Imagination, Storytelling and Belief: Delusion or Reality?

Kumb Mela play

It strikes me that the words “delusion” and “delusional”, while appropriate and certainly well-founded in many cases, do not entirely describe the religious faith experience. To dismiss the phenomenon of religion and faith as mere hallucinatory or illusionary undercuts something much deeper in the human psyche and universal, if not, evolutionary experience i.e., the innate propensity to tell stories, celebrate, play, create art, music, theater and dance.  And while most religions end up doing the exact opposite (especially to those who don’t share their parochial worldview) to discount and exclude their myriad other expressions and cultural contributions as delusional is a little too dismissive and short-sighted. Konrad Lorenz hinted at this in his brilliant observations of human nature.

“Every study undertaken by Man was the genuine outcome of curiosity, a kind of game. All the data of natural science, which are responsible for Man’s domination of the world, originated in activities that were indulged in exclusively for the sake of amusement.

One can just as easily assign this basic human capacity to religion, ritual, mythology and faith. In essence, and what is almost certainly irrefutable, humans make shit up. And in that marvelous world of the imagination they find inspiration to dance, experience awe, play music, paint on walls and canvasses, build magnificent structures and cathedrals, come together, as well as unleash unspeakable atrocities upon the world. While the latter behaviors should never be forgotten, diminished or revised, neither should the former.

So, where does that leave us? Once we expose the cruelties and excesses of a particular belief system, we are still left with the essential human attribute to imagine, create and manifest those marvelous, terrible, and wondrous things into our beings, families, community and life experience. Why do so many religions have a dress code, tell you how much hair you should grow on your face, dictate the foods you should eat, and build mini fairy tale kingdoms: churches, synagogues, temples,  mosques and festivals that concretize those beliefs through community, hymn, ritual, liturgy and prayer? Because we want to believe they’re not just imagination, but real!

If we are to more accurately deal with the excesses and extremes of archaic beliefs, we might stop describing them as delusional, but rather, mass-manufactured “realities” instead.

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