which it emerged, the disequilibrium that is said to uniquely undermine and sicken human existence, instantly evaporates.
This experience gives rise to the suspicion that, all along, there was an erroneous identification of the human being with an imaginary separate entity called “mind,” together with an idolatrous exaltation of abstract thought ― knowledge ― as somehow divine, that contributed to our malaise. We are bodies, but we told ourselves we were disembodied spirits. We tried to live that way and it made us sick. When, finally, we allow ourselves to be what we are, and our survival community shares, supports, promotes and defends that biological reality, we live in a state of inner peace individually, and in harmony with one another socially.
In addition, with the disappearance of the alienation generated in us by our tragic belief that we are disembodied spirits, we find we no longer need to maintain the infantile fantasy of a hovering, controlling “Father-God” whom we imagine to be a “spirit” who wants us to be good. “Being good” in our tradition has always meant to become a “spirit” like him: to identify with our rational minds and to disassociate ourselves from our bodies and everything material as alien to our “spiritual” destiny. And to that end “God” was said to send us impulses (grace) that would generate guilt and aversion for what our bodies incline us to do, and entice us away from “this carnal world” with offers of immortality as spirits in the world of no-bodies to which we have been taught we really belong.
But once we no longer need a “God” to help us to be what we are not, we find ourselves secure in what we are. We discover that we have all the equipment and instincts we need to nestle safely in our earth home with our family, ruled by systems of justice and works of compassion that WE have devised for ourselves after millennia of living together. We put what we learned into the mouth of “God” to make it easier for our children to follow our advice.
We become increasingly awestruck at the child-like qualities of the powerless invisible SOURCE OF LIFE, whose effusive and selfless material energy constitutes our bodies. It is that fertile living energy that has driven evolution and produced these marvelous organisms that we cherish and enjoy. We can acclaim that SOURCE OF LIFE for what it is and what it has done, without even knowing it directly. We don’t need to project onto it our regressive needs to have a parent who tells us what to do and reads us bed-time stories that death is not real. We know what to do. And we know we will die. Our multi-valent, instinctive bodies tell us what to do and they know how to let go when death comes. And we can love our SOURCE OF LIFE for the gentle, fragile and defenseless thing it really is, and what it has made of us, and stop fantasizing tyrants taken from our own worst examples of people who need to dominate others to engorge and deify themselves. We have often imagined “God” that way.
When we finally grow up, we no longer project a “God” of our imagination that is not there. We begin to cherish and try to imitate the real SOURCE OF LIFE that comprises and suffuses our bodies, an invisible living energy at the very core of our being that we are in touch with every moment of every day, that is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves, the ground of our being-here, whom our ancestors called by many names: “LIFE,” “Fire,” “Wellspring,” “Ground,” “Source,” “Breath,” “Love,” “Being,” and, the name that is the most cherished of all: “mySELF,” whom I love as a man worships the woman he loves, as a woman adores the man she loves, SELF-EMPTYING LIFE ITSELF, masked with my face.
I am that very same living material energy gathered, evolved and nested on this planet with my family ― all of us are the masks and offspring of the same divine fire that burns in every living thing. My body “sees” and is embraced by this reality, perhaps without ever translating it into words or pretending to call it knowledge.
 Leonard Mlodinow, Subliminal, Pantheon, NY, 2012, passim; but see especially chapter 2, pp. 30-52