One of my favourite textbooks, that I refer to again and again, is New Religions: A Guide edited by Christopher Partridge. Apart from an, ahem, outstanding entry on eco-paganism it contains informative and unbiased entries on over two hundred New Religious Movements (NRMs), from Ananda Marga to the Temple of the Vampire.
While scholars argue about the numerical and social significance of NRMS, I like the book because it demonstrates that contrary to the expectations of secularism, and whatever its origins, the religious impulse is not just alive but positively thriving. I find the sheer breadth of human ingenuity in response to the matter of meaning oddly comforting. We just won’t give up.
Of course, when presented with so many religions, each with its own ideas about what makes a spiritual life and each convinced that theirs offers the only way (else what would be the point?), it becomes hard to privilege one’s own set of preferences (in my case a sort of non-aligned, ad hoc, shamanistic, animistic, psychedelic paganism). Why mine and not yours? The kind of atheist who cares about this sort of thing (and is therefore, paradoxically, as likely to be as fervent as the most zealous religionist) could easily seize upon the sheer diversity of religions as evidence for their collective falsehood. Religions can’t all be right so obviously they are all wrong.
Myself, as I’ve wobbled between belief and disbelief, acceptance and despair, I’ve actually reached a rather similar conclusion – that all religions are equally wrong (if we can leave the Aztecs & Co. aside for simplicity’s sake). For me this is a profoundly optimistic position.
On a good day, like today, I think that there is a sacred or divine or spiritual or self-organising or transcendent or whatever-you-want-to-call-it dimension to the world (the truth of which cannot be proved or disproved but must be accepted or rejected on faith) but the act of so-naming it reduces it to that which it is not. Every worldview (and yes, I include science here) touches a facet but cannot grasp the whole. Language is simply not equipped to do so. (In case you’re interested I’ve arrived at this position from Henri Bergson’s writings about time and Ian McGilchrist’s work on the divided brain, about which I’ll say more at some stage).
What religions do, therefore, is provide a set of metaphors and extended metaphors (rituals, prayers, myths, hymns, gestures, dispositions, techniques – all the stuff that makes a religion a religion) by which the Other might be apprehended, indirectly, from the side, as it were. So I call myself a pagan because nature and the sherds of certain pre-Christian religions provide me with effective and personally resonant metaphors that literally ‘carry me over’.
My position is a kind of revision of the perennialism advocated by Aldous Huxley and others. Far from being different paths up the same spiritual mountain I see religions as different mountains, whose peaks offer a unique but limited perspective on what there is to see.
Accepting that all religions are equally wrong encourages humility in oneself and tolerance of others. For while it will jar with those, atheists or religionists, whose need for certainty is paramount, a position in which all religions have something to say means, at the very least, we ought to do them the courtesy of listening. Chris Partridge’s book provides an excellent place from which to begin.