Religion decoded and made useful



Beliefs are supposed to mean something. In the Golden Age of Meaninglessness, you get a brochure, not a meaningful belief.

Religion is not dogma. It’s not an excuse. It’s not a means of personal moral superiority, however banal and pointless. It’s supposed to be useful. Religion, in most of its original forms, is a codification of both belief and conduct for spiritual benefit. In many ways, it’s just common sense.

The degraded forms of religion we see today are far removed from benefit, despite the fact that religion in some cases is all some people have. The tedious, pompous and often obsessive forms of religion aren’t much use, however, in delivering value.

Religion basics

Consider the basics:

  • “Thou shalt not be a jerk”. This covers all forms of misconduct which cause injury. All religions have this basic tenet.
  • Worship: Worship what, how, and why? Can you have a real religion, based on “Just add worship”? If you have no idea what you’re believing in, how do you worship it? Unless it serves some useful purpose, seems rather unfair.
  • Belief: Humans only actually believe something they trust. They trust it because they’ve seen it proven in some form. Any other “belief”, however tiresomely expressed, is hypocrisy.
  • Religious deities: One god or many? One god and saints, or whatever, the usual format is to break down religious subjects in to examples, parables, with a story and a range of metaphors. This applies from the Bible to folklore. It’s a common teaching method in ancient and modern societies.
  • The soul: The worst defined subject in human history, the soul is the nominal incarnation of self. It doesn’t have ascribed values, material or otherwise. This lucky concept is the recipient of any amount of babble which is supposed to be good for it. If the average soul could get a word in edgewise, it would tell the babble where to go, or demand that the babble explain itself. “Preaching to the speechless” could also be described as incredibly hypocritical and cynical.
  • The Afterlife: This remarkably poorly defined subject is the reward for “whatever”, the mass of bullet impacts and asteroid strikes life delivers to most people. As explained by people who have no idea what it is, it’s a pretty iffy reward. “Bribed with Heaven and threatened with hell” isn’t much of an improvement. It’s an exertion of assumed authority which can backfire, causing resentment and discouragement. Credible rewards are based on something; this dismally expressed topic delivers very little.
  • “Evil”: Evil simply means injury. Evil is a one trick wonder. It causes injury, in whatever form. Any fool can be evil; it’s a devaluation of oneself and a useless range of possibilities.
  • Good: A rather shoddily defined expression which deserves better. Good can relate to acting responsibly, being kind, or, in fact, acting like a normal human being. If you commit an act of kindness, you know why you do it. True good doesn’t big note itself.
  • Moral pretensions: This is the age-old pretension of being good. It’s false by definition. Actual good is also practical, rather than pretentious. To claim to be good is making a necessity out of a virtue; not a great idea of you don’t have that particular virtue.
  • Morality: These supposed “life rules” have to make sense to be effective. Morals are useful, provided they’re practical and applicable to situations. Otherwise, they’re just more spiritual spam churned out by ignoramuses trying to be authoritative.

Religion in practice

Paul Wallis books, sydney media jam

This book is all about creative ideas. Nobody has yet died of reading it, but it’s a pretty tough call for those not familiar with working with ideas. “Passive voice”, eh?

If you’re thinking that a lot of this is just common sense, you’re right. The original sources of religions were directly involved in practical needs. Why would a farmer, 5000 years ago, believe anything that wasn’t common sense? Imagine telling a subsistence farmer that they need a whole new range of things to not only do, but believe unquestioningly. Not very appealing, is it?

What use is self-promotion by others to people in real need? The original sources of the major religions were positively minded, from Confucius to the latter day religions. The Confucian idea of turning society in to an extended family, in fact, applies as well to the Warring States era as to modern times. Everyone knows extended families work well, too.

The original sources were practical people. None of these people were mere talkers. Jesus and Buddha were fundamentally teachers, and good ones. (For the non-press-release version of Jesus, read The Gospel of Thomas.) The Prophet Mahomet would go out and plough people’s fields himself. Moses was a lawgiver and a source of a code for people who needed cohesion. It’s a very practical approach to living in a wilderness/desert.

Believe what you will, but be aware that none of these sources was anything but useful. If religion diverges from usefulness, it’s obviously not as it was intended.

This wasn’t McReligion. You couldn’t just order a god to go with a side dish of pretensions like you can now. The original sources promoted responsibility, not excuses and evasions. They also weren’t obsessed with materialism.

Some of the best exponents of religion are practical in the sense that their every conscious moment is devoted to helping others. This help in turn benefits others indirectly. Some of them aren’t even members of a religion. They simply practice it, and make themselves very useful in the process. If religion is the process of putting useful things in to practice, however, they qualify as religious people.

You don’t have to be a saint to be a practical religious person, with or without a particular religion. You don’t have to preach about something you barely understand yourself to be effective and practical.

You don’t have to be a jerk, either. However fashionable being a petty little attempt at a real person may be, the jerks are always the useless, the greedy and the mindlessly addicted selfish, causing injury to others.  The one trick wonder is only that and no more.

Believe what you trust, not just any old garbled dogma. Put in to practice what you believe, and avoid injury to others. How much simpler could it get?








The Analects of Confucius, China’s Socrates


Confucius may well be one of the least pretentious people in history. He’s a good, interesting match with Socrates, in many ways. He’s also a very observant person. The West has largely overlooked Confucius. In the early days of Western contact, the Chinese habit of literary and colloquial references was totally misunderstood and even taken literally. The result was that Confucius, a very literary person, was classed among the “inscrutable” sayings.

I’ve long thought that referring to China as “inscrutable” simply meant that nobody was looking very hard. Reading Confucius as translated by DC Lau, that impression is confirmed. (I prefer to read native speaker translations of Chinese. The old Chinese idioms are tricky, and often misinterpreted by non-Chinese translators, simply because contexts are very dynamic in Chinese.)

The Analects of Confucius

Analects of Confucius

Inscrutable Chinese Art. See what I mean about not looking?

Confucius apparently had a rather turbulent, sometimes quite difficult, life. An avid student of everything, he was as absorbed in every facet of ideas as Socrates. Anyone with a brain will recognize the likely problems with being that intelligent in any society.

In old China, a land of quite incredible culture and incredible violence, Confucius stood out. He was famous for his mind in a country where famine, war, and corruption were ways of life. He was a “spiritual humanist” (based within the culture’s highest attainments to that time.

(“Spiritual humanist”. What an expression! Wish I could say I thought of it without the obvious inputs from a totally different perspective on life, but I didn’t. Read and learn, indeed.)

Earning respect in ancient China wasn’t easy for anyone, despite a great cultural respect for literacy and intelligence. To stand out in this environment was no minor achievement. A native of Lu, a minor Chinese state, his reputation spread within his lifetime, adding a burden of fame to frustration and what appears to be a constantly evolving knowledge and logic base.

The Analects are a series of notations about Confucius. It’s a pretty eclectic mix, but the man’s wit and compassion are more than obvious.  His status, ironically, has rather obscured his genuine insights and talent for observation. That status has also rather overstated the reverence and focused less on the highly intelligent person.

The Analects are arranged in 20 books in the DC Lau translation.

Central parts of the Analects:

  • The rites: Traditional practices, rituals, and values.
  • The gentleman: The ideal man.
  • Filial piety: Respect for one’s ancestors. (Confucius didn’t invent this. He made it a core value in his system of thinking to develop “society as a family’, perhaps one of the most genuinely civilized ideas of all time.)
  • The Way: Not quite the cosmic Way of the Tao, but the humanized version, with some relationships.
  • Character: The core issue of human conduct and values.
  • Ethics and correct behaviour are fundamental Confucian values.
  • Aphorisms: In the Analects, these statements become aphorisms as isolated  statements. Other text indicates that they originally had more qualifiers and that Confucius routinely explained his thoughts, but they’re extremely interesting even on their own.
  • Anecdotes: Interesting, and clearly intended to give some insights into Confucius’ real personality. (Pity more major historical figures weren’t given real personalities.)

Mysticism isn’t Confucius’ style. He works on practical principles, and tries to develop them.  That 2600 year old bit of good practice makes the Analects very readable and the meanings a lot clearer.

(For the record, Chinese “mysticism” is usually based on idioms and thick-headed Western literal translations. The Chinese sages didn’t go out of their way to be obscure. Add to this the fact that the spiritual side is a core element in Chinese philosophy, and you’re basically reading an alien culture. Western philosophy gave up on metaphysics a long time ago, and has been much poorer as a result.)

Confucius for modern readers

For modern readers, Confucius will come as a revelation or perhaps even a shock, if they fully understand some passages in the Analects. Confucius tries, hard, to take ideas out of the banal and show them as working things. His apparently endless efforts to make sense out of ideas are as interesting as Socratic debates, with a laconic style which is admirable.

For example:

“In his errors, a man is true to type. Observe the errors and you will know the man.”

Love Chinese culture. I have Chinese immortals in my stories, including one guy who recited a poem. His friends asked, “Ancient?” He said, “Not very. I wrote it this morning.”

Think about that for a second. It’s an appeal to the individual, a principle, and a good expression of a practical option for those trying to deal with “errors” in all their myriad forms. Whole books and much turgid pondering of the obvious have been written on the same subject. He does it in 18 words, with a bit of advice.

In one passage, he’s asked how he compares with a man called Hui. Hui is a man “living on rice and a ladle of water” without complaint. Confucius asks how he could dare compare himself with Hui, whom he clearly admires.

Comparing himself to another man, he says that when this man learns one thing, he understands ten things, whereas Confucius claims only to understand two himself.

This very honest character shows up continually in the Analects. The voice is usually very consistent. Any variation of character would actually be suspect. Like Socrates, a real person is clearly visible.

Confucius is old China at its best and most thoughtful. Read this in company with the Tao Teh Ching, and you’ll encounter two key facets of a world of thought you may never have believed possible.

Suggestion: Read when you have no distractions and are in a frame of mind able to absorb this text. It will be worth it.

Paul Wallis, Sydney Media Jam, Paul Wallis books