Friday, March 11, 2011

Imagine No Religion

I've always loved John Lennon.

He was murdered just before midnight December 8th, 1980, and I was born early December 9th, 1980. I still have the newspapers from that day. Something profoundly wonderful was leaving this world as I was coming into it, and that's always been strange for me.

I have a bit of an obsession with The Beatles, and with Lennon in particular. I even enjoy his solo albums and his collaborations with his wife, Yoko Ono. I identify with them and their work quite a bit.

Contrary to his most widely known solo work, however, I can't imagine no religion and I honestly have no desire to.

That isn't to say I don't imagine a world without religious persecution, oppression, violence, dogma or control.

A world without religion is as desirable to me as a world without history, literature, or art. These stories are significant to our development as a species. The ways in which humans have attempted to contemplate or explain the world around them provides insight into our nature. We tell stories, sing, paint, dance, think, write, build, design, explore, and tell more stories. Some of those stories become songs. Some of them are molded into sculpture or expressed through brushes and watercolor. Some of them are choreographed into ballets. Some become novels or comics or movies.

And some of them are passed along, scooped up, bound together and they become a religion.

The culture of the time influences it, and it influences the people and places where it's taught and practiced. Like any good form of expression it grows and adapts, twisting in on itself and back out again. Religion influences and is influenced by art, philosophy, and every other aspect of the human experience.

I never think "What if religion didn't exist?" What I imagine is a world in which we treat the traditions, philosophies, stories, cultural contexts, parables, poems, rules, psalms, doctrines, and silly hats with the same sort of reverence that we treat art. As it stands, religion is the extension of hierarchical power when it should be an extension of self-expression.

One/The Body's Grace - Ballet Austin
Photography by Hannah Neal, Amitava Sarkar, Tony Spielberg, Farid Zarrinabadi, Manda Levy

The ballet world has a history that's both exciting and provocative to anyone who's a gigantic nerd like me. The undercurrent of precision behind the softness of the Russian ballet contrasts with the velvety elegance of French ballet, the sleekness of neo-classical, or the freedom of contemporary. The forms pull from each other, with the more modern techniques relying heavily on a foundation laid out by the traditional schools. The rules and parameters of each are distinct, with strict lines and impeccable standards to which one must adhere. The various schools drew heavily from the culture in which they were embedded, and in turn helped shape the community around itself. Russian ballet, in particular, has been an integral part of the cultural framework of its country of origin for the entirety of its existence. Adherents to a particular technique are savagely loyal, and alteration is slow and intentional. Thousands have devoted their lives to the study, practice, development, and critique of their particular school of ballet and relations between the students or masters of respective forms can be strained or even incendiary.

And yet, no wars have been waged in the name of dance. Students of the Vaganova method have never executed artists at The Royal Ballet. Dancers often experience their art as the highest emotional expression possible, yet that passion doesn't manifest itself as violence.

I hope this doesn't come across as an attempt to diminish someone's faith by way of a comparison to dance. Honestly, I think there's no higher compliment to afford something than to call it art. I think religious and artistic expression are both core to our existence as humans. I also think that it's possible to divorce the emotional, social, and spiritual benefits of religion from its nasty role as a form of cultural despotism. In fact, I think that it's likely the only way to end religious violence. When religion is a form of self-expression that allows us to explore our relationship to the universe in a way that can be shared but is also profoundly personal then there's nothing to live or die for. It's a form of communication meant to help us relate our experiences to one another, not separate ourselves from anyone who doesn't conform to our ideals.

That's what I think, in any case. And I don't think I'm the only one.

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