Carnival of Aros: Religion? What Religion?

Phew~ I feel like I’m barely squeaking by with this post just before the deadline. Hi again everyone, this is my submission for the Carnival of Aros for May 2019 hosted this month by aroacepagans on the topic of “The Intersection of Religion and Aromanticism”. Unfortunately this is a rather complicated topic for me so I’m first going to have to dump a bunch of backstory exposition on you followed by a long historical tangent. History isn’t pretty folks.

Religion is complicated in my family as we don’t really put labels to what we are exactly or even agree on what we believe. My parents tried to do the Christian thing when I was younger, but it didn’t work out because the greatest sin in my family is ignorance. Both of my parents are the first in their families to go to college and especially in the age of internet with most “common” knowledge just a Google search away, they don’t tolerate ignorance nor denial of facts. The example my dad gives between “facts” and “truths” is it’s true that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. It probably did so this morning even if most of us (myself included) didn’t witness it. The fact, however, is that the sun doesn’t “rise” or “set” at all, it’s the Earth rotating on its axis. So, long story short, my parents stopped going to church because the pastors kept getting the facts wrong. There was one particular pastor who was “talking” about Islam (yup, they were Muslim bashing back in the early 90s too) and he said that Muslims believed that the “Earth rode on the backs of four elephants”. I can just picture a double face palm from my parents at that slip up of common sense. After that incident my parents were like “Screw this. We’re not exposing our children to this bullshit.” and we never went to Church as a family again. Several years later when me and my siblings were old enough to understand the basics my parents spent the entire summer break teaching us about all the religions from Amish to Zoroastrianism and basically said, “There, pick one.”

To make things even more complicated my dad is ethnically Jewish and his younger brother is a gun-toting Republican Jew from Iowa, but my dad was raised Lutheran because half of the family converted to Lutheranism after WWII (and that is a looooong story that I’m not going to get into here). My dad is constantly arguing with his brother and his cousin, a Lutheran minister, on Facebook about climate change. My dad’s cousin made the mistake of saying, “There are hundreds of scientists who say climate change is a hoax!” to which my dad replied, “Oh, yeah? Name ten.” and that’s why they haven’t been on speaking terms since last Christmas. My mom was raised Irish Catholic, went to a Catholic high school and that’s why she’s definitely not a Catholic. No one in my immediate family belongs to an organized religion so the short answer would be that we’re “non-religious”…

…depending on your definition of “religion”.

The word “religion” is a very western and a relatively new idea. The word religion comes from the Latin religio meaning “reverence to the gods” (compared to superstition which comes from the Latin superstitio, meaning “soothsaying, prophecy, or fear of the supernatural”). Citizens of ancient Greece and Rome were required by law to have reverence for the local patron gods or goddesses and blasphemy was a serious crime punishable by death (yikes!). Modern scholars have a difficult time trying to pin down a definition for religion that isn’t too constraining nor too loose.

Obviously you have the big three western religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (and, yes, a lot scholars to consider Islam a western religion because of the HUGE impact it has had on western history and culture), but is Hinduism one religion or several different religions arbitrarily grouped together by western scholars? What about Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism; are they religions or philosophies? Where do you draw the line between philosophy and religion? How does it affect a person’s socio-political standing if they’re philosophical and/or spiritual but not religious in a very religion biased society? Are New Age religions legitimate practitioners or is it cultural appropriation? Mom and dad said, “pick one”, but holy jeepers it’s much more complicated than that.  This is not an easy topic for me to tackle and that’s even BEFORE I throw in the aromantic aspect.

It’s a sad fact of life that a lot of major religions are not LGBTQIA+ friendly and those that are might not take converts and even then converting to a religion is a major decision that you cannot take lightly. Okay, then instead of converting to an existing religion how about just creating your own? It’s a nice idea, but then you have to consider how it’s going to be organized, how you’re going to deal with the legal matters, how you’re going to handle internal disputes, and how you’re going to get the general public to take you seriously. Politics and religion have been bed fellows for a long, long time. It’s only thanks to a quirk of fate and a Roman emperor that there’s a bunch of Christians even running around quoting the Bible right now because all y’all were like two inches from being Manichaens.

Cue long historical context tangent: Manichaenism is a weird blend of Eastern and Western religions; It’s something like a lot of Zoroastrianism with a little bit Buddhism and Taoism sprinkled in. At its peak Manichaenism was the most wide spread religion of its day with churches spreading as far East as China and as far West as Britain. I was learning about Manichaenism for a class and how it heavily influenced some later Christian big names like Augustine of Hippo and it’s where we get the idea that Good and Evil are locked in this eternal struggle and you don’t even think about it because that’s such an established literary trope you still see it today in pretty much every single epic movie pushed out of Hollywood. Can you even imagine being there back in the day when that idea was something new? Some dude was like, “Yo, bro, what if, like, there’s this great power that’s just, like, all Good with a capital G, ya know? But, like, the reason people do bad shit is because on the flip side there’s this Evil force that is the reason for hate and ignorance and people are made of the bad stuff, but everybody has a spark of good in them, you know? And the way to live right is you gotta feed that spark of good inside until it becomes a flame, a flame of knowledge, and you gotta keep feeding the flame so it never goes out because if you let the flame inside of you go out then the darkness wins. You feel me?” Yup, I’m definitely sure that’s exactly how that conversation went down. 

Anywho, as I was learning about Manichaeism for class I kept thinking, “This sounds really cool. Why have I never heard about this before? Where do I sign up?” Well, turns out you can’t sign up because the entire religion is extinct, as in gone the way of the dodo, it is a looong time gone. A long time ago there was a Roman emperor named Theodosius I who was apparently kind of a big deal and he issued a decree of death for all Manichaen monks (hooo boy, that definitely escalated quickly) and declared Christianity to be the only legitimate religion for the Roman Empire. Waaaaay to be a buzz kill, Theodosius. All the Manichaen texts were destroyed, all of its religious leaders were killed in the name of Rome and Rome’s Christianity, and everything we know about it today comes from teeny tiny surviving fragments that just barely manged to survive in extremely isolated regions in China. That’s why nobody’s ever heard of Mani and his kickass religion even though it pretty much popularized everybody’s favorite epic fantasy trope.

So, now I have a  philosophical dilemma. History paints a dark and gritty story about how, like the empires that honored and celebrated them, great religions rise and fall and change with the politics that can both lionize them or vilify them. Theodosius didn’t put Manichaens to death because God said so, he did it for his own political gain. The US founding fathers didn’t say separate Church and State to protect the people, it was to protect the Church from political corruption. (Yeah, I know, joke’s on us.) So, just like my parents, I’ve got a problem. I have all these religious types telling me that they know this “great truth” and that they’re my “only shot at getting in to heaven” and “fuck those other guys because they don’t tell it like we tell it” and all I hear is these folks basically telling me over and over that tomorrow the sun is going to rise in the East and set in the West like it’s some great cosmic mystery…

But, like, dude, that’s just how the world turns. I don’t know how to reconcile being religious if it means ignoring the facts. I have tried for a loooong time, but I just can’t find a religion that calls to me, that that lets me believe in a higher power, be part of a bigger community, find a higher purpose, and be my aromantic, gender-queer, wisdom-loving self. Maybe, there was a religion like that once a long, long time ago, but then it got wiped out by political pressures bigger and meaner than it was. *shugs* History says it’s possible.

And I’m going to end the post there because that last bit is an existential crisis that can wait for another day. Hopefully this didn’t come off too much like religious-bashing because that was definitely not my intention and I just wanted to throw out some burning questions that I’ve run into trying to figure out what place religion has in my life and a lot of these are questions that I still don’t have answers for: Is it okay for me to believe and pray to a random deity that isn’t part of my culture and upbringing or is doing that disrespectful to the people who codified the deity and made it a pillar of their religious identity? Is it okay to mix and match religions like cocktails or is that just my white privilege/colonialism talking? How much of religion belongs to the private individual and how much belongs to the cultural group? Why is all this so complicated?!!! 

aaaaaand on top of all that I’m still 100% aromantic and I need to reconcile how that’s going to fit into a religious identity because right now there’s like zero intersection because I haven’t exactly “picked one” yet.

Thanks mom and dad. -__-

2 thoughts on “Carnival of Aros: Religion? What Religion?

  1. This article is a really interesting read all together, but one thing that really stuck out to me was the part about Manichaenism religion being extinct because…I guess I’ve never felt that “extinction” was a permanent state of being for a religion.

    I’m Pagan, which is a very big umbrella term that means a lot of different things to different people, but one pretty large group withing pagan spaces are the reconstructionists. Basically, they’re the folks who dive into ancient religious texts and archeological findings to see how the ancient Celts, the Vikings, the ancient Egyptians, etc, etc really did things way back so that they can practice those religions in the same way.

    And of course, research alone will never let you replicate a lost traditional practice entirely, but I know these folks. They’ll spend massive amounts of time researching one ceremony or ritual so that they can pass it on correctly to the next folks. They put hours into revising “lost” and “dead” religions so that they won’t disappear completely.

    Now personally I’m not a reconstructionist. I have my own individual set of spiritual beliefs that happen to fall under the pagan umbrella, and quite frankly I’m not interested in any traditions, historical or otherwise, that might put rules and caveats on the way I want to practice. But I do have a lot of respect for the dedication to research reconstructionists have, and your post makes me wonder if Manichaen reconstructionism is something that could maybe exist in the future, if not in a Pagan context, then maybe in a Christian one.

    Idk, maybe that’s not something people are interested in, but it is a curiosity this article brought up for me.

    Like

    1. As far I know there’s not been a serious reconstruction of Manicheanism beyond academic reasons and there’s a couple reasons why I think that is, firstly it was a popular hybrid of a couple of different religions that DID make it to the modern day, Zoroastrianism (which has a few thousand followers today but generally does not accept converts), Jainism, and Buddhism. Several Manichaean concepts were inherited by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam because many Manichaeans would have converted to Christianity under Roman law.

      What I find most interesting was that Mani was able to successfully bridge western and eastern religions and as far as I know it was the most successful attempt to do so. What allowed Manicheanism to spread so far and quickly was the Persian Empire and the silk road. It was a case of right time, right place, right geopolitical climate.

      Since those factors no longer exist it’s unlikely Manicheanism will be revived especially since very little of texts survived. But I will admit that I’m more familiar with language reconstruction and revival than religion revivals. I keep rooting for Cornish to be successful in its language revival.

      Generally religious participation requires texts/rituals, a shared community, and belief in the religious teachings. I generally struggle most with the shared community aspect and finding connections with others, but that’s actually a constant struggle I deal with in all aspects of my life, not just religious ones. But I guess life would be boring if we didn’t have room for personal growth.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s