Today I checked out a very different, very modern sort of religious monument – Damanhur.
I first read about Damanhur in the New York Times a couple of years back. The basic backstory is that in the late 1970s a spiritually-oriented intentional community formed near Torino, Italy. The community decided to keep a low profile, but they had grand ambitions. The result of this conflicting goal and restraint was a massive and stunning underground temple complex built deep under the house of their leader. It's a maze of hidden passageways and enormous common rooms, and it's over 180 feet deep in parts. They managed to keep it secret for over 20 years in a nosy small town, and it was only discovered by the authorities when a disgruntled member blackmailed them. The authorities, typical incompetent bureaucrats, ordered its immediate destruction due to numerous building code violations and lack of building permits. Eventually, they came to their senses and realized they had a huge tourist windfall on their hands.
I'm less spiritual than most people, but I have enjoyed seeing what the various religions of the world have to offer. My tour guide told me that they don't see Damanhur as a religion – it's a way of life. I'd argue that Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam etc are also ways of life if done properly and not merely as window dressing.
They requested I not take pictures, and for once I was okay with that, given that my tour would have taken twice as long if I were snapping away. Their reason for me not taking pictures was also reasonable -- they wanted me to take in the sight/sound experience deeply on my first visit so that the place would make a deep impression on me..
Here's what I learned about Damanhurians and the values of their way of life / religion:- Independent thought:
Damanhurians are encouraged to think for themselves and make informed decisions about their beliefs. - The importance of Games.
They see the human experience as a nested set of games, and encourage the use of games for teaching purposes and social experimentataion. The children play a game akin to Risk but with far more complicated and changing rules. Other games have involved yearlong epic art battles, survivalist romps in the wilderness, and giving the teenagers a house of their own to run and manage when they were complaining of too much parental conteol. Games are important enough that there's a whole floor of one of the temples devoted to them.- God is within you and everywhere, and is reached through personal excellence:
People are encouraged to develop their talents to their greatest extent as it brings out the divine nature within them. Instead of worshipping a creator, they worship the world, its life forms, and the talent within themselves as human beings. One of the most striking temples depicts masculine and feminine creative energies triumphing over destructive forces.- Universal participation:
In Damanhur, there are no followers. Everyone is a part of forming the belief system and creating the temples. All members create a sculptured clay likeness of themselves to be placed in the temple complex. The styles vary dramatically, as you might imagine, and it humanizes the temple experience.- Embracing change:
Damanhurian philosophy stresses that the world will change, and their belief system must change as well. Not only should they accept change, but actively seek it out. One example the guide gave is how the group has changed from very closed to very open and from a communal economy to a mix of common and private possessions. To me this contrasts strongly with religions that hold on to very old beliefs that seem outdated (at least to me) from a modern perspective, such as seeing menstruating women as unclean or completely avoiding certain kinds of meat. - Keeping a sense of humor:
The temples are filled with in-jokes, puns, and goofy secret passageways. People are encouraged to not take themselves or their work too seriously.- Tolerance of other religions:
One of the shrines depicts and celebrates the variety of the world's religious traditions. ( And what I didn't like... )
Maybe I should design a religion. I've got some ideas. Most atheists just point out how ridiculous and destructive religions can be, but don't propose alternatives that would serve the spiritual needs that most people satisfy with their religious beliefs. If you want to successfully convert people, you have to use a carrot, not just a stick.