It’s all too easy to be hyper-serious, po-faced and miserable about religion. The puritan, holier than thou sort of approach. Issues of life, death, life after death, the soul, ethics and what the gods might want from us are of course big and serious issues. A quick glance at religious history is more than enough to demonstrate that it’s easy to go from taking things seriously, to making life a misery for the good of the soul.
In many ways this is another balance issue, following on from yesterday and the crotchet. There are many religious and philosophical schools of thought out there that favour abstinence, subjugation of the flesh, fasting, physical forms of penance, that encourage a sense of guilt, shame and discomfort and that just aren’t conducive to human happiness. The argument tends to go that the good of the soul is more important and the suffering of the body is good for the soul.
I notice that many of the people who are keen to make the rest of us conform to po-faced, puritanical standards of behaviour, pick soft targets. They’re harassing pagan gatherings, complaining about goths, rock music, tattoos, role play games and the such. The kinds of harmless things favoured by relatively harmless people. In a world where a child can die from hunger, where people are tortured for political dissent, where rape happens, child abuse happens… campaigning against the satanic evils of pretending to be an elf at the weekend, is not just crazy, it’s sick. However, fighting the satanic influence as it manifests in goth culture is unlikely to get you killed. Fighting the kind of regime that kills and tortures people could be dangerous. Isn’t it curious that so many self-styled religious do-gooders are only interested in saving us from goths, elves and yogic meditation?
There are several things that can happen when religion is po-faced and miserable. The healthier option is that people vote with their feet and take up a happier religion or become atheists. The more disturbing option develops a kind of shared religious masochism, celebrating and encouraging misery. This can get pretty sadistic too. It leads to people thinking its fine to stone women to death for imagined sexual offences, for example.
Soulful, ethical happiness is about the best thing imaginable for people. Happiness that comes from taking joy in the world, sharing good things, having meaningful relationships, encourages us to live responsibly. The idea that good happiness can be rooted in material things has been too long absent from our culture. We have the quest for excess as an archetype, where, with an absence of depth and soul, people seek every greater and more dangerous fixes of adrenaline, sex, drugs, alcohol, risk, just to feel something. What they feel then isn’t satisfaction though, as anyone with an addiction can tell you. It pushes back the hunger a bit, but that path never brings real relief or joy.
What if religion was all about seeking balance, happiness and joy in this life? In the life we know we have, not the uncertainty of a possible next world, where the dress code and rules of entry can only be speculated upon? There are those who think that focusing on this life makes us selfish, greedy, too willing to consume. I don’t think that needs to be the case. The better we understand what makes for genuine happiness, as opposed to the quick, soulless fixes that leave us hungry for more, the better able we are to live ethically. Real happiness is not power, or things. Those are traps that ultimately just make us more anxious, more needy. And it is entirely possible that we only get this life, and storing imaginary brownie points for an imaginary next round is doing us no good at all.
Druidry is not inherently po-faced. We can smile before our Gods. We can laugh. We can, in fact, have sex with each other, without shame, or guilt. We can celebrate our skin, our existence, our sheer, alive, vibrant physicality.
I think the way to spread spiritual values through our lost and troubled times is not by beating people about the head with moral judgements. Inspiration is the answer. Through beauty and wit, through laughter and merriment, through warm communities and happy gatherings, through holding each other in the bad times, we inspire. We don’t reduce the world to something grim, we don’t view life as a thing to be endured. We remind each other of the good bits, the things that make it all worthwhile.
(The title owes a debt to Ursula Le Guinn, who said, ‘Good art should be entertaining.’ It’s a similar sort of issue.)