Why Religion?


I recently had a strangely disjointed experience of listening to Elaine Pagels Why Religion?I had expected a scholarly discussion interlaced with elements of a personal story. I didn’t get that. 

Instead, I got a raw account of a life of peaks and achingly deep valleys interlaced with almost incidental accounts of presence of spirit. 

Pagels’ day job is as an academic whose field is religion. I love her work. As I listened to the book, I came to understand more of why she wrote the way she did. 

The book was accessible to me in ways I did not expect. In part this was a function of generational proximity. She grew up in a time I understood. And even though our lives are utterly different, hers was familiar to me in so many ways. 

The title question, Why Religion?, wasn’t answered as I expected. That brought a sense of relief I didn’t know I would experience. I am so used to grappling with that idea at a head level, I was relieved that Pagels dragged it down to a gut level for me – and let me put my own inadequate words to an answer. 

In effect, she magnified the question mark of the title by forming, but not asking, the question: “If you had been through these kinds of experiences, how would you feel about religion?”

In her day job she is a leading scholar of religion. In her private life is a cauldron of existential extremes. The 2 must intersect. But how she experienced that intersection isn’t how I experienced her story – and that would be true for every reader and listener. We would all have our individual reactions to her story. We tell stories for a reason – to share some essential truth we think is of value. Now and then, after a particularly memorable performance, there is a long pause before the applause. I feel almost trapped in that pause, captured by it – with only these thoughts.

On an intellectual level the Why Religion? question has filled volumes beyond any count I can imagine. On the personal level the count may be larger. Quite by accident I had purchased an audiobook by Mark Smeby called Losing Control Finding Freedom By Letting Go. I can’t recall exactly why I bought the audiobook. I did go through a period of looking for sources of inspiration to disrupt habituated thought to help a work project. 

This was before I got careful about checking out the authors of audiobooks on Google after getting burned a few times. For instance, I bought an audiobook that looked like it was a learned discussion of one of the gnostic gospels and it turned out to be a not at all interesting theological interpretation. The title was misleading, but I should have been more careful. 

So, it turned out that Smeby was a Christian. My first thought was “Burned again!” These days I wouldn’t have progressed the purchase. But, on an inner prompting, I listened. I squirmed at times, but Smeby actually had a rock solid message about being genuinely ‘Christian’. Even though he used the Bible often (mostly in ways that had me gritting my teeth), his theme came down to saying- just be a decent loving human being and relax – okay so a bit more sophisticated than that, but that was the underpinning message. I listened to Smeby straight after Pagels

Just before Pagels, I had listened to Mastering Your Hidden Self: A Guide to the Huna Way by Serge Kahili King. It was another audiobook bought on a whim, and a good hint of curiosity. I didn’t know anything about this Hawaiian system, and this was the first time I had come across a book on it. 

The 3 experiences interwove. They were all about individual responses to life experiences – about choices and interpretations – and understanding of how the world works. King spoke of an intentional and rational methodology based on an ancient tradition. Smeby’s approach was a hope-based rendition of the Christian tradition. Pagels was in the middle as the intellectual getting a powerful experiential lesson that head-based inquiry is not enough.

I had long been in Pagels’ position, which is probably why the book resonated so strongly with me. It was only this morning, as I listened to the last half hour of Smeby, that I realised that ‘Love’ was a common theme is all 3 books. King observed that the Huna Way was grounded in love – as an attitude through which the world is engaged. For Smeby it was the central theme – moving from the transactional and conditional ‘love’ of much common Christianity to the unconditional love that is a contested core of original Christianity. 

For Pagels, the drama of personal love wrenched asunder by deaths of intimate companions (child and husband) was contrasted with the enduring love of friends and the subtle presence of spirit. This was no simple experience of being an admired academic. A churning mill of emotional chaos was in the background. Pagels privileged the reader/listener by letting us be aware of this fundamental formative and transformative energy. I had always liked Pagels’ style, and now I understood why. It had heart – one that owned the extremes of personal struggle for understanding.

My Own Question Reframed

Back on the 10th of June this year (2021) I quit my job after 19.5 years. I am precise about that because it was a Thursday, and a payday, and exactly 6 months before my 20thanniversary with this employer. As you will see below, dates matter.

I had had an extraordinary run in the last 4 years of doing what I was passionate about and being afforded an unprecedented level of liberty and support to do it. As 2020 ended and 2021 got under way, my enthusiasm evaporated suddenly. There were still things to be done with my cherished projects, but something had changed. 

For the past few years, I had been getting annual year ahead astrology readings from Kelly Surtees, an Australian astrology now in Canada. Her sessions were astonishingly insightful. In December 2020, the day I had scheduled annual leave was the end of a distinct 4-year period. Kelly asked me if I had planned to start my leave on that day. I misunderstood her. I had, but not for the reason she meant. It was just the earliest I could take it.

She talked about there being a huge change potential in the offing. I said my division was going through a major restructure and I had indicated an interest in looking at a voluntary redundancy offer. Kelly asked if I might accept it, if offered, and I said I didn’t know. She asked when I thought I would like to leave – if I did. I said at the end of the financial year – 30 June. She said early June seemed better indicated. As it was, the 10 June date was offered, and was not negotiable. 

The change Kelly spoke of was a greater sense of freedom and creativity. Virtually the day I left I felt as weight lifted from my shoulders. I mean this literally. The burden of having to respond to a bureaucratic culture was gone. My extraordinary run began in November 2016, when I became Chair of my Department’s Disability Employee Network – a role I held until March 2020. I won’t detail things here, suffice to say that this was a period of unprecedented influence and creative freedom. In late 2019 and over 2020 I had been given lead responsibility to design and initiate my department’s Disability Inclusion Action Plan. By early December 2020 the main work had been done. I felt exhausted, but I was unprepared for the sudden feeling of being completely disconnected. I began 2021 struggling to recover my passion; and could not. I went into mop up mode. I knew from past experiences that a change was coming for certain – a new job or redundancy. It was redundancy. It was an offer I could not refuse.

My astrology aligned with my mood and intuition, and with circumstance and opportunity. As an aside of note – my sessions with Kelly were during this period, and my efforts to book her for a 2022 preview, despite assurances, have turned to nothing. The lesson of matching life experiences and the ‘stars’ is apparently over.

I write this on 5 December just 5 days shy of a full 6 months since my departure. Oddly a significant personal event will take place on 10 December. That date was determined by no evident influence from me, though it came about because I delayed a series of critical actions until performing them seemed to be ‘at the right time’. This delay seemed overtly against my interests and seemed idiotic to others. It cost me quite a bit of money. 

This will be the true end of a stage in my life that began on 10 December 2001, when my employment with my now former department started. 

It may seem preposterous to assert that spirit would induce me to delay a critical course of action until a defining event could occur on a specific date. If that was just a one-off, I could be persuaded that was the case. But interventions have been a persistent feature of my life. That is to say that some compelling influence to act, or not, has been exerted in ways that have been radical and dramatic, or more subtle. And the 10th of December has featured before as a radical event – in 1977. I remember that date not just for the event, but because it was also a federal election day. This was the first time I became powerfully conscious of tying a transformative event to a date. 

Over the past near 6 months I have shed bureaucratically influenced writing style. Today (6 December) a friend remarked that my writing had developed a new character, which he much preferred. I had idly thought I would take a least 6 months to slough off the bureaucratic imprint on my psyche.

A new project I am developing with an associate can’t take is first steps until after 10 February 2022. That’s the date she will be returning from overseas. This could be a defining moment of what happens next. The date is significant in that it’s a limiter – nothing can happen before it.

I am constantly exposed to the elegance of numbers in dates and times. There are times when I am haunted by 11:11 on clocks. This will go on every day for up to 2 weeks at times. As I write this, I glance at the clock on my screen. Its 11:09. That look was intentional. Usually, it’s a sudden urge to look at the time, despite it being unnecessary. Its 11:11 now. 

I am not into numerology, just patterns. Adding the numbers of my birthdate yields 22. A cycle started on 10.12.2001 and will end on 10.12.2021. Another may start on 10.02.2022 – but probably not, to be honest. Still, it’s fun this is the date my associate gave me (and she’s leaving to go OS on 10.01.2022).   My next birthday will be 22.01.2022. Oh! I wish I was born in February – 22.02.2022 would be so neat! I wonder what will happen that day. I have made a diary note as a reminder.

I don’t take these numbers seriously. They are like a constant playful reminder that spirit is always present. I have just paused, during an edit at this point, and picked up my phone. Its 22:11. I had no reason to pick my phone up on a rational level. Just spirit messing with me. Being delayed in action so that a critical event can happen on 10.12.2021 isn’t remarkable anymore. 

The past 20 years has been a time of intriguing synchronicities, intuitions, and interventions – from how I got my job in the first place – and my last two roles, where I began working, where I live – so many things in between – including contracting Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), which put me in hospital for 10 months. I was off work 18 months all up and returned to work with a disability that changed my life. 

But that was only a chapter in a spirit drenched life. I will write on this one day. I have tried, but it’s not yet time. I have the stories in scraps and fragments in files on my computer. One day it will become a project driven by a passion to complete. That’s just not now (or soon, I feel compelled to add).

Why religion? has been a question I have been asking since I was around 14. I have progressively, to my satisfaction, decided what it is not. Developing an understanding what it is has been a long hard journey. Around that age I was adamantly not Christian. I had been having paranormal experiences most of my life, and they were intensifying (and soon to go nuts). One place I could not go was to the religion my family was raised in, even though it claimed to be the authority on things of this nature. Science was no help either. What was the point of a religion that couldn’t help? Why bother with it? Where else was there to turn?

When I was 16, I discovered yogic metaphysics and I fell in love with the idea that there was another way of knowing. I had no interest in yoga itself. I quit the academic grooming I was being given because studying metaphysics was not an option open to my limited Tasmanian vision.

My grandmother was some help. She told me of experiences in Northern Ireland, where I was born. Our family, while religiously Christian, had many stories of the paranormal. They just weren’t spoken of any where near the Church. There was no open antithesis – each knew the other existed. At least I wasn’t crazy – influenced by the Devil, maybe, but not nuts.

The Pervasiveness of the Subtle

Pagels’ subtle references to manifestations of spirit, serendipity, quiet manifestations of ‘magic’ and religious acts, and synchronicities do not play a loud role in her book. I am not sure why. Does she recognise their significance, beyond acknowledging them? She has the sophistication of mind to be intentionally subtle. I chose to believe she was, but its not with full confidence.

King and Smeby take different approaches. King describes how to create effects intentionally, the way some of the people in Pagels’ story do. They use different methods. Smeby writes of ‘supernatural’ experiences generated by hope or faith. But they are not commonplace – more alluringly infrequent – a sign of what might be possible with hope and faith better expressed.

My life has been (and remains) full of subtle expressions of power and intelligence – and now and then not so subtle. None of it has been within a religious context – in the sense that nothing has happened that was directly associated with any formal religion. Some of it expressed during my time of involvement with Western Magic and Wicca. Mostly, it has just been between me and whatever is generating the expressions. 

Religion, as we understand it, clearly does not contain or control spirit. At its best, it may be a system for understanding and engaging with it – but no more than that. In this way, it is layered – providing what is needed according to need – and nothing else. Status based on position alone is meaningless. In Christianity, ordaining a priest can be mostly an administrative procedure. No actual initiatory and transformative event happens because of the act itself. Some individual priests/ministers may experience otherwise; because they are ripe for the experience. 

In some cultures, shamans are ‘chosen by spirit’ – whether they want the role or not. Individuals have no say in what spirit does through them. It can express through a formal religious organization; or ignore it entirely. 

Pagels’ best-known work is The Gnostic Gospels (1979). I haven’t read it because I have been focusing on audiobooks. The kindle version is ready to go, and now I feel an urge to get into it (maybe good holiday reading for me?). I have done a lot of peripheral reading on the Gnostics, and I am feeling as though I am ready. That may seem like an odd thing to say. It is said that ‘gnosis’ means ‘knowledge’, but Pagels said (in Why Religion?) that ‘insight’ is a closer translation. That makes a huge difference – between an intellectual and a personal encounter. Miss it, and you can waste time and miss the point. Maybe I needed to know that before embarking on reading the book.

Why has it taken me until now to encounter that distinction? Why is now the right time?

Gnosticism is seen as a kind of parallel interpretation of Christian source material. It was rejected and suppressed by the form of Christianity that prevailed to dominate our culture. That would be expected if it contained that which only those ‘who have eyes to see, and ears to hear’ might value. Insight is not common sense, and has to be won, not conveyed.

Gnosticism has become a contemporary hero of suppressed knowledge. It isn’t that at all. Insight can’t be suppressed. Christianity has become a villain in a pointless drama. Yes, the Gnostic Gospels were hidden to preserve them from certain destruction. Non-conformist thought is always suppressed in a culture bent on conformity. Disruptive insight is rarely welcome. Whether you think church, bureaucracy, company, or university there will always be an instance of insight being unwelcome. But maybe it was unwisely offered, or just futilely so – the timing was poor, or the minds too rigid.

Spirit is not about to be dictated to, or controlled by, any organization. In fact, the champions of Gnostics as heroes run a good chance of being what they profess to despise. By creating a story of suppressed knowledge, they create an illusion of certainty in what is claimed to be suppressed knowledge.

The ancients signified Wisdom as a female aspect of the divine; and called her Sophia. This is perpetuated in the Wisdom Tradition; and has been debased through philosophy. A philosopher was once a lover of wisdom. Now it seems that philosophy has become a form of intellectual neurosis.

The link between insight and wisdom is important. One might say they are the yin and yang of the same thing. I like that saying: Data is not information. Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom.

Once we understand that spirit is not contained or framed by religions, and cannot be suppressed by them we can more usefully ask – Why Religion?

So, Why?

First, what do we mean by the term? The dictionary definition is useless; but knowing this is so can be useful. My Oxford Dictionary says religion is “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” Dictionaries put a lot of hard work into arriving at a definition. It is a professional definition arrived at by experts at giving words meanings. The fact that it is such an awful definition is telling.

The words are coherent, and you will assume you know what the statement means. And you do, to the superficial degree that the definition permits. But the authors of the definition don’t actually know what religion is, and they are safely betting you don’t either. Many years ago, a product called Claytons was advertised as “The drink you are having when you are not having a drink.” It was a non-alcoholic beverage promoted as a replacement for the ‘real thing.’

This is a ‘Claytons” definition. It is responsible and sober; and will not inflame anything disruptive – like insight.

Unlike Pagels, I am going to attempt answer the question. I should say this is my answer, which serves my purposes. It may not serve your needs. We all need answers that work for us.

My definition: Religion is a shared or individual response to awareness that we dwell in something we call ‘Reality’ or ‘Nature’ and in relation to which we must conduct ourselves in a manner conducive to our best interests. 

The root of the word, religion is believed (according to the Oxford Dictionary) to derive from “obligation, bond, reverence” and “perhaps based on Latin religare ‘to bind’.”

We are bound to our conduct, and to a relationship with whatever we see to be the agents or agencies that make stuff happen – be that God, gods, chance, fate, Nature, or the mechanical forces of physics. Regardless of the cause we define, our responses follow a limited pattern.

Our ancestors, absent the option of materialism, saw reality in terms of spirit. This probably because acute awareness of one’s surroundings includes the subtle, the less obvious. This is something I learned from my youthful bushwalking days in Tasmania. Atmospheres and presences are pervasive.  We can argue about what that means from a distance, because we cannot know for certain what our ancestors thought. But there are huge hints in anthropology – in the lifeworlds of humans living traditional premodern lives. Humanity has been, for most of its history, more sympathetic to animism than materialism. The notion of the ancient Greek philosopher, Thales, that ‘everything is full of gods’ would be unremarkable to most humans for most of the time we have been around.

The most unhelpful aspect of the dictionary definition is the use of the word “worship”. The dictionary says it is: “the feeling or expression of reverence or adoration for a deity”.  That definition presumes to definitively describe a sense of relationship in a narrow way – with no allowance for fear or frustration, bribery or beseeching. 

The root of the word is more helpful – “Old English weorthscipe ‘worthiness, acknowledgement of worth’ (see worth-ship).” I don’t think it is possible to see this as other than seeking an assurance of personal worth in the face of an utterly overwhelming sense of the reality in which the human being is conscious of its presence. Seeking affirmation of self-worth in relation others is fundamental to human wellbeing. Others includes humans and other than humans – physical and metaphysical.

That ‘in which we live and move and have our being’ is something with whom we must have a relationship. We are bound to it. Religion is, in essence, an existential awareness of the necessity of a relationship with our reality at an individual and a shared level. Our ancestors did not have our sense of individuated being – so it was at a family, tribal or larger community level.

In our culture, the degradation of institutional religions, combined with materialism and atheism, and environments that favour less and less intimate awareness of what is around us has led to predictable outcomes. Our understanding of spirit is distorted by dogmas and errors. Our model of the real has become a wilderness rendered sterile by the intellectual napalm of ‘reason’. Our senses have been numbed – as if we are suffering from industrial deafness and blindness as a cultural norm. Of course, our definition of religion will be unsympathetic. Of course, we will have become deaf and blind to spirit in our reality.


The title of Viktor Frankl’s 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, sums up what I think religion is. Until recently it hasn’t been an individual matter, so much as an imperative for whole communities – tribes to civilizations. 

But that meaning is not the intellectual quest. Rather, it is relational and personal. What relationship can we have with the ever-present spirit that peers at us from everything? How do we behave toward it? Unless we acknowledge its presence, and allow a relationship is possible, we can’t answer those questions. The moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, describes humans as the rational rider on the great elephant of instinctual and unconscious impulses. He sees that reason is often the ‘PR’ agent of the elephant – it makes rational and conscious what we have formulated at a less conscious level. I think there’s more to this than Haidt asserts. He is an atheist, but his science is sound and instructive.

Our science is only an expression of the same questions asked by priests and popes, albeit in a mode that repudiates their theological presumptions (and many other things besides – too many). We are seeing now, as science grapples with quantum physics, a vindication of that old saying attributed to Lao Tzu “Going on means going far, going far means returning.” We are coming back to an old perspective – albeit with a different way of knowing.

The cultural anthropologist, Mircea Eliade, is credited with calling humanity “homo religiosus” – saying we are innately religious. In a reality which is spirit infused (and everything is full of gods), the need to discover meaning, and to learn how to behave is always with us. Our cultures, our civilizations, set the larger lens and filters – and we define our ‘religions’ accordingly.

Our culture has profited from de-spiriting and dissecting what is around us; and focussing on utility for transient personal benefit. Organized and institutional religion has become debased as a litany of theological conceits and moral hypocrisies. It is little wonder we have been steadily losing our religion.

The word is in dire need of a makeover, and to be restored to its dignity as an essential attribute of humanity. We need, perhaps, to imagine that calling ourselves Homo Sapiens (Latin: “wise man”) is not a gross conceit, but a vision of what is possible. The term itself is credited to Carolus Linnaeus in 1758. It was an Enlightenment conceit that confused knowledge for wisdom. It had recast soul as mind.

We could rescue the term from its arrogant and immature mud; and convert it back into a humble goal – a radient prize in Sophia’s hands.

Why religion? It is what makes us who we are.

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