Brands, beliefs, practices, objects, rituals and community

Posted by on Mar 12, 2011 in Otherhood | 2 Comments
Brands, beliefs, practices, objects, rituals and community

In developing ideas for an open-source monastic tradition in my last post, I’ve been thinking of religions and lineages as more or less illusory aggregates of individuals and their communities, unified by a common brand more than anything else.

Individuals have beliefs. Communities support these beliefs, or they do not. Occasionally, especially in the early stages, organized religions and spiritual lineages dictate beliefs to communities, but at some point they have more to do with identity and design (and about protecting and spreading that identity through design). Of course it varies greatly from tradition to tradition, depending on level of centralization.

I enjoyed reading Object Oriented Ontology theorist Levi Bryant’s new post on the Problem with the New Atheists. Bryant suggests that folks like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris may be missing the mark when they criticize religion solely on the basis of whether certain beliefs are true or false. Religiosity, says Bryant, is as much about practices, objects and community as it is about specific beliefs:

But if not belief, then what? Well for starters, its worth noting that religion is never just a set of claims about being (whether or not God exists, whether we have souls, whether there’s heaven and hell, whether there are demons, miracles, etc). No. Religion is also a set of practices. People kneel, they stand, they sing, they fast, they meditate, they observe holy days, etc. These activities are not negligible or secondary aspects of religious practice, yet oddly they often seem to disappear in discussions of religion that focus on belief as if we can ignore these things altogether, and focus on belief alone. Taking a page from Bourdieu, Foucault, and Lacan, these practices are all “technologies of the self” that form the self in a variety of ways. These practices, these technologies of the self, are generative of certain forms of affectivity (as understood by folks like Massumi) and jouissance that deeply influence our cognitive experience of the world, other people, and ourselves and which play a key role in attachment. When I watch a documentary such as Bill Maher’s Religulous, I am struck, in particular, by the scene involving the Pentecostals, where we see well dressed and ordinary looking people of all races and backgrounds frenetically dancing, speaking in tongues, singing, holding hands, holding each other, and so on. What forms of affectivity are taking place in these activities? What forms of jouissance arise from them? What altered states or forms of consciousness here transpire? These are not negligible questions. If your aim is to break attachments to religion, and your theory is that attachment to religion is the result of believing that it’s claims about being are true, you’re going to miss this whole field of attachment and the way in which it creates a hold on people. You’ll be busy pointing out contradictions, false claims, claims lacking in credibility and historical support, while these people are busy activating affects and jouissance. Your strategy will lead you to miss the target from the outset.

In addition to this, religions are generally pervaded by all sorts of objects. There are organs, temples, silver chalices, robes, incense, funny hats, institutions, groups, pews, and so on. Having been brought up in the Catholic-Episcopal tradition myself, what effect does those hard pews, those somber images and stained glass, that frightening visage of Jesus dying on the cross (often very graphically portrayed), that wine, that bread, that putrid incense, and so on have on the formation of a body, a subjectivity, forms of jouissance, and forms of affectivity? Is there a difference in subjectivity and religiosity between a Catholic church service punctuated by chants (I will never be able to erase the images and sounds of the older women in my church that would chant the Lords Prayer prior to service) and somber organ music of the Bach variety, and an evangelical church service filled with guitar and banjo music, light shows, and occasionally even smoke? I don’t have the answers to these questions. I just don’t see them being discussed (and that might just be my lack of familiarity with literature in sociology of religion and elsewhere). The question would be, however, how these objects might channel persons in particular ways.

But above all, in the focus on religion as a set of beliefs or propositions, I think the new atheists fundamentally miss the social dimension of religion. What is forgotten is that religion is not simply a set of claims about the world, but it is also a set of relationships among people. When a believer entertains whether or not to sacrifice a belief, they are not merely raising the question of whether they should shift from treating one set of beliefs as true to treating them as false– for example, switching from belief in young earth creationism to evolutionary theory –no, they are entertaining questions about their place in a network of social relations involving family, friends, and all sorts of other people. In the suburbs of Dallas, for example, people tend to live very alienated and isolated lives. Back yards are fenced in. Garages are on the back of houses entailing that when you’re fiddling about in your garage you no longer easily encounter your neighbors. People seldom tend to walk out on the sidewalks or even spend much time outside. I get the sense that churches function as a sort of supplement, forming a community that overcomes the problem of communities not forming organically in the cities. It is not unusual for my students to tell me that they and their families spend four to five nights a week at their church. In these circumstances, a shift in belief does not merely entail the revision of a belief system, but also carries the very real possibility of exile (and I mean that in the strong sense), from one’s family, friends, and support network. Heightened awareness of this could lead to both a better understanding of why religious discussions are so often pervaded by such heated affect and why argument has such poor traction in persuading others to abandon particular beliefs. Such awareness of this dimension of religious practice would also lead to a very different set of strategic concerns. Rather than focusing on belief and its truth-value, it might raise questions of how alternative communities, alternative networks, might be formed to soften the blow of exile. When Dawkin, for example, focuses on the truth of belief and all of its negative consequences, he speaks from a well established social position filled with a network of supporters in the form of colleagues, friends, and so on. He doesn’t notice that he’s imploring others not simply to abandon their beliefs, but to abandon their networks… And for what? To live in isolation, loathed by those they love? If this network question can’t be answered and solved, there’s very little that such critiques have to offer. [emphasis mine; I recommend the whole post and comments: here.]

The goal of an Art Monastery (and perhaps any secular monastic community) would be to focus on practices, objects, rituals and community, while leaving questions of belief up to individuals and to their personal and interpersonal artistic expressions. This doesn’t mean that all beliefs are seen as equivalent–and I would love to see an active philosophical debate tradition like that of certain forms of monastic Buddhism and Vedanta–but that beliefs, aside from a few shared precepts (e.g. “don’t kill”), are beyond the montastic institution‘s purview.

But how about those “few shared precepts”?

For a spiritual lineage take root and spread, a certain amount of coherence of belief is needed to protect the brand. If your brand (correlated to your economy of merit) is based on a few symbols and a single narrative, you must create the conditions for agreement on as few beliefs as will reinforce these in the minds of believers and patrons (who often, I suspect, have some power over the mass of believers). Or, vice versa, if you have a well established set of beliefs, you must create the minimal set of symbols and narratives that will brand and propagate them.

If it wasn’t the goal of an open-source lineage (such as an Otherhood of Artmonks) merely to spread itself, or to buttress up existing social disequilibria, but rather to support a certain open, self-identifying group of people (e.g. “artmonks“) in the best way possible, and if that best way necessitates the existence of an enduring (yet perhaps evolving) brand identity, how does one go about formulating exactly that necessary and sufficient set of beliefs?

The problem becomes one of articulation. I gave it a try in my last post, approaching the issues pragmatically and humanistically, calling them values rather than beliefs. I also like the basic ideas behind Plum Village’s five mindfulness trainings. And I mustn’t forget Christine Paintner’s fantastic Monk Manifesto.

Stay tuned for another post on open-source lineage. I will try to give some flesh to the analogy between software and lineage. Are fundamentalism/consumerism and spiritual materialism to a hypothetical Otherhood what Blogspot is to WordPress.org?



  1. Integral Monastery
    March 15, 2011

    Levi Bryant: “He doesn’t notice that he’s imploring others not simply to abandon their beliefs, but to abandon their networks… And for what? To live in isolation, loathed by those they love?”

    I found this a little bit amusing. He talks about Christians. Christians are to agree with the sayings of Jesus. Jesus, in Luke 14:26:

    “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”

    In other words, s/he who doesn’t aspire towards truth, and nothing but the truth, (i.e. Jesus in this context), and is prepared to risk *everything* in this pursuit, even social relations: that person cannot be a Christian and is bound straight for Hell (i.e. never-ending suffering/dukkha).

    (Of course, this is not to say the New Atheists aren’t on a highway to Hell either, being equally delusional in terms of their relationship to truth, having reified (accepted as literally true) the various scientific concepts just like the traditionalist-religious have reified mythic concepts.)

    Having said all that, of course social relations are of extreme importance. One needs to be skillful in the choice of one’s perspectives when discussing this topic. Social relations are conventional matters, while truth/Jesus is a matter concerning the actual, the ultimate.

    Sorry, I will stop polluting your excellent post with my ranting now. 🙂

  2. Integral Monastery
    March 15, 2011

    “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that takes not his cross, and follows after me, is not worthy of me. He that finds his life shall lose it: and he that loses his life for my sake shall find it.” – Matthew 10:39

    “‘You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’ But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich [i.e. attached to reified phenomena like social roles].” – Jesus and the Young, Rich Ruler, Luke 18:18-30

    “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me, but those who stand firm to the end will be saved.” – Matthew 10: 21

    “Blessed are you when you are hated and persecuted. Wherever you have been persecuted they will find no Place.” – Thomas: 68

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