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Excerpt from Dreams

Prepackaged Symbols (p. 182)

From chapter "Local Mythologies"

All belief systems make sense to (at least some of) those on the inside. This must be true, by definition, since if enough people stop believing in a culture’s belief system, the culture will change or disintegrate. Nazism made sense to many Nazis. Christianity makes sense to many Christians. Capitalism makes sense to many capitalists. Science makes sense to many scientists.

Those who stop believing in the dominant mythology, belief system, cosmology, or whatever, will have one or more of many possible responses. They may suffer cognitive dissonance. They may suffer despair. They may suffer depression. They may find their lives meaningless. I think often of that powerful articulation by Joseph Campbell: “For those in whom a local mythology still works, there is an experience both of accord with the social order, and of harmony with the universe. For those, however, in whom the authorized signs no longer work—or, if working, produce deviant effects—there follows inevitably a sense both of dissociation from the local social nexus and of quest, within and without, for life, which the brain will take to be for ‘meaning.’”So, for example, if the authorized signs of Catholicism— the Cross, communion, the story of Jesus, the system of sacraments, and so on—work for you, you will have been given a prepackaged set of symbols that will help bring meaning to your life. But if those signs don’t work for you, then you will be bereft, and will need to go on a quest to find signs that do provide meaning to you. Likewise with the American Dream; if the authorized signs work for you, then you’ve been handed a prepackaged set of symbols that will bring meaning to your life. Unfortunately, in the first of those cases—Catholicism—the meaning is found separate from natural life on this earth, and in the second of those cases—the American Dream—the meaning is found in behaviors that boil down to the accumulation of wealth, which means the meaning is found in behaviors that are destructive of human community and of life on earth. Science in a sense is even more problematical as a set of symbols, since its most radical adherents explicitly propose an utter lack of meaning in the universe, leaving people really with no place to search for meaning (except in their own heads and in their own creations and the creations of other humans, which is a major reason for this culture’s insanity,and its consequent destruction of the planet). There can of course be other responses to disbelieving in a dominant mythology. People may simply withdraw (think: “simple-living activists” attempting to withdraw from capitalism). They may attempt to change the dominant belief system. In this, they may succeed if enough others also disbelieve in the dominant belief system. They may fail if too many still believe in that dominant story. They may also fail if too many people have vested interests in the maintenance of that dominant mythology (think: capitalists). And so on.

Labeling all members of a belief system different from one’s own as total ignoramuses is bigoted, ethnocentric, indefensible, stupid, and just plain silly,much like saying that just because someone else doesn’t speak English but rather Farsi (or coastal redwood), that they don’t speak (or think, or that they are ignorant).There are many powers in the universe, and there are many ways to access, communicate (and commune) with, worship, entreat, harness, and/or command these powers. These ways could involve singing, praying, holding up still-beating hearts, removing the tops of mountains and dumping the sludge into streams and rivers, and so on. All of these different ways and all of these different means can have different intended and unintended consequences.

My central point is this: while different belief systems can make internal sense, and while different belief systems can lead to different ways of accessing, communicating with, worshiping, entreating, harnessing, and/or commanding the same and very different powers and entities, one of the extremely problematical, indeed dangerous, indeed terrifying, attributes of any monotheism is that just as the dominant culture (and capitalism, and industrial civilization) systematically destroys physical diversity, monotheism—including Christianity, including science—systematically attempts to deny or destroy all other ways of accessing any powers other than its own (on this side or on other sides). That’s what monotheism is. And that is both foolish and far more dangerous than many of us allow ourselves to understand.