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Death, Chaos, Religion, and the Illusion of Control

July 12, 2010

Some scattered thoughts occurring without definite aim, reason, or pattern that I needed to get off of my chest today.

Life is random; it is chaotic.

The human experience can be characterized by joy, happiness, and laughter.Playing golf on a beautiful sunny day. A bike ride with a friend. A child running to jump into your arms when you come home. Life can have great existential fulfillment.

It can also go very wrong.

A heart attack. A cancer diagnosis. A car accident. A child runs out for a ball or is left unattended at a pool for a couple of minutes. War. Fire can kill you. Water can kill you; heck drinking too much water can kill you… there are a lot of ways to die!

Existence; and then suddenly: non-existence.


A few different elements come together in the human psyche that I think is a major influence for some forms of religion. One, we all know we are going to die. Two, we don’t know when. Three, humans are meaning makers. Humans have a natural proclivity and innate ability to make sense of the madness. Of course some do this better than others, and some options are more attractive than others.

The ugly side of this tendency is when a tragedy does happen (and they always will) and a well-meaning dilettante suggests the “reason” why: God needed another flower in heaven; you must have unconfessed sin in your life; you attracted it to yourself with negative thoughts, energy, or karma. The attractive side of this tendency–for some–is that if they can figure out the “principles” by which God or the universe operates then they can navigate life–and avoid death–more successfully.

From within this matrix there is the illusion of control. If I know the principles (biblical or universal) then I can control the chaos. Often, I think, what makes “sense” to some attracted to the manipulatable “principles” is that we are all inculcated in the scientific age and are deeply ingrained in post-enlightenment thought, so we know that causes have effects. If I eat more calories than I use I will get fat. If I drop a pencil it will go down and not up. Our world works a certain way and we use our knowledge of how it operates to navigate it quite successfully; however, as we all know: life doesn’t always go the way we planned. Sometimes it can go horribly wrong. The miracle of human flight is a great example of this because sometimes that miracle becomes a tragedy when the flying hunk of metal falls from the sky.

If I know the principles (biblical or universal) then I can control the chaos

In describing human flight we would most likely all use scientific language; however, in trying to understand the tragedy of a plane crash and the loss of human life many (in religious circles) would very likely turn to metaphysical language because the chaos and randomness is simply too much to bear.

This predisposition towards finding order in the chaos is brought to bear on more than just death. Personal finances are a good one as well. Whether it’s the Secret or Pat Robertson there is some “method” or “principle” I can act out or follow that will magically (and that’s the keyword because basically you have to adopt a pre-critical Middle Ages mindset) have some sort of pre-determined effect.

Video break as an example

I happened by that video as I was flipping the channels. Unsurprisingly, it was proceeded and followed by Pat trying to bilk people out of money.

The illusion of control…

Another good example is charismatic theology in general, and prayer in particular. Have you ever been at a service and heard this person pray? “I’m casting down strongholds… Lord I just release you in this place today… I’m raising this up… I’m binding the devil… in Jeeezus-uh Name-uh.” Basically, what you have with these people is them working out their very serious control issues in the forum of prayer. And self aggrandizing. A lot.

Finally, it seems to me that those who are desperately seeking the illusion of control are really, really easy to separate from their money. Real easy. If you can get a group of these people together and convince them that you know the secret of how God is holding out on them, or how to get from God what they want, or how the universe works and how to get the universe to give them whatever they want, you can actually get all sorts of money from these people!

People will give a lot of money for the illusion of control.

As I’m sure you can guess, or know, I’m not very convinced of the magic formulas passed off as formulaic “principles” as if they were proven science experiments.

You live. You die. Enjoy the ride. Leave the world a better place, and help those you come in contact with to be better people. Enjoy it when it’s good, and sit with your friends and lament when it’s not.

הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים אָמַר קֹהֶלֶת הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל

So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly… In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 13, 2010 1:30 am

    Well-put. Just because it’s uncontrollable, senseless, and temporary, it’s still meaningful on its own terms.

    Funny how hard it is for people to see that.

    I’m jealous of China for escaping the afterlife trap from the beginning. Confucius and Zhuangzi combined make for the sanest “religion” I’ve so far encountered on the planet.

  2. phil_style permalink
    July 13, 2010 2:32 am

    There are two (perhaps connected ) issues going on here. The first, as you quite rightly point out – is the concept of control. Certain theologies, philosophies and mantras sell the idea that one can “be in control” of the macro environment. If one cap tap into the special codes/key/principles then the macro forces that govern the environment will somehow be tipped in one’s favour. This is nothing short of superstition. This approach might work if there are impersonal magical forces that can be tapped, but it doesn’t seem appropriate if there is a deity with any kind of dertemining “will” or “intentions”. It certainly seems that the judeo/christian deity is traditionally/scripturally believed to have their own plan that humans are encrougaed to get on board with, and that “blessings” are either arbitrary or bestowed based on contract type negotiations with individuals/communities.

    The second issue is the “life after death” thing. I don’t think this is about control. I think this is a plea for justice. The life-after-death thing recognises the fact that in this life, choas and injustice are intertwined in our lives. Bad things happen to good people. We all start off with different handicaps and some have more opportunity than others. The blessings fall on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. The yearning for a life beyond this is a plea for an existence where this seeming chaos and injustice is put to rights.

  3. Joel Wheeler permalink
    July 13, 2010 11:33 am

    I loved this.

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