Denying Or Imposing Our Will

Some people consider that religion and magic are opposites, for example the Christians who want Harry Potter banned; many atheists consider religion and magic to be more or less the same thing, under the heading of mumbo-jumbo or woo-woo. The first group are constitutionally unable to see that they are practicing magic and sorcery themselves, whenever they endeavour to order the universe around “in the name of Jesus”. The second group are mixing up two quite different phenomena, which is quite forgivable, seeing as how religionists do precisely the same thing themselves.

In order to see more clearly, it were better to abandon both labels, and to speak instead of various techniques to do two entirely different things: changing oneself and one’s desires to fit the world, or changing the world to fit oneself and one’s desires.

The crucial question is whether we begin with our will as a given or not. If we take it for granted that whatever it is we want, we must have, and that there is no question of learning to want something else instead — why then, we shall try to impose that will on the world; we will yearn to “shatter it to bits, and mould it nearer heart’s desire”. The use of the word “heart”, by the way, serves to lend the will a spurious legitimacy, since our insanely sentimental culture has a prejudice in favour of that metaphorical organ. Imposition of that will on the world, whether the world likes it or not, and whether the other people in the world will benefit from that imposition or not, may be attempted with the aid of technology based on science, or of the ineffective contra-scientific technology we call “magic”. Whenever it is an “official” deity, rather than some other kind of supernatural being, who is to be coerced or bribed by ceremonial actions to do our will, we call it not magic but “religion”. As Dag Hammarskjöld wrote, “Your cravings as a human animal do not become a prayer just because it is God whom you ask to attend to them.”

On the other hand, it is by no means the case that all religion is about imposing our will on the world. Much of it is about resignation to the will of God, which may be another way of saying “the nature of the universe and the course of its events”. In other words, we say que sera, sera and cease to kick against the pricks. There is also good reason to think that going with the flow, as the Taoists would say, is more conducive to human happiness than generally unsuccessful attempts to control it. But to control our cravings, and to reduce the importunity of our will in general, we need to change, not the world but ourselves. It cannot be denied that this is also a matter to which religions devote a lot of energy. Accepting fate, and changing one’s will and desires, does not require a belief in gods; it may perfectly well be called “philosophy”, and was so called in the Ancient world. The religionists, of course, pretend there is no such thing.

The division is not, therefore, between religion on the one hand and magic on the other; the great watershed runs right through the middle of religion. Every religion, for there is not a one that lacks a philosophical form involving renunciation contra a popular form involving the petitioning of saints and godlings to grant us our agendas; even Buddhism, the original atheist philosophy of limitation of desire, divides in this way.

On the one side of the watershed, religion is essentially the same as philosophy, with a divine garnish; on the other side, it is another form of magic, which is to say, technology for getting whatever your inner hooligan takes a fancy to.

Posted on June 29, 2009 at 11:00 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, Religion As Worldly Toolbox

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  1. Written by Ghost in the Machine
    on October 18, 2010 at 11:25

    I believe it was C.S. Lewis who said something like: [i]“I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me.”[i]

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