Anything imaginable can be endowed with religious belief, but not everything can be religiously significant. Sorting out what to view as sacred from what is best to leave profane is a task for religious taste, a facility bound and guided by factors like one’s goals, one’s situation, one’s personality and capacity – it is thus narrower than (or a specialization of) aesthetic taste, which is bound and guided primarily by personality and capacity only.
What is it that separates religion from mere instrumental use of products and practices of the imagination? Perhaps nothing. But contrary to a common intuition, religious seriousness does not belong exclusively to the superstitious. What sets fictionalist religion apart from superstition is not the quality or intensity of feeling, but the object of this reverence. For the superstitious, the fiction itself is the object, while for the fictionalist on the other hand, fictions are merely tools to be believed in only in so far as they are expedient in life and help keep the important or beautiful things in focus. They are spectacles to view the world or one’s own life in a flattering hue; new clothes, and skin, and self-image; heroes and mentor characters, exemplars of excellence; but really, they are just cardboard scenery to help set the stage of one’s life or work or situation. The real object of reverence is the reality beyond all cardboard cutouts, beyond even thought and perception.
Of course, it is not a given that one can stomach fantastical uses of fiction at all, at least not such as is involved in religious practice. Some people seem to manage very well without it, utilizing scientifically justified models as exclusively as possible. Personally, I not only stomach it but need and relish uses of fiction on the fantastical end of the spectrum. I have to admit that I find it hard to endow my fictions with belief of religious quality and intensity, but some sort of immersion in speculative or fictional worlds is absolutely vital for me. And I call this need religious, although it is certainly religion in a weak sense.
To inappropriately segway into a movie recommendation; I think my religious alignment is close to that of doctor Parnassus in the very good movie The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
I think Plato’s idea of a tripartite soul (the three parts being reason, spirit and appetite), should be supplemented with inspiration as a fourth part.
If this soul where to be “writ large” by being remapped to a fictional city state, inspiration wouldn’t be mortal citizens like the other parts of the soul, they’d be more like gods or muses that only come to visit the city from time to time. The rest of the citizenry are unable to predict when they come or understand why exactly, but — at least in a city governed by inspiration, a “musocracy” — they’re always prepared to be summoned to celestial speeches or be drafted to holy wars or work projects. A city of this kind would have to have two modes, depending on whether the angelic muses are present or absent. When present, all forces volunteer to work together in the service of inspiration. This mode is easy, because true inspiration is a powerful motivator, and things tend work themselves out without the need of a formal constitution. But when they leave, disorder has to be kept at bay by some means or others, and considering the situation, religious practices seem like the obvious solution. This, then, is the lifeblood of the second mode. The rational class function as priests, reminding the populace of the absent rulers, holding back the forces of disorder by reflecting the inspiration from the muses, like the moon holds back the darkness of night by reflecting the light of the sun. At first, a constitution such as this — founded not on inspiration itself, but on preparation for and anticipation of it — is certainly unstable. But trust build up step by step every time the promises of the priests are confirmed by the muses actually revisiting. And so over time, the priests are able to subdue the appetitive majority, by referring them to the higher and superior pleasures to be found in inspiration (in particular on the side of production, but also on that of consumption).
The main concern for the city besides maintaining order, is to make sure the muses are attracted to visit more often, and stay for longer at a time. All kinds of ritualized habits and mythical frameworks can be tried out to find out what works by way of experiment, but some basics are practically guaranteed to be a necessary part of every city’s life: Crops must be harvested, streets must be cleaned, buildings maintained and so on, because heavenly visitors are of course reluctant to descend into a city that is filthy or crumbling, or whose citizens are sluggish or unhealthy. Also, hard priestly work is required: Scribes should be ready at all times to write down what the muses say and do in case of a suprise visit, so that nothing important is forgotten. Their claims, artifacts and gestures should be memorized, studied and interpreted, to get the most out of every drop of inspiration. Priests should lead the populace in daily practices of meditation and reflection, to make the city fertile ground for seeds of inspiration.
The heart and central tenet of the popular religion is its concept of the city’s purpose, and that is, in short, “doing the good work”, i.e. the command of the muses. This is what’s meaningful. And living meaningfully, in turn, makes the life of all in the city better: more pleasurable for the appetitive class, more honorable for the spirited class and truly good for the priests. Merely consuming the tasteful or inspirational is good as well, but not intrinsically meaningful. At best, it amplifies meaning from other sources; it is not itself an original source. It is like having clever friends, which, unless you have common interests, is meaningless, in the sense of being only superficially and transiently pleasant. The only activity that is intrinsically meaningful is inspired production. And it doesn’t have to be anything grandiose or important, it just has to originate from the muses. The city that follows their plans and builds according to their designs is a city in the light of heaven. Even in the face of ridicule or discredit from neighboring cities. The approval of mortals means litte compared to that of gods and muses.