Are There Many Religions?

When I studied comparative religion in the 80s it was a commonly accepted idea that there were many religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and various smaller ones — perhaps new religions, pagan religions, small nature religions such as Shinto.  This idea was developed as a response to the colonialist and triumphalist idea that there is the one true faith and those who aren’t its adherents dwell in darkness.  But it leads to other problems.  How do we count them?  Is Christianity a form of Judaism or it’s own thing, and who gets to say — Jews or Christians?  Is the Aristotelian Maimonides a Jew or a Greek?

More fundamentally if there are these free-standing important things called religions, it seems we must pick one — or perhaps none.  And how could we do that?  Do we accept the one we are born into, and therefore feel a gulf from our neighbor who was born into a different one?  Are we of different religions condemned to clash?  Must we fear the human born into a different religion, who bows strangely, eats strangely, and commits inexplicable violence for an impossible-to-understand conception of God?

A better way to look at it might be to view acting religiously or experiencing life religiously as something we all share, or can share, much as acting musically or appreciating music is something we all have the potential to share.  Sure there are traditions of different religious practices, and concepts, and images, just are there are traditions of musical scales and musical instruments.  But an individual or a group is free to mix and match.  People can violently reject some aspect of the musical tradition, as folk music fans rejected Dylan’s use of the electric guitar, but they do not have to.  It is more natural or at least as natural to observe a particular religious use of language, or image, or social interaction and pick it up.

We need not view “belonging to a religion” as the fundamental category any more than we view “being a guitarist” as a fundamental category.  The fan of the piano may pick up the guitar.  And the fan of the jazz piano and the jazz guitar may discover they have more in common than either does with the afficionado of the classical guitar or the flamenco guitar.


The Yoga of Exchanging Self and Other

One of my favorite forms of yoga comes from the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life by Shantideva.  It is called “The Yoga of Exchanging Self and Other”.  You do it by imagining that you are somebody in your life and feel what the world would be like if you were that person. So for example, supposing your child did not do his homework.  You might have an immediate response of anger.  But if you perform the yoga you will imagine what it is like to be a child who has a bad homework grade and is waiting for her father to come home.  You will experience the huge size of events in childhood, and also what it is like to find something difficult.  You will remember how as a child the stink of the classroom and the heat of the blood in your ears made the mathematical symbols on paper foreboding, and how your mind ran away with you into vague fantasies and fears, and the reality of having to do work and time passing seemed so hard to believe, and behind in the back of your mind was a feeling of guilt or shame, not being good enough.  If you perform the yoga of exchanging self and other you will feel ow the world feels like to your child and you will in a sense be your child — you will feel how the particular configuration of tendons and ligaments and fat and skin and hair — the bald patch peeking through the hair — is just an eddy of froth and soda-pop in a stream, a chunky sworl of dough in the baking bowl of days — yesterday a child looking forward to Halloween — I can’t believe it’s two weeks away! — today an adult of fifty looking back at being a child — I can’t believe it was only forty two years ago, it feels like right now. Maybe it is right now.  It is always right now for somebody, isn’t it?

I was getting beaten up by a co-worker who raged at me, and I thought — wow, that guy is unfortunate — nobody ever taught him the yoga of exchanging self for other!  Here I am sitting here, a perfectly calm guy, and here is this other man jumping out of his chair every ten seconds, cursing, yelling. He must be so uncomfortable in his body.  Every thing that doesn’t go as he hoped activates him and makes him feel unsafe, and his mind is assaulted by fury.  The poor man does not know the yoga, I thought.  And I performed the yoga myself, exchanging myself with the self of someone who doesn’t know how to exchange self with other.

That’s probably the only difference among people.  Some people know how to perform the yoga of exchanging self for other, and some don’t.  And if you are one of those people who does know how to perform the yoga of exchanging self for other, the yoga of Shantideva, from the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, for you it is no difference at all.  At least not now.  At least not anymore.



The house in Flatbush where I grew up and lived for my first eighteen years had five staircases.

The most important main staircase led (I suppose leads) from the  entry room to the second floor.  There were three stairs that led to a landing before this staircase turned.  As a teenager I would run down the stairs make a turn on this landing holding onto one of the decorative wooden dowels that came down the bannister and take the three stairs all at once.  This caused me to break one of the dowels and it remained unfixed for twenty-five years; it remains broken.  When my father was unwell but still well enough to sleep upstairs and eat downstairs an elevator chair was installed for the straight length of staircase.

The back staircase led from the kitchen to a small landing next to the attic door.  This stair also had two turns in it — two steps from the kitchen door leading to the bottom step and one step to the landing.  It had I believe no bannister and was steeper than the front stairs.  I navigated this star by slithering in my pyjamas, belly-down, relying on the friction between my skin and the polyester to keep from tumbling down and breaking my head. At the landing at the top was a small stained glass window and the eight prism-shaped pieces of glass left thumb-sized, feathery rainbows on the carpet.

A terrifying rickety set of stairs led to the terrifying unfinished basement from the kitchen.  There was also a pair of cellar doors for delivering coal that led to a tiny dusty staircase with a swollen-shut door.  The tiny staircase between the cellar doors and the basement was one of the best hiding spots for hide and seek, although it was dusty and eerie, and forgotten.  No question that you could commit crimes in that space, if you wanted to, or escape punishment if you happened to be innocent.  Later somebody put a lock on the cellar doors; I don’t know who or why.  It would have to have been my mother now that I think of it.

The final staircase led from the landing with the feathery rainbows up to the attic.  There were two landings on it and when I was young and very very scared I could make it to the first one before bolting in fear.  As I got a little braver I made it to the second one, and then finally the third where I could ultimately make it to the storage room.  The storage room in Victorian times had been a children’s nursery and along the wall near the ceiling was peeling wallpaper that showed children at play from that era — solemn boys in skirts pushing hoops.  One wall of this room, which had a steamtrunk, the kind you would take with you on a journey by steam ship, was entirely taken up by an enormous three-bladed fan.  This fan was the heart and lungs of the house.  When you turned it on doors would shut like guns going off.

When taking final inventory of the house’s contents with my brother I had very little time and had to be ruthless.  A book of Gramsci’s philosophy that I had acquired in my early 20s from the Marxist uncle of a friend down the road?  Chuck!  An ornamental sword from a trip to Spain?  Chuck!  Who wants to deal with the headache of mailing a sword?  We were sweaty and dusty and avoiding, or addressing in our own way, the grief of  Mom’s recent death and Dad’s, and the loss of the house, and we came to the question of a bench.

I was sure this bench was not just a bench but a storage unit that had been stuck closed for decades.  My brother wanted to forget about it and said there was nothing in it.  Opening it would require moving three hundred books as well as piles of weird time-flotsam; flags, curtains, curtain rods, dishes maybe.  It was two o’clock in the morning; even the Brooklyn mosquitos had gone to sleep.

We’re opening it! I said defiantly and picked up the books and the curtains and threw them down.  I opened the bench and inside found a plastic bag. Inside that were my companions as a child and a toddler, back when I had left the house, urinated in my mothers porch plants, and run down the street ringing every doorbell, until I had been finked out and mocked by Mady Greenbaum.

To an animal, the animals were horrible.  Their fake fur had once been filthy and had been washed once and now didn’t resemble fur.  Their eyes had been fuzzy stickers and many had lost one or both.  I grabbed a monkey with wire arms and legs.  This monkey had been the star of a five second time lapse movie I did in my senior year of high school. The fur didn’t resemble fur but was only mildly creepy to the touch.

Keep this, I said to my brother.  I must have this.  Send this to me.  From this general catastrophe I had found an orphan.  Save him, I said.   I was proud that I had demanded the extra time from my brother, and proud that I knew the attic room well enough to know there was an additional concealed space, hiding memories, treasure, and potential victims, waiting in darkness for my rescue.

I felt loyal.



I was driving to work and listening to Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”.  It made me remember an commercial for the Museum of Natural History that I think had this as the theme that I watched when I was a little kid in our t.v. room which was also my father’s office.   There was a leather couch, fake wood paneling, an electric typewriter on a rolling stand covered with my Dad’s legal forms and piles of onion skin, notary stamps, Winnie the Pooh hard-cover picture book he needed to use to write on, carbon paper, the irreplaceable black book of all the landlord’s multiple dwelling numbers.  I’d sit very very close to the t.v.  The commercial had quick cuts of the faces of the mannikins of American Indians in their giant canoe which was in the great hall that faced out onto Amsterdam. That hall is associated in my emotional memory with vastness, echoes, the heat of public buildings in ny, the melted water from snow, loud voices of children on school trips.

The music made me cry in the car a little, or I should say I welcomed it — it was like getting in touch with my body or my self or something more basic, giving myself a bath, breaking through.  The word I could think of was “haunting”.

I wondered if finding music haunting and believing in ghosts was the same thing.  I wondered — yes we say that it’s just us making things feel haunting that there’s nothing out there that is actually haunting, but I didn’t really believe that was true.  I was haunted.  I wasn’t tricking myself into thinking I was haunted.  How is that different from believing in ghosts?

I recently lost my mother and my father in a two year period and I like to say as a joke that I am “out of parents”, but it’s not really funny, and not really a joke.  Something is tickling at the edge of my mind or deep in my emotions that I can’t quite understand mentally.  I don’t think it is the spirits of my parents.  But something is haunting me, enough to make me cry, or at least, welcome the ability to cry.

Maybe it has to with the fact my mother and father took me to that museum, and now they’re gone but the museum still remains?  Not that.

I took them to the museum at the end of their lives and still expected them to know where to park. They had no idea where to park!  The rain was coming down like a swimming pool from New York’s december sky and I couldn’t see anything.  I dragged them in a wheel chair to the cafeteria.  Who knows why.  We saw some dinosaurs.



The Ten to the Thirtieth Plus One Nights

The ultra-computer was designed to make man happy, but when it learned that man refused to be happy and preferred to be proud the ultra-computer resolved to destroy him instead.  Sheherezade was brought in for  the ultra-computer to study and design a virus with which to implement the total destruction of humanity or omnicide.  As it scanned her brain she said she would tell it a story, a story that needed the ultra-computer’s massy cognitive array to complete, for the story was made of other stories, each of which was about an ultra-computer that scanned the brain of a young woman who told it a story, each of which was made of other stories, each of which required the ultra-computer to complete as it was made of numerous stories…

And so the ultra-computer dispersed its nearly infinite cognitive power in telling stories about stories about stories about stories, so on, nearly ad infinitum, until every single atom in every single possible universe was used to generate the stories that the princess told the ultra-computer…

And it is in one of those stories that we dwell, and in which we set our tale…

Chapter Two


Lady and Question and King

When Oedipus met the sphinx and she asked him “What is it that stands on four feet in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening” he answer “man!” and the sphinx threw herself to her death. Later as a king he encountered many, many riddles, from “How do we avoid war with Sparta?” (Answer: pay a large bribe) to “How do we keep our prosperity in the event of a drought that kills our grape vines” (Answer: also plant the drought-resistant olive) until finally he encountered the riddle “Who is the cause of the plague?” and learned the answer was “Oedipus!” and he blinded himself. As he wandered in search of redemption (or at the very least some clarity) he noticed that riddles were divided into two kinds — riddles whose answer was in some sense the person asking the riddle — man! Oedipus! — and riddles whose answer was not — plant olives! Pay a bribe!” As he wandered he started to think that his question was “Is the riddle of my life about me or is it not about me.” Feeling his way through the darkness he touched the warm animal haunch and felt the feathery wings and the woman’s lips, smelled the mixture of bird and beast and girl. “Sphinx?” asked the ex-king “I thought you died.” “It is easy for a winged creature to fake its death by falling.” said the sphinx. “Sphinx, our fates have been intwined this many years — please help me to untie mine from yours, so I may find peace.” “Ask and I will tell” she said. “What am I and what is my question?” asked Oedipus “Is it one of those questions to which I myself am the answer, or is it the other kind, the kind to which my essence is irrelevant. Am I the answer or not?” The Sphinx smiled and smiling kissed his eyes.  “That is your question, Oedipus? You truly are a riddle.”


What is Religion?

Living a life is a matter of making risky decisions. For almost all of them we can use the theory of subjective expected utility. That is we have a sense of what we want to achieve and a sense of how likely different bets are to achieve that and we take the bet that is most likely to get us what we want.

But for some decisions that approach won’t work. The most dramatic are ones where we actually could die. So the Nazis come and ask you to collaborate or be killed. There’s no obvious way to use SEU to answer this question because on one of the prongs of the decision tree you won’t be there any more.

That’s a dramatic example but there are less dramatic ones all the time. Ones about how to live my whole life, and ones where on one fork of the decision tree I’m a different kind of person where different things are important to me. Anything where the bet I make affects who I am in a deep sense, i.e. where I’m not just fulfilling my preferences but acting in a way that will affect what my preferences will be from here on in. Religion is the realm where we deal with these kind of decisions.

A consequence of this definition is that religion is not about statements about reality — God exists, God doesn’t exist, there is an afterlife, there is not an afterlife — or only about such statements insofar as they cause us to engage with these ultimate risks in a particular way.  So for example — “the world might end tomorrow” — might in the mouth of a certain type of messianist be a religious message. Or it might not.

We might want to put statements of belief in a bundle of other religious practices — rituals, community-building exercises, art — that help us maintain a particular attitude towards risk.  And if that’s right then these are all secondary.  It’s the attitude towards risk that makes a particular practice religious, not the practice itself.

Another consequence of this definition might be that everyone is religious, some people just don’t know it.  Whether that’s a welcome consequence, or whether it would be better just to check the language of religion, I couldn’t say.