Animum nodis exsolvere: Unknotting the Mind and Freeing the Self from Self-Imposed Bonds, Part III or How Religiones limit personal experience

My choice to end the previous installment in this interminable series of posts about Satanism and religion with a discussion of how my personal religio of veganism limits my experience of exocentricity forms the perfect segue to this new post, which is all about how religiones limit individual experience in negative and detrimental ways.      

When Lucretius wrote in De Rerum Natura about how religiones—binding delayed-return religious commitments—tie the mind up in knots, he was talking specifically about the many ways in which our culturally imposed beliefs as to what actions and behaviors are or are not acceptable to supernatural and morally interested watchers provoke fear and limit our choices and interpersonal interactions in usually negative ways. 

This comes as a reflex of the fact that I’ve written about before that the primary semantic and ontological activity of delayed-return religion is separation. From the Ur-division between the sacred and profane, the divine and human, to miniature recapitulations and reenactments of separation between different classes of human beings, between genders, between nationalities, between species, and so forth. 

The limitations and separations imposed by delayed-return religiones are non-negotiable, at least in theory, because they stem from notions of externalized “sacredness” and its impositions on human conduct through covenantal and didactic relations. 

Moreover, because they rely for underwriting on abstract, externalized conceptions of value, delayed-return religiones come to function in much the same way as market norms, which are based in the abstract value of money. That is, as behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely found with his famous Starburst experiment that I’ve written about before, they tend to supplant and ultimately eclipse social norms that depend on finding value in the individual lives and life experiences of human beings.   

Typical examples of delayed-return religious restrictions include dietary constraints, clothing requirements, scruples as to the company you keep and media you consume, even your political preferences and activities. In past posts, I have concentrated on how these behavioral scruples function as essentially social phenomena, affecting the degrees and ways in which individuals engage with those in larger society with whom they may not share religious bonds.  

The purpose of this particular essay, though, is to consider the religion of untying knots within the life of the individual on a purely personal level. We need to take a moment to appreciate a much more fundamental and intimate way in which delayed-return religiones encourage separation and boundary-making within the psychology and biology of individual people.

In particular, I will argue that delayed-return religiosity diminishes the fullness of the life of the individual by enacting a threefold block on her open experience of empathy. Delayed-return religiones interfere with our innate abilities to fully experience empathy with other human beings, with the non-human natural world, and with our own whole physical selves.    

As always, of course, this empathy-blocking pathology of delayed-return religious separation has immediate social ramifications, but I shall concentrate in this discussion on its impacts on the individual, tying one’s mind up in knots and functioning to close it off and force on it an inward or endocentric focus rather than an outward or exocentric one.

Limited Empathy with Other Human Beings

Lucretius dealt in quite concrete terms with the ability of religiones to limit empathy experienced for one’s fellow human beings by turning his analytical eye to the myth of the Greek king Agamemnon sacrificing his own royal daughter Iphigenia in order to guarantee favorable sailing winds for the Hellenic expedition against the Anatolian city-state of Troy. Agamemnon believed that such sacrifice was demanded by the gods and their priestly representatives in exchange for the boon of good weather and smooth seas en route to Asia Minor (De Rerum Natura I.80-101). 

If externalized religio can bring a father to murder his own offspring in exchange for some heavenly boon, the argument goes, what limit is there to the violence it can inspire humans to commit? How much the more so could it arouse brutality against those to whom one is not related by blood, in return for some kind of material advantage? Trumpian ‘Murica stands testimony to the implied response to that particular rhetorical question.  

Just imagine what Lucretius would have said had he known of the episode of Abraham’s binding of Isaac from the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 22). In the case of that benighted mythological tale, the sacrifice-that-wasn’t didn’t even have as a concrete goal the securing of any specific benefit from on high. Rather, God merely commanded it, as if by caprice and the swift alternation between the kindness of granting Abraham a child in old age and the cruelty of demanding that he himself kill that selfsame child that usually characterizes torture and aggressive interrogation.

To this day, this eponymous Patriarch of three monotheistic religions receives accolades and lauds ad nauseam from Abrahamic religionists who invoke his name in recognition of nothing more ennobled than his supposed complete and total unquestioning obedience to his divine tormentor. The episode of the Akedah is therefore even more monstrous than the similar story of Iphigenia at Aulis and likely would have seemed all the more odious to the first-century BCE Roman Epicurean poet and author of De Rerum Natura.  

A more recognizable modern reflex of the tendency of delayed-return religio to interfere with empathy felt and acted upon for other human beings involves simple demonization and scapegoating behavior. 

Delayed-return religions often teach that some groups of people are more favored than others, that disfavored groups are out of favor because of their greater distance from some alleged external source of positive value and sacredness, and that it is entirely morally correct (even obligatory, in most cases) to punish disfavored groups for their plight, as though deprecated individuals had personally opted for their situations of social stigma and societal disenfranchisement of their own accord (on this latter point, see my discussion of the naughty list in the 2003 Will Ferrell flick Elf here). 

In this way, delayed-return religiosity drives wedges of separation between and among segments of the human community and cuts people off from fully experiencing the shared humanity of their fellow human beings who may be maximally different from themselves.

We see this complex of behavior, for instance, in the discriminatory treatment many delayed-return religions mete out to homosexual and transgender individuals and communities. In this country, religious interests are now explicitly asking the Supreme Court to revisit a 1990 ruling in the case of Employment Division v. Smith in which conservative Justice Antonin Scalia ruled in the majority opinion that “the Constitution’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion did not provide a shield against a ‘neutral and generally applicable law.’” 

In that original case, the “neutral and generally applicable law” in question was one that treated psychedelics like peyote as illegal drugs which Native Americans’ sincere religious beliefs did not entitle them to legally partake of. In the current “religious liberty” political climate, however, conservative Christians are specifically hoping the SCOTUS will reverse that decades-old decision and provide specific exemptions from “neutral and generally applicable” anti-discrimination law for “those who refuse ‘to participate in same-sex marriage rituals that violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.’” 

Apparently, according to “religious liberty” advocates, the “same-sex marriage rituals” in question include any accommodation whatsoever made to LGTBQ individuals wishing to purchase services related to their weddings, which, thanks to 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges SCOTUS decision, are now legal in all fifty states, D.C., and the so-called Insular Areas of current and former U.S. territories. In a post-Obergefell v. Hodges America, delayed-return Christian religious interests are in effect seeking legal permission to violate, or at least blithely ignore and even trample on, the civil rights of approximately four-and-a-half percent of the United States’ population. 

Similar stories can of course be spun for delayed-return religionists’ treatment of women as well. One need only look to the current glut of highly restrictive anti-abortion legislation emerging from southern and midwestern states that bars most all access to safe, legal abortions, even including in cases where the pregnancy resulted from rape or incestuous sexual relations. Religionists gleefully celebrate these legislative victories as a bulwark protecting “life” and “health” against the grievous specter of murder and death even as the preponderance of evidence suggests that restricting access to legal abortions harms women in general and minority women in particular.  

We see this anti-empathetic tendency in delayed-return religiosity, too, in the widespread practice of vigilante justice against individuals accused of witchcraft, particularly in modern Africa but also elsewhere in the world, where the targets are more often than not members of vulnerable, minority classes. An accusation of witchcraft “frequently involves serious and systematic forms of discrimination, especially on the grounds of gender, age and disability,” with the families of suspected and accused witches “often subjected to serious human rights violations.”    

We see delayed-return empathy blocking again in the case of individuals and communities reckoned as dalit and either excluded from or else begrudgingly included at the very bottom of the traditional caste system in India. 

The list of ways in which delayed-return religion functions to block empathy felt for one’s fellow human beings is long indeed. And the instances of it in action seem far more numerous than the much rarer occasions when traditional religious teaching actually inspires adherents to reach beyond the separationist creeds of their faiths toward empathetic solidarity with one another. Even then, however, whatever empathy delayed-return religionists manage to muster usually stops at only just encompassing other, rather similar religionists. Anti-atheist prejudice still runs rampant worldwide.

Psychological studies have tended to confirm that religiousness, as opposed to generalized “spirituality,” can function to damp empathy in a host of ways, including lessening sensitivity to racial injustices and decreasing the likelihood of helping strangers. Other studies have found no positive connection between delayed-return religiosity and effective prosocial concern for others. 

One study of Christian psychological counselors found that, while the professionals generally felt their religion and spirituality helped them to empathize with clients, they nonetheless reported significant rates of hindrance posed by their own personal religiosity in three key areas: where the client’s actions were felt to run counter to the counselors’ belief system, where the counselor had blind spots or biases as a result of their religiosity, and where the client and counselor shared faith but the former did not meet the faith-based expectations of the latter.

In general, it has been found that the prosociality of religious individuals depends more on shared religious values and acceding to the demands/expectations of religio as part of the individuals’ desire for self-aggrandizement and positive social regard. The prosociality of non-religious individuals, on the other hand, has been found to depend more on simple, emotional compassion for other human beings. 

Religion gets in the way of (or, in the language of the study just cited above, “moderates”) human-to-human empathy.             

Limited Empathy with the Non-Human Natural World

Delayed-return religion doesn’t just block empathy between and among human beings, however. It also cuts us off from experiencing full empathy with our natural environments and with members of non-human animal species not domesticated to service or as pets. 

This blocking of empathy with the non-human natural world obtains because delayed-return religiosity appears to have had its roots over the course of the Neolithic Revolution in humans exercising ever greater dominance over nature (as I’ve written about before, of course ;-)), including—indeed particularly focusing on—cults centered on large-scale animal sacrifice and consumption. 

Lucretius’ concern in De Rerum Natura for the violence delayed-return religio could inspire didn’t stop with the human species. The poet’s circle of ecological moral interest traces a much wider circumference than that. He also expressed considerable indignation at religious slaughter of non-human animals in sacrificial rituals.

Lucretius devotes five passages specifically to discussion of cruel sacrifice (I.80-101, II.352-366, III.52-53, IV.1233-1238, V.1198-1203), all but one of which center on animal sacrifice. He even includes one invective in the fifth book (V.1297-1307) against the violent use of animals as engines of warfare. 

The particularly moving and evocative passage against animal sacrifice from book five reads, again in poet William Ellery Leonard’s verse rendition into English:

“…Nor, O man,
Is thy true piety in this: with head
Under the veil, still to be seen to turn
Fronting a stone, and ever to approach
Unto all altars; nor so prone on earth
Forward to fall, to spread upturned palms
Before the shrines of gods, nor yet to dew
Altars with profuse blood of four-foot beasts,
Nor vows with vows to link” (ll. 1198-1202).

  Note that final phrase: the original Latin is votis nectere vota, literally ‘to bind or tie vows with [still more] vows.’ This phrase penetrates to the very heart of the problem as Lucretius, and I, see it. Delayed-return religiosity binds us with religious vow upon vow against openly experiencing true and full empathy for both other human beings and the rest of the non-human natural world around us. When your concern is consumed with some supposed order of reality that lies elsewhere, the real world all around you inevitably pales in comparison and takes a clear back seat in importance.  

Such an empathetic break between humans and both non-human animals and the non-animal natural world must have proven at one time necessary for, or at least considerably conducive to, motivating prevailing human cultural systems that outright depend(ed) upon the subjugation, plunder, and slaughter of the natural world in order to propel and sustain our meteoric growth in population and technological complexity. 

In the twenty-first century CE, however, as the earth’s climate and biosphere are ever more destabilized by human actions, the chief results of delayed-return religion’s empathetic break with non-human existence seem to be climate-change denial (including massive loss of animal and plant biodiversity) and obstinate refusal to recognize the crucial role human beings play in shaping and either conserving or degrading the environment. 

You often find delayed-return religionists opining that the environment and its protection lie solely in the hands of their putatively powerful externalized deities, the result being that human action is derided as either not needed or ultimately ineffectual. 

Devout Hindus, for instance, now sometimes argue with regard to the grossly polluted waters of their sacred and deified river Ganges that “nothing can sully the purity of Ma Ganga.” Meanwhile, according to data from monitoring stations set up by the Central Pollution Control Board along the total length of the Ganges from its headwaters in the western Himalayas all the way to its massive delta in the Bengal region of India and Bangladesh, a little over six billion liters of wastewater are discharged directly into the river every day. And this staggering pollution measure doesn’t even take into account the scores of human corpses that are either dumped in the river or buried shallowly and insecurely along its banks when families cannot afford a Ganges-side cremation, nor the ash from bodies that are properly cremated and then scattered across the waters. 

In Genesis 1:26, the Hebrew Bible famously puts forward a metaphorical view of non-human animals as subjects over which humanity has the God-given right to rule like a king. The Hebrew verb used to express this guaranteed dominion is rādâ (‘have dominion, rule, dominate’), a Semitic root whose Arabic and Syriac reflexes have to do with trampling, treading upon, and chastising. The original semantics of this particular verbiage is hardly inspiring if, as some have argued, the intended meaning of the original passage has something to do with humanity exercising concerned stewardship over the natural world, rather than, say, plundering it for all it’s worth. 

Celebrated German scholar of Buddhism Lambert Schmithausen has argued that, even though the religion founded by Siddhartha Guatama doesn’t preach a Dominionist view of nature à la Christianity, the Asian-born delayed-return faith was nonetheless fundamentally unconcerned with the non-human natural world insofar as “[t]he ultimate value and goal of Early Buddhism, absolute and definitive freedom from suffering, decay, death and impermanence, cannot be found in nature.” 

In Schmithausen’s view, early Buddhism “seeks not to transform or subjugate nature but to transcend it spiritually through detachment.” That is, Buddhism rests, from its foundation, on an intended break with the natural world and human “creatureliness” and perishability. 

Schmithausen’s conception has been disputed somewhat by philosopher John J. Holder, at least insofar as the German scholar seemed to have argued in his original article that Buddhism provides no real basis for modern environmental ethics or activism as a result of its early indifference to the non-human natural world. 

However, Holder, too, recognizes that “the early Buddhist tradition is unlikely to adopt the view that the natural world has intrinsic value because the notion of intrinsic value depends on a metaphysical position that gives independent, self-subsisting existence to the beings or things valued…[while] such a ‘substantialist’ metaphysics, as this position is often called, is precisely the kind of metaphysics early Buddhism ardently rejects.” 

Indeed, Buddhism has always held that individual existents derive their ultimate reality not from their own self-being (svabhāva), but from without in the traditional manner of delayed-return religiosity that posits ultimate value as an external to individual beings. 

Holder likewise admits that “[t]he early Buddhists may have retreated to the forests and mountains for their meditative repose, but the early texts give no special place to wilderness as such. Quite the contrary, the texts seem to show that early Buddhists favored human society over wilderness as evidenced by the Buddha’s itinerary and his establishment of the monastic and lay communities (the fourfold Sangha).”

Meanwhile, a Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management study from 1997 involving four hundred and fifty mixed-race and mixed-gender eighth graders from both suburban and rural areas found that those with the most deeply ingrained delayed-return attitudes toward nature demonstrated the greatest dislike for so-called “wildland” environments like native forests and wetlands, preferring instead manicured park settings and urban environments. 

The delayed-return traits the subjects in the study displayed included not only a neophobic heightened expectancy of fear in ungroomed natural environments and a resultant desire for modern comforts like running water and A/C for indoor living and tents or sleeping bags for outdoor living, but also something of direct relevance to the next category of limited empathy encouraged by delayed-return religiosity and worldviews: heightened disgust sensitivity, which betokens an empathetic break with physical being in general and a basic fear of certain physical stimuli judged to be “gross.” I’ll further explore this connection between delayed-return worldviews and the disgust response in the next section of this essay. 

This particular study thus supports exactly the point I discussed in an earlier post in this series made by Dr. Peter Brosius as he talked to us in his anthro class at the University of Georgia—in about 1997, as a matter of fact!—about how the delayed-return Muslim Malaysians of Sarawak, Borneo, feel intense dislike and even disgust for the ubiquitous surrounding jungle of their tropical home. As a result, they diligently attempt to extirpate it entirely from their swept dirt “lawns,” which they regard, somewhat paradoxically, as “clean.”

Unfortunately, the ’97 Tourism Management study did not attempt to correlate the subjects’ reported negative reactions to wildlands with their religious backgrounds and upbringing. If it had, however, I have a sneaking (and rather unscientific) suspicion about the overall trend that might have been found.              

Limited Empathy with Our Own Physical Being

The central impulse in delayed-return religiosity toward separation—marking hard-and-fast boundaries that shape, dictate, and inhibit lived experience in one way or another—also functions to inhibit empathy felt with and for oneself, or rather for certain physical aspects of one’s own being. 

On a personal level, traditional religionists often experience the conflict between the claims made by their sacred values and the profaneness of a world not inherently structured to naturally accord with such values as one between the innate physical drives of the body toward food, sex, and mind-altering substances and religious commitments that view giving in to such bodily appetites as sinful, depraved, deluded, and just plain wrong in one way or another. 

This felt dissonance motivates a profound disconnect between body and some mental aspect of self which stands in judgment of the body and its dark drives and with which the individual is taught to identify as a non-physical, but nonetheless persistent and stable, entity variously labeled “spirit,” “soul,” “consciousness,” or even “thought” itself. 

I’ve covered in a previous essay how LaVey argues forcefully in The Satanic Bible against this kind of splitting of the whole, integral self up into separate physical and spiritual selves in the way of Paul’s Natural Man versus Spiritual Man from First Corinthians 2. 

At the psychological level, the way forward for this “spiritual” mind-body duality has been prepared in advance, in part, by our prewired tendency to root our moral reasoning in the idea of physical uncleanness and contagion, an idea that is both logically and developmentally prior to the concept of moral contagion. 

As I’ve covered before, adult human subjects in moral psychological experiments exposed to repugnant physical stimuli like the smell of flatulence or even just verbal or physical reminders of the need to maintain cleanliness and prevent germs from spreading display moral judgments that skew conservative. Children, meanwhile, have been shown much less likely than adults to react with expressions of disgust to morally repugnant ideas and actions, reserving such reactions for physically repellent stimuli. A purely theoretical paper published in 2000 predicted a four-part developmental progression of learned disgust that helps explain this discrepancy. 

First according to the theoretical predictions, there’s simple physiological “distaste” which seems inborn in humans and aims to protect the body from the very real danger of poisoning. Newborns come with an innate, prewired hedonic response of distaste to the prospect of ingesting off-putting food: basically a type of food rejection. This pattern of response involves the familiar facial (or so-called gustofacial) expressions of puckered lips, wrinkled nose, and blinking eyes for sour stimuli and open or “retching” mouth with accompanying spitting and muscular contractions similar to vomiting for bitter taste stimuli and foul or rotten olfactory stimuli. 

However, studies involving children as young as two years of age have shown that visceral reactions of disgust even to canonically disgusting stimuli like human feces involve a component of inculturation. Remember how Freud made much of very young children’s fascination with their own poop? Thus, the 2000 theoretical paper posited a later developmental stage in which three learned forms of disgust come online. 

First among these enculturated disgust responses is so-called “core disgust”  which aims at protecting the body from disease and infection by preventing the ingestion of toxic products from one’s own body, like feces, as well as parts and products of animal bodies and similar foreign entities. 

Next among learned disgusts are those related to reminders of our own “animal nature” and gross physical being, including sexual effluvia, death, improper hygiene, and so-called body envelope violations (e.g. cuts, punctures, amputations, etc.). These “creaturely” disgusts seek to protect both our physical and mental selves from the prospect of death and bodily dissolution. 

Finally according to the theory come the categories of “interpersonal” and “moral disgust” which, while still rooted in concern for bodily cleanliness, aim at protecting social order by clamping down on moral transgression and inhibiting contact with strangers and those labeled undesirable. 

As can be seen from the ways in which the later theoretical stages of development involve increasing levels of abstracting away from concrete, physical disgust stimuli, inculturation into disgust involves conscious learning of the idea of contagion. 

This notion of contagion develops relatively late in children (around age 7) and involves an initial stage of learned disgust directed toward physical trace contamination and then a later, more abstract stage of learned disgust at associational contamination (that is: regarding objects and locations as potentially disgusting due to their mere association with the possibility of physical trace contamination).  

This temporally delayed development of contagion-based disgust reponses through inculturation explains why children must be taught not to, in the words of the amazing 1981 song by punk band The Cramps, “eat stuff off the sidewalk…no matter how good it looks.” “No don’t eat stuff out of garbage either or you know what’ll happen to you?” the song warns in a nice simulacrum of the inculturation process, before reaching the ironically neophobic conclusion: “You better leave your mouth at home.”     

Another aspect of learned rejection of disgusting, contaminated stimuli is so-called “socially mediated rejection” which occurs in conjunction with certain social situations where individuals feel pressure from both the physical setting and the potential for peers to be watching and passing judgement within that setting to reject items as disgusting due to contamination that may not actually pose a threat. Five Second Rule, anyone? How about in a fancy French restaurant? In a crowded shopping mall food court? The cafeteria at work? At school?  

The detailed theoretical developmental progression of disgust posited in the 2000 paper received suggestive experimental corroboration from a 2004 study that found two distinct “clusters” of disgust-provoking stimuli in the psychological makeup of young adults. The first cluster included insects, envelope violations, bodily excretions from both humans and animals, and hygiene concerns, all corresponding to the first two of the enculturated disgusts posited according to theory. The second cluster involved moral and interpersonal violations and taboos corresponding to the posited later stages of learned “moral” disgusts. 

The 2004 study additionally found a divergence in the subjects’ responses to stimuli from each cluster. Stimuli from the first cluster evoked in participants a pure and simple disgust response of avoidance and rejection, while those from the second cluster evoked as well a host of pronounced negative emotional reactions like sadness, fear, loathing, and anger. 

A 2010 study similarly found evidence of not only the tell-tale age-based progression from “core disgust” to “animal reminder disgust” to “interpersonal/moral disgust,” but also a clear demonstration of parental transmission of all forms of disgust sensitivity beyond the innate physiological reaction of distaste. Even the youngest children whose parents showed more facial and vocal signs of disgust proved much more likely to manifest disgust reactions themselves than those whose parents reacted more neutrally.

Now, this category of “animal reminder disgust” which, in the 2000 paper, was said to have to do with the drive to protect our physical, mental, and spiritual selves from the threat of death as driven home by reminders of bodily uncleanness, fragility, and ultimate perishability, is an interesting one. That’s because it dovetails with the concern over humanity’s “creaturely” nature found in numerous studies influenced by Terror Management Theory, studies that showed this particular concern to be particularly pronounced among the highly religious.

Remember how I mentioned two posts back Ernest Becker’s 1973 book Denial of Death and how it was integral to the formulation of Terror Management Theory, a social psychological theory of religion and religion-like worldviews that basically hinges on the idea that humans desire to transcend death through self-aggrandizement perpetuated through their beliefs? 

Well, Becker’s central thesis is that, as Freud had thought, culture is built essentially upon repression, and what must be repressed in order for culture to proceed apace is humanity’s “creatureliness.” In Becker’s view, though, it wasn’t our sexual natures and appetites that require checking and domestication through culture. Rather, it’s our mortality and the perishable nature of our physical bodies. 

Becker refers to the fact of our being embodied in flesh that is dirty and will eventually break down and rot as a “curse of fate.” 

There exists much experimental evidence to support Becker’s central idea that anxiety over thoughts of our own eventual death principally arises from, and further contributes to, a primary concern to transcend the physical limitations of being human and embodied. Subjects in experiments clearly experience an increase in such death-thought anxiety in response to being made aware of their own “creaturely” natures: that is, of the fact that “[l]ike other animals, humans are ensconced in physical bodies that break, bleed, secrete waste, and deteriorate.”

One 2007 study demonstrated increases in anxiety over mortality when participants were first primed with thoughts on how similar humans are to other animals and then exposed to verbal descriptions of stimuli involving bodily functions and excreta like feces, urine, and vomit designed to elicit feelings of disgust. 

Another 2007 study found that participants exhibited higher vulnerability to rumination on their own eventual death when exposed under conditions that taxed their ability to manage a high cognitive load, as when solving puzzles, to stimuli involving thoughts of cancer. In some cases, the cancer stimuli were administered subliminally. That same study found that participants unconsciously tamped down their thoughts of impending death when their perceived vulnerability to cancer was high, suggesting a felt need to control death-thought ideation in the face of a high degree of threat to their bodily, animal nature posed by the deadly disease.

A 2011 study demonstrated that participants expressed a greater desire to fly like birds, perhaps the ultimate symbol of transcendence of human physical limitations, following contemplation of death. That same study also demonstrated that engaging in flight fantasies actually decreased subjects’ anxiety-ridden defensive reactions to thoughts of death following conditions that made their mortality immediately salient to them. 

Meanwhile, two unpublished studies from 2009 found that heightened awareness of death provokes “spiritually oriented” and “fundamentalist” individuals, in particular, to increase the distinction they feel between their physical being and some mental or spiritual conception of self with which they more keenly identify. 

Not surprisingly, the same studies also found that spiritually inclined and fundamentalist participants experienced a heightened sense of disconnection from the rest of the natural world as a result of anxiety experienced over thoughts of their own mortality. Not only did their religiosity and spirituality motivate a disconnect from their physical selves, but also from the rest of earthly nature itself. 

This last set of results proves especially interesting from the point of view of the present series of blog posts because it suggests a special concern with death-thought anxiety and drive to dissociate from the physical, “creaturely” aspects of human life on the part of those with express delayed-return religious commitments. Nowhere is this religious disdain of physical “creaturely” nature more evident than in fear and repression of sexual behavior through control over sexual anatomy.

I’ve written before about how, in the earliest years of the Christian movement, the Church entertained vigorous debate as to the morality, advisability, necessity, and so forth of self-castration as an expression of piety inspired by Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:12: 

“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can” (NRSV). 

The second-/third-century CE Church Father Origen of Alexandria is alleged to have undergone religiously inspired self-castration as a young man. Scattered reports of this verse pushing modern Christians toward autocastration still appear in the psychological literature from time to time.

Then there’s the odious practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), including total infibulations, that affects some two hundred million women and girls worldwide. Though FGM is not restricted to any one religious or cultural tradition, it is traditionally motivated and justified by delayed-return religious reasons. 

Many view male circumcision, which is also primarily religiously motivated in the lion’s share of cases, as a less surgically extreme and perilous, but nonetheless fundamentally similar, form of religiously justified, personally unconsented, and medically unnecessary violence to the sexual anatomy. 

Moreover, both FGM and male circumcision—not to mention ancient and modern Christian autocastration—function to decrease, or at least complicate, sexual stimulation, pleasure, and therefore also desire in those subjected to them. That is, they constitute endocentric attempts to limit personal experience of the richness and subtlety of pleasurable sexual stimuli.    

One key intriguing fact about all this “creaturely” disgust response stuff when it comes to sexuality, though, is that, even as it must be learned, it can also be unlearned. 

For example, data from one Australian study showed apparent links between consumption of pornographic media displaying a wide variety of sexual practices and subjects’ self-reports of personal sexual adventurism, particularly as evidenced by engagement in heterosexual anal intercourse. 

While a majority of women in one study who chose to engage in anal sex after having consumed pornographic representations of same valued the experience negatively, other subjects of mixed genders who participated in different study reported both similar correlations between porn consumption and confidence to try heterosexual anal intercourse and overall positive feelings about that particular enlargement of their personal sexual repertoires. 

Similar results obtained in the studies just cited for oral sex as a pleasurable behavior learned and accepted from watching pornographic films. 

In general, these several studies on the effects of pornography on adult sexual activity have tended to confirm that individuals who view such materials without the stigma and shame associated with religious commitments often come out of their experiences with enhanced “sexual scripts” according to which they have discovered different and pleasurable ways of acting with sexual partners that would not have occurred to them on their own due to learned and socially mediated disgust responses.      

How often have you yourself found that, once orgasm is achieved and you and your sexual partner lie spent and drowsy, an act undertaken with enthusiasm while in the throws of sexual passion suddenly begins to seem “bestial” and even gross? Perhaps such thoughts have in fact managed to intrude during the sex act itself, where they act to diminish or even outright kill “the moment” for you in your interior thought space. 

Even our use of the term bestial for that which is non-human animal and non-rational, physical, and usually “gross” or unpleasant in some way hints at our prewired prissiness when it comes to our rational minds contemplating the physical selves with which they are inextricably bound up. Sexual behavior is a particularly fraught and frequent locus for such unhealthy ruminations. Physical nudity is yet another. 

Intriguingly, a 2008 study found that college students who reported more favorable attitudes toward nudity in public, or so-called “social nudity,” than did peers who viewed such nudity negatively demonstrated not only increased acceptance of their own bodies’ appearances, but, more crucially, increased tolerance for and acceptance of differences between themselves and others in culture, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation. 

A study from 1988 had previously shown that college students who reported having been exposed to casual family nudity (non-sexualized, of course) as children demonstrated greater overall exocentric openness, including increased comfort related to physical contact and affection with others and an increased likelihood of engaging in casual sex as adolescents and young adults.    

What has been enculturated in the way of reactions of disgust to our physical, “creaturely,” and carnal natures can be unenculturated through positive experiences of exocentricity, or even not enculturated at all by parents simply choosing to live in a more open, immediate-return way.   


As I entertained at length in the discussion of my own odd veganism in the previous post, religiones—binding and knotted religious commitments—usually function to interfere with the quotidian life choices and personal experiences of the individual caught in the web of their constraints. 

Unlike the choice to be vegan, however, which trades restrictions on an individual’s personal alimentary and consumptive choices for a wider experience of empathy with the non-human natural world, delayed-return religiones function to restrict individuals’ life experience by specifically narrowing their full experience of empathy in three key areas: empathy for other human beings, for the non-human natural world, and for their own physical, carnal selves. 

The purpose of Satanic religion, conceived of as the unbinding and unknotting of delayed-return religio, is to achieve a more exocentric perspective on the world and life experience. As a result, Satanism must reject binding commitments of the sorts discussed here in favor of increased freedom to experience empathy with others, with nature, and with one’s own, whole self. 

Properly understood, Satanism is a school of exocentricity pitted against the entirely endocentric ways of delayed-return religion. 

In the next and final post of this series, I will turn briefly to consideration of why individuals gravitate toward delayed-return limitations at all and why almost all of us fall prey to this impulse to some degree, especially in times when we find ourselves in what poet William Earnest Henley once referred to as “the fell clutch of circumstance”: that is, during tragedy, suffering, and greatest need. 

So stay tuned for the exciting conclusion coming soon! For now, fellow denizens and devotees of the Devil’s Fane: Hail Satan!     

3 thoughts on “Animum nodis exsolvere: Unknotting the Mind and Freeing the Self from Self-Imposed Bonds, Part III or How Religiones limit personal experience

  1. Pingback: Satanism and Religion: Difficult Stretch or Easy Fit? – The Devil's Fane

  2. Pingback: Satanism: The Contra(ry)religion – The Devil's Fane

  3. Pingback: Happy Twentieth! On the Importance of Healthy Emotions | The Autarkist

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