Friday, April 16

Cargo cult religion

I just read the 1974 Caltech commencement speech given by the eminent physicist, Dr. Richard Feynman. It is a fascinating read and he makes some very valid points. In it, he introduces a concept he calls 'cargo cult science'. The concept stems from South Sea Islanders who recall WW2 planes which came ostensibly from nowhere and brought valuable cargo seemingly at random. The Islanders faithfully recreate the conditions as they saw it to have the magic work, building mock airstrips, control sheds and the like.

I wonder if there aren't people who do the same in religion today, people who confuse the forms of religion and communion with the Divine with the function of those forms. An example of this which comes to mind is the Rosary. Originally, the belief was that if a person would recite all 150 psalms each day, their soul was assured salvation. Later, the recitation of the psalms was transformed into repetition of 'Pater Noster', whence the medieval form of the rosary was named, then further transformed into a combination of Pater Nosters and Ave Marias. The physical strand of beads was a simple counting device, so as to ensure you did not err and risk damnation due to coming up short.

The point of the exercise was to meditate and pray, not to count. Does the Divine really care the exact number of Aves and Paters you have said? Does a soul's final resting place depend upon the order of the prayers?

In a larger sense, is it vital that the chants intoned in a precise manner, the liturgy is performed in just such a way, or the recitation of the lesson be exactly as it has been for 500 years?

Or is it more important that one meditates on the meaning of the words, the symbolism behind the actions and the concepts which drive the lessons?

"it's the moon, dammit. Stop looking at my finger!"

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